Young Aurelia is more wits than looks. When she meets handsome and mysterious Damian Novac, she knows her only chance of getting his attention is to develop a strategy. She joins him and friends on a winter trip in the Carpathian Mountains – a choice that will change her life abruptly. When the train derails in high snow, they seek refuge at an abandoned cottage, but soon people of their group start losing their minds and dying. Ambushed by a herd of crazed villagers on the second dawn, Aura barely escapes with Damian and a clutch of their friends, only to realize they’re far from safe even back home. While trying to stay alive, she starts an investigation of her own, which leads back to Damian’s very shady past. A man of secrets and obscure powers, Damian will introduce her to a world where everything she thought she knew proves wrong, and where every day could be her last. A mystery sewn with twists and turns that dives into the demonic nature of criminal masterminds, spiced with hot, dangerous romance.
Sixteen years ago I met a young man who turned me into a creepy stalker. Smitten by those moss green eyes full of mystery – or maybe misery – my sanity seared away like ice on a stove.
I was twenty at the time, studying English Language and Literature at the Universitatea Ovidius in Constanta. For four years I destroyed the soles of my shoes going to the same white building on an open campus, close to the deserted beaches of our ghostly town.
My first relationship had been a draining and torturing one, with my ex finally admitting – or simply alleging, as I hoped – that his interest had never been in me, but in the wealth of my father and the future that might have resulted from a union with me. Being the daughter of Tiberius Preda turned out to be a stigma rather than an advantage, and as a consequence I resorted to keeping the connection secret and my lifestyle modest.
So I proceeded carefully with my new love interest. The only problem was that I didn’t really possess any other means of standing out beside my father’s name, not among the tart up beauties with silky hair and perfect eyebrows who looked like J. Lo at her best. On my dry skin foundation always ended up looking like unevenly distributed flour and my hair galvanized like copper wire no matter what I did. Sidonia helped sometimes and spent hours on my styling, trying to cheer me up.
“You’ll learn, no worries,” she’d say.
She was wrong. I never did. And she finally gave up with a hopeless shake of her head. “God, Aura, you do have two left hands.”
I first saw him in the cafeteria, surrounded by a group of loud laughing, overconfident boys with iron pumped chests. But it was him who drew my attention like a magnet, and a glance around the cafeteria was enough to realize I wasn’t the only one interested in him.
He was tall and athletic, with waves of dark hair brushing his broad shoulders. Well muscled under a white knit sweater that his body molded, he made for quite a view, and as good as all wenches around drank it in.
“Damian Novac,” Sidonia whispered in my ear, noticing my dropped jaw. She tossed a strand of straw blond hair off her shoulder with a graceful move. “Civil Engineering, final year.”
She smiled in his direction. I didn’t dare do the same, but looked around like a fox watching for hunters, making up strategies before dodging out of the bushes. The last thing I needed was getting another bullet through my heart.
Damian didn’t see me that day, or the day after. Being small and skinny had its advantages in matter of stealth, so I could observe him from afar for weeks. He was aloof, yet his eyes always intent, as if his thoughts were fixed on something way beyond those walls and his cares way more serious than the infatuations of wannabe divas. He wasn’t oblivious to their advances, just utterly unimpressed.
His group of friends, nevertheless, always surrounded him, as if searching for his approval for everything they did. Even a manly laugh and a tap on the shoulder were always accompanied by a furtive ‘was that all right’ glance. So an alpha, I thought.
“No wonder we’re all leaving wet traces like snails when he’s around,” I once whispered to Sidonia. She laughed her wide, sensual laugh.
“I just love your dirty mouth, Aura.”
“I speak but the truth.” I smiled back at my best friend.
We left the university giggling. At that age we were still able to speak the naked truth, no matter how ugly or dirty it was. We couldn’t care less about ‘social acceptability’.
We sat in the confinements of Montana, a nearby wooden pub that served as a haven for furious bikers on Saturday nights when it reeked of beer and pot. But during the day it was nice and quiet. We had our peace drinking bad filtered coffee, smoking cigarettes and making plans.
Sidonia wanted me to get over the disaster with my ex as soon as possible. She took her role as image consultant very seriously while I came up with ways of manipulating destiny into ‘casual’ bumping into Damian at another, ‘cleaner’ pub – the Bourbon, deep in the heart of the city – or at parties organized by fellow students.
It was at one of those parties at the dorms that I finally arranged to stumble into his arms with a glass of red wine. Sidonia had forced me into a push-up bra, a red sleeveless top and tight jeans, but I still looked like a malnourished, rusty-furred poodle.
The room was hot and crowded, so I hopped over legs and bottles in my way, faking a fall against Damian’s chest. It was hard and the hands steadying me were big like shovels.
“S … sorry,” I mumbled.
He looked down at his ruined shirt.
“It’s all right.” His voice sounded like black velvet – deep, soft, giving me goose bumps.
I dared a look straight at his face and my heart leaped into my mouth. Up close he was so handsome with his dark green eyes, perfectly chiseled features and strong jaw that he should’ve been as illegal as heroin. My nose was at the level of his chest, breathing in the scent of freshly cut wood – maybe fir. Jeez, he’s huge.
With a slightly pissed frown but gentle hands he made sure I could stand on my own feet and turned to walk away. No, no, no!
“Let me take out the stain,” I croaked over the pounding music and clasped his arm. “There’s some detergent in the bathroom.”
He turned to me, the frown lingering on his brow, his tone polite and detached.
“I’ll do that myself, thank you.”
I panicked, thinking that he saw through my plot. I searched desperately for a way to keep contact and gave him an awkward smile. Reciting the words Sidonia had made me learn by heart seemed like the only option.
“You need to wash out the wine within the next two minutes, if you want to save your shirt. I’m a woman and I have some dexterity with that, that’s all.”
He glanced around as if assessing who paid us attention and then looked at me again. Dancing and drinking people – Sidonia, Raluca and Gino included – stared at us. Then a possibility hit me – maybe he’d scouted the area for his girlfriend or something.
At that thought, my stomach clenched. Though I hadn’t seen him with anyone during the weeks I’d observed him, a girlfriend wasn’t completely out of the question. Maybe she wasn’t from the campus. But then again, Sidonia would’ve come upon that anyway in her subversive, shrewd investigations.
“Two minutes,” I reminded him of the time ticking until the stain would be forever imprinted in his white shirt. “Let me save the situation and then you won’t see me again.”
He gave me a reserved smile and motioned me to lead the way. The gesture was infused with elegance and strength at the same time, coming from a stud like him. Oh, how I’d ride you, boy!
We waited in front of the bathroom until a drunken blonde reeled out. Luckily it didn’t take longer than two minutes, otherwise I would’ve risked him changing his mind. Girls around us fidgeted and swayed, eyeing Damian. Boys already mistook the hallway and some corners for toilets as they staggered and cursed.
Damian and I didn’t speak to each other, but I was sharply aware of his presence behind me, of his breath above my head. He stood real close, his upper thigh brushing against my backside as sweaty bodies squeezed us together. My heart raced and I struggled with my burning cheeks and wild imagination as we closed the door behind us. Jeez, I’m alone with him! Alone with him in a messy bathroom . . .
To my jaw dropping surprise, Damian began unbuttoning his shirt. I swallowed hard. Still, to make my indifference to him credible, I refused the sight.
“Keep it on. Unless, of course, you have a change of clothes within reach.”
“I don’t.” Again that deep voice that I couldn’t believe I was finally hearing, spoken only for my ears.
I snatched the detergent from a pile of tubes and boxes on the washer and rinsed the stain – half his shirt, that is. After spraying some water on it from the tips of my fingers, I began rubbing the wine into instead of out of the fabric with one hand, keeping it stretched and away from his body with the other. The large spot soon turned transparent, I could see a blur of his flat abdomen and his happy tail through it.
“I’m Damian, by the way,” he said.
“Aurelia,” I replied in a trembling voice. “Preda, Aurelia Preda.”
“I must say, you’re quite observant, Miss Preda.”
“What do you mean?” I babbled, shivering a little.
“I’m impressed you should notice the stain remover and think about it as soon as you ruined my shirt.”
Shoot, he knows what I’m doing . . .
“Impressive?” I looked up at him and tried for a smile.
“It requires some presence of mind.”
“I … I brought it, actually. Today. Gino is in constant need of such,” I lied with a staggering nonchalance. Anything to save the appearances. I knew Gino would support my allegation, he was ‘my people’ and deep in this with me. He’d organized the party and we were in his dorm.
“I understand.” Damian’s eyes glittered with some kind of cunning. “Have I seen you before, Aurelia?”
I shrugged and faked lack of interest. I dropped my eyes to the stain, though.
“Maybe. In the cafeteria, or at the Bourbon. That’s where I seek refuge from my persecutors.”
“The Inquisition, isn’t is obvious?” I said, pointing at the haycock on my head.
His sculptured lips drew in a dashing smile.
“You claim yourself a witch?”
“I claim nothing without my lawyer.”
“And Gino? Is he one of your allies?” He sounded interested and hope sparked in my chest.
“You could say that. He’s dating a dear friend of mine, Raluca,” I hurried to block any doubts that might arise. I’m available and all for you, mister.
“Now I remember,” he said as if he truly just realized, “I saw you at the Bourbon with him and some others. You never miss some fun.”
He saw me? “I’m forever in search of it. As are you, I notice.”
“Hardly. I supply food and beverages.”
Say what? “What do you mean?”
He shrugged, making it clear that he didn’t want to dwell on the matter.
“It’s just an activity that pays bills. And what brings me to the Bourbon and parties.”
“So you’re no real friend of Bacchus’?” I realized I’d never seen him with a beer in his hand, or any kind of alcohol for that matter.
He laughed – another velvety sound.
“You find me entertaining?” I asked.
“I like the way you speak. It’s very, how shall I put it? Unusual.”
He nodded, green eyes intent and fixed on mine. I alone had his attention now, the whole world was shut out.
“I merely adjust to my interlocutor,” I whispered.
He laughed again as I tried to sheath my crush on him with the veil of further jokes and friendship. He acted like he bought it, opened up to me, laughed more, and soon our groups mingled in the cafeteria.
A few weeks later Gino came up with another of his plans that both our gang and Damian’s appreciated. It had begun to snow and he organized a trip to the mountains, so it wasn’t long until we got on a train with heavy backpacks and furred boots, but my hopes of finding a place by Damian’s side shattered as soon as I set foot in the compartment.
He was flanked by one of his friends and a blue-eyed and brown-haired J. Lo who I didn’t stand a chance against. She was tall, loud and bold, her grin white and large, but that wasn’t the first time I saw her and I knew she wasn’t his girlfriend – at least not yet. I ducked in my coat and scarf up to my nose and watched frustrated how she drew closer to him, acting like an easygoing friend.
“Come on, Novac,” she said, her pitch too high, “I won’t bite, I’m just freezing.”
He rested one arm loosely on her shoulder and turned his eyes to the window. She leeched on to him but he kept distant, which made me feel not all was lost. I wanted to slap myself for clinging to the faintest hope and for the way I ogled him, but I couldn’t help it. He looked fantastic in his brown coat, dark jeans and what seemed like army boots. His hair spilled in raven waves to his shoulders and the stubble gave his beautifully chiseled face the air of a young barbarian.
J. Lo caught me staring. She pulled her knees up and cuddled to his chest. I doubted she did it because she saw any kind of competition in me – that was out of the question – but because she felt powerful and probably enjoyed my suffering, knowing I would’ve done anything to be in her place. She closed her eyes and pretended to fall asleep with a relaxed smile on her face.
Cottages glided by as the train – barely more than an old cart from communist times – moved lazily, its whistles lost in the night as we advanced to the middle of nowhere. A few times I thought Damian glanced at me and my heart jumped, but I dismissed it as wishful thinking until the train got stuck in what looked like Siberian snow, ice flowers spreading visibly over the pane. Everybody breathed out steam and I couldn’t feel my feet anymore, shaking violently. That’s when Damian gazed long at me with a worried frown.
