‘A Faster Tomorrow’, Damien Krsteski

Illustrations © 2018 Eric Asaris



G.

 [ Protestors, © 2018 Eric Asaris ] The ride got bumpy, which was unfortunate because the foam-padded cushion had been ripped right off his seat, the rivets which had held it in place sticking out. Georgi sat squashed against a window at the very back, watching the heads of the sleeping passengers bobble as the bus made the turns on the switch-backed mountain road. The image was comforting: angry workers reduced to slobbering toy-heads; it gave matters a comical spin, steering him away from a full-blown anxiety attack, a feat which was becoming harder to pull off with each kilometer closer to the city.

They passed a corroded sign claiming Plovna’s source was but a thirty minute walk off the main road. Up a dirt path, the arrow indicated, amid overlapping rows of pine and birch.

He shut his eyes. The spring of Plovna, pure, a blue brook trickling down the mountain, picking up speed and water and rushing headlong into the city carrying life to become-

The muddy river ran beneath the Bridge of Founders in his old battered quarter, where the air was suffused with the heavy smell of melting tarmac, truck exhaust, and a skyscraper diorama lay open in the distance, veiled in Plovna’s pastel mist; he was gripping the bridge rail, his two best friends on either side of him, the face of his dying mother drawn with a finger in the cloudscape, while she lay, blanketed by television light, in her living room-

The bus jerked to a stop. Some passengers woke up, grumbled and smacked their lips, craning necks to see the car ahead that had braked so suddenly, as the driver honked the horn and hollered and cursed. When the bus picked up speed again they went back to sleep.

At a gas station near the top of the mountain they stopped to stretch their legs and smoke in the chill summer dawn, the sun’s first rays spearing the thick forest from below. Georgi paced around the bus, windbreaker zipped all the way up. Was he really that anxious about the week’s events? Was this stage fright he felt? His role in the planned protests was a marginal one, a brief moment of nothing, so no, he decided, there was nothing to fear, really, and he was probably just a bit car-sick. From a pocket he pulled out a paper bag with tea biscuits, just about the only thing he could eat these days, and wolfed them down.

The driver emerged from the porta-potty adjacent to the station and trundled toward the bus, a cigarette dangling from his lips. He took one last drag and flicked the butt at the road before climbing inside. He shouted after his passengers out the side-window. Petar, the group’s coordinator, counted heads when everyone had boarded, then give the driver the thumbs-up.

Once the bus reached the summit, and the road was starting to level out, Georgi began to feel queasy. He regretted the biscuits. Scolded himself for stress eating.

The forest thinned out; they were on the other side of the mountain now, hurtling downslope. Georgi clutched his grumbling belly.

As the bus rounded a curve, and Vasilegrad sprouted into view as if risen freshly from the earth, and the passengers were elbowing each other, pointing and ooh-ing and aah-ing at the sprawling metropolis before them, Georgi’s stomach pitched, and he threw up in his paper bag.


M.

The second alarm did the trick. Bedroom blinds snapped open and a white morning sun poured right in. She turned over and groaned in her pillow. It’d been a horrible night, a gut-wrenching, sweaty, shouting-after-interns night, one of those work nights Viki had warned her about only after she’d signed the contract to join the firm, and all she wanted now was just another wink of sleep.

But her apartment didn’t let her: the alarm, the blinds, and now the vibrating mattress. She sprang out of bed pissed at everything and everyone, and padded to the kitchen, smacking a dry mouth, thinking perhaps she should’ve skipped that vodka nightcap. (But then what would’ve taken the edge off, her hungover mind countered, what would’ve provided a ladder down from 1 espresso/hr land?)

Her body was barely holding together. She made toast, no butter, no jam, and forced herself to chew.

On the toilet, spreading out her folder icons neatly in a semi-circle. No downtime, as Viki said, not even on the can. Prodding her finger at the floating icons forced documents to spring up out of thin air, spreadsheets, timetables, reminders, to-dos. Rearranging items in little bursts of finger-snapping, conducting an orchestra of menial tasks and PR bullshit, swiping through her Rolodex, checking her mailbox for unread messages (one urgent from her boss, many others marginally less so), before clicking her exposé shut. Wiping, flushing.

Dialing.

“Sleep well, Matty?” Roberto’s voice in her ear, as irritating as ever.

“Log-like.”

“Good. I need you well rested.”

“What’s so urgent?” Pulling her trousers on.

“Today we shift to turbo-gear, Matty.”

As if her years in the company weren’t all exactly that, she thought, rolling her eyes. “Uh huh.”

“Lagetti wants to meet the team.”

She stopped buttoning her shirt half-way up. “In person?”

“In person, the whole team. We’re nearing the endgame, Matty, so be on time.” He paused, then, “And comb your hair, don’t come looking like you screwed all night.” He laughed.

“Dick.”

“Don’t be late.” And his voice, like a swatted mosquito, went away from her ear.

She dressed, brushed her teeth, all while her mind scrambled to prepare what she had to say to the mayor: X was her strength, Y her weakness, emphasis on factor Z while downplaying Q, pointing at analyses spat out by her software Workers alongside suggested outcomes, so and so backed by charts and graphs, visually intuitive.

She’d manage.

She paused before the mirror, cocked her head sideways. Her hair, as frizzy as ever, resembled a novelty wig. “I wish,” she said, put on her jacket and got out.


G.

They had to park the bus in an underground garage and walk to Balkan Sq. It made him only queasier, stomach turning as the bus dove under the streets of the city he’d been avoiding so long, and now he was not only there but underneath it, suffocating in its entrails, but he fought it down, eyes closed and convincing himself it was only his Bully.

