Read an Excerpt
Fear arrived at five o’clock.
It was October. A gray Friday.
If I had known? I would have run. Tried to hide.
But I didn’t know.
Through the dim half-light of the school corridor I spotted my best friend, Luca. He walked toward me, passing the tedious sign shouting from the concrete wall.
New Men of Romania:
Long live Communism—the bright future of mankind!
At the time, my mind churned on something far from communism. Something more immediate.
School dismissed at 7:00 p.m. If I left at the right moment, I’d fall into step with her—the quiet girl with the hair hiding her eyes. It would feel coincidental, not forced.
Luca’s tall, thin frame edged in beside me. “It’s official. My stomach’s eating itself.”
“Here.” I handed him my small pouch of sunflower seeds.
“Thanks. Did you hear? The librarian says you’re a bad influence.”
I laughed. Maybe it was true. Teachers referred to Luca as “sweet” but said I was sarcastic. If I was the type to throw a punch, Luca was the type to break up a fight. He had an eagerness about him, while I preferred to evaluate and watch from afar.
We paused so Luca could talk to a group of loud girls. I waited, impatient.
“Hei, Cristian,” smiled one of the girls. “Nice hair, do you cut it with a kitchen knife?”
“Yeah,” I said softly. “Blindfolded.” I gave Luca a nod and continued down the hall alone.
The voice belonged to the school director. He lingered in the hallway, speaking with a colleague. Comrade Director shifted his weight, trying to appear casual.
Nothing was ever casual.
In class, we sat erect. Comrade Instructor lectured, bellowing at our group of forty students. We listened, stock still and squinting beneath the sickly light. We were marked “present” in attendance but were often absent from ourselves.
Luca and me, we wore navy suits and ties to liceu. All boys did. Girls, navy pinafores and white hair bands. Embroidered badges sewn onto our uniforms identified which school we attended. But in the fall and winter, our school uniforms weren’t visible. They were covered by coats, knitted mufflers, and gloves to combat the bitter cold of the unheated cement building.
Cold and dark. Knuckles aching. It’s hard to take notes when you can’t feel your fingers. It’s difficult to concentrate when the electricity snaps off.
The director cleared his throat. “Pupil Florescu,” he repeated. “Proceed to the office. Your father has left a message for you.”
My father? My father never came to school. I rarely saw him. He worked twelve-hour shifts, six days a week at a furniture factory.
A slithering knot coiled inside my stomach. “Yes, Comrade Director.”
I proceeded to the office as I was told.
Could outsiders understand? In Romania, we did as we were told.
We were told a lot of things.
We were told that we were all brothers and sisters in communism. Addressing each other with the term “comrade” reinforced that we were all equal, with no social classes to divide us. Good brothers and sisters in communism followed rules.
I pretended to follow rules. I kept things to myself, like my interest in poetry and philosophy. I pretended other things too. I pretended to lose my comb, but really just preferred my hair spiky. I pretended not to notice when girls were looking at me. And this one—I pretended that studying English was a commitment to my country.
“Words are weapons. I’ll be able to fight our American and British enemies with words, not only guns.”
That’s what I said.
Our weapons course was called Preparing Youth for Defending the Country. We began training with guns at age fourteen in school. Is that old or young compared to other countries? I remember jotting that question in my secret notebook.
In reality, my desire to speak English had nothing to do with fighting our enemies. How many enemies did we have, anyway? I honestly didn’t know. The truth was, English class was full of smart, quiet girls. Girls I pretended not to notice. And if I spoke English, I could better understand song lyrics that I heard illegally on Voice of America broadcasts.
Illegal, yes. Many things were illegal in Romania—including my thoughts and my notebook. But I was convinced I could keep everything hidden. After all, blankets of gloom are thick and heavy. Good for covering things, right?
I proceeded down the dark hallway to the office.
I was an idiot.
I just didn’t know it yet.
entered the school office. The old, brittle secretary glanced at me, then looked to her lap. No eye contact. She pointed a shriveled finger toward the director’s office.
My stomach curled, tighter.
