“Lyodotchka, time to get up, school today!” Jesus woke up dazed to the sound of a woman’s voice calling out. The last thing he remembered was heading to Smiley’s with the twenty Gina had given him having every intention of carrying out her wishes.
Looking around, Jesus found himself in a cramped bedroom decorated plainly, with floral-print wallpaper. In a bed opposite him a girl of about four years of age blinked sleepily at him. What had happened?
What Jesus did know is that he had to pee – hardly surprising given the night before. After checking that there was fabric covering him above and below the waist, Jesus got up, vaguely wondering at his lack of hangover from the night before. Come to think of it, aside from the full bladder he felt great – lithe, light on his feet, and filled with energy. As he got up the girl on the other side of the narrow room flipped over pointedly and hauled the blankets over her head. He could hardly find fault with this.
Stepping out of the bedroom Jesus found himself in a strikingly narrow apartment with a connected kitchen and dining room wedged between incomprehensibly high cupboards and shelves, with one door to the right and two to the left. The nearer of the two doors looked flimsy and was partway open, and the more distant door was clearly the exit to the apartment, being built of sturdier materials with a deadbolt lock above the knob. Nobody else was present although he could hear the sound of voices and dresser drawers behind the door to the right – presumably the woman who had woken up the toddler was getting dressed. Who was with her, and why was he here?
He poked his head hopefully into the nearer door and was relieved to find a toilet. Closing the door behind him, he got ready to pee and was overcome by the feeling that something was off. Looking down, he realized that what was off was actually missing. Furthermore, he looked at the pants he had just pulled down and discovered that they were covered in tiny printed flowers.
Shocked, Jesus quickly hiked up his pants and, looking in the mirror, found himself staring into the eyes of a girl of about nine or ten years old who was looking back at him with a horrified expression on her face. He stood there, transfixed, until the woman who had awoken him tapped on the door demanding that “Lyodochka” finish up and get out of the bathroom so other people could use it.
In that moment he realized the woman had been speaking Russian, a language he had learned from the indomitable Mr. Gunther in the stifling Wu Zie underwater classroom thanks to some nod in the direction of world peace. As striking as this awareness was, an overwhelming need led Jesus to sit on the toilet and pee – that need was the least confusing thing he was aware of and by far the most urgent.
After he finished up and washed his hands, Jesus opened the door to be confronted by a woman in her thirties with curly blonde hair wearing something that reminded Jesus of business attire. She quickly shoved past him and entered the bathroom, scolding him roundly for taking so long as she went.
Jesus wandered around the kitchen, opening cupboards and an old-timey refrigerator with a latch on the door. None of the food looked the least bit familiar to him. All the labels were written in Russian, prominently naming the item within the package: bread, milk, cheese, and several things Jesus didn’t know the names of.
The toilet flushed and after a few moments the blonde-haired woman emerged from the bathroom, took one look at Jesus, and uttered a stream of Russian which he only understood a fraction of, but was able to gather from it the gist that he should sit and eat – right now in fact. Sitting at the spot beckoned at, Jesus began eating some kind of flavorless porridge made of a grain he wasn’t familiar with. It was sort of chewy and had bits that were nearly crunchy, rather like undercooked grits. The woman sat down across from him and began peeling a hard-boiled egg.
She looked across the table at Jesus and said, in Russian, “Well, what?” Jesus managed a confused shrug at this, and the woman said (as far as Jesus was able to discern) “You haven’t said a single word all this morning. Do you believe yourself to be unwell?”
Jesus wracked his brain for a useful answer to this and finally, grasping his throat, managed “I’m sick in my…” before realizing he had forgotten the word for “throat.”
This lapse ended up making no difference, as the woman rolled her eyes and exclaimed “Lyodochka! You can tell me once or you can tell me until the end of time, but I will not have you avoiding school like this! I can see you aren’t unwell, and what I do see I’d rather not say at the moment. Off to school you will go! Now eat your breakfast.”
Recognizing mom vibes when he saw them, Jesus put his head down and finished his meal. He carried the bowl and spoon to the sink and quickly washed them, not wanting to give this woman any further excuse to find him lacking. She peered up from her egg and a newspaper and sent him off to get dressed.
Closing the door behind him Jesus was confronted by a new problem: he had no idea not only of what to wear but also where to find the clothes he was meant to put on. After poking fruitlessly around the bedroom, his eyes finally fell upon the girl still in bed, who he could clearly see was only pretending to be asleep. He gave her a shake and said “Wake up. Help!”
This was met by a not unexpected amount of grumbling but eventually the girl’s curiosity overcame her and she sat up in her bed, gazing in frank incomprehension at Jesus, who now understood that to this girl he was her older sister. Once she seemed alert, Jesus simply asked her what she ought to wear to school that day.
