The cold night air was sharp which made sleep difficult. There never seemed to be enough blankets. The radiator against the wall made no noticeable difference. Kazimir lay motionless in his bed, his attention focused on keeping still in order to listen to the commotion in the next room. The next room being the only other room except for the toilet. It was past midnight. A biting wind pushed through the city outside. Gusts crept in through the gaps of an old warped window frame, causing a whistle that changed pitch with the force of the wind. The sound, a mocking reminder of the cold.
He had been reading by lamplight earlier in the night. It was a book his father brought back from one of his trips about a group of boys stranded on an island while the world was at war. His father always told him to keep the books hidden and tell none of his friends about them. Tell no one at all. It had to be their secret. When his father returned with a new book, he took away the old one. Kazimir didn't mind. By the time a new book came he had usually read the old one several times. His grasp of the English language was much better than his peers because of those books.
Kazimir had set down the book and just switched off the light when there was a knock at the front door. The knock was not overly loud or hard, but carried a message of panic. Stanislov opened the door immediately as if he had been expecting the visitor. As soon as the door closed, the man began to speak. He spoke quickly and with purpose, as if he wanted to get in and out as efficiently as possible. The voice was hushed and partially muted by the thin walls and door. There were only a handful of his father's associates who Kazimir knew by sight and probably none he would recognize by voice. It was not out of the ordinary for his father's associates to stop by for drinks or to discuss business. This was not the same. Usually there were emphatic greetings and joking. Normally people who came by would stay for long enough to get comfortable. Kazimir could only hear tiny portions of what the visitor had to say but it was clear that he wanted to say his piece and leave. Fragments of sentences found their way through the walls. I don't want to know. I shouldn't be here. Must go. Tonight or never. Because I respect you so. This is difficult, I must go. Curiosity was taking hold and Kazimir found it difficult to remain still. In the darkness he had the sensation that he was both floating above and falling through his mattress. A dizzying sensation. He clutched his blanket, afraid that if he let go, he would lose touch with the world where it existed.
The stillness was heavy in the room. It seemed like a resin coated everything to keep it in place. The harder Kazimir tried to stay still, the more firm the resin became. His only thought was, I hope he doesn't go. More than anything, he didn't want his father to have to go away. Not after a meeting like this. News delivered this way couldn't be good. It had happened before, where he would wake to a note that let him know his aunt would be over soon to collect him. The note would express regret and love and give an idea of the duration of his absence. He preferred it when he could find out from his father directly and get say a proper goodbye.
Kazimir wasn't ever sure what is father did for work. He would be told there were contracts to be negotiated in this place or that. Projects that needed supervision. Government work. Too boring to discuss. Still, it needed to be done and he had to facilitate them. Kazimir was told he should read and learn and play and not worry about his father's work. But a boy wants to know everything about his father. A boy who doesn't remember much about his mother is even more interested in what his hero does. For a while he believed his father and thought little about it. A father wouldn't lie to his son, he thought. But he started noticing differences between his father and those of his friends. Many of their fathers were government employees too, though they were rarely ever gone for business. When they were, it was usually for days not weeks. Sometimes Kazimir's father would return having lost weight. His face too thin and clothes too loose. He never found his friend's fathers staring at a wall, motionless, as his father would. His father was able to make things happen. For example, when his mother left, they were able to stay in the same apartment in which they had always lived. Normally the housing commission would issue a decree that they would have to relocate to an apartment that better reflected their family needs, but no decree ever arrived. Whatever his father did, it garnered a certain recognition. People that were around his father usually treated him with unspoken reverence. Kazimir was fascinated by that and wondered what on earth his father did to induce that reaction. These were the things he wished he was learning in school. Once in a while Kazimir would catch a glimpse of a pistol in the belt or jacket of one of the men that would stop by his father's apartment. This very sight generated a slight terror accompanied by excitement, unparalleled by anything else he'd seen. The sensation was similar to when he'd seen nude photos of women with his friends. That feeling was different in that it did not hold the same element of danger. He was almost afraid to admit to himself that he'd seen the pistol. As if he had broken a law by just being witness to it. He would quickly distract himself but eventually the fascination with that sensation would return and he would dwell on it in the safety of solitude.