Which, paradoxically, made him feel better when they emerged out in the open, marching in the beating morning sun to the rendezvous point with placards on their shoulders, the people of Vasilegrad scarcely paying them mind.

The hum of city trams, unfocused looks on passengers’ faces, gumminess of street tarmac in the summer. Smell of burek from the ubiquitous bakeries.

A large group was already waiting for them at the square, milling about in clumps of five or ten, refreshing themselves near the fountain sprays and munching on homemade sandwiches.

Petar joined the other coordinators to confer. They swapped files, schedules. Glanced at wristwatches.

The marble flagstones reflected the sun, and Georgi could only see if squinting, and so he took in the whole plaza in successive slivers: the fountain jets with rainbows in their coiled grips, lindens and oaks casting shade to men and women on benches, traffic swirling on the alley, and beyond the alley the baroque buildings which encircled them, dotted with people perched on balconies observing the crowd below.

“Waiting for Petrich, Nish, and Strumitsa,” said Petar when he returned. “Then we move.” Georgi saw the other coordinators relay the same information to their own groups. Mostly white, no collars, was the loose dress code-for the heat, or to mock aristocracy, Georgi didn’t know; in the shimmer it seemed to him like they were all draped in togas. Shirts scrawled with slogans, in marker or lipstick, ripped jeans or tracksuits with sneakers or sandals. Equal Speeds = Equal Rights. Ax the Axer. And some such.

Within thirty minutes the groups from the three remaining cities arrived, and picking up their placards, whistles in their mouths, the river of protesters overran the streets.


M.

Following Mayor Lagetti’s address to the twenty or so employees of the firm, laden with clichés like we’re in it for the long haul, and the work you’re doing is invaluable, or Matea’s favorite, the cherry on top, the spin to end all spins, when you think about it, it’s the common citizen that benefits most, reframing the mayor’s Big Tech-backed legislation as beneficial for the workers of the country, Roberto had pulled her aside, and told her there was to be a second round of talks with a select few agents, one of whom was her, the purpose of which he couldn’t go into right this moment.

So she sat at her desk, clicking her pen, waiting to be called into Roberto’s office-which belonged, for the duration of her visit, to the mayor-for her one-on-one with Lagetti. Newsfeeds popped up, offering the latest in world affairs, but she flicked them off one by one until only a report on Balkan Square was left. She played the drone footage of the gathering protesters. A lake of white swans, undulating. Zooming in, and some were looking up at the drones, reminding her of faces in first-contact shots of Amazon tribes. “Hopeless fools,” she said, though not without a trace of empathy, before flicking the video off like a booger.

Roberto came and led her to the office, then shut the glass door from outside, leaving her alone with the mayor.

“Ms. Nakovska,” Lagetti was shaking her hand, “please, have a seat.”

She pulled up the padded chair opposite her desk, the chair Roberto usually had employees sit in while he rattled off reasons for their ineluctable dismissal.

Lagetti said, “How have you been enjoying the campaign so far?”

“Hectic,” she admitted, sitting down, “which often means fun.”

“How do you think I come off?”

“Polls give us good numbers, there’s a slight dip in popularity, but that’s only to be expected. Law’s not easy to sell.”

“Which is why I pay you.”

“Which is why you pay us.”

“But I didn’t ask about polls,” Laggeti said, leaning forward on Roberto’s desk. “In your opinion, what are my chances for another term?”

Through the transparent walls of Roberto’s office she could see her colleagues shuffling about, trying their hardest not to be obviously gaping her way. She focused on the mayor, “I’d say we’ll have to fight harder for the fourth, but you do stand a chance of winning it, especially with the Right in such disarray.”

“Indeed.”

“My analytic Workers have been churning out data, and I believe if we time our moves well, we can pull off another victory for you at next year’s elections, provided we capitalize on—”

“Thank you,” she said, then considered something for a moment. “You’re from Mayadin.” A stated fact, not a question, and Matea froze at the mention of her old quarter, the slum of the city; the musk of the porous hovel in which she grew up came back to her, the thick stench of rice for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and she held her breath, blushing, as if the mayor could otherwise smell her childhood poverty on her.

“Yes,” Matea said when her confusion passed, “moved out at sixteen.”

“Right.”

“Been living and working here since.”

Lagetti stared at her through her rectangular glasses, then lifted them up to her head, looked away. The people hovering around the office sprang into motion. She said, “I want you to be part of a second, smaller team, Ms. Nakovska. You’ve tried to sell this nasty piece of legislation to the proles without much success, so protests have started, people from the whole country are pouring in as we speak, and the companies aren’t too pleased with my handling of the whole affair, their hands are reaching for my neck.” She smiled at Matea with genuine excitement. “Which means it’s time for phase two.”


G.

Chanting slogans and weaving through the streets of the city, when a teenaged boy crept up to him. “Petar says you grew up here.”

Georgi shifted the weight of the placard he was carrying-the grim reaper, wielding an ax instead of a scythe-to the other shoulder. “He’s right.”

“Why’d you leave?”

They rounded a corner to a big boulevard that had been closed off by police for the duration of their scheduled protest. “No choice,” Georgi said. “Where are you from?”

The teenager gave the name of his village.

“You like it there?”

“Not anymore,” he said, and by way of explanation nodded his head at the mass of protesters before them. “I’m Dean.”

“Georgi.” They shook hands briefly. “What do you do?”

When a chorus of whistles died down, the boy Dean said, “Graphics, for hire, by the hour. Self-taught, both two-and three-dee, moving heavy loads, as you can imagine, uploading for abroad.” He shook his head, “I need my speed, my whole family eats from my work. Fuck this shit.” And shouted, and blew his whistle.

