Nicholas landed at Vaptsarov Airport on a cold March dawn, three weeks before the country collapsed.
With only a shoulder bag for luggage in which he carried his laptop, passport, and a guilty-pleasure romance paperback with the front cover stripped, he passed quickly through customs and emerged out in the cold smoggy air. Taxis parked in the lane by the ARRIVALS exit had their doors flung open, their drivers, reading newspapers and smoking the first cigarette of the day, not quite as eager to assist luggage-saddled travelers as cabbies at the western European airports that Nicholas frequented, but then again, Nicholas thought, sliding in the backseat of the cab at the top of the line, this is Vasilegrad, capital city and distilled essence of the Balkans, and there was nothing more Balkan than not budging unless you absolutely had to.
The driver folded up his paper, started up the car. Dark green eyes met Nicholas’ in the rearview mirror. “The City, yes?” To which Nicholas nodded, wondering if anybody who’d landed at Vaptsarov had ever asked a cabby to take them elsewhere.
When they pulled out onto the highway toward the capital, Nicholas got his phone out, switching it back on for the first time after landing. It booted up, connected to a network, and vibrated with the boilerplate tourist greeter, Welcome to the jewel of Europe, the cradle of civilization, but there was no message from Jelena.
“Not many strangers,” the driver said. Hunched over the wheel, hands kneading the plastic, “Spesh-ally now.”
“Really?” Nicholas feigned ignorance, slipping his phone in his coat’s pocket. “Why’s that?”
The first rays of sunshine hit them from behind, picking at the knitted cross which hung from the rearview, and by the time they neared Vasilegrad it was morning, puddles of early light collecting in pockmarks where asphalt streets crosshatched.
Looking out the window at the dilapidated brick houses on the outskirts becoming gray warehouses of suburban businesses becoming retailer stores and car-washes and gas pumps, as if the city was pawing at all outside its circumference, slowly gathering itself together from scattered fragments of human activity until whole quarters of bunched buildings sprouted, apartment blocks separated by bare parks turned muddy football pitches, and a sign by the road welcomed them to Vasilegrad proper; excitement began coursing through Nicholas, his body reacting to that core of trouble seething in the center of it all, drawing him closer. Politics.
He was unable to suppress a grin. “Beautiful city.”
“Is okay,” the cabby said.
Crisis was all around, palpable.
He drank espresso in a café overlooking Delchev boulevard, the eponymous quarter’s main artery. Men in orange jackets swept the singed trash, glass shards, produce chunks and egg shells from last night’s protests off the closed-off street.
The waiter, a middle-aged man with salt-and-pepper hair barely contained in a ponytail, gave him the café’s WiFi password on a scrap of paper. He connected from his laptop, typed the forum’s IP address and logged in.
Hopping through the sections, Europe, Eastern Europe, Ukraine, and he opened Jelena’s Mariupol thread to read her updates, but the post from three days ago, that gushing wall-of-text on the allure of escalation of violence he’d read many times on his way over here, still hung there.
His email contained no message from her either; phone, pager, fax, carrier pigeons, nothing: no news from the east. He opened an online map of the region, of the Balkans and the mountainous cradle in which this city lay, and he drew a beeline north-east from here to Ukraine, to where Jelena presumably still roamed. The map’s software told him the distance in kilometers — assuming his preferred unit of length based on geolocation — which meant absolutely nothing to him.
She was far.
The street cleaners swept the clanking glass shards into one pile.
Sipping his coffee, he scolded himself for worrying. Jelena was the best of the forum lot; well-traveled, knowledgeable, instincts sharp enough to make her pounce at first sign of actual danger. She was doing all right, he thought, and probably having the time of her life, coasting on the adrenaline at that war-zone. Which is what he ought to do himself: lie back and enjoy his time here.
So he browsed through the latest online chirps about the Vasilegrad protests, scrolled through photos of burning dumpsters and clashes with riot police, of balaclava-wearing protesters lying prone on sidewalks mid-arrest, and among the heaps of messages in South Slavic he picked out a pattern, a sentence occasionally written in English which seemed to repeat over and over like a rallying cry: every day at six.
And Nicholas did what he ached to do since tensions began to simmer and the idea of traveling here first popped into his mind: in the forum he started a new thread, Vasilegrad, Balkans.
