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Authors: Ruta Sepetys

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BOOK: I Must Betray You
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68
ŞAIZECE ŞI OPT

Jilava.

A sprawling monster the color of dry bones that lived south of Bucharest.

Brick archways. Thick metal gates. Grisly history.

I had said nothing in the van, but I was worried. Bunu had told me of Jilava.

“It's the worst of the worst, reserved for political prisoners and people incarcerated for their faith. The inmates are tortured, mutilated, burned, and locked in frozen boxes.”

We were considered political prisoners. And we had been marching with a group of what looked like a hundred thousand.

The van came to a stop.

“Cristian,” whispered Liliana. “What's going to happen to us?”

The fear in her voice pained me. “I don't know. Stay close.”

The father of the two children issued warnings. “Stay alert and stay together! No matter what, stay together. Promise me.” The children nodded and whimpered.

Our van sat alongside many others parked at the prison; arrests had been plentiful. Guards appeared and marched us in a line down the drive. A decayed sign above the archway was illuminated by a red bulb. It was frightening in its simplicity.

FORTUL Nº13

JILAVA

We exited the van and guards jabbed at our backs with batons, corralling us into a tunnel lined with militia. A swarm of canes rained down upon us, smacking, as we tried to make our way through the corridor. We were herded into a large, damp cell, already packed with people. Questions flew.

“Where did you come from? Do you have any news?”

“Have you seen my daughter?”

“My god, they've arrested children. They're covered in blood.”

“SILENCE!” boomed a guard.

People began whispering.

Another prisoner untied our hands. “Children and minors sent to Jilava? The regime must be desperate.”

“What are you hearing?” I asked.

“Rumors that Ceauşescu is arguing with the military. The soldiers don't want to fire on citizens.”

“My friend, he was shot from above, from a window, not by a soldier.”

“Maybe a Secu sniper. You're shaking. Are you okay?”

Was I okay? Was anyone okay? “I'm worried about my friend,” I told the man.

He nodded. “We'll try to get you kids out of here.”

Liliana pulled me under a light. “Cristian, your nose is broken. You need a doctor.”

“Take a look around. We all need a doctor. What I need is to find Luca. Besides, it's not my nose that hurts, it's my head. And my ribs. It's painful to breathe.”

Liliana pulled the purple scarf from her neck. “Take off your jacket.”

I removed my coat and she wrapped her scarf around my rib cage.

“Ow.”

“Sorry. It needs to be tight,” she said, tying a knot. It helped.

I rifled through my jacket pockets to find the papers. I quickly shoved them down the front of my pants. Liliana squinted, watching.

“Don't ask.”

Men filtered through the crowd, collecting cigarettes. “We're going to negotiate with the guards, give them cigarettes to let the kids out.”

Trading Kents for the lives of children. And he said it without hesitation, without the pain and shameful truth it carried—that the guards cared more about nicotine than humans.

Liliana and I moved toward the corner. The plaster on the cell wall had peeled away in patches, like dead skin, revealing raw bricks. Messages from former prisoners remained etched for us to see:

Straw under clothes softens beatings.

Remember Richard Wurmbrand.

Tell the world—We're innocent.

Liliana moved in close. “I'm scared, Cristian. I'm scared they'll torture us, but I'm even more frightened the uprising will fail.”

“You heard the man in the van. There's too much momentum. It's only going to grow. But it was dangerous for you to be out so late. Were you alone?”

She shook her head.

“I was with Alex,” she said, then paused. “And Cici.”

“Cici?”

“She came to our apartment, looking for you. She was frantic, said you hadn't been home all day and was terrified something had happened. She was going to search for you and asked Alex to help. I wanted to come along, and then we got separated in the crowd.”

Cici had betrayed me. How could she claim to care about me? I looked at Liliana's tear-streaked face.

“Tell Alex to stay away from Cici. She's . . .”

Liliana reached up and put a finger to my lips. “I know. I figured it out the day of the funeral. She was informing on me. She saw us drinking the Coke.”

“She framed me,” I whispered. “She sent the Secu to blackmail her own brother. What about Alex? Can we trust him?” I asked.