Whatever was going on in the main room, it sounded very serious. Kazimir thought of his mother. He was very young the last time he saw her and remembered only a hazy impression of her. He didn't know where she went or why. Stanislov only said that she loved him but she could not stay, and so she left. His father had taken down any pictures that bore her image but allowed Kazimir to keep a few, so long as they were put away. What Kazimir figured out was that if his mother was there he wouldn't have to stay with someone else when his father left. He both missed and resented her more because of it.
A calm filled the next room as anticipation filled the room where Kazimir lay. Then there were hurried steps, a click and a sweep of the opening door, and a gentle close. The man had left as abruptly as he had come. His father immediately began walking around the apartment. He moved things around, shuffled through drawers. There was an obvious fervor in his movement. The sound of it all fueled an anxiety in the young boys chest. He wanted to make it look like he was sleeping in case his father came into the room. He did not want to let on that he'd been listening. Slowly, he rolled so his back was toward the door. The springs began to give him away and he moved even slower still. Once he was over, he thought about how to make his face look to convincingly just awake. It was his father who had drilled into him to think at least one step ahead. He lay there, focused on his breath. Thinking about how he would react, or not react, if the the door were to open. Kazimir hoped his plans were in vain and that the night would die down. He wished for sleep.
Several very long minutes later the boy started to get drowsy. There was still activity in the next room but it was not as excited. He wondered if he'd imagined it all. It was not out of the ordinary for Stanislov to still be awake at that hour. Had he dreamed up the man that came by and then seamlessly woken up so that it seemed real? As much as Kazimir's mind wished he knew what was going on, his body wanted to find rest. He wanted to fight it, but the urge to sleep was pulling at him.
His father opened the door and in an urgent but quiet voice said, “Kazimir, I need you to wake up. Do you hear me, son? Wake up.” Kazimir jolted a little and rolled over to lean on his elbow. He was a little embarrassed that he'd let himself be taken by surprise. “Yes, father. I'm awake, I mean yes I hear you and I'm awake.” Kazimir replied.
“Son, I need you to pack a bag for five days. We need to leave. I will explain it to you as soon as I get a chance. Right now, I need you to do as I say and get ready. Once packed, dress yourself and be ready to go.” Stanislov gave an assuring look.
“Yes, father.” was Kazimir's only reply before his father left the room.
He swung his feet out of his bed and reached to turn on the lamp. Though everything his father just said was difficult to grasp, it was very much real. Worries fluttered in Kazimir's chest and he kneeled down to grab a duffle from beneath his bed. It was the same duffle he packed every time he went to stay with his aunt. When his father had business elsewhere. What caught him off guard was that his father said “we need to go”. At least that's what he thought he heard. Wishful thinking? His father never took him along. Why now? He worried that something was wrong but was hopeful at the thought of going along. He hated when his father left. A few days or extended periods, it didn't matter. He wanted his father with him. What if he left like his mother had? The thought was too much. He set about planning his pack.
