Mar 12 2014 12:00pm
Check out Lindsay Smith’s debut novel, Sekret, available April 1st from Roaring Brook Press!
Yulia’s father always taught her to hide her thoughts and control her emotions to survive the harsh realities of Soviet Russia. But when she’s captured by the KGB and forced to work as a psychic spy with a mission to undermine the U.S. space program, she’s thrust into a world of suspicion, deceit, and horrifying power. Yulia quickly realizes she can trust no one—not her KGB superiors or the other operatives vying for her attention—and must rely on her own wits and skills to survive in this world where no secret can stay hidden for long.
Moscow, September 1963
My rules for the black market are simple. Don’t make eye contact—especially with men. Their faces are sharp, but their eyes sharper, and you never want to draw that blade. Always act as though you could walk away from a trade at any moment. Desperation only leaves you exposed. Both hands on the neck of your bag, but don’t be obvious about it. Never reveal your sources. And always, always trust the heat on your spine that haunts you when someone is watching.
I pass through the iron gates to the alley off New Arbat Street. A mosaic of Josef Stalin smiles down on the ramshackle market he never would have permitted. If he were still our leader, the man wearing strings of glass beads, snipping them off for customers, would vanish overnight. The little girl with jars of bacon fat would emerge years later in a shallow ditch, her skull half eaten by lye.
Comrade Secretary Nikita Khruschev, the USSR’s current leader, is content to ignore us. The Soviet Union provides everything you need, as long as you don’t mind the wait: a day in line for butter and bread rations, another day for meat, seven years for automobiles, fifteen for a concrete-walled apartment where you can rest between factory shifts. Khruschev understands the stale-cracker taste of envy in every worker’s mouth when a well-dressed, well-lived Communist Party official, more equal than the rest of us, strolls to the front of the ration line. If we quench our own thirst for excess in the black market, then that’s less burden on the State. His KGB thugs only disrupt the market when we do something he cannot ignore—such as trading with known political dissidents and fugitives.
And I happen to be one.
A tooth-bare man lunges at me with an armful of fur coats. I don’t want to know what creatures wore that patchwork bristly fur. “Not today, comrade,” I tell him, straightening out my skirt. Today I must restock Mama’s clinic supplies. (Average wait for a doctor’s visit: four months. Average wait for a visit with Mama: three minutes, as she wrestles my brother Zhenya into another room.) The sour, metallic tang of fish just pulled from the Moskva River hits me and my stomach churns covetously, but I can only buy food with whatever’s left over. We’ve lived off two food rations split five ways for some time now. We can live with it for some time more.
I spot the older woman I came for. Raisa, everyone calls her—we never use real names here. In this pedestrian alley, wedged between two disintegrating mansions from the Imperial days, we are all dissidents and defiants. We do not inform on each other for illegal bartering—not out of loyalty, but because doing so would expose our own illegal deeds.
Raisa’s whorled face lifts when she sees me. “More Party goods for Raisa?” She beckons me into her “stall:” a bend in the concrete wall, shielded by a tattered curtain. “You always bring quality goods.”
My chest tightens. I shouldn’t be so predictable, but it’s all I have to trade. The finer goods reserved for high-ranking Party members are worth their weight in depleted uranium here. I glance over my shoulder, hoping no one heard her. A boy and a girl— they look one and the same, with only a mirage-shimmer of gender to distinguish them—turn our way, but the rest of the market continues its haggling, lying, squawking. I let their faces sink into my thoughts in case I need to remember them later.
“Maybe you brought a nice filtered vodka? My boy, he wants a pair of blue jeans.” Raisa ferrets through her trash bags. She still reeks of sweat from the summer months—not that I can criticize. I have to boil water on Aunt Nadia’s stove to wash myself. “I have ointment for you, peroxide, gauze,” she says. “You need aspirin? You always want aspirin. You get a lot of headaches?”
I don’t like her making these connections, though for clinic supplies, I have little choice. If she knows about Mama’s headaches, that’s a weakness exposed. If she suspects we were Party members before we fled our home and became ghosts—
No. This is paranoia, gnawing at my thoughts like a starved rat. The KGB—the country’s secret police and spying force— can only dream of training drills as thorough as my daily life, with all the ridiculous precautions I take. My fears are outweighed by one simple truth: I need something and Raisa needs something, and that will keep us safe.
Capitalism is alive and well in our communist paradise.
