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Authors: Ruta Sepetys

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BOOK: I Must Betray You
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46
PATRUZECI ȘI ȘASE

Sorrow. Anger. An expanse of emptiness that takes form as a separate entity living inside of you. It digs, takes root, and dwells there. And somehow, you know that even if it worms its way out, there will be no relief. If it leaves, there will be nothing left but charred remains, like the inside of a house torched by fire.

What did I do wrong?

Was I somehow responsible? Could I have protected him?

I searched for answers.

For three days, Bunu lay in a stark wooden coffin atop the dining table in our living room. The traditional lighted candle was placed by his head, to help him find his way. Black cloths hung over the mirrors and shiny surfaces in our apartment to ensure that Bunu's spirit wouldn't become lost or caught in a reflection. Doors remained unlocked to allow him to exit as he pleased.

I had a small mirror in my closet. I didn't cover it, selfishly hoping to capture Bunu and keep him.

While the regime wedged and pushed us apart, death brought Romanians together. Neighbors set up chairs that lined the hallway of our block's fourth floor. They cobbled together what food and drink they could spare to share. The Reporters hovered, wrapped in traditional dark scarves and veils, hiding secrets and fallen faces.

Although I had no interest in socializing, I wanted to stay close to Bunu. I hoped proximity might bring clarity.

How many agents had come to the apartment? How many were involved in his death? Was Paddle Hands one of them? Did Bunu know they were coming?

I sat with him through the nights, mentally continuing my side of our conversations.

I became an informer to get medicine for you. What happens now, Bunu?

I'm going to give my notebook to the U.S. diplomat. How shall I describe what they did to you?

Dan didn't put the dollar in our stamp album. So who did?

And of course, I shared jokes.

Bunu, why will Romania survive the end of the world? Because it's fifty years behind everyone else!

He heard me. I felt certain of it. Was Bunu watching over the rest of our family too?

Grief had paled Cici beyond recognition. She couldn't speak. She couldn't look at Bunu. While neighbors filtered through the apartment, Cici stood detached, lingering by her sewing machine. Bunu's chess partner, the elderly gentleman from the morning line, appeared on the second afternoon.

“The message you gave me for Bunu,” I asked him. “What did it mean?”

He tented his fingers, reflecting. “You know what? I'd like some fresh air. Let's step outside,” he said.

I followed him down the stairs. We passed the large cross at the door and headed to the sidewalk. He pulled a stub of a cigarette from his pocket and lit it as we walked.

“Your grandfather was a wonderful man. Intelligent, energetic, with such a sense of justice. But his thoughts and ideas—they labeled him a dissident. You know that, of course.”

Dissident. A protester. An objector. Someone who disputes established policy.

“Bunu kept his thoughts within the family. He said there was no such thing as a confidant.”

“No. His thoughts were not as private as you were led to believe,” he said, exhaling a mouthful of smoke. “And now I must warn you. Your family's hardship will extend beyond your grandfather's death. The monitoring and meetings may continue.”

“Meetings?”

“Your grandfather had been called to Securitate headquarters several times.”

I stopped and looked at the man. No. How was I unaware of this?

“Yes. And during those interviews with the agents . . .” He looked squarely at me. “He drank a lot of coffee. Don't make the same mistake. Do you understand?”

I didn't understand.

Bunu had told me everything. Shared his opinions and refused to whisper. Why didn't he tell me that he'd been summoned to Secu headquarters? And if the Securitate had pegged Bunu as a dissident, why would they recruit me as an informer?

“The coffee,” whispered the gentleman, so low I could barely hear. “I suspect it contained radioactive poison.”

I turned to him on the sidewalk, my mind racing.

They poisoned Bunu. The poison caused symptoms that mirrored leukemia. It was a quiet way to get rid of someone. Mama wasn't angry at Bunu for being ill, but for being a dissident.

“You're telling me they poisoned him. Eventually it would have killed him. So why did they have to beat him?” I asked the man standing in front of me.

“To stall progress, set an example, make a statement. Don't you
see? If they'll do that to an elderly man, what will they do to hopeful young students who want to ride the tide of revolution?”

What would they do to a young student? The possibility didn't scare me.

I was more inspired than ever.

And now? I had nothing to lose.

47
PATRUZECI ȘI ȘAPTE

Alex Pavel arrived at the apartment carrying two chrysanthemums. The funeral ritual of an even number of flowers puzzled me. In flower shops, they only sold bouquets with odd numbers, saying even numbers were reserved for funerals. But wouldn't an odd number be more appropriate for a funeral? To signify that one is “missing?”

