Age: 13, Grade: 8
School Name: Anderson School Public School 334, New York, NY
Educator: Karen Kabahar
Category: Short Story
Secrets and Truths
“Get Up! You will be late for school.” My father’s voice is pounding into my head across the flimsy room division that separates our studio into two connecting rooms. I have been awake since six in the morning, when I heard my mother get up and go to the kitchen to prepare our daily serving of porridge or cheese on dark bread, with sweet tea and lemon. I love that hour when you are already conscious but can still stretch your tired limbs in bed under the warm covers. You hear the noise of those less fortunate who have to get up before you, and cherish those last precious minutes of idleness.
My mother is already gone. She runs a large laboratory developing something very important which will be used in the USSR’s space exploration. I am very proud, even though I hate the fact that she works for the military and can never be late to work or leave early like normal mothers often do. Only one advantage comes of this: she cannot track my every move. She doesn’t know what I do when I am away from her piercing eyes.Today, I plan to put that to use.
My father just finished folding his sleeping sofa, opening space for movement in our tiny living room. “I have an evening lecture today, so tell your mother not to wait up.” I hear the door slam behind him and watch his tall figure bouncing across the courtyard through the window. I am finally alone.
My mother, Oksana, is a great cook; my grandmother calls her a magician. Somehow she manages to open an empty fridge and create a culinary masterpiece from the bleak produce found inside. Today’s porridge is no exception. All I have to do is finish it, put on my brown uniform with its black apron, and start walking to the bus station. The problem is that I do not want to go.
I get tired of people, of petty fights with my friends, of math quizzes, and memorized poems. I am a decent student. Not excellent like some in my class, but still pretty good. However, unlike some of the other brilliant minds in our school, I do not make trouble, nor do I throw politically loaded questions at my instructors. All I do is sit, keep quiet, take my notes, and observe. My silent anonymity lets me remain free, and able to do things others cannot, such as miss school for a week straight. No phone call, no questions. Just the assumption that I am ill. Today, it is time for a break. Time to treat myself to a walk through Leningrad, a visit to the Hermitage, or a leisurely morning stroll through the Summer Garden, perhaps? Next thing I know, I am immersed in a book as I sit on a park bench.
My favorite bench is hidden behind a bush in the overgrown part of the garden. I like this spot for privacy against the prying eyes of old ladies who would definitely want to know what I am doing outside on a school day. I dive into my book, which is the latest trend at my school, portraying the devil’s visit to Moscow. I do not own the book. It was lent to me for three days under the strictest orders to return it on time and God forbid not to lose it. There is a huge line of people waiting for their turn. And so I read while the daylight passes the zenith and moves into the afternoon position. Hunger pains remind me that I skipped lunch, and I look at my tiny black watch, my prized possession. It is time to go home. The one rule I must follow on these secret outings is to keep them secret. I cannot go on these jaunts if they are not kept quiet.
I stop by the bakery for bread, and the milk store for kefir and eggs. This is my contribution to the family chores. The line is huge because today they are selling “Swiss Cheese.” My mother loves every kind of cheese but this one especially, so I read in line, carefully hiding the title of the book from prying eyes, just in case. You can never be too careful.
As a prehistoric hunter, I arrive at home with a victory scream, bearing goods, but emptiness echoes back. I take our clunky dial phone, stretch the tail of its cord to its limits like a violin string almost to the point of breaking, and hide in the bathroom, just in case. You will find that “just in case” is my favorite motto. Being careful, watchful and protective of my family is essential to survival; my mother taught me that. I call my friend, also Ekaterina, and with the hoarse voice of the harrowingly ill, ask about school and homework. On the other side of the cord connecting our ears I hear her soft crying.
“My parents will kill me.” Her voice is starting to raise like a high soprano.
“They will, you’ll see. Did you have to get sick and abandon me today of all days when we were having a history test?”
My heart drops. I forgot about the history test. Ekaterina is superb at math and music and literature and almost everything. She is brilliant and a force of nature, but she can’t remember a single boring date on the history timeline. That is my job. We have been sharing a desk for the past three years. We became each other’s shadow, they even call us Ekaterinas. Actually, it is more that I am her shadow since I do not enjoy the spotlight, while she bathes in it like a cat on a window sill.
