Authors: Ruta Sepetys
We walked through the frozen dark toward the bus stop. Sleet ticked against my jacket and the cold crept through my shoes. My mother's eyes darted. She clutched her purse, digging her elbow into it. I felt bad for the purse.
And I wondered how much she knew.
“Dan showed me a video today,” I said quietly. “His friends in America have their own video camera. They filmed a greeting at their house and sent a tape to him.”
My mother said nothing.
“Did you see their color TV and video player?” I asked.
“I don't look at their things; I just clean them. It's none of my business.”
My mother had worked for the Van Dorns since June. After several months, she had seen much more than I had. What did she think of the disparity? Mama had seen movies from the West. How long had she known that the lives depicted on-screen weren't fantasy? Did she ever question why other people ate bananas while we lived in a charcoal wasteland?
“In the video, his friends were in a kitchen. Mama, the foodâ”
“It's none of your business. I don't want you picking me up
anymore. You shouldn't be interacting with a foreigner. You'll be questioned by the Securitate.”
Should I tell her?
It's already happened. I'm a turnÄtor. I'm informing for them, Mama. They knew I was coming to the apartment today. Tomorrow, Agent Paddle Hands will probably be waiting for me after school. They think I'm a good comrade. But I'm going to beat their game. I'm going to get medicine that will save Bunu.
What would she say if I told her that? How could my mother dismiss everything that was right under her nose? How could my parents accept life under the regime's heel, crushed and pushed further into the dirt each day, eating nothing but lies and fear?
“Don't you want better for your children?” I asked.
She stopped abruptly and faced me. Her chimney of patience began to smoke.
“Don't you dare tell me what I should want for my children. This is not a game, Cristian. It's dangerous. There's no use dreaming of things we can never have.”
“Who says we can never have them?”
“Me! I'm telling you! We can never have them!”
Finally. She was angry. “Good, at least you're expressing some emotion.”
“You know what I'm expressing, Cristi? Exhaustion. Your father and I, we're so tired. We work constantly and when we're not working, we're standing in lines. We're never home. We're never together. And there's nothing we can do about it.”
“You're wrong. They steal our power by making us believe we don't have any. They're controlling us through our own fear.”
Her palm cracked against my cheek. Hard. She spoke through gritted teeth.
say things like that. Do you want to end up
like your grandfather? Can you even imagine what that's done to our family?”
What? She was mad at Bunu for having leukemia? That made no sense.
Before I could reply she stormed down the slick, black pavement.
Thinking words. Speaking words. Writing words.
Writing things down helped the most. Seeing my thoughts on a page, it positioned them at a helpful distance, out of my head and mouth. Processing. That's the English word I found for it. Processing helped me evaluate and sort things out. So I sat in my closet and made notes.
Mama's face is permanently pinched. She's mad at Bunu for getting sick.
Dad's a ghost and poor Cici gets skinnier by the day.
If I poke her stomach I bet I'd feel her spine.
Bunu's the happiest and he has leukemia.
Isn't the Florescu family fun?!
The teachers were right. I was sarcastic.
But our family felt gloomier than most. Or maybe I was the gloomy one.
Seeing the video from Dan's friendsâso many bananasâit made me mad, sad.
Had a dream about Liliana last night.
What does she dream about?
It was Friday. I knew what was coming. If the agent was waiting for me, he'd want a report. Should I tell him that I slipped and mentioned the library to Dan? I was debating. Could it work in my favor? Make me appear honest?
I would have to wait and leave again without anyone noticing. Especially Liliana. We generally didn't interact in school. She was quiet, private, like me. So we communicated secretly in the halls: a sly smile, an accidental brush of hands. But after the exchange in her apartment, I had wanted to walk her home. I wanted to see her. Almost as much as I wanted to kiss her.
What if I skipped the meeting with the agent? I could make some odd excuse.
Speaking of odd, how did the agent circulate so close to school? Was he seen? Did he park his black Dacia out front? The secretary saw me meeting with the agent. She knew I was an informer. Did she tell anyone?
The crumbly old secretary. She was an informer too.
Comrade Instructor stood at the head of the room, droning on about calculus. I had found new English terms to describe the weak light in our classroom: feeble, piss yellow. Above the foggy chalkboard sat CeauÅescu, smirking down at us from his golden frame. When we were younger, the portrait was used as a disciplinary tool.
“Mind yourself. Beloved Leader is watching. He sees everything, you know.”
