Authors: Ruta Sepetys
The puzzling weight of absence. When one potato is removed from a basket, the weight is lighter, easier to carry. But Bunu's absence created the opposite effect. The atmosphere in the apartment hung heavier, more crowded. Cici was irritable, smearing lipstick on and continually altering her clothes as if that might alter the situation.
“Are you okay,
?” she asked constantly.
None of us were okay.
Mama orbited in a perpetual state of agitation, whispering to herself and putting a hand to her hair, making sure it was still there. My father shifted about like an iron ghost. He mourned quiet and dormant, like Bunu had said. When he came home, he often went right to sleep. But one night, he joined me on the balcony.
We stood next to each other, watching the snow fall. Several minutes passed. He cleared his throat.
“An old woman is fast asleep when she hears a knock at the door.
Who is it?
she whispers, terrified.
It is death
, the voice answers.
Oh, good. I thought it might be the Securitate.
I turned to my father, impressed. “Not bad.”
didn't make them up on his own, you know.” My father smiled.
“C'mon, we used to joke around all the time when you were younger.”
“Yeah. I guess I had forgotten about that.”
What else had I forgotten?
I hadn't forgotten the notebook for Mr. Van Dorn. It was a welcome distraction. I had started a letter and worked through several drafts. When I felt it was complete, I tore out the drafts and rewrote the letter on the very last page.
If I left the notebook on his desk, would Mr. Van Dorn think someone had accidentally forgotten it there? I decided to wrap it, like a gift, and put his name on it. I didn't have any wrapping paper, so I used pages from
, the Romanian teen almanac. I flipped through my almanac, deciding which pages to use. The front section was always about CeauÅescu, so Luca and I read the almanac from back to front, starting with the comics and crossword puzzles.
I chose two pieces for wrapping:
The cover, because the title of the teen almanac,
, meant “Brave Ones.”
I also chose an interior page that featured CeauÅescu alongside an article titled “Romaniaâthe Country of Creative Work.”
Yes, CeauÅescu's plan was creative. But so was mine.
I opened Cici's sewing basket, looking for a piece of string to tie the package. I rummaged through buttons, pins, Neckermann catalogs, and at the very bottom, a couple of coins, a piece of ribbon, and a ring of keys. I took the ribbon and secured the pages around the notebook. It definitely looked like a gift and, this being the middle of December, would probably be mistaken as one.
A gift of truth. That's what Bunu would have called it.
And then I was finally ready.
Or so I thought.
Everything changed the moment I tucked that wrapped book in my bag. My heart took off from some invisible starting block. I began to sweat. Profusely.
I had never taken the notebook out of my closet. It lived beneath my mattress of rugs in the secret pocket under the vinyl flooring. But that Saturday, it would sit in my bag through the entire school day until I met Dan to go to the library. I hadn't been summoned for Paddle Hands recently. What if the agent chose today for a visit? I had been so confident, a great pretender. But it now felt like the notebook had its own heartbeat in my bag. If the agent didn't notice that, he'd surely notice the vein pulsing wildly at my temple.
But I had come this far. It was too late to change my mind. And I didn't intend to.
I adjusted the strap on my bag.
And left the apartment.
I made it to school.
On my way to class I spotted Liliana down the corridor, walking with a group of navy-pinafored girls. The girls were huddled together talking, but suddenly Liliana’s face turned.
Her hair was grasped by the uniform’s white headband, but her bangs obscured her eyes. I couldn’t tell where her gaze landed. Was she looking at me?
Or at my book bag.
The bag carrying the bomb.
I turned away and headed to class.
I sat through calculus, empathizing with my classmate who had cracked. I imagined it was me, jumping out of my chair and shouting.
I’m an informer! There’s a bomb in my bag!
My grandfather’s dead! He was a dissident and my hero!
My heart is destroyed. I’m in love with Liliana Pavel!
Looking back, I should have said it all. Just let it fly.
But instead, I said nothing.
When class was over, I stood, leaving sweat prints of my hands on my blue trousers.
Comrade Director wasn’t in the hall. Now that Bunu was gone, was the agent finished with me?
I wasn’t finished with him. He was prominently featured in my notebook.
Luca lingered outside of the school building. I dodged him and rushed away.
As I made my way to Dan’s apartment, I thought through my plan. Dan usually left the living room to retrieve his coat. That’s when I would leave the notebook. But I needed an alternate plan. What if his parents were around? My last resort was to use the bathroom and drop the package in the TV room when no one was looking.
My conscience issued unwanted reminders:
Writing negative things about Romania was illegal.