After clarifying that in fact Jesus was asking for fashion advice, the young girl narrowed her eyes and looked off to one side for a moment, then hopped out of bed, pulling open drawers and assembling an outfit in a size much too big for her. Jesus put the clothes on, struggling only slightly with the fastenings, and found himself in a pastel blue jumper with ruffles over a white shirt, and bright yellow knee socks.
He walked out into the dining room to a wall of astonished scolding. This time, the mother of the house was joined by an elderly woman glistening with gold teeth, both of whom were expressing in various ways how appalling his behavior had been all morning, and to return at once to the bedroom and get dressed for school, not the playground.
“Thanks for nothing” Jesus said to the giggling shape under the covers. He fished around until he found clothes that were obviously a school uniform, put it on, and left the room.
Jesus and the mom of the house walked together down four flights of stairs, down a cracked sidewalk, and stood at a bus stop. All around he saw large and largely-identical apartment blocks, each with a central semi-enclosed stairwell surrounded on either side by balconies from one end of the building to the end opposite. The only visible difference between one building and the next was the color of the panels beneath the balcony railings, and the clothing strung out to dry across them.
After a short time a bus arrived. Jesus sounded out the Cyrillic to decipher a name “Molodyozhnaya” although that didn’t mean anything to him. He boarded the bus with the mother, who paid the fare in a couple of coins, and they were off.
A few things struck Jesus as they rode the bus: first, there was an overwhelming pungent smell that reminded him of tobacco but was unlike anything he had encountered. (This was in fact cigarette tobacco but not a varietal he had ever encountered). Second, the people, or at least the adults, on the bus all carried themselves with the same basic affect – posture upright but only for show, as though everyone on the bus was a whipped dog who was trying to hold him or herself as though they weren’t, but with scars too deep to hide. Looking around, he saw no smiles from the people on the bus, no lighthearted chitchat, no swapping jokes, even among the other children whose instinct for joy was quickly brought to heel by the adults around them. The final thing that Jesus found remarkable was the incredible drabness of the surroundings. Even though they were traveling down what was clearly an important thoroughfare, the only signs Jesus saw gave navigation instructions to motorists. There were no billboards, no ads in windows – and for that matter Jesus couldn’t make out anything that resembled his notion of a store. The closest thing Jesus saw to decor was an occasional banner depicting lantern-jawed people in various heroic poses with captions exhorting the reader to patriotism through action of one form or another. They passed a parade of anonymous concrete towers with no apparent change in the design of the buildings or the character of the surroundings, which seemed to consist entirely of buildings, roads and leafy trees Jesus didn’t recognize. The roads were mostly populated by busses, a few trucks of unknown make or purpose, and only occasionally a passenger car that vaguely reminded Jesus of an old Fiat somebody who lived on one of the houseboats drove.
After about a quarter of an hour the mother Jesus was traveling with (he couldn’t reconcile himself to refer to her as his own mother although that was obviously who she felt herself to be) pulled a cord next to her seat, causing a bell to ring and a light to come on at the front of the bus, and stood up. Jesus also got up and the two of them exited the bus and walked toward the entrance to a subway station. The sign read “Molodyozhnaya Station” which matched the destination sign on the bus but told Jesus nothing more about his whereabouts.
He and the mother proceeded down a shockingly long and steep escalator. Quickly observing the people around him Jesus stood to the right and held onto the moving handrail, giving way to people who wished to walk down the escalator. After trying to joust his way up and down BART escalators over the years, Jesus thought this was a good idea and found himself wishing everybody did it.
The subway station itself proved to be surprisingly clean and well-maintained. The walls across from the tracks were made from white tile, the floors made of some kind of dark stone tiles that looked like cork interspersed with smaller reddish tiles. A double row of square pillars were clad in tan marble with bands of reddish marble near the floor and ceiling. The train, when it arrived, looked like something out of a history movie. Painted two shades of blue, the high-windowed cars were painted yellow inside featured wooden slat seats and painted metal rails with loops built into them for people to hang on to. There was no graffiti visible on the train Jesus boarded with the mother.
After boarding, a loud “BING-BONG” noise played followed by an incredibly muffled recording which Jesus eventually worked out to be saying “Warning, the doors are closing.” The subway may or may not have been as loud as the howling, shrieking BART trains Jesus was accustomed to but it was no slouch in that department, especially where the shrieking was concerned. Jesus stared at a route map posted near the door and learned that he was somewhere in Moscow – above the map legend was a title reading “Moscow Metro.” This answer only led to more questions but rather than try to wrap his head around the enormity of those, Jesus instead gazed at the map until he found Molodyozhnaya Station and from listening to the station announcements determined that they were coming in from a distant suburb toward central Moscow.
