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Authors: Ruta Sepetys

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BOOK: I Must Betray You
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78
ŞAPTEZECI ŞI OPT

I slept in my parents' bed. Fever sucked me in and out of mangled dreams. I was fighting at the barricade, dodging bullets, lying in a pool of green paint at Station 14, running through the corridors of Jilava, and reaching for Luca. He reached back with his remaining arm and gently touched my forehead.

My eyes fluttered. The room was dark. My father leaned over the bed, touching my forehead.

“How are you feeling?” he asked.

“Tired.”

He nodded. “You've been sleeping for several hours.”

I closed my eyes, wanting to sleep for several more.

“Liliana's here to see you. Do you feel up to it?”

“Yeah, of course.” I summoned some nonexistent energy and boosted myself up in bed.

A few moments after my father exited, the door opened, and the shadow of Liliana appeared. She moved toward me and sat on the edge of the bed. She set her hand upon mine.

“Bună.”

“Bună.”

I wanted to see her face, sweep her hair from her eyes, and tell her she was safe. I reached beside me and turned on the lamp.

We stared at each other, mouths open.

“Cristian,” she gasped, looking at me. She gently touched the wreckage of my body and the ruin of my face.

I said nothing. I couldn't. Liliana's face was badly bruised and swollen. Her necklace was gone and in its place was a slicing red rope burn circling her neck. “Are you all right?” I asked.

She reached up and slowly pulled the winter hat from her head. Her beautiful, mysterious brown hair—it was hacked off, uneven, and partially shaved. Small scabs patched her scalp.

“Oh my god, Lili. Are you okay?”

She nodded. “I was lucky. But the brother and sister. They're still there.” Her eyes welled.

“This will all be over soon,” I said, not knowing if it was true. We sat in silence, hands clasped.

“You liked my bangs,” she whispered.

“I like your eyes,” I told her. “And now I can finally see them. Your hair, it kinda looks like mine now.”

She laughed and placed a hand on my chest. “You're still wearing my scarf.”

“It smells like you.”

Liliana smiled. She moved her hand to my face. “Are you okay?”

“I'm fine,” I lied.

I was a mess.

It was all a mess.

“Luca,” I said.

“I heard.”

She held up a hand, clean, but shadowed in green paint. “Cristian, how could anyone understand this?” she whispered. A tear fell onto her cheek. “Will they believe us?”

I shrugged, then shook my head.

They wouldn't. They couldn't. But we were there, together. We understood. And Liliana, she understood
me
. And she knew it. She
leaned in to make the point and kissed me. I scooted over on the bed, making room. I wrapped my arms around her and we lay there, sharing the pillow.

An hour passed.

Her breathing slowed to sleep.

Gunfire sounded in the distance.

“I love you,” I whispered.

79
ŞAPTEZECI ŞI NOUĂ

December 24th.

Two days passed and the revolution continued.

Liliana and I sat on Bunu's couch in the kitchen. We alternated listening to reports from Radio Free Europe and watching the newly formed station, Free Romania Television. My father began to speak. He asked us about our experience. He asked us how we felt. He asked if there was anything he could do for us. He said more in two days than he had said in two years. Poor Mama fell silent, frightened, muttering into her ashtray.

“I saw Starfish on the way over,” said Liliana. “He says there are rumors about a discovery at the Ceauşescu's villa. Incredible wealth.”

It was true. And they eventually broadcast it on TV. “Wealth” didn't accurately describe it. Excess, extravagance, greed, and gluttony, those words were more accurate. Countless estates across the country, hundreds of millions salted away in foreign bank accounts. They broadcast a video tour of the homes, including their daughter's, which had a solid gold meat scale and packages of imported veal for her dog.

“I can't bear it,” said Liliana. “We've been suffering for years, existing off scrawny chicken feet, with just one forty-watt light bulb per home. And they've been living like kings. Gourmet food, foreign goods, antiques, jewelry, fur coats, hundreds of pairs of shoes?”

I didn't care about that. Where was Ceauşescu and what was he planning?

Just before 5:00 p.m. the news was announced.

