[SNEAK PEEK] TATIANA AND ALEXANDER

Tatiana and Alexander by Paullina Simons

 

Morozovo, 1943

THEY CAME FOR HIM a few hours into the night. Alexander, sleeping in the chair, was roughly shaken awake by four men in suits, motioning him to stand.

Slowly he stood.

“You’re going to Volkhov to get promoted. Hurry. There is no time to waste. We’ve got to get across the lake before it gets light. The Germans bomb Ladoga constantly.” The sallow man who was speaking in hushed tones was obviously in charge. The other three never opened their mouths.

Alexander picked up his rucksack.

“Leave that here,” said the man.

“Well, I’m a soldier. I always take my ruck with me if it’s all the same to you.”

“Have you got your sidearm?”

“Of course.”

“Let’s have that.”

Alexander took a step toward them. He was a head taller than the tallest. They looked like thugs in their drab gray winter coats. On top of the coats they had small blue stripes, the symbol of the NKVD—the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs—the way the Red Cross was a symbol of international empathy. “Let me understand what you’re asking me,” he said quietly but not that quietly.

“So it’s easier for you,” the first man stammered. “You’re wounded, no? It must be hard for you to carry all your gear—”

“This isn’t all my gear. These are just my few personal things. Let’s go,” Alexander said loudly, moving out from the side of the bed, pushing them out of his way. “Now, comrades. We’re wasting time.” It was not an even fight. He was an officer, a major. He couldn’t see their rank in their shoulder bars or demeanor. They had no authority until they were out of the building and took his away from him. This police liked to do its work in private, in the dark. They did not like to be overheard by barely sleeping nurses, by barely sleeping soldiers. This police liked it to seem as if everything was just as it should be. A wounded man was being taken in the middle of the night across the lake to get a promotion. What was so out of the ordinary about that? But they had to leave his gun with him to continue with the pretense. As if they could have taken it away.

As they were walking out, Alexander noticed that the two beds next to him were empty. The soldier with the breathing difficulties and another had gone. He shook his head. “Are they going to get promoted, too?” he asked dryly.

“No questions, just go,” said one of the men. “Quickly.”

Alexander had slight trouble walking quickly.

As he made his way through the corridor, he wondered where Tatiana was sleeping. Was it behind one of those doors? Was she there now, somewhere? Still so close. He took a deep breath, almost as if he were smelling for her.

The armored truck was waiting outside behind the building. It was parked next to Dr. Sayers’s Red Cross jeep. Alexander recognized the white and red emblem in the dark. As they got closer to their truck, a silhouette hobbled out from the shadows. It was Dimitri. He was hunched over his casted arm, and his face was a black pulp with a swollen protuberance instead of a nose—earlier courtesy of Alexander.

He stood for a moment and said nothing. Then, “Going somewhere, Major Belov?” His hissing voice placed special emphasis on Belov. It sounded like Beloffffff.

“Don’t come close to me, Dimitri,” Alexander said.

Dimitri, as if heeding the advice, took a step back, then opened his mouth and laughed silently. “You can’t hurt me anymore, Alexander.”

“Nor you me.”

“Oh, believe me,” said Dimitri in a smooth sweet-sour voice, “I can still hurt you.” And right before Alexander was pushed into the NKVD truck by the militia men, Dimitri threw his head back as if in studied delirium and wagged a shaking finger at Alexander, baring the yellow teeth under his bloodied nose and narrowing his slit eyes.

Alexander turned his head, squared his shoulders, and without even looking in Dimitri’s direction as he jumped into the truck, said very loudly and clearly and with as much satisfaction as he could get his voice to muster, “Oh, fuck you.”

“Get in the truck and shut up,” barked one of the NKVD men to Alexander, and to Dimitri: “Go back to your ward, it’s past curfew. What are you doing skulking around here?”

In the back of the truck, Alexander saw his two shivering ward mates. He hadn’t expected two other people, two Red Army soldiers, to be in the truck with him. He had thought it would be just him and the NKVD men. No one to risk or sacrifice except them and himself. Now what?

One of the NKVD men grabbed his ruck. Alexander yanked it away. The man did not let go. “It looks as if it’s hard for you to carry it,” he said, struggling. “I’ll take it and give it back to you on the other side.”

Shaking his head, Alexander said, “No, I’ll keep it.” He wrenched it from the man.

“Belov—”

“Sergeant!” said Alexander loudly. “You’re talking to an officer. Major Belov to you. Leave my belongings alone. Now, let’s start driving. We’ve got a long way ahead of us.” Smiling to himself, he turned away, dismissing the man. His back didn’t hurt as badly as he had imagined: he was able to walk, jump up, talk, bend, sit down on the floor of the truck. But his weakness upset him.

The truck’s idling motor revved up and they began driving away—from the hospital, from Morozovo, from Tatiana. Alexander took a deep breath and turned to the two men sitting in front of him.

“Who the fuck are you?” he said. The words were gruff but the tone was resigned. He looked them over briefly. It was dark, he could barely make out their features. They were huddled against the wall of the truck, the smaller one wore glasses, the larger one sat, body wrapped in his coat, head wrapped in a bandage, and only his eyes, nose, and mouth showed. His eyes were bright and alert, discernible even in the dark, even at night. Bright perhaps wasn’t quite the right word. Mischievous. You couldn’t say the same about the smaller man’s eyes. They were lackluster.

“Who are you?” Alexander repeated.

“Lieutenant Nikolai Ouspensky. This is Corporal Boris Maikov. We were wounded in Operation Spark, on January fifteenth, over on the Volkhov side—we were housed in a field tent until we—”

“Stop,” Alexander said, putting his hand out. Before he continued with them he wanted to shake their hands. He wanted to feel what they were made of. Ouspensky was all right—his handshake was steady and friendly and unafraid. His hand was strong. Not frail Maikov’s.

Alexander sat back against the truck and felt for the grenade in his boots. Damn it. He could hear Ouspensky’s rattling breathing. Ouspensky was the one Tania had moved next to Alexander and put a tent around, the one with only one lung, the one who could not hear or speak. Yet here he was sitting, breathing on his own, hearing, speaking.

“Listen, both of you,” said Alexander. “Summon your strength. You’re going to need it.”

“For getting a medal?” Maikov said suspiciously.

“You’re going to be getting a posthumous medal if you don’t get hold of yourself and stop shaking,” said Alexander.

“How do you know I’m shaking?”

“I can hear your boots knocking together,” Alexander replied. “Quiet, soldier.”

Maikov turned to Ouspensky. “I told you, Lieutenant, this didn’t seem right, to be woken in the middle of the night—”

“And I told you to shut up,” said Alexander.

There was a bit of dull blue light coming in from the narrow window in the front of the truck.

“Lieutenant,” Alexander said to Ouspensky, “can you stand up? I need you to stand up and block the view from the window.”

“Last time I heard that, my quartermate was getting some blow,” said Ouspensky with a smile.

“Well, rest assured, no one is getting blow here,” Alexander said. “Stand up.”

Ouspensky obeyed. “Tell us the truth. Are we getting promoted?”

“How should I know?” Once Nikolai blocked the small window, Alexander took off his boot and pulled out one of the grenades. It was dark enough that neither Maikov nor Ouspensky saw what he was doing.

He crawled to the back of the truck and sat with his back against the doors. There were only two NKVD men in the front cabin. They were young, they had no experience, and no one wanted to cross the lake: the danger of German fire was ever-present and unwelcome. The driver’s lack of experience broadcast itself in his inability to drive the truck faster than twenty kilometers an hour. Alexander knew that if the Germans were monitoring Soviet army activity from their positions in Sinyavino, the truck’s leisurely speed would not escape their reconnaissance agents. He could walk across the ice faster.

“Major, are you getting promoted?” asked Ouspensky.

“That’s what they told me, and they let me keep my gun. Until I hear otherwise, I’m optimistic.”

“They didn’t let you keep your gun. I saw. I heard. They just didn’t have the strength to take it from you.”

“I’m a critically injured man,” Alexander said, taking out a cigarette. “They could have taken it from me if they wanted to.” He lit up.

“Have you got another one?” said Ouspensky. “I haven’t smoked in three months.” He looked Alexander over. “Nor seen anyone but my nurses.” He paused. “I’ve heard your voice, though.”

“You don’t want to smoke,” Alexander said. “From what I understand, you have no lungs.”

“I have one lung, and my nurse has been keeping me artificially sick so I don’t get sent back to the front. That’s what she did for me.”

“Did she?” asked Alexander, trying not to close his eyes at the image of Nikolai’s nurse—the small, clear-eyed bright sunny morning of a girl, the crisp Lazarevo morning of a sweet blonde girl.

“She brought in ice and made me breathe the cold fumes to get my lungs rattling and working. I wish she would have done a little more for me.”

Alexander handed him a cigarette. He wanted Nikolai to stop talking. He did not think Ouspensky would be particularly pleased to discover that Tatiana had saved him only long enough to be now sent into Mekhlis’s clutches.

Taking out his Tokarev pistol, Alexander got up, pointed at the back door and fired, blowing out the padlock. Maikov squealed. The truck slowed down. There was obviously some confusion in the driver’s cabin as to the source of the noise. Now down on the floor, Ouspensky was no longer blocking the window. Alexander had seconds before the truck stopped. Flinging the doors open, he pulled the pin out of the grenade, pulled himself above the roof of the creeping vehicle and threw the grenade forward. It landed a few meters in front of the truck’s path; seconds later there was a shattering explosion. He had just enough time to hear Maikov bleat, “What is that—” when he was thrown from the truck onto the ice. The pain he felt in the unhealed wound in his back was so jolting he thought his scars were tearing apart a millimeter at a time.

The truck jerked and began to rumble to a sliding stop. It skidded, teetered and fell sideways onto the ice, crunching to a halt at the ice hole made by Alexander’s grenade. The hole was smaller than the truck, but the truck was heavier than the broken ice. The ice cracked and the hole became wider.

Alexander got up and ran limping to the back doors, motioning for the two men to crawl to him. “What was that?” Maikov cried. He had bumped his head and his nose was bleeding.

“Jump out of the truck!” Alexander yelled.

Ouspensky and Maikov did as he commanded—just in time, as the front end of the truck slowly sank beneath the surface of the Ladoga. The drivers must have been knocked unconscious by the impact against the glass and ice. They were making no attempts to get out.

“Major, what the hell—”

“Shut up. The Germans will begin shooting at the truck in three or four minutes.” Alexander had no intention of actually dying on the ice. Before he saw Ouspensky and Maikov, he had had a small hope he might be alone, and would, after blowing up the truck with the NKVD men in it, make his way back to the Morozovo shores and into the woods. All of his hopes seemed to have this one common denominator nowadays: short-fucking-lived.

“You want to stay here and observe the efficient German army in action, or you want to come with me?”

“What about the drivers?” asked Ouspensky.

“What about them? They are NKVD men. Where do you think those drivers were taking you at dawn?”

Maikov tried to stand up. Before he could say another word, Alexander pulled him down onto the ice.

They weren’t far from the shore, maybe two kilometers. It was pre-dawn. The cabin of the truck was submerged and cracking a larger hole in the ice, large enough soon for the whole truck to fit through.

“Pardon me, Major,” Ouspensky said, “but you’re talking out of your ass. I’ve never done anything wrong in my entire military career. They haven’t come for me.”

“No,” Alexander said. “They’ve come for me.”

“Who the fuck are you?”

The truck was disappearing into the water.

Ouspensky stared at the ice, at the shivering, dumbfounded and bleeding Maikov, at Alexander, and laughed. “Major, perhaps you could tell us your plans for what the three of us are going to do alone on the open ice once the truck sinks?”

“Don’t worry,” said Alexander with a heavy sigh. “I guarantee you, we won’t be alone for long.” He nodded in the direction of the distant Morozovo shore and took out his two pistols. The headlights of a light army vehicle were getting closer. The jeep stopped fifty meters from them, and out of it jumped five men with five machine guns all pointing at Alexander. “Stand up! Stand up on the ice!”

