Jason and Cecilia spent their first summer in Upper Danubia with their days divided between learning the Danubian language, doing their household duties, and relaxing. The first priority, of course, was learning how to communicate in a city where very few people spoke English. The daily routine included six hours of intensive language instruction that started at 9:00 and ended at 4:00 with an hour for lunch. As the summer progressed, the couple realized that Prime Minister Dukov had enlisted the best language instructors in the country to pursue a single goal: to try to have them ready to attend university classes in the fall. They wrote endless exercises, memorized lists of words, were put through conversation drills, and studied grammar. They read everything ranging from children’s stories to simple newspaper articles, in addition to their preparing exercises and doing endless speech drills.
By the end of August they had a working knowledge of Danubian, although they knew that taking regular classes at the university level still would be a struggle. Cecilia actually found herself at a slight advantage over Jason because she was bilingual. Her mind, already accustomed to the differences between Spanish and English, was able to grasp some of the grammatical concepts of Danubian faster than Jason. As for reading and writing, they seemed to progress about the same, but by the middle of the summer, Cecilia was slightly better at conversing in Danubian than was Jason.
During that first summer there was much more to their lives than language classes during the day and the Socrates Club during the evenings. Their activities included traveling and getting into better physical shape.
Sightseeing in the provinces surrounding Danube City became an important part of the adjustment to life in Upper Danubia and vital for relieving the intense stress from the couple’s other responsibilities. They began traveling around Upper Danubia on the weekends with Cynthia Lee and her boyfriend. They made it as far east as Rika Chorna and spent two very pleasant weekends at the famous reservoir. They even went hiking in the mountains overlooking the lake, exploring the thick forests that had been the object of so many corporate ambitions over the past several years.
All of their explorations over that summer were in the nude. While traveling they obtained a permit from the Temple to wear orange courier shoes at railroad stations and wear hiking boots when in the forests. However, shoes, shampoo, toothbrushes, small towels, and cameras were the only items they took with them on their trips. As long as they wore collars, Jason and Cecilia had to comply with their vow not to cover their bodies, so they traveled completely naked. Very quickly their inhibitions vanished, and to them it felt like the most natural thing in the world to jump on a train wearing nothing but a pair of shoes and jump off an hour or so later to explore a new town.
Exercising became a regular part of their routine, because they were officially enrolled as students in the university and subject to participating in the institution’s fitness program. Each morning before seeing their language instructors they had to perform rigorous calisthenics and run 5 kilometers in groups that were segregated by sex.
The exercise program was the one time each day that Jason and Cecilia’s nudity did not set them apart from anyone else, because at the university, gymnastics classes meant just that, exercising in the nude. Along with swimsuits, most athletic clothing was prohibited, the only exception being clothing specifically designed to prevent injury. The only items the students wore during their fitness sessions were track shoes during the runs. A few of the larger-breasted women were permitted to wear sports bras while running, but to do so they had to obtain a doctor’s waiver. As soon as the daily run ended the bras had to be taken off immediately.
Rigorous exercising was nothing new to Jason, who was used to keeping fit. He loved the runs, because running nude on a regular basis had been a lifelong dream for him and finally he was living that dream. His ability caught the attention of his fitness instructor, and soon he found himself committed to joining the North Danube City track team and practicing to run for inter-provincial marathons to be held in the fall. Towards the end of the summer he began practicing with the track team instead of the regular fitness group, which opened up new friendships with Danubians who were athletes instead of people who either were criminals or associated with the Lee sisters. The old self-confidence Jason enjoyed when competing in high school came back to him after a two-year absence. As he prepared to compete in long distance running, his thoughts began to move past the trial, his parents’ deaths, and the tumultuous events that brought him to the country.
In contrast, for Cecilia running five kilometers was a struggle. For several weeks she always trailed the other naked, sweaty, college-age women of her group. When she started out she despaired over ever improving, but slowly she did get better over time. She was fortunate that Tiffany and Cynthia were part of her group and gave her encouragement. Cynthia began the summer somewhat overweight, so in the beginning she ran at the rear of the group with Cecilia. However, within a couple of weeks constant physical activity put Kim’s sister in much better shape, which in turn allowed her to improve on the runs.
Once Cynthia improved with her running and could stay with the main group, Tiffany’s encouragement became even more important to Cecilia. If Tiffany noticed Cecilia falling behind the others, she dropped back to run alongside her fellow American. Once that happened, Cecilia knew she had to catch up to the others very quickly. If she didn’t, Tiffany started landing hard slaps on her bare bottom to make her pick up her pace. As strange as it seemed, Tiffany was actually doing Cecilia a favor by spanking her if she ran too slowly. It was customary at the university that during a group run, the slowest member of the class was subject to discipline from the instructor. By running with her, Tiffany spared Cecilia the indignity of having her bottom smacked by the fitness teacher. However, by the end of August Cecilia was running as well as the other women in the group and no longer faced the threat of in-class discipline.
Another improvement in Cecilia’s life was that, at age 20, she finally began to enjoy swimming. It was in the pool at the National University where Cecilia finally learned how to swim properly. With Jason still watching over her, Cecilia began swimming more and more on her own and learning various strokes. By the end of August she no longer needed Jason’s help and could even go under water for short distances. Cecilia’s ability to swim meant she and her partner could go to the river with their friends and swim at the beach just like anyone else.
There was a big surprise waiting for Cynthia Lee at the end of August. Just two days before classes were due to start, Cynthia and Kim went to the Temple with Tiffany and several members of Kim’s band. Upon seeing her, the Priest who had collared Cindy immediately approached her and took her outside. He prayed and then talked to her at length about her Path in Life. When the interview ended he told her that she needed to conclude her public penance. He unlocked her collar and handed her a prayer robe. Her face still reflecting surprise and bewilderment, she quietly got dressed and returned to the main chamber of the Temple as a normal citizen.
When she returned to her sister’s house that evening, she found out why her penance had ended. There was a letter from the National University offering Cynthia a position of Academic Apprentice, which was the Danubian equivalent of a non-tenured instructor. She had not finished her doctorate, but her knowledge of the United States and its political system far surpassed that of anyone else in Danube City. While she finished researching the relationship between the Danubian government and Mega-Town Associates for her dissertation, the university wanted her to teach undergraduates about U.S. political history and social development. It was an opportunity for Danubian students to find out about the United States from an American who had proven herself intellectually and was well-respected by everyone in the capitol. She knew more about the U.S. than anyone else in Danube City, so it made sense for the university to put her knowledge to good use in the classroom.
It had been the rector of the university who contacted Cynthia’s Priest and asked him to end her penance so she could accept her new position. The job offer was the sign from the Ancients that both she and the Priest had been waiting for. The path of her life had been determined by the Ancients and they had spoken to her. She was destined to be an instructor at the National University in Danube City and was on her way to becoming a Professor in full standing.
The following week Cynthia Lee’s life changed dramatically. Like her sister, she started braiding her hair to better fit in, one detail out of several that reflected the change in her appearance and her outlook on life. She assumed the formal title of “Apprentice” when sworn in at the university. To her students she had become a Danubian Public Official. They had to address her as Apprentice Lee in class, and any collared criminals among them had to kneel when speaking to her.
Like her younger sister, Cynthia Lee’s Path in Life was to become a full member of Danubian society. That path was confirmed by another event towards the end of September. Her boyfriend concluded his public penance the day after the Day of the Dead Ceremonies and left the Temple wearing a prayer robe. The following evening he proposed to her. From that point forward Cynthia Lee wore her engagement jewelry whenever she appeared in public.
September started without any sign that Jason and Cecilia should end their public penance. As a result when classes began, they remained collared and restricted from wearing any clothing. The fall semester started and the two Americans, along with fellow American Tiffany Walker, went to the university completely uncovered. It became apparent that the earliest the couple might take off their collars would be towards the end of September, after the Fall Equinox and the Day of the Dead ceremony. It was obvious that they would have to participate in the march along with Tiffany.
At first their situation made them feel very uneasy, but there were some big advantages to living without any clothing. They discovered that their lives were simplified in many ways, because in the mornings there was nothing they needed to do to get ready to go out apart from brushing their teeth. There was no getting dressed, and for Cecilia, no putting on any makeup. The only permitted concession to vanity was their hair. During the weekends the only item they had to wash was their bed sheets, so their nude lifestyle eliminated one time consuming task in life, having to keep a bunch of clothing clean.
When classes started in the fall Cecilia decided to take a semester of first-year economics classes. She calculated that she already had learned most of the course material from Ruth Burnside. However, she reasoned that by studying concepts she already had learned in English, she could much more quickly become proficient in the Danubian language and learn the vocabulary of her field. After the first semester she could by-pass the second year courses and go straight to third-year classes, but she needed to know how to speak and conduct research in Danubian before making such a leap.
Jason, on the other hand, simply enrolled in a mixture of classes that came closest to what he would have had to take during his sophomore year had he stayed in Chicago. His strategy differed from Cecilia’s. While she would drop her language tutoring and concentrate on learning vocabulary in class, he would keep language tutoring and get outside help on a daily basis. On top of the formal tutoring, he could rely on help from Tiffany Walker because he shared two classes with her.