Jesus and the mother disembarked at Kiyevskaya Station, decorated to the astonishment of Jesus in a multitude of ornate, recessed chandeliers, columns with curving capitals, and a floor that was a mosaic of different colored stones arranged in geometrical shapes. They climbed a flight of stairs to a gallery where turnstiles let passengers in, and Jesus gawped at the intricate filagree of the ceiling, the columns with their brightly-colored stone, more mosaic on the floor. “Hurry, what is wrong with you?” demanded the mother. Beautiful as it was, to her this was simply a practical space meant for getting from one place to another. As they rode the long escalator to the surface Jesus again appreciated the politeness of the people standing to the right to allow others to pass, although his appreciation was colored somewhat by a trio of police officers hastening an angry, swearing man up to the surface.
The neighborhood Jesus found himself at the top of the escalator was nothing like the one they had left behind at Molodyozhnaya Station. Here there were buildings with character, age, and distinction. While there were still anonymous concrete blocks interspersed among them, those in no way defined the surroundings. They walked along a pleasant, tree-lined sidewalk. Clearly Jesus had not found himself in Moscow’s famous winter season. Here, the passenger cars here outnumbered the busses and were mostly much nicer-looking and larger models than the old and somewhat rusty Fiat look-a-likes he had seen before getting on the subway.
After a short walk they reached a simple building with a sign reading “School № 1465” and the mother gave Jesus a quick hug before departing, leaving him in front of the gate.
“Lyoda!” A girl about the same age as Jesus came up, wide grin on her face. “You ready?”
“What?” Jesus asked.
“What do you mean, what?” asked the other girl, surprised.
“I don’t know anything,” Jesus stammered. The other girl’s eyes narrowed, and she cast a quick glance over her shoulder to see if anyone was paying attention.
“How can you not know, and why are you talking that way?”
Jesus grasped for a way out of this increasingly worrying conversation. He finally settled on flat denial, a technique which had long served him well in the group homes when something bad came up. “I was not!” he replied, and pushed past the girl toward the entrance to the building.
Hearing an anguished exclamation behind him, Jesus turned around to find the girl he had been speaking to on the verge of tears. It occurred to him that having somebody who knew what to do was going to be important very soon – the building was large and filled with classrooms, and he had no idea where to go.
“I’m sorry. I had a bad morning. My sister played a mean joke on me and mama got very mad. Then we had to take the second train and I was almost late. Am I sorry?”
This last gaffe brought the other girl up short. “Are you sorry?” she asked.
Quickly realizing his error, Jesus said “Of course I am sorry. Is it OK?” He didn’t remember how to ask for forgiveness.
“Yes, it’s OK, crazy-person. But why are you talking like an American?”
“Oh,” said Jesus, thinking fast, “It’s talk-like-an-American day, don’t you know?”
“I know of no such thing. But, whatever. Let’s get to class, crazy-person. I hope you’re ready.”
It should be obvious at this point that Jesus was not in any way, shape or form “ready” for anything at all he was going to be confronted by. He had gone from being a jilted lover, to a man drinking heavily at a bar, to what as far as he could work out was the body of a nine-year-old girl who took a long commute from the outskirts to a school in central Moscow. The fact that he had a passing understanding of the language was only a fortunate trick of fate. Without that, he would not have known where he was or what anyone was doing, but unfortunately this meant that he knew just enough to make the trouble he was in much, much worse.
Jesus’s friend, who he learned from other people greeting the two of them was named Nastya, kept up a stream of incessant chitchat as she led the two of them up a flight of stairs and down a hall. As they were passing a door Nastya stopped, staring at Jesus. “Well, dummy, are you going into class or what?”
Jesus briefly thought to dispute the slur but decided to let it pass and walked into the door they had stopped in front of. Nastya continued down the hall in the direction of more classrooms.
The classroom itself presented another obstacle – the desks were arranged in several rows, with two students sitting side by side at each desk. Jesus solved the problem of where to sit by looking at the students already in their desks. Most of them paid him no attention, but a group of kids near the back of the class looked at him in recognition, so he went down an aisle and found an empty chair with a boy greeting him by name. Sitting down, he muttered a quick greeting to the boy just as a bell rang. Looking at a name tag reading “L. Durakova,” he realized Nastya wasn’t calling him a dummy, just using his last name.
