Authors: Ruta Sepetys
People screamed and ran.
“The army, the army. Who cares about the army!” raged the Secu agent, waving his weapon. “You're outnumbered. We're going to kill
of you!” He pointed his gun at the forehead of an injured young woman sitting on a chair. He pulled the trigger.
The gun didn't fire.
Orderlies, patients, and volunteersâthey jumped the agent, pummeling him to the ground. He fought and thrashed. We formed a circle around him until he was restrained. Chattering ensued.
“He mentioned the army.”
“Have they turned?”
“Someone said Milea committed suicide.”
Milea killed himself? Was that true? General Vasile Milea was the Minister of Defense.
“Let's go!” yelled a man.
I exited the hospital with a crowd and stumbled out into the street.
A growing swell of people moved down the road. I joined them and together we walked to Republic Square. I arrived and immediately lost my breath. Shoulder to shoulder, a sea of citizens as far as the eye could see. I had never seen so many people. Probably a hundred thousand. And I immediately noticed something. Romanians were standing, side by side, with the men in green.
It had happened.
The army had turned against the regime. They had joined the Romanian people! Choruses of chanting climbed through the air in front of the Central Committee Building:
Down with tyranny!
The army is with us!
Protected by the army, we sang, chanted, and called for freedom and justice for TimiÈoara.
Students climbed on top of tanks and thrust their hands in the air with the peace sign. They stood together with the military, waving Romanian flags. A woman ran by me with a bouquet of carnations and began giving them to the soldiers.
The crowd pulsed, agitated. Demonstrators suddenly rushed the building, pushing their way inside. Hearts defiant, we erupted in cheers and the chanting began:
I joined in, calling for liberty.
Then we heard it. A loud whir.
People pointed to a helicopter on top of the building. “It's them! The CeauÅescus!” The crowd jeered, booed, catcalled, and whistled.
A throng of protestors appeared on the balcony of the Committee Building.
Voices echoed through loudspeakers in the square. The propeller on the helicopter began to turn faster, whisking the air with loud chugging sounds.
“We've done it!”
The helicopter lifted, then sagged, struggling to get airborne. It finally elevated and we watched as it floated across the city.
The sound system crackled and a man's voice filled the square.
“We've done it! Victory is ours! Please, do not be afraid. Have courage. Nothing can stop us now. Nothing can stop us!” He repeated his words over and over until the crowd began to sing.
Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole, CeauÅescu nu mai e.
CeauÅescu no more? Could it be true?
I felt a brief wave of joy until I realized.
Bunu. Luca. Liliana. They'd sacrificed so much.
And they had all missed it.
I left the square and began to limp.
I had to find a pay phoneâI had to save Liliana.
Elation. Exhaustion. Determination.
Looting began. Fighting and violence surged in the streets. Ceasescu had fled, but his henchmen weren't backing down. “Teams of terrorists are assisting the Secu assassins!” someone yelled.
But it was all in the background. I had to help Liliana.
The inside of the phone booth was streaked with blood.
I wiped the drops of perspiration from my face, deposited the coins, and dialed.
I paused. My mother's voice cracked a whip of reality.
Who is this?”
“Mama, it's me,” I finally croaked.
“Cristi! Where are you? Are you okay?”
“I'm okay. Mama, listen. Luca is at ColÅ£ea Hospital. Please find his parents and tell them. Liliana is being held in a detention facility on Aaron Florian. She's in terrible danger. Have Cici find Alex and bribe theâ”
“Cici? Isn't Cici with you?”
“No, Mama. If Cici's not home, please, go across the street to Luca's and Liliana's. Go quickly!”
An explosion detonated, shaking the phone booth.
Mama's voice went tight, shrill. She spoke each word slowly. “WhereÂ .Â .Â . isÂ .Â .Â . Cici?”
“I don't know. Did you hear me, Mama? Luca's at ColÅ£ea Hospital and Liliana's in danger at a facility on Aaron Florian. Please, Mama. You have to send help to Liliana. Did you hear me?”
“Yes. And now you hear me. Come home this instant. Is that clear? Your father has been out all night, risking his life to find you both. This is not a movie. They're killing people. And the protesters, they'll all be punished. How can you do this to me? How can you do this to our family?”