He rented out a room in an old couple’s apartment close to The Egg, that peculiarly ovum-shaped concert hall gracing many a postcard. The house was two-storied, daubed with a yellow-gray facade, a balcony jutting precariously out above an overgrown yard. They were kind people; he’d told them he was a post-grad student on a research grant, and except for a brief conversation upon his arrival with the husband Zhivko, who’d learned his stilted English during a stint as a London hotel receptionist thirty years before, they kept to themselves.
Little before six he got out, cut through narrow streets behind the city library to Svetoslav Minkov, a large alley running in parallel with Delchev boulevard, to emerge right before the city park. The rim of the football stadium on the far side of the lawn was lit with the colors of the city, pulsing in tune to the roaring of the crowd within. He started toward the government building but two blocks down a policeman stopped him.
“No go,” the man said, pointing at the empty Minkovska, after Nicholas had given him the lost tourist spiel in English.
“To take pictures,” Nicholas said.
“No,” the man repeated. “No go.”
Nicholas beamed and politely thanked the policeman, before backtracking and circling round to a smaller, parallel alley through which he continued unimpeded on his way toward the seat of government.
The amount of police grew with each step; clumps of three or four leaning on riot shields, chatting in a casual manner (which might mislead the less perceptive into thinking them relaxed and inattentive) while their eyes flitted across the street, taking stock of everything. Nicholas held his camera ostentatiously close to his chest, which, together with his confident demeanor, falsely presented him as a reporter and gave him free pass to roam.
He found a spot by the street with a view of the intersection from which the protesters were supposed to approach, and he pretended to snap well-angled shots while the roar from the still-invisible malcontents intensified and the policemen rechecked their riot gear, tapped their helmets, repositioned their shields. When the protesters finally rounded the corner — a diverse crowd in torn shirts and ripped jeans and business suits and short skirts and long dresses, kids with parents and retirees with young adults carrying placards with slogans Nicholas couldn’t read, blowing whistles and shouting into bullhorns — they came streaming fast, were right before him, shouting and marching intently, and, taking a furtive glance at the nearby police, Nicholas tucked his camera under his arm and slipped into the crowd and found himself walking with them, in the river of protesters headed ineluctably toward the government.
Somebody handed him a whistle. And, more surreptitiously, a rock. He tucked the rock in his pocket. Bit on the whistle.
When the crowd squeezed itself in the square before the government building, and the shouting and clapping of each individual became perfectly in sync, the actions of a mass of people as if orchestrated by one, a rush of energy went to his head, and he thought of Belfast, of Algiers, of Dresden and Baltimore and Manila, and then the memories drained from his mind, along with all the chaff and worry, and there was but the din of the crowd; there was only the here and now. A comforting sense of communality overtook him, and he closed his eyes, letting his shoulders rub against the shoulders of others, letting himself be gently lulled back and forth by the undulation of the mob, body picked up and dropped off as the crowd moved, channeling and amplifying their anger by mirroring every action, by echoing what was sung, yelled, said, despite not understanding a single word shouted or hissed, despite barely understanding the cause for which they had all gathered; but he was there, among others, and for a brief but crucial moment he believed he was contributing his time and energy to something bigger than himself, something worthy, an effort of which one could be unabashedly and unapologetically proud.
This sensation, which Jelena referred to facetiously as the protester’s high, peaked when the big incident occurred.
At the front, the police struck the occasional baton blow, but people held the line, struck back with whatever was at hand. A certain balance of power was maintained in those front rows, shifting from one side to the other in waves, police to protesters, but the anger was kept restrained, the tone almost respectful. Now you hit us, now we hit back. Despite all their anger and drive, as was the case in every protest in which Nicholas had inveigled himself, the people settled into their positions and a form of role-play took over, a resisting of oppression in a paint-by-numbers fashion. There was, he’d learned with time, an established and omnipresent order, broken only in chaotic spurts when an Unknown was violently injected into the equilibrated system.
Which is what happened when the beatings began.
Nicholas could only see in snatches, because now he was running with the crowd in the opposite direction, but it soon became obvious it wasn’t the police who were embroiled in the melee, that what had caused the screaming and shouting and ensuing panic was a large group of thuggish men that had come in from the flank; yes, he could make them out now, whipping his head around as he ran: men in football jerseys and shirts wrapped around their faces, plowing fists-first into the protesters.
Panting, bent over, hands on knees, he retched, spit on the ground, the camera hanging from his neck. Around him people looked angry and frightened.
A girl approached to ask him something.
“Sorry?” he managed.
“Oh.” Switching to English, “I said, are you hurt?”
He shook his head, straightened up. He couldn’t run so he started walking — dragging his feet, rather — alongside the girl.