The first weeks of September passed uneventfully as Cecilia and Jason struggled with a full load of classes in a difficult foreign language. Both were drawn into informal study groups of Danubian students and both faced the harsh pressure of being held accountable to their peers.
During the first month of classes the reality of Danubian social values dominated the lives of Jason and Cecilia. The country may have been grateful over what they had done to save the government, but the way that gratitude was expressed was for their peers to accept them as equals, no better and no worse than anyone else. Their classmates and professors did not grant them any special treatment apart from trying to make sure that they understood what was needed from them. The Danubians were convinced they would be rewarded for what they had done, but whatever reward they were due would come from the Creator in the Afterlife. In the meantime, life had to be lived day-to-day and it was the obligation of the two Americans to work hard and make themselves useful within the society. It was for that reason, in spite of her notoriety, that Cecilia’s fitness instructor had shown her no sympathy as she struggled to keep up with the other women in her running group.
For Jason the pressure was nothing new, because it was very similar to what Cecilia had put him through the previous year. He actually was very happy, enjoying his study group and his new friendships with the fellow runners in the North Danube City Track Team. He worked hard during the day and treasured the hour or so he could spend with Cecilia each night.
As the semester began Cecilia struggled to come to terms with her situation. She had to humble herself somewhat, because she no longer was an RA in charge of a floor full of freshmen and no longer in charge of Jason’s studies. He still struggled in his classes, but now it was up to his Danubian classmates, not her, to push him to succeed. Cecilia found herself drawn into study groups of her own and pressured by Danubian women to perform well. Tiffany Walker was a member of one of Cecilia’s groups, and put pressure onto her to do well in her studies. Cecilia actually found herself taking directions from Tiffany, because her lack of experience and limited language ability made her dependent on her housemate.
During the days leading up to the autumn equinox and the Day of the Dead, the country began its preparations for the most important holiday of the year. The 36-hour vigil was celebrated with special foods and recipes, all of which were red to represent blood, or black to represent death. Nearly every stove in every kitchen was occupied by pots of boiling blackberries, which would be used to make the special blood-red punch and other unique foods that were mandatory for the ceremonies. Other recipes included a type of fruitcake that was dark red on the inside and covered with blackberry frosting, dark-red tomato stew, and plates of black noodles in red sauce.
Before the cooking began, any cooking utensils to be used in food preparation had to be blessed. Two days before the ceremonies, Cecilia and Tiffany lugged several pots to a nearby Temple along with hundreds of their neighbors for the official permission to use the utensils as part of the preparation. Once the pots were blessed (something Cecilia thought was rather stupid), they returned to Victor Dukov’s house to help with cooking. Cecilia’s stomach turned upon seeing the black noodles, especially after they were covered with blood-red sauce.
In the middle of the afternoon before the first night, Tiffany led Jason and Cecilia to the Plaza of the Ancients. Because all three were wearing collars, they would be participating in a two-day march around the capitol. Waiting for them in the Plaza was a fourth member of their group, Vladik Dukov. Vladik was standing out in the open as naked as anyone else in the Plaza, wearing a Temple collar so he could march alongside his fiancé.
Cecilia already was familiar with the importance of the march, having read about it when she was helping Kim with her band’s website. How strange… she had read so much about this ceremony, and now here she was, right in the middle of it, standing naked in the open air and about to be covered in body paint just like 2,400 others. Just like any Danubian criminal, she and Jason would spend two nights walking along silent country roads as part of the yearly national quest for atonement.
The group went through a Temple assembly line set up in the Plaza, first getting covered in white body paint, then getting painted with black highlights. They received their torches and shoulder slings, and finally were given instructions how to carry the torches safely and minimize the strain on their arms. As the sun went down there was a rather lengthy worship service in the Plaza. When the service was over it was dark. Completely dark. There was not a single light illuminating Danube City, because all electrical power had been shut off. Nothing, with the sole exception of the Emergency Services at the National Hospital, was operating. The silence of Death had descended over the entire country.
The marchers slowly moved out of the Plaza, in single file towards the river. Vladik moved in front of Tiffany, who was followed by Jason and finally Cecilia. For the next two nights the only thing any of them would see would be the painted backside of the person in front, and the long line of flames extending out in either direction as far as the eye could see. Everything else was pitch black.
As they moved inland away from the water, the only reality in the lives of the marchers was what they could see: the line of fiery dots stretching off into the distance and the illuminated back of the marcher in front. As they moved through the darkness, everything else from the world seemed to disappear for existence. They moved in a trance, through a world of dreams and spirits, through the darkness of an Underworld that suddenly seemed all too real. The throngs of kneeling worshipers along the sides of the roads, reduced to shapeless black figures by their prayer robes and barely visible in the darkness, seemed only to add to the feeling that the marchers had left Earth and now were moving through the Underworld of the Dead.
Every two hours there were breaks, as the marchers stopped to drink blackberry punch, go to the bathroom, and exchange their spent torches for new ones. Vladik dribbled some of the punch down his painted chest to make it look like it was covered in blood. He then dribbled some more punch on his three companions, adding to their already ghoulish appearance. The breaks were very short, just enough to recharge for the next portion of the march. It was as though the marchers were surfacing from the Underworld, only very briefly, before plunging down even deeper.
They couldn’t have explained why, but after each break Cecilia and Jason were becoming ever more apprehensive as they plunged back into the darkness. Soon they even forgot about their physical sensations as their only reality became the line of lights they had to follow. They had the feeling that if they got separated from the trail, they would be forever lost in darkness and despair.
Both of them breathed a huge sigh of relief when they noticed the sky lightening in the east. They approached the campground where they would get a meal and sleep during the day as the torches from the second group of marchers became visible in the distance. The marchers had resurfaced from the darkness, hugely relieved to be back on Earth and blessed by the sun. They ate some black noodles and hot stew, went to the latrine, and collapsed on cots set up under several large Army tents. The marchers were exhausted and most of them went to sleep immediately.
Jason briefly slept, but woke up after just a couple of hours. He got up quietly to not disturb his companions and worked his way through the rows of cots to get to the exit. He stepped outside. The day was dreary and overcast, but there was a hint the sky might clear up before sunset. Jason wandered around the silent tents for a few minutes. Then he noticed the Priestess who had collared Cecilia, the one member of the Danubian Clergy who spoke some English.
He approached her. She looked hard at him, for a moment not recognizing him because of his body paint. Then she realized that standing in front of her was Jason Schmidt, the unlikely hero of the coup and the boyfriend of the young woman she had collared at the beginning of the summer. Jason was not sure what to do. He needed to talk… talk to someone about the weird feeling he had experienced during the first night’s march. The Priestess, astute at reading other people’s emotions, picked up on the needs of the young man standing in front of her.
“You want say me?”
“Uh… yes… I kinda want to talk…”
“We talk, yes. You kneel, I salute, and we talk.”
Jason went to his knees and touched his head to the ground. The Priestess told him to get up and she saluted him. He saluted back, in the ancient exchange between a member of the Danubian Clergy and an average citizen. Slowly, very haltingly, he talked about what had happened during the march and his strange feeling of anxiety. He began to ramble, but the Priestess cut him off.
“So, you afraid. No?”
“I guess… kinda…”
“You no guess, Jason Schmidt. You say me if you afraid.”
“Yes. I got scared last night. And Cecilia did too.”
“So you scared. Why you scared?”
“I don’t know. Maybe ‘cause… you know, it kinda felt like we weren’t here… like we were somewhere else. It just didn’t feel right…”
The Priestess thought about Jason’s statement for a moment. “Maybe you say me truth, Jason Schmidt. Maybe you no here. Maybe you some other place.”
The Priestess told him to stick out his hands. When he complied, she grabbed them, held them very tightly, and closed her eyes. Not knowing what else to do, Jason closed his eyes as well. Jason felt the Priestess’s hands shake as they continued to hold his in a painful vice-like grip. Then she said “Doc-doc” and released him. Jason opened and closed his hands to restore the circulation, surprised that a woman could have squeezed them so hard. The Priestess then looked him hard in the eye.
“You say me truth. Last night you afraid.”
“Yes, Priestess. I just told you that. I wasn’t lying.”
“Tonight you more afraid. Tonight you see truth. You see truth, and you find me in Temple tomorrow.”
“No ‘but’, Jason Schmidt. Tonight you scared. Tomorrow you see me.”
The Priestess abruptly turned away; making it very clear she had nothing more to say to him. He was not reassured in the least. If what she was saying was true, a very unpleasant night awaited him. He returned to his cot, glanced at Cecilia’s sleeping body, and lay down. For a while his eyes watched the tent’s canvas as it slowly moved with the wind, but finally managed to fall asleep.
A few hours later a Priest woke everyone up with a shrill whistle. The sun was low in the horizon and there was a lot for the marchers to take care of in the next two hours. They had to drink, go to the bathroom, get their body paint touched up, and finally attend a worship service before collecting their torches and setting out. Jason reluctantly took his torch, glancing with increasing anxiety at the ever-darkening sky and the black ribbon of road that led back into Danube City. Tonight you more scared, Jason Schmidt. Tonight you more scared.
