In a suspense filled journey behind the Iron Curtain, the discovery of a mysterious young girl alone in the city leads a pair of women to become unfortunately entangled with the secret police. When separate events come together to reveal the girl’s true identity, the past joins with the present to alter the future of everyone involved.
With barely any sleep, I made my way to work. The air in the office was thick and sticky, heat blasted from the vents in the ceiling and the windows were covered with sweat. My co-workers were stripped down to the lowest layer they could decently go, I followed their cue. One of the mailroom clerks pushed his heavily loaded cart past my desk, his face was red, his brow wet with moisture.
“What’s up with the heat?” I asked.
“The furnace is on the fritz again,” he wiped his face with the back of his forearm then handed over a stack of wildly crumpled envelopes.
I flipped through them casually. Several had been marked with a thick black pen, others showed evidence of having been savagely opened and later resealed. “Looks like somebody was in a bad mood yesterday.”
“I believe it’s their job,” he laughed as he trudged onward with his cart.
My eyes kept wandering toward the clock. I cursed that stupid clock. How could it really only have been ten minutes when it felt as though it couldn’t have possibly been any less than two hours? Time is a strange thing. Logically speaking a minute is a minute, and all minutes are supposed to be the same but our perception of time can make one minute pass so quickly it seems never to have existed or make the same minute feel as though it will never end.
I passed the time trying to imagine what they were doing back at the apartment. I could feel my eyes well up. I wiped them quickly, hoping no one would notice. They would be long gone by the time I got home. I knew in all likelihood I would never see Thomas or the kids ever again. Anja warned the boys several times about trying to come back. “It’s too dangerous now,” she said, “far too dangerous.” She must have repeated that phrase a half dozen times. She said it so many times I felt she was almost daring them to come back and was secretly hoping they would.
As the clock struck 9:30, a clanking metal noise came from the furnace room followed by a long string of profanity. A loud suck of air pulled through the vents. Everyone looked to the ceiling. The vent fell silent. The boiler room door burst open and the head maintenance man rushed out into the office.
“Everyone out, everyone out!” He said waving his hands in giant, frenetic circles. We stood motionless, unable to see the relationship between ourselves and the man in grease covered overalls running wildly through the office. “Gas leak! Gas leak!” He yelled even louder, frustrated by the lack of response.
I grabbed my things, and rushed toward the exit with everyone else. Most people funneled to the stairwell but a few stopped to wait for the elevator, further incensing the maintenance man. “Aaaaaare you people crazy?” he yelled swatting his hands toward them, he looked like a cranky, old rancher trying to get his unruly cattle to move along. “Use the stairs! Use the stairs!”
After having spent the better part of the morning in the sweltering heat of the office, the air outside felt brisk and refreshing. Initially, there was a buzz of excitement, the same excitement felt by school children when a fire alarm is sounded. Adrenaline pumps through their system with the thought that the situation may actually be real, real and probably dangerous. When they realize it’s just a drill, they still relish in the fact that the monotony of a school day had been unexpectedly broken by a trip outside with friends. But eventually the excitement fades and standing outside with nothing to do starts to become less of a thrill and more of an inconvenience. After about twenty minutes time, that was the feeling shared by most everyone from the office.
The once refreshing morning air became cold and uncomfortable and we stamped around trying to warm ourselves in the sunless, shaded sidewalk in front of the building. Our full attention was directed toward the main doors as they were pushed open in unison. The security guard that usually manned the front desk lumbered out onto the sidewalk, his hands crossed over his chest. He reviewed the crowd, moving his head slowly and methodically, he would demand complete silence and attention before he would honor us with whatever information he held. When he finally felt satisfied, he cleared his throat and started speaking in an unnecessarily official tone. “Ladies and gentlemen,” his chin held high, perhaps he did that because it made him feel more superior, or perhaps he’d been told that the angle made his neck appear more slender. “It has come to my attention,” he said, pausing dramatically, “that the problem upstairs will require additional time to repair.”
A collective sigh emanated from the crowd. The security guard breathed heavily and again cleared his throat, this time it sounded a bit forced and I suspected it was an attempt to remind us that he would not continue speaking until we were silent and he had our full attention. “The good news is,” he said, “that we should, and I repeat should, have things back to normal within the hour.”