At the front of the classroom a woman with a formidable beehive hairdo stood up, sternly greeted the “smart boys and smart girls” in the classroom. The wall behind her desk featured a chalkboard and a Cyrillic lettering guide in block characters and cursive. In one corner of the room was a portrait of Lenin. The teacher announced that it was time for the students to do their exercises, and for the next ten minutes led the students through some mild calisthenics.
After the students had retaken their seats, the woman Jesus assumed to be the teacher gave an announcement: “Today, young pupils, we are to be honored by a visit from Lieutenant Colonel Rabdanov, political officer for the Moscow Military District of the Soviet Army.” The students clapped politely, although Jesus got the impression that the applause was somewhat forced. “For this honor we can thank young Masha who wished to share the joy of her patriotism at home with her classmates!” Masha, sitting front and center, primped on cue as the other students applauded once again, also on cue.
Next, the teacher sat at her desk, gathered a paper, and began taking roll. Before long she said, “Durakova.” No answer. Again, this time glaring straight at Jesus: “Lyudmila Durakova!”
“Here!” Jesus blurted out abashedly, and the taking of roll continued.
After roll was finished, the teacher instructed the classroom to sit silently as she turned to the chalkboard and wrote a list titled “Tenets of a Patriotic Soviet Youngster.” To the extent that Jesus was able to decipher the Cyrillic cursive (a form of writing which is almost laughably incomprehensible to people who didn’t grow up reading it) the list appeared to be a fairly anodyne set of instructions to pupils to put Motherland before basically anything else and to study extra hard, again for the benefit of the Motherland and all her people.
Once the list was written the teacher instructed Masha to go bring her father, and a few seconds later returned with a straight-backed man in a dark green dress uniform, complete with one of those absurdly-oversized Soviet army hats, and gilded epaulets. His chest glistened with a veritable wall of medals, and he wore a sash of unknown meaning to Jesus.
“Greetings, young pupils! Thank you all for your close attention, and thank you to Natalya Ivanova for her thoroughly tidy and accurate work listing your patriotic duties.” Much of this went over Jesus’s head, although he was mostly keeping up from the words he did know and inferring the meaning of those between. Following a subtle gesture from the teacher, the class applauded politely.
“No need, no need!” said Lieutenant Colonel Rabdanov. “Let’s begin with the basics of who I am. See, my official title is ‘political officer.’ Does anybody know what that means? One hand shot up, which proved to be that of Masha Rabdanova. He favored her with an arch look, and her hand descended. “What this means is that my job is to work with the unconquerable Red Army, alongside the all-seeing KGB, to ensure that all those who fight under the banner of our beloved flag,” gesturing to the flag on the wall, “are not only correctly versed, but indeed enthusiastic supporters of our glorious revolution of 1917 and the teachings of Vladimir Lenin.” Here, everyone paused for a moment, thinking of everything they had learned of that particular leader.
“So, as you can see my work is of the utmost importance. What good is it to give a man a rifle and teach him to shoot it if he doesn’t understand and support the goals of the Motherland? I must ensure he does, with all of his will.”
A hand went up. Rabdanov called on the boy who was attached to that hand. “What if the soldier forgot something?” Rabdanov treated the boy to a beaming smile, teeth glistening in the light coming through the window. “Of course that almost never happens but if it did, I would see to it that the soldier remembered. If he somehow still couldn’t remember, he would report to a new location where his training would be enhanced. After a visit to such a place, forgetting is impossible.”
At this point the teacher intervened. “So, Vasili Nikolayevich, how does one become a valuable political officer in the Red Army?”
“Ah, excellent question!” pronounced Rabdanov. “For me, it was always my hope to serve the People in a role very similar to the one I hold today. Toward this end I applied myself to my studies, especially around the subject of history and the philosophy of Communism, and when the time came I applied to the academy of the KGB. It was the will of the People that I should be accepted, and upon completion of my education at that academy I was assigned to a political officer role within the Red Army fifteen years ago. Since that time I have done my best to serve the Motherland to the utmost, and the People have seen fit to encourage my efforts by way of steady promotion through the ranks. But enough of me for now. How about you all? Whom do you want to become? Andreseevich – whom do YOU want to become?”
A boy in the third row quickly replied: “A cosmonaut, Vasili Nikolayevich.”
“Excellent,” pronounced the political officer, before calling upon another student by name and without referring to any list of students in hand. The students all seemed to have an answer readily at hand: doctor, physicist, professor, a bus driver, all completely laudable goals apparently. Then Rabdanov called out, “Durakova, whom do you want to be?”
Caught completely flat-footed, all Jesus could manage was to stammer out, “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?” Rabdanov seemed truly surprised by this. “Surely there is some profession or trade you hope to someday use to provide for the Motherland just as she provides for you today. If you had to pick just one thing, what would it be?”