Ouspensky and Maikov stood instantly, hands in the air, but Alexander didn’t like to take orders from inferior officers. He would not stand up and with good reason. He heard the whistling sound of a shell and put his hands over his head.

When he looked, two of the NKVD men were lying face down, while the other three were crawling to Alexander, rifles aimed at him, hissing, stay down, stay down. Maybe the Germans will kill them before I have a chance to, Alexander thought. He tried to make out the shore. Where was Sayers? The NKVD jeep was stationary, providing a convenient practice target for the Germans. When the NKVD men got very close, Alexander suggested to them that maybe they should get back inside their vehicle and return to Morozovo with all deliberate speed.

“No!” one of them yelled. “We have to get you across to Volkhov!”

Another shell whistled by, this one falling twenty meters from the jeep—the only transport they had to get either to Volkhov or back to Morozovo. Once the Germans hit their jeep, the cluster of men would last several unprotected seconds on the open lake against German artillery.

On his stomach, Alexander stared at the NKVD men on their stomachs. “You want to drive to Volkhov under German fire? Let’s go.”

The men looked at the armored truck that had carried Alexander. It had nearly gone below the surface of the water. Alexander watched with amusement as self-preservation battled it out with orders.

“Let’s go back,” said one of the NKVD. “We will return to Morozovo and await further instructions. We can always get him to Volkhov tomorrow.”

“I think that’s wise,” said Alexander.

Ouspensky was watching Alexander with amazement. Alexander ignored him. “Come on, all of you. On three. Run to your jeep before it’s blown up.” Aside from wanting to keep alive, Alexander wanted to remain dry. His life wasn’t worth much to him wet. He knew that whether he was in Volkhov or Morozovo he would get dry clothes when donkeys flew. The wet clothes would remain on his body until after they’d given him pneumonia and killed him, and still they’d be wet on his corpse in the March damp.

All six men crawled to the jeep. The three NKVD troops ordered the men to get into the back. Both Ouspensky and Maikov glanced at Alexander with considerable anxiety.

“Just get in.”

Two of the NKVD men got into the back with them. Ouspensky and Maikov breathed out in relief.

Alexander took out a cigarette and passed one to Nikolai and to white-faced Maikov who refused.

“Why did you do that?” whispered Ouspensky to Alexander.

“I’ll tell you,” said Alexander. “I did it because I just didn’t feel like getting promoted.”

Back on shore, the jeep proceeded to headquarters, passing a medical truck heading for the river. Alexander spotted Dr. Sayers in the passenger seat. Alexander managed a smile as he smoked, though he noticed the tips of his fingers trembling. It was going as well as could be expected. The scene on the lake genuinely looked like the aftermath of a German onslaught. Dead men on the ice, one truck down. Sayers would write out the death certificate, sign it, and it would be as if Alexander had never existed. The NKVD would be grateful—they preferred making their arrested parties invisible anyway—and by the time Stepanov learned of what had really happened, and that Alexander was still alive, Tatiana and Sayers would be long gone. Stepanov would not have to lie to Tatiana. Lacking any actual information, he himself would believe that Alexander, with Ouspensky and Maikov, had perished on the lake.

He ran a hand over his capless head and closed his eyes, quickly opening them again. The bleak Russian landscape was better than what was behind his closed lids.

Everybody won. The NKVD would not have to answer questions from the International Red Cross, the Red Army would pretend to mourn a number of downed and drowned men, while Mekhlis still had his paws on Alexander. Had they wanted to kill him, they would have killed him instantly. Those were not their orders. He knew why. The cat wanted to play with the mouse before he ripped the mouse to pieces.

It was eight in the morning by the time they got back to Morozovo, and since the base was coming to life and since they had to be hidden until they could be safely transported to unsafety, Alexander, Ouspensky and Maikov were thrown into the stockade in the basement of the old school. The stockade was a concrete cell just over a meter wide and less than two meters long. The militia ordered the three soldiers to lie flat on the floor and not move.

The cell was too short for Alexander; there was not enough room to lie down on the floor. As soon as the guards left, the three men crouched on the ground, drawing their knees up to their chests. Alexander’s wound was throbbing. Sitting on the cold cement wasn’t helping.

Ouspensky kept on at him. Alexander said, “What do you want? Stop asking. This way when you’re questioned you won’t have to lie.”

“Why would we be questioned?”

“You’ve been arrested. Isn’t that clear?”

Maikov was looking into his hands. “Oh, no,” he said. “I’ve got a wife, a mother, two small children. What’s going to happen?”

“You?” said Nikolai. “Who are you? I’ve got a wife and two sons. Two small sons. I think my mother is still alive, too.”

Maikov didn’t reply, but both he and Ouspensky turned to stare at Alexander. Maikov lowered his gaze. Ouspensky didn’t.

“All right,” said Ouspensky. “What did you do?”

“Lieutenant!” Alexander pulled rank whenever and wherever necessary. “I’ve heard enough from you.”

Ouspensky remained undaunted. “You don’t look like a religious zealot.”

Alexander was silent.

“Or a Jew. Or a skank.” Ouspensky looked him over. “Are you a kulak? A member of the Political Red Cross? A closet philosopher? A socialist? A historian? Are you an agricultural spoiler? An industrial wrecker? An anti-Soviet agitator?”

“I’m a Tatar drayman,” said Alexander.

“You will get ten years for that. Where is your dray? My wife would find it very useful for hauling onions from nearby fields. Are you telling me we were arrested because we had the fucking bad luck to be bedded next to you?”

Maikov emitted a whimper that bordered on a wail. “But we know nothing! We did nothing!”

“Oh?” said Alexander. “Tell that to the group of musicians and a small audience that used to gather in the early thirties for an evening of piano without clearing it first with the housing council. To help defray the costs of the wine, they would collect a few kopecks from each person. When they were all arrested for anti-Soviet agitation, the money they had collected was deemed to have gone to prop up the nearly extinct bourgeoisie. The musicians and the audience all got from three to ten years.” Alexander paused. “Well, not all. Only those who confessed to their crimes. Those who refused to confess were shot.”

Ouspensky and Maikov stared at him. “And you know this how?”

Alexander shrugged. “Because I, being fourteen, escaped through the window before they had a chance to catch me.”

They heard someone coming and fell quiet. Alexander stood up, and as the door was opened, Alexander said to Maikov, “Corporal, imagine your old life is gone. Imagine they’ve taken from you all they can and there is nothing left—”

“Come, Belov, let’s go!” shouted a stout man with a single-shot Nagant rifle.

“It’s the only way you will make it,” Alexander said, stepping out of the cell and hearing the door slam closed behind him.

He sat in a small room in the abandoned school, in a school chair, in front of a table that was in front of a blackboard. He thought at any minute the schoolmaster was going to come in with a textbook and proceed with the lesson on the evils of imperialism.

Instead two men came in. There were now four people in the room, Alexander in the chair, a guard at the back of the class and two men behind the teacher’s table. One man was bald and very thin with a long, thoughtful nose. He introduced himself kindly as Riduard Morozov. “Not the Morozov of this town?” asked Alexander.

Morozov smiled thinly. “No.”

The other man was extremely heavy, extremely bald and had a round bulbous nose with broken capillaries. He looked like a heavy drinker. He introduced himself—somewhat less kindly—as Mitterand, which Alexander found almost humorous since Mitterand was the leader of the tiny French “Resistance movement in Nazi-occupied France.

Morozov began. “Do you know why you’re here, Major Belov?” he asked, smiling warmly, speaking in polite, friendly tones. They were having a conversation. In a moment Mitterand was going to offer Alexander some tea, maybe a shot of vodka to calm him. Alexander thought of it as a joke, but oddly, the bottle of vodka actually did materialize from behind a desk, along with three shot glasses. Morozov poured.

“Yes,” Alexander said brightly. “I was told yesterday I’m getting promoted. I’m going to be lieutenant colonel. And no, thank you,” he said to the drink being offered to him.

“Are you refusing our hospitality, Comrade Belov?”

“I am Major Belov,” Alexander said, standing up and raising his voice to the man in front of him. “Do you have a rank?” He waited. The man said nothing. “I didn’t think so. You’re not wearing a uniform. If you had a uniform to wear, you would be wearing it. Now, I will not have your drink. I will not sit down until you tell me what you want with me. I will be glad to cooperate in whatever way I can, comrades,” he added, “but don’t sit there and insult me by pretending we’re the best of friends. What’s going on?”

“You’re under arrest.”

“Ah. So no promotion then? It only took you since four this morning. Ten hours. You have not told me what you want with me. I don’t know if you know yourselves. Why don’t you go and find someone who can actually tell me? In the meantime, take me back to my cell and stop wasting my time.”

“Major!” That was Morozov. The voice was less kind. The vodka, however, had been drunk by both men. Alexander smiled. If he kept them in the classroom drinking, they’d be leading him to the Soviet-Finnish border themselves, talking to him in soft English. They called him major. Alexander understood the psychology of rank extremely well. In the army there was only one rule—you never spoke rudely to your superiors. The pecking order was precisely established. “Major,” Morozov repeated. “Stay right here.”

Alexander returned to his chair.

Mitterand spoke to the young guard by the door; Alexander didn’t hear the individual words. He understood the essence. This was not only out of Morozov’s hands, this was out of his league. A bigger fish was needed to deal with Alexander. And soon the fish would be coming. But first they were going to try to break him.

“Put your hands behind your back, Major,” said Morozov.

Alexander threw his cigarette on the floor, twisted his foot over it, and stood up.

They relieved him of his sidearm and his knife and pillaged through his rucksack. Having found bandages and pens and her white dress—nothing worth removing—they decided to take Alexander’s medals off his chest, and they also tipped his shoulder bars and they told him he was not a major anymore and had no right to his title. They still hadn’t told him the charges against him, nor had they asked him any questions.

He asked for his ruck. They laughed. Almost helplessly, he glanced at it once, in their hands, knowing Tatiana’s dress was there. Just one more thing to be trampled on, to be left behind.

Alexander was taken to a solitary concrete cell with no window, no Ouspensky, no Maikov. He had no bench, he had no bed, and he had no blanket. He was alone, and his only sources of oxygen came from the guards opening the door, or from opening the sliding steel reinforced window on the door, or from the peephole they peered at him through, or from the small hole in the ceiling that was probably used for poison gas.

They left him his watch, and because they didn’t search his person they did not find the drugs in his boots. He had a feeling the drugs were not safe. But where to put them? Slipping off the boots, he took the syringe, the morphine vial and the small sulfa pills and stuffed them in the pocket of his BVDs. They would have to search more thoroughly than they usually did to find them there.

Bending reminded him of his sharply throbbing back, which, as the day wore on, felt as if it were swelling and expanding. He debated giving himself a morphine shot, then decided against it. He didn’t want to numb himself to what was about to come. He did chew one of the sulfa tablets, bitter and acidic, without crushing it, without asking for water. He just put it into his mouth and chewed it, shuddering with the swallow. Alexander sat quietly on the floor, realizing they couldn’t see him because it was so dark in the cell, and closed his eyes. Or maybe they had remained open; it was hard to tell. It didn’t matter in the end. He sat and waited. Had the day gone? Had it been one day? He wanted a smoke. He remained motionless. Had Sayers and Tatiana left? Had Tania allowed herself to be convinced, to be goaded, to be comforted? Had she taken her things and got into Sayers’s truck? Had they fled Morozovo? What Alexander wouldn’t give for a word. He was very afraid that Dr. Sayers would break down, not convince her, and she would still be here. He tried to feel for her up close, sensing nothing but the cold. If she were still in Morozovo, he knew that once they started interrogating him for real and once they knew of her, he would be finished. He couldn’t breathe thinking of her still so close. He needed to stall the NKVD for a little while longer until he knew for sure she was out. The sooner she left, the sooner he could give himself over to the state.

She seemed very close. He could almost reach for his ruck and feel for her dress, and see her, white dress with red roses, hair long and flowing, teeth gleaming. She was very close. He didn’t have to touch the dress. He didn’t need comfort. She needed comfort. She needed him so much, how was she going to get through this without him?

How was she going to get through losing him without him?

Alexander needed to think about something else.

Soon he didn’t have to.