“Gino,” he said, lifting his arm and waking J. Lo, “Where’s the Vodka I gave you?”
Gino’s sleepy eyelids fluttered open. He brushed sandy tendrils off his forehead and removed his own arm from around Raluca, who shivered at his chest, her eyes hooded and her thick lips white. He reached to the overhead rack and dropped a bag on Sidonia’s head, who grunted and stirred from the more or less comfortable place she’d found in the arms of an iron pumped boy from Damian’s group.
“Sorry, Sid,” Gino mumbled and took down a ragged backpack. Something clanked inside. He staggered on his skinny, Spiderman legs to Damian, who stood up to support him.
“Jesus, you look like you might break into ice shards,” Damian said.
“I’m afraid my brain’s already splintered. I should’ve been the first to think of the liquor,” Gino replied with a stiff grin that meant to be friendly but rather gave the impression of a frozen fossil.
Damian opened the backpack and took out three small bottles like the ones Russians keep in the inside pockets of their sheepskin coats. He handed one to J. Lo and one to Gino.
“Pass that around,” he told them, then he took a seat by my side with the third bottle.
I blinked and barely refrained from rubbing my eyes. I couldn’t believe he was so close to me, by his own choosing this time.
“Drink this,” he said softly, holding the open bottle to my mouth. A sharp smell made me crease my nose and push his hand away.
“Vodka. It’ll help warm up,” he insisted.
I sniffed at it a couple of times and finally took a sip that went like a flash of fire to my stomach. I grimaced, but Damian chuckled and looked at me like you would at a playing puppy. It was the strangest expression I’d ever imagined on his face, like a predator smiling clumsily at a shivering deer. I smiled back, my heart drumming.
It wasn’t until my eyes fell on the open mouthed J. Lo that I realized why he must’ve switched to my side: I was the only one without a pair of arms around me. Damian was just looking after the less fortunate. My chest deflated.
“Thanks, but I’m fine,” I grumbled and drew away, pulling my knees up. I didn’t look at him to see his reaction.
Suddenly, the car began to wobble like a ship on a stormy sea. The girls shrieked and boys glanced around with wide eyes. As for me, I didn’t realize what was happening until the lights flickered and finally went out, making me burst into a fit of screaming too. A hand wrapped around my arm and pulled me to a broad chest, my nose sinking in a fluffy pullover.
“Earthquake,” Damian’s voice sounded above my head. At the next jerk, he dropped back in the seat with me in his lap.
“Maybe they’re just, just, just taking us out of the snow,” J. Lo babbled.
“It ain’t no shovels moving this train, Lindy!” I recognized the voice of Sidonia’s new conquest. He sounded frantic.
The train came to a brusque halt in its swaying, and Damian jumped to his feet with me in his arms, sheltering me with the sides of his open coat. I pushed my face deeper in his pullover as he slid the compartment door open with his elbow.
“What are you doing?” Gino squealed.
“We need to get out of here,” Damian replied. His tone was calm, but not devoid of stress.
“What if it starts again?” His bodybuilder friend croaked. “We’re deep in the mountains, we could get killed in an avalanche or something!”
“And you think we stand a better chance if an avalanche traps us in this rusty box, Marius?” Damian raised his voice over his friend’s but didn’t wait for a reply.
He rushed with me down the aisle and only put me down as we reached a growing clutch of shrieking people by the exit. Fear gripped me, my heart punched hard against my ribcage as I stretched my arm to keep him close. To no avail, I lost him as he made his way through.
In the chaos of screams and bodies squashing me between them I freaked out, but I was unable to make a sound. The door snapped open and a winter gush wheezed through, lashing my face numb as people poured out of the train and drifted me forward with them. I sank to my knees in the glistening snow and waved my arms to keep from falling into the forested abyss that gaped before my eyes.
A huge, warm hand clasped mine, steadying me, and the instant I looked into Damian’s focused face I understood he’d only left my side to break down the door. I forgave him on the spot.
He turned to help the others out of the train but missed one, who bumped hard against me and sent me like a ball down the slope. I rolled and rolled, my mind frozen as snow infiltrated to my skin from under my scarf and sleeves. A front clash with a tree trunk knocked the air from my lungs and the last thing I saw was a shower of white that filled my mouth and nostrils. I choked under the mountain of cold that gagged me, desperate to breathe in.
My head began to cloud with lack of air and I felt my pulse give up. That moment I knew the sense of safety was a mirage, as if some tiny fairy at the back of my mind urged me to keep fighting.
I saw a bright sphere, but I knew it wasn’t the moon. It was light at the end of a black tunnel, a light that sucked me toward it with the force a vacuum cleaner would a fly. However hopelessly, I fought against the pull, which stopped by miracle as I came really close to the now huge moon. Weight started to press rhythmically on what I now identified as my chest and I started to spin backwards, as if something drew me with the same force farther and farther from the bright sphere. As it became smaller, it warped into the shape of a child-like face with bright, caramel eyes piercing at me through the darkness. A crystalline voice like tinkling icicles filled my head. “You need me . . .”
Every breath hurt as if my sternum had been smashed with a rock. The blur before my eyes cleared to Sidonia’s pixie face framed by a white and stylish fur hat, her pale blue eyes wide and worried above mine.
“She’s awake!” She called. More faces popped into the picture, looming above her head.
I tried to get up on my elbows, but the pain punched full force into my chest. With a groan that hurt too, I fell back on something soft that smelled of piss.
“Don’t strain yourself,” Sidonia said, putting a warm hand on my cheek.
“It hurts,” I whispered, taking a hand to my chest.
“It’s the CPR. Damian might’ve pressed too hard on your chest.”
Sidonia smiled, probably reading the surprise in my face.
“He launched after you after you fell. He carried you here, too.” There was a glint of ‘do you realize what this means?’ in her eyes.
Carried me . . . an open-mouthed, blue and cold almost-corpse. Shame sent another stab through my chest. I looked down at myself and saw I was wrapped in two coats – my own and a new slicker one, my scalp itching under what could’ve been a busby, yet none of it helped much. I still shivered as Sidonia tucked me under a blanket, leaving my arms out.
Muttering and shadows twirled around, only Sidonia’s face constant in the picture. I registered a friendly, “Water by the bed,” Gino’s “Bug off, here’s the Vodka,” and Raluca’s “Call if you need me, sis,” addressing Sidonia. Someone placed a candle on a nightstand by my head, as if I were dying. Still, candles were the only source of light in the room as far as I could tell – causing the eerie shadow play.
One by one the shadows cleared and left me in my best friend’s care, now that I was out of danger and required no more of their attention. It was then that my chest felt a bit lighter and I tried for breathed words again.
“Damian … CPR?”
Sidonia threw me a glance, her hands rubbing mine.
“Military, Marius says. Damian served his time. He must’ve learned how to do this kind of stuff.”
This was turning overboard – breaking down the train door, jumping after me, cradling me to shelter and now it turned out he’d brought me back to life. As far as I knew, cheesy Superman days were over and I suspected Sidonia was making fun of me, spraying fuel on my crush.
“Playing hero,” I whispered.
Sidonia’s head turned in the opposite direction – maybe the door. My socks got hitched off and something hot pressed to the naked soles of my feet. The feeling was beyond unpleasant, like needles stinging in my flesh.
“Sid, wha – ?” I managed and lifted my head. My very tongue froze.
Damian held a bottle of water at my feet, his honey-skinned hand covering both of them. He didn’t wear his coat, only the gray pullover that complimented his athletic body and those dark jeans that hinted at his strong legs. While I looked a mess. I scrunched my eyes shut as he began kneading my toes that looked like wax. I’m not seeing this! I’m not seeing this!
“A train off track and frozen mountains are no playground,” he scolded in that deep voice of his. So he’d heard my mockery. I wanted back in my snow grave.
“Will you take over from here?” Sidonia addressed him – agile on the first opportunity to give us some time alone, I figured. “I’m afraid Marius will get distracted if he misses me for too long, you know what I mean?”
I kept my eyes shut as they probably exchanged nods or rather headshakes. I didn’t want to roger Damian’s affronted refusal to watch over an ungrateful wreck. It was only when I heard the door creak shut that I opened one eye, as if peeking at an incoming blow.
Damian flipped the blanket aside and sat on the bed, diving into the mattress.
“May I lay with you?” he said softly, his tone yet amused.
Lay with me? The implications left me breathless. I nodded.
He stretched by my side, lifting my head with a huge hand and slipping an arm under the nape of my neck. Our eyes locked and my mind stuck on how rare his eye color was. I’d seen pale green, I’d seen blue often, brown and every combination thereof, but not that pure moss as if looked at through crystal. His eyes had the potential of shining bright like emerald, I thought. Maybe when he was mad. And I could make him mad right now. I could jolt up and press my lips on his, taking him by surprise.
But I made it only as far as resting my head on his arm and putting a hand on his chest – very broad, well-shaped, yet not bulky.
“You should let me open those coats. You’ll warm up faster.”
Say what? My face burned, my fingers and toes tingled, my head spinning. He unzipped the slicker, then unbuttoned the wool and slid his free arm under it, making my heart beat so fast that heat rushed from it to my arms and legs.
“Where are we?” My chest hurt with every word, but I had to derail his attention before my less than orthodox thoughts showed in my face.
“A cottage in restoration. The train fell off track too far from Predeal and this is the first lodging we found.”
Yes, off track, this was the second time he mentioned that.
“No earthquake?” I managed.
Damian shook his head.
“That was my first thought, but I was wrong. Earthquakes are not common in these parts of the Carpathians. They tried to pull the train forward through the snow and it slipped off.” There was a ghost of disbelief, maybe even a pensive touch in his words. It suited that deep, velvety voice of his that inebriated me, though it sounded as if he were hiding something – but I didn’t care right now.
I looked down at the shape of our legs under the blanket, thinking of what to say next to keep the conversation going. Damian’s fingers began stroking the side of my torso over the jersey, close to my breast.
“So, did you only punch me or . . . mouth to mouth, too?” I couldn’t believe the pain I put my ribcage through only to say the stupidest thing ever.
“Didn’t come to that, don’t worry. You spat out snow turned to water during the chest compressions.”
“Oh . . . Sorry.”
His chest vibrated with a laugh that seemed to scatter his worries. “You sure didn’t get the finest education at home.”
“No. I did not,” I muttered.
I searched for something else to say, but my mind was stuck in the awareness of him, of his breath on my forehead.
“Try to get some rest,” he said, as if he sensed my inner struggle. “Talking might be difficult for some hours, maybe even days.”
Now that was bad news. Sidonia would surely hunger for every detail of what happened in this room and I wouldn’t be able to deliver, which counted as high treason regardless of excuse.
Guitar tones slowly filled the silence. They were just as out of tune as the hoarse male voice that accompanied them, but it made not speaking more comfortable and I thought it relaxed Damian, too. I closed my eyes and tried to fall asleep, but his body so close to mine made it impossible. His chest rose and fell calmly as he breathed and I wondered relentlessly what he felt, what he thought of. What he thought of me.
He still stroked me so maybe he’d give in to easy sex. In the end, he’d saved my life and maybe he even expected such as a sign of gratitude. Maybe he waited for me to make the first move, yet I needed a cover in case it went wrong.
Faking sporadic sighs from the world of dreams, I let my body snake on Damian’s. Since I was supposed to be asleep I couldn’t be held for it, but the feel of his muscles under the pullover made my breath intensify, which may have exposed me. His rhythm didn’t change and, as I risked a glance through my lashes, his jaw rippled. He was angry.
I stopped moving but it seemed he’d already made a decision. Though he withdrew his arm carefully from under my head, as soon as that was done he jumped off the bed soundlessly like a gazelle and closed the door behind him. I opened my eyes, tears of shame dripping on the pillow.
With only the drunken version of Dust in the Wind to keep me company, more dark thoughts crept into my head. What if he was into Lindy after all? Or maybe into another? What if he only wanted to be friends? Greedy for the shaft in his pants I’d probably lost that now too, which made my chest hurt as much sniveling did.
