Authors: Ruta Sepetys
A gift? Why do you need a gift?” whispered Cici the next day.
“Someone shared something with me. I want to return the favor.”
a girl? Who is it?” pressed my sister.
I bit back the grin I felt emerging. “Liliana Pavel.”
“Ooh! Lili's nice. Smart. What did she share? Study notes?”
I shook my head and dropped my voice beneath a whisper. “A Coke.”
Cici stared at me. She blinked. She mouthed the words. “A Coke?”
I nodded. “It was her Christmas present.”
“ShhÂ .Â .Â .”
Cici would understand. I had to “reciprocate”âthat was the English word. I couldn't let Liliana share her Christmas present and not give something back. But what could I offer? To rig their TV antenna to get signals from Bulgaria? Not exactly on par with a Coke.
Cici shot a glance to make sure Bunu wasn't looking. She reached under the sofa and retrieved her locked box. She opened it on her lap, contents obscured by the lid. I moved to sit next to her, but she motioned for me to stay put.
“What kind of things does she like?” asked Cici.
I shrugged. “I don't know. What would a girl want?”
“Honestly, these.” Cici held up two narrow tubes wrapped in white paper.
“What are they?”
“They're called tampons. Instead of wadding up old cotton or cheese cloth for your period, you use these. Way more efficient.”
“Come on, I can't give her those.” Disgust raised my volume level.
“You asked what a girl would want.” She rooted around in the box and displayed another option. “Chocolate?”
“And what are you going to give me?”
I pulled her farther from the light fixture above so I could whisper in her ear. “I have an American dollar. But foreign currency, it could get you in trouble.”
Her eyes flashed with alarm. “Of course it could. Where did you get a dollar?”
“It's a long story.”
“I'll take it. I'll keep it locked in the box. Maybe we can trade it for medicine for Bunu.” Cici looked at me, displeased. “A Coke and a dollar. What's going on,
?” she whispered.
“Nothing,” I assured her. “Just good luck and bad luck.”
Cici nodded slowly, suspicious. “Just remember,
, good luck comes at a price. Bad luck is free.”
Her statement. I should have written it down, thought about it. But I didn't.
Once my transaction with Cici was complete, I went to the kitchen to check on Bunu. He was off the couch, examining our broken radio.
“I need some air,” said Bunu. “Help me out to the balcony.”
I helped him outside and stood, shivering.
“We need that radio,” said Bunu. “I hate missing the reports.”
“You know what I hate? The cold. I'm tired of warming bricks in the stove for bed.”
“I don't blame you,” replied Bunu. “This hardship, it hasn't always been this bad, you know.”
I rolled my eyes.
“It's true. When CeauÅescu assumed power in the sixties, things were fairly moderate; conditions actually improved for several years.”
“What changed?” I asked, rubbing my hands together for warmth. “The debt?”
“Yes, the need to pay the country's debts, but something else.” Bunu moved closer. His voice dropped to a rare whisper. “Building a cult, a cult of personality. Are you familiar with those terms?”
I shook my head.
“Listen, CeauÅescu may be near illiterate, but even I can admit that he's a statesman and a mastermind. He's slowly made people believe that he's a god and we must follow him, blindly. And think about it, Cristi, he starts with toddlers. The little ones are just four years old when they're indoctrinated.”
Falcons of the Fatherland. That's what the communist toddler group was called. And in second grade, children became Pioneers and wore a red neck scarf. No one questioned it.
“Four years old. It's cunning. More than a communist dictatorship. Remember that.”
I nodded. I would add that to my notebook.
“But nowâon to more important things. The conversation you had with Cici. Who is
and what can't you give her?” A gleam appeared in his eye. “Got yourself a girlfriend, have you?”
I stared at him.
“Please. I might be dying but I'm not deaf yet, Cristian.”
My stomach clenched. If Bunu heard our whispers from the kitchen, what did the microphones pick up from the ceiling?
That's what they called it. An oxymoron. How could it be considered volunteering if it was mandatory? Students were required to devote themselves to helping the great golden era of Romania. Sometimes, that meant raking a thick field or sorting through boxes of vegetables outside the city. That's what we were supposed to be doing that morning during “Harvest Day” season.
The largest and best produce was sorted for export. The deformed and mealy produce held for Romanians. We called them “bean potatoes” because they were so small.
Luca and I were sent to a field to collect cartons of produce. I took a breath, trying to steady myself. I had been ignoring Luca, pretending he didn't exist. But walking alone with him, I could no longer pretend. And suddenly, I was more upset than I realized.
Luca had informed on me. I was sure of it. He was the only one who had known about the American dollar.
“What's wrong with you?” he asked.
I stopped walking and faced him. “No. What's wrong with you, Luca? I thought we were friends.”