“Idiot!” he heard from the outside. “How do you plan to observe the prisoner if he has no light? He could have killed himself in there for all you know. Stupid moron!”

The door opened and a man walked in with a kerosene lamp. “You need to be illuminated at all times,” said the man. It was Mitterand.

“When is someone going to tell me what’s going on around here?” said Alexander.

“You are not to question us!” Mitterand shouted. “You are not a major anymore. You are nothing. You will sit and wait until we are ready for you.”

That seemed to be the sole purpose of Mitterand’s visit—to yell at Alexander. After Mitterand left, the guard brought Alexander some water and three-quarters of a kilo of bread. Alexander ate the bread, drank the water, and then felt around the floor for a drain hole. He did not want to be illuminated. He also did not want to compete for oxygen with a kerosene lamp. Opening the bottom of the lamp, he poured the kerosene down the drain, leaving just a little left at the bottom that burned out in ten minutes. The guard opened the door and shouted, “Why is the lamp out?”

“Ran out of kerosene,” Alexander said pleasantly. “Have you got more?”

The guard did not have more.

“That’s too bad,” Alexander said.

He slept in the darkness, in a sitting position, in the corner, with his head leaning against the wall. When he woke up it was still pitch black. He didn’t know for sure he had woken up. He dreamed he had opened his eyes, and it was black. He dreamed of Tatiana, and when he woke up, he thought of Tatiana. Dreams and reality were mingled. Alexander didn’t know where the nightmare ended and real life began. He dreamed he closed his eyes and slept.

He felt disconnected from himself, from Morozovo—from the hospital, from his life—and he felt strangely comforted in his detachment. He was cold. That attached him back to his cramped and uncomfortable body. He preferred it the other way. The wound in his back was merciless. He grit his teeth and blinked away the darkness.

Harold and Jane Barrington, 1933

Hitler had become the Chancellor of Germany. President Von Hindenburg had “stepped down.” Alexander felt an inexplicable stirring in the air of something ominous he could not quite put his finger on. He had long stopped hoping for more food, for new shoes, for a warmer winter coat. But in the summer he didn’t need a coat. The Barringtons were spending July at their dacha in Krasnaya Polyana and that was good. They rented two rooms from a Lithuanian widow and her drunken son.

One afternoon, after a picnic of hard-boiled eggs and tomatoes and a little bologna, and vodka for his mother (“Mom, since when do you drink vodka?”), Alexander was lying in the hammock reading when he heard someone behind him in the woods. When he languidly turned his head, he saw his mother and father. They were near the clearing by the lake, throwing pebbles into the water, chatting softly. Alexander was not used to his parents talking quietly, so strident had their relationship become with their conflicting needs and anxieties. Normally he would have looked back into his book. But this quiet chatter, this convivial closeness—he didn’t know what to make of it. Harold took the pebbles out of Jane’s hands and brought her to stand close to him. One of his hands was around her waist. He was holding her other hand. And then he kissed her and they began to dance. They waltzed slowly in the clearing, and Alexander heard his father singing—singing!

As they continued to waltz, their bodies spinning in a conjugal embrace, and as Alexander watched his mother and father in a moment they had never had before in front of him and would never have again, he was filled with a happiness and longing he could neither define nor express.

They drew away from one another, looked at him, and smiled.

Uncertainly he smiled back, embarrassed but unable to look away.

They came over to his hammock. His father’s arm was still around his mother.

“It’s our anniversary today, Alexander.”

“Your father is singing the anniversary song to me,” said Jane. “We danced to that song the day we were wed thirty-one years ago. I was nineteen.” She smiled at Harold.

“Are you going to stay in the hammock, son? Read for a while?”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

“Good,” said Harold, taking Jane by the hand and heading with her toward the house.

Alexander looked into his book, but after an hour of turning the pages, he could not see or remember a single word of what he had just read.

Winter came too soon. And during the winter on Thursday evenings after dinner Harold would take Alexander by the hand and walk with him in the cold to Arbat—the Moscow street vendors’ mall of musicians and writers and poets and troubadours and old ladies selling chachkas from the days of the Tsar. Near Arbat, in a small, smoke-filled two-room apartment, a group of foreigners and Soviet men, all devout communists, would meet for two hours from eight to ten to drink, smoke and discuss how to make communism work better in the Soviet Union, how to make the classless society arrive faster at their doorstep, a society in which there was no need for the state, for police, for an army because all grounds for conflict had been removed.

“Marx said the only conflict is economic conflict between classes. Once it’s gone, the need for police would be gone. Citizens, what are we waiting for? Is it taking longer than we anticipated?” That was Harold.

Even Alexander chipped in, remembering something he had read: “‘While the state exists, there can be no freedom. When there will be freedom, there will be no state.’” Harold smiled approvingly at his son quoting Lenin.

At the meetings Alexander made friends with sixty-seven-year-old Slavan, a withered, gray man who seemed to have wrinkles even on his scalp, but his eyes were small blue alert stars, and his mouth was always fixed in a sardonic smile. He said little, but Alexander liked the look of his ironic expression and the bit of warmth that came from him whenever he looked Alexander’s way.

After two years of meetings, Harold and fifteen others were called into the Party regional headquarters or Obkom—Oblastnyi Kommitet—and asked if the focus of their future meetings could perhaps be something other than how to make communism work better in Russia since that implied it wasn’t working quite so well. After hearing about it from his father, Alexander asked how the Party knew what a group of fifteen drunk men talked about once a week on Thursdays in a city of five million people. Harold said, himself quoting Lenin, “‘It is true that liberty is precious. So precious that it must be rationed.’ They obviously have ways of finding out what we talk about. Perhaps it’s that Slavan. I’d stop talking to him if I were you.”

“It’s not him, Dad.”

After that the group still met on Thursdays, but now they read aloud from Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? or from Rosa Luxembourg’s pamphlets, or from Marx’s Communist Manifesto.

Harold often brought up the approval of American communist supporters to show that Soviet communism was slowly being embraced internationally and that it was all just a matter of time. “Look what Isadora Duncan said about Lenin before she died,” Harold would say and quote: “‘Others loved themselves, money, theories, power. Lenin loved his fellow men…Lenin was God, as Christ was God, because God is love, and Christ and Lenin were all love.’”

Alexander smiled approvingly at his father.

During one full night, many hours of it, fifteen men, except for a silent and smiling Slavan, tried to explain to a fourteen-year-old Alexander the meaning of “value subtraction.” How an item—say shoes—could cost less after it was made than the sum total value of its labor and material parts. “What don’t you understand?” yelled a frustrated communist who was an engineer by day.

“The part of how you make money selling shoes.”

“Who said anything about making money? Haven’t you read the Communist Manifesto?”

“Yes.”

“Don’t you remember what Marx said? The difference between what the factory pays the worker to make the shoes and what the shoes actually cost is capitalist theft and exploitation of the proletariat. That’s what communism is trying to eradicate. Have you not been paying attention?”

“I have, but value subtraction is not just eliminating profit,” Alexander said. “Value subtraction means it’s actually costing more to make the shoes than the shoes can be sold for. Who is going to pay the difference?”

“The state.”

“Where is the state going to find the money?”

“The state will temporarily pay the workers less to make the shoes.”

Alexander was quiet. “So in a period of flagrant worldwide inflation, the Soviet Union is going to pay the workers less? How much less?”

“Less, that’s all.”

“And how are we going to buy the shoes?”

“Temporarily we’re not. We’ll have to wear last year’s shoes. Until the state gets on its feet.” The engineer smiled.

“Good one,” Alexander said calmly. “The state got on its feet enough to cover the cost of Lenin’s Rolls Royce, didn’t it?”

“What does Lenin’s Rolls Royce have to do with what we’re talking about?” screamed the engineer. Slavan laughed. “The Soviet Union will be fine,” the engineer continued. “It is in its infancy stages. It will borrow money from abroad if it has to.”

“With all due respect, citizen, no country in the world will lend money to the Soviet Union again,” said Alexander. “It repudiated all of its foreign debt in 1917 after the Bolshevik Revolution. They will not see any foreign money for a long time to come. The world banks are closed to the Soviet Union.”

“We have to be patient. Changes will not happen overnight. And you need to have a more positive attitude. Harold, what have you been teaching your son?”

Harold didn’t reply, but on the way home he said, “What’s gotten into you, Alexander?”

“Nothing.” Alexander wanted to take his father’s hand, like always, but suddenly thought he was too old. He walked alongside him, and then took it anyway. “For some reason, the economics are not working. This revolutionary state is built foremost on economics, and the state has figured out everything except how to pay the labor force. The workers feel less and less like proletariat than like the state-owned factories and machines. We’ve been here over three years. We just finished the first of the Five-Year Plans. And we have so little food, and nothing in the stores, and—” He wanted to say, and people keep disappearing, but he kept his mouth shut.

“Well, what do you think is going on in America?” Harold asked. “Thirty per cent unemployment, Alexander. You think it’s better there? The whole world is suffering. Look at Germany: such extraordinary inflation. Now this man Adolf Hitler is promising the Germans the end of all their troubles. Maybe he will succeed. The Germans certainly hope so. Well, Comrades Lenin and Stalin promised the same thing to the Soviet Union. What did Stalin call Russia? The second America, right? We have to believe, and we have to follow, and soon it will be better. You’ll see.”

“I know, Dad. You may be right. Still, I know that the state has to pay its people somehow. How much less can they pay you? We already can’t afford meat and milk, not that there is any, even if we could. And will they pay you less until—what? They’ll realize they need more money, not less, to run the government, and your labor is their largest variable cost. What are they going to do? Reduce your salary every year until—until what?”

“What are you afraid of?” Harold said, squeezing Alexander’s reluctant hand. “When you get big, you will have meaningful work. You still want to be an architect? You will. You will have a career.”

“I’m afraid,” said Alexander, extricating himself from his father, “that it’s just a matter of time before I am, before we all become nothing more than fixed capital.”

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[SNEAK PEEK] LAST SEEN ALIVE

Last Seen Alive by Claire Douglas

 

There is a ringing in my ear. It’s deafening, grating and monotone like a pneumatic drill, familiar—a fire alarm. Panic consumes me, pinning me down, crushing my chest. Fire! I need to escape. A cold sweat breaks out all over my body. I’m in the hostel. It’s too hot. The darkness closing in, trapping me. I can hear the sound of running feet, shouts in a language I can’t understand. Screaming. Smoke filling my nostrils and my lungs so that I can’t breathe. I can feel arms around me, I try to shake them away. ‘Get off! Get off!’

‘Libby. It’s OK . . . shh, wake up.’

My eyes snap open to see Jamie staring down at me, his face crumpled with concern, his hands on my shoulders. I’m on the sofa. In the Hideaway. I’m safe . . . I’m safe. I must have fallen asleep . . . but the noise, I can still hear it.

‘It’s just the smoke alarm,’ says Jamie as if reading my mind. ‘It’s gone off in the kitchen. I was making some toast.’ He smiles apologetically. ‘I wanted some of their fancy pâté. But the alarm’s too bloody sensitive. It will stop in a minute. I’ve pressed the button . . .’ I pull away from his grasp and he steps back as though I’ve bitten him. ‘You were having a nightmare. I was trying to wake you up.’

I shift my weight so that I’m sitting upright. ‘I thought . . .’ The noise stops and immediately my heart rate slows even though I can still hear a faint ringing in my ears.

Jamie comes to sit next to me but doesn’t touch me. I can see two overdone pieces of toast on a plate on the coffee table, the edges black.

‘Libs, you’re trembling . . .’

I have a nasty taste in my mouth and my top is clinging to me underneath my dressing gown, damp with sweat. ‘I thought I was at the hostel,’ I say, disorientated. I scan the room just to make sure I really am at the Hideaway and not in Thailand. Tara smiles down at me from the black-and-white canvas on the opposite wall, above the TV. Seeing her photo roots me in the present.

My chin quivers. I don’t want to cry.

Jamie notices and pulls me into his arms. ‘Oh, babe.’ Babe. He hasn’t called me that in years.