“I… I… a doctor!” he said, and only afterwards did he realize he had used the masculine form for the word and to the eyes of the world around him that was the wrong form. When he learned the language, of course, he had learned to refer to himself using the male form for nouns, and the habit had clearly shown up here – in the presence of a KGB officer of the Red Army. He gulped.
“Interesting. A doctor. Very interesting,” said Rabdanov, pointedly using the masculine form of the word as well. He gazed closely at Jesus, and then turned to the teacher, treating her to an even more searching stare, before abruptly smiling, turning to the class, and telling them they were all wonderful, intelligent, and above all patriotic young pupils who would certainly one day serve the Motherland with both esteem and purpose, and left the room.
In the silence that followed Rabdanov’s departure, one could hear a pin drop. The teacher stood frozen mid-wave saying goodbye to the political officer, and many of the students shot furtive glances at Jesus.
The tension in the air was well beyond that one might expect for a classroom full of nine-year-olds, although Jesus found it terrifyingly familiar – his education had been filled with such moments, most often after Wu Zie had made an appearance, given a similar speech, and departed in the company of one of his classmates he had selected for “enhanced tutoring in the ways of Wu Zie.” It escaped nobody’s notice that the student so selected was always a girl.
So Jesus, perhaps the most comfortable person in the room, waited the moment of tension out, and eventually the teacher gathered her wits about her and instructed the students to bring out their abacus for each desk and solve math problems from a particular page of their book. Once the pupils had begun about this task, she said “Durakova, leave your things and come with me at once.”
Jesus got up and walked with the teacher down to the ground floor of the building and into a complex of offices adjacent to the entrance. Here, she bade Jesus sit on a bench while she went into an office where a man in a suit sat behind a desk. With the door closed, Jesus couldn’t make out any of the conversation beyond observing the teacher in a high state of fear and excitement, while the man behind the desk sat passively with his hands folded together. After some time, the teacher ran out of steam, and the man behind the desk spoke to her in a calm voice for a few moments. There was a brief back and forth as he answered a pair of questions to the teacher, and then she left the office, walking past Jesus without even looking in his direction.
Jesus got up, unsure what to do, and the man behind the desk called out “You will come into my office please.” Jesus walked in and was instructed to shut the door and sit.
The man behind the desk, titled “G. Lokon” by a plaque on his desk, stared silently at Jesus, who stared back, afraid and unsure. After apparently satisfying himself that the child seated across from him was in fact a child seated across from him, Lokon asked, “OK, tell me what happened with the political officer in your classroom.”
“I don’t know,” was the obvious reply.
“You’ll have to explain yourself better than that!” shouted Lokon. “I’ve seen a lot of odd and inappropriate things happen in this school since I took charge here but never have I had a pupil – in THIS school of all places – do something so foolish as to annoy a political officer of the Soviet Army by speaking to him in an American accent and pretending they don’t know anything. You must explain yourself!”
Lacking any kind of explanation, Jesus attempted to play it off as a joke. “I thought it would be funny,” he said.
Lokon was flabbergasted. “Funny? Do you think pretending to be an American to the KGB is funny? Does this remain funny to you?”
“No, not at all,” said Jesus. He was hoping to bring the temperature down, but there was one problem.
“If you no longer think this joke was funny why do you persist in talking to me in an American accent?” demanded Lokon. “You must understand, if this issue leaves my office then there will never again be an opportunity for you to explain yourself without repercussions. So explain yourself clearly, and do it without that stupid American accent.”
Jesus knew a box canyon when he had run up one – not for nothing did he hold the campus record for most afternoons in detention during his sophomore and junior years of high school. Still, he had to try a Hail Mary.
“I have a sore throat.”
“Oh, you have a sore throat, is that it? A sore throat that makes you sound like an American spy from the movies? This is what your strange sore throat has done to you? LAST CHANCE!” Lokon was standing up, pounding his desk, his face beet red. Jesus believed him, but had run out of ideas. He wondered what detention would be like at this school.
“I’m sorry, Gregori Danilovich. I have no answer for your questions.”
For this Jesus was treated to a stream of angry and colorful language probably not approved of in any school building anywhere at any point in history. Toward the end of is tirade, Lokon said “Fine. If you want to tell your story to the KGB then you must do so!” With that, he sent Jesus out to the bench he had sat on earlier and began making several very animated phone calls.
After a time, two men in dark, ill-fitting suits appeared in the office. They briefly spoke to Lokon and then stood before Jesus. “Lyudmila Alexeyevna Durakova, you will come with us.” Jesus got up, walked with the men out of the office, out of the building, and out of the gate in front of the school, where a black Fiat-clone with shiny paint awaited them. One of the men went around to the opposite side of the car and got in the back. “Get in,” said the other man, and sat beside him after Jesus obeyed.
