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Authors: Ruta Sepetys

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53
CINCIZECI ŞI TREI

Paddle Hands was finished with me, I was certain.

But I was wrong. I was wrong about so many things.

That Saturday, Comrade Director gave a discreet nod, so after my usual waiting, I made my way to the host apartment. What approach would I take this time to burrow beneath his skin? Would I try to be friendly, talk about soccer, and worm my way in? Or would I be honest?

“My
bunu
's dead.”

The words came out of my mouth faster and louder than they appeared in my head. Honest.

The agent looked up from the table.

“Close the door,” he instructed.

I entered the box of a room and closed the door. I did not sit. I was not told to.

The agent began fiddling with the paper stamp from his BT cigarette package, making a ring and slipping it on his pinky finger. Was that a nervous tic?

“I'm sorry about your grandfather.”

Sure he was. According to rumor, some of the Secu agents were orphans trained by the regime to fight for Ceauşescu or serve as his bodyguards. Were they the ones who beat Bunu? This guy couldn't care about someone's grandfather.

“Have a seat.”

I sat.

“How are you?”

I stared into my lap, thinking of everything that would bring tears. When my eyes moistened, I looked up at the agent. “I'm not . . . well.”

“That's understandable.” He nodded. “Medicine was given to your grandfather. But I was told he was quite far gone and suffering severe mental disorders.”

Mental disorders? No. Bunu was mentally sharp until the very end.

Parasitism. That's what they called it. People who opposed the regime were parasites and mentally ill. This idiot was calling Bunu a parasite. The irony.

“It's not just my
bunu
. I can't believe Nadia Comăneci fled the country. Will our soccer stars leave too?” I gave him my best innocent look.

“What? No. Have you visited the target?”

“He's gone. Dan and his mother returned to New Jersey. He gave me a Christmas card.”

“What was in it?”

“A Christmas greeting.” I sighed and stared into my lap.

“Nothing inside the card? No gifts? No articles about Bruce Springsteen to cheer you up?”

Şahmat.
Checkmate.

Yes, I had thought I was so smart. But suddenly, I was backed into a corner.

I didn't raise my face. I didn't raise my eyes. Just shook my head.

I had told the agent that the article Dan ripped out of the magazine was about American music. I never mentioned Springsteen.

Someone else must have.

If he realized his slip, he didn't show it. Or maybe he wanted to
emphasize he had the upper hand and knew everything. Even the contents of my closet.

My notebook. Did he know about my notebook? I fought to keep up the ruse, to act calm.

“The father's desk. Were you able to note anything on it?” he asked.

“American newspapers and magazines with reports about freedom in other countries. Some file folders. The contents weren't visible.”

“Did the target speak of his father's work?”

“He said his father is staying in Romania for Christmas because a new ambassador just arrived.”

“Did he give his opinion on the new American ambassador?”

“Oh, yes,” I lied. “Said he's not your average diplomat. He's more aggressive. Plans to make changes.”

“What kind of changes?”

I shrugged.

“So . . . the target's father will now be alone for several weeks?”

A menacing feeling rose from beneath the desk. Were they planning to harm Mr. Van Dorn? I pretended not to understand the question.

“The target and his mother are gone,” said Paddle Hands slowly. He smiled. “That means Van Dorn will be alone in the apartment for several weeks.”

“I'm . . . I'm not sure,” I said.

“Oh right, he won't be alone.” The agent stared right through me. “Your mama will be there with him.” He let the dig sit for a beat. “Just to clean, of course,” he added.

With a flick of his large hand, he shed the paper ring from his pinky and flung it across the desk at me. He grinned, pleased with himself.

“We're done,” he said.

|| OFFICIAL REPORT ||

TOP SECRET

[15 Dec. 1989]

Ministry of the Interior

Department of State Security

Directorate III, Service 330

Discussion with source OSCAR at host location.

OSCAR displayed arrogance and pretended to be upset about his grandfather’s death in an attempt to manipulate the conversation.

OSCAR provided the following information on target VAIDA:

-VAIDA’s son has left Romania with his mother for the holidays. Prior to departing, he gave OSCAR a holiday card. OSCAR accepted the card.