A windowless box. Smoke-stained ceiling. The stale, suspended tang of moldy paper. Hanging above the director’s plain, blocky desk was a portrait in a golden frame. Identical portraits decorated all of Romania—classrooms, train stations, stores, hospitals, and even the front of books.
Our beloved leader. Our hero. Maverick of the grand Communist Party of Romania and vampire to the necks of millions. Illegal metaphor? Absolutely.
The new portrait depicted our hero with blushing cheeks and wavy, thick brown hair. He and his wife, Heroine Mother Elena, had guided the country of Romania for twenty-four years. I didn’t linger on the picture that showed a much younger version of our leader. Instead, my eyes pulled to the stranger seated below the portrait.
Mid-thirties. Unbroken line of an eyebrow. More scalp than hair. Hands each the size of a tennis racket and shoulders extending well beyond the width of the chair.
“Close the door,” instructed the man.
I closed the wooden door but did not sit. I was not told to.
The stranger peeled through a file in front of him. A photo clipped to the upper edge of the folder showed a young man with messy dark hair and pale eyes. And that’s when the floor of my stomach collapsed.
Sitting a meter away was not just a hulking man with one eyebrow and paddles for hands.
This man was executioner, black rider, and spy. He was an agent of the Securitate, Romania’s fearsome secret police. Within his grasp sat a file and a photo.
“They say there’s one Secu per every fifty Romanians,” my sister Cici once warned. “There are twenty-three million Romanians. Do the math. Securitate agents, they’re everywhere.”
We called them “the blue-eyed boys.” Nickname aside, they were generally easy to spot. In Romania, if your family was lucky enough to afford a car and could wait five years until one became available, you knew what you were getting. There was only one brand of car—Dacia. They came in a few colors like white, blue, or green. But the secret police, they drove black Dacias. A young man in our apartment block drove a black Dacia. I watched him from our balcony. I was intrigued from afar.
The man in front of me drove a black Dacia. I was certain of it. But I was not intrigued.
I was scared.
The agent leaned back, bullying the metal chair he sat upon. His eyes drilled silent holes through me, splitting the walls of my confidence. He waited, and waited, allowing the holes to fill with fear.
His weight suddenly shifted. The front legs of the chair clapped to the floor. He leaned across the desk, exhaling the dead nicotine that lived on his pasty, yellow tongue. His words still haunt me.
“You’re Cristian Florescu,” he said. “And I know what you’ve done.”
e knew what I had done.
What had I done?
The truth was, most Romanians broke the rules someway or another. There were so many to break. And so many to report that you had broken them.
A songwriter wrote negative lyrics about life in Romania. He was committed to an insane asylum.
A college student was discovered with an unregistered typewriter. He was sent to prison.
Complaining aloud could get you arrested as a “political agitator.” But I hadn’t complained aloud. I did most things quietly. Secretly. So what had this agent discovered?
Was it my homemade radio antenna? The jokes I composed? Was it the travel guide?
I bought English language stuff on the sly, through a neighborhood trader named Starfish. Reading English contraband bolstered my vocabulary. My last purchase was a handful of pages torn from a travel guide printed in England. Foreign travel guides and maps were often confiscated from visitors. Reading those pages, I learned why:
Abysmal conditions in Romania.
Nicolae Ceauşescu. Ruthless leader. Megalomaniac. Everyone under surveillance.
Worst human suffering of any country in the Eastern Bloc.
And this one—
Romanian people are intelligent, handsome, and welcoming, but forbidden to interact with foreigners. Imagine a madhouse where the lunatics are running the asylum and the workers are punished for their sanity. Best to avoid Romania. Visit Hungary or Bulgaria instead, where conditions are better.
The note about surveillance—it was true. Everyone was a possible target for surveillance. She, Mother Elena Ceauşescu, even decreed that balconies of apartments must remain fully visible. The Communist Party had a right to see everything at all times. Everything was owned by the Party. And the Ceauşescus owned the Party.
“Nice for them. They don’t have to live in a block of cement,” I once sneered.
“Shh. Don’t ever say that aloud,” gasped my mother.
I never said it again, but I wrote about it in my notebook.
My notebook. Wait. Was this about my notebook?