The waiting driver immediately departed, and Jesus contemplated his situation. Whatever school detention looked like at School № 1465, this was clearly not it. As far as he could tell, he was currently in a KGB sandwich, being escorted to points unknown. He began wishing he’d tried harder to come up with some kind of explanation for Lokon’s questions. In any case, he reminded himself to stick to Russian, only to Russian, to act as though he didn’t know any language besides Russian. Perhaps if he did so he could somehow convince the KGB guys that he was in fact what he looked like – a nine-year-old Russian girl who was growing up in Moscow. He had no idea how this was supposed to work, but knew only that sticking to Russian was the only way.
On they drove, up onto a causeway from which a building could be seen with a rather rickety-looking “Pravda” sign atop it and the crazy and beautiful onion domes of the Kremlin ahead of them. Just as Jesus was about to ask a question, the man to his right pulled a cloth hood over his face. He yelled out in surprise – fortunately “Hey!” sounds roughly the same in both English and Russian – and one of the men told him to shut up, or else.
Having no desire to find out what “or else” meant with these people, Jesus shut up, trying to figure out from all the twists and turns the car had made where they were headed. It soon became clear that whatever route they were taking had exactly this idea in mind, as he counted two instances in which the car had taken four subsequent turns in the same direction. Not knowing where he was to begin with he soon lost his way.
The only conversation in the car came when the driver asked, “Is this really necessary? She’s just a little girl.” This led to a sharp rebuke from the man sitting to the left of Jesus, who reminded the driver of something important regarding his family, and the driver said nothing more.
Soon the car stopped, beeped the horn, and Jesus could hear the sound of a gate being raised. The car pulled forward, the noise repeated itself behind them, and Jesus found himself pulled out of the car by the man to the right. He was apparently the muscle in this operation, although Jesus speculated that given his currently diminutive form Mother Teresa could have handled the task with ease.
The party of three – Jesus and his two guards, walked forward for a moment, up an apparent ramp, and then after a quick left came to a stop. This turned out to be an elevator which went up, then stopped with a chime at whatever floor the guards had selected. Jesus was walked through a hall, past a door that closed with a loud bang, down another hall, and into a room, after which the hood was pulled off his head. He looked at the two men who had met him at the school and asked them what was happening. The man on the right looked studiously at the floor, while the man on the left replied, after a slight pause, “You are to answer questions which others will soon ask you.”
The man on the right handcuffed Jesus to the chair he was sitting on, which proved to be bolted to the floor, and then both men left the room. Jesus looked at the handcuff encircling his almost unbelievably slight wrist and considered trying to slip out of the cuff. In the end he decided that roaming freely about this unknown building in an unknown part of a town he didn’t know his way around wouldn’t be any kind of freedom really – it would just lead to a lot of exertion followed by a trip back to this same chair.
So he sat.
After a time, the door opened and one of his captors walked in accompanied by Rabdanov from the school, who took one look at Jesus and affirmed that that was her, then both men left without asking any questions of Jesus.
Jesus sat for what seemed like hours. He began to feel hungry and needed to use the bathroom, but he saw no way to communicate with his captors. Eventually the door opened, and a middle-aged woman walked in alone, closed the door behind her, and sat down. She opened a manilla folder she had brought in with her, flipped through a few pages, then closed it.
“Ludochka, such a pretty name. I’ve always loved having it. My name is Lyudmila Mikhailovna Kozlova. And you are Lyudmila Alexeivna Durakova, aged nine, daughter of Anna Ivanovna Durakova and the late Alexei Rostanovich Durakov, student at School number 1465. Have I missed anything?”
“No, comrade Kozlova.” Jesus was committed to the act now, everybody named by their titles unless otherwise specified, trying his best to not sound American.
“But why would you call me comrade rather than address me properly as Lyudmila Mikhailovna?” Kozlova was terrifyingly quick on her feet and had wasted no time getting Jesus off his game plan.
“I was simply…”
“Bullshit,” said Kozlova matter of factly.
“What?” asked Jesus, realizing only after saying that that he’d followed her into English.
“You heard me, little girl. I said ‘bullshit’ because I know it when I smell it, and whatever you were about to say stinks to high heaven.”
“LANGUAGE! I don’t know for a fact what you are, yet – and I will find out – but the one thing I do know is that I’m not going to listen to a nine-year-old girl swear in my presence. You have to mature into that right and, honey, you are far from.”