She is the heart of every argument, the center of each gathering, overbearing, powerful sun in the Sahara desert which embraces you tightly with no escape. She shares everything with me: her homemade cookies, her ambitions, homework, and even pieces of foreign-made gum, a real treasure. Everything comes hard to me, with a lot of work and focus. Ekaterina flies through the school work like a torpedo, fast,and precise. So she is my confidence, my solid footing. She is the golden child of the school, Louis XIII, the ruler, and I am her Richelieu, quiet, determined and delivering. Today I failed her. One thing she can’t do is remember the history dates. They seem to escape her mind as fumes from a bottle. History is my turn to repay all the spillover attention that I get by being her friend. I failed her. The worst part is that I was not even legitimately sick, but she does not know that and I cannot tell her. The dull needle in my heart shifts upwards – the nasty feeling of guilt. Telling her would be social suicide and the utter end of my existence as I know it. I mumble words of sympathy and get off the phone, forgetting to ask for the homework assignment for the first time in my life.
I watch the evening events at home as if looking through a foggy looking glass. Even my mother’s joy over the Swiss Cheese is tarnished. The needle in my heart becomes a nasty, nauseous gag in my throat, a barnacle on my consciousness, which I am unable to shed.
Night brings me no relief. I see Ekaterina’s father tighten his fat red round face in an angry grimace, collecting all his strength before unleashing his venom. She may be a golden child, but her parents are no precious setting. They demand obedience, perfection and cherish each of her missteps as a tool of permanent psychological torture.
I wake up hoping that I will be sick for real, but my father’s round face pops into the room saying that he has a lecture near my school and for once we can travel together. There is no escaping my fate. Alas, I am to go to school today.
My teachers think of me as middle of the road, reliable. No outbursts, no missteps. This is why I am entrusted with the responsibility of carrying the heavy leatherbound class journal from period to period. It smells of sauerkraut and children’s fears and resides in the forbidden land of the teacher’s lounge. Every morning I walk up the school stairs after changing my outdoor shoes to the mandatory school ones. I politely greet our assistant principal who is watching over the flow of kids with a scavenger eye looking for small missteps in uniform code, a missing apron here, a forbidden ring there. I am never on her list. I pass by quietly and open the heavy door separating the teachers from the mortals. The class journals are lined up by grade staring primly. They contain rows and rows of pupil names and columns of dates by subjects, a big set of fancy graph paper with sprinkles of grades scattered across pages. Every time our teacher calls us to the board for the oral answer, a record appears. The tests are marked by the solid columns of numbers like pillars supporting the weight of the educational process. I take our journal and walk quietly from the room. Nobody looks at me. Nobody cares. I am invisible.
With my heart beating I clutch the journal to the folds of my apron and run to the girls’ bathroom on the second floor. Nobody goes there, because the stalls are broken and the renovation is scheduled for next summer. I flip the journal on the window sill and let out a deep sigh of relief. What next? I quickly open the heavy leather binder and search for the history tab. Rows of familiar names greet me and I quickly find yesterday’s date. The grades are in. Mine is a simple dash, since I was presumably sick. Ekaterina’s is, as expected, a three. Soviet schools have a grading scale of one to five, five being the best. I have never heard of anyone getting a one, other than for behaviour, so in reality the scale goes from two to five. The THREE is horrible, a degrading grade that my friend does not deserve. I try to tell myself that at least it is not a TWO, but sound pathetic. No explanations or excuses will fix my guilt. Ekaterina never got a FOUR, let alone a THREE. This is a complete disaster.
I keep staring at the THREE, hoping that it will somehow escape from the page and I can undo what has been done. I notice that that the top half circle of the THREE is very flat, almost straight. It must be a glitch in my teacher’s handwriting. The more I stare, the more the grade becomes blurry, or is this my wishful thinking? I can easily add a dash at the top of the THREE and it will become a FIVE to an untrained eye. Should I? What color is the pen? It is blue, the traditional blue of all basic pens sold in the USSR supply stores. I have one. The pen flies out of my backpack and I see my hand quickly drawing. I can’t even tell you how it happened. I did not go through a long stretch of self doubt. If I stopped and thought about it, maybe I would not be in this mess, but here I am looking at myself from above. The air thickens and the disappointed face of my mother looms over me. I close the journal quickly unable to bear looking at the fruits of my action, and run to history class.