There was no more grumbling as everyone seemed pleased with the second part of the announcement. People started to pair off and excuse themselves to go walk around the block, walk to the park, or run a few errands. I thought I might as well use the time to get something quick to eat at the grocery around the corner. The store was small and dirty and they never had anything good, but it was the only place close enough to walk during working hours.
The store seemed to be more crowded than usual for and I figured they must have gotten something in or perhaps there had just been a loose rumor. Food rumors were to be taken very seriously even though there was always a good chance they were just that, a rumor. You simply did not have the luxury of dismissing a rumor, no matter how impossible or implausible it might seem. I often found it curious that people weren’t more upset when they’d made all the effort to get something only to find that it had never existed in the first place. Apparently disappointment was a reality that we had all come to accept.
Besides, in the moments that we chased the rumors we were allowed a chance to dream. To imagine what it would be like to be lucky, lucky enough to have heard the rumor first, lucky enough to be close enough to the point of distribution to make it to the front of the line. That spot of luck might change everything. From that point forward you might be considered lucky, your luck might continue, it might overflow to the next time there was a rumor, the next time a good job came open, the next time a good apartment became available. You lived for the moment the store owner placed the coveted item in your hand then turned to face the people behind you, the people less lucky, the people whose luck might completely evaporate as soon as they got their turn at the counter. You passed them trying not to make eye contact, trying not to look into the faces full of hope, full of anxiety. They wanted to be lucky too. Most people didn’t really even care what they might be in line for, half the time they didn’t even know what they were in line for. It didn’t matter, it was all just about validating how lucky you were. How much the universe loved you.
The little store started to fill rapidly, people stood shoulder to shoulder, squeezing in where there was room, and squeezing harder where there was not. I asked the woman trying desperately not to crush me with her bag what everyone was waiting for. “I don’t know,” she laughed. “I had been waiting down the street for apples,” a wide smile crossed her face. “Can you imagine? Apples? Apples! They said they would have apples! I can’t remember the last time I ate an apple.” She raised her free hand to her mouth, opening it wide to take a bite of her imaginary apple. Her eyes closed and she inhaled dreamily, experiencing the cold, crisp, juicy sensation that could only be brought about by an apple. She laughed and opened her bag to reveal the contents. There were no apples. “I just followed some of the other ladies here. I really have no idea what they’re even supposed to have.”
The crowd pulsated, I was near the back of the store without much hope of getting out, people continued to filter through the front, ignoring the pleas of the storekeeper who was frantically trying to wave them away. The heat soon became stifling. I pulled at the door of the nearest cooler, the inside shared the same smell that could be found in a deli where strong meats and fine cheeses were stored in the open, or possibly the smell of a dairy, where the bittersweet mixture of soured milk and fresh manure could always be found. Yes, that was it. It smelled like a dairy, exactly like a dairy.
I was well familiar with such a smell after having visited a dairy at least once a week with my mother when I was young. You would bring your container into a pasteurizing room where a giant vat of milk resided. While filling your bottle, milk would inevitably overflow and pool on the floor, waiting, growing sour, for someone to wash it away. If you got there at the right time, you could watch the cows file in, walking dutifully to their stations. They nibbled on hay while cold, metal suction devices were attached to each nipple, the milk sucked from them, flowing into tubes that whisked it off into collective storage. Normally only certain people were allowed to go directly through the farmer but somehow my mother had obtained permission. There were several reasons that made the trip desirable, of course the milk was fresh and readily available but most importantly, my mother liked to go directly to the farm for the thick, rich cream that formed on top of the milk once it had settled. A delicacy that even the most exaggerated food rumor couldn’t produce.
Someone pressed hard against me and my knees were forced into the edge of the refrigeration unit. “Excuse me!” I snapped, turning around to see a near riot unfolding at the front of the store. Apparently it was not just a rumor, the highly sought after item appeared to be some sort of tinned sardines. The storeowner looked nervous, and I soon understood why he had been so enthusiastic about trying to wave people away. His wife presented only two small boxes on the counter, she struggled to open them amidst the chaos, hands were flung in the air, pushing, shoving, a low buzz of voices floated above the thronging crown. From where I stood, it appeared there would only be enough to satisfy about half of the people in line.