“Honestly, I don't know. But he and Cici, they seemed to have a plan. Before we got separated, Cici told me something. She said that if I found you, I should give you a message.”

I looked at her, waiting.

“The message is, ‘Mr. Van Dorn sends his thanks.' Does that make sense?”

Tears of relief pushed at my eyes. It did make sense. Van Dorn was acknowledging that he got my notebook. But how did Cici have that information?

“What does it mean?” asked Liliana.

There was no reason to hold back. Not now.

“Remember that night in the stairwell, when I told you I had an idea?” I whispered. “Mr. Van Dorn is a diplomat at the U.S. Embassy. My idea was to give him a notebook full of information I compiled, a cry for help to share with other diplomats.”

“Oh my god, Cristian, no wonder they beat you like this.”

“Honestly, I don't think they know about it yet.”

“What was in the notebook?” she whispered.

“The truth. Pages of information on what the regime is doing to Romanians. A bunch of Bulă jokes. Notes from Bunu. I wrote a letter at the end. I titled the notebook
Screaming Whispers
:
A Romanian Teenager in Bucharest
. My name wasn't anywhere on it.”

“And you just gave it to an American diplomat?”

“No, I hid it on his desk.”

Liliana's jaw dropped. “What if the Secu found it?”

“You just gave me a message from Van Dorn. Well, a message supposedly from him, confirming
he
received it.” I looked toward the front of the cell. “We need to get out of here. I need to find Luca and get you home.”

“If they see we want to be together, they'll split us apart,” said Liliana.

I looked at her battered, defiant face. She wanted to be together.

“You told me you weren't giving up, Cristian.”

“I'm not giving up.”

But what if this was my end? I'd never even kissed her.

“Get the young people to the front of the cell!” a guard's voice barked.

“Hurry,” said a man. “This may be your only chance.”

“I'm Liliana Pavel,” she shouted as they jostled us to the front of the group. “My friend Cristian Florescu and I are classmates at MF3 High School and we live in Salajan sector three. If any of you are set free, please contact our families. Tell them that you saw us together and we were alive.”

“My friend Luca Oprea was shot in University Square,” I yelled. “He's also a student at MF3 High School. If any of you are released, please try to help him!”

A guard grabbed the young brother and sister by their collars.

“Papa!” cried the little boy, reaching for his father. “Where are they taking us? We want to stay with you!”

“I'll see you very soon,” said the father, swallowing his tears. “Remember, stay with your sister. You must stay together.”

“Where are they taking us?” whispered Liliana. “What if it's worse? Should we stay here?”

A man grabbed my shoulder, stopping me. “I knew your grandfather,” he whispered quickly.

He knew Bunu?

The man nodded. “He would be very proud of you.”

69
ŞAIZECE ŞI NOUĂ

They pushed us into a room with long tables and benches. The guard ordered us to sit, locked the door, and left. Facing me, next to the door, were two framed portraits. One featured Mother Elena and the other, a one-eared Ceauşescu. I stared at their faces.

We had no food or freedom.

Because of them.

We were surrounded by spies and torturers.

Because of them.

We had no trust.

Because of them.

I couldn't look at the portraits. I grabbed them from the wall and tossed them in the corner.

“What are you doing?” gasped Liliana. “You're putting us all in danger.”

“If I have to look at them for one more minute, we'll all be in danger anyway.”

Liliana turned to the kids. “Keep your heads down. If the guard asks, tell him the pictures were like that when we came in.”

The guard returned carrying buckets and a clipboard. He yawned. “Because of you criminals, we haven't had rest since Timișoara. Do you know what that does? It makes us angry.”

We said nothing. He set down the buckets and noticed the heap of portraits in the corner.

“Who did that?”

Silence.

“I said, who did that?!”

I shrugged. “They were like that when we came in.”

“No, they weren't.”

“Yes, they were!” we all insisted.

The guard blinked, fatigued, not used to dealing with a chorus of kids. He eyed us and waited, uncertain.

“Well, you will pledge your obedience to our hero and Heroine Mother. Each one of you will get down on your hands and knees and kiss their portraits or you'll be taken back to the cell. And my superior must witness you doing it.” He turned on his heel and locked the door once again.