Kazimir was used to packing his own belongings for extended stays but he had never needed to do it in such a hurry. Never before under such pressure. Into the duffle went five pair of socks, five pair of undershorts, five undershirts, one pair of worn pants, and a pair of nicer slacks. He packed three shirts. One being a nice button down shirt. He had a homemade notebook that he carried with him for drawing and writing things down. It was a stack of paper, folded over and stapled. A strip of cardboard glued to the outside. Those went into the duffle along with two books and his pocket knife that his father brought back from Germany. Once packed, Kazimir dressed quickly in his usual clothes. He threw on his coat and made sure the gloves were still in the side pockets. He pulled his brown woolen knit cap onto his head and over his ears then folded the front part up from his brow. He picked up the duffle, switched off the lamp, and went out to the main room where he saw his father's duffle siting by the front door. He set his duffle next to his father's and stood next to it. An obedient soldier awaiting orders. At the moment his father was going through drawers. He would grab little items and examine them. Some went in a small pouch, most went back. He went to a cupboard and reached to the top shelf, grabbing a canister that held tea. From the canister, his father pulled a small package wrapped in plastic. It looked like little booklets. Their passports. There was also a plastic bag with small stacks of folded cash. From the colors, it looked like currencies from several different countries. The familiar Russian Rubles were on top. Kazimir's father placed the bag with passports into what looked to be a pocket sewn inside the upper sleeve of his jacket. He pulled the waist of his pants away from his body and placed the bag with money inside of his underwear. It took a couple of adjustments before he walked to the door and asked Kazimir, “Son, are you ready to go? This will be a long trip and we must hurry. There are people waiting for us.” Kazimir answered, surprised at the sound of his voice when he spoke, “I'm ready. Is everything ...”
Before Kazimir could finish his question, Stanislov added “Everything will be fine, I'll explain it to you once we get on our way.”
“I mean, yes father.”
“Before we go, is there anything else that you want to take. We may not be coming back here. Ever.”
Kazimir's heart sank. The gravity of it all hit him. It was confusing and at the same time, very clear. He answered, “Yes, there is something.”
“Quickly, go get it.”
Kazimir ran into the room and kneeled in front of his bed. He slid out a cigar box, where he kept pictures, stones, pressed flowers folded in wax paper, many things that he kept to remember. Things so powerful that holding them in his hand transformed the world around him to match a specific moment. There were pictures of his mother. Any trinket that Stanislov told him belonged to her, went in the box. A yellow satin ribbon that still smelled like her hair. A little wood carved bull that she got from some bazaar. A green glass marble that she apparently liked to fidget with and roll between her fingers. He gripped the box and ran back to the front door. Kazimir felt pressure in his eyes like tears wanted to come. It was something that he didn't need at that moment and he tried to will it to stop. He knew it would slow down whatever his father had planned. So, he held it in, and leaned over to unzip the duffle. He shoved the cigar box between the stack of clothes, zipped it up, then turned to his father. Stanislov looked down at his son but said nothing. He opened the door, switched off the light and locked it behind them. He made a motion with his hand, signaling to Kazimir to walk lightly. The walls were thin and every sound was amplified by the long, empty hallway.
As they stepped out of the front door to their building, the chill of the night bit Kazimir's hands and face. He slipped gloves on as they crept up the street. Making sure to stay close to the buildings. The young boy had never been out at such an early hour. The intermittent lighting created engulfing shadowy pockets. There was no movement but the shadows seemed like they could conceal anything. His father began to stretch out his stride. He turned to look at Kazimir and whispered, “Just follow me. If I say run, start running. Grab onto my coat if you need help keeping pace with me. Understand?”
As they walked faster, Kazimir had to breath deeper. The cold air stung his lungs but he sort of liked the sensation. His face began to tingle and then started to feel numb. He didn't mind the winter but was always longing for the beautiful, even if it were short, summer weather. They turned a corner and headed west, away from the main part of the city. Stanislov led them through the hearts of the shadows to hide their movement. Had there been anybody on the street to see the father and son, they would have been a peculiar sight. He pulled a watch from his pocket, looked at its face and returned it. They kept the same pace. Kazimir's legs felt rubbery and he wondered if they would continue to carry him. If he stopped would they support his weight any longer? Still, he kept throwing one foot in front of the other. He didn't want to burden his father and so he kept up. After several more minutes at the same pace, his father suddenly stopped and put his arm out to stop his son's advance. Kazimir saw nothing, and wondered what was happening. His heart raced and despite the cold, sweat was starting to form on his forehead and down his back. With his arm still out to guide his son, Stanislov slowly backed them into the enclave of a storefront. Kazimir couldn't see the sign and the shades were drawn but the smell of linen and detergent was in the air. Looking around, Kazimir finally saw what had alarmed his father. Off in the distance, maybe another two or three blocks ahead of where they were walking, were the barely visible silhouettes of two policemen. Much more visible was the glow of their cigarettes bouncing in the air and their dim park lights. They leaned against their patrol car and talked, loudly. When the boy listened intently, their voices created a faint din of echoes that bounced off of the buildings and down the street. The glow would jerk around when one officer would use his hands for emphasis.