After an intersection where a big Orthodox church sunned its dome of bronze scales, they halted. A woman shouted slogans into a bullhorn for the crowd to repeat, then they were herded into a narrower street which led directly to the town hall. He looked around but Dean was gone.

Petar came shouldering his way through the crowd. “We think you should speak first.”

Georgi’s stomach squirmed. “Now?”

“When we get there.” Petar was surveying the people as he spoke, as if counting heads again, “First we throw a bunch of tomatoes, eggs, we chant a while, then we start the gig. You go up, then a local girl, then some bands.”

His Bully was coming back, like two hands squeezing food up his gullet. Except he hadn’t eaten since the biscuits this morning, and they were gone already, so there was nothing to squeeze out. “Alright,” he told Petar, and Petar patted him on the side of the arm and left.

The movement needed him; he needed to overcome his condition, and come through for them. He swallowed the acid that had come up.


M.

“You knew about this?”

Lagetti had left, and Matea was alone with Roberto in his office, their colleagues pretending to be busy within eyesight.

“You don’t know what it’s like working for her.” Roberto, sitting on the side of his desk, shrugged. “Worst control freak you’ve seen. She likes to manipulate, play us against each other, Tech sector, lawyers, our firm, and she plays us all a little too well. And no, I knew jack shit until she came here. She may have dropped a hint here and there, but she’s never gone and said outright, this and this is what we do, here’s how we approach the problem, you know, common sense shit when you work with PR.”

He never spoke so much as when distressed. Small, in his suit and tie, a boy in his father’s clothes. Matea almost felt sorry.

“And what’s with this background bullshit?” Crossing her arms, “You gave her my school yearbook or what?”

“She wanted to know who she’s dealing with. Fucked if I know how she picked out the agents for her—” making air-quotes “—phase two, but she asked for some tidbits, where you guys grew up, family history, and the like, and what was I to do? Deny her that? She’s dumping truckloads of money on us, Matty.”

She watched him be uncomfortable for a bit, then said, “Nothing changes, though.”

“No.” He looked at her, startled. “We operate the way we operate. As professionals. She’s no different from any other client,” he said, his body saying otherwise.

This shift in power dynamics was starting to freak her out, so she went back to her desk, leaving him to gather his thoughts. On the large translucent display above Viki’s former desk-which, out of some odd sense of respect by the whole firm, was still unclaimed by another agent-she could see the unfolding protest, the river of people filling up the square in front of Lagetti’s town hall. They even had a stage, and some poor schmuck was going up it now, trembling like a leaf.

“Somebody’s special,” Tommy whispered in her ear.

She whirled around, “And somebody’s jealous.”

“Won’t deny it.” He pulled up a chair from another desk. “To see this business through to the end? Who wouldn’t want that? Meanwhile,” he smirked, “I’ll be putting out fires for drunken celebs if you ever need me.” Then, with a straight face, “So, what do you make of it?”

She blew out her cheeks, “Don’t know, Tommy. It’s a one-eighty turn.” She gave off a humorless laugh. “Don’t know whether I should feel better or worse about that bunch now.” Jerking her thumb in the direction of the display and the protesters.

“Yeah,” he said, eyes unfocused as if deep in some moral dilemma. “Let’s talk it over lunch. Rice Baroness?”

“Too busy.”

“I’ll grab some, we’ll eat here.”

She looked around the cluttered office, the agents swiping through air for invisible documents, chatting to themselves. “Alright, I’ll come with. But we’re back in twenty minutes. You’ll have to eat fast.”


G.

Once words started coming out of his mouth he could barely contain them. He was gesturing with the speech he’d prepared clutched in his hand, but he didn’t so much as glance at the writing on the page. The noon sun made it hard to see the crowd, which liberated him, he was speaking to nobody, yammering into the heat, and he could speak his heart out without fear of a reaction, so he told of his depraved childhood, of having to work for his Mommy’s medicine, of this city that had mistreated him every step of the way until adolescence when she’d died and he’d finally freed himself from the fetters of these stinky streets by way of a bus ticket, one-way trip to a village on the other side of the country he’d picked out at random. And he spoke of what had allowed him to escape, the online access to a global market where he could offer his skills, the ease and affordability of access which now the city was trying to take away, and impoverish him and everyone at this protest further, and pull them all back, back into the slums, because the fetters had never been broken, and it had taken a single tug of the chains from the city administration to remind him of that.

When he stepped off the stage Petar was waiting for him. “Did great,” he was beaming. Handing him a bottle of clear red liquid, “Better than great. Amazing.” The crowd was alternating between cheering themselves and booing the mayor, blowing into their whistles, hurling eggs at the town hall facade. Most hit the tall fence, and drooped down its bars to fry on the pavement.

His hand shaking, Georgi took a swig. He gulped down half the quince juice before he remembered he wasn’t supposed to have sugary drinks. “Thanks,” he said, wiped his mouth.

“Amazing,” Petar squeezed his shoulder, sounding surprised himself, “amazing job.” He vanished back into the crowd just as a twenty-something year old girl was going up the stage.

Georgi’s whole body was numb. He was excited, he realized he was clapping, cheering the girl on while she spoke, and despite the adrenaline coursing through his body, squirming in his belly, his Bully wasn’t there. Kept at bay, somehow.

He’d spoken before a crowd numbering in the tens of thousands.

Sweat ran down his face. Feverishly, he clapped and cheered. He’d been up there just moments before, and though he was finding it hard to believe, he’d come down unscathed.


M.