‘It felt so real,’ I whisper into his shoulder, my throat sore as if smoke really has been suffocating me. I pull away from him and get up, fumbling at my neckline. I can’t breathe properly.

I walk shakily over to the French doors, turning the key to open one side and stand under the starless sky, cradling my broken arm. I’ve taken the sling off but the cast feels heavy. I flex my fingers. I can’t wait to get the bloody thing off.

It’s so dark outside, the kind of night sky you only really see in the countryside, deep and thick and never-ending, untainted by pollution and street lamps. I take deep gasps of fresh air. I can taste the salt on my tongue, hear the roar of the waves from the sea below. Standing here like this, in almost total darkness, makes me realise afresh how remote we are. How far from civilisation. I suddenly yearn for our busy Bath street with all the people noisily going about their daily lives. It’s too silent out here. Too still.

‘You never talk about it. What happened in Thailand.’ Jamie’s voice makes me jump. I turn to see him standing in the doorway, backlit from the muted living-room lights. Jamie had spent ages messing with the remote to get the ambience just right.

‘It’s not something I want to relive,’ I say.

He doesn’t step into the garden. ‘But you do. Relive it, I mean. You relived it just now. And you probably did when the school caught fire.’

‘I just want to forget about it. To bury it. It’s my way of coping.’

I’ve never really told him about what happened. To me. To Karen. He knows my friend died. He knows I was lucky to escape. It makes me worry, sometimes, the things I haven’t told him. Because we shouldn’t keep secrets from each other. Yet we do. I know that he’s keeping things from me too. The way he felt about Hannah, for example. The loan he got from his mother that he assumes I don’t know about. And that’s fine. I understand. Because we love each other and we have to trust one another. I don’t go in for all this therapy malarkey. I will never sit on a couch in a psychiatrist’s office unloading myself when they ask, ‘And how does that make you feel?’ That just isn’t me. As far as I’m concerned the past is the past. And it should stay there.

*  *  *

When I awake the next morning after a restless sleep, Jamie announces we should go out for the day. He doesn’t have to say it but I know he wants to get me out of the house. Me freaking out over the smoke alarm last night was probably the last straw.

‘We could go to St Mawes and see the castle? It was built by Henry VIII. Meant to be worth seeing,’ he says over breakfast. ‘Or do you fancy the lighthouse at Lizard Point?’ He has a map spread out on the kitchen island and he’s perusing it intently as he spoons Shreddies into his mouth. It always makes me smile how much he loves what I call kids’ cereal. Frosties are a firm favourite of his too. He never goes anywhere without bringing his own.

‘How far away is the lighthouse?’

‘Should be an hour, max.’

I don’t relish the thought of being cooped up in the car for that long. I can’t shake the nausea I’ve been experiencing since last night, but I’d hate to burst his bubble. I’d rather visit the lighthouse instead of traipsing around a damp, crumbling castle. And it would be good for me to get out of the house, however much I love it.

We debate whether to take Ziggy but decide against it, although I feel a pang of guilt as he observes us with his big brown eyes as we’re leaving. ‘We won’t be long, Zigs,’ says Jamie. I blow the dog a kiss before Jamie closes the door. His expression is unsure as he faces me. ‘Do you think he’ll be OK? What if he shits on the furniture or something?’

‘He is house-trained,’ I laugh.

Jamie hovers by the door. ‘I don’t feel comfortable leaving him, Libs.’ He returns the key to the lock and the door swings open again. Ziggy bounds towards us.

I roll my eyes in mock exasperation. ‘Fine, but he’ll have to stay in the car while we visit the lighthouse. Then we can take him for a long walk after.’ Jamie darts back into the house to get the dog lead. ‘And don’t forget his water bowl,’ I call after him as I bend down to stop Ziggy bolting.

It’s colder than it was the day we arrived, with a slate-grey sky and an icy wind coming off the sea. I wrap my scarf further around my neck as Jamie lets Ziggy into the back seat. ‘Don’t put the roof down,’ I say in a warning tone as I get into the passenger side. ‘I’m freezing and I can’t even put my coat on properly with this sling.’

‘I wasn’t going to put the roof down,’ he says mildly, but darts a sideways look at me, as though assessing my mood. I want to scream at him: Stop walking on fucking eggshells around me! But I can’t because I know it’s coming from a place of love. I just hate being treated like some damsel in distress. I know I’m not helping myself with my fears that something terrible is about to happen, and I vow, as the car lumbers along the narrow lanes, to make an effort to pull myself together. To get a hold on these paranoid thoughts. I want Jamie to see me as the strong, independent woman he fell in love with. The woman who didn’t take any shit. The woman who his mother once described, disparagingly, as ‘quite feisty’ after a heated discussion with Katie about the education system.

We don’t speak. I stare out of the window as the country lanes rush by in flashes of green and grey. Over in the distant fields I spot sheep, their cotton-wool coats against the lush grass reminding me of a child’s drawing. Jamie turns the radio up but he doesn’t sing along.

Eventually he takes a right turn and I spot the lighthouse adjoined to an array of squat white buildings, their windowsills painted a fresh green. The car lurches over the bumpy tarmac, making me feel even more nauseous, and Jamie reverses into a space. ‘Right,’ he says, turning off the engine. ‘Lighthouse first?’

‘I’m dying for a Starbucks,’ I admit.

He grins. ‘No Starbucks here, I don’t think. But we can try the café afterwards.’

‘Yes, but will they do a caramel macchiato? I can’t drink coffee unless it’s syruped up, you know that.’

He squeezes my thigh. ‘I’ll do my best,’ he promises, the tension between us forgotten. He swivels in his seat to address Ziggy. ‘And when we come back we’ll take you for a long walk, I promise.’

We amble around the lighthouse with the tour guide, a young, pretty girl with red corkscrew curls called Ruth. I feel claustrophobic in the small, circular room with nineteen other people. The car sickness still hasn’t left me, and the man standing next to me smells unclean. Jamie is fascinated as Ruth explains the history of the lighthouse, showing us to the top via a rickety staircase to see the panoramic sea views. I try to appear enthusiastic but I feel like I’m at work and this is one of our many school trips.

Eventually we are released back outside and I take deep lungfuls of the fresh sea air, trying to cleanse my system of the smell of unwashed bodies and old dusty memorabilia. My sense of smell is more acute than normal: the damp grass, the sea air, the coffee from the nearby café, the fruity shampoo of a passing woman. The only other time my sense of smell was this good was when I was pregnant. Could I be again? I rub my stomach instinctively, deep down knowing it would be unlikely. Before Cornwall, Jamie and I had had sex just once. I know it only takes once for it to happen but I can’t be that lucky.

I wander onto the grass, deep in thought, before realising that Jamie isn’t with me. I turn to see him hanging about in the arched doorway of the lighthouse, in deep conversation with Ruth. He’s listening closely as she talks, his eyebrows knitted together and a look of intense concentration on his face. He must say something funny because she throws back her head in laughter and touches his arm, running her fingers down his wool coat for longer than is strictly necessary. She has to be nearly ten years his junior but it’s obvious she fancies him—the studious types always do. He’s got that foppish, geeky look about him that some women—including me—find sexy, like a blonder, younger Jarvis Cocker. He’s wearing a long coat over his scruffy jeans and a red scarf. He looks like a professor. Or a mature student.

I tear my eyes from them and begin to walk slowly towards the café, knowing that Jamie will eventually catch up with me. When he does he’s breathless and his cheeks are flushed.

‘Do you know,’ he says, talking quickly in his excitement, taking my good arm and linking it through his, ‘before they switched over to the computer system the lighthouse had to be manned by three men.’

‘No, I didn’t know that.’ Jamie is always spouting random, often useless, facts.

‘Years ago it was only two. But that changed. And why?’

I shrug.

‘Come on, Libs. Humour me.’

I sigh. ‘OK, why?’

I can see him mentally rubbing his hands with glee. ‘Well, according to Ruth, a long time ago on a remote island off Wales, one of the two men on duty died of a heart attack or something. Anyway the other was left with the dead body, on his own. For months.’

By now we’ve bypassed the café, much to my dismay, reaching the cliff’s edge, and I stop to ferret in my bag for my phone so that I can take a photograph of the bay below. The sky is overcast and the wind ruffles our hair and tugs the hems of our coats as though trying to take our attention away from the breathtaking views. The water is an angry-looking navy blue and the white frothy spray leaps off the rocks and smashes against the ragged shoreline. The noise of the wind mixed with the roar of the sea is deafening and we almost have to shout to make ourselves heard.

‘He was worried the police would think he killed the man, so he kept his body as evidence and hung it out the window,’ Jamie continues.

‘Urgh, Jamie! Why would he have to hang his friend’s dead body out of the window?’

‘Because there was no room in the lighthouse. It was too small. And the bloke was dead, Libs. He’d started to decay, to smell. Here, let me do that,’ he says, taking the phone from my hand when he sees I’m having trouble.

I shudder. ‘Thanks.’ I wrinkle up my nose. The smell in the air is pungent: sea salt and fish. ‘How did he hang him outside?’ I ask. I can’t help but feel curious even though I should know better than to encourage Jamie.

He beams, clearly enjoying himself as he imparts this piece of historical gossip. ‘Well, he made a makeshift coffin, put his dead friend inside and hung it from the lighthouse.’ He’s always had a morbid fascination with the weird and wonderful. He’s a regular subscriber to the Fortean Times. ‘But the weather conditions broke the coffin apart, so eventually the man was left hanging there, decaying, banging against the window as though beckoning to his friend. Can you imagine that? Seeing your friend slowly rotting away . . .’

My stomach turns. ‘All right, Jay. I get the picture. Why didn’t the man get help?’

He rolls his eyes as if it’s obvious. ‘Because he couldn’t leave the lighthouse unmanned, could he? He sent distress signals but nobody could come for months. The sight of his dead friend hanging there sent him quite mad, apparently.’

‘Not surprised. Can we change the subject now?’ I ask.

He grins at me, his eyes twinkling. ‘Sure.’

‘Is that what Ruth was talking to you about? While she was laughing at your jokes and generally being a flirt?’ It slips out and I notice the ripple of surprise on Jamie’s face.

He shrugs, good-naturedly. ‘I’ve still got it,’ he winks at me. ‘What can I say?’

I push his arm playfully. ‘Oh, you love it,’ I laugh. ‘As long as you remember you’re mine.’

‘How could I forget?’

We walk to the top of the grassy incline to get a better view of the sea and the jagged rocks below. The land juts out beneath us in a zigzag shape. ‘Is that a seal?’ I say, nudging Jamie and pointing to a dark patch of sea where something sticks up from the water.

‘Nah, just a rock,’ says Jamie, squinting. He holds up my phone to take a few more shots. I’m aware of a surge of tourists chatting in French behind me. Over Jamie’s shoulder I notice a man, perhaps in his late thirties, wearing an oversized grey fleece with a high collar that obscures his chin and a black beanie pushed down over his head. It reminds me of the tea cosy Mum used when I was a child. He has a camera with a zoom lens swinging from his neck, and a face as stormy as the sea below. There is something familiar about him. Now he has his camera angled in Jamie’s direction, and keeps lifting it to his eyes, as if he’s paparazzi. Every time Jamie moves, so does the man—and his camera. Jamie’s oblivious, filling me in on a documentary on seals that he’d seen last night after I went to bed. Something about the man is bothering me. Is he trying to take a photo of me? Of Jamie? I have a fleeting, paranoid thought that he’s police, or a private detective, and my palms sweat. I gently steer Jamie further up the hill in an effort to make us inconspicuous among the throng of tourists.

I glance back at the café longingly. I’m desperate for caffeine but we can’t stop now. I scan the faces behind me for the man and his camera. I can just about see his beanie hat over the shoulder of a tall woman. Is his focus no longer on us? Maybe he wasn’t aiming his camera at us after all. I turn back to Jamie, relieved. Of course he’s not some private detective. Who would even think about hiring one? And why?