The darkness descended on him as ominous feelings surged through his body. Perhaps he was just imagining things, but he thought could actually feel the dead entering and leaving his body. It was at that point that he began having visions. The first he had was not frightening at all. It simply was an image of Cecilia, standing in an American-style kitchen, cooking a pot of rice and beans. She was somewhat older, her face thin and lines beginning around her eyes and mouth. The beginnings of gray already were forming in her jet-black hair, which was cut much shorter. The vision ended when Cecilia turned around, smiled at him, and handed him a plate. There was a final detail he noticed before the vision faded to blackness, that she was wearing a Danubian engagement necklace. Jason realized he had seen a moment from his own future, a future he was destined to share with her.
The marchers stopped for their first break, two hours after walking through the throngs of silent worshipers. With a new torch and his stomach full of blackberry punch, Jason descended into the darkness again. His mental wanderings took him through the lives of his parents and the slow deterioration of their marriage over the years. His thoughts jumped back and forth through time as he saw his parents’ house, first for sale and unoccupied when they first bought it, then for sale and unoccupied as it sat following his parents’ deaths. He saw his father as he worked in his office and his mother at the country club. He saw Amanda Galloway’s face morph into the face of Heather Jones, and then the face of Heather Jones morph into a crushed skull. He relived the accident that killed her, seeing it in intimate detail from the perspective of someone watching from the outside. Then he saw himself, scrubbing toilets in the state hospital while several mental patients stared at him.
The visions continued as Jason saw the world from the perspective of Cassie’s boyfriend. The world swirled around in a pot and ecstasy-induced stupor. He listened to his father’s insults and experienced the breakdown that led to the final drug-induced rage in May. He watched his mother blow-drying her hair in the bathroom and the horrified expression on her face just before her head blew apart. Then he exchanged places with his father, lying helpless but still defiant in the last moment of his life.
His mind then shifted to the world from Cassie’s point of view. He saw in vivid detail her boyfriend’s body tumbling down the stairs and the horror of his mangled face. He relived her flight to the neighbor’s house, and watched her crouch in terror in her neighbors’ bedroom as the shotgun went off downstairs. He watched as the street filled with police cars, ambulances, and reporters. He watched as his sister came completely undone, as horror and panic took over and she began screaming incoherently. Finally, he saw her in the state hospital, in a catatonic state curled up under a table, with the psychiatrists and his grandmother trying to coax her out. His grandmother was holding an old stuffed rabbit, Cassie’s favorite toy when she was little.
“I brought Bee-Bop, Cassie. I brought him, just for you. Don’t you want to come out and hold Bee-Bop? You can come out, Cassie, no one’s gonna hurt you…”
There was a final vision, of Cassie sitting curled up in an armchair in the guestroom of his grandmother’s condominium. The curtains were closed and the room was dark. In the darkness Cassie was holding Bee-Bop the rabbit.
That night Cecilia experienced three visions. The first was of Jason. She was cooking dinner in her kitchen, an old Dominican recipe of rice and beans. She had endured several years of life in college without rice and beans, but now that she had her own kitchen, she would cook rice and beans, whether Jason and the kids liked it or not. Fortunately Jason was flexible when it came to food, so he gladly took the plate she had given him. He was somewhat older, but very wiry because he had not given up running. Even now he was still running marathons so he always had a healthy appetite. As for the kids, well…maybe they wanted junk food, but that wasn’t going to happen. Jason was even more of a heath nut than Cecilia, so the kids had to eat healthy as well. That’s just the way it was, rice and beans and lots of exercise to work it off. She had a comment for Jason Junior, or J.J. as he was called in the house. Don’t you argue with your father about the beans, J.J., ‘cause you know that isn’t gettin’ you anywhere.
Cecilia took her first break very relieved, thinking, if that’s the future; that’s what I want. She smiled at Jason as she picked up her replacement torch. The next part of her journey was not nearly as pleasant.
Her mind traveled to the penitentiary in Camden, where Raul Sanchez was exiting the facility with a bunch of other released prisoners. Raul had been let out on parole, but he had no intention of complying with the conditions of his release. He had some scores to settle and then he’d pick up where he had left off. Vicente Torres and Cecilia's younger brother were there to pick him up, along with Raul’s girlfriend. Vicente passed Raul a cell phone and Raul immediately started making calls to let everyone know he was back on the street and ready to roll. He called his supplier and then stopped off at the bank to get some cash that the girlfriend had been keeping for him in her safety deposit box. He counted $ 10,000 and the group headed across the river to pick up two kilos. The $ 10,000 was a down payment; but the supplier knew Raul was good for the rest and fronted him the kilos. Hey, no problem…
As they went down the stairs, Vicente suddenly had a feeling something was not right. He had this feeling; something wasn’t right. He told his companions to get in the car right away and passed Raul his pistol.
As they opened the doors to get in the vehicle, the young woman dropped her purse. She bent down to pick it up, but suddenly dropped to the ground. A burst of automatic gunfire shattered the car’s windows and sprayed glass around the car. The young woman lay flat on the ground until the glass stopped flying. The Sanchez brothers and Vicente Torres were slumped in their seats, still alive, but not for long. They were bleeding heavily and gasping for breath. The young woman pulled her own gun from her purse and quickly pumped a finishing round into each of their heads. She reached under the seat and grabbed the two kilos. Then she jumped into another car and the driver sped off.
Raul’s gang had dominated the project for several years, but now it was time for another group to come in and take over. Raul’s girlfriend had been smart enough to see it coming and had teamed up with the winning side. Over the next month there would be a total of 14 additional shootings in the project. By the end of the year control of the area would change hands and a new set of faces would be passing out bags of crack on the sidewalks.
Cecilia was shaking badly when the marchers got to their next break station. She was stunned, unable to think or react. Was it possible? Were her brothers and her ex-boyfriend really dead?
She wanted to talk, to find out the truth, but at that moment there was no one to turn to. Jason had a completely stunned, vacant look in his face. Obviously he was dealing with his own terror, and was in no condition to help Cecilia with hers. As for Vladik and Tiffany, she was in his arms, shaking violently and crying. Suddenly she heard the voice of that Priestess echoing in her head.
“Now you see truth. Now you see real truth.”
The marchers set off again, for the final stretch of walking through the streets of Danube City. There was only one vision remaining for Cecilia that night. She saw a four-year old boy, wandering among the needles strewn about a bunch of dumpsters in her housing project. She called out to him, and recognized him as her cousin’s son. The boy lifted up his arms and the vision faded to black.
Slowly Cecilia’s conscience returned to the real world, the long line of fires extending as far as the eye could see in either direction. The throngs of kneeling worshipers began chanting out loud, after having prayed in silence for two full nights. Suddenly every church bell started ringing and the crowds began singing the ancient hymn that marked the end of the Day of the Dead. Cecilia noticed the sky was getting light and realized that she already had passed into the Plaza of the Ancients. As she and her companions walked around the Temple she could see the glare of the huge bonfire near the river that was consuming the torches, all 2,400 of them, that had been carried by the marchers during the final leg of their journey. A Priest directed the marchers to move up-wind from the fire so they could get close enough to throw their torches onto the massive pile of burning wood. With a grunt Cecilia threw hers as hard as she could and it landed about halfway up the side of the pile. Jason and Vladik managed to get theirs clear to the top. The marchers now had just two more obligations, to wash off Death in the River and to gather for a final hymn in the Plaza. Cecilia forced herself into the cold river, trying as best she could to get the paint off the lower part of her body and her face. She was about to step out when Tiffany admonished her.
“You gotta do your back too. They want you to get all the paint off before you go to the Plaza.”
Cecilia sighed and forced herself to drop into the water. Jason helped her wipe off what was left on her back. Shivering in the pre-dawn cold, Cecilia and the others stepped out of the water and made their way back to the Plaza. The criminals gathered, pressing their bodies together for warmth as they sang the final hymn of the ceremony. Afterwards they quickly dispersed to get cleaned up and then go to the Central Police Station to pick up their winter capes and boots.
Vladik led the others into the Temple. He had to go back on duty shortly and needed to get his collar off so he could go to the police station, shower, and put on his uniform. A Priest quickly unlocked his collar and the naked couple departed the Temple.
Cecilia was dead silent, too stunned by what she had just seen to speak or react. She stood in the main chamber of the Temple, shivering from cold and fright. She did not have a clue what she should do about her visions. Had she seen something that already had happened? Had she seen the unavoidable future? Had she seen something she could prevent?
Jason was every bit as badly shaken as Cecilia. However, he did know what they needed to do: find that Priestess and talk to her. Without saying a word, he grabbed Cecilia’s hand and led her around the Temple. The Priestess was waiting for them, standing elegantly in her severe black dress and wearing an equally severe expression. Jason immediately knelt and touched his head to the floor, with Cecilia following his lead.
“Now you stand up.”
Jason stood up and saluted, with Cecilia once again following his lead. The Priestess saluted back.
“Now you say me what you saw. You say me truth, and I ask Creator what you do.”
Jason went first. He briefly mentioned the visions of his parents, suspecting that the visions that really mattered were the ones of Cassie. He took it for granted that if the Priestess thought the stuff about his parents was important, she’d interrupt him, which she didn’t. When he finished, all she said was.