I felt another hard push from behind, only this time I was being taken through the crowd, past its edge. I ducked as I was shoved through the curtain separating the storage area from the rest of the store. The entry to the space was small and our bodies were pushed tight against one another with no room to separate. A large, strong hand placed itself quickly over my mouth. I recognized the sweet, dry, musky smell of after-shave from the day before. I looked up into the same eyes that had met mine in the interrogation room. But this time they weren’t shy, they were intense and serious. He held the finger of his free hand to his lips. “I have something very important to tell you, but we must hurry.” He dropped the hand that had been covering my mouth, his face scrunched up apologetically, “Sorry. I didn’t want you to scream. I was sure you were going to scream.”
“It’s okay.” I said coyly, feeling as though I had just been transported to a secondary school dance where butterflies fluttered in my stomach as I watched the cutest boy in the class walk across the room toward me. Up until that moment I’d found anyone having anything to do with the police quite repulsive, they were usually small men with something to prove, perhaps the type that might be drawn to bodybuilding or bar room fighting. But Marko was different. He didn’t seem to be anything like the rest of them, not anything at all, and I couldn’t help but wonder how he’d managed to land himself in such an incredibly unsuitable profession.
“Friedrich’s gone back to your building, and he’s taken a bunch of the guys with him.”
“What?” I nearly shouted. “But why?”
“Shhhhhhhht!” He threw his hand firmly into the air, the way a crossing guard might direct a fast approaching driver to come to a stop. He peered through the slit in the curtain to make sure no one on the other side had heard me. “You have to be more quiet!”
I nodded, lowering my head in embarrassment.
“Someone keeps calling the dispatch.”
He was speaking so low, I could barely hear him. I stood on my toes to reach nearer to his ear, bringing me closer to that source of that heavenly smell that could be found wherever he went, “I can barely hear you!”
The noise outside grew louder, there was another world going in the store, the low rumble of humanity, on a quest for self-preservation, shuffling, shrieking, bartering, begging. We weren’t part of any of that, a thick, floral tapestry separated us from the uncivilized. He put his hands on my arms pulling me even closer, leaning into me so he could speak directly into my ear. I tried to form the warm breath of his voice into words.
“I said,” he nearly shouted, “someone has been calling our dispatch all morning.”
I pulled back. I wanted to see his face.
Of course I knew why, I wanted to see if he thought I knew why. He pulled me closer again. “They’ve claimed there were unfamiliar voices in your building,” he released my arms somewhat and pulled back, “children’s voices.”
He looked at me intently, thoughtfully, but in the way you look at someone that you feel you may have caught in a lie but aren’t completely sure and can’t decide what to believe. His eyes looked deep into mine, still thinking, still trying to decide what to think. I could tell he wanted to know if he’d made the right decision to warn me.
“But there are not any children missing. How is it possible that we could be hiding children that aren’t even missing?”
His expression didn’t change, he waited, he wanted me to say more.
“But, you saw for yourself there was no one there.”
“Look,” he said, I know what you’re doing.” He tilted his head sympathetically. “I know you and your neighbor are just trying to help that little girl.”
I could feel my throat tighten, I wanted to swallow, I tried to swallow but there seemed to be a softball sized lump preventing me from doing so.
“But how? How do you know?” I wondered why I was even asking, of course they knew, they knew everything. “Then why are you…?” I choked up again, I could feel my cheeks flush and was hoping they weren’t as bright hot as they felt.
His expression suddenly looked so kind, so warm and intelligent. “Why am I what?”
“Why are you helping me? Why are you warning me about Friedrich?”
He shrugged and half smiled. “I just have a feeling you aren’t doing anything wrong.”
He seemed so real, so genuine, but the circumstances made it hard for me to believe he was real, hard to believe he could possibly be so genuine. What if he was setting me up? What if this was all part of some weird, twisted game Friedrich was playing. A wave of paranoia washed over me and it felt as though the walls of the tiny space were starting to close in, the curtains seemed to grow thicker, the shelves fuller.
“I just don’t know if I can trust you,” I snapped, immediately wishing I could take it back.
He looked disappointed,
“I hope you realize how dangerous this is for me to be doing this.”
