Identity unknown - Karolina Wójciak - ebook

Identity unknown ebook

Karolina Wójciak

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Two contrasting but mysterious, twisted and touching stories about love, sacrifice and second chances. After the tragic death of his mother, sixteen-year-old Krystian lives in poverty in Warsaw, Poland with his violent, alcoholic father. Their fights grow more intense until finally his father throws him out. Homeless and fighting for survival, Krystian has to put aside his sensitive nature and become a criminal. Lena, after a freshman year spent away from home, returns to the seaside town of Sopot between semesters, convinced that it will be another boring summer with her despotic father, a powerful lawyer. Instead, new friends show her what it feels like to make her own choices. Can Krystian escape his difficult start in life? Will Lena choose her family or her freedom? Do youthful mistakes mean there’s no chance for a good life?

 

WARNING: This story contains graphic content that may be disturbing to some readers, reader discretion is advised.

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© 2018 Karolina Wójciak

Karolina Wójciak

IDENTITY UNKNOWN

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior permission of the publisher or in accordance with the provisions of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 or under the terms of any licence permitting limited copying issued by the Copyright Licensing Agency.

Published by: Karolina Wojciak

Translated by: Anna Basara

Edited by: Jeni Chappelle

Text and Cover Design by: Łukasz Rożyński • www.behance.net/lukasz_rozynski

ISBN-10: 1981866191

ISBN-13: 978-1981866199

ISBN PL: 978-83-958587-9-6

IDENTITY UNKNOWN

To my husband,

who calls me an artist only when I annoy him.

Kaycee, Autumn 2007

“Did you hear something?” Pedro stopped to listen.

“No,” I lied. “Hurry up.”

“Fuck! I’m sure I heard something,” he whispered nervously.

“One, two, three, four,” I silently counted the steps to the side, towards the wall, but my legs were a bit soft and I wasn’t sure if I was moving at all. Although I tried to stay composed, I could hear my heavy breathing.

“Go downstairs,” he said after a while, “and I will finish the safe up here.”

I stood and waited. Where was he? Why was it taking so long? Pedro was staring at me, and I—unlike myself—ignored his orders. I looked him straight in the eye, and my heart pounded so loudly that I didn’t hear the door open.

“Freeze! Police!” someone shouted.

I couldn’t tell who was shouting or where the voices came from. It all became one noise, and the room filled with light. A single red beam aimed at my friend’s chest.

“Get down on the ground!”

Pedro clutched the drawstring bag, which—when filled with valuables or money—we carried like a backpack, and tossed it to me. I instinctively caught it. He didn’t wait. To my surprise, he jumped out of the window but not the one we used to get inside. It all happened in a split second.

“Freeze!”

But Pedro was already gone. I turned towards the voices, the bag still in my hands. They told me to freeze, but it felt like the bag burned my hands so I dropped it to the floor. Like it mattered at all. I took a step back, which the police interpreted as an attempt to follow Pedro.

A moment later, they shot. I would have never guessed that such a small bullet could take down a muscleman.

Convulsed with pain, I hit the floor. I had imagined that a shot caused local pain. But no, that would be too easy. All the nerve cells in my body came to life at once, and only after a while did I feel the exact source of the excruciating pain.

“We’ve got a man down. We need an ambulance.”

As I lay on the floor, I caught a glimpse of the unusual ceiling decoration. A pattern ran in a straight line that ended abruptly when it touched the wall. A moment later, some faces appeared above me, and I tried to focus on them but I couldn’t.

“Where was he shot?” I heard voices above me.

“I’m not sure. In the chest, I guess.”

They struggled to rip my jacket off me.

If that was what death felt like, then it was awful. I was dying without a chance to make amends or do something good for a change. It wasn’t supposed to end like that.

“Why is he bleeding so much?”

“Do I look like a doctor?”

“Where’s the ambulance?” That voice sounded familiar, but it all seemed like one great noise turning to babble in slow motion. “We’re losing him!”

Lena, Summer 2015

I hated going back home. If I could have, I would never have left the dorm. For the past month, I’d put ads in every newspaper hoping to find a job. I was even willing to work as a waitress, dishwasher or cleaning lady, but my father wouldn’t let me get a job.