He gave me an odd look, like he was hurt but trying to pretend he wasn't. Nice guys like Luca were terrible at lying. I shook my head and continued walking.
Luca and I had been friends since we were ten. He planned to sit for the exam in medicine. He was smart and would probably pass. I wanted him to pass. Luca was kind. He'd make a great doctor who wouldn't turn away the Kentless. He neverâeverâstruck me as a rat.
But maybe they got to Luca through some weakness, just as they had gotten to me. Or maybe they convinced him that informing was his patriotic duty to the homeland. I was OSCAR. What was Luca's code name? I should have listened to my sister.
“I don't know,” Cici had said. “There's just something about Luca. He's so eager. Asks a lot of questions. Am I too suspicious?”
We were all too suspicious.
And that's how the regime undermined everything. In my notebook, I drew a diagram of the Securitateâa monstrous apparatus with huge spinning tentacles planting doubt, spreading rumors, and casting fear. I remember my father and Bunu fighting about it.
“You do realize what they're doing, don't you, Gabriel?” Bunu asked. “Mistrust is a form of terror. The regime pits us against one another. We can't join together in solidarity because we never know whom we can trust or who might be an informer.”
“Stop this talk,” said my father.
“You see, even out here in the street, you're paranoid to be speaking with your own father! You've become a man without a voice. Mistrust. It's insidious. It causes multiple personality syndrome and rots relationships. At home, you're one person, speaking in whispers. Outside, on the street, and standing in lines at the shops, you're someone else. Tell me, who are you?”
Bunu's question lingered.
Who are you?
I thought I knew. I had always been myself with Luca. Until now.
Now I hated him for informing on me, not only because it resulted in my being forced to spy for the Secu, but also because it ended the first true friendship I had.
We arrived at the field.
“Wait, I think we went the wrong way,” I said.
“No, this is it,” said Luca.
This couldn't be it. Could it?
Moments of profound realization are memorable, especially when they involve your own stupidity. Romania was full of beauty and natural resources. The majestic Carpathian Mountains, the Black Sea, the lush Transylvanian countryside. I had seen them myself as a child. And for the past several years, our national TV bulletins showed chest-high crops, thick and wondrous. If you waded into the fields, you might never return.
The field in front of us was not a field. It was a scrubby lot of weedy plants. An emaciated cow moaned in the dirt. A carpet of flies feasted on the animal's corrugated rib cage.
I wanted the fields they showed during our pathetic two hours of television. I wanted the lush crops and enormous produce. Of course I didn't believe everything they told us, but I
believed the fields were overflowing. I not only believed it, I needed it to be true.
We were told Romanians made sacrifices, but we had so much to be proud of. The country needed more children because we needed more workers for our bountiful crops. Life was difficult, but I found comfort that nature hadn't turned its back on us.
I looked at the scrawny field in front of me. Even nature had betrayed us. But maybe that's what happens when you roll cement over grass, remove the trees, displace the birds, and starve the dogs. You're punished.
But the person responsibleâhe wasn't suffering.
Our hero, Draculescu, sat in his cardboard castle wearing a hollow crown, surrounding himself with clapping men who bowed to him as
the Golden Man of the Carpathians while his people suffered, starved, and lived in terror.
I blinked, trying to stop myself. The thoughts alone warranted a death sentence.
I turned my back to Luca and the field. Dormant anger stirred, a scream inside me that I didn't know existed. Tightness gripped the bottom of my ribs. The tightness rose, hot, and spread into full-blown fury.
Nature was betraying me.
My friend was betraying me.
Life was betraying me.
“Cristian, you're mad at me. I can explainâ”
I whirled around and threw my fist.
I punched my very best friend.
You think you know someone. And when you realize you’re wrong, the humiliation steals something from you. Your mind becomes a thick forest of dark thoughts and you wonder—what else am I not seeing? But I couldn’t figure it out. Who was I angrier with? Luca or myself?
I ignored his bruised face and the way people stepped back when I passed through the halls at school. I told myself it didn’t matter. They didn’t understand. Besides, I was focused on Liliana. I wanted to walk home with her and give her the chocolate.
The school director flagged me in the hall. He stood, making idle chatter as the students filed out of the building. I saw Liliana approaching so I looked to my feet and spoke of exams. “Thank you, but tutors are very expensive, Comrade Director. My parents don’t have the money.” As soon as Liliana passed, I stood silent, waiting.
He handed me a piece of paper with an address. “Around the corner,” said the director.
I looked at the paper. A “host location.” I had read about them in the spy novels. Sometimes the Securitate used a nearby apartment for meetings. The “host” was usually an adult informer who allowed access
to their apartment while at work. Good. If I had to meet with the agent, I preferred being away from school grounds.