“Your father dead. Your sister not dead. You remember, that your path in life. Your sister not dead.”
Jason was bewildered by that statement, but stayed silent as Cecilia talked about her own vision. The Priestess made her concentrate on her first vision, the one with Jason, and her final vision, the one about her cousin’s child. She seemed not at all interested in the middle vision, the one of her brothers getting double-crossed and killed. Cecilia wanted to return to that middle vision, but the Priestess kept cutting her off. Finally Cecilia became exasperated,“Priestess, how come you aren’t worried about what happened to my brothers? I just saw them fuckin’ get killed and you…”
The Priestess drew her fist across her chest, the impolite Danubian way of saying “shut up!”
“You say me, what you do about brothers? How you help dead brothers? That not your path in life!”
“But are they dead?”
“Yes. They dead, and they dead with broken soul, no?”
“I ‘spose. I ‘spose you could put it that way. I ‘spose all of their souls are broken. All of ‘em. The whole fuckin’ project.”
“No. No all soul broken, Cecilia. Your brother’s dead. But little boy no dead. He no broken. That your path in life.”
The Priestess gave that thought a chance to sink in. It was true that when Cecilia left her family, the one thing that filled her with guilt was having left her cousin’s son in that dysfunctional environment. She was the only one in the household who had given him any care at all, and fortunately he was off the bottle just before she left. She was the one who had gotten him to the point where he could walk and feed himself, because her cousin was never around to take care of him. She had to abandon him to save herself. Now, with her family decimated by the local gang war, perhaps it was her destiny to go back and extract him from the dying neighborhood. As badly as she wanted to ask the Priestess that question, Cecilia realized she already knew the answer.
The Priestess grabbed a hand from each of them and clamped down in a painful vice-like grip. She closed her eyes and her arms started to shake. Cecilia and Jason gave each other frightened looks, but then the Priestess opened her eyes and quickly released them. She pulled out a key from a pocket in her dress and unlocked both of their collars.
“Now you go on path. Your sister and your little boy. Creator give you power fix soul. You go and you come. When you go, you say me and I say professor. You go and you come.”
Jason interjected, “Priestess, are you saying we’re supposed to bring them here? To Danube City?”
“You go and you come. That your path in life.”
The Priestess handed them two prayer robes to wear home, a clear sign their penance had ended. Their days of wearing the Temple collar had passed, and now it was time for them to fulfill an obligation they had towards two other people. Two trips, to journeys into the past, and two lives to save. They quickly went to their homes, got cleaned up, and for the first time in nearly four months, got dressed.
Two days after the Day of the Dead Ceremonies ended, Jason and Cecilia boarded a plane to go to Frankfurt and then another to continue to Chicago. They were traveling with their U.S. passports, but with special Danubian diplomatic visas that gave them de facto rights as Danubian diplomats. Were either of them to run into any problems in the U.S. it was guaranteed they would have the full weight of the Danubian government backing them.
Before they left, Prime Minister Dukov called Dr. Burnside and notified her that the two students were returning to Chicago for a few days. He explained they were traveling to take care of some urgent family matters and that they needed transportation. Burnside quickly arranged for the Foundation to use two of its own drivers for the students. She calculated that they were less likely to run into trouble if they had employees of her institute responsible for transporting them to wherever they needed to go. Anyone wanting to harm them would have to confront both the Danubian government and the famous Chicago think-tank, which was the best that could be done for their safety.
After she hung up from calling the Foundation, Burnside then called Jason’s grandmother and let her know that he was coming back to the United States. He would return to Wisconsin immediately upon touching down in Chicago.
“Oh thank heavens! Yes, Ruth, I need him back, because I need him to get his sister out of here!”
Jason’s grandmother explained that Cassie’s initial trauma had subsided due to the intensive therapy she was receiving, but that she still had a severe problem with post-traumatic stress, which seemed to be set off whenever she saw anything that reminded her of her parent’s neighborhood. That literally meant anything that had been in her sight the day her parents were killed. Seemingly random items such as SUV’s, tractor mowers, shotguns, garage doors, police cars, yellow police tape, popular teenage fashions, and various rap songs set off a spell of panic that canceled out days of efforts to calm her nerves.
As a result of her problems with the flashbacks, Cassie had withdrawn to her room. The condo’s guestroom was furnished with older items that she could not associate with anything that had happened the day her parents were killed. She couldn’t watch television or listen to the radio because a song or commercial might remind her of something that had happened that day. Her only entertainment was listening to her grandmother’s records or reading. Throughout the summer she refused to leave the room and even kept her curtains shut. Over the summer she had gone pale and gained weight, due to her complete lack of exercise.
Cassie’s psychiatrist speculated that what she needed was to go to some place where nothing would remind her of her parents’ neighborhood or anything she had experienced in high school. If she could avoid seeing things that triggered her flashbacks, she could begin living a normal life and eventually overcome the mass of phobias that had taken control of her soul. Unfortunately, there was no such place in the United States. Modern life and pop culture intruded everywhere, even in the most isolated rural area. It seemed that the only solution to resolve Cassie’s problem, to find her a life in a completely unfamiliar setting, was unworkable.
However, it turned out there might be a solution. The same night Jason began marching with Cecilia to celebrate the Day of the Dead, Mrs. Schmidt and her granddaughter looked through an album of pictures he had sent from Upper Danubia. Two things struck Mrs. Schmidt. First, from the photos it seemed that the country looked absolutely nothing like Cassie’s neighborhood in the U.S. Everything was totally different. Second, it was clear the pictures did not bother Cassie. She seemed genuinely interested in seeing them. That was when the idea occurred to Mrs. Schmidt to send Cassie to live in Danube City. In the Danubian capitol there were no SUV’s, no U.S. pop culture, no low-rider jeans or rapper clothing, no oversized mansions with looming garage doors, no Sheriff’s Department patrol cars, and most importantly, no drugs. Danube City offered Cassie the prospect of a life without constant reminders of that horrible day she lost her parents and her boyfriend. Both her grandmother and her psychiatrist were convinced, if the girl could live a normal life in the unfamiliar setting of the Danubian capitol for a while, she might start to recover.
Ruth Burnside pondered the strange coincidence, Jason’s return to the U.S. and Mrs. Schmidt’s realization that Cassie needed to get out of the country to recover from her trauma. It was obvious that was why he had come back, to fulfill his destiny to help his sister in her hour of need. Burnside shook her head. The professor was a hardened atheist, so she quickly discounted the thought that Jason’s timing could be anything other than a very fortunate coincidence. Still…
As for Cecilia, Burnside knew that she needed to return to her former home in New Jersey and had arranged for a co-worker who owned a private plane to take her to Newark. The co-worker had business of his own to take care of in New York City anyway, so flying there with two passengers was not a problem for him. Once they touched down the driver from the Foundation would rent a car and take Cecilia wherever she needed to go. The driver was an ex-Marine originally from the south side of Chicago, so driving into Cecilia’s blighted neighborhood did not intimidate him in the least.
Jason and Cecilia held hands as they touched down in Chicago. After getting through Customs, they found Jim Halsey waiting for them. Halsey took the two students to his own car, and drove Cecilia to a regional airport where her plane was waiting. She kissed Jason goodbye and left with the man assigned to both drive her and protect her while in New Jersey.
Jason traveled north with his driver in Jim Halsey’s personal car, after dropping off the professor at his house. The car sped northward across the pleasant autumn landscape as Jason contemplated the complete upheaval that had transpired in his life over the past year and a half. The driver was an amiable man, willing to talk or not talk, according to the need of his passenger to either socialize or keep to himself. Jason was quiet throughout most of the trip, lost in his own thoughts and pondering the tragedy that had overtaken his parents’ lives. As the sights, sounds, and smells of Wisconsin entered Jason’s consciousness as reality instead of memory, what had happened to his family finally hit home. He realized in Upper Danubia he had been so separated from his life in the U.S. that he had not truly grasped the fact that his parents were dead and his sister changed beyond recognition. It had not yet struck him that now he was the one responsible for the future of the Schmidt family. His grandmother had done her part, first by encouraging him to get away and then by taking charge of Cassie. She had done her part, but now Cassie had to be Jason’s responsibility, not hers.
Just four hours after leaving Cecilia at the municipal airport, Jason watched the familiar streets of downtown Carterville pass by as he approached his grandmother’s condominium. Mrs. Schmidt and her boyfriend met up with him as he dismissed the driver to find himself a motel room. Jason and his grandmother would spend a couple of hours getting caught up on each other’s news, but with an emphasis on the events surrounding his parents’ deaths and the effect they had on Cassie. It did not surprise Jason that Cassie’s friends had disappeared on her as soon as the uproar from the shootings died down. The murders changed her personality beyond recognition, making her extremely withdrawn and serious. She no longer was a source of fun and entertainment. Subconsciously her friends saw her as contaminated and after an initial round of condolences kept their distance. Anyhow, the loss of the Schmidts’ house meant that she no longer could remain enrolled at her elite high school. Instead, she faced finishing her studies at the much less prestigious public school in Carterville, not that it mattered. By the end of the summer Cassie had become so withdrawn that it was clear she would have to be home-schooled.