-the new American ambassador is rumored to have “aggressive” attitudes toward Romania and plans to make “changes”

-for the next several weeks, “VAIDA” will be alone in his apartment

Recommendations:

• OSCAR is no longer of use. Take necessary measures.

• VAIDA is alone. Accelerate plan.

54
CINCIZECI ŞI PATRU

I thought I was a great pretender. But at that moment, I wasn't so sure. Paddle Hands was smug, too smug. I'd assumed an agent dealing with teenagers had to be mediocre. Had I assumed wrong?

Starfish intercepted me in front of the apartment block. “I might have something for you.”

“Yeah? What?”

“A British guest at the Intercontinental threw some papers in the trash. They're in English. A contact is holding them for me.”

“How much?

“Got any Western currency?” he asked.

I thought of the dollar I gave to Cici. “I might. You have the papers?”

“No, but I can get them.”

“Well, get them and we'll talk.”

I left Starfish and turned toward my building.

Orange flickers.

The candles had returned along with the large wooden cross outside of our apartment block. Death was paying another house call. Tiny snowflakes swirled in the glow like specks of winter dust. Mirel lingered in his usual spot.

“Mrs. Drucan,” he said. “A couple hours ago.”

I nodded.

I made my way up the stairs to the third floor. Cici was moving chairs into the hallway.

“Mrs. Drucan,” she said.

“Mirel told me.”

“Can you ask her daughter if she needs any help?”

The woman from Boston rushed around, organizing things in her mother's apartment.


Salut
, Cristian.”

“I'm sorry about your mother. Do you need any help?”


Mersi
, but I think I'm all set. She was very peaceful. We had a final exchange. I know she heard me. She took a breath and was gone.”

I thought of Bunu. A smile. A relieved exhale. That was the way he should have died. Deserved to die. I nodded, just standing there. Hands stuffed in my pockets.

“When are you leaving for Boston?” I asked.

“In a few days. My cousins will remain in the apartment. You've been so helpful and—unlike others—you've refused to accept or ask for anything. Could I treat you to a cup of coffee? I brought some Nescafé from the States.”

Coffee.

“Don't drink the coffee,” I blurted.

She looked at me, confused. “Why not?”

“It's . . . unhealthy.”

“Well, it
is
instant coffee, but I thought most people here liked Nescafé.”

“Yeah, sorry, they probably do. Have a safe trip home.” I turned to leave and felt her hand upon my arm.

“Oh, and Cristian,” she whispered.

I looked over to her.

“Three cartons.”

“Excuse me?”

“That's the answer. It takes three cartons to turn up the gas.”

She smiled, relieved, peaceful.

Mrs. Drucan's daughter. The woman from Boston. Red boots and lighting bolt earrings. I realized only later.

I never knew her name.

Cici continued to arrange chairs in the hallway. “Mama is home. Dad is out standing in line.” I nodded and headed up the stairs.

Like our parents, our apartment was silent. The door to the bedroom was closed. I headed to my closet to confirm my suspicion. I lifted the stack of books in the corner.

Just as I thought.

The Springsteen article was gone.

The Secu was still coming and going from our apartment.

But the next time they came? They'd be in for a surprise.

Because I would be there.

55
CINCIZECI ŞI CINCI

Sad emptiness has a presence that seeps into everything. Each time I inhaled, it entered me—a spirit-crushing loneliness and the strange, shameful feeling that accompanied it.

I missed Bunu.

It was Sunday evening and for a rare moment, our family was together. We ate our quiet dinner of soup with a wedge of bread that Mama had soldiered hours in the cold for. I then settled in on Bunu's couch to wait until 10:00 p.m. for the headline recap on Voice of America. Cici joined me. The signal wasn't clear, so I adjusted the illegal wire that ran from the radio to the kitchen window. As I finessed the dial, a few words emerged from the static.

‹‹Protest in Maria Square››

“Where's Maria Square?” asked Cici.

Our mother appeared. “In Timișoara, the western part of Romania. Why?”

“Shh . . . I'm trying to tune in,” I told them.