The Ceauşescus had been captured.

Messages of support poured in and were read on the air. A special message from Romania's long-exiled king was broadcast. With heartfelt emotion, King Michael expressed his admiration and congratulated Romanians on our fight for freedom.

French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas pledged humanitarian aid and said he would urge the United States and other countries to do the same.

“The U.S. worked with Ceauşescu for years,” said my father. “What will happen when they learn the truth about him?”

Following mention of the U.S., the radio host cleared his throat.

‹‹Speaking of the United States, an American diplomat sent something to us here at Radio Free Europe. It's a very poignant account from Romania, given to him as a Christmas gift. It's entitled
Screaming Whispers
:
An American Teenager in Bucharest
, authored by Anonymous.››

Liliana and I sat—frozen on the couch.

We didn't move. We didn't look at each other. We didn't utter a sound.

‹‹The pages of
Screaming Whispers
are full of heart, painful truths, and also humor. But above all, we note its courage, to speak such truths plainly and openly.››

“Courage?” snapped Mama. “Foolishness. That's so dangerous.”

I swallowed what felt like a throatful of bullets.

‹‹We'd like to share a piece called “A Letter from Romania” that was included in the very end of the notebook. Although this teenage author is anonymous, the sentiments might feel familiar to many listeners.››

A LETTER FROM ROMANIA

Do you see me?

Squinting beneath the half-light,

Searching for a key to

The locked door of the world,

Lost within my own shadow

Amidst an empire of fear.

Do you feel me?

Heating a brick

To warm my sleep.

Drifting into dreams,

In search of myself,

In search of a conscience, a country.

Do you hear me?

Reciting jokes

Laughing to hide tears of truth

That we are denied the present

With empty promises

Of an emptier future.

Do you pity me?

Lips that know no taste of fruit,

Lonely in a country of millions,

Stumbling toward the gallows

Of bad decisions

While the walls listen and laugh.

Will you remember me?

A boy with wings of hope

Strapped to his back

That never had a chance to open,

Denied forever knowing

What he could have become.

What we all could have become.

Empty static buzzed from the radio.

I sat, unable to move or breathe. A warming presence suddenly pressed in close, surrounding me. Enveloping me. I closed my eyes.

The announcer's voice returned.

‹‹In this notebook, the young author also asks:
If communism is Paradise, why do we need barriers, walls, and laws to keep people from escaping?
A great question indeed. In the days ahead, let us not forget these sentiments as we reflect upon communism's aim to create a man without a memory.››

The broadcast continued.

Liliana turned to me, trembling, tears streaming down her face.

My father cleared emotion from his throat. “That letter was very moving. Something your grandfather would have loved.”

Bunu.

I sat on his couch fighting a rush of tears. My stubbornness, my defiance, my letter, it was all inspired by Bunu. And he had heard it. I felt him.

“Actually, it was accurate,” admitted my mother. “The mention of no taste of fruit—we haven't had any for years.”

“I loved it. I really loved it,” said Liliana, squeezing my hand.

I wondered what Cici would have said about my letter. I assumed she hadn't been home since I saw her at the hospital.

But that night, I found her locked box and key in my closet. Inside was a note:

Take care of yourself. And please—be careful, Cristian. A revolution eats its heroes.

80
OPTZECI

December 25th.

Christmas Day. 1989.

The Ceauşescus’ trial lasted less than two hours. The chief military judge delivered the verdict in minutes. Crimes against the people. Genocide—guilty. Sentenced to death.

4:00 p.m. Executed.

Beloved Leader and Mother Elena, shot by firing squad near a military toilet block. Their death was televised. I stood, staring at their crumpled bodies on the gritty screen. After decades of prolonged suffering, the hasty finality felt confusing somehow. Was that how it was supposed to end? So quickly? I suddenly had an odd, lingering sensation, unsure of what I was feeling. Did we have the full truth? What exactly had happened—and how?

And then, a smell. I couldn’t quite place it. And the noise, a pounding at first, filtered into my ears. Was it my own breath and heartbeat? And then I realized. No, it was the desperate scent of long-trapped prayers beating against the walls and windows, tripping over photographs of dead relatives, trying to find a way out.