It has not even been a minute, and already the pain sharpens. Guilt. Now, I must not only be guilty for failing my friend, but for a lie. I never thought I could… I never thought it was possible for me to extend my deception to something so wrong, and to tell a direct lie. It is shocking what guilt has made me do.
I walk into the classroom, drop the journal on the teacher’s desk, and find my place. Ekaterina is already there, staring at me with her deep blue eyes. They reflect sorrow and fear, with the prism of tears packed inside. Suddenly, I do not regret my actions as much and hug her.
“ You know more than you think.”
“I wish I had your conviction. How are you feeling?” she asks. My face burns like a furnace in our summer house bright red and full of shame.
The door opens and the unfamiliar face of a substitute teacher comes into the room. He explains that Pinochet, the nickname that we gave to our regular teacher, has fallen ill and that today we will simply be asked to read from the textbook. The substitute opens the journal of shame and starts reading the results of yesterday’s test out loud. Ekaterina stiffens after her name is announced and looks around in bewilderment as FIVE emerges.
“Wow! I guess I do not need you after all,” she whispers across the desk.
Her words serve as a blend of happiness and a pinch of pain to my tired heart. Will she ever know what I went through to fix this for her? Will she even stay friendly with me now that she thinks that she does not need me? Emotions flood me, and I ride them like waves in the water park, up and down, but always slightly nauseous from excitement.
A few days pass and I am almost ready to forget the whole incident. I am back to my routine of being Ekaterina’s invisible friend to whom nothing happens. The bell rings and we all run into the history class. Pinochet is back, probably ready to strike again with his favorite “WALL.” He calls out five kids, lines them up against the board, and starts shooting You are given a question. If you fail to answer, you lose a point. The person next in line picks up your slack, and so on the question travels. The shooting of questions continues until each person is asked three times. How many you answer right, add two to the answer, and that is your quiz result for the day. Pinochet is very generous – everyone is given at least TWO. Today he looks hungry for fresh blood; he must have missed us during his absence. He calls two boys to the board and stops at Ekaterina’s name, looks carefully again into the journal, and then at her face.
“Miss Semenova, please come to my desk.” He starts flipping through the notebooks lined up in his right drawer. When Pinochet is irritated, his arms shake like Parkinsons’ patients.
“Here, look at your workpaper, Miss Semenova. It has a “THREE” on it. I distinctly remember writing a “THREE” in the journal as well, and now, oh, miracle, I see a FIVE. I was going to give you a chance at redemption today at the Wall, but now I need an explanation.” All Ekaterina can do is blink her big eyes at him in disbelief. She opens her mouth like a fish outside water, but nothing comes out. Nothing can come out.
“This is serious, my dear, I need you to step out of the class in the general direction of the principal’s office. I will meet you shortly.”
Ekaterina looks at me in disbelief grasping for an invisible helpline, but what can I do? The best I can hope for is that Pinochet will believe that he made a mistake, but he is never wrong. We all know his favorite saying: “First rule of this class – the teacher is never wrong. Second rule of this class – if the teacher is wrong, see the first rule.” How can I expect him to admit to something he did not do.
The pain in my heart returns and a hammer starts pounding in my veins. What do I do now? I have never been so scared in my life, both needing to admit my action and in a panic, thinking about my own parents’ reaction. Ekaterina’s words: “My parents will kill me” come floating back.. I am sitting at my desk, paralyzed with fear, while precious time is ticking away. The guilt is too strong. I have to do something. Anything.
“May I be excused?” My hand is raised even before I realize what I have done. Pinochet waives me off like a fly from the birthday cake, and I start running to the principal’s office.
What follows is clouded in my memory in the fog of tears, endless explanations, desperate promises and guilt, unending guilt. The only reason why I was not expelled is because no benefit from my actions came directly to me. I always associated my parents’ love as something conditioned on perfect behavior, good grades, and being a low-maintenance child. After all, my parents had enough to deal with, with food shortages and tough jobs. They were demanding, sometimes irritable or overly loving to compensate for that, but in this moment I needed them, needed unconditional love and understanding that I could not leave my friend stranded.
“I understand the need to help a close friend and the guilt. But your reputation is the only thing you have and it travels with you through life. It is something that can’t be taken away from you. Protect it. Nothing terrible happened, and thankfully, nobody got hurt because you told the truth.” My mother is holding my hand, rocking me.
Finally, there are no secrets, no lies and at last, no guilt. Or at least until my little outings are exposed.