Stanislov started guiding his son backward with his hand and they crept back to the edge of the building where there was a small alley with a gutter. Once there, they rounded the corner to better conceal themselves. His father took out his watch again. This time Kazimir strained his eyes to see the watches face. It was 2:24 in the morning. He had know idea why but knowing this made him feel better. Maybe because it was a fact. Something he knew for sure. His father pulled away from the corner and looked at the ground. His face betrayed a hint of discouragement. He was weighing his options and the options were few.
“Kazimir, I need you to listen to me. If I say go, I want you to run straight down this alley and I will follow. If I say come, I am going to run and I need you to follow me.” He spoke slowly and and clearly.
Kazimir nodded in understanding. Stanislov locked eyes with him to make sure there was no doubt and then peered back around the corner. As he did, he saw a second patrol car pull up beside the parked one and stop. Stanislov hadn't heard the car and the sight of it was startling. A man got out of the patrol car and walked over to the other two. They stood there for a moment before the newcomer, apparently a supervisor, shouted at them and returned to his car. Once back in his car he drove away, directly toward Kazimir and his father and then turned at the next street up. A few moments later there was a sound of screeching tires. Stanislov saw the hint of tail lights fading as they drove away. The father and son remained frozen. Once the everything was calm and silent again, Stanislov pulled out his watch and stuffed it back into his pocket. There was very little time left, if any at all. Kazimir's father looked at his son and quietly said “Come along”.
The two stepped back onto the sidewalk and ran, clutching their duffles tightly. They ran the same way they were going before, directly toward where the policemen were just parked. They no longer had the luxury of waiting around to see if the area was clear. Kazimir's legs felt even more unsteady than before. His shoulders were limp and his torso swayed wildly but he just kept kicking one leg out and slamming it to the ground before repeating with the other. Sweat was building up in his clothing and beaded up on his face. They ran along the front wall of a tall tenement. It was run down but otherwise similar to any other housing in the city. Then without warning his father broke hard to the right and angled toward a small stoop with stairs. Up the stairs they went and into the front door. Once inside, they both hugged the inside wall and gasped for air. Stanislov collected himself enough to make the same hand motion, to walk lightly, he had made earlier. He then held his index finger up to his lips to make sure his son understood.
Stanislov opened the inner door to the building and they both stepped inside. Once inside, they turned to the right to walk up a flight of stairs. Kazimir followed trying hard to control his breath and step quietly. Deep down, all he wanted to do was collapse on the floor and stop. Just stop for a few moments. He knew that wasn't an option so he followed his father and tried to stay quiet. At the second floor they entered a hallway. It looked surprisingly similar to the hallway of their place. They walked down the hall to the second door on the right. A mezuzah was nailed to the jamb. Kazimir's father tapped on the door handle with his index finger five times at a slow cadence. He then took his billfold from his pocket and pulled out a one hundred ruble note. He knelt down and slid it beneath the door. He stood back up and looked at the door. Kazimir looked at his father, who never changed his gaze. He looked at his father, then at the door. His father, once more, pulled the watch from his pocket. Staring at the watches face Kazimir could see his father's jaw tighten. A look of panic was starting to make his father's eyes change shape. They no longer reflected the piercing strength he'd always known. Stanislov just stared at the watch face. Then suddenly the door opened and Kazimir was ushered inside. His father followed behind.