I lingered until all the other students had left, worried that someone might see me. I rechecked the address on the paper and set out onto the darkened street. The wet, blowy cold slid beneath my jacket. I shivered. A drone of Dacias buzzed by, weary brake pads shrieking. An old red bus spit fumes as it rumbled around the corner. Head down, I walked to the stone monster of an apartment block.
Up the stairs. Second floor.
The door was open a crack.
The agent sat at a table smoking. His wisps of remaining hair were slicked with a greasy pomade. He yawned. The cigarette burned, a white toothpick in his huge hands, and the smoke climbed like a curious spirit toward the ceiling. The rank of major, yes, but an agent assigned to teenagers? He had to be second rate. I could outmaneuver him, couldn’t I?
“Close the door and sit down.”
I did as I was told. I took a breath and reviewed my plan. In the Romanian spy novels, people talked too much when they were nervous. That always tipped off the agents. They gave too much, gave their own opinions, and gave themselves away in the process.
I would be calm. I would speak sparingly. I would be in control.
Or so I thought.
“Have you visited the target?”
“Were you inside his home?”
The agent pushed a sheet of paper across the table to me. “Draw the plan of the apartment.”
I began to sketch the layout of the Van Dorns’ apartment, purposely crude and simplistic. Walls. Doors. Windows. I worked quickly, hoping to leave quickly.
He watched me and alternated sucking on his cigarette and his fingernails. The agent’s neck was thick, his body bulked by beer and the black market.
“The teenager’s room. Identify it on the plan.”
I noted it.
“Identify and notate any electrical devices you saw and where they were situated.”
“Fixed devices like lamps, telephones, and televisions. Also, portable devices like cameras or radios.”
I noted what I remembered. If they had bugged the Van Dorns’ apartment like Dan suspected, wouldn’t the agent already know where the phone and lamps were located?
“Now, what other details did you observe?”
I was prepared. I had written everything down in my notebook, reviewed it, and decided in advance what I would tell him: things that weren’t a secret or that wouldn’t interest him. I pinched my brows together to appear deep in thought. I began to recite.
“The mother speaks Spanish to her son. The father appears tired. The son has blond hair and blue eyes, sports shoes called Air Jordans, a leather jacket, and a shirt that says Benetton. He likes American football—”
“What is the interaction like between Van Dorn and his wife?”
The visual of Van Dorn’s hand joining with his wife’s flashed in my mind. Affectionate. Connected. It felt private, none of the agent’s business. Why did he care?
I shrugged. “I don’t know. They interact like parents, I guess.”
“When will you be there again?”
“I’m not sure when my mom will be working.”
The agent flipped open the folder in front of him. “Thursday.”
“Well, then I’ll go Thursday. But sometimes Dan isn’t there.”
“Then figure out a way to see him more often. He goes to the American Library to read magazines from the States. Ask him to take you. Make note of what he’s reading. And next time you’re at the apartment, see if the father has a desk somewhere. Observe what’s on it.”
I remembered his desk. Against the wall in the living room.
I said nothing.
“Anything else?” said Agent Paddle Hands.
“Yes, the medicine for my
“Right. I’ll see about that.”
“When I see about it.” He thrust a sheet of paper at me. “Write it down. Everything you just told me.”
I stared at him. Write it down? He wanted an official, handwritten statement? Of course. That way he had proof. Proof of my traitorous testimony versus something he made up.
He placed a pen in front of me. “Write it down and then sign the bottom of your statement.”
I paused, thinking, then picked up the pen and began writing. I wrote a simple list, bullet points, and slanted my letters to the left instead of the right to disguise my handwriting. The agent stood and stretched. He lit another cigarette and walked slowly about the room. I peered over the paper while writing, secretly observing him.
“I’m finished, Comrade Major.”
He leaned over me. The heft of his smoky frame pushed in close. I smelled the oily pomade in his hair. Musk over sweat. Disgusting.
“You forgot to sign it.” He pointed to the bottom of the page.
“Oh, sorry.” I scratched an illegible string of scribbles. Impressive. Kind of artistic.
And then the meeting was over.
I exited the apartment, filing through my mental notes:
The agent didn’t smoke Carpați, Romanian cigarettes. He smoked
BTs, Bulgarian cigarettes. He wore no wedding ring. His fingernails were meticulously clean and buffed. Odd on such enormous, knuckled hands. Peeking from the pocket of his black leather jacket was a piece of paper with a word we all recognized—Steaua.
Our national team. The agent was a soccer fan.
Many Westerners couldn’t find Romania on a map, but we knew that some associated our country with athletics. Although gymnastics and tennis had taken Romania to the Olympics, no team from a communist country had ever won the most cherished prize in European soccer. Not until Steaua București.
The agent’s large mitts—perhaps Paddle Hands fancied himself a goalkeeper? Regardless, I now knew more about him: BT cigarettes. Unmarried
I knew how to proceed.