I’m just about to ask Jamie if we can go back and grab a coffee when I hear him cry out and he stumbles into my side, knocking me forwards. It happens so quickly, I lose my footing on the uneven ground and trip. I’m so intent on trying to protect my broken arm that I find myself careering down the hill towards the cliff’s edge. Blood pounds in my ears as I imagine plummeting onto the rocks below but I can’t stop myself; it’s like I’m on a treadmill and I can’t get off. I hear somebody scream and I’m not sure if it’s me. Then the next thing I know I’m being pulled backwards by the scarf around my neck and I feel familiar hands grabbing my waist.

‘It’s OK, Libs, I’ve got you,’ says Jamie, his voice breathless with fear. ‘I’ve got you.’

We’re on the lip of ground before the land falls away; if I’d gone any further it would have been too late. My legs are weak and my throat hurts where Jamie has pulled the scarf. I let him lead me back up the hill so that we are safely on the pavement, then we sink to the ground together like we are conjoined. I’m trembling all over. Horrified tourists gather around us, asking if I’m OK. An older man returns from the nearby café and thrusts a cup of tea wordlessly into my hands. I take it gratefully, my teeth chattering as I stammer out a thank-you. His kindness, along with the shock, makes my eyes fill up.

‘My God, Libs, you nearly went over the edge,’ Jamie says, a tremor in his voice. ‘I’m so sorry. I felt a shove in my back, pushing me into you.’ He looks distraught.

‘Don’t worry, I don’t think you were trying to kill me.’ I try to smile as I sip my tea, warming my hands against the cup.

‘Not funny,’ he says, but he gives me a watered-down grin. ‘Shit, that was scary.’

The tourists begin to disperse now they can see we’re unharmed.

‘Did you see who pushed you?’ I say, feeling sick.

He frowns. ‘Not really. A guy was standing by me. Big fella, broad, tall. But not sure if it was him.’

‘Was he wearing a beanie?’

Jamie frowns. ‘I’m not sure. Why?’

‘Before you fell into me I noticed a guy. He had a camera around his neck and he was taking photos.’

‘So?’

‘Of you. He had his camera trained on you, Jay.’

He shuffles and looks uncomfortable, his eyes sliding away from mine. ‘Why would he be doing that?’ he mumbles.

I let a beat or two pass before saying, ‘I don’t know.’ I sigh and hand him my cup. He stands up and helps me to my feet.

‘Look, Libs, it was an accident. There were too many of us standing together. You’re not telling me you think this bloke did it on purpose, are you?’

I stare at the ground, my mind racing. ‘I’m not sure. No, I don’t think so. It’s just . . . this guy was interested in you.’

Jamie smirks. ‘Maybe he fancied me. Like Ruth, huh?’

I can’t help but laugh. ‘Don’t be an idiot.’

He wraps his arms around me. ‘You feel freezing. Come on, let’s go and get something to eat to warm you up. Then we better get back to Ziggy.’

I nod and allow him to guide me towards the café. But I feel uneasy as I scan the crowds and the stragglers who are making their way towards the lighthouse and the car park. It doesn’t matter what Jamie says. I know I’m not being paranoid. There was something strange about that man and the interest he’d taken in my husband.

 

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[SNEAK PEEK] PIRATA

Pirata by Patrick Hasburgh

 

It was about an hour before sunup, and I had already made it down through the switchbacks. The “prevent” defense seemed to have worked—my pre-seizure sense of lunacy had been degaussed. I was feeling good. My epileptic curse had been pushed back to the future.

And I was proud of myself for going out of my way—by two hundred miles—to give Sarah a ride. Despite her claims to fame, there was still a sad mystery to her, and I could relate. Very few foreigners move to Mexico to escape success.

I tapped my fingers on the nose of my Red Fin and made an instant decision to drive due west and surf Bichos for an hour or two. I had to take the highway a little farther north to get there, which meant that the drive wasn’t going to be as safe. But if Bichos was still getting the scraps of that southwest swell we had snagged at Gagger’s, it could be a great morning.

I looked out at the palm trees. Not a frond was stirring. It was going to be a windless morning at a mysto break. I felt blessed, and still a little buzzed.

Until a small group of men stopped me at a roadblock—they were wearing black ski masks and carrying machine guns. But their camouflage pants gave me hope, and I could see that some of these guys were wearing combat boots. There was a chance they were military and not with the cartels.

Or they could be the Mexican seguridad policía secreta, the Grupo Marte—a very badass undercover outfit that was originally organized to target left-wing Americans and Mexican socialists. But the locals will tell you that today, the SPS is just in charge of disappearing people.

I wasn’t sure enough to make the call about who these guys were, so my immediate strategy was to play dumb.

I rolled down my window.

Bono days,” I said, intentionally overmangling my typically mangled Spanish. “Me, surfino. El gordo olas at Bitchens. Yes?

I smiled, proud as hell of my ability to play Doofus Kook from SoCal on his first surf trip to Mexico. If there were such a thing as a Mexican Academy Award, I would have just won one.

The man closest to me pulled off his ski mask and shouldered his machine gun. He looked at me with a little disgust. He was about thirty years old, with black eyes and a shaved head. There was a tiny hangman’s noose tattooed under his left eye. I couldn’t tell if he had any rank, but it was clear that he was el jefe.

“Don’t bullshit me. I speak English,” he said with an accent so crisp it sounded nearly British.

“Sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to insult you.”

“You just figured I’d go easy on an idiot tourist.”

Okay. So the boss had me dead cold. I decided to let him lead. I nodded.

“I’m going to ask you a couple of questions.”

I nodded again.

“But first I need to tell you that it is very important that you tell me the truth.”

“I will,” I said.

“Don’t answer so fast. I want you to think about that. I want you to understand how important they are.”

“The questions?”

“The answers.”

I didn’t nod this time. I just stared back at him.

“What’s your name?”

“Nick Lutz,” I said, but then I couldn’t hold this guy’s gaze. “Nicholas. Sometimes they call me Pirata.”

“Who does?”

“My amigos,” I said.

“Because of the patch?”

“I hope that’s why.”

I looked down at my hands. They were gripping the steering wheel as if it were a trapeze.

“What happened?” he asked, pointing to the patch.

“I got hurt at work,” I said.

He turned my head so he could see the round scar on the back of it. If he knew what an exit wound looked like, he didn’t show it.

“Do you have a passport?”

“Not on me.”

“Are you a US citizen?”

“I have an FM3,” I said, and nodded. “Yes.”

I could see that about half the guys wearing camo were also barefoot. I’d never heard of barefoot soldiers. And the secret police probably all wear shoes. So maybe this was a cartel kidnapping, after all.

“Do you have it with you?”

I nodded and reached for the glove compartment. When I opened it, Winsor’s bag of dope fell out. I grabbed at it.

“Don’t touch that,” he said. “Just get me the FM3.”

I got the FM3 and handed it to him.

“It’s expired,” he said.

“No way,” I said, faking surprise. “Really?”

But the performance wasn’t very believable. I might have to return my Oscar.

“Yes, really,” he said.

“Is there anything I can do to fix this?” And I immediately regretted giving all my cash to Sarah.

“Are you offering me a bribe, Pirata?” El Jefe asked, and then smiled. “Remember—the answer is the important part.”

“I’m not,” I said.

“Correct answer.”

He handed me back my FM3.

“Just two more questions,” he said.

“No problema, señor,” I said, and then grimaced an apology. “No problem, sir.”

“Who is the president of México?”

“You’re kidding?”

“I’m not,” he said, as if he had been trained in interrogation by my ex-wife. “If you are a Mexican resident, you should know who our president is.”

“I do,” I said.

“So?”

And somehow I remembered.

“Peña Nieto.”

God bless this cocaine. It must have been cut with Adderall.

¡Profe!” El Jefe called out to one of his soldiers, and laughed. I could see that he might even have been a little impressed. Then he turned back to me.

“Are you ready for your Final Jeopardy question?” he asked.

“It’s called the Final Jeopardy answer,” I corrected, and then instantly regretted it. “At least up in the States, I mean.”

“But we are not in the States,” he deadpanned.

“I know.”

He squinted slightly.

“Do you have any drugs, Mr. Lutz?” he asked.

I glanced over at Winsor’s bud-filled baggy, which had landed on the passenger seat. I picked it up and handed it to him.

“Just this,” I said. “It belongs to a guy I surf with.”

He sniffed Winsor’s pot and put it in his pocket. “So, no drugs?”

“No.”

“You’re sure?”

“I’m sure,” I said. “Positive.” And for the first time, I was able to hold his gaze.

“Okay.”

I started up the Suburban, but El Jefe reached through the window and shut it off.

“Not yet,” he said as he removed the keys.

Then he clapped his hands, and a very large and very white German shepherd appeared from the back of a canvas-topped truck that I hadn’t seen parked in the shadows. As I squinted, I could see that it was a 1979 Dodge Power Wagon, jerry-rigged into a troop transport.

“Who’s that?” I asked him, faking a grin at the dog.

“He’s our drug-sniffing dog,” he said. “We got him from our friends at the border. But every time he sniffed somebody out up there, a customs agent got beheaded, so they said we could have him.”

He opened the door, and I stepped out. The dog sniffed over every inch of the Suburban. El Jefe even had the dog sniff through it twice. But the Suburban was clean.

“It’s not the drugs, you know,” he said. “The drugs don’t matter. The problem is the lying.”

“It is?” I asked.

“Countries whose people no longer know that the truth matters can’t survive. It’s very simple.”

They must not watch much cable news down here, I thought.

“Lies are the bricks of corruption,” he said. “We have to teach la paisa that truth is power.”

La who?”

Los mexicanos.”

“But I’m an American,” I said, bobbing to take myself out of a fight that wasn’t mine.

“So you should understand this more than anyone.”

“It does makes sense,” I said as I crossed the finish line.

And then, like one of the biggest idiots in the history of mankind, I reached down to pet the dog.

“I love dogs,” I said.

The German shepherd began wagging its tail like crazy.

“And he must love you, too,” El Jefe said.

I tried to snuggle this beauty, but the dog started barking at me.

El Jefe smiled. Then he reached to the side pocket of my surf shorts, unzipped its zipper, and removed the bindle.

“You lied.”

I could barely nod. “I’m sorry,” I whispered.

“Lying matters,” he said.

He snapped open the bindle of coke and deftly tapped a small pile onto a knuckle. He snorted it.

“Is this stuff any good?” he asked.

“I thought so.”

“But all good things come to an end, don’t they?”

El Jefe tapped out another tiny dune of cocaine and held his knuckle under my nose. He smiled—and I snorted.

“Thank you,” I said.

“Don’t confuse generosity with weakness,” he said.

If it weren’t for the coke, I probably would have fainted.

“I don’t have any money left.” I was begging. “I gave it to a friend who was having a medical emergency.”

“You’re a saint. Every gringo is.”

“I’m not—but it was a good deed.”

“And one that won’t go unpunished.”

This guy must have memorized the Big Book of American Clichés.

“What happens now?” I asked.

“We’re going to send a message to your friends,” he said.

I imagined my body hanging from a bridge. I gulped for air. There is a big debate going on in Mexico over which side is committing more atrocities in the drug wars—the military or the cartels. But it didn’t matter, because it appeared that I had both covered. Unless this guy was policia secreta and then it mattered even less because I would probably be disappeared.

“Then don’t shoot the messenger,” I said, flashing my cliché-club membership. I forced a smile.

“Good one,” he said.

El Jefe nodded to two of his soldiers, and they instantly pinned me over the hood of the Suburban and ripped the back of my shirt wide open.

“In Singapore, this is known as a caning,” he said. “But down here in México, we just call it el vapuleo.”

“I don’t speak much Spanish,” I said.

“You won’t need to.”

Another soldier handed El Jefe a four-foot switch of bamboo about half an inch in diameter.

“Are you kidding?” I said.

“You’ll see,” he said.

El Jefe flicked his wrist, and the bamboo whistled. He spread his feet and whipped the thin reed behind him as if it were a fly rod, slowly winding up—and finally releasing its vicious hollowness expertly between my shoulder blades. I screamed.

¡Primero de veinte!” El Jefe counted out.

He wound up again, and then deliberately crisscrossed his first wicked slash. I saw a flash of light. My ears rang, and I could feel a warm stream of blood begin to trickle down my spine. Seven casts later, I blacked out—until a bucket of stagnant water choked me awake for the back nine.