I landed on the frequency. The radio knob pulsed beneath my fingers as the announcer's voice warbled into our kitchen.

‹‹In Timișoara, what began as a vigil over the forced eviction of
church pastor László Tőkés has escalated into an antigovernment protest. Romanian security forces opened fire, and there are reports that civilians have been killed. This story is still developing and we'll come back with details.››

Cici jumped off the couch.

Mama turned and ran to the bedroom. She returned with our father in tow.

“A protest?” whispered Mama, gripping the doorframe. “No, no. They must stop. There will be consequences.”

I wasn't thinking of consequences. I was thinking of Bunu. My brave
bunu
who refused to whisper, who was beaten to death for what he believed in.

“Bunu, are you hearing this?” I said. “It's happening!”

“Shhh . . .” said Cici. “The announcer's coming back on.”

‹‹The vigil began on Saturday with parish members holding candles and requesting that persecution of Pastor Tőkés be stopped. But hour by hour, residents joined together and the brave people of Timișoara united and took to the streets. The crowd grew overnight and today the swarm of protestors was so large that it blocked traffic in the square and overflowed onto the surrounding streets. As the protest continued, the crowd began to oppose not just the pastor's persecution, but the regime itself.››

“YES!” I cried.

“Oh my god.”

“Shh . . .”

‹‹Today, as the crowds swelled, the mayor called for the protestors to disperse. But the mayor's voice was soon
overpowered by the repeated call of the masses. Together, the citizens of Timișoara joined as one voice, continuously chanting:
Li-ber-ta-te
.››

The word pierced through the radio. My skin chilled and a knot formed in my throat.

Libertate.

Liberty.

It was happening.

It was really happening!

Romanians were joining in hand and heart. And together they were finally calling—

For freedom.

56
CINCIZECI ŞI ȘASE

I stayed awake all night on Bunu's couch, searching for radio updates. State radio and television reported nothing. Of course not. Radio Free Europe and Voice of America were the only sources of information. The regime knew that. Would they jam the signal? No, that was too expensive. They hadn't jammed signals in years and probably lacked the equipment to do so.

The announcer said civilian deaths had been reported.

Timișoara. The heart. The courage. We had to help them. I pulled the faded map from the cabinet drawer. It was 550 kilometers from Bucharest to Timișoara, a seven-hour drive, longer with our precarious roads. Could groups or buses be arranged? Perhaps we could build a chain of protests across the country. Together, we could close in on Ceauşescu. Trap him. Overthrow him.

Right here in Bucharest.

“It's happening, Bunu,” I whispered.

Poland.

Hungary.

East Germany.

Czechoslovakia.

Bulgaria.

Their communist regimes had all fallen in nonviolent, bloodless transfers of power. But Romania remained, the last flap of the Iron
Curtain. For decades, Ceauşescu had tied a strangling noose of national communism around our necks. If we wanted our freedom, we'd have to fight for it. And our ruthless dictator, he would fight back. He'd mobilize his death squads of blue-eyed boys from beneath the belly of the capital to kill his own people.

And he'd do it without a second thought.

57
CINCIZECI ŞI ȘAPTE

I hadn't slept but by morning felt invincible. I ran to school, passing a banner proclaiming
long live Ceauşescu!
What if I tore it down? No, we needed a group. We had to join together. In Romania it was against the law to gather in groups larger than a few people. But no one would pay attention to that now, would they?

I couldn't wait to get to school. There would be chatter, discussions, plans. Cici and my parents were full of fear rather than fortitude. I missed Bunu. He would know what to do and how to do it.

But school that day was a morgue. Cold silence. Blank faces.

Comrade Instructor spoke the same waste of time, wooden tongue nonsense. I couldn't understand it. Had no one heard the radio reports? Did they care nothing for the brave people of Timișoara? Were they too scared, or just programmed to believe that they were owned by the State and could do nothing about it?

Winter break began the next day. This was our last opportunity to be together and make plans. Between classes, I whispered to a fellow student.

“Hey, did you hear about Timișoara?”

He nodded. “My parents are terrified we'll all be mowed down. They've ordered me to stay inside.”