“No! The military has turned. CeauÅescu's gone! We've won, Mama.”
“No, Cristian. You're wrong. There is no âwinning.' Come home. Immediately.”
And then she hung up.
I stood in the blood-spattered phone box, looking at the corded handset. What did Mama mean? Did she know something I didn't?
Fists pounded on the glass of the phone booth. “If you're done, leave!”
I stepped out, suddenly feeling warm and woozy. Was it the pain meds?
A helicopter buzzed overhead and small blue particles began descending from the sky.
“What are those?” shrieked a girl in line for the phone. “Are they explosives?”
Pieces of paper floated and fluttered down like snow, magically settling on the pavement.
I grabbed one of the blue squares. “It's a message.” I looked at the words and could barely breathe.
RomÃ¢ni, nu vÄ fie fricÄ. VeÈi fi liberi!
I stared at the sentences, trying to swallow through the emotion.
“What does it say?” she asked.
“It says, âRomanians: Do not be afraid. You will be free.'â”
We would beÂ .Â .Â . free.
The street battles raged on. If victory and freedom were ours, why did the violence continue? Was Mama right? Would we all be punished?
Mama had ordered me to come home. Instead, I made my way back to ColÅ£ea Hospital.
The hospital pulsed with rumors and desperation. Kentsâthey were my only hope to find Luca. I pushed my way up to an orderly. His uniform was painted with blood.
“Please. A young man, Luca Oprea, was shot last night. He was in the critical care unit earlier. Two packs of Kents if you can tell me where he is now.”
The orderly looked over his shoulder. “What's the name?” he whispered.
“Wait over there.”
Children. Teens. Adults. Old people. They walked, ran, crawled, or were carried into the hive of chaos at the hospital. Now that CeauÅescu was gone, who were we really fighting?
The orderly finally reappeared. “Second floor ward. Stairs are at the end of the hall.”
We exchanged the Kents in plain view and I headed for the staircase. Each step sucked breath and energy from my diminishing reserve.
ColÅ£ea Hospital was the size of a small city. What if I couldn't find Luca? What if they threw me out? A nurse yelled down the stairwell to no one I could see, “Catch the truck before it leaves for the morgue!”
I exited the stairs on the second floor, deciding which way to go.
She saw me before I saw her. Her long legs cycled toward me, hair swinging behind her like a silky, black horse tail.
Alarm bells and caution flags flickered through my brain. My sister was waiting for me. My own sister was going to turn me in.
“Oh, thank god,
. I knew if I found Luca I would find you.”
“Get out of my way.”
. You have to listen.”
“I don't have to do anything.”
“I'm sorry! I never meant for this to happen. I can help.”
“You want to help? Then help me rescue Liliana. They've got her locked up at a detention center on Aaron Florian. Find Alex or go there yourself. Hurry!”
“It's probably safer here. And we need to talk.”
“There's nothing to say. If you want to help me, go save Liliana, now! Do you hear me? It's going to take a huge bribe to get her out. Use some of your dirty money.”
Cici began to cry, “
, please wait. PleaseÂ .Â .Â . it's safer here.”
I left my sister standing in the hallway, crying and begging. The image and sounds still live like ghosts in my mind.
I reached the ward. Dozens of beds rowed tightly together, side by side. I saw Luca's father. And then I saw him.
Eyes closed, head against the pillow, connected to all sorts of bags and tubes. I couldn't get there fast enough.
“Cristian, you're alive!” said his mother.
So was Luca. The enormity of it all surged through me and a rush of tears began to flow. Brave Luca, who jumped up to grab me, who risked his life to save mine.
I swiped at my tears. “Will he be okay?” I asked.
“He lost a lot of blood. The doctor says the next twenty-four hours will be critical.”
I moved toward Luca and my eyes pulled to the pad of bandages on his left shoulder. Layers of gauze created a bulky knob. And then I realized that the branchâhis armâit was missing. I stepped closer and his father pulled me aside.
“He doesn't know yet. He's sedated. At this point, we just want him to pull through.”
I nodded slowly.