Jason asked what he could and could not talk about when he saw his sister, thinking that perhaps she did not know about her father’s activities against Upper Danubia or about his secret plans to ditch his family following the failure of the coup in April. Mrs. Schmidt told him that everything was fair game, because she had told Cassie in detail what had happened to her father during April and May. Following the shootings Cassie had been consumed with guilt, thinking that what had happened to her father was her fault. The girl’s grandmother calculated that if she knew the truth about her father she would feel less guilty about his death. That was true, but the information left Cassie very suspicious and paranoid about people’s intentions towards her. She couldn’t trust her parents, which meant she couldn’t trust anyone.
There was, however, a faint hope that Cassie already had hit bottom and was beginning the long process of recovery. After a long summer of depression and psychological inertia, her curiosity about life was just starting to return. She began to ask her psychiatrist questions about post-traumatic stress, to better understand herself. Yes, Cassie had changed. At age 17, she already was thinking about the larger issues in life. The life that she had led as a teenager was gone, blasted away by her ex-boyfriend’s revolver. It was apparent that she was ready to move on.
Jason was shocked by his sister’s appearance, even though he knew what to expect. Her old aggressive boisterous nature was gone, replaced by a personality that was rather shy and very serious. She had gained nearly 30 pounds, which was part of the reason she was ashamed to go out in public. She was wearing a sweatsuit because none of the stylish clothing she had from the year before fit her anymore. She had absolutely refused to buy larger-sized clothing, so she stuck to sweatsuits. She was very pale and her appearance was unkempt. Her hair, although clean, was a mass of tangles because she never bothered to comb or brush it.
Jason skipped asking Cassie about how her summer had gone, because he already knew. Instead he talked at length about his own summer, his studies at the National University, the hassle of learning to speak Danubian, and his preparations to run several marathons in October during the Harvest Festivities. At first he was cautious about mentioning anything about why he had gone to Danube City in the first place, nor did he mention anything about Cecilia. He stuck to general topics, figuring that he could move into more personal ones once Cassie felt more comfortable around him.
The two teenagers realized how much they both had changed since they last spoke to each other. Cassie was amazed at Jason’s self-confidence and how, without a hint of arrogance, he seemed to dominate the room. He knew his own mind and what he wanted from himself. It was clear that he had a clear vision of his life and no longer was intimidated by his failures. Had Cassie’s former friends seen him now, they might not have liked Jason, but there was no way they could have so casually dismissed him like they did the year before. Quite likely it would have been the other way around, Jason would have seen the girls for what they were, shallow, uncaring princesses who did not merit his time or consideration.
Cassie, on the other hand, was not sure about anything. When she spoke to Jason she did not look at him, but instead kept her gaze fixed on a spot on the wall. At first it was hard for Jason to get used to the idea that, even though she wasn’t looking at him, she was paying attention to what he was saying. That vacant look in her face did not reflect what was actually going on in her mind, but it seemed that her inner thoughts were separated from what she was doing with her body. Her mind was responsive, but her body was not.
As for who she had been in high school: her high school slang, her experimenting with boyfriends and drugs, her popular clique and obsession with having fun, as well as her self-assured attitude; that all was gone. What remained of her character was not much more than a bunch of psychological wreckage, from which a much more serious person was just beginning to form. She was haunted, not only by the memories of what had happened in May, but also by her trauma and deep-seated fear of flashbacks. In some ways her behavior was like a person who had suffered a massive heart attack and barely survived. She was obsessed with her own fragility and the prospect that anything at any moment could trigger a second, and this time fatal, relapse. Above anything else, Cassie seemed to exude a feeling of fragility.
Fortunately one thing in Cassie’s character had not been destroyed over the summer, and that was her curiosity. Without looking away from that spot on the wall, she began asking Jason questions about Upper Danubia, and finally questioned him about the trials in May. As her brother explained more and more, Cassie became increasingly interested about their father’s role in the coup and what her brother thought about it. Jason just gave the facts at first; what he knew about the plans of Mega-Town Associates and what came out in the trial that was not covered by the press in the United States. Suddenly, Cassie became impatient. Without moving her eyes from that spot on the wall she snapped, “Look Jason, I don’t give a shit about ‘Cutter’, and the pigs, and what they did with the guns. I want to know about Dad.”
Over the next hour Jason told Cassie everything he knew about their father’s role in the coup, and finally brought up the comment about Cecilia that prompted him to turn the information he was gathering over to the Danubian government.
Cassie surprised Jason by telling him about her own research, information she had dug up about their parents. Over the summer she became curious about her father’s behavior and in understanding why he acted the way he did. She downloaded numerous articles off the Internet about the behavior of identified sociopaths. From studying the behavior of sociopaths, Cassie’s research led her to explore what was known about people suffering from narcissistic personality disorder. She shared a rather startling conclusion with her brother, the possibility that both of their parents suffered from narcissistic personality disorder.
“I’m sure Dad had it. He would’ve had to. I mean, to do all that shit just to make himself happy… I mean you can’t do that unless you’re really fucked in the head. And I’m sure he was really fucked in the head. That’s obvious.”
Jason interjected with his own thoughts on the matter, relaying what he knew about the Danubian concept of damage to the soul. Rather than contradict Cassie’s research, Jason’s comments seemed to complement what she had found out. Mr. Schmidt’s soul had been damaged by greed, which in turn was the result of an over-developed sense of self-worth, in other words, narcissism.
Over the next two days the surviving members of the Schmidt family talked in the condo’s living room about the tragedy that overtook Jason’s parents. Their grandmother took the two teenagers through a mental journey into the past as she tried to figure out if there was anything she might have done to contribute to her son’s personality. As they listened to her, Jason and Cassie came to understand their father much better and also understand what had influenced them as they were growing up. Finally Jason was able to talk at length about the accident that had killed his girlfriend and the decisions that had led up to that incident. Cassie confided some of her experiences with her own clique, and finally had an apology for her brother:
“You know, when you got busted and everyone was jumping on you, you know, like… telling you what an idiot you were and how fucked in the head you were… I… I never said anything. I just kinda sat there listening and was real happy it was you instead of me. I’m sorry about not sticking up for you… because I should’ve and I didn’t… I’m really sorry about that.”
Cassie hugged Jason hard, as tears flowed down both their cheeks. The recovery of their lives, and of their relationship with each other, had begun.
Finally the moment had come for Jason to tell his sister what he had seen during the Day of the Dead march, especially that second night. He went into detail about the march itself, and then described what he had seen of the lives of their parents. Their grandmother gasped, because Jason had described things early in their marriage that he would have been too young to remember. Then he got to the point, his visions of Cassie and what the Priestess told him afterwards.
“I think the point of it all is that I’m supposed to take you to Danube City, and that’s why I came back. To get you out of here, so maybe you won’t be having all the flashbacks… ‘cause it seems that everyone thinks that’s what’s going on, you know, the flashbacks and everything.”
Cassie looked at her grandmother, and then back at Jason. Her gaze refocused at that spot on the wall while she thought it over. She nodded. Her voice was barely audible.
“OK. I’ll try it.”
Jason and his grandmother looked at each other, totally stunned. They had been expecting a crisis, or an argument, or having to spend a long time trying to reason with her. It turned out none of that was necessary. It turned out Cassie was aware that the only hope she had of regaining her sanity was to leave Wisconsin. As for what she would do upon getting to Danube City, she took it for granted Jason would help her get set up.
“So… you’re… like… OK with it? Going to Danube City with me?”
“I said I’d go, Jason. I already told you that.”
Her eyes stayed fixed to that spot on the wall. She had nothing more to say, but she knew something that her brother and grandmother could not have known. Her departure would not be temporary. Once she left, she could never come back.
Upon landing in Newark, Cecilia rode as a passenger into her old neighborhood. The area looked as bleak as ever. In fact, if anything it looked even worse than it had when she left. She noticed the bus station from where she had left now was a check-cashing place. Ain’t that just great, she thought to herself. Just what we need, another fuckin’ check cashin’ place. A few more row houses leading up to the tenements were abandoned, either burned out or converted to crack houses. The tenement buildings rose above the bleak landscape, as grim and forbidding as ever. The hopelessness of the neighborhood quickly closed in on the young student, a feeling that the area was reaching out to grab her and suck her back into the abyss.
There was one detail that struck Cecilia immediately. The graffiti was completely different. The area was under armed occupation by a rival gang, the same group of thugs who had murdered her brothers and were still killing off their associates. She looked around to see how permanent the change seemed to be, searching for clues such as the faces and colors around her old tenement building. Everything, especially the clothing and the symbols on the walls, was different. She did not recognize any of the young people floating around the complex. She knew that she had entered enemy territory.
Cecilia’s tough driver pulled up to the entrance of her mother’s building and let her off at the entrance. She thought about going straight upstairs to her mother’s apartment, knowing that she probably was not safe if she stayed in the hallway. If anyone recognized her as Raul Sanchez’s sister there could be trouble for her, even though she had been estranged from him. However, she couldn’t go up the stairs yet. Something pulled her to go through the lower level to the back door, where a group of young boys of various ages were milling around in the playground outside. There was one boy in particular that caught her attention. She walked up to him, to get a better look.