He held up his camera, “Photographer.”
“Well, I certainly hope you got that shitshow on film,” she said, then stuck a hand out. “Lea, by the way.”
“Nick.” Shaking her hand.
When they put a few blocks between themselves and the fray, the city transformed; protesters were replaced by window shoppers, business-people on cell phones in lieu of policemen with walkie-talkies. The cafés were packed, and the people quieted down as Nicholas and the loose group of protesters around him passed by: they were shaking heads, tut-tutting, muttering into their cups of Turkish coffee what could be interpreted, at best, as tacit disapproval.
“They don’t like us,” Lea told him upon seeing his confused look, “because we disrupt their comfortable existence. Why worry about the country’s future, when you can concern yourself with football scores?” This said a little louder for the benefit of any English speakers among the café patrons.
The setting sun caused low buildings to drape long shadows over the street. It got cold, fast. Lea called up several people on the phone, ending each call after a few quips in South Slavic, which reminded Nicholas of an older cousin, a lawyer of a lawyer of one of the bigger car manufacturers of the country. Then she slid her flip phone in her back pocket, and said, “Everyone’s okay.” Not once did she glance back; she walked intently, not out of fear, Nicholas thought, but driven by a pugnacious core which had to be whirring within her. She said, “Blood sugar’s low, so we’re regrouping in our pastry shop.” She sized him up. “You should come. You could do with something sweet.”
Her invitation sounded like an order, and Nicholas was raised with the conviction that it was decidedly impolite, not to say dangerous, to refuse one of those, so he nodded and followed the girl down the street.
“A crack has appeared,” said the one whom the others called Dumb Iain. “Crack in the bums.” Referring, as Nicholas remembered, to BuMMS, the derogatory acronym coined by a British journo in an op-ed on the simmering tensions between the constituent nationalities of the Balkan Federation: the Bulgarians, Macedonians, Montenegrins, Serbs.
All laughed, sipped this sugary drink he realized by now he couldn’t stand. Nicholas said, “Is it irreparable?”
“Well, no,” the one called Yane said, stabbing at his slice of cake with a fork. “But very difficult. To fix. And sad part is we do it to ourself. Politician want to blame strangers. Blame you. But they do it to us, is the truth.”
Lea, in her English bereft of any accent, said, “He’s right. Did you know they changed the location of tonight’s football match at the last minute? It was scheduled to be played in Podgoritsa, but they moved it to Vasilegrad just to have a gang of Montenegrin nationalists at hand if need be.”
Nicholas nodded, pretended to take a sip of that god-awful drink they’d recommended him to order, Boozy or Booza, and said, “Nationalists which they effectively deployed.” The Montenegrin were traditionally aligned with the Serbs, who were in turn positioning themselves as a counterweight to the Bulgarians, their only true challenger for power in the Federation.
“It will — ” Yane started saying, miming a gun, then turned to Lea and rattled off something in South Slavic.
“Backfire,” she finished the sentence for him.
“Do you really expect it to?” Nicholas said. “You expect more people on the streets because of the beatings? Not less?”
They gawked at him as if he’d lobbed an insult. Dumb Iain was the first to speak. “You think the people of this city can be strong-armed into submission? Unleash a bunch of dimwits, give the proles a proper spanking, and be done with it?” He made a dusting-off-hands gesture. “I believe you’re in for a surprise tomorrow.”
Lea was fiddling with her phone. She thumbed something on it, then turned the screen toward Nicholas. “See that?” He could barely make out what was on the display, and when he did, he realized it was a feed from one of the social networks, in Cyrillic. “That’s by how much the chirps online have multiplied. Every second somebody is pledging to come to Vasilegrad from all parts of the country, all the Slavs, regardless of ethnicity.”
Yane said, “Come again, Nick. To take pictures. Yes?” He laughed, “Maybe take more strangers — ”
“Foreigners,” Lea corrected him.
“ — foreigners with you. Photography friends, yes?” He made picture-snapping motions with thumb and forefinger.
They finished the cakes and drinks, paid the bill (adamantly forbidding Nicholas to contribute a single denar), and went on their separate ways on trams and buses, but only after having made Nicholas promise to meet them all again tomorrow at this pastry shop, at quarter to six.
He walked the way back to his room, scrunched in his bomber jacket unfit for these cold March nights, with his hands balled into fists and into pockets, his chin tucked in a thick scarf through which he breathed the mephitic smog of the city, peering into cozy apartments with uncurtained windows, into the backseats of cars that sped by, into shops and delis and restaurants, into wherever the people of Vasilegrad were keeping warm this night, looking, without consciously realizing, to make eye contact.