The picture in our classroom was the old, one-eared portrait of our hero. His head was positioned in three-quarter profile, so we only saw one of his ears. In Romania, calling someone “one-eared” is an
expression for crazy or insane. Whispered jokes must have traveled down Victory Avenue because in most locations, the old portraits were now replaced with a two-eared version of our leader.
An absent classmate suddenly appeared at the doorâthe loner kid with the ratty brown scarf. He gave our instructor a note and took his seat. He looked ill, his face the color of milk. He couldn't stop fidgeting. He was either going to throw up or pass out. I watched, waiting to find out. It was definitely more interesting than calculus. After several minutes he rocketed from his chair, waving his arms and stuttering like a madman.
“No! No! NO!”
“Comrade Nistor, sit down this instant,” yelled the teacher.
He didn't sit down. He turned, wild eyed, to the class, gripping and pulling at his own hair. He began to cry. Students gasped in alarm.
“Comrade Nistor. Compose yourself!”
“I can't. I can't. Do you know?”
“Know what?” asked a girl.
His hands began to vibrate and then his entire body quaked with convulsion.
“THAT I'M AN INFORMER!!!”
The temperature in the cold classroom dropped further into frozen silence.
No one tried to console him. No one made a sound.
Comrade Instructor pointed to the door. Our classmate stumbled to it, sobbing, and left.
The lesson resumed.
And that's when it hit me:
The teacher must be an informer. He informed on the students.
The school director was an informer. He informed on the teachers.
The secretary was an informer. She informed on the school director.
Luca was an informer. He informed on me.
I was an informer. I informed on Americans.
How naive. Had I really thought that Luca and I were the only student informers? There were probably many.
And then my stomach seized.
Wait, was Liliana an informer?
I lingered after school, but Comrade Director didn't approach me.
Was it because of our classmate's outburst? Did the agent retreat, fearing that students would be paying closer attention? Although I had thought about skipping the meeting with the agent, I realized that I was failing my original mission.
Medicine for Bunu.
If I didn't see the agent, I wouldn't get any medicine.
I walked home, my mind tangled with predicament and paranoia. I empathized with the student who had the outburst. It could have been me. And I did nothing to console him. I sat there, hollow-faced and hollow-hearted, relieved when Comrade Instructor ordered him from the room. What would happen to him now? And what was happening to me?
While waiting after school, I had missed the chance to walk home with Liliana. Had she heard what happened in class? As much as I wanted to, I couldn't brush the question from my mind. Were there signs that Liliana was an informer? Maybe. She was quiet. Private. She asked odd questions. And the very first day we walked home together, she was behind me, which meant she left school after I did. Which could meanâ
She had been meeting with the Secu herself.
Did Liliana care about me or did she just need information? I
could have smacked myself. What sort of hypocrite was I to even ponder that question?
I approached our building and saw Cici on the sidewalk. She rushed to join me. “I've been waiting for you. We can't talk inside.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“Something happened. I'm not sure when or how. Someone came to see Bunu.”
I thought of the old man with the spongy nose. His message about coffee. When I told Bunu, he had just shrugged and said, “I already knew that.”
“Was it the friend he plays chess with?” I asked.
“I don't know. I wasn't there. But Bunu isÂ .Â .Â . improving.
, do you think someone negotiated treatments or medicine? And if so, how?”
“Medicine?” I tried to appear deep in consideration. “Have you checked the supply of Kents?”
“Yes, they're still there. But it got me thinking. Bunu is alone all day. How would we know if anyone was coming see him?”
“Why would it matter? Bunu has friends.”
“Mama wouldn't want Bunu having meetings at the apartment.”
I thought of Mama's comment about Bunu. “Cici, instead of being sad, Mama seems angry that Bunu has leukemia. Isn't that strange to you?”
Before Cici could reply, a darkened silhouette appeared. Starfish.
“Cici, my lady, hope to see you at video night this weekend?”
“Sorry, I'm busy.”
“Ah, that's right. You have a date with Alex.”
I turned to Cici. “Alex Pavel?” Alex was Liliana's brother.
“You didn't know?” sneered Starfish. “I thought you two worked it out together. Family business.”
“Shut up, Starfish. He just asked me ten minutes ago,” said Cici.
“Yeah, and he's pretty excited about it. He says you asked him.”
“Get lost. I'm trying to talk to my brother.”
“That's the other reason I waited for you. I know you've been spending time with Liliana. If it's weird for me to go out with Alex, I won't.”
I hesitated. “It's a little weird.”