All of the others stopped what they doing to stare at Cecilia, who was completely out of place with her clean-cut affluent appearance. Her clothing, her Danubian hairstyle, and the way she carried herself made it clear that she did not belong to the project.
Ignoring the stares of the boys surrounding her, she focused on the child who drew her attention. He was slightly less than four years old and still had a rather innocent look about him. She carefully studied his features. He looked very familiar. Could it be…?
“¿Pedro? ¿Eres tú?”
“Sí señorita. Yo soy Pedro.”
He seemed rather scared, because of course, after two and a half years he did not recognize her. But as she squatted down to greet him, somehow he knew to come to her. Her mind flashed with the memory of that vision a few days before in Danube City. Sure enough, here he was, his arms open, as he walked across the trash and drug paraphernalia scattered on the ground beneath him. It was just as she remembered, detail for detail. Cecilia’s heart stopped as she remembered the words from the Priestess, “No all soul broken, Cecilia. Your brother’s dead. But little boy no dead. He no broken. That your path in life."
She hugged him, but he still seemed a bit shy about being approached by a person he felt was a stranger. In Spanish she asked him where he lived, and sure enough, he pointed in the direction of her old apartment. She took his hand and they went upstairs. Now for the hard part.
And hard it was. Her mother opened the door, stunned to see her daughter after such a long time of not hearing from her. What was equally surprising was the young woman’s appearance, which made it clear that she no longer belonged to the world of her childhood. Mrs. Sanchez looked at her daughter with neither anger nor happiness, but bewilderment, as though she had come back from the dead.
From the beginning it was clear that plenty of Mrs. Sanchez’ hostility and bitterness remained. She stepped aside to let Cecilia in, partly because she had brought Pedro back up with her. However, there was no hug, nor any kiss on the cheek to greet the younger woman.
Cecilia, in turn, was shocked by how old her mother looked, how shrunken and defeated. She then noticed candles lit in front of her brothers’ pictures, realizing that she had just seen the first tangible proof that her brothers had indeed been killed. She glanced at Pedro, then at her mother’s bewildered hostile expression, and finally at her brothers’ pictures again. The candles would give her the opening she needed to start talking to her mother. She realized something else. Her reason for returning was not to reconcile, but instead to make sure Pedro could leave with her. Whatever her mother thought of her no longer mattered. What mattered was Pedro.
There was no small talk, no talk about Upper Danubia or Chicago. Instead Cecilia wanted to know what happened to her brothers. The story Mrs. Sanchez gave matched what she had envisioned; Raul and his companions had been double-crossed by their supplier, who had switched allegiances and helped set up their murders. As for Raul’s ex-girlfriend, another member of Raul’s gang executed her the week following the triple murder. Her killer, in turn, was kidnapped and executed by the girl’s brother during the rival gang’s final takeover of the housing project.
Mrs. Sanchez was aware, because she was Raul’s mother that she was in danger herself. She had decided to return to the Dominican Republic and was trying to make arrangements to leave. The problem she faced was that she didn’t know what to do with Pedro. The boy’s mother had disappeared more than two months before and no one knew where she was. The only option was to take the child to the Dominican Republic, but the woman was not thrilled about it because she had neither the desire nor the strength to raise her niece’s boy. Cecilia had a question, “Mom, does Pedro have a passport?”
“Yes. That’s one of the things that kept me from getting out of here, because I couldn’t take him unless he had a passport. I just got it a couple of days ago.”
“Then why don’t you let me take him? I’ll get him off your hands and that’ll let you get out of here.”
Mrs. Sanchez seemed reluctant, but Cecilia pressed forward with her request.
“Look, Mom. It’s the only thing we can do that makes any sense. You told me yourself that you don’t think you can take care of him. But you got to get out of the projects. So why not let me have him? That solves your problem. It’ll fix another problem, because I know that you’re still pissed at me about running out on you. This is how I can make it up. I’ll take Pedro, and that way you can leave here knowing he’ll be safe. And you know that I’ll take care of him.”
Cecilia paused, and then finished her argument. “Mom, what other choice do you have? Both of you staying here and getting killed?”
The older woman sat silent for a few minutes, but finally she pulled Pedro’s passport out of a cabinet and handed it to her daughter. Cecilia breathed a huge sigh of relief as she took it. She then stuffed Pedro’s clothes and toys into two plastic shopping bags. Without saying anything more, Mrs. Sanchez found Pedro’s birth certificate, Social Security card, and immunization records to hand over to his future guardian. Cecilia went into the room she had shared with her cousin. She went through her cousin’s photographs, taking any that had her or Pedro in them. There were a lot of other pictures of miscellaneous friends, boyfriends, and gang members posing with weapons. Cecilia did not bother to take any of those. Most of those people were dead by now anyway, and no longer had any relevance to Pedro’s life. She glanced at the collection of CD’s of Rap and Salsa music. None of that had any relevance either. Pedro would not grow up listening to Salsa or Rap. He would grow up not knowing anything about Gangsta street culture. Cecilia would see to that.
Less than an hour later Cecilia went down the stairs of her tenement for the very last time in her life. She was carrying the two bags of Pedro’s possessions, some photos, and his documents. Her mother walked behind holding the boy’s hand. The driver was still waiting out in front, his face reflecting relief at seeing his passenger returning. The tension caused by his presence on the street had been mounting and he would be happy to get the car out of the neighborhood. Cecilia threw the bags in the trunk and opened the door for Pedro to get in.
Cecilia had hoped for closure with her mother, a gesture of mutual forgiveness or a promise that the two women might someday repair their broken relationship. However, that was not to be. Her mother continued to stare at her with a hostile, betrayed expression. Still, Cecilia had to say something, “Mom, when I get back to Danube City, I’ll write you at Grandpa’s place.”
“Great. You do that. Just like you wrote me from Chicago.”
Mrs. Sanchez said nothing more and abruptly went back into the building.
Despair swept over Cecilia, in spite of having accomplished her purpose for coming. She felt a combination of resentment, hurt, anger, and guilt. Yes, she should have written, but then, her mother should have been more supportive.
The reason she hadn’t written had been because of that single word: “bitch”. In Spanish the word was a much more serious insult than it was in English, and that was what her mother called her the day she insisted on leaving for Chicago.
Bitch. Something inside Cecilia snapped when she heard that word one time too many. And yet… maybe she could have calmed her anger and written. She realized she had failed to keep her own emotions under control, and that failure had cost her any possible future relationship with her mother. The two women would be going their separate ways and probably never see each other again.
Cecilia Sanchez knew that her life in New Jersey was over for sure. Within a few days her mother would be out of the apartment and on her way to the Dominican Republic. Everyone else she had known growing up was long-gone: dead, in jail, or just in a different location. The neighborhood was broken up and now taken over by strangers. After having seen her housing project one last time, Cecilia was leaving as well, never to come back.
The young Dominican watched the dilapidated row houses pass by as she got on her cell phone to call the man who had flown her to Newark. It turned out his business was finished as well. If she wanted, he could fly everyone back to Chicago that night. She gladly accepted the offer. She wanted to get herself and Pedro as far away as possible, away from the drugs, crime, and despair that had engulfed the world of her childhood. She felt the neighborhood pulling at her, and worried that until she was on the plane headed to Chicago, there was a chance she and Pedro might not escape.
Pedro quietly played with one of his toys as the driver made his way to the airport. The child was used to amusing himself, because no one had paid much attention to him after Cecilia left. Poor kid, she thought. I really shouldn’t have left him like that. I’ve got some catching up to do.
Cecilia and Pedro stayed at Ruth Burnside’s house for two days while they waited for Jason and Cassie to return from Wisconsin. Cecilia went shopping for Pedro while she waited, since she did not like his clothes and wanted him to be more presentable. The second day he was in Burnside’s house he cried a few minutes for “Tia”, which was how he called Mrs. Sanchez, but it seemed that otherwise he made the adjustment to being with Cecilia fairly easily. She wondered if deep down in his memory he might have some recollection of all that time she had spent taking care of him. The child spent much of his time wandering around the professor’s back yard and staring curiously at Maynard. He had never seen a dog up close before and shyly reached out to touch him. Maynard was the perfect companion for the child’s explorations, because he was so placid and quiet.
Burnside was busy, as usual, but she was able to make some time for Cecilia and talk to her about everything she had experienced in Upper Danubia. She was happy to have the student available for a few days to talk to her about the National University, some of the quirks of Danubian culture, and changes she would need to make to the exchange program before sending the first group of students.
Just four days after they had entered the United States, Jason and Cecilia, along with their two companions, were ready to leave. Ruth Burnside and two other officials from the Foundation accompanied the four young people through check-in to make sure they made it as far as the secure area of the terminal before saying good-bye. For Burnside and Cecilia the good-bye was only a temporary one, because over the next year the two women would be in constant contact with each other as the exchange program got under way and selected its first group of students. Burnside may have been an important part of Cecilia’s past, but she also would be a very important part of her future.