He said we had enough money and I didn’t need to worry about working until I die. He offered to transfer whatever sums I wanted. But he didn’t understand one thing: I wanted to work—and not because I needed my own money. I simply detested going back home, and I would do anything not to have to stay under the same roof with him. Eventually, I changed my tactics and told him I wanted to be independent and find some meaning in my life, but he wouldn’t listen. He stopped me every time before I even finished talking. According to him, anything could be bought with money.

Our negotiations ended the moment he blackmailed me and said that if I didn’t come home within a week, he would send someone over to drag me into the car and bring me to him against my will. I felt like screaming. Finally, I packed my things and got into my luxurious Escalade—so unfit for a student living in a dorm—to head for the seaside.

This is one more thing about my father that I should mention. He believed that, since I was a girl from a good home, I should have a comfortable, fancy ride, preferably pink, which in his opinion would reflect my personality. I had no idea about cars, but one day as I was watching a mafia film, I saw this car. Huge, full of gangsters. I mentioned to my father that it was my dream car. At first, he thought I was joking, but over time, he realized I was serious.

That was what our life looked like. I did everything to contradict his opinions about me. If he thought I should wear jeans, I put on a dress. When he said I should take tennis lessons, I chose boxing. It may sound childish, but that was the only way for me to oppose him.

He wanted so badly for his daughter from a good home to make him proud. He wanted to brag about me, especially among his rich, big-headed colleagues. All I wanted was a normal family, people who I could talk to about my problems, life and just because I wanted to, even without a reason. He had no right to force me to do anything. He thought parenting was about giving orders and demanding obedience.

Anyway, when I was little, he was hardly ever home. His focus had always been work. He was always busy with his clients—killers, criminals. He lied for them, devised ways to protect the worthless scum. Only to make a fortune by preying on someone else’s misfortune. The guiltier they were, the more they paid.

Over time, my father became referred to as the devil’s advocate. He could defend anyone. To do that, he acted like a writer, inventing scenarios, bending the truth as he deemed fit. Even if a bad guy was caught red-handed, my father would help him get out of jail and get away with anything. He had a number of contacts everywhere, and I had heard a few times that he had deep pockets. At first, I thought this meant his money, but then I realized it was a joke about everyone who was in his pocket, who he paid to serve him. His work was his driving force, and he enjoyed his achievements, whereas Mum and I were left alone. It seemed to me that at some point he forgot he had a family at all. Once, he even left for a few months and moved to another city to supervise some important business. Work mattered to him more than we did.

It was because of him that Mum fell ill. She was locked up and drugged in a psychiatric hospital. She didn’t acknowledge anything that went on and didn’t even recognize us. Whenever I paid her a visit, there was no reaction from her. I used to believe that if I provoked her, then her defunct mind would come to life, but it never happened. I could even slap her, and she would remain indifferent to her surroundings. She stared at whatever she was put in front of. If she was facing a wall, she would gape at it for hours.

Father kept signing her up—like a lab rat—for various experimental programs or drug trials. I’m sure he thought he was helping her. Maybe it was also his guilty conscience that made him try to make up for being an asshole. I wonder if—when she recovered one day—he would take her back as a wife and the mother of his only child.

Any other guy in his shoes, with his position, money and respect, would find another woman easily. But he had been living alone for years because he either didn’t have time for a relationship or didn’t need anyone by his side. Sometimes, I thought he was happier without her. I guess if he had to choose between sex and an interesting, difficult case, he would opt for the latter.

The car boomed with music, but it wasn’t enough to silence my thoughts. Coming here made me want to smash things. The mere thought of staying home got on my nerves. The only comforting aspect was that I was only there for a few weeks of summer holidays. I also promised myself that I would stay busy with something to spend as little time home as possible. But what could that be? All summer holidays were the same. I was friends with kids from other local rich houses so any free time we had, we spent together. I hung out with them because I had nothing else to do.

I parked in the driveway, and before I got out, the maid welcomed me cheerfully, trotting towards the trunk of the car. I opened it so she could take out my luggage, and then I went inside.

