Today's Reading

The agent motioned for me to sit. I sat.

"Do you know why you are here?" he asked.

"No, Comrade Lieutenant."

"Comrade Major."

I swallowed. "No, Comrade Major, I don't know why I'm here."

"Let me enlighten you then. You have an impressive stamp collection. You sold a vintage Romanian stamp. The transaction was with a foreigner and you accepted foreign currency. You are now guilty of illegal trafficking and will be prosecuted."

A chill flashed across the back of my neck. My brain began to tick: The old stamp.

The U.S. dollar bill.

That was two months ago. How long had they known about it?

"I didn't sell the stamp," I said. "I gave it to him. I didn't even find the—"

I stopped. It was illegal in Romania to say the word "dollar."

"I didn't find the . . . currency . . . until several days later when I opened the album. He must have slipped it in without me seeing."

"How did you come to interact with an American teenager in the first place? Interaction with foreigners is illegal. You must report any contact with foreigners immediately. You are aware of that."

"Yes, Comrade Major. But my mother cleans the apartments of two U.S. diplomats. That is on record."

But there were things that were 'off' record. At least I had thought so. I had met the son of the U.S. diplomat while waiting for my mother. We became friendly. We traded stamps. We talked. I glimpsed a peek at his notebook—and decided to start a notebook of my own.

"Your mother cleans the apartments of U.S. diplomats. How did she get that job?"

"I think . . . through a friend?" I honestly couldn't remember. "I met the American while waiting for my mother. I often walk her home. My mother has a hard time seeing in the dark. It's frightening for her."

"You're claiming you engaged in illegal currency activity with an American teenager because your mother is afraid of the dark? Your mother's handicap has nothing to do with your crime. But punishment 'will' extend to your entire family."

A crime? My entire family?

But I had never accepted the dollar. It just . . . appeared.

How did he even know about it?

The pleading refrains of my mother and sister appeared in chorus.

'Don't tell anyone—anything.'

'Remember, Cristian, you never know who's listening.'

'Please, don't draw attention to our family.'

I stared at the agent in front of me. A shivery sweat glazed my palms and an invisible moth flapped in my windpipe. In Romania, the Securitate carried more power than the military. This man could destroy us. He could put our family under increased surveillance. He could ruin my opportunity to attend university. He could have my parents fired. Or worse.

The agent leaned forward, placing his massive flesh rackets on the desk.

"I can see you've absorbed the severity of the situation. I'm told you're a strong student, talented, an observer among your peers. I'm feeling generous today."

He was letting me off with a warning. I exhaled with gratitude.

"'Multumesc'. I—"

"You're thanking me? You haven't heard my proposal yet. It's simple and, as I said, very generous of me. You will continue to meet your mother and walk her home. You will continue your interactions with the son of the American diplomat. And you will report details of the diplomat's home and family to me."

It was not a proposal. It was an order, and one that compromised all principles of decency. I'd be a rat, a 'turnator', secretly informing on the private lives of others.

I could never tell my family. Constant deception. I should refuse. But if I refused, my family would suffer. I was sure of that. And then, amidst the silence, the agent made his final move.

"Say, how is your 'bunu'?"

'Sahmat'. Checkmate. The simple mention weakened me.


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