Unable to put up with myself anymore I threw the blanket aside, groped for my socks and boots and followed the music down a narrow corridor. It led to what looked like the main chamber of an old rustic lodge with wooden furniture, carpets on the walls and a terracotta stove.
With power out candles were the only source of light here too, making the snow clinging to the windows glitter like in fairly tales. More drunken voices now joined the bearded singer’s and people chained together with hands on each other’s shoulders, swaying left and right.
I spotted Damian across the room. He sat on a windowsill, his booted feet on the back of a wooden bench. With elbows on his knees, he planted me a green scowl from under knitted eyebrows.
My severely bruised ego screamed, ‘Hide!’ and I hurried to mingle in, trying to find Sidonia. She danced in a lush embrace with Marius, who hurried to get rid of me by grabbing my wrist and introducing me to Lindy ‘J. Lo’ properly. My lips sucked lemon as I saw Damian’s coat hanging on her bony shoulders – so I wasn’t the only lady whom he aided in distress.
Maneuvered into it by Marius, I sat with her by the stove. She returned to her conversation with her friends and made a show of how she ignored me – meaning every time I opened my mouth, she’d go ahead and ask one of the others about the parties at the dorms that she’d missed, or introduce some cheap gossip with, “Oh yeah, did you hear that . . .” I tried talking to a guy with a blond mane, but after a short while he got bored and looked for entertainment elsewhere. After about an hour, Lindy and I were left alone for long, awkward moments.
The silence pressed harder on me than trying for small talk, so I managed to bring, “Lindy – that’s a rare name” and, “Where are you from?” about my lips. Looking away from me and with disdain in her voice, she said her parents were Americans and I instinctively mentioned my mother’s same heritage, but our connection was interrupted there.
“You’re American, too?” a boy with limbs even looser than Gino’s bounced in, his voice too loud. His drunken eyes sparked at me as if I’d suddenly turned into an exotic dancer – a remarkable shift, since he’d actively aided Lindy in ignoring me just shortly before.
Heads turned, the guitar player’s fingers tangled in the cords. Blood shot in my cheeks.
“That would be an overstatement,” I muttered.
“How can you overstate origin?” Lindy sneered. She threw cat-eyed daggers at me, so it wasn’t hard to tell she hated my stealing the spotlight, especially for one of her own reasons to be special.
“My dad studied in the States. Met my mom. She followed back to Romania. I’m a half-breed.” I glared at her and then at Mr. Nosy.
“So your mom’s the American and your dad the cowboy from Draculean lands?” He gave me a stupid grin, meant and failing to be charming.
I nodded, eager to get the subject behind me and to gag his big mouth.
“The States, huh? In those times?” Lindy tried harder to splash me with mud. “How did he pass Ceausescu’s dogs?”
I hadn’t seen that coming. I was cornered, and forging lies would have eventually put me in even worse light – it had before.
“It was Ceausescu’s dogs who sent him there.”
Complete silence. My eyes flew over to Damian. He watched with arms folded across his chest, his eyes narrow. For a moment there I hoped he’d jump to my rescue again, but he remained as immovable as stone.
“Tiberius Preda? He is your father?” The nerd whispered.
Shit . . .
I nodded and the nerd’s mouth popped open. Still, I had a feeling he was the only one in our young group with enough real information to know what my dad’s name stood for in the right context. For the others it should’ve meant only heavy moneybags.
“So, you’re rich daddy’s girl,” Lindy confirmed my hunch, laughing like in kindergarten. I wanted to slap her, but she was taller and stronger, so I feared the aftershock.
“Listen, hottie!” Sidonia placed herself before Lindy, her blue eyes turning into ice. All signs of fun and liquor-conditioned euphoria were gone from her face. “Aura didn’t make the sacrifice she did for anybody to still treat her like a social mutant!”
Raluca squared her shoulders behind her sister, trying to intimidate ‘Hottie’, but missed her aim. Lindy glowered back, more pissed off by the intervention than taken aback.
Driven by the pressure that built up in my head I didn’t wait for the outcome of this confrontation. I ran out the door with my face in my palms, fighting to keep back tears. The cool air on the porch dried my eyes instantly but also painted a sharp picture of my situation – lame, hopeless.
The lodge was somewhere high and close to the forest, countless fir branches warped with snow marking the contours of endless hills, a full moon hanging low in the sky. A beautiful place it was. A setting for Beauty and the Beast. For fairy tales mom used to read to me on cozy winter nights by an adorned tree. I’d fall asleep in my pink pajamas, clutching Judy the Monkey to my chest and dreaming of a prince in a fairy tale of my own. Yet my story turned out to be so much different – I was the Beast. The taste in my mouth was bitter.
I sank my hands in the slicker pockets and groped on something square and a piece of frozen plastic – a pack of cigarettes and a lighter, which I rubbed between my palms to warm the gas, feeling lucky. Lucky that most of my companions smoked and kept cigarettes in their jackets – I know, it sounds dreadful.
Without much thought, I put the poison in my mouth, lit it with some difficulty and pulled in smoke, which got me coughing and the pain back in my chest. Still, the purpose was achieved – both Damian’s rejection and Lindy’s laughter were at the back of my mind. For but a second.
“So, daddy issues?” Damian’s voice made me turn briskly. He stood tall by my side, his eyes searching mine.
“Heavy loads.” I sounded more composed than I would’ve expected – an effect I ascribed to the cigarette.
“Sidonia said something about sacrifices,” he mused after a short pause. He sounded not only interested, but also eager, which came as a complete surprise. I tried to coat it over.
“Sidonia spoke without thinking.”
“And without your consent. Still, I think she acted out of admiration.”
“And that puzzles you, I gather?”
“It intrigues me.”
“Of course it does.” I snorted, bitterness on the tip of my tongue. “I didn’t discover insulin or appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated, so you don’t think I deserve admiration.”
“Is that a statement or a question?” The green in his eyes sparked emerald – unique, more beautiful than I’d imagined. Maybe he was still angry for my undercover hitting on him. I turned away, gazing in the distance and faking cold indifference to his looks.
“All right then, here it is,” I said. The cigarette made for a confessional state of mind and I’d already made a fool of myself, so it couldn’t get any worse than that. “My dad is a man of wealth and influence, but I guess his name already told you that. But a parent’s success can weigh heavy on the kid’s shoulders, you know? Everybody expects so much of you. I could live with that up to a certain point but then, on a drinking night with his friends, my ex bragged about intending to marry me for my dowry. I heard about that but refused to believe it. So I decided to have myself removed from my father’s will as well as from his list of heirs, just to prove everybody that Alex wasn’t a jackass. The only thing I kept was my last name, certain it would soon change anyway. But Alex left me a short while later, of course.” I coughed out the last words and grimaced at the pain in my chest.
“So you gave up your inheritance to clear his honor?”
“You make it sound as if I’m a hero.”
“I’m sure Sidonia shares my point of view.”
“Sidonia and I have known each other for some years now. She’d taken me under her wing before this stunt.”
“So she didn’t need reasons to like you.”
“No. She didn’t.” I stared at him, drawn ever deeper into his scrutinizing gaze. Just yesterday I would’ve done anything for a situation and an opportunity like this, but now was the worst moment to be exposed to my love interest. I must’ve looked a complete mess huddled in two dirty coats, with crazy hair and tired eyes, holding a cigarette between skeletal fingers like some old witch. I hurried to derail his focus.
“How about you?”
“What about me?”
“What’s your story? I mean . . . Truth be told, you’re quite popular, yet few people know anything about you.”
He smiled that dashing smile of his.
“Have you inquired and been left wanting?”
“Oh, you have a way of putting things . . .”
“I merely adjust to my interlocutor.” He winked.
“And a strong memory, master Novac.”
“Did anybody tell you that or did you draw your own conclusion?”
“I thought it was my turn to ask questions.” I tried to sound cool, waving a finger at him. He took a step closer, his stare steady on my face. I swallowed hard.
“I’m not done,” he said. “This Alex guy, you must’ve loved him to sacrifice everything you did.”
“Is that a statement or a question?” I muttered, my eyes locked on his sculptured lips, craving to raise my hand and touch them. I yet didn’t move.
“Are you going to answer it?” he continued softly, as if he wanted to seduce the answer out of me.
“No.” Don’t ask where the word came from, for I do not know. All I knew was that I had to resist him.
“You don’t want to go there?”
“Is this an interrogation?”
“Does it feel like such?”
I pondered and drew from the cigarette, ignoring the chest pain. “It feels shrinky.”
“Oh, that’s by no means what I intended.”
“Do you have a problem with shrinking?”
“Are we changing parts, with you as the inquisitor?”
“We are.” Boy, am I tough . . . I felt suddenly proud of myself.
Something told me Damian Novac would by no means put up with my inversing poles, therefore I waited for him to crush my will. The prospect was thrilling.
“As long as it satisfies you.”
Satisfies . . . “So? Is it contempt for doctors I sensed there?”
“Not doctors. Shrinks. But you don’t need either.”
“What do you think I need?”
“I don’t presume to know. That’s why I’m asking questions.”
“Then how do you know what I don’t?”
“You sound resentful, which is fine and healthy.”
My heart skipped a beat. The irresistible barbarian who’d followed me to the porch had turned into a scholar who messed with my head. I prayed to God the map of my desires – that had everything to do with this surprisingly refined beast – didn’t display on my face.
“Are you that familiar with the sound of resentment, as to be sure that’s what you hear?”
He knitted his eyebrows and pressed his beautiful lips together in a hard expression. Still, my sixth sense told me it wasn’t because I had him locked, but because he was reluctant to reply.
The thought trailed off soon though, his towering closeness heating up my blood so much that the winter night had no effect anymore. I felt as if in a furnace and I breathed too fast, but the spell scattered to the four winds when the front door burst open as if thrown off by draft.
Lindy appeared in the frame, wrapped in a shabby quilt that didn’t succeed in reducing her beauty by as much as I wished. Her hair flowed straight and slippery like smooth coffee down her chest, her translucent face well tended and her cat-like eyes glimmering under thick lashes – gorgeous eyes, despite the dark rings tiredness drew around them. She extended her arm to offer Damian the piece of brown clothing that hung around it.
“I thought I’d bring your coat,” she addressed him without even throwing me a look. “You’ll need it, if you plan on staying out here long.” There was a drop of scorn in her bold voice. Maybe she did have a claim on Damian after all. I swallowed the sudden lump that formed in my throat at the idea.
“Thank you,” Damian said, relieving the weight of his coat off her arm. “You shouldn’t have, though. I was just bringing the girl back in.”
“You go ahead,” I said. Damian had turned his tall, V-shaped back at me and already taken a few steps to the door, making anger and defiance fire up in me. I wouldn’t follow this handsome master like an insignificant, nameless slave, especially not after he’d turned his attention away. “I’ll stay here a while, enjoy the quiet.”
Purpose achieved. Damian made a half-spin and looked down at me, a glint of surprise in his eyes. I couldn’t believe he thought me completely under his spell just after sharing an overly platonic hour in bed and exchanging not thirty minutes worth of dialogue tonight. Maybe he thought I’d follow him like a tail-wriggling dog now, hoping for him to throw me another bone.
“The wind’s taking up. A blizzard coming, maybe,” he insisted.
A defiant grin curled my mouth. “The door’s not that far away. I’ll make it through before the blizzard hits me. I have a way of protecting myself of anything intent to sweep me off my feet.”
Damian seemed to get the hint. He frowned and shook his head, just slightly. He seemed hesitant to leave, looking at me like you would at an errant child.
“Watch out for wolves.” He held the door for Lindy and followed in.
I was left alone on the porch. The wind blew sharply through my hair indeed, the cold penetrating to my bones. Maybe it had moments before too, but Damian’s presence had kept me from perceiving it. I looked out into the distance, shivering at the void that built up inside me as strings of white fell from the sky faster and faster, hatching the dark horizon.
I tried to light another cigarette but it proved impossible. The lighter gave nothing but small sparks and the few times a flame came to life it was blown off by harsh gusts. Though it was truly high time I went in, the fist of pride kept firm around my heart. I wouldn’t give Damian satisfaction.