“Pocket watch.” I hold Papa’s watch by its twisted silver chain. “Painted face commemorates the forty-year anniversary of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.” My voice falters as memories of Papa ripple through me: He clicks it open, checks it, exhales a plume of smoke, tucks it in his coat, and turns back to the snow-slashed streets. “Wind it once a month and it’ll run forever.” I drop the watch in Raisa’s palm, happy to bid those memories farewell.
“Not bad. Expensive…” She bounces it in her hand, as if checking its weight. “But is it so practical? It will be forty-six years since the revolution this November. Outdated, yes?”
I wince. Has Papa been gone for five years? I turned seventeen last month, but there was no extravagant celebration like when we were favored in the Party. I’ve forgotten the taste of sugar frosting, the sound of wrapping paper tearing apart. I passed my birthday as I had the last four, keeping Mama and Zhenya hidden while I pawned away our history.
“Then it’s a collector’s item.” I must be careful when defending an item’s value. I’ve seen too many others expose their past or reveal their emotions when justifying a high price, but that’s giving valuable information away. I must tell her only what she needs to hear. An empty mind is a safe mind, Papa always said.
Raisa nods, but looks unconvinced. Now we play the games of the market that can’t be written into rules. Gauging your trading partner, assessing their offer, luring out what they really want and need. Knowing when to reveal what else you have to trade, and when to keep it hidden.
And I am better at this than most.
I move for the watch as if to take it back, but my fingertips linger against her skin. Concentrate, Yulia. In the moment when our skin touches, time shatters apart, like the world is run by a loose watch spring. I plunge into the emptiness, the silence around me, and when I surface from it I’m inside Raisa’s thoughts.
She can turn a huge profit on the ointment—castoffs from the factory, because the formula was off. The peroxide cost her too much—a kilo of pork, and it was fresh, too. Raisa wants compensation. And me, always turning up with rich Party goods that raise too many questions when Raisa tries to sell them off—
I fall back into the void and thrash toward myself, and time winds back up to speed. I finish snatching the watch back and narrow my eyes.
“I don’t want your ointment. I heard about the factory mishap. You thought I didn’t know the formula was off?”
Raisa’s jaw droops, the wart on her chin wobbling.
“You’re not the right person for these goods,” I say. “I’ll look for someone who knows the value of Party items. Someone unafraid.” I sling the bag over my shoulder and turn to leave.
“No—please, wait—” Her Baba Yaga witch-nails catch my sweater. The brief contact isn’t enough for me to slip into her thoughts, but I sense her emotions in that touch: panic, fear, and… loyalty. She will not turn me in.
How do I explain this ability I have? It must be something everyone does, unknowingly. Mama’s textbooks say our sight and hearing are not such dominant senses as we believe. We smell others’ emotions and taste their weaknesses. Me, I’ve found out how to focus thoughts and memories through touch, like steadying a radio antenna with your fingertips, the static sloughing off until a clear melody remains.
Or maybe, like my paranoia, I’m only imagining.
“Then let’s talk seriously.” I yank open my bag. “Keep your ointment. I want double the aspirin, and the gauze…”
Warmth spreads along my back. The discomfort we feel when being watched—another intangible sense. Through a tear in Raisa’s curtain, I get a better look at the twin boy and girl, russet halos of hair catching the afternoon sun, with matching disgusted expressions for their matching clothes. Their matching, expensive clothes. My nails split the bag’s burlap fibers. Only junior members of the Communist Party—Komsomol, the youth wing—could dress so well.
“What’s the matter, girl?” Raisa leans toward the curtain. “If you’ve brought the KGB to me…”
The twins’ gazes flit around the market like flies but keep returning to me. They duck under a cage of rabbits hung from the rafters, and glide toward us like Siberian tigers on the hunt. My blood is molten in my veins. The gnawing paranoia urges me to run, run, escape their doubled stare, run where their stiff new shoes can’t follow. But what if I’m wrong? What if they aren’t here for me, or only recognize me from my old life?
“Yulia Andreevna.” The girl twin speaks my real name from lips that have never felt the rasp of winter. “Too easy. You don’t even make it fun.”
Raisa’s curtain tears down easily in my grip. I swing its rod into the girl’s face. She’s caught off guard, but the boy twin’s hand is there to catch it, like he already knew what I would do. I’m running, leaping over a stack of fabrics from the southern republics, shoving a bucketful of handmade brooms behind me to block the path.
“You can’t run from what you are!” the boy shouts.