“Lena!” My father opened his arms, hoping I would hug him eagerly.

“Hi,” I said dryly, putting the car keys on the side table.

I looked at myself in the hallway mirror. It was stunning, huge with a golden frame, but it seemed like my face was distorted with unhappiness. It was like my features had changed just from staying in the house.

Father approached me, hugged me and kissed me on the head. I hated that too because it seemed like forced tenderness, like we actually had that connection. That was just another thing he did to me, without even noticing he was invading my personal space.

“Had a long ride?” he asked joyfully.

He was obviously happy. He’d already forgotten our last conversation, when he had blackmailed me to come here. Now, all of a sudden, he was a father missing his daughter. I didn’t feel like talking to him.

“Yes.” Lying to him came so easy.

“Everything is ready for you upstairs.”

“Could I stay at the bungalow this time?”

The maid had already started bringing my suitcases in. He didn’t help her, even when she struggled with the luggage through the door. If I had reached out to help her, he would have stopped me, saying it was her job, not mine. Then he would go on about the labor market and how lucky she was to have a job despite being uneducated. It was true that my father paid a lot and people would kill to work for him, but it felt awkward to watch her efforts when we both just stood next to her.

When she headed upstairs, Father stopped her and asked her to take my stuff to the bungalow. She looked at him and nodded politely. Then, in silence, she turned towards the bungalow.

That was why I didn’t want to stay in the house with him. The isolation from him was a substitute for normality. Without him, I felt like any other girl. It was his power, or rather the way he expressed it, that caused my guts to churn.

Once, the extra house was supposed to be used by our friends so that they could enjoy a separate, independent space. But I had never seen anyone stay in the bungalow when I was still living there.

“Thank you.” I smiled gently.

“No problem! Anything for my princess.”

I loathed that too. Him calling me his princess. It didn’t sound right. Just the opposite—to me it suggested that I was conceited and expected special treatment.

We crossed the house towards the terrace doors, passing our maid, who still struggled with the luggage, and then over the beautiful pavement to the bungalow several dozen meters away. In fact, many would consider the house a villa. We called it a bungalow because it was tiny compared to our family house.

Father followed, asking about my exams and college. He was happy for my successes. He thought I wanted to do the best I could in order to make him proud. But the truth was I was trying to get good grades because if I had failed, he would have brought me back home. College was the only way for me to escape this hell. If it could provide me freedom, I would stay in college forever.

When we reached the door, father took the lead and opened it with a magnetic card. He assured me right away that he would get a key for me. Inside, for no obvious reason, he showed me everything like I was a guest. Although I knew the layout of the house perfectly, he still showed me around the kitchen, bathrooms and bedrooms.

“Are you going to park the car in front of the house, in the garage, or would you rather come in from the other side of the property?”

“From the other side,” I answered quickly.

Any form of independence was priceless. If I parked in front of the house and used the main gate, he would see what I was doing, when I was going out or coming back home. I wouldn’t be able to stand it and wanted to be out of his sight. My new place was adjacent to a side driveway, so using the main gate would be pointless.

“I’ll show you the security camera.”

“Just give me the code.”

“No,” Father strongly objected. “You have to know your options. For your own safety.”

While I was gone, Father had changed the security in the property yet again. Whenever there was something new on the market, we had to have it. Some of the functions were the same, but he still showed me which wall-mounted buttons to press in case of an assault, as well as the remotes that I could carry with me. The only new thing for me was the surveillance of the whole premises. Almost every room had a camera that was not only recording the image but also had microphones sensitive to the tiniest noise. My wish for independence and invisibility was gone.

“I won’t have any privacy,” I said, irritated.

“It’s for your own good.”

“Who’s watching this? Because I assume someone is.”

“Yes, the guards. The ones you saw in the security booth at the gate.”

This was my moment, my only chance to get to him. “And you want a bunch of guys to watch your daughter?”

“But it’s for your own safety…” He paused, which meant he’d softened up.

His hesitation was a sign I was on the right track, so I continued.

“I will be taking a shower, walking around naked, and they’re gonna watch me. Thanks,” I added casually, but I knew it was working.

