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Authors: Ruta Sepetys

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BOOK: I Must Betray You
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70
ŞAPTEZECI

Three more children were brought to the tiled room. Five children plus me and Liliana. I tried to do most of the work, using the papers and my shoes.

I thought of the portraits in the other room. “Those portraits, they would make a good shovel,” I whispered to Liliana.

“Don't you dare.”

Finally we finished. We reeked.

“Move!” yelled the guards. They pushed at our backs with guns and clubs, shuffling us back down the cement corridor where we'd entered.

“Are we going home now?” asked the sister.

“You're going to a new home,” said the guard.

“I want Papa,” cried the brother. “Papa!”

“The older ones, make sure they're restrained.”

A guard pushed me against the wall and jammed his club beneath my throat. They tied my hands in front of me with rope. The pain from my ribs, I nearly passed out.

The sun was up. As they loaded us back into a van, a truck arrived carrying a dozen new prisoners. They looked at us, faces full of shock.

“What time is it?” I asked. “What do you know?”

“It's around eight a.m. Fighting continues. Stay strong, we're close!”

The guards pushed us into a van. The children began to cry and the newly arrived prisoners tried to intervene. “Bastards! Let the kids go!”

“Freedom!” yelled a man. They clubbed him before he could say another word.

I sat in the van, trying to breathe. I extended my wrists to Liliana. “Can you loosen the rope?” I whispered.

“It smells. Where are we going?” said a small voice.

“Ask the big boy.”

The big boy. Really?

I suddenly felt so small, so tired. So frightened. They said fighting continued, but what if the revolution failed? How much worse would things get? Where were we going? Were our families looking for us? Was the Secu looking for me? Was Cici telling the truth about the message from Van Dorn? What would they do to the prisoners who helped get us out of the cell?

Liliana leaned against my shoulder. My head touched hers and at some point, my exhausted thoughts surrendered to shallow sleep.

We arrived midmorning. I recognized the location the moment they opened the van doors. Strada Aaron Florian. We were near the U.S. Embassy and the Van Dorns' apartment.

In front of us stood a white, ornate building. Decorative plaster garlands draped over each door and window. But the Belle Époque beauty and smooth white plaster exterior fooled no one. Darkness and cruelty lived inside the building, belted tight by bars over each window.

We waited in the van, hands still bound, while the tired guard trudged to the tall front door. The sister and brother clung together as their father had instructed. Explosions and the sound of gunfire hovered in the distance.

I lifted my wrists toward Liliana. “Try the rope again.”

My voice wasn't my own. It was hoarse and weary with injury. I put my mouth to her ear. “Starfish once told me about this place. It's a
juvenile jail. They sent his cousin here. They shaved his head, beat him, and all sorts of awful things. I say we make a run for it.”

“You're in no condition to run, and we can't leave these kids.”

She was right.

“You go,” she suddenly said, pulling the rope from my hands. “Hurry, sneak behind the van, then hide behind a building. Go! Send someone for us. We'll tell them you escaped the van at Jilava.”

I hesitated. “No, I'm not gonna leave you.”

“Go! Now!” she whispered, pushing at me. “Find my parents and Alex. They'll have something to bribe with. They'll get us all out of here. Save us!”

Could I save them?

Liliana thought I could. She believed in me.

Bunu believed in me.

I couldn't let them down.

71
ŞAPTEZECI ŞI UNU

I crept to the open van doors and watched the guard approach the beastly building. The driver of the van leaned against the vehicle. He closed his eyes.

Quietly, painfully, I stepped down from the back of the van, and hid by the tire. I made it across the street and crouched in a pool of shadow by a building. I crawled until I was beyond the line of sight.

And then I tried to run.

Pain jolted through my torso. I clutched my ribs, stumbling, but kept going, looking over my shoulder. I darted between buildings and saw a thick crowd in front of the U.S. Embassy. I waded into the swarm. I picked up a filthy knitted hat from the ground and put it on, tucking my wild hair beneath it. I zipped up my coat so the scarf around my torso wasn't visible. The tired guards wouldn't be able to distinguish one protester from another. One positive about bland communist clothing—many of us looked alike.