At this point Jesus knew there was nothing more he could do. He was caught, he knew he was caught, and the woman across the table knew he knew, even if she didn’t know the whole story. The only thing that gave him pause about telling the full truth was the knowledge that none of it made sense, leading to a not-unreasonable belief that they’d simply accuse him of more lying.
Which is of course what happened. Over the course of the next several days Jesus underwent a battery of interrogations, psychological examinations, physical examinations (which he found especially distressing), and “casual” conversations with Lyudmila Kozlova about life in America as he best remembered it. In the meantime, they’d moved him into a slightly more spacious cell with a sink, a toilet, and a bed that was actually somewhat comfortable – he was frequently surprised at how well-rested he felt when he woke up, even if he had no idea what time it was or what had been done to him while he was unconscious.
After five days, Kozlova called a meeting with the team who had been examining Lyudmila/Jesus to see if it was possible to build a whole profile of what they had learned. Kozlova, for it was her show, began working her way around the small conference room, asking each expert in turn for their opinion.
“The subject appears to speak and understand a relatively rudimentary amount of Russian, consistent with a student who had studied two to four years of the language at the secondary level. Her English on the other hand is fluently American, with an affect suggestive of somewhere along the West Coast of the United States, most likely somewhere in California. She is capable of communicating minimally in Spanish, with her vocabulary concentrated around terms used in the kitchen.”
“She has knowledge consistent with someone who has completed secondary school in the United States but has not completed any significant amount of college or university level coursework. There are some rather odd assertions she makes, but I will leave those to the psychologist.”
“Very well, psychology.”
“The subject displays an unusual amount of emotional trauma even for someone with her known history. She is reflexively avoidant of any form of attachment to another person and not receptive to any of our known bonding approaches. Furthermore she suffers from several apparent delusions, to wit: she believes herself to be a male aged 22, she believes herself to be a naturally-born American citizen improbably named Jesus, and she believes that the President of the United States is the current governor of Arkansas. Despite these conceptual errors, she scores neutrally on any psychosis scale and is capable of integrating and processing knowledge at a normal level. Her overall demeanor is consistent with someone of the age and background she believes herself to be.”
Kozlova sat with this for a few moments before calling out the next team member. “Security.”
“The girl herself raises no concerns. Her educational and behavioral record up until recent events is unremarkable. By all accounts, she was a normal student. Just prior to her coming to our attention she behaved in a way that was a marked departure from her previous social life, to the point that her behavior caused significant distress to another child who regarded their relationship as ‘best friends.’ Her mother on the other hand poses a significant concern. She is a physicist working for the applied materials laboratory of the Central University of Moscow, developing materials of highest classification. Any compromise coming from her would represent a significant risk to the Motherland.”
“About the mother, what has she to say?” Kozlova didn’t bother asking whether she’d been interrogated.
Security replied. “The mother appears to be a dedicated physicist. Her claim is that she regards the loss of her husband in the special action in Afghanistan to be a sacrifice to the Motherland, which she claims not to blame for his death. On this topic we can see that she is saying all the right words, but do not know whether she believes them. On the topic of her eldest daughter, she has shared that on the day Lyudmila came to our attention she had been behaving strangely – attempting to wear non-required attire to school, being alternately disrespectful of the household and also doing chores which she ordinarily left to others, and in many ways appeared to be disoriented. We assess these statements from the mother to be a combination of truth and convenient falsehood attempting to divert attention away from the mother herself.”
“Any evidence of contact outside her circle?”
“Nothing, Lyudmila Mikhailovna. We have been unable to find anything to suggest that.”
Kozlova paused, spinning her pen thoughtfully between her fingers. “Does anybody here believe that this child Lyudmila does not believe the things she is saying? In other words, does she believe her lies or not?”
After a few moments the psychologist spoke up: “Lyudmila Mikhailovna, to the best of my ability I assess the subject to believe completely the things she has said to us.”
“Interesting,” Kozlova said. “Your role in this matter is concluded. Please return to your duties.” The staff got up and filed out of the room without comment.
Sitting alone at the conference table, Kozlova pondered everything she had learned in the meeting alongside her own experience with young Lyudmila. Something had obviously been going on, but how? Did the Americans brainwash the child, or did they switch her out for a look-a-like so convincing that she convinced the child’s own mother? Thinking of her own two children, she found this possibility unlikely in the extreme. Most likely, she thought, the mother had been in on it.
But so sloppy! Kozlova had dealt with American illegals before, and they had never blundered this badly before. Which would have been unimportant, except for the involvement of this child. This was obviously outrageous, but it was also a worrying development. Suppose there were other children out there whose, for lack of a better term, programming was not so deficient?