The agent motioned for me to sit. I sat.
“Do you know why you are here?” he asked.
“No, Comrade Lieutenant.”
I swallowed. “No, Comrade Major, I don’t know why I’m here.”
“Let me enlighten you then. You have an impressive stamp collection. You sold a vintage Romanian stamp. The transaction was with a foreigner and you accepted foreign currency. You are now guilty of illegal trafficking and will be prosecuted.”
A chill flashed across the back of my neck. My brain began to tick:
The old stamp.
The U.S. dollar bill.
That was two months ago. How long had they known about it?
“I didn’t sell the stamp,” I said. “I gave it to him. I didn’t even find the—”
I stopped. It was illegal in Romania to say the word “dollar.”
“I didn’t find the . . . currency . . . until several days later when I opened the album. He must have slipped it in without me seeing.”
“How did you come to interact with an American teenager in the first place? Interaction with foreigners is illegal. You must report any contact with foreigners immediately. You are aware of that.”
“Yes, Comrade Major. But my mother cleans the apartments of two U.S. diplomats. That is on record.”
But there were things that were off record. At least I had thought so. I had met the son of the U.S. diplomat while waiting for my mother. We became friendly. We traded stamps. We talked. I glimpsed a peek at his notebook—and decided to start a notebook of my own.
“Your mother cleans the apartments of U.S. diplomats. How did she get that job?”
“I think . . . through a friend?” I honestly couldn’t remember. “I met the American while waiting for my mother. I often walk her home. My mother has a hard time seeing in the dark. It’s frightening for her.”
“You’re claiming you engaged in illegal currency activity with an American teenager because your mother is afraid of the dark? Your mother’s handicap has nothing to do with your crime. But punishment will extend to your entire family.”
A crime? My entire family?
But I had never accepted the dollar. It just . . . appeared.
How did he even know about it?
The pleading refrains of my mother and sister appeared in chorus.
Don’t tell anyone—anything.
Remember, Cristian, you never know who’s listening.
Please, don’t draw attention to our family.
I stared at the agent in front of me. A shivery sweat glazed my palms and an invisible moth flapped in my windpipe. In Romania, the Securitate carried more power than the military. This man could destroy us. He could put our family under increased surveillance. He could ruin my opportunity to attend university. He could have my parents fired. Or worse.
The agent leaned forward, placing his massive flesh rackets on the desk.
“I can see you’ve absorbed the severity of the situation. I’m told you’re a strong student, talented, an observer among your peers. I’m feeling generous today.”
He was letting me off with a warning. I exhaled with gratitude.
“You’re thanking me? You haven’t heard my proposal yet. It’s simple and, as I said, very generous of me. You will continue to meet your mother and walk her home. You will continue your interactions with the son of the American diplomat. And you will report details of the diplomat’s home and family to me.”
It was not a proposal. It was an order, and one that compromised all principles of decency. I’d be a rat, a turnător, secretly informing on the private lives of others.
I could never tell my family. Constant deception. I should refuse. But if I refused, my family would suffer. I was sure of that. And then, amidst the silence, the agent made his final move.
“Say, how is your bunu?”
Şahmat. Checkmate. The simple mention weakened me.
He knew about my grandfather. Bunu was a light, full of wisdom and philosophy. Bunu knew of my interest in poetry and literature. He encouraged it. Quietly.
“They steal our power by making us believe we don’t have any,” said Bunu. “But words and creative phrases—they have power, Cristian. Explore that power in your mind.”
The stamp collection was Bunu’s treasure. It had been our secret project for years.
We had other secrets. Like Bunu’s leukemia. It stormed upon him so quickly.
“Don’t tell anyone,” begged our perpetually nervous mother.
We didn’t have to. Anyone could see that an energetic, healthy man had suddenly turned gray and shriveled. He lifted the frying pan and his wrist snapped.
Paddle Hands cleared his throat. “It’s a generous proposal. We’ll work together. You give me information and I give you medicine for Bunu. He won’t suffer.”
And that’s how it began.
I was Cristian Florescu. Code name “OSCAR.”
A seventeen-year-old spy.