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Dusk in Kalevia: Chapter 3

A downloadable package of this chapter (.pdf, .epub, and .mobi) is available in the Sparkler Monthly Issue #008 back issue.

“I told you your father would be angry,” Mika said.

“Enough already.” Vesa Uusitalo sank down in his seat, strangling the duffle bag in his arms and glaring peevishly at the back of his bodyguard’s head.

“Just saying.”

“I know–you’ve ‘just said’ it five times. Believe me, I get it.”

The car rounded a corner and slowed to a crawl as the sights and sounds of the market filled the windscreen. Vesa watched people bundled in layers of warm clothing hurry across the narrow lane, baskets in hand, eager to supplement bland grocery fare with something fresh from the collective farms; burly kolkhoz workmen unloaded crates of winter vegetables and sacks of grain from covered pickup trucks. At one point, the state–in a bout of nostalgic goodwill–had decided to allow farmers to trade the yields of their private plots, and now city-dwellers converged weekly upon Market Square with a zeal for shopping that was said to approach embarrassingly capitalist levels.

“I don’t know why we had to drive,” Vesa muttered. “Everybody else took the bus together.”

“You know why.”

“Social inequality! Marx cries in his grave.”

Mika didn’t reply, but let out a small snort that was either a sound of derision or stifled laughter.

“We’re just going to be picking up litter, anyway,” muttered Vesa.

“I remember volunteer days from back when I was a Pioneer.” Mika sighed wistfully.

Vesa bristled. “What am I, twelve? I haven’t been in the Pioneers for years. It’s the Youth League now.”

“Right, right!” Mika nodded vigorously as he pulled over to drop Vesa at the curb, where a handful of blue uniformed teenagers had gathered. “Just wait with your friends here while I park the car, and I’ll meet up with you in a minute.”

“Nah–it’s okay, Mika, I’ll be with the rest of the class…”

Mika turned around in his seat, his head cocked like a perplexed dog’s. Vesa gave him a meaningful stare, willing the notion to sink into his bodyguard’s thick skull that his presence wasn’t wanted, but his heart sank as Mika’s face split into a goofy grin.

“Did you know I’m still young enough to be a member of the League? Got my badge on and everything.” Mika flashed one of the little red pins on his lapel. “Don’t worry about me, I don’t mind lending a hand!”

Well, so much for that, thought Vesa as he slammed the back door shut and watched the car creep away through the crowd. My one chance to get out of the house on my own, without Captain here breathing down the back of my neck. It was a nice dream while it lasted.

He hefted his bag to his shoulder and hurried over to the crowd of students that had formed by the steps of the clock tower. His classmates were taking attendance, and he sidled in amongst them to give his name and receive a pair of gloves and a trash bag. Roll call complete, they were turned loose in the market to do their civic duty.

As they meandered along with their heads down, scanning the ground for bits of stray newspaper and cigarette ends, Vesa hung back, waiting for his chance to initiate his backup plan. He had been kicking around an idea in his head for the past few months, and now would be the perfect time to test it. He scanned the crowd for Mika’s blond head bobbing up amongst the mass of shoppers, but it seemed as though Vesa still had a few minutes before his reprieve was over. Ducking into the cabbagey darkness behind one of the stalls, he opened his duffle upon the stones to prepare for his grand act of deception.

He dug out an old overcoat that he had secretly packed that morning and threw it on over his school uniform. He had bartered the wretched thing from a classmate called Big Olli–swearing him to utter secrecy–in anticipation of these exact circumstances. The ancient coat was scratchy brown wool, too big for Vesa by a few sizes, and smelled of mothballs, but it would do.

Next came an enormous gray scarf and a knit cap that some fawning social climber of a schoolgirl had knit him in an attempt to ingratiate her family to the Chairman. He wished he could take such gifts as simple tokens of affection and enjoy the delusions of popularity, but it was difficult when every hand-sewn pencil case and home-made gingersnap was followed by “And please give my regards to your father!” Ruefully thinking of blushing faces and shrewd-eyed glances, he bundled the scarf snugly around his lower face to complete the disguise.

“Hei!”

An angry, sun-lined face tied in a headscarf poked around the corner, causing Vesa’s heart to leap into his throat.

“What are you doing back there? Get out, shoo!”

As he stumbled backwards into the sunlight, he heard laughter close by. His face burned with embarrassment as he recognized a handful of girls from his class, approaching fast. Grasping for an appropriate lie about why he was wandering around bundled in Big Olli’s old coat, he felt the twinge of regret creep up the base of his neck. Just when he thought he couldn’t possibly alienate himself from his classmates any further. He braced himself for the questions, unable to meet their eyes, ashamed.