My conscience pecked at me. Should I have left Liliana and the kids? Would they punish them when they realized I was gone? I pushed my way up to the gate, armed by an American soldier.

“Please, I need to see Mr. Van Dorn. Is he here?”

“Do you have a U.S. passport?”

I shook my head.

“I'm sorry, we're only allowing entrance to Americans.”

“But I really need to see Mr. Van Dorn. I need his help.”

“You need a doctor. You're badly injured,” said the U.S. soldier.

A man next to me tugged at my arm. “Here, drink some water.”

I took a sip then poured the water on my hands to try to clean them.

The man eyed me. “Where have you been?” he asked.

“Jilava,” I whispered. “I need to go home.”

“My son has a bicycle. Radu, help this boy.”

“Salajan sector three,” I told the guy on the bike.

“Get on. I can take you.”

He pedaled as fast as he could, taking side streets, trying to avoid crowds. The morning chill was balmy and the smoke-smothered streets frothed with war. Bloodstained pavement, buildings pocked with bullet holes, burned portraits of Ceauşescu. A child's bloody shoe lay orphaned beneath a spray-painted wall that said
Jos Tiranul
, down with tyranny.

As we passed wide avenues, street cleaning machines chugged along, hosing blood from the pavement. Removing evidence of our murderous regime.

A black Dacia appeared at the end of the road. The rider swerved the bike off the street and bounced up onto the sidewalk.

“Ow!” My ribs screamed.

“Can't help it, man. You want to get home or what?”

“Where are they taking the wounded?” I asked the cyclist. “My friend was shot last night in University Square.”

“If he survived, they probably took him to ColÅ£ea Hospital. If not, the morgue.”

If he survived.

“Have many died?”

“Too many to count. Vehicles plowed over crowds.”

It hurt too much to inquire further.

“You smell. Where have you been?” asked the driver.

“Jilava. There were lots of us. Including little kids.”

“People are looking for their children. They're going to morgues and hospitals.”

“Spread the word they're holding children on Aaron Florian. Tell them to check there,” I told him.

“Will do. Don't give up. We just need the military on our side.”

We approached my street. Would Paddle Hands or the Secu be waiting for me? “I'm on a list,” I told him. “I don't want to put you in danger. You can let me off here.”

The cyclist rolled to a stop and I climbed off the bike, wincing in pain.

“You don't want to put me in danger?” He laughed. “In case you haven't noticed, we're all in danger.”

He pedaled off, disappearing into the smoke.

72
ŞAPTEZECI ŞI DOI

I walked, head down, toward Liliana's building. The street milled with people. I turned to leave. I couldn't be seen.

“Psst.”

A figure motioned to me from between two buildings. Starfish. I joined him in what appeared to be a makeshift command center.

“People are looking for you,” he said.

“They should've checked Jilava.”

Starfish whistled below his breath. “You okay?”

“Do I look okay?”

“Not really.”

“Liliana was there too. They're holding her and a bunch of kids at the detention place your cousin was at. I have to let her family know. And I have to find Luca.”

“Was Luca with you? His family is looking for him.”

Could I trust Starfish? I had no choice. “Luca was shot,” I whispered. “They arrested me, and I don't know what happened to him. I have to check the hospitals.”

Starfish shook his head, taking a breath. “Your sister's looking for you too.”

“I can't go home. My mother will make me stay there. Help me, Starfish. Please.”

“Reporters are on watch. Don't let them see you. I can get you into Liliana's building through the back. Follow me.”

Starfish gave a whistle and a young man appeared from nowhere to take over his post. He worked his magic and got me into the building without being seen.

The electricity was off.

“Thanks, man. I don't have anything to give you. But to get to Luca and Liliana, I'm gonna need Kents,” I told him.