“Do we have to?” asked the little boy.

“Yes, we probably do. I'm sorry.” I sighed. Why did I have to mess with the portraits? Why couldn't I have just ignored them?

“Kiss me.”

She said it so softly, I thought maybe I had imagined it.

But then she said it again.

“Kiss me. Please, Cristian. Before our lips are forced to touch . . . them,” she whispered.

I turned and looked at Liliana, despair filling her face. I pulled her into my arms and paused, holding her close, my forehead against hers. Her breathing fluttered against my mouth.

I kissed her. And kissed her again. And again. More gently each time. I kissed her nose, her jaw, her neck. I swept the hair from her brow and kissed each one of her eyes.

A single tear dropped onto her cheek.

I held her against me, not wanting to let go.

The children sat, mouths open, staring.

Footsteps echoed beyond the door. We quickly separated. The guard returned with another uniformed officer in tow. He surveyed the room.

“No,” snapped the officer. “The portraits were not on the floor. And that one,” he pointed to me. “He's the only one tall enough to reach them.” He retrieved the portraits and set them on the tile floor. “Come along, comrade. Time to give thanks.”

He was going to hit me. I knew it. I couldn't reveal that my ribs were in pain. If I did, he'd go there first. I stood quickly, trying not to wince. He walked toward me.

“Oh, too bad about your nose, comrade. Does it hurt?” A quick punch sent me to the floor.

He smacked my back and legs with his club. “Ungrateful young people. The Party gave you a beautiful home and this is how you thank them? Crawl to Beloved Leader and Heroine Mother. They're waiting for your apology.”

I inched forward on my hands and knees toward the portraits. Liliana's kiss lingered more strongly than the punch. It might be the first and last time I ever kissed Liliana and I didn't want to surrender the feeling.

“Stop stalling! Hurry up.”

I hovered over the portrait of Ceauşescu. I wanted to chew it up, swallow, and then vomit it on Mother Elena. But the quiet in the room, the kids, Liliana, they were scared. I couldn't do that. I quickly touched the side of my mouth to Ceauşescu and then to Elena. The dust on the pictures coated my lips. Diseased them. Thank god Liliana was so smart.

They made the others perform the same ritual. Liliana kneeled down, her face a mixture of disgust and defiance. Her nose touched the portrait, but I swear her lips didn't.

The officer kicked the metal pails. “Buckets? No, no, no. These comrades don't get buckets. After they kiss the portraits, they'll do the job with their hands.”

They took us to a tiled, windowless room. The air spit with flies.

“System's been plugged for a while. Bag is in the corner. Clean this up, Comrades. Better hurry or you might miss the van.”

A bag
was
in the corner. But it sat beneath a huge mountain of feces.

One of the children began to cry. The guard loomed, poking and taunting the child's belly with his baton.

“No, no, little brat. There's no crying. If you're big enough to protest and take part in illegal acts, you're certainly old enough to clean a bathroom. Look at this steaming pile. This is where you belong.” He left the room.

We stood, arms hanging by our sides.
What is the cost of self-worth?

Bunu's question. It lingered in my mind.

We were the pile on the floor.

That's what they were telling us.

That's what they thought.

What did the outside world think? Did they know of our decades of struggle? Did they blame the Romanian citizens? Did they know the regime kept us insulated, or did they believe the unfair stereotypes?

I turned to the kids.

“Dracula is a fictional character created by some Irish author. Dracula has no connection to our history,” I said.

“We know that,” replied the sister.

“And Romanians are brilliant people. Some are Nobel Prize winners!” I yelled.

“Why are you saying this?”

“Because we're not shit. Do you hear me? We're more Romanian than those guards are!”

The room fell still. A pulse of emotion pushed at my hoarse throat. “No matter what they do or say, we're better than this.”

Why was Romania such a dark corner of the map? Was it the distance? Was there a point when a country became too remote to care about?

Amnesty International was trying to share the truth. But if the guards discovered the documents on me, I'd be killed. I couldn't risk harming the others. I pulled the pages from my pants and used them as a shovel.

“What are those papers?” whispered Liliana.

“A nail in the coffin,” I told her.

BOOK: I Must Betray You
10.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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