I felt terrible. I did realize how dangerous it was. At the same time I realized I didn’t want our weird, claustrophobic moment in the storage closet to end. He turned away from me, carefully drawing back the edge of the curtain to see what was going on the other side. Once he was sure no one was paying attention, he pushed me out into the store, the curtain swept me across the face as I passed under it. I hadn’t been expecting to be dismissed so abruptly, it was so impersonal. I felt so foolish, so dejected. I didn’t turn back to see if he was planning to follow. The store was still crowded, although slightly less so, the lucky ones were already well on their way, the ones that lingered still hadn’t come to grips with the fact that they were not favored by the universe. I pushed my way through to the exit and hurried back to the office.
My chest was tight, my joints stiff, my head swimming, I felt disconnected, both watching and acting in the events that were unfolding around me. Somehow I’d become the unwitting star of a play for which I had never auditioned. The inside of the building was now ice-cold, the windows that had earlier been steamed over were flung open and covered in a thin layer of frost. A strong scent of natural gas clung to the air. I went straight to my boss’s office to ask for a long lunch.
He had started only a few weeks earlier and I was still trying to feel him out. So far he’d presented only positive attributes; he seemed nice enough, he wasn’t at all lecherous and his breath didn’t reek of alcohol by ten in the morning. Although he was a rather plain, simple man someone had reportedly seen him out at a café with an incredibly attractive woman that was believed to have been wife. The office had been abuzz with the news, some finding it completely implausible, others speculating on the various ways it would have been possible for him to marry so far above his station.
He‘d been writing something at his desk when I entered the office and stopped to look up,. His wire-framed glasses hadn’t moved with the rest of his face and when he looked at me over them I felt the embarrassment of a grade school child asking permission to use the bathroom in the middle of instruction. His hand held tight to the pen, not moving from the spot where it had come to rest when he was interrupted. I asked if I could take a bit more time over lunch. His eyes blinked indifferently and I knew I would have to make my case more compelling. I explained that I needed to take care of an issue at the housing office, certain that he knew I was lying.
“As long as you get your work done before you go home, I don’t really care what you do,” a tight, wily smile crossed his face and his eyes became lively. There was definitely something more to this man than met the eye and for just an instant I thought I saw what the attractive woman from the café might have seen in him.
I bolted from the office, and practically ran the entire distance to the subway station. The sidewalks were jammed with people, bumbling along slowly, too slowly. I pushed my way between pairs and worked myself out onto the street slipping between cars and trying to avoid the long lines that strung out of the shops. The midday traffic at the station was almost unbearable. I forced my way onto the train just as the doors were closing. My slight presence seemed to upset the natural order of the carriage and I found myself surrounded by a ring of angry, glaring eyes that had suddenly come to life. The group of passengers who stood nearest pushed toward me, forcing me into the lowest level of the cramped stairwell in an obvious attempt to make their ride more comfortable, and mine decidedly less.
These people, these subway people, these selfish, heartless people that peered out of cold, empty eyes could not be found anywhere else in the city. Not on the streets, not in the market, nor in the workplace. Yet they were, they were the same people, the very same people that walked the streets, frequented the shops and shared conversations near the water cooler. Mass transit brought out the very worst in people. A short trip on the train became survival of the fittest, the pushiest, the most aggressive.
Outside the station, the same slow moving mass that I had dealt with earlier continued to block my way. I took several deep, cleansing breaths and tried to be patient. I darted side to side trying to position myself in the path that would give me the least amount of resistance, but nevertheless found myself feeling again and again that I hadchosen the wrong line at the grocery store. When I finally rounded the corner to my building, I could see from across the street that a pair of Friedrich’s men were already in the garden. One standing, the other sitting casually in the very spot I’d discovered Evie just a few days earlier. I looked down the street ahead of me, there were at least two more milling in front of the newspaper stand that stood opposite our building. They didn’t act like they were watching our apartments, or watching anything for that matter. I was wishfully hoping it was just a coincidence they were there.
I looked to the side of our building. The sun shined hard on the windows and shimmery, triangular rainbows reflected off the tiny prism Anja had hanging from one of the frames. I thought I could see movement behind the thin, linen curtains that hung over the kitchen sink. Don’t panic, I thought, that’s just Anja, of course Anja is there, why wouldn’t she be there, everything is fine. The curtain moved slightly, someone was trying to peek through it without being seen. I hoped she was alone, that Thomas and the children were long gone. But I could tell by the height of the shadow that whoever was trying to see out was much taller than Anja. Why hadn’t they left earlier? They should have at least gone to the cellar before it got so late in the morning. Until then, I had always so admired Anja’s defiant attitude, but today, I believed it might finally have caught up with her.