I looked at my classmate. Stay inside? I thought about Bunu, about
his comment that an unexamined life wasn't worth living, his reminders that sometimes to go inside, we needed to go outside.

I left school and walked home in the dark. A tall figure fell into step beside me.

Luca.

“Did you hear the reports last night?” he whispered.

“Yes! You?”

“Yeah
.
Couldn't sleep. Can't stop thinking of the people in Timișoara.”

Finally. Someone who understood. And of course, it was Luca. Luca with his eager heart. With everything that was happening, it was impossible to stay mad at him.

“I looked on the map,” I told him.

“Me too. Over five hundred kilometers to Timișoara.”

“Finally, Romanians have taken a stand.”

“And not just Romanians,” said Luca. “The report said that local Hungarians and Serbs took part. Real solidarity. We have to support them.”

I threw a glance over my shoulder. “In school, no one mentioned it.”

“Of course not,” said Luca. “They're terrified. Can you blame them? What do you think your
bunu
would say?”

“I wish he was here to help.”

“If he was, what would he tell us?”

I thought for a moment, trying to think like my philosophical grandfather. “He'd say . . . this is bigger than the ‘I' or the ‘me.' This must be ‘we.' ”

“Exactly!” said Luca, his feet slowing. “Wait, the university students are probably mobilizing.”

Of course. Why hadn't I thought of that? “I bet you're right.”

“I'll ask around,” said Luca. “You too.”

I nodded.

We arrived on our street. Luca paused before heading to his building. “If you have an update, call my house and let it ring once. That'll be our signal. I'll meet you in the street,” he said.

“Okay. You do the same.”

Luca nodded, and we went our separate ways. And then I heard his voice.

“Hey, Cristian,” he called.

I looked across the street. Luca smiled at me. He raised his hand and flashed a signal.

The peace sign.

Before I could signal back, Starfish appeared, our block dogs beside him. “The English papers I mentioned. I'll have them tomorrow.”

“Okay. You have any updates?”

“Waiting for tonight's radio reports like everyone else,” he said. “I heard they blocked the borders. But things must be quieting down. They say Ceauşescu left for meetings in Iran.”

If Ceauşescu left for Iran, did that mean he didn't take the protests seriously? What had happened to the people in Timișoara?

“Find me tomorrow for the papers. Bring your money,” said Starfish.

•   •   •

That night, all of Romania sat by their radios. Was Mr. Van Dorn listening? Had he found my notebook?

My father stood with his hand on the radio, as if to protect it.

“Gabriel, step away. What if the regime sends an electric shock of some sort?”

“You think they'll blow up the radio?” I said.

“Well, the transmitter for Radio Free Europe must be powerful if it can broadcast all the way from Munich,” whispered Mama.

The transmitter was powerful. Over a thousand kilowatts. I
thought of Bunu, trading the Kents to repair our radio. It was our main source of information, but only if the electricity was on. When would it snap off?

At 10:00 p.m. the announcer's voice appeared through the static. I jumped from the couch.

‹‹Tensions escalated yesterday in Timișoara. It's been reported that thousands have been killed. The recording you're about to hear was smuggled out of Romania by a German tourist and delivered to us at Radio Free Europe.››

I stepped closer to the radio. Audible static—and then the sounds came through.

Chaos. Screaming. Crowd noise.

A woman's pleading voice. “Stop! Shame on you, they're Romanians, just like you!”

A man's voice, “Shoot, you bastards. Shoot!”

A breath of silence.

A wave of gunfire.

Children screaming.

“They're shooting them,” I gasped.

“The sound could be misleading,” said Cici. “Please, let's hope it's wrong.”

“I don't care if it's three people or three thousand. Our country is murdering its citizens!” I exclaimed. “We can't just stand here and do nothing!”

“You're right.”

The voice, it startled me.

“You're right,” repeated my father. “They've blocked the borders. They're trapping us.” He quickly began gathering things in the kitchen. Knives, broom and mop handles.

“Gabriel, what are on earth are you doing?” asked Mama.

“Preparing,” said my father. “When it's time, we have to be ready.”

“For what?” asked Cici.

“To fight,” he replied.

BOOK: I Must Betray You
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