Luca and his mother brought
coliva
, spiced pudding made of boiled wheat that's molded into the shape of a cake. Theirs was decorated with a cross.

Alex stepped toward Cici with the flowers. When he moved, I saw her.

Liliana.

Standing in my apartment, hair hiding her eyes.

Instead of being happy to see her, I was angry. My reaction made no sense. At that point, nothing made sense. I looked away, suddenly nervous. Why was she here? She couldn't stand the sight of me but wanted to be seen as polite? Was that it? Or did her mother force her to come and cling to a wall?

But she didn't cling to a wall. She greeted my parents and Cici. And then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw her coming my way.

I felt her slide in near me. The painful house fire raged within. I took a breath and turned to her. “Why are you here?” I whispered.

She looked at me and lifted a shoulder. “I . . . don't know,” she whispered. “But I wanted to come.”

Her reply was so genuine—and genuinely confusing. I didn't know how to respond.

We stood together, looking at Bunu. I didn't want her there, but suddenly I didn't want her to leave. Did she notice his gloved hands? Generally, coins are placed in the hands of the deceased so they can pay tolls along the way. Cici was so distressed by the look of Bunu's hands that she made pale, thin gloves for him to wear.

“I'm so sorry, Cristian,” whispered Liliana. She stepped in close. So close that our arms were touching. So close that it was distracting.

She was sorry. Did that mean she was sorry for Bunu? Or sorry that she accused me of informing on her? Or sorry that we were no longer together?

I nodded but said nothing.

Liliana was so close to me in that crowded room. I took a breath, trying to manage the sensation of heat flooding throughout my body. I swallowed and stood, desperately hoping she'd reach for my hand. If she reached for my hand, I'd wrap my arms around her. I wanted to wrap my arms around her.

“Lili, let's go,” said Alex. He wedged in beside us.

I stared at him, remembering our last exchange. I wasn't sorry, and clearly, he wasn't either. He still looked like he wanted to punch me. A part of me hoped he would.

A soft touch swept across my hand. “Goodbye, Cristian,” said Liliana.

And then she was gone.

Luca stepped forward a few minutes later. “
Hei
, can I talk to you?”

“No.”

“C'mon, Cristian. Please?”

We exited the small space into the darkened hallway. Luca grabbed
two wooden chairs. “Too crowded here.” He carried the chairs down to the third floor and tried to make small talk.

“I'm not in the mood for a chat, Luca.”

“You've been in a mood for weeks. I tried to give you space. But we need to resolve this. Should I let you sucker punch me again? If that's what it'll take, I'll do it.”

“I didn't sucker punch you.”

“Yeah, you did. You know I'm not a fighter. And you also know that I'm fair. But you're so tight-lipped.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “I had no idea that you liked Liliana. If you would have told me, I never would have tried.”

I turned to Luca. “You never would have tried what?”

“To spend time with her.”

“You've been spending time with Liliana?”

“Not recently,” said Luca. “But she's smart and I liked her. She lives in my building, so I was trying to get to know her.”

I looked at Luca, running a mental timeframe. “You were trying to get close to Liliana?”

“Yeah, and you're mad about it.”

Was this a sick joke? My best friend turns me in to the Securitate
and
tries to steal my girlfriend?

“Listen, Cristian, you have nothing to worry about. The last time I saw her, she said she only wanted to see you. I was disappointed, but you're my friend. Just wish you would have told me.”

“You were disappointed? So disappointed that you ran to your Secu agent and informed on her? She thinks it was me, asshole.”

Luca's gentle face pinched into anger.
“Du-te dracu.”
He stood up, kicking his chair back in the process. “You know what, Cristi? Go to hell,” he muttered, and walked down the stairs.

My fists tightened. The agent, Luca, Liliana, and now Bunu. Go to hell? I was already there. And there was no way out. I'd be chained
at the ankles for the rest of my life. I grabbed Luca's wooden chair and heaved it against the wall, smashing it to pieces.

An apartment door flew open. The woman from Boston ran to me and grabbed my arms.

“Stop,” she ordered. “Breathe.”

I hadn't been able to breathe for weeks.

“Breathe, Cristian,” she whispered.

“You don't understand. I can't.” My voice caught in my throat. The words “I can't, I can't, I can't” came sputtering from my mouth as tears appeared and streamed down my face. “I can't!”