I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t just leave. Could I? Yes? No? I didn’t know. I tried to calm my mind. Okay, okay. Anja will be fine, I thought, if Thomas and the kids are still there, she can just have them go back into the hiding space. Everything is fine. Yes, everything is fine.
I stopped in front of the shop that ran kitty corner to our building. Why were the police just standing around? If they really thought something was going on inside, why hadn’t they gone in? Or maybe they had. Maybe it was one of their shadow’s I’d seen through the curtain. No, no, no, no, no! I squeezed my hands together quickly, pumping them, trying to calm myself, to regulate my heart beat or something, something, I had to do something besides just stand there.
The was a disturbance in the flow of the traffic on the sidewalk, someone was pushing their way through the crowd, a large bulky figure broke free from the pack and walked briskly toward me. I recognized the man in the Trooper hat and twice layered scarves almost immediately. It was Peter. I felt a great sense of relief. Anja had said that he would know what to do if the girl’s grandmother never returned. Maybe he would know what to do now. I raised my hand to get his attention. He looked right past me and kept walking. Pausing at the curb he checked traffic then trotted across the street to the garden where he kept moving to the back, to the arbor where the police were sitting. What was he doing ? What was he doing talking to the police? I felt sick to my stomach.
I wished I could somehow warn Anja about him, to tell her I had been right to have doubted him. Could I just go to her apartment? Would she answer? Was she even still there? I crossed the street and walked up to our steps, I still wasn’t sure what to do, I wasn’t sure if I should do anything. If Peterwas actually working with the police, I thought, I was already too late, it was over.
The two agents standing by the newsstand looked bored but anxious. They were waiting for something to happen, they wanted something to happen. One of them looked up from his paper just as I neared the bottom of the stairs. I stopped, my mind became blank. I stood frozen, one hand on the railing, unable to move, not quite sure what I was going to do next or why I was even there in the first place. I couldn’t keep myself from looking at him. Our eyes locked, he snapped the paper together, folded it sloppily and put it back on the rack. He exchanged a few words with his partner who held a menacing stare while he dropped his cigarette to the sidewalk and lowered his foot on top of the still smoldering ashes. He pressed down, grinding the bottom of his shoe into the concrete, turning again and again until there was nearly no trace of the cigarette left.
I could hear one of them call out to the others in the garden as they crossed the street. I started down the sidewalk in the opposite direction. Their footsteps quickened behind me. This was good I thought, completely insane, but good. I was doing just what needed to be done. I had to get them away, far away from the building. All I could think about was taking them away from Anja, away from Thomas, away from the Evie and the boys. The steps behind me grew closer until they surrounded me. I instantly recognized the sharp clicking noise that could only have been made by Friedrich’s tap soled shoes.
“Fancy meeting you here.”
“What are you talking about?” I snapped.
“Nice try,” he scoffed, “but we’ve been getting reports like crazy from your building today and I thought we’d better head over and check things out.”
I stopped. I could feel my pulse race, I turned to him, only a matter of inches separated us, the steam created by my breath bounced off his face as I spoke. “Why are you still harassing me, Friedrich?” I narrowed my eyes and looked defiantly into his.
His jaw tightened, he seemed surprised that I had dared to confront him.
“I said I was sorry about what happened in school. What more do you want from me? Tell me!” I screamed into his face. “Tell me what you want from me!”
He looked to the ground, and drew his lips into a tight, pathetic frown. He knew he’d been caught. It was nice to see him looking so humble but I knew it wouldn’t last, I knew what was surely coming next.
He stopped sulking and grabbed me roughly by the arm. The people passing were starting to take notice, some were walking faster, hoping not to get drawn in, others slowed. And one man, tall and heavy set, wearing a bright red, puffed poly jacket stopped and forced his way nearly between us. “Is everything alright here, miss?”
Friedrich loosened his grip. He waved his hand toward the man, “Everything is fine! Be on your way, sir.”