I chance a look over my shoulder. Yakov slows the twins, jabbing his box of rusty nails in their faces, but they disentangle from his sales pitch and knock over a little boy with bundled twigs. Who are they? Old schoolmates eager to turn in our family? I’ve cut all ties to our old life—we had to shed those snakeskin memories.
Vlad, the unofficial market guard, stands between me and the wrought-iron gate. I duck around him, but Aunt Nadia’s shoes are a little too big on me and I skid to the side, losing my balance. He seizes the collar of my sweater in his fist. “You bring trouble, comrade?”
I wriggle out of the sweater and launch myself through the gates. My arms immediately prick with gooseflesh; it’s too cold for just a blouse. But I have to ignore it. I have to reach Mama and make sure she’s safe.
“You’ll be sorry!” the girl twin screeches at me as I run past afternoon workers, shuffling out of the Metro stop. If I duck my head and keep my eyes to myself, they’ll provide the perfect camouflage. “Don’t you want to know what you are?”
What I am? I climb down the escalator slowly enough that I don’t raise suspicion. My ratty clothes are lost in the sea of graybrown-blue. Just another half-starved waif with empty eyes and empty hands. I know just what I am.
I am Yulia Andreevna Chernina, seventeen years old, daughter of former high-ranking Communist Party members. I am a fugitive in my own country. And sometimes I see things that can’t be seen.
Ous shell-shocked tank of a neighbor lumbers toward me on the walkway, stinking of potato vodka and sleeplessness. I don’t like the way his eyes pull from mine, like a magnetic repulsion. It’s a guilty act, one I can’t afford to ignore right now. Like the market, I need every advantage. As he brushes past me, I tighten up my mind—tuning that imaginary radio— and am thrown into his skin.
We are no longer standing in front of 22 Novaya Rodina, where the all-new apartment towers already look beaten and cowed. We are outside Lubyanka Square earlier this morning, standing in the bronze-cast shadow of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the father of the KGB, the secret police who tell us how to act, who to be. I peer out of the neighbor’s eyes at a KGB officer in a mud-green coat who is smiling just enough to show the edge of his teeth. The officer scribbles in his notebook and says How long have the Chernins been hiding there?
This is the traitor, this neighbor who has reported us to the secret police, sentencing what’s left of my family to death—for what? A bit of spending money? The twins at the market were no accident, though they didn’t look like the usual KaGeBeznik thugs.
The officer lowers his notepad and jams his fist into a pocketful of worn-out rubles. We have been looking for them for some time, you know. The wad of notes dangles below my neighbor’s nose. The Chernins are dangerous people. You were right to come to us.
I should have known, but there’s no time to berate myself—or even this scum—so I fall back into the present and rush past him on the walk, thoughts of Mama pulling me toward the building.
Our building hangs over me as I rush up the too-long walk. It’s made of giant concrete slabs cantilevered into place as if by magic—a Stonehenge for the people, the worker, the State. When Khruschev first built them, the workers were thrilled to leave the old roach-rotted, subdivided mansions that housed three families to a room. But to me, the building is our prison—I only leave it for the market or for a breath without four other bodies pressed against me. The rest of the time, my cagedanimal stare could peel the lead paint from the walls. That girl dared to ask me what I am? I am the weed growing through the sidewalk’s cracks, resilient, but knowing I’ll someday be ripped out by the root.
I have to warn Mama. I don’t know how long I’ve lost the twins for, if I’ve lost them at all. I don’t know how many are with them. As I fumble with my key, I strain for the soft fall of boots on cement of a team sneaking around me, guns trained. But there is only me, with every instinct coiled in my genes screaming to save my family.
The elevator button clicks; an electrical current travels lazily down its wire, gears whirl, and the car yawns as it descends, as if it can’t believe it must haul yet another person to the tenth floor. My nerves play a scale up and down my spine as the car jerks upward, rattling my teeth, the light of each floor drifting too slowly past the door’s crack.
Can I trust this strange sight of mine, or is hunger and a fiveyear weariness in my bones confusing me? Maybe my head is just finding images it likes and stitching them together into patchwork paranoia. My parents are scientists—I don’t believe anything that can’t be proved. But it’s been right too many times for me to doubt.
I reach the door to Aunt Nadia’s apartment. Like the others in the antiseptic hall, it is black and densely padded, like we’re in an asylum and can’t be trusted with sharp, bright things. Unlike them, however, ours stands ajar. That little crack of air that should not be. My heart hides in my throat.