After lunch, slurping black coffee to avoid the dreaded chicken pad thai coma, isolated in one of the sound-proofed phone booths in the office, Matea was flicking through files related to the gig.

She tried to keep a professional outlook, isolate the client from the person, think of the whole affair as a surgical procedure which needed to be performed fast, no time to stop and mull over motive: just put on the rubber gloves, pick up the scalpel. But besides being in PR, she was also, to the surprise of many, human. And her scalpel, or her coffee spoon, rather, was shaking in her hand. She set it down on a napkin.

Her thoughts strayed to Lagetti; not the client, mayor, or cut-throat politician, but Lauren Lagetti the person. The layers to this person’s planning, the ways in which she hand-picked people to work for her, and played them like little pawns in a game she could only see, a game which seemed, Matea thought, very close to her heart. She respected that. Enough to know to not even try and start peeling off those layers of her plan. No use for what would ultimately result in loss of focus. And yet it nagged her. Lagetti had asked her about Mayadin. Or, not even asked, not even a question about the neighborhood from her childhood, Lagetti had just said it out loud as a fact. To hang in the air between them. As a reminder: this is who you are, and don’t forget it. You don’t belong.

And there’d been no malice in her voice. No bad intent. Matea took a sip of coffee, the cold bitterness clearing her mind for an instant. Lagetti had said it to remind, yes, but not undermine, she realized. She’d been too busy feeling embarrassed to notice, but now, thinking about the tone and her expression, that non-smile tugging at the corner of the mayor’s lips, she couldn’t help but wonder whether Lagetti had said it almost encouragingly. This is who you are, and don’t forget it.

You don’t belong, Matea could imagine Lagetti saying, and that’s good.


G.

 [ Graffiti, © 2018 Eric Asaris ] Georgi showered in the cabin in his motel room, standing in one spot, eyes closed, letting the water drip down his head. No soaping or scrubbing.

There was a banging on his door. He turned the lukewarm water off. His roommates were out, carousing in some seedy Vasilegrad bar to celebrate a successful day of protesting. “In a minute.” Wrapping a towel around him. Padding to the door, leaving wet footprints on the dirty carpet.

“Hey, bad time?” But Petar was already stepping inside. “How are you?” He sat down on one of the bottom bunks.

Georgi said, “What’s up?”

“Today went great,” Petar said. “Just got back from a meeting with the coordinators. Everybody agreed-you were the highlight of the protest.”

“Uh huh.”

“I mean, the honesty, the sob story, the way you drove the point home.” He waved his arms as if conducting a symphony. “Pitch perfect.”

“Well,” Georgi said, not sure how to continue.

“Did you practice it?”

“Yes,” he lied.

“I admit, for a minute there I thought your knees would buckle.”

“So did I.”

“But all went smooth as butter.” Petar looked around the tiny room for the first time, the duffel bags stuffed with clothes, scattered shirts and socks hanging loosely from the beds, phones charging, deodorants with their caps off. He stood. “Which is why we have more ideas for you.”

“Speech?”

“No. Something else. More important, even. Could potentially rally more people behind the equality cause, help us drive the last nail in this law’s coffin.” Eyeing him, gauging his reaction, “Could potentially get us in a bit of trouble.”

Georgi wrapped his hands around himself. He was getting cold. “Okay,” he said.

Petar beamed. “Okay, he says.” He went to the door, opened it, “I’ll fill you in on the details when we have them worked out. Get some rest, you’ve earned it,” he said, and left.

Georgi toweled himself off properly, and stood by the window. His room overlooked the motel’s dark backyard, on which three other buildings had their backs turned, and he watched one of the motel’s staff lug two garbage bags to the dumpsters, throw them in, glass shattering, watched him close the lids with a thud and smoke a cigarette in a hurry before slipping back in through the employees’ entrance. Georgi studied the sky a while, the patch of it not blocked by the surrounding buildings. The city couldn’t be seen from his vantage point, but it could be deduced, indirectly observed in the way its light, carried upward in the fumes from the factories, bleached out the night stars, a pale yellow haze hovering above everyone, the city’s sweat, stinking up the air.

He closed the blinds and went to bed.


M.

To bring them to a boiling point.

Which is almost where they were, Matea thought, drone cam footage of the protest playing in the background, while she thumbed through blog posts, chirps, IMs, and other such online effluvia germane to the day’s events.

A counter-campaign, perhaps, running on all channels, accusing the protesters of accepting bribe money from Lagetti’s political opponents, thus framing their whole movement as an elaborate smear stint one year before the election. Old school, but it should get them riled up. Boiling point, perhaps. She liked the idea, and wrote it down in her pad.

The bell rang. She padded to the intercom. “Yes?”

Wine delivery for the good agent.

She buzzed her friends in.

Going through her apartment to pick up scattered socks or shirts, dumping them on her bed, and just as she closed the bedroom door she heard them stomping up the stairs, and on the landing, and a series of playful knocks came on her door.

She ushered Viki and Tommy in, let them settle in while she went to put the white wine they’d brought in the fridge, taking the place of one of her already-chilled bottles. Viki set the coasters on the low table when Matea walked back in the living room-bottle by the neck, three flute glasses by their stems in her other hand, cork-opener in her mouth-and Matea placed the glasses on the coasters, uncorked the bottle, and poured cold wine in each glass.

“To our fucking job,” she said as they clinked glasses. On the curved screen muted footage from the protest played, shots of placards, people mouthing slogans.

Your fucking job,” Viki said.

Tommy said, “Not like you don’t miss it.”

“Not in the least,” she said, and sipped. “So, Tommy gave me a partial update, but I want to hear it all from you. Shit’s going down, seems like?” Her eyes glinted with excitement.