The fat end of The Egg stuck out from behind a large building. He hurried, hoping Zhivko was awake and up for a drink of rakiya before bed.
When time came for the following day’s protest, Nicholas met up with Yane and Dumb Iain (whose name, he realized embarrassingly late, was how they pronounced the slavicized variant of Damian) at the corner of the pastry shop.
Lea arrived precisely at six. She was pleased to see him there, and Nicholas was quite pleased to see her, too, realizing just now there was something about her that he quite liked. They started for the protest’s meeting spot, walking in twos, Yane with Damian conversing in a rapid-fire South Slavic about something, at least tangentially, based on Nicholas’ ability to discern English loan-words, to do with computers, and Lea walking beside him, her step light and seemingly care-free.
The protest went as expected, with more aggression on the part of protesters, shoving and pushing, but it was also marked with a stronger police presence, and was thankfully devoid of any Unknowns that tended to turn to beatings. The crowd was indeed more numerous than the previous day’s, but, judging by Lea’s expression, not as much as she would’ve liked.
She was remarkably loud, yelling insults at both the police and the building they were guarding, and even lobbed a rock or two at the white facade, missing the windows by inches, but when the protest was unwinding she looked drained, disappointed even, as if something was not quite up to her standards, and when the gang suggested they treat themselves to some pastries she excused herself and went home instead.
Following each day’s protest Nicholas posted a small selection of photographs in his forum thread along with snippets which read like journal entries, and that proved enough to hook his co-forumers, providing a bit of the sought-after vicarious thrill which kept them coming back for more. His thread elbowed its way to the top of the page as Vasilegrad’s protests gained in momentum and prominence on the evening news all over Europe and North America. He hoped Jelena, who was apparently too busy to respond to his messages, would log in in time to see his moment of forum glory.
The protests themselves had a certain edge now, with people from all corners of the Balkans trickling in to pledge support to the Cause that they believed was driving the uprising, and this ballooning of the movement manifested in the forming of smaller sub-groups of protesters who weren’t necessarily in agreement with each other, and at times tensions arose in the crowd when clumps of nationalistic protesters, fervent in their desire to keep the Federation intact from Black Sea to Adriatic, came into friction with the more left-leaning group to which Lea, and by extension Nicholas, belonged.
The crowd grew by the day, becoming more and more heterogeneous, a mixed bag of ideologies and faiths and ethnicities; one could now spot license plates from all over the country, hear all the different flavors of South Slavic in the city’s cafés and restaurants.
Slogans contradictory in nature were shouted from the same crowd; people with patriotic placards walked reluctantly side-by-side with ones who carried anti-nationalist messages on theirs; fist-fights broke out on several occasions, but there were always enough level-headed people from both camps who broke these fights up before they escalated into bigger brawls.
Nicholas tried to draw energy from the chaos and did his best to reach the state of connectedness Jelena called a protester’s high, but failed frustratingly time and again, because there was a distraction, he knew, like a smear on his camera lens he couldn’t wipe away, something, or rather somebody he kept searching for out in the crowd, and wondering, whenever his eyes picked her out from the mass of sweaty, angry people, what he could do to cheer her up.
One day after a rock reserved for government building windows had accidentally hit a Bulgarian nationalist, and a fight had broken out among some of the more radical Balkan nationalists and a drunk bunch of left-wing anarchists, Nicholas saw Lea sitting on the sidewalk, her face in her hands, crying. He pulled her up and led her out of the square and out of the throng to a park in the vicinity.
They sat on a bench, studying the cracks and dents in the marble statues of fallen partisan heroes, when Lea spoke. “It’s changing,” she said. “Transforming into something altogether different.”
“That’s been the case — ” In all the protests I’ve been, he almost let slip. “Always. Everywhere.”
“But I thought — I thought we all shared a goal. To rid the country of authoritarianism and avoid disaster. To not let ourselves slip and repeat mistakes that had happened only half a century ago.” Her voice shook. She took a breath. “I thought we were smarter than this. Instead, they play us like peons, the ruling elite is pumping the country with fear while the opposition is busy figuring out how to leverage this crisis and get back in power, and the end result will be the same, families torn, Slavs butchering Slavs.”
Tired and drained, they decided to head home, but not before Lea showed Nicholas something. They took a tram southward to a new residential quarter, then walked in silence beside another park until they reached a big fenced-off plot of land.