Just another minute and I wasn’t sure of that last thought anymore. In the end, he’d saved my life and carried me to safety – however fictional that might sound. This was real life. Fiction is inspired by reality after all, so I guessed heartbreakingly handsome heroes, lifesavers and unrequited passions weren’t that rare.
I scrunched my eyes shut as I realized I’d looked like a complete idiot by refusing to follow back into our shelter and by implying that he’d tried to dazzle me. He’d made his lack of interest crystal clear by leaving when I’d hit on him. Maybe he’d sensed how worthless I was from the very beginning – a loser some big-bellied alcoholic refused to marry. Now, after my stupid, tobacco-influenced confession, he knew it for a fact.
It was difficult to keep my head up when I walked back in. Damian stood with his group of boisterous friends in the center of the candlelit room, keeping a reserved smile on as they slapped his back and tempted him with liquor. He seemed relieved to see me, but maybe it was just in my head – he looked at me just once, the last time that night. Hardly a surprise, considering my competition – Lindy danced like a sexy snake around the bearded singer and in Damian’s field of vision, probably spurred by the reek of Vodka and Scotch.
I spotted Raluca and Gino on a sheepskin and sat by them. They offered a cup of white wine thinned with snow – maybe Cotnari, but the label had been peeled off the bottle, so I couldn’t tell for sure. They insisted I accepted a refill and ignored the palm I held up to stop them. Same drill for another refill, as they kept laughing and asking uncomfortable questions like whom I planned to “bed” tonight. I dodged them off as well I could, my eyes darting from Damian, to Lindy, to the fair, sporty Sidonia and the short but iron-pumped Marius, who kissed passionately by the stove.
The wine didn’t manage to get me drunk but caused an ugly headache as Lindy’s dance took ever more sensual turns. Other girls accompanied her, their lids heavy from drinking and their moves erratic and ridiculous. But Lindy . . . She danced like a professional ballerina in elastic jeans and tight wool top, throwing her hair back with lascivious moves, spinning and stretching to the bearded singer’s guitar and voice. You can leave your hat on, Joe Cocker. Couldn’t be better.
Probably too controlled to watch with a hanging tongue like the others, Damian resorted to throwing her glances once in a while, then returning to his friends and sipping from the plastic cup. She kept her eyes on him, smiling and winking sexily every time she caught his eye. I knew she had his attention, no matter how he hid it under knitted eyebrows, as if something grew heavier on his mind with every minute. Soon, as the blizzard began wheezing and raging, he made his way to the window, looking as if his mind left the lodge, focused on some disturbing memory. His jaw hardened, making his profile seem carved in stone.
Redirecting my eyes and mind somewhere else almost hurt. I drank cup after cup of oily wine, switching my attention to the bets Gino and Raluca placed on who was going to crack and touch Lindy first.
“Bet ya five cups on Biker,” Gino babbled.
I knew instantly he was talking about the rough, hairy guy who sat drinking and grinning lecherously too close to Lindy’s dancing legs.
“A whole bottle it’ll be the Hector,” Raluca said, gesturing to the bearded singer with her cup.
“You’ll fall in a coma only if you think of drinking that much,” Gino mocked, putting a skinny arm around her plump shoulders.
I couldn’t help a smile. They looked like a stick and a balloon in love, although Raluca made for a quite attractive balloon with her voluptuous breasts, soft skin and almond shaped, chocolate eyes. The pug nose and full lips were pretty much everything she and Sidonia had in common, but she was also a head-turner.
“You’re underestimating me, Ginny. I’m afraid it’ll be you squeezed in a bottle, if you take just another gulp,” she mocked back.
Truth be told, Gino did already have some difficulty rounding his words and his gaze was foggy, his eyes deep-set in his long, narrow face. The sandy hair looked like a mop on top of his head, disheveled as if he hadn’t combed it in weeks. Welcome to the club.
“We’re both too impaired for activities as extreme as betting,” he said with a peace-making wave of his hand, “Let’s stick to black trail skiing.”
He gave her a long kiss, taking her big lips between his thirstily, one at a time. I tried to look away, but it’d been over a year since my own lips had been touched and longing kept me staring and feeling like a pervert. I cleared my voice, sick with myself. Gino drew away with a crooked grin and an apologetic shrug.
“Besides,” he turned to Raluca again, “Big Daddy will have their heads, if any of these losers do as much as stroke her.”
I didn’t need another word to understand he referred to Damian. My heart stung and prompted me to change the subject, desperate to keep its ignorance. I wasn’t ready to be fully aware of what they had yet.
“You promised to teach me poker, Gino,” I cut in and motioned with my chin to a smoking and cards playing group well over their thirties. “Let’s join.”
I didn’t get the rules and Gino’s tongue-knotting explanations weren’t any help. None of us had much money, so the loser had to take off a piece of clothing each lost round. After I got stripped to my blue jersey, I decided to call it a night and made for the small chamber we called a “bedroom”, straining not to glance at Damian.
The leftovers of some candles lay around in pooled wax. Only now did I notice the beds – two of them – were mere bunks, probably with straw under the grey, dirty sheets. Maybe they’d served for construction workers until late autumn. But since the place had been abandoned over the winter, humidity had infested it with the smell of wet dog. The cinder was weak in the stove.
I dropped on the same bunk I’d lay on with Damian, wishing for the “Crime and Punishment” that had stayed on the train. A good, old Russian novel that could transport me now in another dimension, where the hero would take another face but Novac’s. He would be battered and cracked and not as handsome, but he’d do. I closed my eyes and relied on my imagination to picture him, but the blackness only sent my head spinning like a carousel. Sleep came in spurts and then fled completely as people began trickling into the room. I counted eight from under half-closed eyelids – still better than counting sheep.
Some sticky woman cuddled behind me, stepping on my legs when I resisted her siege and stiffly held on to my position by the edge. She stank of alcohol and I eventually recognized her as one of the “intruders” – people from the train who’d come to the same shelter, but weren’t part of our group. This particular one was of the card players. Quite a looker, but definitely too old for the kind of crap we did here.
A couple took the other bunk and the rest huddled on jackets and sheepskins on the floor. None of them thought of feeding the fire, relying on the body heat of their partners or friends to keep warm – as I relied on the lady’s who now snored charmingly by my side.
The blizzard intensified, whipping against the window. It was a steady roar that mingled with drunken moaning – a couple were surely doing it on the floor.
“Stop!” the girl said, loud enough for me and everyone else in the room to hear it. She sounded familiar, but not familiar enough for me to identify her.
“Deal struck, sweetheart.” The man’s voice was not only too thick, but also feverish, matching his snogging on her skin and the shuffle of jackets under and over them. “Pay time.”
“Get off me, you fuckin’ dog!”
My eyes snapped wide open, searching for the scene, and I sat up brusquely. All I could see were her white wool arms and denim legs moving, the meaning of it edited by my brain – she was trying to protect herself. A few others sprang from their sleeping places, while some mumbled groggy-headed.
A boy managed to light a candle after repeated attempts – I could tell by the lighter sparks and curses – and as he brought it close to the screaming girl I gaped in smitten disbelief.
Lindy’s face was pale and drawn with fear. The rings around her now wide eyes were deep trenches and her top was torn, revealing small, white breasts with pointy nipples. People moved around in chaos.
Others from the main room burst in. I stood and took a few shy steps toward them, not knowing how I could help, when a man ripped from the bundle, using the confusion to walk casually to the door. His contour was big – maybe a fleshy person, yet not fat – and I knew on the spot it was the Biker who’d watched Lindy dance, as I knew he was her aggressor. With a cry I drew attention and pointed at him. What followed left me stunned and sweating.
Two boys rushed after him, head first like angry bulls, but the man spun around unexpectedly and slammed his fists into their faces – right first, left second. I flinched, expecting booms, bangs or cracks, yet there was no sound except for the victims’ growls. One of the boys desisted and retreated like a beaten dog, but the thinner one attacked again, hands outstretched, giving out a cry of anger. I imagined him with exploded blood vessels in his eyes and bared teeth, but his zeal was abruptly put to rest when another punch sent him flat on his back.
Before the others could react, Biker tried to make for a sprint through the door, bumping hard into a tall, athletic frame like a ball against a mound. Damian. He glared emerald daggers at Biker, blocking his way out. With his face framed by dark, wavy hair, he looked like a beautiful animal about to bite.
After only a few seconds of hesitation, Biker bent from his waist and thrust himself at Damian, who moved out of the way and caught the rapist by his jacket. He pulled him up straight and slammed his head into the doorframe. Hard. Really hard. I heard bones crack. The man groaned in pain and his body turned to jelly. Damian jerked him to his feet and faced him, keeping a grip on his throat.
“Going somewhere?” His voice was low, impassible.
A streak of blood trickled from Biker’s temple down his cheek and he was clearly dizzy. He grinned like a man on crack. Damian’s muscles snaked under the pullover as he slammed the rapist’s back into the doorframe. Biker groaned again.
“I see you’re big on brawling,” Damian hissed, glancing at the two boys who were now supported by their friends. “Why don’t you pick on somebody your own size?”
Biker’s mouth drew in the grin of a nutcase enjoying pain. “I might ask you the same.” The line was unfair. Biker was nearly as broad as Damian, if not as tall.
Another slam against the doorframe. “Why do you pick up fights, Rocky?”
The man didn’t reply, so other voices rose in chaotic explanations that said everything and yet nothing. “Attempted rape” and “Lindy” made it to my ears, though, and certainly also Damian’s. But, to my surprise, it didn’t seem to anger him. On the contrary, his arms fell off Biker and his glare softened a little, even though he didn’t take it off the man’s eyes for one instant.
“You’ve had too much to drink. We’ll deal with this when you’re sober.”
That I didn’t like Lindy must be obvious until now, but Damian’s reaction angered me. I raised my voice and stepped in.
“That’s no justification! This guy is a potential rapist! I’m certain this wasn’t his first time and it won’t be the last, especially if we let him off the hook about it on the wishy-washy grounds that he was impaired.”
Damian’s clear green eyes fell on me. Taken aback by the flash of sharp focus in his gaze, I retreated a step.
“You’re quick to judge, Aurelia.”
I shook my head in disbelief. He couldn’t be so thick. “Quick to judge? Look at that woman, Damian!” I pointed at the group behind me, assuming by the calming whispers that Lindy was still among them. “She’s been abused, whether this asshole went the whole way or not! That usually leaves scars, regardless of the offender’s reasons or state of mind at the time he inflicted pain on his victim. Is this basis strong enough for you to deem the offense grave?”
He didn’t follow the direction I pointed in, but kept looking at me. The shade of a smile touched his lips.
“I wasn’t talking about Rocky Balboa here,” he said, “I was talking about me. You’re quick to judge me.”
“I wouldn’t let this asshole off the hook in a million years. But I won’t smash his face while he’s under the heavy influence of alcohol either.”
Blood flooded my cheeks. The faint, bitter smile told me he saw past my words and actions. I realized it wasn’t only Lindy’s situation that had driven my anger, but I’d also jumped at the first opportunity to label Damian a worthless scum, no better than Biker. I couldn’t live with him being a golden guy and me not good enough for him, so my mind had tried to switch into a comfortable position. The worst part was – Damian knew it before I did.
“If you’d given me the chance, I would’ve said Hector and I would take our friend to the attic and tie him up until his mind clears. When this happens, we’ll talk again. And when we get out of here, we’ll turn him in.”
Biker laughed. There was a spark of excitement in his eyes as he spoke.
“Turn me in . . . And to whom, Stoian?”
“To the cops, or your friends at BioDhrome, along with all of these ants?”
Damian blinked twice, as if recovering from a blow he hadn’t seen coming. He turned to the man and stared at him for seconds, while the others behind me shuffled and whispered. My eyes darted from Damian to Biker, seeking sense.
“What is this bullshit?” Damian hissed, his eyes fixed on the man with poisonous stress.
“You shoved the past under a carpet, Stoian. But sooner or later, it was bound to crawl out and choke you.”