To Tommy, Matea said, “Doesn’t miss it. Like, at all.”

“Oh, shut it.”

So Matea gave them both a rundown of the day’s office event, Tommy hearing it for the second time, but nonetheless appearing equally as interested in the retelling as Viki: the one-on-one with the mayor, the mayor’s outlining of the second phase of a plan which seemed to be unfolding as intended, much to everyone’s surprise; her awkward chat with Roberto, which made wine come out of Viki’s nose, she laughed so hard hearing of her former boss’ confusion; her work back home, when the gravity of the ordeal had finally hit her, the ideas swirling in her head on how to proceed, and by the time she’d gotten to that, half the wine was gone.

“The Axer,” Tommy told Viki, using the protesters’ own slang for the Act for Communication Speed Redistribution, nodding his head at Matea’s curved screen, “just to get that to happen.” On the screen the protesters marched mutely toward the town hall. “Backstabbing her corporate sponsors in the process.”

“Who knew Rosa Luxemburg was mayor of Vasilegrad?”

“It shouldn’t surprise those who’ve known her, actually.” Matea grabbed a tattered old paperback from the end table by the sofa. “I picked up her autobiography on my way home. You know, it’s hard to recall because we were so young back when she was first voted into office, but man, she used to be hardcore, running on a mainly anti-corporate platform, stressing worker rights as a major priority.” On the creased cover was a young Lagetti, up on somebody’s shoulders, bullhorn to her mouth and face contorted in a rictus of anger, ash-blonde hair curled down the sides.

“She used to be Left as fuck,” Tommy said. “Remember my Dad saying that, though not exactly as a compliment.”

“Still is,” Matea said, “just playing the long game.”

“God have mercy on us,” Viki muttered dramatically, and poured more wine in her glass. Tipped the bottle toward Matea and Tommy in turn, and both nodded so she poured wine in their glasses, too.

“The worst thing to’ve happened to this city, she told me, was the common people who’ve all but bled out of it, scattering across the country in search for cheaper rent, fairer jobs, cleaner air. And now, she said, with this controversial law she’s brought them all back.”

“Wonder what she has in mind, how this long game of hers is supposed to end.”

“Well,” she began, but then the recorded footage of today’s protest caught her eye, the thin man up on the stage gesticulating wildly with a few sheets of paper clutched in his hand, his eyes squinting in the sun or due to the sweat dripping down his forehead, and Matea got off the sofa and stepped closer to the screen, because the man was familiar, and she shushed her guests and unmuted the footage to hear his voice, his speech booming in her living room, and she cupped her mouth with her hand, because of course it was him, she knew that man speaking up on that stage, missing forty kilograms and with a receding hairline but there was no mistaking him, her childhood friend.


G.

On the second day of protests wispy white clouds striped a blue sky. The procession started from an unkempt, overgrown park in Hnatt whose name Georgi didn’t know, coiled through the quarter’s smaller alleys, only to wind up once more around noon before the town hall and the stage which awaited there.

Petar and the other coordinators handed out pickle and ham sandwiches, and Georgi quickly ate his, forgetting in all the commotion and excitement that he wasn’t supposed to, but forgetting, also, to get sick and throw up, and so he didn’t, and for the first time in a long while he had a whole meal without a part of it coming back up.

The lineup included a violinist who’d be hit hard by the Axer’s recalculated bandwidth prices, living in the south-western village of Sloeshtitsa, selling her music in snippets to film or recording studios, but also three freelance writers from the eastern seaside, one software developer from Voyvodina, and a local standup, dishing out stale jokes at his mayor’s expense.

When the stage show ended, and the crowd was starting to disperse toward the cafés and taverns close by, Petar took Georgi for a walk by the riverside.

“Holding up?” Petar squeezed Georgi’s shoulder.

“Sure.”

They turned a corner onto a cobbled street, and a wave of warm air splashed their faces, carrying faint traces of tar and gutted fish. On the dilapidated Bridge of Founders, back in his old quarter, back with his friends, the stench of Plovna intermingled with the stench of poverty, of his diseased mother’s bedroom-

They walked the path beside the ocher river, Georgi reading the names etched into the benches to keep his mind off the assailing memories. Petar spoke of the logistics of the protests. They sat down, facing Plovna. Waves of smeared black and gold passed before them.

“That something,” Petar began. “Which you agreed to yesterday. Let’s discuss that.”

“Yes?”

“Friday morning, before the town hall vote. There will be one final debate, televised and streamed. Nation-wide broadcast. They reached out to us, asking for our most articulate and well-spoken representative—” at this he squeezed Georgi’s shoulder again “-to argue against the Axer with the mayor, no less, because she’ll be there, too, in that studio.”

“Uh huh.”

“Well,” Petar said, “you won’t be there to just argue.”

He swallowed. A steamboat sailed by, packed with tourists snapping shots of the city. “What then? Hurt her?”

“What are you, crazy?” Petar laughed. “No. Just humiliate her. Way she’s been humiliating us.” Petar refused to go into more detail, saying there was ample time, him and the other coordinators had had to chew the plan over some more, and that once it was fully agreed on Georgi would be the first to know.

On his way to the motel, he took the longer route back. He passed by the gelatto stand he’d noticed yesterday, and on a whim got himself a vanilla cone. Licking the drip off the cone, up the stairs of the motel, through the hallway of his floor, one hand patting his pockets for the room key, when a voice said, “Hey, fatty.”

He whirled around.

“Nothing’s changed, I see,” Matea said, then laughed hard, tears glistening in her eyes.


M.