I looked back at El Jefe. He was smiling, and pressed the bamboo reed against his lips.

At that moment, I was certain I would never lie to him again—and El Jefe was certain, too.

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[SNEAK PEEK] THE GIRL WITH THE MERMAID HAIR

The Girl With The Mermaid Hair by Delia Ephron

 

“BUT Mom, we have the same nose.”

“Not anymore,” said her mom cheerfully, now ensconced on the bed, surrounded by mail, slicing open some envelopes with her nail file but tossing most into a junk pile. “Where’s Señor? Why isn’t Señor here? Señor?” she called. “He’s rejecting me, what can I do? How have you been? Tell me everything.” Her mom patted the bed for Sukie to sit.

“How did you change it?” asked Sukie, standing in the doorway. She’d been twirling her hair nervously and was surprised to discover that she’d yanked out some strands.

“Well, aren’t you a broken record. It’s just one piece of the pie.”

“What pie?” Sukie didn’t know what to do with the hair in her hand. She stuck it in her pocket.

“My face. Stop obsessing.”

“I’m not obsessing.”

“You are obviously obsessing. I obsess, so don’t tell me you don’t obsess. Come on, sit, talk.”

“Today was horrible,” said Sukie.

Her mother flinched. “Don’t touch your stitches,” she scolded herself. She slapped her own hand, which had misbehaved and scratched a spot under her ear. “My whole scalp itches,” she confided. “I have a staple in my head. What happened?”

“My phone. I lost it. At the club.”

“They’ll find it, I’m sure. Don’t go getting hysterical.”

“I’m not hysterical,” said Sukie, wondering if she was.

“Because you’re always getting hysterical.”

“No, I’m not.”

“Don’t bother to deny it. Doesn’t Sukie get hysterical?” she asked her husband, who had creaked in carrying a bag of frozen peas. He carefully lowered himself into an armchair, flicked on the TV, and pressed the bag against the bruised and battered side of his face. “Doesn’t she?”

Sukie’s dad simply winked at Sukie with his only visible eye.

Her mom perused a letter. “Well, this is inconvenient.”

“What?” said Sukie.

“The big school meeting about college is Wednesday night.”

“You don’t have to go,” said Sukie.

“Of course we have to go.”

“This counts, kiddo. Big time,” said her dad.

“No, really, you don’t have to go.”

How would she explain her mother? What lie would cover it? A box fell on her head. A spa accident. What was a spa accident? Sukie’s mind was racing while her mother prattled on. “You have to get into the best college. We have to make sure that we’re doing everything and that you’re doing everything. Perhaps you should volunteer at a homeless shelter. Is there one nearby? That would be so wonderful for your college application. We’ll see what they say on Wednesday. We’re not the kind of parents who don’t care that we’re not doing everything possible for your future. Look at me, Susannah Danielle Jamieson.”

Sukie twisted to face her mom directly, realizing as she did so that her mom had pieces of Scotch tape next to her eyes and below her ears.

“We love you,” said her mom.

“I love you, too,” said Sukie. “What’s that tape for?”

“To hold my stitches in place.” Her mom leaned close. Sukie could see the bits of black thread underneath.

“How long does the tape stay there?”

“Until the stitches come out. Listen, darling, don’t worry. I’ll wrap myself in something fantastic. No one will ever know.”

Sukie wandered out of her parents’ bedroom and into her own. Señor was waiting. She looked into his eyes. She often did that to channel his strength, his confidence, his judgment, or another of his gifts that she wished she possessed. Today, feeling the damp sweat that heralded the onset of the jumps, she searched for Señor’s stillness, hoping to shore up her own. After a minute of silence, Señor made himself clear. “I know,” said Sukie, “but who?” She didn’t have a close friend. She liked Jenna, but Jenna was best friends with Frannie. Sukie couldn’t possiblyspend time with Frannie. She couldn’t even look her in the eye.

Maybe Issy would understand. She was older, but she was so friendly and warm. Still, Sukie couldn’t just turn up at Clementi’s, order a pizza, and pour out her heart.

A true friend. She was reluctant to write how much she longed for one even in her private journal, for her eyes only.

Usually she pushed it out of her head.

She planned her school days judiciously, making sure she had a meeting every lunch—Educating Girls Globally, Debate Club, Spanish Club, Math Club. On Fridays, when there were no meetings, she went to the cafeteria. Kids never minded if she joined their table, but no one ever called her over or saved her a seat. Sometimes she sat alone, spread papers around as if she needed the entire space, and knocked off the weekend’s homework. By these means, if she didn’t stop herself from feeling lonely, she at least kept everyone else from thinking that she was. Friendless. The bleak word skittered around the fringes of her mind, scurried ahead of her through the halls, clearing the empty way.

In her journal she railed against the unfairness of it. It’s not my fault that I’m the total package, looks and brains. Everyone’s jealous. That, she told herself, was why her cell phone hardly rang, even though every week she changed the ring as if the ring tone had become stuck in her head from hearing it again and again and again.

Bobo.

She let herself fall backward onto the bed and crossed her arms over her face. This was a way not to cry. Tried and true. Tears could trickle out, but mostly, in this position, her eyes would simply fill to the brim like glasses of water.

Your dad’s slime.

Already she could hardly remember the grim man’s face, only his red Windbreaker and his thin lips barely moving. He hadn’t spoken in a threatening way, more as if he were breaking the news, tipping her to it.

Your dad’s slime. Never forget it.

Bury it. Bury it deep. It’s not a truth, it’s a falsehood. A horrible lie. Blot it out. Think about something else—ice cream, dancing elephants, Señor’s eyes. Bobo. Think about Bobo. Your dad’s slime. Never forget it. She had buried it and already it rose from the grave.

Sit up. That’s an order.

It wasn’t Señor’s idea, it was Sukie’s, but she knew he would approve.

She stormed into the bathroom and faced the mirror. “Don’t feel sorry for yourself,” she ordered. “Hup, two, three, four.” Calling out the numbers, she marched in a circle until she came face-to-face with herself again, and then, almost as if someone were beckoning her, she drew closer.

“If I can’t have an actual friend, I want a friend in the mirror,” Sukie announced, and, in a blink, instead of her own reflection she beheld Issy with her punky pink hair and sly eyes twinkling with fun. Issy was wearing an outfit Sukie had once admired—a baby-doll dress with straps that came over her shoulders, crisscrossed under her breasts, and wound around her body at least two more times (binding her tiny waist snugly) with still enough length for her to twirl the ends languidly as Issy in the mirror was doing right now. It was a summer dress, but Isabella, who Sukie suspected never did the obvious, wore it in cold weather as a jumper with a long-sleeved jersey underneath. “I love your dress,” said Sukie.

“You can borrow it,” said Issy. “Anytime. We should go shopping.”

“I’d love that,” said Sukie.

Issy smiled her wonderful, wide, and welcoming smile. “If I had a little sister, I’d want her to be you.”

“Thank you,” said Sukie. “Today, especially, I really need that.”

Issy disappeared from the mirror, and the good feeling generated by an imaginary visit with Issy dissolved as Sukie confronted her own nose.

From the tip to the top, she pinched it, trying to round the narrow flat ramp.

Scotch tape. That’s what she needed.

Sukie had a label maker. She used it to identify things that didn’t need identifying, like her Scotch-tape dispenser. She’d printed SUKIE’S SCOTCH TAPE and stuck it on. The label wasn’t a warning to her younger brother: “This is mine, don’t touch.” She just loved to label. Everything that could be labeled was labeled, and had assigned seating across the top of her desk. A place for everything, everything in its place. In rows straight and even. The Jamiesons’ housekeeper, Louisa, who came in twice a week, marveled at Sukie’s order and at how little work she had to do in Sukie’s compulsively arranged room. Lopsided equals bad luck, Sukie believed it utterly. She tore off short strips of tape, about two inches, sticking one on each fingertip. If she fluttered her fingers, they waved like flags.

Returning to the mirror, she stripped the tape bits off and, so that they would be handy when she needed them, stuck them on the silver frame. As she did, she leaned sideways. She could still look at herself, but at the same time she could see back through the doorway into her bedroom where the telephone sat. “Do it.” She cracked the whip. “Just do it. Grow up, you miserable baby.”

She marched to the desk and dialed.

The phone rang and rang. To distract herself from the depressingly inevitable—no answer—she examined her cuticles.

“Shoot, how does this work?”

“I can hear you,” yelped Sukie.

“Who is this?” The man sounded amused.

“Susannah Jamieson. This is my cell. You have my cell.”

“Warren’s kid?”

Sukie tried to tell if he disapproved of her dad, but it wasn’t like talking to Mrs. Merenda, where she sensed something weird. “Yes,” she said. “I dropped it at the club.”

“Here you go.”

“What?”

“I was talking to the conductor.”

“The conductor?”

“I’m on the train.”

“The train?”

“I’ll have some of those, please. Sorry. Wait a second while I pay for this.”

Sukie straightened the stapler. She turned the mug of pens so SUKIE’S SHARPIES faced front. Lopsided equals bad luck. Lopsided equals bad luck.

“I’m sorry,” said the man. “I meant to leave your phone at the club, but I put it in my pocket and forgot all about it until it just now rang. I’ll cruise by your house and drop it off as soon as I get back.”

She tapped down the paper clips so she could close the box neatly. “Back from where?” she asked.

“New York City.”

Her phone was on its way to New York City. “When are you coming back?”

“Wednesday.”

Four whole days. She wanted to bang her head against the wall. She really did. She wanted to walk over to the wall and knock herself out.

“You know what? I’ll drop it at your dad’s office. I’m Glen Harbinder. Your dad knows me.”

Sukie adjusted the label maker. Now everything on her desk was straight. Later she wrote in her journal,Emotionally I was at the edge of a cliff. Should I leap? I closed my eyes.

Sukie leaped. “Would you please read me my text message?” She trotted out her most pitiful little-girl voice.

“How do I do that?” he asked.

“Touch the little green square at the top.”

“Got it. You’ve got two.”

“Two?” Sukie’s eyes snapped open.

“Two from Bobo.” He enjoyed the name, she could tell. She could hear him thinking, How cute.

“What’s the capital of North Dakota?”

“That’s the message?”

“No, I’m not telling you the message until you answer the question.” He chuckled, or maybe chewed.

“Bismarck.” God, was he mentally ill? She knew them all. She could recite the presidents backward and forward. Who did he think he was dealing with?

“‘Meet me after the game.’”

“That’s the message?”

“And the other is ‘Danger cation.’”

“What?”

“‘Danger cation.’”

“Is that one word?”

“No, two.”

“Would you spell it?”

“D-A-N-G-E-R C-A-T-I-O-N.”

She hung up and began jumping. She bounced into the bathroom and back into the bedroom. MEET ME AFTER THE GAME. DANGER CATION. Cation? Cation? Caution. He must mean caution!

MEET ME AFTER THE GAME. DANGER CAUTION.

Definitely caution. He must have misspelled it. Everyone makes mistakes texting. Lots of really smart people were bad spellers too. She’d heard that somewhere.

DANGER CAUTION.

He is not only a bad speller, he is bad. She’d never known a guy who was bad. There was no one bad atCobweb. Kids there were sickeningly decent. ROLL ME OVER. Sukie was tingling.

Thank God she’d straightened everything on her desk. Who cared that he couldn’t spell? She was a good-enough speller for both of them. With luck, their children would take after her.

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[REVIEW] THE MEN WHO UNITED THE STATES

THE MEN WHO UNITED THE STATES BY SIMON WINCHESTER

Simon Winchester, the acclaimed New York Times bestselling author of Atlantic and The Professor and the Madman, delivers his first book about America: a fascinating popular history that illuminates the men who toiled fearlessly to discover, connect, and bond the citizenry and geography of the U.S.A. from its beginnings.How did America become “one nation, indivisible”? What unified a growing number of disparate states into the modern country we recognise today? To answer these questions, Winchester follows in the footsteps of America’s most essential explorers, thinkers, and innovators, such as Lewis and Clark and the leaders of the Great Surveys; the builders of the first transcontinental telegraph and the powerful civil engineer behind the Interstate Highway System. He treks vast swaths of territory, from Pittsburgh to Portland, Rochester to San Francisco, Seattle to Anchorage, introducing the fascinating people who played a pivotal role in creating today’s United States.Throughout, he ponders whether the historic work of uniting the States has succeeded, and to what degree. Featuring 32 illustrations throughout the text, The Men Who United the States is a fresh look at the way in which the most powerful nation on earth came together.