Exchanging items with a foreigner was illegal.
Defying the Securitate was illegal.
At that moment, everything about me—
Was I scared? Absolutely.
But I stepped off the bus.
I took a deep breath.
And walked straight to Dan’s apartment.
I'm very sorry about your grandfather.”
That's what Mrs. Van Dorn said upon opening the door. “Please tell your mother it's perfectly fine if she needs additional days off.”
. I mean, thank you.”
She looked at me, full of pity and sympathy. “Dan's with his father at the commissary, but I expect them any minute. Do you mind waiting?”
What was “the commissary”?
The phone rang and Mrs. Van Dorn excused herself to answer it. I grabbed the notebook from my bag and ran to Mr. Van Dorn's desk. Just as I slid it beneath a stack of newspapers, the door of the apartment opened.
Dan entered, carrying a crateâa crate full of food and American products. My stomach groaned. Clearly, the commissary was the U.S. Embassy store.
“Hey, Cris, have you been waiting long?” he asked.
“No. I just got here.”
“Hello, Cristian.” Mr. Van Dorn nodded, carefully eyeing my proximity to his desk.
I quickly pointed to a nearby painting on the wall. “I was looking at this painting. Is the artist Romanian?”
“Nah,” said Dan. “One of my mom's paintings from Spain. Just let me grab my backpack and we can go.”
I stood, acutely aware of Mr. Van Dorn's gaze upon me. He moved toward his desk, still wearing his coat. My heart thumped. It was all crumbling. If he discovered the notebook now, he'd ask me about it. What would I say?
“So, whatcha been up to, Cristian?” he asked, taking a step closer.
I stood, frozen. “Whatcha been up to.” What did that mean? I felt a trickle of sweat slide down the channel of my back.
“Sorry. I'll rephrase. What's new? What have you been doing lately?”
“Nick? Is that you?” his wife's voice called from the kitchen. “Ana's on the phone to discuss plans.”
“Excuse me.” Mr. Van Dorn headed for the other room, and Dan appeared with his backpack.
“Ready to go?”
“Yes.” I nodded quickly.
Dan put a finger to his lips. He quietly lifted two cellophane-wrapped items from the crate of food. He held up the packages, smiling. The blue and red label said
. He dropped one into my coat pocket. What did the word “Twinkie” mean?
We exited the building onto the street. The frozen, snowy air refreshed my sweat-soaked neck. “When do you go home for the holiday?” I asked.
“The day after tomorrow,” he replied. “And I have some news.”
“I'm not coming back.”
I turned to look at him. “What do you mean?”
“I struck a deal with my parents. They're letting me spend next semester in Dallas. I'll go to school there and live with my godparents.”
Dan was leaving Romania and he wasn't coming back. I felt an odd twinge. “And what about Princeton?”
“I've finished my essay. Hey, when we get to the library, would you read it? Of course, it's just my point of view, but I'd like your opinion.”
As always, the American Library sweltered like an oven. But I was already drenched in sweat.
Dan chose a table and dug into his backpack. “Hey, since I won't be around for the holidays, I have something I want to give you.”
He produced a small envelope and tossed it on the table.
I stared at it. I looked around.
“Take it. It's for you.” He laughed. He pushed it toward me.
I had just gone through this. Accepting something from a foreigner had to be reported. He must know that. Besides, how many people were watching us? But I was curious.
I pulled the envelope across the table and lifted the unsealed flap. Inside was a pane of four mint U.S. stamps. Each stamp displayed a different illustration, along with “USA” and the value of 22 cents in the lower corner.
“They were issued a few years back,” said Dan. “I thought they were kinda special.”
They were special.
So special that I didn't care if I got in trouble for having them.
Along the top of each stamp were the words
They were stamps specifically created to commemorate collectors. Bunu would have loved them. A knot formed in my throat.
“Thank you, Dan,” I whispered.
“Aw, it's no big deal, just something to remind you of your pal from New Jersey.”
“Pal?” I said.
“Sorry, âpal' means friend. Just something to remind you of your friend from New Jersey.”
My friend from New Jersey.
A friend I spent time with because the Secu had blackmailed me to. A friend who was referred to as my “target.” A friend whose father I was exploiting to get information out of Romania. How easily Americans made “friends.”
Emotion swelled within my chest.
“Here's the essay. It's only a couple pages,” said Dan, sliding it across the table.
I stared at the papers.
The sheets in front of me held information that the Securitate was desperate for. Information I could use to my advantage. An American's thoughts on Romaniaâofficially presented to a U.S. college admissions board.