I slid down the cold cement wall of the hallway, crying.

“I can't.”

She kneeled down and gripped me by the shoulders. “Yes, you can.” She leaned in close to whisper. “Listen to me. You are fine. You . . . are fine. The regime is sick, not you, okay? Don't ever forget that.”

•   •   •

I didn't forget.

Ever.

And I hope no one else does.

|| INFORMER REPORT ||

[5 Dec. 1989]

Liliana Pavel (17), resident in Salajan sector 3. Observed Tuesday evening in the stairwell. Pavel exited Florescu family apartment with her brother, Alex Pavel (21). Liliana began to cry and argue with her brother. Crying and argument escalated. Liliana insisted to her brother that Cristian (Florescu) was different, that no one could understand, and to leave her. Alex Pavel then departed.

Shortly thereafter, Cristian Florescu (17) exited the apartment and began a private conversation with Luca Oprea (17) pertaining to discovery of mutual relationship with Liliana Pavel. Unbeknownst to both boys, Liliana Pavel remained hiding in the stairwell, listening. Conversation escalated into an argument in which Florescu accused Oprea of informing on Pavel.

Liliana fled from the stairwell just prior to Oprea departing. In a fit of anger, Florescu proceeded to damage Party property.

As Florescu broke a chair, target BARBARA appeared in the hallway and spoke (undecipherable) to Florescu in an attempt to calm him.

48
PATRUZECI ȘI OPT

A human pendulum.

That's what I felt like. Swinging between fear, sadness, confusion, and rage.

After three nights of funeral visitations, the atmosphere in the apartment felt darker than the stairwells. The light between the walls shifted to an anemic blue gray. My parents spoke only behind the closed door of their bedroom. Black crescents appeared under Cici's eyes.

“I'm frightened,” she whispered. “It's going to be awful,
Pui
. Bunu must have been involved in something dangerous.”

“Like what?” I asked. “Supporting a revolution?”

“Shh . . . I don't know, but whatever it was, they wanted him to stop. And now they'll start hauling us to Secu headquarters to be interrogated. We need a plan. They may come to my work. What if they come to your school?”

I looked at her fear-filled face. If she only knew. “We'll just tell them the truth, Cici. That we don't know anything.”

“But it could be endless. Mama is declining by the day. She's a shell of herself.”

Cici was right. Our mother was becoming more withdrawn. The lines on her forehead etched deeper. She paced the apartment muttering, kneading her hands, and checking the window frames for listening devices.

That night I sat on the rugs in my closet, leaning against the wall. I had kept my end of the bargain. I gave Paddle Hands what he asked for. How had I miscalculated? I would finish my notebook and give it to Mr. Van Dorn as soon as possible. The strategy had worked before.

The year prior, a Romanian professor and writer named Doina Cornea saw a car with a foreign license plate. She gave the driver a doll, requesting he take it when he left Romania. Hidden inside the head of the doll was an open letter to Ceauşescu, written in tiny type on cigarette paper. The letter was delivered to Munich and broadcast on Radio Free Europe. Her sentiments echoed those of many Romanians who couldn't speak them aloud. I wanted to do something similar—give our country a voice.

“She's crazy, taking a risk like that,” Mama had insisted.

“Not crazy. She's brilliant,” said Bunu. “We're punished for our sanity.”

I snapped on my flashlight to add “we're punished for our sanity” to my notebook. As I positioned the flashlight, something fluttered in its beam. A small piece of paper was pinned to the inside of the doorframe. How long had it been there?

I grabbed the note and opened it. Lines of Bunu's shaky handwriting filled the small piece of paper.

I know you're confused.

Remain quiet, unseen.

Things will soon become clearer. Listen to Radio Free Europe.

Remember—

Be patient. Be wise. Search within yourself always.

As Socrates told us, an unexamined life is not worth living.

I'm proud of you.

~ Bunu

I stared at the note in my trembling hand.

Despite everything, he understood. He didn't judge me. He was proud of me. Tears welled within my eyes. I didn't try to stop them.
An unexamined life is not worth living
. The notebook was my way of searching within, examining life and asking questions that I couldn't speak aloud. I drew a breath and read the note again.

Listen to Radio Free Europe
. That's what it said.

Not, “
We'll
listen to Radio Free Europe.”

Me. Alone. It was a directive.

I had my answer.

Bunu knew they were coming for him.

BOOK: I Must Betray You
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