“This,” she spread her arms wide to encompass the entirety of the construction site, “is what will ultimately ruin the country.” Cranes hovered above tons of spilled concrete, half-finished buildings reaching up from muddy ground with brass metal spikes. A billboard by the fence promised a skyscraper-studded future, with the words Tech Park written in English beneath the diorama of glinting glass.
Lea hooked her fingers in the chainlink fence, stared at the construction with a pained look. “The gap between the classes is widening,” she said, “and these ethnic tensions will be dwarfed by the social unrest in the coming years as the rich grow to gobble us up. That’s what they don’t want us to realize. That’s why they’d rather keep us busy with another war.” Tears banked her eyes. “And that’s why I’m angry.”
Nicholas put his hands on her shoulders. Eventually she let go of the fence.
The polyphonic ring of his mobile phone jolted him awake.
He sprang out of bed to fish it out from the pair of jeans telescoped on the floor, and flipped it open. “Jelena?”
Lea raised her head from the pillow, blinked at him.
When no answer came, he said, “Jelena, where are you?”
In spits and spurts the connection stabilized, and Jelena’s raspy voice came through. “Nicky, I’m sorry.” Hissing, followed by a modular shift in tone, a drop in frequency. She was sobbing.
“What’s the matter, Jel? Are you all right?”
Lea’s eyes followed his pacing round the room.
“Had to give names, Nicky,” Jelena managed to say in between sobs. “They forced it out of me. Thought I was a spy.”
“What are you talking about, Jel? Calm down, take a breath. Whose names?”
“Of forumers.” Wind on the microphone, harsh noise. “Yours, too.” Jelena stuttered, “State Security has it. You have to leave.” And the line went dead.
He said her name a few times, then stared stupidly at his phone. He explained to a confused Lea that a friend had called saying things which had made no sense.
He scrambled eggs and they ate in the kitchenette, with Lea giggling and trying to start up conversations in between bites, doing her best to salvage this first morning together from the rude awakening. But Nicholas was distracted, on edge, puzzling out Jelena’s call, and when later he heard the sound of cars outside, he ran to the window. Three men in windbreakers stood by the front entrance, and two cars, white and beige, were just parking across the street. Four men stepped simultaneously out of them.
“Fuck.” Jerking away from the window. To Lea, he said, “I can’t risk whatever this is. I have to run.”
She glanced out the window herself and got dressed faster than it took him to formulate an escape plan.
“Come,” she said, grabbing him by the hand, “I’ll lead.” And through the corridor they went, out the back entrance, which led to the cramped backyard shadowed by the precariously-hanging balcony. He glanced back to see Zhivko and his wife’s puzzled expressions framed in the window of their room, and Nicholas put his finger on his lips and then his hands together in prayer, and Zhivko and his wife nodded and closed the curtains. Lea jumped over the yard fence and Nicholas followed, and they stumbled through the neighboring backyard. Another fence, into someone else’s backyard with a table with folding chairs tucked underneath it and a kennel in a corner but (thank God!) no sign of a dog. Out of this one, and onto a side-street, one block away from the police.
Nicholas wanted to catch his breath, but Lea tugged at his arm and sprinted off down the street. He followed her until they emerged at P. M. Andreevski avenue (his Cyrillic had improved), and hopped on the first bus.
They got tickets from the driver and moved to the back of the bus; leaning on a pole by the back door, panting, gasping for breath, they drew their hoodies on, nervously scanning the crowds outside each stop, ready to bolt if push came to shove.
When they were three stops away, he managed to thank her.
She pushed the heels of her hands in her eyes. “Can’t believe I dragged you into this.”
She groaned, frustrated with herself, and Nicholas realized she thought their roles were reversed, convinced that his involvement with her had brought the police to his door. He bit his lip. “You didn’t,” he said. “They’re after me.”
“Nonsense,” she said, staring intently out the bus window at the city rolling by.
“That phone call,” he said. “That — photographer friend. They’d arrested her and let her go. We’re a small online community. But they must think we’re something we’re not.” But Lea was just shaking her head.
It was in the suburbs that they finally got off the bus, and Lea told him to wait by the road before she disappeared. Moments later a white Yugo with a stuttering engine drove up to him.
“Get in,” she said, “I’ll take you to my granddad’s. Small house outside the city. Near the airport.”