“I'm out. I'll see if Mirel has some. I'll meet you in the stairwell.”

I slowly climbed the steps and knocked on Luca's door. No one answered, but I heard noise inside.

“It's Cristian,” I said, knocking louder. I took off my filthy shoes.

The door opened a crack. A sliver of a face appeared. Her eyes expanded.

“Your face is broken.”

“C'mon, Dana, let me in.”

She opened the door and quickly shut it.

“We're here alone,” announced one of the younger girls. “But we're not supposed to tell anyone and we're not supposed to open the door. Our parents are out looking for Luca. Have you seen him?”

“I saw him last night around eleven o'clock.”

“Was he okay?” asked Dana.

I paused. “I'm not sure. Is the water on?”

“It's poisoned.” She shrugged. “That's what people are saying.”

“I just need to wash up.” I grabbed a candle from their kitchen, a pair of Luca's pants, and went to the bathroom to change. I had to hurry. If someone was following me—or if Starfish was informing on me—I was putting Luca's sisters in danger.

“Luca's tall. His clothes won't fit you,” said his sister outside the bathroom door.

Luca was tall. When he jumped up to save me, he was an easy target. Scenes from the street rolled back at me: tracer fire, pops of gunfire, Adrian falling, Luca's shoulder and arm moving in that unnatural way. So much blood. I grasped the cold sink and shook my head to clear the thoughts.

A stranger stared at me from the mirror. My face was covered in crusty badges of dried blood. My nose was a swollen knot. I washed as best I could and rolled the hems of Luca's pants to fit. I went into the kitchen, pinched a small piece of bread, and retrieved the pad of paper from the drawer. I wrote a note and put it in my pocket. I'd slide it under the door of Liliana's apartment if no one was there.

Dana cornered me in the hall. “Just tell me,” she said.

“If your parents come back, tell them I was here and that I'm looking for Luca. Tell them I'm checking the hospitals.”

“The hospitals?” Her eyes filled with tears. “Is he okay?”

“I'm not sure,” I whispered.

Because I wasn't.

73
ŞAPTEZECI ŞI TREI

A bowlegged silhouette lingered on the stairs. Starfish. Was he alone? The thick darkness of the stairwell made it impossible to tell.

I followed him outside to the back of the building.

“Mirel came through, but you're gonna owe him.” He thrust several packages of Kents at me. I thanked him and shoved them in between the layers of scarf that Liliana had wrapped around my rib cage.

“It looks like you're strapped with ammunition,” said Starfish.

Was that a positive or a negative?

“Listen, I slid a note under the door of Liliana's apartment, letting her family know where she is. If you see them first, send them to the detention facility on Aaron Florian. Maybe they can bribe her out. I'll be heading to the hospitals to look for Luca. In thirty minutes, shout up to the Reporters that you saw me. I'll call home when I can.”

He nodded. “Hey, maybe you should be at the hospital yourself. Your color's awful. I almost didn't recognize you.”

“That's probably a good thing. Just tell me, what am I facing out there?”

“Mixed patrols. Militia men, Secu snipers, patriotic guards, security teams in civilian clothes. It's been a hell of a night. You'll see people hiding in yards, trees, garbage cans. The regime broke through
the blockade at the Intercontinental and they've cut power to specific parts of the capital. Give me info on Jilava. How many protestors were brought there?”

“Hundreds, maybe close to a thousand. They let me out early this morning with a bunch of kids. But there are plenty of young people still there and more were arriving when I left.”

“I heard that students are recruiting people in the Titan and Berceni neighborhoods. Join a group,” said Starfish. “It's too easy to be picked up if you're alone.”

A car sped up to the corner. A man scrambled out and began looking around. Starfish gave a whistle. The passenger door of his car opened and another man appeared. They ran to us.

“I've got a hot one, Starfish. I need to hide him.”

“Okay. Take this guy to ColÅ£ea Hospital. He'll give you a pack of Kents.”

“ColÅ£ea's full.”