He just stood there like a deer in headlights, and she worried for a moment he’d failed to recognize her, or he still harbored some misplaced animosity from way back when, but then his eyes watered up and he threw himself at her. They hugged a full minute, just holding each other, sniffing, not speaking.

At last she held him at arm’s length. “Look at you.” He was gaunt, borderline emaciated.

“Yeah,” he said, bashful. “And you. You’re so… girly.” At which she barked out a laugh. Only girl in their childhood group, yet nobody thought of her as anything other than a friend, a status maintained thanks to her pugnacious tomboy demeanor at that age.

“I do my nails now,” she held up a hand, “sue me.” And they laughed again, and she said, “Let’s get the fuck outta here,” and they did, going out in the Vasilegrad dusk.

She took him to a bar on Bobinki Rid, the hump on the city’s back which split the capital in two: a richer eastern half which they were facing, composed of quarters catering to business and the upper middle class, and the south-western districts tucked away behind them, an overlapping patchwork of neighborhoods which the rest pretended didn’t exist. It took them a few beers to get the conversation rolling; while they were far from strangers, they weren’t exactly the closest of friends for the past fifteen years either, but as the drinks kept coming polite conversation and catching up turned to reminiscing about their childhood days, which turned to nostalgia, and finally to commiserating about the bad luck they shared of having been born where they were born.

“When Daniel died,” Georgi said, “I felt he was setting an example. Showing the way out of poverty.”

They’d almost spent the entire evening without mentioning the third one, the friend around whom the two had gravitated, who’d introduced them to each other, the poor soul who’d felt he’d blown his one big shot at making it into the prosperous urban half and hanged himself on a door handle one morning, age sixteen. Matea blinked away tears.

“Turns out,” Georgi continued, “he was just a catalyst. Momma passed soon after Daniel, and you got your internship and left, and I had no reason to spend another day in that cesspit.”

A summer breeze carried the sticky smell of mulberries from the park below the hill, the faint tang of cigarette smoke from nearby tables. The awning flapped. Eastern Vasilegrad sparkled in the night. She said, “He chased us out of there, sort of.” Saved us, she wanted to add, but stopped herself on time.

Georgi poured some of his beer out on the cobbles. After a moment, he said, “The river Kazala passes through my village, a beautiful clear stream, and some evenings I wade into it, the water barely coming up to my knees, the shingles on the river bed shimmering in the sunset—” he made little wave-like motions with his hands “—and I always think of us three, up on our bridge, facing the river and the imposing city, hatching schemes to somehow carry us over there. And I remember those days very fondly, despite our surroundings, despite all that happened afterward, I even think I kind of-the camaraderie, that sense of maybe things changing for the better for us, you know, the minuscule rays of hope cutting through the fucking smog, that, I think I kind of miss that.” He finished the last of his drink.

Matea watched him watch the city with what she could swear was longing. In truth, she’d never felt anything remotely like affection for her childhood, so far as she was concerned her past was a box of bad memories and broken hearts and second-hand kids’ toys she was glad to keep shut, gathering dust under some imaginary bed in some imaginary house far in the back of her mind. Perhaps it was boys who were like that, momentarily, outwardly brave, then pathetically melodramatic in the long run. “You’ve just been away for too long,” she said, bitter without meaning to come off that way.

But Georgi heard nothing, absorbed in the glow of his former home town, hunched forward in his chair as if drawn to it, as if about to throw himself at the city.

Matea looked around for the waiter.


G.

It was great seeing her again, he thought, as the bed rocked beneath him and he squirmed and turned and smacked his lips, eyes open or shut, the snores of his roommates punctuating his uneasy plunge sleepward, and he saw her before his eyes, young and short-haired, then older and prettier, and Daniel beside her, too, older, somehow, in an uncanny featureless way, and the three of them tumbled through the night in snatches of dreams against a smog-soaked sepia Mayadin backdrop, until the sun slanting through the slats skewered him and he was hot and needed to pee so bad, and though he tried squirming some more in the slipping comfort of his dreamscape, his roommates started dropping down from their bunks, putting coffee to percolate and chatting away their own hangovers, and he was awake and the half-dreams fully ended, and he got up, stumbling, the room a rickety bridge which swayed beneath his feet from his bed to the bathroom.

One cold shower and a greasy breakfast later, Georgi’s mental faculties were partially restored. Which was good, because when they were back out in the scorching sun, Petar wanted him up on stage. “Riff on your speech,” Petar shouted over the roaring crowd. “Or repeat it word-for-word, doesn’t matter, you’ve won them over already.”

Georgi protested, saying he was tired and unprepared, but Petar insisted, promising him he was going to be great, he just needed to go up, people needed to see him again.


M.

That whole morning something ate at her from inside, a guilt, perhaps, for being successful, for having, in her and Georgi’s dead friend’s eyes, made it, whatever that meant.

She sat at her desk, stared at her screen, trying her best to focus. Out for lunch with Tommy, she mostly kept silent, and Tommy knew better than to ask. He was a good friend, that way, knowing when not to prod.

She hadn’t thought about Daniel in a long time. It was weird how their little triangle had formed again. The two points always implied a third, she realized, and even with that third one gone, dead, scrubbed off, its absence was turning into a weighing presence, as if her and Georgi meeting together all these years later served as some spontaneous memorial service. It was too much. She didn’t like it, the past breaking out of its imaginary box in its imaginary house, because it made her feel different, like she’d put on somebody else’s clothes, a stranger in her own skin.

Newsfeeds were bursting with reports on the protesters. Matea watched live footage a while. Watched the heads of the individuals making up the mass of malcontents. The fire was lit beneath them, the people were already simmering, she just had to fan the flames.