Instead, the giggling school girls breezed by, and he caught the name of another boy on the wind. It had worked. Without the school uniform, they glossed over him as just another body in the crowd. For next few hours he could be just like everyone else–alone outside in public, walking through Market Square. For the moment, he was free.

It was as if a weight had been lifted. He’d been trapped so completely in his own head, fretting about social interactions, that now all of the bustling market came rushing up around him, flooding his senses like a wave on its way to shore. Everything was beautiful: the high, wavering voices of two old ladies chatting over a pile of beets, the splintering crash of empty crates being tossed, the bright colors of winter scarves, the mouth-watering aroma of fresh sultsina dough sizzling in butter on a griddle. Even the garbage had a lively odor that awoke a feeling of animation within him, and he stood, turning slowly in place, taking in the entire glorious production that was Market Day.

He almost never felt like this. Forcing himself with every ounce of his will not to run and punch the air in jubilation, he tried to affect the businesslike pace of an average market goer. He picked up a rutabaga from a pile and studied it seriously. He wasn’t, as a rule, particularly interested in rutabagas, but the novelty of the situation made even the roleplay of shopping for vegetables entertaining.

Vesa avoided the stalls with particularly long lines and just sauntered casually down the row, watching people interact and taking in the varied faces of humanity. He was arrested by the particularly enticing scent wafting from a stall with baskets of fresh loaves and rolls on display. Behind the counter, a large woman with her hair tied up warmed something in a small, wood-fired oven; upon seeing him staring, she waved.

“Fresh rye pasties, butter and egg! How about it, kiddo?”

They smelled amazing. Vesa could see the steam curling upward as she laid them out on a long wooden tray, and he nodded without thinking, saliva filling his mouth. As he reached for one of the golden crusts, however, he was checked by the unpleasant realization that he had no way to purchase anything–not even a ration card in his pocket. He almost groaned out loud. Here, in a place where all currency was issued by the government for government jobs to pay for government goods, a government-issue boy could not manage to buy a pasty in the market. Feeling bitter disappointment, he shook his head.

“Ah, sorry, not today.”

The pasty seller shrugged her big shoulders and went back to her work. Embarrassed by his blunder, he turned away to leave, before the sight of a disturbance in the direction of the fountain froze him where he stood.

There was Mika, forcing his way through the mass of pedestrians, a dire look upon his brow, followed by both the Youth League leader and a police officer.

Vesa knew that despite his bodyguard’s easygoing demeanor, the man was a trained professional. The last time Vesa had seen that face had been immediately preceding Mika vaulting out of the back of the Chairman’s open parade car to tackle a drunk who had wandered onto the route. Vesa could only imagine the tongue-lashing that was in store for him.

Vesa winced, waiting for Mika to sprint across the distance and collar him. But as watched, he began to relax. From the slow way Mika and the men walked, searching every face they passed, it appeared they had not yet discovered his whereabouts.

Vesa backed up slowly toward the row of stalls, keeping his head low and hiding behind the layers of wool like a shield. As his pursuers turned to follow a group of his classmates, he sighed with relief. This was good. He had time enough to call this whole failed experiment off, ditch the clothes, and pick up a few scraps of rubbish as an alibi before slinking back to his escort in contrition. Just like everything else in his life, this particular episode had been brought to a close before it could get going, squelched by his father’s fear and his cadre of overzealous guardians. He looked around angrily, trying to find a sheltered corner in which to shed the disguise, and cursed the day roundly and passionately.

That was when he put his right foot down on a patch of black ice.

The world was yanked out from under him, and for a split second he found himself looking up at the clear blue sky. He flailed out, instinctively grasping for anything, anyone who would halt his fall. Pain shot through his arm as it struck wood, and with a terrible clatter the tray followed him on his way down. Time seemed to slow as golden crusts arced through the air, and he had an instant to marvel at their perfect flight before the impact knocked the wind out of him. As he lay aching on the cold stones–amidst the carnage of ruined pasties–and stared up into the furious face of the baker woman, only one thought popped into his head.

Fuck everything.

**

Kaija dug her hands into her pockets as she walked. It wasn’t often she was out and about while the winter sun was still up, but it was a rest day, so the print shop was closed all afternoon. She wasn’t particularly keen on spending her day off running messages, especially after the terror of the previous night, but she supposed it beat standing at the presses, cranking out enough lies to blind every worker in Kalevia.

They had done a run of posters yesterday, in preparation for Punaiset Day–the day of Revolutionary Celebration. She had almost gagged setting up the plates of broad-shouldered soldiers, the very image of stylized male perfection marching in unison across the page, but as always she said nothing and did her work calmly. It was better to be unremarkable, a standard worker cog in the machinery, in order to move undetected when the situation required it.