Because of Cassie’s problems with the flashbacks, Jason had decided to get a flight out of O’Hare in the middle of the night. Traveling at night would keep his sister from seeing too much on her way to the airport and hopefully prevent any flashbacks before she had a chance to get on a plane. Cecilia and Pedro met up with Jason and Cassie at the ticket counter. Once they were alone in the airport, there was the usual hassle getting through security and waiting in line, and an argument between Cecilia and Pedro over how many toys he could pull out of his suitcase and take with him on the plane.
Cecilia struggled to conceal her shock at how much Cassie’s appearance had deteriorated since the last time she had seen her. Not only was the girl very pale and overweight, but she had a vacant look in her eyes from having taken tranquilizers. Jason had her drugged up, hoping to get her to Danube City without any incidents. Once they arrived in the Danubian capitol, he would lock up his sister’s medicines and force her to get some exercise and eat better. He would make her regain her health, which would be the first part of the very long journey of taking back her life.
However, once the plane was airborne, Cassie and Pedro promptly fell asleep. Jason and Cecilia, their mission to the United States completed, interlocked their arms and spent the next eight hours talking about their most recent experiences at home and their hopes for the future. It was significant that neither of them talked about “my future”. The couple took it for granted that it was “our future”. For better or for worse, the Paths of their Lives had drawn them together. Now there was only one Path in Life, the path they were destined to share.
Cassie Schmidt never returned to the United States. In fact, for the rest of her life, she never left the Republic of Danubia. It was in the Danubian Republic where she would build her life, raise her family, and over time repair the damage to her soul.
Cassie spent her first year in Danube City living with her brother in Spokesman Alexi Havlakt’s house. She learned Danubian as she struggled to finish her diploma. She went to a Danubian high school, because there was no such thing in Danubia as home schooling. She spent her senior year at school slowly shedding her broken American identity and assuming a Danubian one. She came to speak Danubian quite well, better even than her brother. She soon made friends with several Danubian girls, whose personalities and interests were totally different from the group with whom she had been in the U.S. She wore a school uniform that she considered nerdy, but being in a school full of uniformed students helped keep her mind off fashions that might have reminded her of life in the U.S.
Cassie had very little in Upper Danubia in terms of material possessions. She had two suitcases of clothing and memorabilia, and a computer lent to her by the Danubian government. Over time she accumulated textbooks from her school and pictures of her new group of Danubian friends. She had a modest room in the Havlakts’ house to herself. When she celebrated her 18th birthday Jason bought her a Danubian bicycle.
The months passed and the first winter came and went. Cassie did not have a single flashback during that entire time. Slowly her confidence came back as she found her place in school and worked out a new relationship with her brother. She came to deeply respect him, and from that respect came admiration. In the U.S. she had never been proud of having him as her brother, but in the Danubian Republic her attitude changed completely. At his very young age he already had accomplished great things in life. She knew that within a few years he would return to the United States and make a real contribution, perhaps even more significant than the one he already had made in Danube City.
During the vacation after she graduated from high school, Cassie Schmidt went with her classmates on a summer work project in the forest reserve overlooking the Rika Chorna Reservoir. The students linked up with a group of students from Rika Chorna and spent the entire summer working and camping together. They maintained service roads and fire breaks, conducted wildlife surveys, and learned about forest management. Cassie felt real satisfaction as she worked to preserve the same forests her father’s company had been hoping to clear-cut. She enjoyed the woods, cooking out in the open, getting dirty, skinny dipping with her friends in the cold mountain streams, and looking out over the landscape of seemingly endless rolling green hills and mountains. She loved the villages at the foot of the mountains and the quiet life of the area. When she left at the end of the summer to return to Danube City, she did so with great reluctance. The forest seemed to call her back.
Just before she was scheduled to start university classes in Danube City, Cassie changed the direction of her life and answered that call. Instead of attending the National University in Danube City, she left her brother and the Havlakts to study forestry at the Natural Resources Institute in Rika Chorna. Within two years she was working as an Apprentice for the Danubian Ministry of Natural Resources. Four years after she first settled in Danubia, she was formally sworn in as a forest ranger at age 22. She became a valuable employee for the Ministry because she was the only forest ranger in the area that spoke English. As the years went by Ranger Cassie Schmidt guided countless groups of foreign tourists through the forested mountains overlooking the Rika Chorna Reservoir. She wrote several essays for travel guides and magazine publishers about the Danubian mountains. Later she would marry one of her co-workers and raise a family in the village that served her ranger station. She was content to stay there, at work along the trails with her husband or in the village with her in-laws and kids. She rarely went into Rika Chorna, and was lucky to make it to Danube City even once a year. However, in her world she became well liked and found her Path in Life.
The arrival of Cecilia’s little nephew prompted big changes in several people’s lives. At first it seemed that where he would be staying would present a dilemma, because Victor Dukov did not have any extra rooms in his house. The child spent several nights sleeping with Cecilia in her room, but no one considered that a permanent solution. He simply had to have his own room.
Apprentice Kimberly Lee-Dolkivna resolved Cecilia’s dilemma the week after she and Pedro got back from the U.S. Kim decided that Pedro’s presence in Victor Dukov’s house was the sign that she needed to grant her client Tiffany Walker permission to get married to Officer Vladik Dukov. Vladik and Tiffany would take up their residence at his father’s former house, which in turn would free her room at his uncle’s place for Pedro. Thus, not only was Pedro’s situation resolved, but also Tiffany’s.
Pedro’s presence in Danube City gave Prime Minister Vladim Dukov an opportunity to quietly taunt the U.S. Ambassador. Pedro was a U.S. citizen and thus, reasoned the Prime Minister, had the right to attend the exclusive English-speaking school where most of the foreign embassies were sending their children. In fact, if the English school did not welcome Pedro with open arms, the Danubian government would close it and require all diplomats to send their children to Danubian public schools and take their classes in Danubian.
At first the Ambassador balked, given that Pedro was the nephew of a woman who had so badly disrupted the operations of Mega-Town Associates in Eastern Europe. Now here was this kid, straight out of one of the worst housing projects in the U.S., being thrust right into the elite preserve of the diplomats’ children. However, in the end he had to relent, under pressure from not only the host government, but also from other embassies that had children attending the school. Within a month of arriving in Danube City, Pedro began attending pre-school with an international mix of English-speaking kids. Two school security guards, who were members of the Danubian Secret Police, watched the preschool to make sure he was treated with respect at all times. Whatever objections parents at the U.S. Embassy might have had to Pedro, those opinions they had to keep to themselves. Dukov made it clear that any disrespect whatsoever to Pedro would result in the immediate closing of the school.
Over the next couple of years Pedro grew very quickly, going through several school uniforms even before making it to the first grade. He already knew how to read and do simple math by the time he was six and was beginning to play soccer. Whatever trauma he might have suffered during Cecilia’s two years of being absent seemed not to affect him as he grew up in a quiet and normal environment. He made friends with the children of several diplomats and became popular among his peers. The only detail about Pedro’s development that bothered Cecilia was that over time he completely forgot how to speak Spanish. However, she was consoled by the fact his English would be nothing like hers. By the time he returned to the U.S. Pedro spoke with an educated accent, the result of several years of elite schooling.
Jason became a serious cross-country runner during the time he lived in Danube City. He ran various marathons and always finished among the lead runners in any 10-K races. A couple of races he actually won, including a long distance run around the Rika Chorna Reservoir. As was customary in the Danubian Republic, Jason and his fellow runners always competed naked, except for their shoes and socks. Jason thus was living his dream, sprinting across the open countryside with his body completely uninhibited by clothing.
In the mornings he usually went jogging around the National University, and only during the coldest days did he wear anything. It took a while for Cassie to get used to the sight of her brother dashing out the front door and running down the street with nothing on, but this was Danubia, and things here were done differently than they were done in the U.S.
Upon attending his sister’s graduation from high school and watching her depart for her summer work project, Jason decided to return to the Temple of the Ancients and request permission to resume performing public penance. Jason’s motivations were complicated and even he could not articulate why he wanted to return to wearing a collar. However, it was obvious to the English-speaking priestess that Jason’s Path in Life, as long as he was living in the Danubian Republic, was to perform penance. For the second time in less than a year Jason watched the Temple fire consume his clothing and left the building with his body completely uncovered and a collar around his neck.
Jason’s decision to return to a life of public penance was his own and had nothing to do with the fantasy that Cecilia had for him the year before. In fact, because Jason’s public penance was something that he alone had decided on performing; Cecilia understood that part of his life was not something she had any control over. Jason had taken the collar because he felt that it was necessary to come to terms with his own place in the world. By the second summer Cecilia knew enough of Danubian culture to understand that it would be inappropriate to ask her boyfriend any questions about what he was doing or how long he planned to stay collared. Jason never volunteered any information, but secretly he had taken an oath to keep his collar and remain undressed as long as he remained in the Danubian Republic. He packed his clothing into his suitcase, knowing that it would be several years before he would allow himself to wear any of it.
With that Jason returned to the Socrates Club, inviting Cecilia as his guest. The couple became regular customers and always sat with Tiffany and Vladik, listening to the latest musical endeavors of “Socrates’ Mistresses”. The heart of the Danubian musical scene became a regular part of Cecilia’s life, because of her boyfriend’s membership in the club.