She shut off the footage. Pinged her boss, letting him know she was going out. Field work, this time.


G.

So Georgi went up on stage again, and gave his rousing speech, his confidence swelling with every cheer of the crowd, pushing against the seams of his ego until the point when, following a round of well-orchestrated booing at the mayor’s policy from the sea of thousands below him, he came offstage buoyed and bristling with electricity and ready and capable to take on anything and anyone.

And his eyes found, in the roaring crowd, Matea’s face.


M.

Georgi was sashaying through the crowd over to her when one of the coordinators (collared shirt, pen in shirt’s front pocket, notepad in hand) stopped him. They exchanged a few words, Georgi’s glistening eyes still locked on her, and Georgi was nodding, mouthing, yeah, yeah, yeah, and the coordinator patted him on the back before trotting off to a smaller group of protesters.

“Powerful speech,” she said when he arrived.

He inclined his head, “I try my best,” and laughed.

They watched the rest of the protest passively from further back, and midway through a musical act Georgi put his arm around her, innocently, casually, which sort of bugged her, this freedom he was taking with her after all these years, and she wanted to shake him off, tell him she preferred to keep her distance, but didn’t, something stopped her, some of Viki’s famous dicta about detachment and professional work looping in her head. So when Georgi swayed to the music, pulled her closer, touched his hip to hers, she suppressed her discomfort in the name of-of something more important, and rolled with it, swaying to the melodies of disgruntled workers with her old friend.

When evening came, they went to her apartment. Looking around the living room, he let out a long whistle. “Nice gig you must have.”

“It’s okay.” She took off her sneakers, socks, bunched the socks up and tucked them in her shoes. “New media,” she added, “lots of making excuses for rich celebrities. Boring work.”

“Paid for quite a view, though.”

She brought out some wine and cheese, and they sipped and nibbled, discussing politics and the city administration. “Why come?” she asked him after their second glass. “I mean, I understand this is important for you, but when you left I though nothing short of being dragged here would make you return.”

“Which is exactly what happened. If the Axer gets enacted, the further you are from Vasilegrad and BalkanTel’s infrastructure, the more you’d have to pay for decent network speeds. My work would suffer. My income would be significantly reduced, and I don’t make much to begin with. I was dragged here.”

At which Matea blushed, lifted up her glass to her face. “Do you think you stand a chance?”

“We do. Put aside the fact that it’s a discriminatory piece of legislation, with the poorer workers expected to subsidize the whole country’s infrastructural development, which might even get it struck down by the Constitutional Court, but we’re also really, really well prepared. I had no clue coming in.”

“In what way?”

“The coordinators know what they’re doing, they plan well in advance, they know we mustn’t fuck this one up.”

“And by planning in advance, you mean—”

“Nothing is left up to chance. We won’t lose this battle.” He smiled, “They might even have something in store for me, too.” He drained his glass, poured himself some more wine.

She almost didn’t want to, almost backed down, almost said she was tired and had better go to sleep and he’d better leave because another long day was ahead of him, she almost did all that, almost was a good friend again, but she didn’t, and she wasn’t; instead she looked into Georgi’s eyes, the one link to the childhood she’d done everything to erase, and brushed up closer to him. “And this is very important to you, isn’t it?”

“Very.”

“Not just for your own sake, but in general, for the others, those who’ve been forced out of this city, too.”

“Yes.”

“And it’s so important, that you’re willing to suffer for a victory.”

“It is.”

And she kissed him. And later when they lay in bed, he told her everything he knew.


G.

Matea shook him awake.

He opened his eyes to a dark bedroom. Smiling, caressing her hand, “What time is it?”

“Almost eight. I have to leave for work.”

She was standing by the bed, fully dressed and made-up, her bushy hair hardly contained in a bun. Flicking a finger at her windows, and the blinds whirred slowly open, letting sunshine trickle in. “There’s food in the fridge,” she said, adjusting her earrings. “Door locks itself, so you can leave whenever you want.”

“Thanks.” He straightened up. “When will I see you?”

She glanced at her watch, blew out her cheeks. “Later, or tonight,” she said. “Or maybe tomorrow. Depends on work.”

“Sure.” He yawned.

When she left he took a shower and scrambled some eggs for breakfast, flicked through the newsfeeds on her TV, through some of the magazines laid out on her end table. Around noon, Petar called him.

“Where are you?”

“At a friend’s place,” he said. “Spent the night.”

“You coming today?”

“Of course. Will be there in an hour or so.”

“Good, good.” Petar sounded slightly agitated, absent-minded. “Because we have to talk about you-know-what. Plan’s all fleshed-out, so be around later.” He added, “I mean, I want to hear your opinion, obviously,” before hanging up.

Georgi wrote Matea a little note and tacked it to the cork-board in her bedroom, then left, taking the tram out of her quarter to the city center. The rattling streetcar took him through narrow one-way streets to the river, and for several stops the tram line ran alongside Plovna, so he watched that stretch of water flow by him in an opposite direction while the tram took him toward the town hall, and for some reason he thought of himself on a steamboat, sailing upstream, the chugging and the start-stop motion of the train the assailing of the flow and waves, the passengers hanging on to the straps swaying gently to the rhythm of the river while birds and gulls careened and wheeled about unseen above their heads, and Georgi, squinting now in Plovna’s shimmer, breathing in the breeze from the tram’s tilted window, found this river, for the first time in his life, beautiful.


M.