As she neared Market Square, she was struck by how different the place could seem in the light of day, full of the chatter and bustle of living beings. As she wound her way through the crowd, she repeated the mental description of who she was looking for: a rye farmer, selling homemade baked goods. Tall, husky lady, mole on right cheek. Knows an old barn we can use.

It didn’t take Kaija long to find her contact, but it seemed that she had caught the woman in the middle of an altercation. She was out in front of her counter, gesticulating wildly and raising her voice at an unknown interloper sprawled across the pavement. The passersby slowed to gawk and enjoy a bit of schadenfreude. As Kaija drew closer, she realized that it was more of a one-sided affair in which the baker berated a teenager while he sat with head bowed, looking as though he wanted the ground to swallow him up.

Kaija sidled up to the stall and watched the proceedings, waiting for a chance to interject. Finally, after a lengthy and creative swearing streak, the exasperated woman turned to face her.

“And what do you want?” she spat, ill temper causing her to forget her genial sales pitch.

“Oh, I was just sent to tell you that it’s going to be a warm spring,” Kaija replied, testing the woman’s knowledge of the password. Kaija looked out of the corner of her eye at the young man, but he was huddled in disgrace by a basket of turnips and merely seemed to be glad that someone else had taken the baker’s attention.

The baker paused. “When do they want to pick up the seeds?”

She knew the password, all right, asking When is the meeting?

“Sunday morning at six,” said Kaija.

The woman beamed, her mood repaired and a conspiratorial glint in her eye.

“I’ll be there to let you folks in. Tell them they can use our truck, if they need to.”

“Thanks, I’ll let them know.”

“Anything I can do to help you boys.” The baker gathered up some of the few remaining pasties from another tray and hurriedly wrapped them in wax paper. “And here, take these–they’re on me.”

“Are you sure?”

“Oh, go on, you’re such a nice young man!”

Kaija accepted the pasties, making no effort to correct the woman. She knew she was tall for a girl of seventeen, and her alto voice and short-cropped hair gave her an androgynous quality that invited confusion. Bundled up in her father’s old coat, she found that more often than not she was taken for male. Even her Forest Clan compatriots knew her as Kai, just one of the boys.

It was a misunderstanding Kaija cultivated and encouraged; it spared her the burden of her sex as the lone girl in a band of men.

As she made to leave, Kaija heard the baker fire off one last retort at the young man who dusted himself off a few yards away. Kaija frowned.

“I don’t know what you did, but you should knock it off,” Kaija said as she brushed past him.

The boy didn’t respond–he was staring in horror at a trio of uniformed figures approaching from across the square. One of them wore a guard’s uniform and looked like he could break a man in two.

“Oh, shit,” the boy murmured as he turned to run.

Kaija was suddenly filled with rebellious spite. She made her decision instantly.

“Come on, follow me.”

“What?”

“Hurry!”

She grabbed his hand and pulled him through the crowd, ducking and weaving through the maze of people, not even daring to look behind her. As she reached the edge of the square, she appealed once more to her mental map in search of the best exit. She made a sharp turn away from the bustle of Market Square and yanked the boy into an alley.

“Wait, where are we going?” He raised his voice in confusion.

“Hush! Somewhere they won’t find you.”

Old Town was the perfect place to lose a tail, with its tangled knot of streets and stairways vanishing up to second stories or down into mews. Kaija knew she’d taken a ludicrous chance risking herself for this young stranger, but as she led on through the backstreets, she felt a smile steal across her lips. Had it only been last night that she’d run through these same alleyways in agonizing fear? Her flight through the darkness felt like a distant nightmare, burned away in her adrenaline high–and the current peril merely heightened the thrill. She reveled in the power to deny them something they wanted. She felt invincible.

A few more blocks, and they rounded the corner straight into the ruins of Vainola Cathedral. The massive wreck–ravaged by air raids and decades of neglect–provided a perfect vantage point from which to scan the streets for signs of their pursuers. Kaija jumped up on a piece of rubble and held her hand out to the boy.

“Come on, up here.”

“Is it safe?” he asked warily.

“Safer than getting arrested, eh?”

He took her hand and she pulled him up beside her. Together they climbed the crumbling wall to one of the thick stone parapets; they lay on their stomachs, staring over the edge of the wall at the river. The boy pulled off his cap and ran his fingers through his thick, reddish-gold hair.

For the first time, Kaija really got a chance to look at his face, and noted with pleasant surprise that he seemed to be about her age, maybe a little younger. She watched him for a while as he took in the view–the little snub nose with a light smattering of freckles across it, the curving line of his smooth jaw.

“Wow, you can see the whole city,” he whispered.

“That’s kinda the idea.”

He turned to her, his eyes narrowed with sudden doubt.

“Why are you doing this for me, anyway?”

“I took one look at that guy, and I thought, man, I’d run, too!”