“That’s not my name.”
The man gave another tired laugh. “Of course not.”
Before he could speak again, Damian grabbed Biker’s left arm and Hector his right. I looked at the latter, hoping something in his face, his reaction, would betray some meaning to all this.
The bearded singer’s features were now clear in the light of the oil lamp he carried in the other hand. He was robust, his small eyes shadowed by bushy eyebrows and he had the nose of an eagle. His skin was the color of ripe olives, which made me think of a gypsy, and the rich beard made him appear older than he must’ve actually been, adding to the ominous air. But there was no trace of emotion in his face, he looked like a robot. There was nothing I could read or interpret.
Biker tried to jerk from their grasp, but he didn’t stand a chance. I heard muffled bumps and curses as they took him up the creaky stairs to the attic. Though I wanted to follow, my feet wouldn’t take a step.
Talking took up pace and volume and soon there was a fuss about everything: How Lindy was feeling – she got most of the attention again – the two heroes’ injuries, Biker’s words. A few hours later, when dawn drew a bloody horizon along the mountainous contour, a consensus was reached – the man and his companions were complete strangers to us until yesterday, they’d gotten on the train in Bucharest, so there was no way Biker could know Damian or any of us. He was completely drunk, he talked nonsense.
It was easy for my tired mind to accept their conclusion. It made sense. The one question running around in my head right now was another, anyway – how come Damian didn’t lose his temper when he learned Biker had tried to force himself on Lindy? As much as I loathed myself for it, hope bloomed in my chest. Hope that he didn’t care for her enough, even that there was yet nothing between them.
The sleep I got tormented by daylight, snoring from at least a dozen sources and bad breath from just as many mouths ended about noon, with a headache and a sensation of weakness all through my body. I barely carried myself to the kitchen, my mind numb and my lids swollen. I must’ve been a delight to look at.
The voices in the kitchen were painfully cheerful. They stabbed my brain and I was tempted to skirt around the overpopulated room, but I soon found it contained the only sink where I could wash my face and teeth. My toothbrush and every item for personal hygiene had been abandoned on the train, so I used my finger, bent over the rusty, enamel-peeled sink. The water was freezing, smacking me to sharp awareness.
Chattering suddenly gained meaning. People were gossiping incessantly about last night and the story took thrilling turns for those who’d been too drunk to experience it live. There were versions where Lindy kicked Biker in the balls and Damian punched him senseless. The reason why he and Hector hadn’t barged in along with the others was because they had been in the attic, looking for lamps and other useful objects that might help us survive several days of isolation, or the road to the nearest village or town. I didn’t know if it was any truer than the kick in the balls, but it was plausible.
Tired and with a throbbing head, I looked for my Sidonia and eventually found her arranging food – chips! – on a clay plate – a rarity.
“Wow, I didn’t know people still used these things,” I said looking over her shoulder and reaching for a bite. She slapped my hand off.
“This ain’t for you, sweetheart. Make your own.” She was stiff and frowning. If I knew anything about her – and I knew her well – she was either preoccupied or nervous.
“Breakfast or clay plate?” I cocked an eyebrow, expecting the truth behind her stiffness. She glanced around, making sure no one was listening. Yes, something was up.
“I’m taking this to the attic,” she whispered.
I stopped breathing. “You’re most certainly not! If anyone feeds that monster it should be someone who can tame him.”
“You mean Damian or Hector? Neither are here, and this is my chance.”
“Why should you need a chance?”
“They won’t allow anyone to come into contact with the guy. They say he’s too dangerous. This is my chance to talk to him, and I don’t know how much time I have until they’re back.”
“Where are they?”
“Damian went with Marius to the next village, if they find one within a few miles. They’re looking for help and food. Hector’s cutting wood in the barn.”
I paused, pondering. “I’m coming with you.”
She shook her head. “No you’re not. Stay here, make sure no one comes up.”
“Why are you doing this, Sid? What can you possibly want with the guy?”
She looked aside through the window, thinking. It was the first time Sidonia formulated sentences in her head before she spoke them to me. I became instantly alert.
“Don’t think, Sidonia, talk! Do you know him?”
“I don’t, but Lindy surely does.”
“Really? Then why don’t you talk to her? She’s safer than him.”
“She’s still asleep and her friends guard her like hawks.”
“Okay . . . Is there anything you know about the guy, at least something?”
“Look, Aura,” she said, looking me straight in the face. “I may be on to crap here, so I prefer not to spread panic unnecessarily. But, if I’m right, his name is Raul Iordache and he’s a reporter with Adevarul.”
I tilted my head back, inspecting her. “Panic? Unnecessarily?”
She shuffled from one leg to the other, eager to go. The others were still busy gossiping and eating, but they would soon burn off their material and eavesdrop for ours.
“Look, Aura, I don’t have much time. Damian and Marius might take a while until they walk through that door, but Hector will be back any minute now. Just call I need a quilt at the base of the stairs if he comes back.”
Before I could reply she rushed to the attic. I followed, determined to ignore her request and have her back, but I bumped into Gino and Raluca on the corridor, who were interested in just that – Sidonia’s whereabouts. I was tempted to tell them and get them up there too, but I knew she would never forgive me. This was on our “treason” list.
I told them she was out for some fresh air and baited them to the kitchen, saying that food was already scarce. This wasn’t far from the truth, since the little that had been saved from the train was quickly vanishing in grumbling bellies, ravaged by last night’s drinking.
Raluca walked to the short, exfoliated fridge and grabbed three small bags of chips. Only eating did I realize how hungry I was. The chips tasted like freaking caviar and the cool water like the finest champagne. That was the first time I realized how privileged I was with my little university life back in Constanta, sipping steaming coffee every morning and eating two meals a day.
Soon, Lindy emerged from the bedroom. She looked tired and sick, her face still white from shock. I got up and asked her if there was anything I could do to help, but she sneered me away and soon forced herself to laugh and act jovially with the others. By the time Sidonia came back, lifting a stone off my heart, Lindy was already the center of attention again, keeping all eyes and ears off us.
“What did he say?” I whispered, grabbing Sidonia’s arm.
“Nothing much. He’s sober now and won’t talk easily. You have to buy me more time.”
“Forget it. I won’t aid you in exposing yourself to a potential rapist like that.”
“He’s wound in rope, Aura, from neck to toes. He’s lying on hay and needs to be baby-fed. He’s harmless.”
A bulb lit in my head.
“And you think he’ll give you what you want without something in return, Sid? He’ll sure have you do him favors in exchange for information you’re not even sure he has.”
“Oh, I’m sure he has it, Aura. And I won’t do him any favors.”
The door creaked open and Hector walked in, carrying firewood on a shoulder like a strong peasant, and for a moment Sidonia’s eyes glinted. Yes, he was much more a man than Marius, even though he didn’t make a show of his muscles. I elbowed her and gave her the Moon-this-is-Houston-do-you-copy line. She caught herself in a second.
“Just keep him off my trail. If he goes out again, keep an eye on him. If he comes back in, keep him talking. From the second he leaves the house I’ll need half an hour,” she said, and turned on her heels.
In the afternoon the others went back to drinking and playing cards and Sidonia mingled with them, fixed on gathering info. I got close to the lady I’d shared a bunk with last night. From time to time I asked her questions about Biker, since she was part of his group. But the woman and her companions had only known Raul Iordache a few months. He was a good, respected journalist and been divorced for a year. To them, he’d been the nice guy next door until last night. She seemed desperate to convince me that she knew nothing of his “practices” and “inner demons” and told me that she’d assured my “blond friend” of her full cooperation with the police when the time came, too. She even gave me a worn book she said Raul had been clutching to his chest when he jumped off the derailed train. It was an exquisitely boring report written by a Dr. Angelo Crawford about the benefits of blood transfusions even without necessity. I only managed the first five pages, frustrated and dreaming of “Crime and Punishment”.
When evening greyed the windows, the moment came. Hector walked out the door and Sidonia and I fired glances at each other. I darted after him, right into the sharp wind outside that nailed me on the porch, while Hector hurried to a barn blurred by snowfall.
Night descended fast over the hills and our shelter was so lonely in the wilderness, so cut off from the world, that only the thought of war felt more threatening. There was no sign of Damian and Marius and fear punched a void into my chest. Anything could’ve happened to them. No, something must’ve happened to them. They were gone at least eight hours.
As I made out Hector’s frame walking heavily toward me, carrying wood on his shoulder, I held out the door.
“What are you doing here, babe?” he said hoarsely.
Babe? I pulled a curtain in front of the offended face my inner self made.
“I . . . I was thinking about Marius and Damian. Weren’t they supposed to be back by now?”
He dropped the pile of wood in the small vestibule and put his hands on his waist, moving it in circles to relieve pain. He grimaced as he spoke, looking down at the pile.
“They shouldn’t have left in the first place. Damian knew the blizzard had only taken a short break.”
My heart jumped.
“Shouldn’t we go searching for them or something?”
Hector stretched and looked up, to the ceiling.
“I admire your courage, babe, but you wouldn’t last an hour out there.”
“I wouldn’t be alone. I’d be with you,” I pushed.
Hector snorted and started toward the main room.
“If it’s Damian you’re worried about, don’t,” he threw over his shoulder.
Shit, he knows I’m into him. Everyone does. I felt exposed, I could see them all watching my midnight fantasies alone in my room, laughing at me. Shame burned in my cheeks and I wanted to hide, but for some reason I grabbed his elbow. He turned and scowled at me.
“I’m worried about both of them. Why would I think especially of Damian?” I jeered.
“Well, maybe because he saved your life?”
Yes, of course. Anyone would inquire about their rescuer and feel obliged to return the favor. My secret was still safe and my lips glued together to avoid another stupid remark.
Hector continued slowly. “For your peace of mind, if they don’t come back tonight, it’s because they found refuge elsewhere. Damian can take care of himself and others too. Marius is safe with him.”
His words were comforting, but his moving toward the stairs drew another signal of alarm.
“I need a quilt!” I yelped. Hector stared at me as if I were a mad cow.
“And you expect me to bring you one?”
I blinked and chuckled like a dolly, certain I didn’t look good doing that. But his eagle eye turned away from me when sudden turbulence and screaming in the main room made his head snap in that direction.
We rushed into the dim chamber where Lindy acted “all epileptic,” according to Gino’s wide-eyed, clueless explanation. As Hector worked our way close to her through a mass of gathered people, the sight hit me – eyes rolling, body convulsing, her hair clinging to her sweaty forehead.
“Shit, man, the woman’s possessed!” a boy called, jerking away from Lindy as Hector fell to his knees beside her and snatched something from the boy’s shaking hand.
I couldn’t identify the object until he fit it in Lindy’s mouth – a wooden spoon, maybe to ensure she didn’t swallow her tongue. My skin creased and my mind locked on this isn’t happening like a scratched record, while the sight of her limbs slowly relaxing in twisted positions burned into my memory. It never really left me.
Sidonia plunged in through the crowd and dropped by Lindy’s side. After short attempts at slapping her back to reality, she yelled, “She’s not coming back to her senses!”
Hector stretched an arm to keep her away. “Stop that!”
“Why isn’t she reacting?”
“I don’t know, I’m not a fuckin’ doctor!”
“CPR, mouth to mouth, do something!”
“There’s nothing I can do!”
As if she’d heard Hector’s hopeless statement, Lindy began moving her head from side to side, giving out feeble sighs.
“She could use some rest. She had a harsh night. Let’s take her to bed, I’ll stay with her,” I suggested to Hector.
He scooped her up and followed me to the bedroom. The others trailed like a flock of curious hens, but Sidonia’s pitchy yet confident voice stopped them at the door. “This ain’t the Big Brother house, the woman needs to rest.”
Hector laid Lindy on the bed and shuffled the blanket over her.
“Milk and bananas.” My tone was more assertive and matter-of-fact than I’d ever thought myself capable of. He looked at me puzzled.
“Calcium and magnesium,” I offered a brief explanation, taking a seat by Lindy’s side. Her lips were cracked, but it might as well have been from the harsh wind she’d fought against as she’d walked here, or from the shock last night.