Matea was finishing up the report for the mayor, an outline for Lagetti’s eyes only of the protest coordinators’ plan to sabotage her Friday morning television appearance, most likely with some tar-and-feathering number, smuggling in something to spray on her during the broadcast, with the goal of embarrassing her, of showing that no seemingly-untouchable politician could hide from the wrath of the workers, thus emboldening others to join their ranks for one final push before the vote.

Beneath this outline, Matea wrote her suggested steps of action. When finished, her finger hovered over the Send icon. To bring them to a boiling point. She wondered what that would do to each individual, every molecule colliding against all others in that seething broth of anger, what it would do to one individual in particular.

“How’s my agent doing?” Roberto, from behind her.

A wag of her finger and the report was sent. “Your agent,” she turned around, “is due for a raise.”

He lifted his hands up in surrender, “Sorry I asked,” and hurried away to waste somebody else’s time. She groaned. Her phone trilled with a message from Georgi. She left it unread. Went to find Tommy.

“Lunch?”

“Sure,” Tommy said. “Where do you want to go?”

“Wherever they serve drinks in big glasses.”


G.

When he returned from the protest that evening, Georgi found a commotion in front of the motel. A few dozen protesters, wearing expressions of annoyance or anger, were gathered in the cramped yard, bracketed by two police officers with batons flapping from their hips who looked like they’d decided to hang around a while longer after their better-armed colleagues had departed the scene.

He shouldered his way to the lobby where the coordinators were huddled in a circle, vigorously debating, with, Georgi noticed, Dean having taken Petar’s place. When he approached them to find out what is happening, Dean pointed at him and they all turned.

“It was him,” Dean said, “who sold us out.”

“What’s going on?”

“Are you sure?” said to Dean one of the coordinators, whom Georgi knew only as Chernev.

“Absolutely. Petar made me keep my eyes on him the whole time. He spent last night with a marketing agent. Didn’t you, Georgi? That’s right. Don’t just stare at me. I looked your girl up. Works for a PR firm which has Lagetti listed as a client.”

Chernev gripped Georgi’s shoulder firmly, “What have you done?”

“Nothing. I—” A marketing agent? A PR firm? He blinked stupidly at the unamused coordinators, confused, thinking of Matea, of their conversation, of their night together, this morning in bed, this very morning, all of which was suddenly and violently crammed into a different, disgusting context, and he felt deflated, like his Bully was back and had punched him right in the gut, and his heart was pounding and his eyes flitted across the motel lobby in search for a bathroom, a sink.

“Don’t you know this will only make it harder for the administration? We will organize bigger, more massive protests. We will storm the town hall.”

Georgi felt his stomach turning, the two hands of bulimia squeezing food up his gullet. He cupped his mouth.

“Look at him, he just realized how messed up—” But Chernev never finished his snide remark because Georgi doubled over and was throwing up on the marble floor.


M.

News of Petar Bogdanov’s arrest spread through the blogs, chirps, feeds, and vlogs, until midnight when every left-leaning, right-leaning, libertarian, anarchist, and patriotic organization in the country had pledged support for the protesters’ movement. This was no longer about the Axer. No longer just about network speeds. This was about abuse of power, corporate interests taking precedence over the lives of the common citizen.

Boiling point.

Everyone had left after the party, but she was still in the office, and would probably spend the night there. There was still some champaign in the fridge, but she didn’t feel like drinking. She smoked a cigarette by an open window, the sounds and smells of the business quarter all but dissipated now the district was emptied of its workers. The lights of a patrolling police car bounced off the blackened windows of the neighboring office buildings.

“You are from Mayadin,” she said out the window, and blew out a puff of smoke.

More messages came from Georgi, which she deleted immediately without reading. Instead she called up Viki.

“My girl,” Viki said. “Times are changing,” she added in English.

“Yeah.” Matea took a drag off the cigarette.

“Hey,” Viki said, “what’s the matter?”

Matea was silent. She swallowed. She wanted to say it, just to make her feel better, like a bout of loud, prolonged swearing after stubbing a toe, regardless of how much she truly meant the words. “I want out, Viki. Way you did it. Want fucking out and never to go through this charade again.”

“Oh, sweetie.”

“Want my soul back.” And she started sobbing.


G.

The bus was empty, except for Georgi at the very back. Vasilegrad peeled off the sides as they drove out the suburbs, up the mountain.

Nobody else was leaving. The opposite lane was a long stream of buses and cars and bikes pouring in from the whole country, packed with people eager to protest, fight for their rights, for the trampled rights of every worker and citizen.

He could’ve stayed, seen this revolution to the end, but he didn’t want to. Like it was no longer his care, like all his worrying had evaporated with the city’s evening smog. He was glad it was happening, just glad to get out of its way, too. Glad to get out of everybody’s way. An indifference had gripped him, not for the future of the legislation and the workers, but for this city, and his own role and relationship with it.

He wished Matea would pick up, read his messages. He just wanted to thank her, because, as rows upon rows of birch and beech and pine trees fell away on either side of him and the bus reached the summit of the mountain, he understood why he didn’t feel sad about her, about Petar and Dean and the rest, why, after that initial bout of rage and confusion had passed, he wasn’t left heartbroken like he’d expected; something had changed, he’d, accidentally, serendipitously, closed a chapter, finally gotten closure on an affair which had hung heavily in his mind. Vasilegrad had rejected him. Chewed, swallowed, and thrown out. And that was that.

Fetters were truly broken, now, which made him smile.

Georgi turned around for one last look; the city was hidden behind the mountain, with only the skyscrapers peeking, the city’s white-and-gold flag flapping on their spires, like acquaintances on their toes on the edge of a pier, arms raised in goodbye.


© 2018, Damien Krsteski

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