Sunlight dapples the front room, but it looks false, like someone’s shaken an old, stale bottle of springtime and let it loose. No one sits on the bench, reading Gogol or trying to quiet the hunger that follows us as surely as our shadows. Only my gaunt reflection fills the foyer mirror, frazzled black hair escaping from its braids. Mama’s coat hangs from the high hook with Zhenya’s miniature one beside it; Aunt Nadia’s and Cousin Denis’s are gone.
It’s four in the afternoon, the time I always walk Zhenya through the neighborhood, though I hate how predictable it makes us. It’s hard to avoid routine with a brother who requires order the way some plants require a wall to anchor them. He’d have a fit if we didn’t go, or worse, crumple up inside of himself and refuse to unfurl for the rest of the night. I open my mouth to call for him but can’t force the words out into the open.
I turn to the kitchen on my left, just past the washroom and the water closet. A cup of tea steams, abandoned, on the table. An issue of Pravda lies open beside it: “Khruschev Promises Moon Landing by 1965.” Vladimir Vysotsky croons one of his safe, tepid folk ballads through the AM radio, Aunt Nadia’s prized possession that cost her more rations than she’ll ever admit. She can’t be so impulsive with us around. Each ration must stretch until it snaps to feed Mama and Zhenya and me.
Maybe, I think desperately, Mama went to lie down with another of her headaches. Perhaps a patient showed up, and they’re all crammed into Nadia’s old bedroom that we share. Perhaps she stepped across the hall to chat with neighbors, safe neighbors, neighbors who would never surrender us to the KGB—
I stop with my hand resting on the bedroom doorknob, my extra sense wiping memories from it like a layer of dust. The scream that I cannot unleash burns back into my lungs, ripping through me in search of escape.
In my mind, I see the other side of the door. Two men hold Mama and Zhenya as if they are dolls. Hands clamped over their mouths, they are motionless, waiting. A third man flattens against the wall beside the door, wedged in that narrow pass between our fold-out bed and the cabinet full of molding Tolstoy and medical journals. He will grab me as soon as I walk in.
I nudge the door with my shoe and jump back.
Silence, dusty and dense. I barge into the room, but it’s empty and still. I’m too late. The memory is just that—come and gone, and with it, my family. Tears burn in the corners of my eyes. I trusted my sense, and it failed them. I’ve failed.
Something flutters against the smoke-stained curtains.
A woman—she wears the same mud-green uniform as the KGB officer on Lubyanka Square—steps down from the balcony. Her hair is dyed the riot-red that every Russian woman over forty sports these days; it’s styled in an overgrown bob that does no favors to her sagging shape.
“Yulia Andreevna Chernina.”
My name hangs between us as we study each other. She might have been beautiful ten years ago, she might have had the endless lashes and silver screen lips of Tatiana Samoilova for all I know, but the weight of her deep frown appears to have recast her face. She folds her hands behind her back. She’s physically unimposing, but the spark in her eye betrays a mind that never stops churning. I’ve seen that spark before. The superior spark of informers, spies, politicians—anyone smart enough to use you for all you’re worth.
“Daughter of Andrei and Antonina Chernin.” Her eyes narrow. “Sister to Yevgenni—”
Yevgenni—Zhenya. My brother, whose own thoughts turn against him if his supper’s five minutes late. “Where is he?” I ask. “And Mama? What have you done with them?”
She smiles, though her face fights to hold the frown in place. An old gypsy song floats through the room like a breeze. Something about lost love, crying-in-your-vodka folk music; it must be Nadia’s radio still, but the music sounds watery, like it’s soaking into my skin.
“Your mother and brother will be safe, but I require your cooperation, Yulia.” She smiles—the confident smile the twins in the market wore. The smile of someone who holds all the cards, when their opponent doesn’t even know the game’s rules. She takes a step toward me, lamplight slithering off the edges of her brass military emblem. “It’s time to show you what you really are.”
I step back, but two men have appeared behind me. Their leather gloves are cold on my skin. I buck against them as they wrangle my arms behind my back. “Mama!” I scream. “What have you done with them?”
They yank me from the doorway. If I were stronger, perhaps I could break free, but I’m weak from too few rations and too many years of unfocused fear. They press a rag against my mouth, and the last thing I see is our old family photo with Mama and Papa smiling right at me before I’m lost in endless black.
Sekret © Lindsay Smith, 2014