I ran across the room and threw open a window.

To finally set them free.

1
UNU

Merry Christmas,” smiled Liliana.

“Merry Christmas.”

My breath smoked on the air. Sure, the apartment might have been warmer, especially now, with fewer heat restrictions. But we had more privacy in the hallway. So we sat, huddled next to each other against the wall.

She passed me a narrow box.

“A new rib?” I grinned.

“Sorry, couldn’t find one quick enough. Open it.”

I removed the lid. Inside was a pen. A sleek, black ballpoint pen from Germany. It was so special, much nicer than anything I owned. I looked to her.

“Keep writing, Cristian. You have a lot to say.”


Mersi.
I love it. I have something for you too.” I lifted the small bag next to me. “First, this.” I reached inside the bag and handed her the colorful square. She unfolded it carefully.

“Springsteen! And it’s in English!
Uau
, where did you get it?”

“A pal gave it to me.”

“What’s a pal?” she asked.

I paused, thinking of Dan Van Dorn. “It’s an American term. It means ‘friend.’ ”

“It’s great. I love it.”

“I have something else.” I dipped my hand into the bag, held it there for suspense, then revealed the shiny plastic package with grand ceremony.

“What are those?” She laughed.

“They’re called Twinkies. They’re American too.”

“Should we eat one?”

“Of course we should.” I pulled off the cellophane wrapper. Liliana took one of the yellow cakes and I took the other.


Unu
 . . .
doi
 . . .”

On “
trei
” we both took a big bite. We watched each other, chewing and laughing.

“Oh! There’s whipped cream inside,” she said.

A dot of vanilla fluff lingered on the side of Liliana’s mouth. I leaned in and kissed it away, hovering close to her. “Merry Christmas,” I whispered.

“Merry Christmas, Cristian.”

For years, life had felt frozen thick, obscured, like looking through a window blinded with ice. I slowly exhaled a chestful of emptiness and inhaled a breath of possibility. We each took another bite. The Twinkies weren’t spectacular, but in that moment, sitting in the hallway next to Liliana on Christmas Day, they tasted like something we had never experienced:

Spectacular hope.

EPILOGUE
EPILOG

How long does it take to uncover the truth? For me it took more than twenty years. I was teaching English and Liliana was managing a bookstore. Luca had emigrated to England with his parents.

The Securitate Archives, CNSAS, contained over twenty-six kilometers of files—sixteen miles. And those were just the surviving files. After Ceauşescu’s execution, many of the Secu files disappeared. So did some of the agents. But communism didn’t disappear, not for many years. A group of second-tier communists took over. The Van Dorns never returned to Romania, but I’m still in occasional touch with Dan. And guess what? Disneyland is a real place. I’ve been there. But I’ve never developed a taste for coffee.

When the Securitate Archives were finally opened, Liliana and I agreed that I needed to see my family’s files. There were still so many unanswered questions. My parents were no longer alive. I needed the truth.

They had found Cici’s body the day after Christmas. Dumped between two buildings; beaten, bent, and buckled with bullets. The revolution had taken my sister. But until I saw the files, I never knew what had really happened.

I was contacted by CNSAS when the Securitate files were “ready” for me.

I arrived in the reading room to find five massive stacks of decaying papers. Each stack held hundreds of pages wedged between a flimsy cardboard cover and a string binding. Our family wasn’t famous or infamous like some, but regardless, I estimated our files to be about three thousand pages. That’s the equivalent of ten three-hundred-page novels.

It took me many visits to get through them. The files, they were poisonous, disrupting my life and my conscience. Photos from hidden cameras, transcripts from the listening devices in our apartment. Countless reports on Bunu. Over fifty different people had informed on our family. The extent of the surveillance was shocking.

And haunting.

As was my unknown role in it.

When we don’t know the full story, sometimes we create one of our own. That’s what I had done.

And that can be dangerous.

But I didn’t realize my error—until I saw the reports from a source called MARIA.

BOOK: I Must Betray You
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