They drove through narrow streets for twenty minutes, navigating the clogged arteries of the city where cars were indiscriminately parked both on sidewalks and street lanes, until they reached an exit for the ring road. Which, they realized only when they got too close, was blocked by two police vans. Lea started backing up, but a policewoman leaning on one of the vans took a step for a better look at the two in the Yugo, bringing her radio to her mouth, and Lea panicked and stomped the pedal, causing the car to lurch backwards. The policewoman ran back in the vehicle and turned on the strobe lights.
“Shit.” Lea maneuvered out of the exit ramp, back into the city streets. Squeezing the Yugo in between rows of illegally-parked vehicles, she drove them away from the ring-road exit, but again they heard the wobble of the police siren behind them, saw the glint of blue in the rearview.
She took a sharp left, the car skidding as it squeezed itself in the narrow alley, missing the brick wall of a house by mere millimeters.
“Hold on,” she said, down-shifting, causing the engine to roar in pain, before she stomped the gas pedal and the car zoomed past the many houses encroaching upon the alley, and out of it, out on a larger boulevard mercifully devoid of traffic.
Nicholas whipped his head back, “We lost them.” Slapping the dashboard, “Go, go, go.”
The car, which felt more like a collection of parts strung very loosely together than a proper vehicle, rattled under them, shuddered, threatening to just up and dissolve into a soup of screws and bolts and whatever the fuck else Yugos were made of, but Lea would have none of it, she jerked the wheel this way and that while tires screamed on patched asphalt.
And then she slowed.
And Nicholas looked up at the road, and saw police cars up ahead forming a ring which blocked all exits, their scintillating lights a crown on the roundabout.
Lea cursed in her language. Then muttered, “Fuck them,” and gripping it with both hands she spun the steering wheel like a ship’s wheel and the car lurched, made one, two whole revolutions before fishtailing to a stop.
She pressed the pedal but the car wouldn’t react. The engine was dead. “No,” she screamed out, slapping the wheel, dash, turning the keys, but before the engine could even pretend to make a semblance of an effort, the police ripped the doors open and pulled them out of the steaming vehicle.
Nicholas had daydreamed of his arrest (a risk inherent in his hobby of choice) many times over, always picturing himself curled up in a corner of a prison cell, with strong-jawed and thick-accented sentries sliding trays of moldy bread under the door; something to chew on while writing his story on dried squares of toilet paper, smuggled out upon his release, the story retyped on a computer and posted in a forum thread to become the website’s sauciest romp of the month.
A romanticized version, which, he was thankful to find out, wasn’t too close to the reality of the police station’s cell in which he now lay: on a cold metallic bench, hands resting over his chest, staring at the cracked ceiling, thinking, not of the forum, the protests, or his story, but of home, and tears banked his eyes and he pressed a hand over his heart as if to chastise it for aching.
His throat was parched. He asked for water from one of the guards, and the man obliged, returning a moment later with a Styrofoam cup full to the brim which he set on the floor just within Nicholas’ reach. Nicholas gulped half of it down before he realized it was hot water, and he spat it out, retching; the guard smirked and walked away.
Hours later a plainclothes officer came to take him away.
In a dark room — yet brighter than his cell by degrees — two men sat at a table, and the plainclothes officer pulled up a chair for Nicholas opposite them, nodded at his two colleagues, and left the room, presumably to observe from without.
The shorter of the two spoke in South Slavic, and his terse words were followed, half a breath later, by a bereft-of-tone translation from the one beside him. “You find yourself in a difficult situation Mr. Nicholas Helmholz. In a foreign country far from home, with neither friends nor allies, alone, in other words, fragile, and with heavy allegations leveled against you. Compromising state integrity carries a heavy penalty — and while we have abandoned the use of that barbarian Chair of yours, a case could be made for life imprisonment, or forced labor, choices which I doubt would be preferable to the onetime flip of the switch.”
“What are you on about? State integrity? I am a tourist.” His voice shook. “I know my rights.”
“No, you don’t, Nicholas Helmholz.” The two blinked at Nicholas, looking as if this interrogation required the same mental effort of them (and provided as much satisfaction) as watching grass grow. The interrogator pulled out a folder of documents from a briefcase, examined them desultorily before sliding the folder across the table to Nicholas.
Bird’s eye shots of the protests, with a circle drawn round Nicholas’ head; emails with Jelena, discussing Balkan and Eastern European politics; lists of phone numbers and durations of calls; a photocopy of a report with Jelena’s head-shot clipped on, written in a different kind of Cyrillic, presumably Ukrainian; payslips; plane tickets.
“You don’t understand,” he gasped, holding the folder open like a newspaper.