He seemed to find that hilarious. Holding his sides and curled up on the stone precipice, he laughed until his eyes were bright with tears.

“Shush! Jeez, what?”

“I don’t know,” he gasped, struggling to get his breath back. “I just wasn’t expecting that to happen.”

“So what are they after you for?”

“Guess you’d call it a declaration of freedom.”

Kaija felt a bittersweet constriction in her chest at those all-too-familiar words. She had made the right choice.

“It’s like…I just want my own life!” he continued, his voice rising with passion. “I want to live without feeling like they’re controlling my every move, watching every single goddamn thing I do!”

“Yes!”

“Once in a while I’ve got to break their rules just to feel alive, y’know?”

“Believe me, I know.”

“I just sometimes feel like it’s all kinda pointless,” he sighed, and rolled over on his back to stare at the afternoon sky. “I mean, who am I kidding? They’re going to catch me sooner or later, but hey, at least I tried.”

Kaija was seized by a flash of anger. Here was a kindred spirit drowning in the same mire she’d clawed her way out of a few years earlier, spitting mad at the faceless government that had destroyed her world. Back at the orphanage, she had felt the pressure of the establishment bearing down on her, trying to mold her into another of its mindless drones. It had filled her with a hot, silent rage–the only thing that had sustained her will to live until she finally found her Brothers. She stared down into the boy’s face, her eyebrows furrowed with the intensity of these memories.

“Fuck them!” she hissed. “Don’t let them win!”

“Yeah! Fuck them!” the boy shouted over the side as he laughed.

“Shh!” She grabbed him and pulled him back toward her, remembering the need for concealment. He smiled sheepishly.

“Anyway, listen,” she told him. “Don’t give in yet. They’ll try to silence you, but you have to keep fighting if you ever want anything to change. We’ll hit them where it hurts, smash their whole rotten system out from under them, and I swear to you, they’ll never see us coming.”

“Whoa,” he said, looking at her with solemn respect. “That’s kinda wild.”

“It really gets to me.”

She couldn’t think of anything to say after that, and, feeling slightly embarrassed by her outburst, she sat back and scratched at a patch of lichen as she listened to the bitter wind whistling through the holes in the wall.

The city was full of rats and informants, but she wanted so much to trust him. Being with him was like looking into a mirror–he was so vulnerable, full of the painful naiveté and teenage frustration of her past self. She was gripped by a potent desire to protect him, to strengthen him against the horrors of the world.

“What’s your name, anyway?” he eventually asked. “I’m Vesa.”

“Kai,” she mumbled, hiding behind her masculine pseudonym.

He looked at her with a slightly questioning look on his face. She faked a smile, palms sweating within her gloves, wondering, Does he know?

“Do you want one of these?” she asked, proffering one of the swiftly cooling pasties by way of a distraction. “We should eat them before they completely freeze.”

They huddled against each other as they ate, taking shelter from the cold. As the savory taste of creamy rice and egg melted over her tongue, Kaija let out a small moan of satisfaction.

“Ah, these are so good.”

“Too bad I can’t go back after I knocked everything all over creation,” Vesa groaned, hanging his head.

“Don’t sweat it–it was an accident.” She punched him lightly on the arm.

He sat there for a while, chewing pensively and staring out at the streets below. She caught herself fighting an impulse to put an arm around his shoulders.

“I don’t think they’re coming,” he remarked as he finished his pasty. “I should probably go.”

“You gonna be all right?”

“Yeah, I’ll be fine.”

“Listen, if it gets bad, I work at the print shop over on South Leppä Street. Come find me.”

“I will. You’re a cool guy, Kai.”

“You, too, Vesa.” She shook his hand as he got up to go, holding it in a firm, strong grip. “Good luck.”

As she watched him climb unsteadily down–through the remains of a once-majestic church wearing his ugly old coat–she felt that tightness in her chest return.

Cut it out, she chided her body. I don’t have the luxury of going through this right now.

She knew it was dangerous telling him where she worked, but it was a risk she was willing to take. She hoped that she saw him again. If she didn’t, he’d just join the list of people in her mind that existed forever in the limbo between the living and the dead. His face would come occasionally to mind, and she’d suddenly imagine his young body lying in a ditch, the victim of a firing squad or a winter prison from which she hadn’t saved him. She hated that.

I wonder what it would be like to be normal, she thought. To not constantly wonder which of my friends are dead. I wonder what it would be like to sleep at night, to have a family, to read whatever I wanted.

She wondered what it would be like to kiss a boy.

Kaija looked back, but Vesa was already lost to the streets of Old Town. Melancholy and alone, she curled up on the freezing stone with her knees against her chest. She stared out across the city until the afternoon grew dim and the northern lights began to dance across the sky.

Proceed to Chapter 3, page 2–>