Hector didn’t move. I realized he had nowhere to get milk and bananas from, so I added, “Talk to Sidonia, she’ll figure out what to do. Just tell her we need calmatives.”
“Where will she get them?” Lindy said in a faint voice after Hector left the room.
“She’ll find something in the kitchen or improvise. She’s quite ingenious.”
Few people knew, but Sidonia had been labeled a genius a year ago, when she’d applied for college. People of her heritage required previous examining and testing before they went to the “higher” circles, which were reserved for those of nobler – “whiter” – descent. Her looks had fooled everybody during high school, keeping her origin hidden. But her papers screamed out the truth when she filed her college application.
“I doubt Sidonia will be able to conjure calcium from thin air. There’s nothing healthy to eat or drink in this place.” Just as faint. And disinterested.
“She must get it somewhere. You need that.” I lit the leftovers of two candles.
“All I need is to get out of here,” Lindy whispered.
She looked aside, the small flames casting eerie light on her face and sending a strange feeling up my throat. The circles around her eyes were black and deeper than yesterday, and her cheeks were sucked in, as if the person who’d laughed at me just yesterday had fallen heavily ill. I stroked the sweaty tendrils off her face with an automatic impulse. They felt like mine when I had nightmares.
“We all do. Just hang in there, we’ll find help in the morning.”
“In the morning . . .” A tired smile curled her mouth. “None of us will make it till morning.” She trembled, her lips white and her eyes foggy as if she went delirious.
“Try to get some rest. Fatigue and paranoia go hand in hand,” I said and stood up, intent to bring some water and lower her fever back to normal. Otherwise I feared she’d be beyond repair before help came.
Lindy clasped my hand. “Don’t take me for a lunatic, Aurelia. We won’t survive this, not unless we break them, all of us.”
“Break what?” I grimaced to keep her calm. It failed.
She took her hands to her face, her polished fingernails scratching the skin down her throat as if she wanted to escape her own body. “The confinements of our flesh . . .”
She’s mad . . . I jolted to her, pushing her hands down in panic. “Lindy, for Christ’s sake!”
Her grin stretched to her ears like the sneer of a skull. The blizzard now whistled beyond the walls as if aligning to Lindy’s growing intensity, making the window chatter from its hinges and a chill course down my spine.
Lindy’s voice caught guttural, low stress. “What miracle do you expect by invoking him, that usurper? This isn’t the work of god or devil, but the work of man alone.”
“What are you, a philosophy major?” I tried for a joke to ease the ill temper that seemed to build up in her. But before I could blink, her hands wrapped around my neck, squeezing so tightly that I panicked again, sure I’d swallow my throat bones.
“Draw it out of me, maggot, suck it out!” She bellowed.
My tongue pushed out of my mouth, I choked on every attempt to pull in air and this isn’t happening turned on fast forward.
“Suck it out!” She piped, her bloodshot eyes framed by those dark circles glowering into mine like a maniac’s.
I grabbed her wrists, but whatever was going on with this woman gave her the strength of wood, as if she’d merged with the walls. Even her skin seemed to turn brownish, but it could’ve been just the oxygen leaving my brain.
It wasn’t until my ears stopped buzzing, making way for the outraged voices around me, that I was again aware of where I was and what had just happened. After a severe fit of coughing that abused my still sensitive ribcage, anger slowly replaced shock. Still, I didn’t get up from the floor. An ugly truth hit me – I was so darn weak, Skeleton-J. Lo could’ve easily disposed of me. I raised my eyes to her.
Sidonia – probably my savior this time – restrained Lindy, whose sweat-damp hair flew in every direction around her head as she struggled.
“You’re guinea pigs for the strong!” She cried over and over again. Guinea pigs was especially frequent and accompanied by spittle as Sidonia and Gino tied her to the bed with wound sheets and some old rope Hector brought from the attic.
Two soft hands clasped my shoulders and led me away from the group that had gathered by the bed. I didn’t make it far down the corridor until my knees gave in and I dropped on a chest that creaked even under my insignificant weight.
“Are you all right?” I recognized Raluca’s calm voice.
“What happened here?”
I didn’t answer, but kept staring at the herd that pooled by the door, separating us from the muffled curses of my Nemesis and her restrainers.
“Are you hurt?”
“I’m fine,” I spat. “It’s Lindy you should worry about. She’s a danger to herself and talks gibberish.”
“Don’t be bitter, Aura, she’s ill.”
“My point exactly. She needs immediate help and none of us has the training to provide it.” I kept my tone free of inflections this time. It was always tricky with Raluca, she was only sweet to both her sister and me when we were in trouble – when we needed it most. But her usual, very serious self frowned at us every chance she got and I’d grown cautious with my words around her. She always kept out of the childish plots Sidonia and I wasted our time with. Which is why her words caught me by surprise now.
“She needs to get back home as soon as possible. Her boyfriend will surely take it from there,” she whispered in my ear.
A stupefied glance at her was enough to catch the spark of mischief in her eyes. ‘Big Daddy would have their heads,’ Gino’s words from last night echoed in my head.
“B-boyfriend?” I babbled.
“Rumor has it she’s seeing a rich guy – bald and fat some people here speculate, though they’ve never seen him. New mafia, they said. What they know for sure is that Lindy dances for him in a private booth at the Marquette. He buys her Prada and whatever western designers, pays for college and gives her money for her kid, too.”
My ears buzzed again.
“A three-year-old daughter. Lindy’s mamma raises her.”
“Lindy’s a mother?” I whispered, not sure how to take this or what to think of next. “Jeez. I mean, what is she, barely twenty-one?”
“Barely. But strongly into Novac. I heard gossip they’ve been seeing each other for a few weeks now. They must be still keeping it a secret because of the mobster, but the bubble will explode soon,” she whispered close to my ear, as if to get it inside my head and put me in my place.
I gave Raluca a twitchy smile, but that’s all I managed. I was afraid of what she’d say next – maybe that Lindy was a superwoman who’d achieved more in twenty-one years than I would in a century. I sprang up and stumbled to the main room, hopping over drunkard sleepers – few of them, people too wasted to realize anything of what happened around them. Raluca didn’t follow, letting me boil in my own juice over this.
Tripping over bottles lying on the floor, I fell by the terracotta stove, feeling miserable and breaking out in tears. Lindy was better than me in each and every way. She was beautiful and screwed up. All in all, she was interesting, definitely into Damian, and I was no match for her. I was just a maggot indeed, reaching out for much more than I deserved – the heart of a man out of my league – and for that I now paid a bitter price. I decided to look for someone bald and fat like Lindy’s sugar daddy, but broke.
A cluster of people soon walked in, led by Hector, the bearded singer.
“I’ve seen this before,” one of them said, his voice too loud. “A cousin of mine, last year. They took her to a hospice, labeled her nuts.”
“Did your cousin mention guinea pigs?” Gino laughed and slapped his back.
“I wonder if you’d still talk shit, if it were your mamma in her place,” Hector croaked.
“My mamma doesn’t strip for mobsters who beat her into madness,” Gino reacted with a scowl.
“Hey, I hear neither did Lindy,” another one chimed in, although he also sounded amused, “She used to go to the club as a client, and her dances were meant for the delivery boy, namely Novac.”
“I guess it caught the wrong guy’s attention.” That was Gino again. “By the way, Hector, is it true that temptress and muscle tank are having an affair behind the mobster’s back?”
Now that’s direct. I perked up my ears.
“You ask dangerous questions, Gino,” Hector said.
Great. Just what I needed to glaze over my failure – Damian and Lindy as protagonists in a forbidden love story. My heart ached, but I used the moment to strengthen the decision of letting go. Trying to apply the optimist’s creed, I focused on the good part in all this – going unnoticed makes it easy to gather information, no matter how poisonous it proves for one’s heart.
Hector’s thick fingers slid over the cords in a lilt melody, as if to block further inquiries. But his tactics had its downside. The group changed the subject but kept on chattering and opening one too many bottles – impressive how much they’d saved from the train and carried through the snowstorm like veritable addicts.
Soon the talking turned loud and chaotic. I could only make out isolated words but no sentences, while the sharp smell of alcohol gave me a headache again. Luckily, just as the party went wild again, Sidonia dropped by my side with an exhausted groan, resting her arms on her knees. Judging by her tucked up sleeves she must’ve had some work to do.
“Lindy got tired of struggling and fell asleep. No amount of calcium and magnesium could’ve stilled her, so I put a bag over her head, let her inhale her own CO2 until her pulse slowed. I know, it sounds horrible, but it was for a noble cause. How’re you feeling?”
“Fine,” I lied. “Thanks for getting her off me.”
“Oh, Gino helped.” She waved a hand, being modest again.
“Listen . . .” I paused, unsure how to put my thoughts into words. “Did you know that . . . Well, that Lindy and Damian have something going?”
“Now hold on.” She put up her palm and knitted her sandy eyebrows in a serious expression. “We don’t know that they have anything going. We just know that she’s been chasing him around, popping up wherever he happened to be – just like you. Later on, her chase became aggressive. She used pretexts to get him to meet her.”
“Allow me to correct you, Sid. You knew all this. I didn’t.”
“Had I told you, you would’ve backed off. And I honestly thought you had a chance there.”
“Just look at me, Sidonia! I’m a bad a joke! Do you think me so dumb as to really compare myself to Lindy or others in her league? Are you dumb enough to do that?”
Sidonia pulled me to my feet, keeping a tight grip on my shoulders – she was slim but a sports freak, with palms that could force me into obedience.
“It’s that bastard Alex you have to thank for this arsenal of complexes,” she spat through her teeth. “I can’t wait to get back home so I can seek him out and kick his ass.”
“I’m just looking truth in the face.”
“You’re not ugly, Aura! You’re a very pretty woman.”
“Complexes or not, Damian’s not interested in me. I tried to turn him on in the bedroom yesterday, and I failed.” Shame burned in my cheeks as I confessed.
“It might have been for the best,” Sidonia whispered.
“Wow. Why this change at heart? I thought you wanted us to come together?”
She shuffled from one leg to the other, nervous. “Yeah, well . . . I still think it would repair your self-esteem.”
“Just drop it, Sid,” I blocked with a headshake. “I might as well strive to plant a flag on the moon. He just doesn’t want me, why seek more proof?”
A huge frame passing the threshold drew my attention and my resolve to quit the chase for the unattainable barbarian threatened to tumble. Damian stopped in place, his tresses, eyebrows and stubble adorned with snow, a heavy sheepskin cladding his shoulders. I recognized Marius limping and hanging on him like a cloth on a tree, ravaged by the blizzard, but the acknowledgement was marginal. Sidonia ran to him.
The others raised their bottles and plastic cups as if toasting for the return of their brothers.
“Hey, look who’s back,” Gino stuttered.
Damian gave him a cold scowl. His voice was deep and controlled, but I could instantly tell something was wrong. “Gather all bottles in a pile.”
Gino took a shot at poetry. “Has the road battered you so, or has your thirst been spurred by snow, Novac?”
He hardly finished his sentence when an ugly growl drew all eyes to Marius. He crouched from his waist in spasms, throwing up as if all his organs constricted. Hector dropped the guitar and jumped to his feet, hollow wood and cords resounding against the floor.
“Dragged, man!” Marius rattled, “Slick with blood, his head cracked, they dragged and dragged him!” He convulsed again, the foul smell of his vomit reaching my nose. It didn’t seem to bother Hector though, who grabbed his shoulders, straightening him up.
Damian intervened, his arm mowing Hector’s hands off Marius. “Just gather all sharp objects you can find in this place.”
“Don’t be scarce of words now!” Hector urged.
“There’s no time for this,” Damian said with a serious frown, fixing his bearded friend as if transmitting some coded message. He looked tense, terribly tense.
“They dragged him into the shadows, man!” Marius squeaked. “His clothes and flesh ripped off in bundles!” Another spasm and another violent throw-up – the only sound in the room. I forgot to breathe.