Read it. Come on,
. This was the deal you made, wasn't it?
What sort of friend was I? Could I really blame Luca for informing on me when I myself was informing on a friend? A pal? Liliana's words echoed in my head:
You are a liar.
You are everything I despise.
You are an informer.
“You okay, Cristian? You don't look so good.”
If I didn't read the essay, I wouldn't be able to inform on my friend. “I'm, um, not feeling well.” I told him.
Dan reached across the table and snatched the essay. “It's my only copy. If you puke, I'm out of luck.”
That was the only word I understoodâand I understood that I didn't have any.
“I think I better go. Thanks again, Dan. The stamps, they're great.”
“You might like the Twinkies more than the stamps.” He laughed. “Hey, give me your address. We can keep in touch about stamps and stuff.” He tore a page from a spiral-bound notebook. I wrote my address on it, knowing it was forbidden to communicate with a foreigner, but knowing it was the last time I'd ever see Dan Van Dorn.
“Have a good Christmas,” said Dan, his face full of sincerity.
Was anyone thinking about Christmas? I wasn't. I gave a wave and headed toward the door. I exited the building and pulled several deep breaths.
My notebook was on Mr. Van Dorn's desk.
Dan was leaving Romania for good.
Bunu was dead.
What would the Securitate do with me now that I was no use to them?
Friendship. It was something valuable. Something I wanted with Luca. Something I wanted with Dan Van Dorn. And Dan wanted it too. If he didn't, he wouldn't have given me the stamps and the Twinkies.
|| INFORMER REPORT ||
[9 Dec. 1989]
Cristian Florescu (17), student at MF3 High School, resident in Salajan sector 3. Observed Saturday at the American Library in Bucharest with American Dan Van Dorn. Florescu and Van Dorn engaged in a brief discussion and exchanged an envelope and a piece of paper. Florescu left with the envelope after just five minutes. After Florescu departed, Van Dorn was approached by an American adult male (identity unknown) and proceeded to take part in a hushed conversation that lasted nearly ten minutes. Van Dorn gave the sheet of paper from Florescu to the American male. Following conversation, Van Dorn quickly left the library without reading any books or magazines.
A week felt like a year, wading through waist-high mud.
I didn't eat the Twinkies. I wanted to save them for Cici's birthday.
But there was little to celebrate. Starving dogs, dark streets, Reporters, the cold getting colder. And all around us, other countries were preparing for their first Christmas in freedom.
Had Mr. Van Dorn found my notebook?
I stood on the freezing balcony, hoping the cold air would dull my emotions. Cici appeared with a bundle in her arms. “Here, try this on.”
“What is it?”
“Something I made for you, so you don't have to sleep in your coat.”
Cici had found an oversized work shirt and stitched thick, quilted layers of padding on the inside.
“I love it. It's super soft.”
“And it'll be warm.” She began fastening the buttons and evaluating the fit. “Did you hear about Bunu's chess partner?” she whispered. “He's been placed under house arrest.”
I wasn't surprised. Each night when we listened to Voice of America and Radio Free Europe we learned of writers, poets, and journalists who fought against the regime.
“Apparently Bunu's friend was affiliated with a literary magazine thatÂ .Â .Â .”
My sister's words faded from importance as something emerged in my line of sight. I squinted down at the street, trying to make out the figures.
Cici tugged gently at my arm. “Come inside,
I shook my head. The moon shifted beneath a cloud, illuminating the scene.
Cici meant well. She was trying to protect me. But I couldn't pull my eyes from what I saw below.
Standing on the dark sidewalk was Liliana.
“Don't do this to yourself,” whispered my sister. “I've told you. You can't trust Luca.”
But what did that mean for Liliana? She couldn't trust me. She couldn't trust Luca. Who would protect her?
My sister's hand remained on my arm. “After Bunu, we need to be smart,
. Mama is not herself. She's terrified the Secu will summon her. We need to be careful,” whispered Cici.
I nodded. She was right. Our parents were definitely not themselves. Our mother had gone silent like our father.
“What are you thinking?” asked my sister.
I so desperately wanted to tell her, to confess everything, but I couldn't bear her disappointment. I had lost Bunu, Liliana, and Luca. I couldn't lose Cici.
“What am I thinking? Nothing. And everything.” I shrugged. “Thanks for the sleeping coat.”
I left the balcony and shut myself in my closet. I no longer had my notebook to confess to. So instead, I wrote one of the entries from memory on the wall:
12 DECEMBER, 1989
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.