“Your colleague was intercepted near Mariupol, in the company of rebel fighters. Once they combed through her computers, Ukrainian State Security realized they’d stumbled onto a single node of a larger network, so she was asked to name the others, and your colleague obliged, after which our Ukrainian allies shared all relevant information with us, and so here were are, and so there you sit, Mr. Helmholz.”
“You don’t understand,” he repeated, and threw the folder back at the two men. “We’re not some secret fucking network of agents. We’re just thrill-seekers. We go to dangerous places. That’s all we do.”
The interrogator motioned to his translator and the translator left the room. The interrogator stared at Nicholas, then said in perfect English, “Then if you’re not spies, if you’re not agents, you’re simply arrogant idiots, and for the life of me I can’t decide which is the worse crime.”
It occurred to Nicholas as he lay in his cell that they must’ve known all along, that if they had access to his emails and phone calls, the forum must’ve been at their disposal too, where a few glances at his posts would tell them all they needed to know about his pursuits. But still they held him under false pretenses; him, and probably Lea, about whom he’d sworn to his interrogator had not been involved with his arrogant endeavors.
And so it came as quite a surprise when, three days into his unlawful arrest, Lea came to visit.
“Are you all right?” he asked her. “Were you mistreated?”
They’d been given a room smaller than his cell for the visit, with only one blank-faced deaf-mute guard posted at the door to discourage foolish behavior.
Lea took his hands in hers. “They let me go the same day. My uncle,” she said, blushing, “made a few phone calls.”
“Oh.” Then, “Do you know why I’m still held? Did they mention anything to your uncle?” If this were a normal conversation and not a momentary interruption to his life as detainee, he would’ve felt shame for the way his voice cracked or for his desperate high-pitched tone, but now he couldn’t bring himself to care, and he just craved answers.
From her pocket she pulled out a scrunched-up piece of paper. When she unfolded it, Nicholas saw it was the front page of Nov Balkan, the daily tabloid known as the ruling party’s mouthpiece. On it, beneath a caption in red Cyrillic, was a wide shot of a street protest in front of the government building; beside that picture, in a smaller square, was an unflattering zoomed-in shot of Nicholas gripping his camera, poised to photograph the crowd.
He studied the page as if for clues, then looked up and asked Lea what it said.
“Foreign agent provocateur arrested and awaiting trial.” Her eyes flitted across the flaking walls, avoiding Nicholas’ gaze.
“How?” He slapped a palm on the table; the guard cleared his throat. “Why? How?”
Lea told him what he knew already: the government, in a desperate last-ditch attempt to shift blame for the country’s troubles, had decided to grab this opportunity and use Nicholas, who’d fallen in their lap at the right time, as the appointed scapegoat. “But it won’t work,” she added. “People aren’t dumb. They know the truth. Protests for your release are already taking place.” And she grabbed his hand and kissed it and promised to come back every day to keep him in the loop.
But she didn’t. And that half-smile over the guard’s shoulder as he was led out the room was the last he ever saw of Lea.
Others came: Yane and Damian, for starters, and later some of their friends, too, and they all fed him news and updates on the protests, backed up with clippings from newspapers both partisan and of the opposition, and it all served to bolster his conviction in the impending climax of the crisis; but his visitors never brought up Lea, which made him hold his tongue and not ask.
He had intermittent sessions with the interrogator and his translator, who looked more than ever as if they were simply going through the motions, pathetically unconvincing in their approach to extracting information of supposedly subversive acts, and so these one-sided conversations went from being traumatic to mere annoyances to even welcome alleviations of his boredom.
And all of this, from the lax visit rules to these play-pretend interrogations, hammered home the fact that he was just an actor, a tool in the hands of the government, and that they couldn’t have cared any less about whether Nicholas realized this or not.
During one of Yane and Damian’s visits, he was told the protests in his name had caught the attention of his embassy, and rumors had it, the two claimed, that the ambassador had had a long call, followed by a closed-doors meeting with the Balkan minister of interior.
“Your people will take you outside,” Yane said.
“Will have you released,” Damian corrected.
They talked excitedly about how his arrest had electrified the protesters further, how their numbers only grew, how Nicholas’ unjust mistreatment had inadvertently become a symbol for all they despised in their country, from the rampant corruption and circumventing of laws, to the incessant tendency to blame others for one’s own shortcomings.
“Progress can happen when we admit mistake,” Yane said, “and face demon.”