For quite a few moments I was convinced this was some sick joke, not feeling anything, not reacting, not moving, but seeing every line on Marius’ bent profile, every fold on his leather-patched coat, as if my senses had sharpened in a split second.
Marius didn’t reply to the low, puzzled “Who?” coming from a few guys with some presence of spirit, and it wasn’t until Hector asked Damian a direct, “What the hell is he talking about?” that a direct, however reluctant answer came.
“We went looking for supplies.” He threw me a green glance here, his jaw rippling. He looked angry now. Maybe anger was his mechanism to keep fear at bay, or at least that’s the first thing that crossed my mind. He continued slowly, while settling Marius on a rickety chair in the corner, assisted by Sidonia.
“The snow was high and the wind strong, it was hard to move forward. The blizzard had started again by the time we reached the village in the valley. The streets were blocked with snow and the police station was deserted. Our knocks on doors were left unanswered, but then we saw a big snowplow slowly making its way toward us. It had Brasov plates. One of the guys said he’d inform the authorities back in the city. The other one . . . he started back with us. He didn’t make it.”
“Eyes watched us from behind ragged curtains, man! They didn’t even look like people, but fuckin’ hungry animals stalking a prey. I told Novac, but he wouldn’t listen!” Marius cut him off, trying to get on his feet again, but Damian’s hand kept firm on his shoulder.
“Calm down. There’s a fair number of us, we’ll be fine,” Damian said close to Marius’ ear. I shouldn’t have been able to catch it since I was too far from them, but shock had turned my hearing so sharp, that every breath and every rumbling stomach echoed deep in my head, each sound distinct and yet all simultaneous. It felt as if my ears had been trenched.
After Marius rested his head back against the carpeted wall, Damian crouched down. I couldn’t see him anymore among the people, but by the slivering sound I could tell he gathered scattered bottles. Gino and some others hurried to help him, while Hector kept on his feet by the door.
“Talking makes little sense now,” Damian said, “Fact is, we’re not alone in this white hell. Marius is right, someone’s stalking us. Don’t just stand there, Hector, gather all sharp objects you can find. Those from the kitchen too.”
“We’re fuckin’ dead.” Marius breathed slower now, his lids falling heavy. Warmth made exhaustion show in his square face, his whole body mellow in the chair, his chest stained with greenish vomit. I couldn’t keep this isn’t happening from starting another solo in my head as the meaning of all this slowly dawned on me – they’d witnessed someone dying. Violently.
It took a while until everybody processed the two men’s words and reality kicked in – some came to their senses with headshakes, some with rapid blinking and a few with hysteria. As for me – I felt rooted in the ground.
The place crowded as the others joined from the bedroom where they’d left Lindy, and an avalanche of questions started, ranging from, “What’s this all about?” to painfully insesitive, “What’s that got to do with the booze?”
“Broken bottles can be used as weapons,” I heard Damian’s bass voice reply to the last one. His forehead was now higher above all heads that separated me from him. “Like screwdrivers, cutlery and pens.”
“Why this mobilization?” Gino said.
“They followed us back here, man,” Marius said, his voice low and void of hope. “They wheezed and growled in the dark, always hidden but always close.”
“Maybe they were wolves!” Gino returned, his pitch high with panic.
Damian cut in with a grave certainty that made my skin crease, “Those were no wolves.”
Everybody went crazy. Voices and people whirled around, while Damian and Hector struggled to restore order.
I didn’t realize I slowly walked backwards, out of everybody’s way, until something bumped in my lower back. By the wide, hard edge I knew it was the windowsill, which is why I didn’t turn. I kept pressing against it, keeping my arms across my chest and my fingers hooked in the slicker sleeves. Damian’s explanations to panicked questions flew by me – my nerves were close to snapping, which made it impossible for me to grasp them.
For a moment there I had no doubt this was all his fault. It was his affair with a mobster’s woman that had surely brought this upon us. Defending his honor or whatever, the cheated man must’ve sent his thugs to settle accounts with Damian, while the rest of us were just collateral damage.
But then again, would even a mobster go to such lengths for an unfaithful lover? Would even a mobster go as far as to derail a train full of neutral people in snowy mountains, forcing them to take refuge in a remote cottage, only to get back at a rival? Why, when he could’ve staged anything in Constanta?
My eyes rested on Marius, who still sat in the corner chair and in my field of vision. Sidonia was bent over his chest and rubbed it with a cloth, but he didn’t seem aware of her. He had the sickening pallor and lost stare of a dead man.
I hoped he would react somehow and come out of his shell at least a little bit, but not a muscle moved on his face. He stared as if through me. Maybe he didn’t even acknowledge my presence there and I misinterpreted the direction of his gaze. I followed it and turned to look behind me, expecting four small windowpanes separated by wooden lines in the shape of a cross.
Suddenly, two glowing circles like eyes in a black picture flashed into mine and made me give out a sharp scream. I rushed backward again, waving my hands in a desperate attempt to cling to something, anything, and soon a wall of bodies replaced the gleam that had sent me frantic.
My brain banged against my skull for moments until I realized someone was shaking me, their bony fingers pushing into my arms through the slicker and wool. The physical sensation brought me back to awareness.
Gino’s long, thin face was an intermittent vision as I blinked fast, trying to gather myself. His words were muffled and the first thing I clearly heard was, “Are you going mad, too, Aura?”
“The window! I saw someone!” I squealed.
Marius moaned in his corner. My head snapped to him. His eyes were wide with fear, fixed on the pane, while his body struggled with invisible enemies, the chair screaming under him.
A commotion started and before long people claimed, “There’s nothing here.” I pushed Gino aside but still hung on him for support as I craned my neck to see the panes. My legs were soft like jelly and barely kept me standing.
Indeed, darkness spread over the window, only the snow in its corners glistening like the veil of a ghost.
“I saw someone,” I whispered. Someone, I was sure of it. And that someone was indeed no wolf. The eyes had been at the level of mine, which meant whoever was out there was a tall person. Outside the ground was much lower than inside the lodge, I’d realized that when I’d been out on the porch. No animal standing on its back legs could have as much as reached the sill.
“Are you sure?” Gino asked.
I already had second thoughts – not as to the glowing eyes, but to whether or not I should insist on it. Bottom line was: we were all in deep shit, but panic was a bad advisor.
“No. I started when I bumped against the window, the rest could’ve been just in my head.”
“For fuck’s sake, Aura, you almost gave me a heart attack.” Gino scorned.
“We have enough pressure already,” another one called, his face hidden in the group.
I shut out all reproaches and welcomed Sidonia’s arms taking me away. It was a mystery where she got all that energy to be a tireless Mother Theresa, jumping between those of us who needed help one after the other – Lindy, Marius, even Biker, and now I leaned on her again. I didn’t deserve her.
“This whole thing is getting to us all,” she said in a sweet voice, stroking my hair.
Her warmth tempted me to spill the entire sack of anxiety that weighed on my chest, but people surrounded us and I didn’t want to risk being overheard. Besides, talking would’ve decompressed me and burdened her even more, which would’ve been unfair and selfish.
“I’m okay,” I lied again, the sight of the silver eyes flashing in my memory. Maybe that shocking pair of eyes was just very bright of color. Like crystals. Maybe some anomaly. Maybe special glasses or lenses.
“Shock is a natural protection against pain,” were Sidonia’s words as I returned to reality, leaving the realm of my own mind.
“What did Novac say?” I cut her off.
She blinked, taken by surprise. “About what?”
“The things that followed him and Marius. He said they weren’t wolves and he sounded sure of it. Did he say what they were?”
Sidonia raised her eyebrows. “You weren’t hanging on his every word?”
“Marius’ despair knocked me off my feet. I wasn’t myself for a few minutes.” For the first time since I’d laid eyes on him, Damian Novac didn’t come first on my list of priorities.
“For an hour or so is more like it. That’s when he told us we have criminals on our trail, probably friends of Raul’s. That man might be in throat-deep with crooks, he said.”
“So is Novac, whether directly or indirectly.” I stood up, whisking my jacket and looking around for him. “Where is he now?”
Sidonia came to her feet too, placing herself before me with hands on her hips. She looked straight into my eyes. “I might just agree with you. But let’s make this concrete. What do you mean, so is Novac?”
“I need to talk to him, Sid. What did you get out of Raul?”
“An ugly truth or some bed-time story. I haven’t made up my mind yet. If this is another strategy, Aura, let us talk about it first.”
The idea alone made me puff with anger. “Do you honestly think I’d concern myself with strategies now? I’ve just put two and two together, Sid. This is a vendetta against Damian Novac, who’s drawing us all in with him.”
“Tell me your thoughts before you tell anyone else.”
I drew her by the stove. Leaning so close that our heads joined together like gossiping sparrows’, the story shot out of my mouth in whispers. I started with the moment I’d been left alone with Lindy and took her through all the connections I made in my head about the mobster and his rage at Damian, mentioning the one thing that made me doubt my theory – Why harm a whole group, when he could’ve staged Damian anything back home? I didn’t mention the apparition in the window.
Sidonia scratched the back of her head while she listened, and by the time I was done her eyes were deep blue with concentration and alarm. She took a few moments before she spoke, as if making connections of her own in her head.
“So an ugly truth. Come with me.”
Before I could blink, Sidonia started toward the door, snaking her way to the kitchen. I hurried to catch up with her down the narrow hallway, the floor crackling under my feet as I bumped into people who talked feverishly about what was to be done and how we could escape this frozen prison – at least those were the bits I caught.
We found Damian and Hector forging the same kind of plans with a few others – including Gino, to my surprise, who listened with a serious look on his face, nodding. He seemed proud to be a part of their closest gang, regardless of the extreme occasion.
As soon as my eyes fell on Damian, my heart skipped a beat. He stood with his back at the counter, knives and other metallic, rusty objects lined on it. The sheepskin coat was folded on a chair by his side.
“ . . . not before Hector and I have scouted the area,” he concluded as we came in.
I wanted to punch myself for how I allowed a handsome stud to play with me. I’d already waved a finger at my inner self and decided that Damian Novac was a no-no. I reminded myself that, if we survived this mess he’d put us in, he would only have me toss and turn at night, obsessing about the smallest gestures he made and the most meaningless of glances – like I had until now. The man was big trouble, no matter from what angle I’d look at him.
Sick of myself, I kept a low profile by the door, but Sidonia went straight to the men, stopping in their midst.
“You’ve seen this before,” she interrupted Damian, dropping the accusation on him. He looked at her from under his eyebrows, but didn’t react.
“Shouldn’t you be attending to your boyfriend?” Hector grumbled.
Sidonia turned to him. “Marius doesn’t appear to see or hear me. I washed the vomit off his coat and made sure he’s warm, but that’s pretty much all I can do for the moment.”
“Feel the need to justify yourself?” Hector’s teeth showed like a splash of white on his beard. It was a bullying grin.
“You asked, smartass,” Sidonia bit back.
“Just go back to him, woman.”
I should step in for her. Yet I didn’t, too much of a coward to draw attention to myself, even in order to save this heroine who’d done more in two nights than was humanly reasonable.
“Cut it out,” Damian said, “Now’s not the time for this.”
Sidonia pirouetted again to look him in the face. “Damn right – not for this. Now’s the perfect time for you to spit it all out.”
“Excuse me?” Damian’s deep, forbidding tone shattered Sidonia’s determination, but she picked herself up soon enough.
“Damian, you’re keeping things from us and– ”
“I thought you wanted to ask, not impute something,” he interrupted.
Sidonia brought a fist to her mouth and cleared her voice, probably buying time to rephrase once more. As she spoke, she sounded defiant. “I see, this is a game. Okay. Let’s play. Why did you have us gather all objects that can be used as weapons?”
“So we know exactly where to reach if we need to protect ourselves, and not grope around,” he replied as if he were prepared for the question and all others that followed.
“Why not simply arm everybody?”
“Because I don’t want you panicking at the slightest sound and hurting each other before somebody actually bursts in.”
“You expect people to barge in on us?”
Damian’s eyes flashed angrily as he spoke the next words.