It was my fault. Luca jumped up to reach for me, to save me. Because of that, he'd lost his arm. He'd lost his path to medicine. And now he could lose his life. Families and so much destroyed. What was the cost of freedom?
“Cristian, the girls are alone. Could you go to the apartment and stay with them until one of us comes home?”
I looked at them. I couldn't. No. I needed to help Liliana. “My sister was here. Maybe she couldâ”
“No,” said his mother quickly. “We'd prefer if it was you. The girls know you. Please, just until we get home.”
“ButÂ .Â .Â . my friendsÂ .Â .Â .”
“Please, Cristian. This will help us. This will help Luca.”
I nodded blankly. We were amidst a revolution, my friends
needed help. The Secu was probably looking for me. And suddenly I felt so sleepy and woozy. Would Cici help Liliana? But if Cici went to Aaron Florian, would that create a trail of breadcrumbsâstraight back to me?
The electricity was on. Revolutionaries had taken over the radio and television. I lay on the floor of Luca's apartment, my head on a pillow, my ear to the TV. My body quickly sank, heavier and heavier. Exhaustion reached through the seam of revolution and finally pulled me into sleep.
“Cristian. Cristian, would you like to lie on the sofa?”
I opened my eyes. Luca's mother was at my side.
“How long have I been sleeping?”
“A couple hours. But you need proper rest.”
“How is Luca?” I asked.
“He's awake. He asked about you and I told him that you're here.”
“I want to see him.” I shifted to sit up, but pain pinned me to the floor. Wrecked from adrenaline and injury, I could barely move.
“You need to go home and rest.”
I rolled over onto all fours and pushed myself off the floor. My head spun and everything hurt. I didn't want to go home. I had to help Liliana.
“What's happening? What are they reporting?” I asked.
“CeauÅescu hasn't been seen. Ion Iliescu has taken over. There are rumors that terrorists have moved in to fight the citizens and the military. It's very dangerous.”
I pulled myself up to a standing position.
“Are you okay to walk home?” she asked.
I nodded, lying. My legs were liquid.
I shuffled down the hallway, hugging the wall, and limped down one flight of stairs, making my way to Liliana's apartment. I slumped against the doorframe and knocked.
The door opened a crack, and Alex's face appeared.
“Liliana,” I whispered.
“We brought her home an hour ago.”
My shoulders sank with relief. “Is she okay?”
A beat of silence. “She's sleeping.”
“But is she okay?”
“Are you okay? You look terrible.”
“I feel terrible. Even worse than I look.”
“I figured. I'll help you home.”
Alex propped me up and walked with me. “Thanks for leaving us the note,” he said. “I heard about Luca.”
“It's all my fault. He was trying to save me.”
“No. We're all trying to save our country,” said Alex. “Every one of us. And if you haven't noticed, the young people have been the bravest. No regrets in bravery.”
We exited his building onto the sidewalk. The Reporters whispered at their post, watching Alex help me across the street.
Electricity sizzled in the stairwell. “Elevator,” I muttered.
He walked me over. The doors rattled open and he turned to leave.
“Alex,” I said. “Have you been working with my sister?”
He gave a low chuckle. “Cici's not the kind of girl you work
. She's the kind of girl you work
. But for the record, she did help rescue my sister.”
“That's all I care about. Tell Liliana I came by to see her.”
The elevator doors rattled shut.
Mama exploded the moment I walked through the door. She
stalked around me in a rattling fit, alternating between fury, fear, and relief.
“You selfish boy! Do you know what you've done to our family? To my nerves? There's hot water. You must bathe. It will ease the pain. Do you think you're indestructible? Do you only care about yourself? Where do you hurt?”
“I just want to lie down.”
She fluttered around me, poking and prodding. If I showered, at least I could have some privacy. I headed toward the bathroom.
“I'll make cabbage soup,” she said. “Your father's out looking for Cici. The radio and television say the streets are very dangerous.”
My sister was more dangerous than the streets.
“I saw Cici.”
“Where?” demanded my mother.
“At the hospital. She was visiting Luca. But she left. Don't worry about Cici, Mama,” I told her over my shoulder. “She'll take care of herself.”
That's what I told my mother.
And shame on me, I believed it.