This sweeping history of largely unsung heroes of vision and creativity behind America’s exploration and infrastructure development was uplifting and informative. Starting with Lewis and Clarke, Winchester’s lively narrative brings to life the stories of key individuals for charting the young nation’s geography and geology, exploiting its waterways, building roads, canals, and railroads, linking its far reaches by telegraph and then by telephone, radio, and electricity. We take so much for granted, but each of these achievements involved a human story and a host of challenges. He puts himself on the road to places that are significant to these accomplishments, so his storytelling from history becomes integrated with his personal travelogue. He makes an odd frame for organizing his narrative in relation to the five classic Oriental elements of wood, earth, water, fire, and metal, but his progression is logical enough without straining to these metaphors. I like the thrust of his overall urge to account for the bones and flesh of America’s stable unity of states and peoples despite so much diversity.

Winchester writes with energy (and occasional hyperbole) that was fun to listen to in his reading for the audiobook version. The effort clearly reflects his admiration of his adopted nation. His special affinity for geology and map making I was already a fan of from previous works of his that I’ve read. He acknowledges the bad deal and genocidal proportions of how Native Americans were treated effectively as impediments to Manifest Destiny of white dominion over all resources. However, the human achievements of the explorers, engineers and the dreamers still deserve our interest and appreciation. He tries to get at what drives them and finds admirable aspects of their personalities relevant to their talents and actions, but he does not shy away from varied contribution of self-centeredness, greed, jealousy, or lunacy behind their successes. I appreciate his probing mind, sense of wonder over human creativity, and ability to put so many threads of history into his tapestry.

credit: Michael
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[SNEAK PEEK] THE SELECTION

THE SELECTION By Kiera Cass

WHEN WE GOT THE LETTER in the post, my mother was ecstatic. She had already decided that all our problems were solved, gone forever. The big hitch in her brilliant plan was me. I didn’t think I was a particularly disobedient daughter, but this was where I drew the line.

I didn’t want to be royalty. And I didn’t want to be a One. I didn’t even want to try.

I hid in my room, the only place to avoid the chattering of our full house, trying to come up with an argument that would sway her. So far, I had a solid collection of my honest opinions. . . I didn’t think there was a single one she would listen to.

I couldn’t avoid her much longer. It was approaching dinnertime, and as the oldest child left in the house, cooking duties fell on me. I pulled myself out of bed and walked into the snake pit.

I got a glare from Mom but no words.

We did a silent dance through the kitchen and dining room as we prepared chicken, pasta, and apple slices, and set the table for five. If I glanced up from a task, she’d fix me with a fierce look as if she could shame me into wanting the same things she did. She tried that every so often. Like if I didn’t want to take on a particular job because I knew the family hosting us was unnecessarily rude. Or if she wanted me to do a massive cleaning when we couldn’t afford to have a Six come and help.

Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t. And this was one area where I was unswayable.

She couldn’t stand it when I was stubborn. But I got that from her, so she shouldn’t have been surprised. This wasn’t just about me, though. Mom had been tense lately. The summer was ending, and soon we’d be faced with cold. And worry.

Mom set down the pitcher of tea in the center of the table with an angry thud. My mouth watered at the thought of tea with lemon. But I would have to wait; it would be such a waste to have my glass now and then have to drink water with my meal.

“Would it kill you to fill out the form?” she said, no longer able to contain herself. “The Selection could be a wonderful opportunity for you, for all of us.”

I sighed aloud, thinking that filling out that form might actually be something close to death.

It was no secret that the rebels—the underground colonies that hated Illéa, our large and comparatively young country—made their attacks on the palace both violent and frequent. We’d seen them in action in Carolina before. One of the magistrates’ houses was burned to the ground, and a handful of Twos had their cars vandalized. There was even a magnificent jailbreak once, but considering they only released a teenage girl who’d managed to get herself pregnant and a Seven who was a father to nine, I couldn’t help thinking they were in the right that time.

But beyond the potential danger, I felt like it would hurt my heart to even consider the Selection. I couldn’t help smiling as I thought about all the reasons I had to stay exactly where I was.

“These last few years have been very hard on your father,” she hissed. “If you have any compassion at all, you might think of him.”

Dad. Yeah. I really did want to help Dad. And May and Gerad. And, I supposed, even my mother. When she talked about it that way, there was nothing to smile about. Things had been strained around here for far too long. I wondered if Dad would see this as a way back to normal, if any amount of money could make things better.

It wasn’t that our situation was so precarious that we were living in fear of survival or anything. We weren’t destitute. But I guess we weren’t that far off either.

Our caste was just three away from the bottom. We were artists. And artists and classical musicians were only three steps up from dirt. Literally. Our money was stretched as tight as a high wire, and our income was highly dependent on the changing seasons.

I remembered reading in a timeworn history book that all the major holidays used to be cramped into the winter months. Something called Halloween followed by Thanksgiving, then Christmas and New Year’s. All back to back.

Christmas was still the same. It’s not like you could change the birth date of a deity. But when Illéa made the massive peace treaty with China, the New Year came in January or February, depending on the moon. All the individual celebrations of thankfulness and independence from our part of the world were now simply the Grateful Feast. That came in the summer. It was a time to celebrate the forming of Illéa, to rejoice in the fact that we were still here.

I didn’t know what Halloween was. It never resurfaced.

So at least three times a year, the whole family would be fully employed. Dad and May would make their art, and patrons would purchase them as gifts. Mom and I would perform at parties—me singing and her on piano—not turning down a single job if we could manage it. When I was younger, performing in front of an audience terrified me. But now I just tried to equate myself to background music. That’s what we were in the eyes of our employers: meant to be heard and not seen.

Gerad hadn’t found his talent yet. But he was only seven. He still had a little time.

Soon the leaves would change, and our tiny world would be unsteady again. Five mouths but only four workers. No guarantees of employment until Christmastime.

When I thought of it that way, the Selection seemed like a rope, something sure I could grab onto. That stupid letter could lift me out of the darkness, and I could pull my family along with me.

I looked over at my mother. For a Five, she was a little on the heavy side, which was odd. She wasn’t a glutton, and it’s not like we had anything to overeat anyway. Perhaps that’s just the way a body looks after five children. Her hair was red, like mine, but full of brilliant white streaks. Those had appeared suddenly and in abundance about two years ago. Lines creased the corners of her eyes, though she was still pretty young, and I could see as she moved around the kitchen that she was hunched over as if an invisible weight rested on her shoulders.

I knew she had a lot to carry. And I knew that was why she had taken to being particularly manipulative with me. We fought enough without the extra strain, but as the empty fall quietly approached, she became much more irritable. I knew she thought I was being unreasonable now, to not even want to fill out a silly little form.

But there were things—important things—in this world that I loved. And that piece of paper seemed like a brick wall keeping me away from what I wanted. Maybe what I wanted was stupid. Maybe it wasn’t even something I could have. But still, it was mine. I didn’t think I could sacrifice my dreams, no matter how much my family meant to me. Besides, I had given them so much already.

I was the oldest one left now that Kenna was married and Kota was gone, and I did my best to contribute. We scheduled my homeschooling around my rehearsals, which took up most of the day since I was trying to master several instruments as well as singing.

But with the letter here, none of my work mattered anymore. In my mom’s mind, I was already queen.

If I was smart, I would have hidden that stupid notice before Dad, May, and Gerad came in. But I didn’t know Mom had it tucked away in her clothes, and mid-meal she pulled it out.

“‘To the House of Singer,’” she sang out.

I tried to swipe it away, but she was too quick for me. They would find out sooner or later anyway, but if she did it like this, they’d all be on her side.

“Mom, please!” I pleaded.

“I want to hear!” May squealed. That was no surprise. My little sister looked just like me, only on a three-year delay. But where our looks were practically identical, our personalities were anything but. Unlike me, she was outgoing and hopeful. And currently very boy crazy. This whole thing would seem incredibly romantic to her.

I felt myself blush. Dad listened intently, and May was practically bouncing with joy. Gerad, sweet little thing, he just kept eating. Mother cleared her throat and went on.

“‘The recent census has confirmed that a single woman between the ages of sixteen and twenty currently resides in your home. We would like to make you aware of an upcoming opportunity to honor the great nation of Illéa.’”

May squealed again and grabbed my wrist. “That’s you!”

“I know, you little monkey. Stop before you break my arm.” But she just held my hand and bounced some more.

“‘Our beloved prince, Maxon Schreave,’” Mom continued, “‘is coming of age this month. As he ventures into this new part of his life, he hopes to move forward with a partner, to marry a true Daughter of Illéa. If your eligible daughter, sister, or charge is interested in possibly becoming the bride of Prince Maxon and the adored princess of Illéa, please fill out the enclosed form and return it to your local Province Services Office. One woman from each province will be drawn at random to meet the prince.

“‘Participants will be housed at the lovely Illéa Palace in Angeles for the duration of their stay. The families of each participant will be generously compensated’”—she drew out the words for effect—“‘for their service to the royal family.’”

I rolled my eyes as she went on. This was the way they did it with sons. Princesses born into the royal family were sold off into marriage in an attempt to solidify our young relations with other countries. I understood why it was done—we needed allies. But I didn’t like it. I hadn’t had to see such a thing, and I hoped I never would. The royal family hadn’t produced a princess in three generations. Princes, however, married women of the people to keep up the morale of our sometimes volatile nation. I think the Selection was meant to draw us together and remind everyone that Illéa itself was born out of next to nothing.

The idea of being entered into a contest for the whole country to watch as this stuck-up little wimp picked the most gorgeous and shallow one of the bunch to be the silent, pretty face that stood beside him on TV . . . it was enough to make me scream. Could anything be more humiliating?

Besides, I’d been in the homes of enough Twos and Threes to be sure I never wanted to live among them, let alone be a One. Except for the times when we were hungry, I was quite content to be a Five. Mom was the caste climber, not me.

“And of course he would love America! She’s so beautiful,” Mom swooned.

“Please, Mom. If anything, I’m average.”

“You are not!” May said. “Because I look just like you, and I’m pretty!” Her smile was so wide, I couldn’t contain my laughter. And it was a good point. Because May really was beautiful.

It was more than her face, though, more than her winning smile and bright eyes. May radiated an energy, an enthusiasm that made you want to be wherever she was. May was magnetic, and I, honestly, wasn’t.

“Gerad, what do you think? Do you think I’m pretty?” I asked.

All eyes fell on the youngest member of our family.

“No! Girls are gross!”

“Gerad, please.” Mom gave an exasperated sigh, but her heart wasn’t in it. He was hard to get upset with. “America, you must know you’re a very lovely girl.”

“If I’m so lovely, how come no one ever comes by to ask me out?”

“Oh, they come by, but I shoo them away. My girls are too pretty to marry Fives. Kenna got a Four, and I’m sure you can do even better.” Mom took a sip of her tea.

“His name is James. Stop calling him a number. And since when do boys come by?” I heard my voice getting higher and higher.

“A while,” Dad said, making his first comment on all of this. His voice had a hint of sorrow to it, and he was staring decidedly at his cup. I was trying to figure out what upset him so much. Boys coming by? Mom and me arguing again? The idea of me not entering the contest? How far away I’d be if I did?

His eyes came up for the briefest of moments, and I suddenly understood. He didn’t want to ask this of me. He wouldn’t want me to go. But he couldn’t deny the benefits if I managed to make it in, even for a day.

“America, be reasonable,” Mom said. “We have to be the only parents in the country trying to talk our daughter into this. Think of the opportunity! You could be queen one day!”