“People,” he stressed, as if saying a name, “kept their distance, but they followed us here. They killed a man – possibly a father and a husband – without even showing a face. A metal chain whipped out from the darkness and wound around his ankles. They dragged him, his body hit against trees and rocks until he disappeared into a dark precipice. We ran after him, but all we could do was watch, never reach. Yes, I think People will eventually barge in on us, and they’ll have some hellish killing techniques ready.” His voice was steady, but frustration and anger lurked deep in it.
“So, you see, Sidonia, this isn’t about me and my secrets. This is about all of us, staying alive.”
“You make it sound like People are pretty good at what they do. And yet here you are, Damian, without a scratch. Why do you think you and Marius made it back?”
“We were fast.” He leaned against the counter and folded his long, muscled arms across his chest. His eyes gleamed angry emerald.
“Faster than their chains?”
“Lighter than their chains.”
“But you ran after their victim, you tried to help him. How come People didn’t seize the moment and end you, too?”
“What are you implying, Sidonia?”
“I’m implying People need us all in one place,” she said, raising her chin and taking a step closer to him. “I’m implying they were after us from the beginning. They were after a large, young group, whom they want to take down in one blow. I’m implying they can take us down in one blow. I don’t think they need guerilla tactics, but just got rid of an unwanted outsider. As I think you made it back because People let you. They chased you back to your cage.” Sidonia’s voice pinched here, as if she’d caught him with something.
Damian’s face was expressionless. “And your question for me is?”
“Am I right?”
“You might be.”
“Have you met People before, Damian?”
His face hardened as if he were made of stone. “I have.”
Sidonia raised her eyebrows as if a fairy tale just came true. “Why didn’t you say so from the start?”
“You didn’t ask,” Damian said just as evenly, but didn’t give her the chance to continue the interrogation. While she stared at him with an open mouth, he grabbed the sheepskin and dashed to the door. Toward me. I melted on my feet.
He motioned with his chin for Hector to follow him and Gino scurried after them like a pet. Those of us who clustered in their way drew aside. My heart smote me as he passed by, leaving a trail of cool air and fir scent behind. He granted me a glance that I would’ve missed if my eyes weren’t stuck to him, but I refused to go into the frenzy of interpreting and re-interpreting it.
The others soon cleared off too, leaving Sidonia and me gawking at each other.
“What was that?” I mumbled, walking slowly to her.
She shook her head and dropped on her buttocks by the fridge.
“I hoped it were a loser’s fairy tale. Turns out it’s a fucking nightmare.”
I sat by her side, my brain buzzing with curiosity. I needed to know what she knew, and I needed it now. Still, I refrained from pressuring her and resorted to watching her intently. She looked stricken and took a while of eye darting and head scratching before she spoke, measuring her words.
“Getting Raul Iordache talking wasn’t easy, you know? He looked at me like a beaten prisoner at a rough guard, he was suspicious even about the food. I had to resort to flirting, persuade him it wasn’t poisoned, and asked him about his interest in Lindy. That’s how I baited him to confirm that he did, indeed, know her. But the rest of the story . . . I didn’t know what to make of it until now. I thought – or hoped – it was bullshit.”
“His presence here isn’t coincidence, is it?”
“Not at all.”
I drew a deep breath, reaching my own conclusion. “He is one of the mobster’s thugs.”
“No, not so fast, Aura. Things go deeper than that.”
“In what way?”
“You know . . .” she scratched her cheek, looking for the way to put it. This was – again – something she hadn’t told me. “A few weeks ago, I saw Damian and Lindy at the Portofino, talking closely over coffee. I was staggered by her sudden success in getting time alone with him, she was pretty much the only girl I ever saw him with. I was soon sure there was nothing intimate going on, he seemed focused but distant, they never touched each other.
“After I saw them together again on the train, I asked Marius about them. He laughed and said the woman was obsessed with Damian and used some article she supposedly discovered about him to force closer communication. The article was six years old, but she went as far as digging out the reporter’s real name: Raul Iordache, with Adevarul. She’d been fluttering the subject around so often and so aggressively to get Damian’s attention, that it had reached his friends’ ears too. When Marius asked Damian what the article was about, he dismissed the whole thing and said Lindy mistook him for someone else.” She stopped, lost in thought.
“Go on,” I whispered.
She wiped her forehead with her palm, refocusing.
“It’s pretty nasty, Aura. And I’m sure there’s much more to it that Raul didn’t touch on. It’s difficult to let words fly.”
“There’s much you’ve kept from me so far, you control freak. But that’s okay, as long as you tell me now.” Expectation made me fidget already. My stomach gave a long, loud rumble and the sheepish look of guilt on Sidonia’s face was replaced by worry.
“You should eat something. It’s been what? Ten hours since your last meal?”
Now that she mentioned it my belly began to hurt, too. Still, I ignored it.
“This isn’t a freakin’ tell tale evening, Sid, don’t keep me on needles here.”
My words hit deaf years. She jumped up and pulled me to my feet, moving me out of the way to open the fridge.
“Here’s what we’ll do – I tell you while we eat.”
“Too bad there’s no popcorn.” I rolled my eyes and snatched one of the last three bags of chips – amazing, these new things from the Western World. I opened it and began nibbling like a rodent, more to get Sidonia talking than to calm my hunger, which I didn’t actually feel.
“Raul swears he identified Damian correctly. He’d taken the picture for the article himself six years ago, even though he and Damian never met personally. He got all his information for the story from cops and investigators,” Sidonia continued. “He doesn’t know how Lindy got to the article, but it must’ve been pretty tedious research work in itself, or someone gave it to her. She recognized a sixteen-year-old Damian in the photograph, although the article referred to him as Cezare. Cheh-zuh-reh Sto-yan,” she stressed the pronunciation, as if to make a point.
Stoian . . . My brain buzzed as if invaded by bees. “Go on.”
“One year after the Revolution, in 1990, sixteen-year-old Cezare Stoian got on a train. His purpose: seasonal work abroad, although there were legal issues. He was too young. But a shipping manager he’d illegally worked for as a loader had mediated a summer job.
“The train broke down in a village close to the border – somewhere around Oradea, but still the middle of nowhere – and he checked in at an old inn, which strangely offered free lodging for him and eleven other youths who travelled from different places and for various reasons. What they had in common? – They’d all transferred to that train in Bucharest, left home at a young age and had almost no contact to their families.
“A few days later, a farmer found the place empty and messed up, there were stains of blood on the floor and on pieces of torn fabric, and the windows were broken. It looked as if a massacre had taken place there, save for bodies.
“Two weeks from that, Cezare and one other boy burst into a hunting lodge in the Apuseni Mountains, surprising a ranger, who luckily stopped to think before he reached for his rifle. Their clothes were torn, smeared with mud and blood. They’d eaten only roots and kill for days and their hands were callous from scrambling through dirt and stone. The ranger contacted the authorities in Constanta and gave them both in, since Cezare’s companion was unable to speak from shock, so his hometown or village remained mysterious.”
“The article says all this?” I asked, my voice crisper than intended.
Sidonia shrugged, giving me some time to chew this. “It’s what Raul says. And he wrote it.”
“And what else? What had happened at the inn?”
“Apparently there was an ambush on the inn the night Damian – or Cezare – spent there. None of the other youths besides him and his mute companion were ever found, dead or alive. The most important part was actually in the headline, which I saved until now, because it only makes sense in the context: Two boys escape the hands of organ dealers.”
I froze. “What?”
“Yes. The article concludes the operation had been orchestrated by a criminal organisation and the police investigation led to the BioDhrome, a medical research group. They allegedly dissolved soon after the article came out, but Raul thinks that’s bullshit.”
En electric wire seemed to shoot through my heart, briefly but sharply, leaving me now just baffled.
“And . . . What the hell is Raul doing here? It can’t be mere coincidence, someone put him among us, Sid.”
“He says Lindy contacted him weeks ago but then went suddenly cold. I guess he started an investigation of his own.
“And you believe that brute, a potential rapist?”
“And why not, Aura? His account is the only thing that makes sense since we got off that train! Lindy’s acting all crazy, Marius almost loses his mind, a man is dead and Damian’s acting all mysterious. I feel like I’ve died and woke up in hell!”
I stared blankly at her, flipping the story on all sides in my head, while she went for a bag of snacks. Her nibbling was loud and she looked as if she chewed on her own nerves.
“History is repeating itself now, with us,” she said among furious bites, her eyes focused on one point in front of her.
“It can’t be, Sid.” I shook my head. “It can’t be happening.”
“You’re in denial, Aura,” she sneered through her teeth, “You’ve had your share of harsh events since we left Constanta, and theories of organ dealers having them meticulously planned might be too much for you.”
I took another long pause, facts that still didn’t fit in this puzzle popping in my mind.
“Cezare . . . Is that his real name?” It sounded so out-of-this world, even coming from my own mouth.
Sidonia shrugged and waved a hand. “Could be. The police might’ve put him in a witness protection program and changed it.”
I couldn’t hold back a laugh. “Witness protection program? You’ve seen too many American movies. Plus, publishing his photo in the paper along with a name doesn’t seem a very good protection strategy. It sounds more like they put him on display.” My intuition pointed a finger at that last thought, but didn’t take it beyond that. I squinted as if to peer deeper into it, but Sidonia’s annoyed reaction pulled me out.
“Listen, Aura, we have a serious problem here and I don’t think Damian Novac’s hurts or names are of any importance. Only his experience is. If he managed to escape BioDhrome at sixteen, he’ll sure be able to help us now.”
“We still don’t know for a fact Raul’s story is real. He might’ve twisted everything. It’s winter, the train simply went off track–”
“The train got hit!” Sidonia broke me off. “That’s what really happened, I’m sure! Think about it, Aura. It first got stuck in snow and then, suddenly, it went off track – that’s weird. You’d blacked out and the rest of us didn’t linger for explanations in the middle of the night. We relied on what that fat, pumpkin-cheeked train driver told us, and maybe that’s why nobody gave it a second thought until now. But now a man is dead, Aura! Somebody followed Marius and Damian from the darkness of the woods. You must realize how fucked up this situation is.”
Her words came like a cracking blow and the sight of those silver eyes flashed in my head again. I tried to blink the memory away, and focused on the train.
“Did you see folds in the metal?” I mumbled.
“What’s that got to do with it?”
“Your crash theory. It would’ve left marks.”
“It was dark, but as far as I could tell, our car and all those up to the locomotive were okay. The hit might’ve been farther down along the train. What’s your point?”
“Our car began to wobble, Sid, I remember that quite sharply. It did for a while. A hit farther down would only have caused a jerk, no more.”
“What are you saying, that Zeus descended and shook it?” she mocked, her face red with tension.
The grip of shock on my brain started to loosen – against my struggles to remain under its anesthetic effect – and my mind began to wrap around the hideous reality bit by bit. A paralyzing fear gripped me.
“This is some mind-blowing shit, Sid . . . Some serious shit.”
“You bet your ass.”
I was pretty hard to surprise when it came to crime, since burglars, armed gangsters, pimps and hookers were an issue in Constanta as they were in all large towns in Romania. I was used to walking among such people every day in the streets. I’d gone to school and played hopscotch with their kids until they’d gone rogue, like their parents.
Despite her fair skin and pale blue eyes, Sidonia herself was the daughter of a gypsy shylock with the stomach like a balloon and a threatening dark frown, who’d insisted that both she and Raluca remain illiterate and planned their marriage for the age of twelve. Luckily, their mom had run away with them and fought for their education. Whenever Sidonia disclosed her roots – which happened as often as a solar eclipse – jaws dropped and eyes popped. I guess we both strived to bury our origins and that had welded our bond.
But organ dealers were a completely different level. Derailing trains and making people disappear without a trace meant power – a whole lot of power. Something we couldn’t fight against. A huge organization, a hydra, its claws drilling deep in the Romanian underground.
To be continued
Copyright by Ana Calin, February 2014
Hope you enjoyed this! Stay tuned for the following chapters during the following months. Feel free to leave a comment and share your thoughts with me and other readers. We’re looking forward to them!