“I don't need a doctor,” I told him. “My friend was shot last night in University Square. I think he may be at ColÅ£ea.”

He flapped a hand toward his car. The back was riddled with bullet holes. I jumped in. The driver sped down side streets, avoiding the city center.

“What's been happening?” I asked him.

“The Securitate are working in small groups, bands of assassins,” said the driver. “They've shot hundreds of civilians. I'm told they're taking identity papers and getting rid of the bodies.”

“They shot my friend from a window.”

“Yeah, there are rumors they're using infrared scopes. No one knows what to believe. Don't stand out in the open. Find cover.”

We turned a corner and saw a young man stumbling on the sidewalk, holding his face. We swerved to a stop.

“My eye. They attacked me with a water cannon,” he cried. “It's
bad.” He moved his hand and his glassy eyeball was dangling from the socket.

“No! Keep pressure on it.” The driver jumped out of the car and sent the boy into the back seat. He screamed in pain.

“Just hang on,” I told him. “We're heading to the hospital. We're almost there.”

“As soon as they bandage me up, I need to get back. We set up a new barricade. I have to help my friends. Will you wait for me?” he asked.

I had no time to respond.

The driver pulled up to the hospital. I tossed a package of Kents on the dash.
“Mersi.”
Trails of people snaked around the perimeter of the building:

Lines of injured.

Lines of Romanians giving blood to help the injured.

Lines of student volunteers from the university.

I steered the young man into the line for the wounded.

“Wait for me,” he repeated. “Once they bandage my eye, I have to get back.”

People ran by us shouting and carrying bloodied bodies. Had someone helped Luca?

“I'm sorry. I can't wait for you,” I told the boy. “I'm looking for my friend.”

An orderly walked the line, inspecting wounds. He took one look at the dangling eyeball and pulled us from the group. “Can you help him inside?” the orderly asked me.

We banged through the doors, pushing across tile floors patterned in a mosaic of bloody footprints. The orderly took our names and returned with a nurse.

“Your eye, come with me,” said the nurse. She whisked him out of line.

“I just came for a bandage!” protested the boy. “I need to get back to the barricade.”

“My friend was shot. Can you tell me if he's here?” I asked the orderly.

“I'm too busy. Ask at reception.”

“Show me where that is,” I begged. “Please.”

He pointed in a random direction and disappeared into the crowd.

I made my way through a crush of people to a desk. A woman at the front began to shake. “No. NO! Please, not my boy,” she pleaded. She slid down in a heap and someone carried her to a chair.

“Please, help me,” I pleaded to the desk clerk. “My friend Luca Oprea was shot last night. He's seventeen years old and I think he was brought here.”

The clerk sifted through papers. “What's the name?”

“Oprea, Luca.”

His finger stopped on the page.

“I'm very sorry—”

No.

Luca.

No.

“I'm very sorry, but you can't see him. He's in the critical care unit.”

“What?” I croaked.

“You can't see him.”

“But he's here? He's alive?”

“I don't have details. If you need dressing for your own wounds, there's a volunteer triage down the back hallway. Next, please . . .”

He waved me aside, and I was propelled down the hall with a crowd.

Luca was here. In critical condition. What should I do? Should I wait for him?

I made my way to the triage area. University students were set up with makeshift supplies. A young guy inspected my nose. “Can't really do anything for that, a doctor might have to re-break it.”

I unzipped my coat. “My ribs, can you wrap me up in something tighter?”

“Don't think we should. You need to breathe deeply or you'll get pneumonia. I can give you some pain meds.”

“I'll take them.” And I did. “How long have you been here?” I asked.

“Since nine last night. Hospital staff is totally overwhelmed. Many have never seen gunshot wounds, let alone treated them.”

“HELP ME, NOW!” A Securitate agent in a long black coat burst through a nearby door. One of his arms hung limp, wounded.

“You need to help me!” he yelled.

No one moved.

And then I saw it. He reached into his coat. And pulled out a gun.

BOOK: I Must Betray You
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