“Mom. Even if I wanted to be queen, which I thoroughly don’t, there are thousands of other girls in the province entering this thing. Thousands. And if I somehow was drawn, there would still be thirty-four other girls there, no doubt much better at seduction than I could ever pretend to be.”

Gerad’s ears perked up. “What’s seduction?”

“Nothing,” we all chorused back.

“It’s ridiculous to think that, with all of that, I’d somehow manage to win,” I finished.

My mother pushed her chair out as she stood and leaned across the table toward me. “Someone is going to, America. You have as good a chance as anyone else.” She threw her napkin down and went to leave. “Gerad, when you finish, it’s time for your bath.”

He groaned.

May ate in silence. Gerad asked for seconds, but there weren’t any. When they got up, I started clearing the table while Dad sat there sipping his tea. He had paint in his hair again, a smattering of yellow that made me smile. He stood, brushing crumbs off his shirt.

“Sorry, Dad,” I murmured as I picked up plates.

“Don’t be silly, kitten. I’m not mad.” He smiled easily and put an arm around me.

“I just. . .”

“You don’t have to explain it to me, honey. I know.” He kissed me on my forehead. “I’m going back to work.”

And with that I moved to the kitchen to start cleaning. I wrapped my mostly untouched plate under a napkin and hid it in the fridge. No one else left more than crumbs.

I sighed, heading to my room to get ready for bed. The whole thing was infuriating.

Why did Mom have to push me so much? Wasn’t she happy? Didn’t she love Dad? Why wasn’t this good enough for her?

I lay on my lumpy mattress, trying to wrap my head around the Selection. I guess it had its advantages. It would be nice to eat well for a while at least. But there was no reason to bother. I wasn’t going to fall in love with Prince Maxon. From what I’d seen on the Illéa Capital Report, I wouldn’t even like the guy.

****

WHEN I WOKE THE NEXT MORNING, my eyelids felt heavy. As I rubbed the tiny ache out of them, I felt glad that I’d told Maxon everything. It seemed so funny that the palace—the beautiful cage—was the one place I could actually let myself be open about everything I’d been feeling.

Maxon’s promise settled in during the night, and I felt sure that I’d be safe here. This whole process of Maxon whittling down thirty-five women to one was going to take weeks, maybe months. Time and space were just what I needed. I couldn’t be sure I’d ever get over Aspen. I’d heard my mom talk about your first love being the one that sticks with you. But maybe I’d be able to just feel normal sooner rather than later with this time in between us.

My maids didn’t ask about my puffy eyes, they just made them less swollen. They didn’t question my mess of hair, they just smoothed it. And I appreciated that. It wasn’t like home, where everyone saw that I was sad and didn’t do anything about it. Here I could feel that they were all worried about me and whatever it was I was going through. In response they handled me with extreme care.

By midmorning I was ready to start my day. It was Saturday, so there was no routine or schedule, but it was the one day a week we were all required to stay in the Women’s Room. The palace saw guests on Saturdays, and we had been warned that people might want to meet us. I wasn’t too excited about it, but at least I got to wear my new jeans for the first time. Of course, they were the best-fitting pair of pants I’d ever owned. I hoped that since Maxon and I were on such good terms, he’d let me keep them after I left.

I went downstairs slowly, a little tired from a late night. Before I even got to the Women’s Room, I heard the buzz of talking girls, and when I walked in, Marlee grabbed me and pulled me toward two chairs in the back of the room.

“There you are! I’ve been waiting for you,” she said.

“Sorry, Marlee. I had a long night and slept in.”

She turned to look at me, probably noting the leftover sadness in my voice, but sweetly decided to focus on my jeans. “Those look fantastic.”

“I know. I’ve never felt anything like them.” My voice lifted a bit. I decided to go back to my old rule: Aspen wasn’t allowed here. I pushed him away and focused on my second-favorite person in the palace. “Sorry to keep you waiting. What did you want to talk about?”

Marlee hesitated. She bit her lip as we sat down. There was no one else around. She must have a secret.

“Actually, now that I think of it, maybe I shouldn’t tell you. Sometimes I forget that we’re competing against each other.”

Oh. She had secrets of the Maxon variety. This I had to hear.

“I know just how you feel, Marlee. I think we could become really close friends. I can’t bring myself to think of you as an enemy, you know?”

“Yeah. I think you’re so sweet. And the people love you. I mean, you’re probably going to win….” She seemed a little defeated at the idea.

I had to will myself not to wince or laugh at those words.

“Marlee, can I tell you a secret?” My voice was full of gentle truth. I hoped she would believe my words.

“Of course, America. Anything.”

“I don’t know who will win this whole thing. Really, it could be anyone in this room. I guess everyone thinks that it’ll be them, but I already know that if it can’t be me, I’d want it to be you. You seem generous and fair. I think you’d be a great princess. Honestly.” It was almost all the truth.

“I think you’re smart and personable,” she whispered. “You’d be great, too.”

I bowed my head. It was sweet of her to think so highly of me. I felt a bit uncomfortable when people talked about me that way, though. . . May, Kenna, my maids . . . it was hard to believe how many people thought I’d be a good princess. Was I the only one who saw how flawed I was? I was unrefined. I didn’t have it in me to be bossy or overly organized. I was selfish and had a horrible temper, and I didn’t like being in front of people. And I wasn’t brave. You had to be brave to take this job. And that’s what this was. Not just a marriage, but a position.

“I feel that way about a lot of the girls,” she confessed. “Like everyone has some quality that I don’t that would make them better than me.”

“That’s the thing, Marlee. You could probably find something special about everyone in this room. But who knows exactly what Maxon is looking for?”

She shook her head.

“So let’s not worry about that. You can tell me anything you want to. I’ll keep your secrets if you keep mine. I’ll pull for you, and if you want to, you can pull for me. It’s nice to have friends here.”

She smiled, then looked around the room, checking to make sure no one could hear us.

“Maxon and I had our date,” she whispered.

“Yeah?” I asked. I knew I seemed overly eager, but I couldn’t help it. I wanted to know if he’d managed to be any less stiff around her. And I wanted to know if he liked her.

“He sent a letter to my maids and asked if he could see me on Thursday.” I smiled as Marlee spoke and thought of how the day before he’d done that, Maxon and I had decided to eliminate those formalities. “I sent one back saying yes, of course, like I’d ever turn him down! He came to get me, and we walked around the palace. We got to talking about movies, and it turns out we like a bunch of the same ones. So we went downstairs to the basement. Have you seen the movie theater down there?”

“No.” I’d never actually been in a movie theater, and I couldn’t wait for her to describe it.

“Oh, it’s perfect! The seats are wide and they recline and you can even pop some popcorn—they have a popper. Maxon stood there and made a batch just for us! It was so cute, America. He measured the oil wrong and the first batch burned. He had to call someone to come and clean it up and try again.”

I rolled my eyes. Smooth, Maxon, real smooth. At least Marlee seemed to think it was endearing.

“So we watched the movie, and when we got to the romantic part at the end, he held my hand! I thought I’d faint. I mean, I’d taken his arm when we walked, but that’s just what you’re supposed to do. Here he was taking my hand….” She sighed and fell back into her chair.

I giggled out loud. She looked completely smitten. Yes, yes, yes!

“I can’t wait for him to visit me again. He’s just so handsome, don’t you think?” she asked.

I paused. “Yeah, he’s cute.”

“Come on, America! You have to have noticed those eyes and his voice….”

“Except when he laughs!” Just remembering Maxon’s laugh had me grinning. It was cute but awkward. He pushed his breaths out, and then made a jagged noise when he inhaled, almost like another laugh in itself.

“Yes, okay, he does have a funny laugh, but it’s cute.”

“Sure, if you like the lovable sound of an asthma attack in your ear every time you tell a joke.”

Marlee lost it and doubled over in laughter.

“All right, all right,” she said, coming up for air. “You have to think there’s something attractive about him.”

I opened my mouth and shut it two or three times. I was tempted to take another jab at Maxon, but I didn’t want Marlee to see him in a negative light. So I thought about it.

What was attractive about Maxon?

“Well, when he lets his guard down, he’s okay. Like when he just talks without checking his words or you catch him just looking at something like . . . like he’s really looking for the beauty in it.”

Marlee smiled, and I knew she’d seen that in him, too.

“And I like that he seems genuinely involved when he’s there, you know? Like even though he’s got a country to run and a thousand things to do, it’s like he forgets it all when he’s with you. He just dedicates himself to what’s right in front of him. I like that.

“And . . . well, don’t tell anyone this, but his arms. I like his arms.”

I blushed at the end. Stupid . . . why hadn’t I just stuck to the general good things about his personality? Luckily, Marlee was happy to pick up the conversation.

“Yes! You can really feel them under those thick suits, can’t you? He must be incredibly strong,” Marlee gushed.

“I wonder why. I mean, what’s the point of him being that strong? He does deskwork. It’s weird.”

“Maybe he likes to flex in front of the mirror,” Marlee said, making a face and flexing her own tiny arms.

“Ha, ha! I bet that’s it. I dare you to ask him!”

“No way!”

It sounded like Marlee had had a great time. I wondered why Maxon seemed so reluctant to mention that last night. Based on his reaction, it seemed like they hadn’t been together at all. Maybe he was shy?

I looked around the room and saw that more than half the girls seemed tense or unhappy. Janelle, Emmica, and Zoe were listening intently to something Kriss was saying. Kriss was smiling and animated, but Janelle’s face was tight with worry, and Zoe was biting her nails. Emmica was absently kneading a spot just below her ear, as if she was in pain. Beside them the mismatched pair of Celeste and Anna sat having another intense discussion. True to her usual form, Celeste looked incredibly smug as she spoke. Marlee noted my staring and clarified what was happening.

“The grumpy ones are the girls he hasn’t been out with yet. He told me I was his second date on Thursday alone. He’s trying to spend time with everyone.”

“Really? You think that’s it?”

“Yeah. I mean, look at you and me. We’re fine, and it’s because he’s seen us both one-on-one. We know he liked us enough to see us and not kick us out right afterward. It’s getting around who he’s spent time with and who he hasn’t. They’re worried he’s waiting on them because he isn’t interested, and that once he does see them, he’ll just let them go.”

Why hadn’t he told me any of this? Weren’t we friends? A friend would talk about this. He’d seen at least a dozen girls based on their smiles. We’d spent the better part of the evening together last night, and all he did was make me cry. What kind of friend held those kinds of secrets while making me spill all my own?

Full version of eBook can be purchased at E-Sentral.com
https://www.e-sentral.com/book/info/115243/the-selection

[REVIEW] SO INN LOVE

SO INN LOVE BY CATHERINE CLARK

Reservations? Yes. A couple. Like: Is Hayden really as interested in me as I am in him? And is my roommate right—should I beware of hookups? Confirmation? Doubtful. Oh, Im sorry, I thought you said commitment. Special Requests? Let me get through this summer without being fired and heartbroken. Let me fall in love this summer. Let me be part of the inn crowd.


Liza takes a summer job at the Tides Inn to make some money, get a tan on the hotel’s private beach, and find true love.

When she arrives at the Inn to report for duty things, as expected, do not go as planned.

Instead of working as a front desk clerk she ends up on the housecleaning crew. The dorm that the employees stay in is not nearly as nice as she had hoped. And her former friend that she knew from vacationing in the area with her family acts like Liza is a dead bug on the bottom of her shoe.

SO INN LOVE is a cute summer read, although at times predictable and it seems to have an abrupt ending. It’s a great book to read while lying in the sun, though!

The back covers of these books don’t reveal much about the plot so here’s the basic storyline. The main character Liza is working at an exclusive hotel in Rhode Island for the summer along with a group of other kids around her age, including a guy she really likes. I wasn’t wild about the love interest in this one. I never really warmed to him as a character and I thought he was more of a jerk than anything. Liza was okay, but she was really unreliable in her job and kind of lazy. She seemed to care more about hot guys than doing her work. The plot was more about the romance than anything else. It was a light, fluffy read, but nothing more than that. I did like that it was set in Rhode Island (one of my favorite places) though.

Full version of eBook can be purchased at E-Sentral.com
https://www.e-sentral.com/book/info/110216/So-Inn-Love