These were problems for others, however. Kozlova had her orders from the Kremlin: learn everything possible, clean up the situation, compile and submit her report. The cleaning up portion of her task made her bitter nearly to the point of tears. These Americans! Did it never occur to them the consequence of this operation going badly? Did they not care about children? Before this day, Kozlova would have allowed that Americans probably loved their children too. But now? It was an inconceivable evil they had done, and it angered her that the true horrors were being left to her rather than to the cowards who caused all of this to happen.
As much as she wanted to delay the inevitable, Kozlova felt as though everything that could be known about this unusual subject was known. Finally she came to a decision – there was only one data point she didn’t have before she could submit her report. She got up and pressed a button next to a microphone in the center of the table. “Bring them both into the basement room. I want to talk to them together.”
Jesus found himself escorted out of his cell, down an elevator and another hallway, and into a room with a heavy metal door. There were two chairs facing away from the door, and the wall opposite was made from sandbags. Someone was seated in the chair to the left. That person, hands bound to the back of the chair, managed to turn around and Jesus immediately recognized the mother. She looked greatly the worse for wear, with bruises and cuts visible all over her face. Her left eye had swollen shut.
The guards shoved Jesus down into the empty chair on the right, leaving him to face the wall of sandbags. He wondered what those were for – were they still building out the basement and using these as a temporary wall? He had no idea.
Looking to his left, the mother was staring at him, sobbing. He hadn’t been assaulted in the ways she had, and the lack of visible injury had to be of great relief to the mother. Still, here they were with their hands cuffed to the back of chairs.
The door to the room, which had up to this point been left open, closed with a pointed slam. Kozlova walked around to face the two captives from one side, looking equal parts curious and annoyed. From the faint sounds they were making, Jesus could tell that there were at least two people standing behind them, although he didn’t dare turn around to see.
Kozlova paced back and forth, looking at them. Finally, she addressed the mother: “Anna Ivanovna, is there anything you want to say to or ask your daughter at this time?”
The mother sobbed audibly and then with some effort calmed herself enough to speak. “Lyoduchka, I don’t know what this game is all about, but PLEASE stop it! Think of your sister, of your grandmother, of yourself! None of this is funny! Look where we are – these are serious people. Please, please put this childish game aside. No mother should have to beg her own daughter, but now I am begging you. Stop this!”
Jesus looked over at the mother, tears filling his eyes. He knew what she was asking for, and knew that nothing he could do would help. To help her was beyond his ability, which is why they found themselves where they were. He hoped only that the grandmother and the four-year-old would be left to live their own lives free from whatever horrible fever dream this was.
Catching his own breath after sobbing, he looked back over at the mother and, taking pity on her, said simply “Mama, I’m sorry. I don’t know anything. I wish I did.”
Kozlova looked over their heads and gave a curt nod. A gunshot sounded, and with that the mother was dead. Jesus began crying anew. None of this had been the mother’s fault – had she not lost enough? And here she was, dead for no reason at all.
Kozlova gave another curt nod, but instead of a gunshot Jesus heard an argument. Kozlova quickly moved this out to the hallway where Jesus could hear only raised voices. He looked again at the lifeless woman beside him and seethed.
After a minute or so the argument seemed to have resolved itself and Kozlova came in, mopping her eyes and asked him, unable to control the quaver in her voice, “For one last time, what is all this? You must tell me what was going on!”
“FUCK YOU!” The seething had given way to rage. “I don’t know what the fuck was going on but you just murdered an innocent woman. Fuck you all and I hope you burn in” and Jesus heard a click just behind his ear.
He opened his eyes to find a different woman’s face hovering above his. She was in the latter part of her middle years and oddly familiar to Jesus. Finally he recognized her as Sandy, the proprietor and bartender at Smiley’s bar.
“The fuck?” he asked. His head was swimming and hurt a lot.
“I could ask you the same, Jesus.” Sandy paused. “But what I think I’m going to do is tell you that it’s time to go home. You’ve had enough.”
“Sure, but what happened?” Jesus was still trying to reconcile himself with being back in his neighborhood bar and not in some KGB interrogation room.
“Well, sonny, you got drunk, that’s what happened. I’ve never seen you pile it on like you did. And that last shot – you took the shot, tossed it back, and kept on going, right off the barstool. I was afraid you’d cracked your skull open the way you hit the floor.”
“Tell me I wasn’t out too long.”
“Only as long as it took for me to come around the bar and shake you awake.”
“Right. Um, cool. What’s my tab.”
“You’re paid up, but only so long as you go home now and don’t try to drive to get there. I know what your truck looks like and it’d better be here in the morning.”
Jesus nodded and set out into a thick fog, still drunk, hoping the walk home would clear his mind.
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