In the fall, still completely naked except for the Temple collar, Jason continued his studies at the National University and within three years had his Danubian undergraduate degree. Through a special agreement with his university in Chicago his classes were recognized in the U.S. and applied to a degree there as well. Burnside wrote him to tell him that he would have to take one final semester of classes to get his diploma in the U.S., but that simply was because the university required any graduating student to attend the final semester on campus. The same rule would apply to Cecilia, but more than anything else in both their cases it was a formality.
Cecilia Sanchez became the assistant program director for the exchange program between her university in the U.S. and the National University in Danube City. A year after she first set foot in the country she was at the airport to greet 30 students flying in from Chicago. Her old bossy demeanor from her days as an R.A. returned in force as she strutted in front of the bewildered group with her clipboard. Cecilia would be an important part of the lives of a total of four groups of exchange students: an ever-present mentor, translator, advisor, and intermediary for students adjusting to life in a place very different from what they were accustomed to.
A total of five years went by before Jason, Cecilia, and Pedro finally returned to the United States. They hated leaving their placid home in Danube City, but they knew that ultimately the Path of their Lives had to be pursued in the U.S. They were driven to work and contribute, and the contributions they could have made to the Republic of Danubia were finished. Yes, they could have stayed, but to stay would mean they had no further ambitions in life.
The three young people that stepped off the plane were very different from the ones who had fled the U.S. five years before. They had accomplished great things in their lives and had the confidence in themselves to continue their studies in Chicago. Pedro now was nine years old and ready to enter the fourth grade, while Jason and Cecilia would start immediately with graduate-level classes. As for getting married, that would happen, but not until they both had their Master’s Degrees.
Upon returning to Chicago, they realized many things had changed. Jim Halsey was the Chairman of the Economics Department and soon would become the dean of the entire School of Arts and Sciences. Ruth Burnside was in Washington investigating stock fraud cases and battling with several powerful companies, including Mega-Town Associates. The former professor had become a major headache for numerous CEO’s and their friends in Congress, which was fortunate for Jason and Cecilia. The entire episode of the Danubian coup was long forgotten and no one in the company even noticed that they were back in the U.S. The corporate battle now had to be waged against Dr. “Ruthless” Burnside, not against two university students.
Suzanne Foster’s life also had changed completely during Cecilia’s absence. The young photographer was famous after having published several books. She had quickly risen to the top of Chicago’s cultural life as one of the city’s most daring and well-liked artistic photographers. It turned out Suzanne no longer was single, because she had recently married a local lawyer who was quite a bit older than she was. Cecilia found that detail interesting, because she had foreseen that Suzanne never would have a decent relationship with anyone in the Art Department. It turned out Suzanne had figured out that reality for herself and ended up with someone totally different from any of the young drifters she had dated when Cecilia knew her.
There was another change, this one in Carterville, Wisconsin. Jason and Cecilia attended an important wedding that just a few weeks after returning to the U.S. Jason’s grandmother finally was getting married to her long-time friend after years of dating him. Cecilia was invited to be the maid of honor, a clear sign to everyone how much the older woman liked her grandson’s girlfriend. Cecilia was indeed honored by her role in the wedding. It truly mattered that the one person in Jason’s family who Cecilia respected had such a high opinion of her.
After the fall semester started Jason went over to the Tri-Alpha house to see if Ken was still around. Sure enough, he still was there, now a graduate student and the chapter Pledge Master. It turned out he still was going out with Lisa, although they had a very strange arrangement that hardly could be considered normal. Seeing Ken and being in the Tri-Alpha house reminded Jason of the famous nude 10-K race that was held towards the end of September each year.
“So, are you guys still doing the run?”
“Oh yeah, in fact it looks like this year we’re going to have our biggest turnout yet. We might be getting as many as 400 runners.”
“And you’re still giving out that $ 1,000 prize?”
“Yeah, but since you left our pledges have always gotten it. You know that it’s our tradition not to lose. And with me running the show, they haven’t.”
Jason smiled. The pledges always get the prize. Well, it looked like it was up to him to break Tri-Alpha tradition a second time.
“Well, you just give me a sign-up sheet, because I’m gonna need that $ 1,000 for textbooks. It’d be a shame to waste that money on something stupid like a party for your pledges.”
“OK, you’re on. I’ll get you a form. But I still don’t think we’ll lose, because I’ve been making sure everyone is ready for the run. And anyhow, you’re not 18 anymore.”
Jason smiled again. Poor Ken, dumb as ever, so it seemed. During his absence Jason had become a seasoned marathon runner and had every intention of completely humiliating his friend’s pledges. Oh yeah, instead of a party, this year those young guys will be getting some quality time with the paddle. I’ll give ‘em a lesson about running…
A week later, Jason went with Cecilia, Lisa, and several members from her sorority to the campus football stadium. Among them was a thin, shy, dark haired woman who had won the women’s trophy for the past five years. Lisa introduced her as Kathleen and mentioned that she would be competing for her sixth trophy.
Both Cecilia and Lisa had their cameras ready, knowing that, in spite of Ken’s assurances to the contrary, Jason was sure to win the men’s portion of the race. They wanted to document the moment he crossed the finish line and get pictures of him with his second trophy. Once the women found their seats, Jason and Kathleen pulled off their sweats and stuffed them into backpacks. Lisa and Cecilia accompanied their naked companions to the field and posed for a couple of pictures. The two women then returned to their seats, leaving their friends to stretch and get ready for the run.
Jason and Kathleen joined the mass of bare bodies clustered on the track and calmly set out with the others once the starter pistol went off. The two seasoned runners paced themselves and began passing burned-out competitors who had started out too fast. Jason then sprinted ahead of Kathleen, passed a couple more male runners, and spent the final two miles of the route in the lead. Less than an hour after leaving the stadium he was the first runner back in, nearly fifty yards ahead of his closest competitor. This year there was no contest. From its beginning to the end, the race belonged to Jason Schmidt. He crossed the finish line and hugged Cecilia. A few moments later Kathleen crossed the finish line and got a big hug from Lisa. For the sixth year in a row she would claim the women’s trophy for the Four-Beta Sorority.
Once the other runners passed the finish line Jason took his trophy and posed for pictures. His triumphant return to the Tri-Alpha race would revive his role as a spokesman for college naturism and his notoriety among young nudists throughout the U.S. Over the next year he would give several interviews and numerous speeches around the country as he pursued his cause and fulfilled his Path in Life.
Lisa, meanwhile, approached Ken to let him know that he was due for an extra special punishment that night. How dare he embarrass her like that, failing to have one of his runners win the race for his fraternity. Of course, upon hearing her words Ken’s penis stiffened. Yes, he was indeed a bad boy and there was only one way to handle a bad boy. He had failed, and only Lisa knew how to remedy that, with plenty of painful imagination.
Once the excitement from the race ended and Jason had given his last interview and posed for his final picture, he got dressed and cleaned up, and then invited Cecilia out to dinner. They returned to her apartment to take advantage of the fact that Pedro was spending the night at a friend’s place. They hugged each other for a few minutes, and then Cecilia proceeded to undress Jason. Once his clothes were off he undressed her and they hugged again, enjoying the feeling of each other’s bodies without the barrier of clothing.
A lot had changed in the lives of the young couple and many more changes were on the way. However, there were a few important things between them that had not changed at all. As she embraced him, Cecilia began patting Jason’s bottom, letting him know that in a moment he needed to go over her lap. She gave him one last kiss, but then sat down on the sofa and reached up to take his hand. She gave him a loving look with her dark eyes and her usual sarcastic smile. As always, his penis stiffened with anticipation of what was coming. Dutifully he settled comfortably over her thighs and surrendered his bottom to the woman he loved.
She very gently ran her hand over both bottom cheeks, caressing him with sensuous touches of her palm and fingers. Occasionally she lightly brushed the intimate area in between, making him tingle with excitement as he felt her fingertips exploring his bottom-hole and the back of his testicles. He relaxed his backside as much as he could, to better feel and enjoy his lover’s hand on his bare skin. She bent down to kiss his bottom, and caressed the unprotected flesh with her lips and tongue. His breathing shuttered with excitement, especially when she began speaking to him. She lectured him about his indecent behavior, running around the university with no clothes on, and then proudly posing for pictures. Who, but the naughtiest of boys, would do such a thing? Of course, as she was lecturing him, she continued to lovingly caress his waiting bottom, “So, Jason, are you a bad boy?”
“Yes, I’m bad.”
“And what do bad boys deserve Jason?”
“We need to be spanked.”
“That’s right Jason, all bad boys need to be spanked. On the bare bottom, right?”
“Yes, on the bare bottom.”
“That’s right, ‘cause that’s the only way to spank a bad boy. On the bare, naked bottom. That’s what bad boys need. Now you ask me nice, Jason, and I’ll give you your spanking.”
“Cecilia, please spank my bare bottom. Please give me what I need.”
“OK, since you asked me nice, I’m gonna spank you good.”
She gently kissed his bottom one final time, and then slowly, sensuously began slapping.
Yes, Cecilia Sanchez knew what her bad boy needed, and she was gonna give it to him, just because she loved him so much...