The man looked at me, he looked into my eyes, he wanted me to give him a signal, he was ready to take action if I would just let him know things weren’t okay. I wasn’t sure what to make of the man’s bravery. He had to have known Friedrich was with the police.
“Sir!” Friedrich snarled.
The man ignored him. A few others had stopped and were now circling us. I shook my head and tried to smile, I was hoping they would just walk away. I wasn’t necessarily worried about what Friedrich might do to me, but I didn’t want anyone else to be drug into his whirling cesspool of insanity. “It’s okay, it’s okay,” I said quietly. I looked to the man in the jacket, and nodded, “Really, it’s okay.”
The small crowd started to disperse and the man in red took a few slow steps back, he raised a stern finger toward Friedrich as he continued to walk backwards down the sidewalk. I could tell Friedrich was infuriated by his lack of control over the situation. I started to walk away again. He followed, uncomfortably close, muttering something over my shoulder in a low growl. He was acting just like a spoiled child who wasn’t getting his way. No, no, actually he was behaving like a persistent, somewhat crazy ex-boyfriend who’d just been given the break up speech. “It’s not me Friedrich! It’s you! It’s definitely you!”
A few of his cohorts from across the street rushed over to join him, they tried to calm him. They tried to hold him back, he flung angrily against them, I sped up hoping their intervention would give me an opportunity to get lost in the crowd. I had managed to walk nearly a block before his voice got closer again. “Stop now!” he screamed, “I am ordering you to stop. I swear to God I will make you stop!”
Other voices were added to the collage crying for me to stop, calling for him to stop. They grew louder, but I knew I couldn’t listen to them and I knew Friedrich couldn’t listen to them either. The crush of the crowd, the excitement, the adrenaline, it was making me feel hot and lightheaded. My jacket seemed suddenly suffocating, I yanked at the sleeves fighting to be free of it, it slipped from my hands and fell to the ground. There was stumbling behind me followed by a long, angry string of four letter words. I couldn’t stop to see what was happening, my legs moved instinctively away from the noise, mechanically, propelling me forward. The people that lined the sidewalk stood frozen against the edges and melted together into a long, colorful mass as I travelled quickly past them.
“I told you to stop!” Friedrich raged. “Why are you making me do this?” A sharp crack cut through the air behind me followed in quick succession by another, and then another. All of the noise on the street was suddenly gone and I was surrounded by a thin, transparent fog, everything beyond it was suspended. A chilling scream moved through the air over my head. I looked up just in time to catch the mottled, bronze tail feathers of Evie’s bird, soaring, majestically, high above my head. Blocking the sun from my eyes I watched her circle then pass, she disappeared from my view then turned back toward me and drew nearer, I drew nearer to her. I felt myself rising from the ground and turned to look down, down below, far below, at the sad grey of the city.
“Petra.” I whispered under my breath, I was wrapped in a brilliant white light, she was just in front of me, pulling me along, taking me with her. I had never felt so weightless, I had never been so free. A figure appeared far beyond the bird, a woman, a woman in a purple dress, a woman I had never before seen. Her hands were clasped loosely at her waist, her expression was calm and peaceful. We came closer to her or her to us, her smile grew wider, she undid her hands and raised one gently in the air. “Go back. Go back.” I could clearly hear her voice, yet her lips remained still.
“No. No. I don’t want to go back.” I pleaded with her. I wanted to stay. I wanted to stay with the woman in the purple dress. I wanted to continue to feel the warmth that radiated from her. I wanted to go with her wherever she would take me.
“You must go back,” her voice sounded in my head.
The bird continued past her, moving deeper into the glowing sky. I felt myself slow and nearly stop in front of the woman. My ears began to fill full, painfully full, then a whirling suction pulled me away from her, the distance between us grew and I watched her disappear into the blinding light as I fell back to the cold, greedy clutches of the city.
The ground was spinning, moving around me, while I stood still. I felt myself collapsing heavily on the hard, damp concrete. I could hear someone running toward me, shouting at the others, cursing them, “Hold your fire! Damn you! Hold your fire!” He took my crumpled body in his arms. Holding me close against him, I could smell the sweet, familiar scent of his skin and feel his chest rise and fall against me as he consumed the sour, grey air.