“Okay. I'll cancel.”
And then I felt bad. Most guys wanted to date Cici, but she never wanted to date them. Alex was arrogant, but if she wanted to go out with him, I didn't want to stop her.
“No, don't cancel. It's fine.”
“Are you sure,
? It's not a big deal.”
“Yeah, I'm sure.”
Is that why Alex had glanced at me in that morning line? He planned to ask my sister on a date?
“How was school today?” she asked.
The story had probably circulated. “Strange,” I whispered. “A kid in class had a complete breakdown. He stood up and shouted to everyone that he's an informer.”
“What?” Her face pulled with alarm. “Did you know?”
“I had no idea.”
“Stay away from him,
. Far away.” She wrung her hands with concern. “And surely, he's not the only student who's an informer. See, this is why Mama and I constantly tell you to stay quiet. You never know who's watching and reporting.”
Guilt rose within my already sour stomach.
“You're right,” I said. “You never know.”
Instead of lying on the couch, Bunu was standing in the kitchen, fiddling with our broken radio.
“Feeling better?” I asked.
“I'll feel better when we have the radio. I need some air. Help me out to the balcony.”
I put my arm around Bunu and guided him toward the sliding glass door.
“Romania is so efficient in the winter,” said Bunu. “Such a timesaver, not having to put on a coat.”
I laughed. Breath fogged from my mouth. We never put on coats because we never took them off.
“Shut the door,” said my grandfather. “Don't want to make it colder out here.” He smirked.
“Bunu,” I whispered. “In Romania, what's colder than cold water?”
“Hot water.” He smiled. “I'm surprised you remember that one.”
I glanced across the street to Liliana's building. Liliana mentioned she'd seen me on the balcony. How often was she watching?
Bunu cleared his throat. “Something's brewing,” he said. “I can feel it. But we need the radio to hear the updates and plans.”
“You mean the restructuring plan? The one they mentioned on Radio Free Europe?”
“Perestroika? Bah,” Bunu scoffed. “Maybe in other countries. But
not here. CeauÅescu would never allow that in Romania. That would dilute his authority.” Bunu shook his head with frustration. “This five-foot-nothing man has absolute mental control over twenty-three million people. And his wife is part of that power. We have two dictators and they've insulated and trapped us.”
“Some don't seem to mind.” I shrugged.
“That's because we've been ruled for decades with such totality that it's impossible for most to imagine anything different. But I'm older. I've been exposed to more. I've traveled. I know what's out there. But you, my dear boyâyou're young. This cult of communism, what is this life doing to you and people your age?”
“Boosting our endurance, I guess.”
“Really?” Bunu's voice strained. “Is that what it's doing? Or is it corroding your judgment and vision?” The emotion behind his words caused him to cough. I put my arm around him until he steadied.
“Cristian, I have to tell you something. Someone brought me a package recently.”
I waited, uncertain how to reply.
“Apparently word has traveled that I've beenÂ .Â .Â . unwell. It's attracted attention.”
I was an idiot.
Did I really think that Paddle Hands would give me medicine for Bunu during our meeting? No. He'd send someone. To spy further. But if Bunu received medicine, did that mean the agent felt I was delivering?
The Van Dorns' apartment. It was definitely bugged. Maybe the agent heard me asking about the American Library. But if he was tracking my every move, why did I need to meet and report to him?
My head was spinning.
Bunu looked over the balcony and again shook his head. “Evil Secu. This regime couldn't exist without them. And this black bat who
lives beneath us has the entire apartment to himself. All that space, but so much merchandise he stores some on the balcony?”
“You think he has ration limits of five eggs per month?”
“He probably craps five eggs per morning,” said Bunu. “Agents. Informers. Rats. This country is full of them. We're infested. And they keep multiplying. They're in our streets, in our schools, crawling in the workplace, and now they've chewed through the walls”âBunu looked directly at meâ“into our apartment.”
I gripped the balcony railing. Panic hissed throughout my body.
Bunu stared at me. “Yes,” he whispered. “An informer. In
apartment. Right here. Can you imagine that, Cristian? And suddenly medicine appears. But at what cost?”
“Shh. Say nothing. I'm the only one who's figured it out. It's too painful to discuss. Besides, I have no idea what I swallowed. For all I know, it's the breath that blows out the candle.” Bunu shuffled toward the door and I helped him inside. His grumbling voice echoed in the darkness.
“You know what, Cristian? Dante was wrong. Hell isn't hot. It's cold.”