As much as he liked to hear about their movement, he didn’t exactly share their enthusiasm, for which, considering his predicament, they wouldn’t have faulted him had they realized it. He wanted to ask if Lea knew about this embassy business, but the guard mumbled some South Slavic to his visitors, promptly ending their conversation. On their way out, Yane said, “See you outside,” and slapped a FREE NICK sticker on the iron door.
Two days later, some hours before dawn, a guard came to escort him out of his cell and to the locker room where they’d kept his clothes, all that those clothes had contained, and his shoulder-bag retrieved from Zhivko’s with the laptop they must’ve ransacked, and once Nicholas dressed, blinking the sleep out of his eyes, the guard led him to the yard outside, to the cold, sweet, icy, honeyed, painful, sobering spring air.
He was out. Outside. Free. He took in the sky, beautifully light blue ahead, gorgeously pitch black and starry above.
He wanted to walk until his legs hurt, putting distance between here and there, outside and that stinking dump, but a car on the curb, engine idling, caught his attention. Fluorescent diplomatic plates; tinted windows.
The back door swung open.
He got in.
The driver explained he’d been hired by the embassy and tasked to take him straight to the airport. When Nicholas protested that his flight wasn’t until the next month, the driver produced an envelope from his breast pocket and handed it to him without taking his eyes off the road. “Paid for,” he said by way of explanation. “Arranged.”
It contained a one-way ticket, a voucher for breakfast from an airport café, and a generic letter signed by an embassy secretary saying they were glad he was okay and hoping he’d stay out of further trouble. All of which to say, leave, and never come back.
“Can we make a quick stop?”
The driver shook his head. “At airport.”
Nicholas turned on his phone, which miraculously contained a few drops of battery charge, and wrote Lea a message. The horizon pinked, reddened. The car swayed this way and that through empty Vasilegrad streets. The motion would have lulled him back to sleep if his ears were not buzzing, his head not thudding.
The phone rang.
“Damian, is Lea there?”
“She said you wrote. Are you out?”
“I’m being taken to the airport. Can you tell Lea to call?”
“Nick,” he said, and sighed, and Nicholas knew he was not going to see her; the matter was settled.
“So that’s that, then?”
The tick-tock of the turn signal as the car swerved right onto a wide boulevard counted out time, then Damian said, “Where are you now? What street?”
He looked around, in vain. “Don’t know. Still in the city.”
“I’ll come to the airport,” Damian said and hung up.
The car drove onto successively larger boulevards until suddenly they were on the highway and the city had dissolved into the scattered chunks of suburbia, and the sun came out, and Nicholas could see the plum and cherry and apricot trees by the road were blossoming, and in the glint of the sun, stretching behind these orchards, he could make out the river, eagerly rushing away from the city.
Damian was already there, sitting on a bollard, when they arrived. The driver pulled up at the DEPARTURES sign, behind a long line of taxis, and after he made Nicholas check his passport and ticket, he promptly drove off.
Nicholas approached Damian. “So she wouldn’t even say goodbye.”
Squinting in the morning sun, Damian said, “Sorry, Nick.”
“What was it?” he said, barely trying to contain his bitterness. “They forbade her, didn’t they?” Thinking, mainly, of Lea’s uncle and those government contacts she’d mentioned.
“Nothing of the sort.” Damian shrugged. “She saw your file, Nick. The forum and the emails. Learned the reason for your coming to the Balkans. She saw you for what you are: a vulture. An adrenaline junkie. An idiot.”
Nicholas turned toward the diorama of mountains in the distance, green on a clear blue backdrop. He said, “She’s too big of an idealist.”
“Perhaps you’re right.”
“But you knew,” Nicholas said, “didn’t you? And you didn’t mind. Because you’re pragmatic, you’re like me. You had no qualms using my arrest for your cause.”
Damian clapped him on the shoulder. “Let’s say we helped each other.” He smiled. “And I’m here this morning because I’m thankful for that. But don’t fool yourself thinking we’re alike. Have a safe flight, Nick.” And he got in a cab and left, and Nicholas hurried inside Vaptsarov Airport toward his terminal.
He watched the gray asphalt roads welting fallow fields recede, and he wondered if this would all still be there, still parts of a singular whole a month or a year from now, or if the country will implode, or explode, or rip itself at the seams, going over another cycle of fire and rebirth; and Nicholas thought of Lea, and Yane, and Damian, and the old couple from the apartment, and the police and the interrogator and his translator, and of everyone he’d met going through those pains and caught in the gears of a country remaking itself; and Nicholas took a sharp breath and pulled down the window blind, severing the link with this place, because he remembered that these concerns were no longer his.