He frowned, considering all the pros and cons. Satisfied, I approached the device mounted on the ceiling and waved energetically, greeting the security guard who was probably watching us right now.

“Fine,” he conceded, “but only upstairs. You’ll have privacy there. But you’re under surveillance downstairs.”

“But—”

“No buts.” Father looked at me sternly. “End of discussion.”

That was another thing I hated. Whenever my father said those words, I knew that even if I grovelled or wept, he wouldn’t listen. That’s what he was. He believed he always knew everything better and that he had the right to make our decisions for Mum and me. Despite us. Then he justified it with necessity. He always said that if I listened to him, it would do me good.

“Besides,” he added, not waiting for my response, “if the alarm is not activated for the night, I’ll come over to check if everything is all right. You can text me day and night. I have to know you’re okay. I’ve got this app on my phone that keeps me posted on all activity here. I get notifications.”

He kissed me on the head again. Satisfied with himself, he scrutinized the surroundings as if looking for any imperfections in the spotless room. When he decided the inspection was over, he left me, wishing me a pleasant evening. At the door, he passed the maid, who had finally managed to lug all my suitcases and headed upstairs.

I told her to leave them in the hallway and sent her back to the main house. I just stopped her to let her know that she didn’t have to check on me and that I’d call for her if necessary. In response, she invited me for dinner in the house in about an hour.

My stomach clenched at the thought of having to eat on request. Nobody asked if I was hungry or wanted anything particular. How sad was that.

I replied a bit spitefully—though it wasn’t her fault—that they would have to eat without me because I had other plans. She responded to my rudeness with the usual smile. I treated her like a doormat, but I’d had enough of my father making my plans for me.

She left. I knelt at the suitcase and took out a dress—definitely the type my father would never approve of. When I went upstairs to freshen up, Father texted me that the cameras were off, as agreed. I was relieved. Considering his attitude, this was a huge success.

I planned to meet a friend of mine. One of those with a pretty face but no brains. She was the only one available that day. Other tolerable friends were returning home soon—they hadn’t managed to pass all the exams on time. Although I had postponed my arrival as long as possible, I suddenly realized that taking exams at the second deadline would grant me a few more days of freedom. Repeat exams at my college were held in September, but I promised myself I would see if there were any later dates. If so, I could purposefully fail the first time, prolonging my stay in Warsaw.

My car was parked in front of the main entrance to the house. I didn’t want my father to see me dressed like this, so I avoided him by calling a taxi. I arrived at the club a bit late because it turned out all the drivers were busy. Agata was already there, sitting at a small, round table and waiting for me. She greeted me with a squeal, like I had told her some exciting news, whereas all I said was, “Hey, how are you?”

My usual question seemed to her like a great opportunity to start an exuberant monologue about all that had changed since she last saw me. She was raving about some guy she’d met at one of the parties her father threw. To my surprise, when she started waving her hand, I couldn’t fail to notice a ring with a gem the size of an eyeball.

“We’re getting married next summer,” she explained when we found a table.

“Aren’t you too young to marry?” I couldn’t hide my surprise.

“How long do you want me to wait? We’re already twenty. If I’m lucky, I’ll be married next year, have a child in two years and another in three—”

“Hold on!” I stopped her outburst of joy. “What about college? Don’t you want to do something with your life?”

The waiter brought a menu on glossy paper and handed it to us. “Would you like something to drink?”

“Sangria,” I answered without even taking the menu or looking at it.

We knew the place very well. A year before, our parents had officially granted us permission to come here for the first time. Naturally, they insisted we go out with a bunch of friends. I wondered what Father would say to just the two of us going out on our own, but on the other hand, I didn’t feel the need to ask for his consent.

“Same for me.” Agata beamed at the waiter, and as soon as he was gone, she turned to me. “So where were we?”

“You being too young to get married.”

“I’m not.” She looked down, as if embarrassed.

“Have you thought about traveling, discovering the world? Couples only get married this young if the girl got knocked up,” I said, staring at her. “Wouldn’t you rather wait to be mature enough to make such a decision, to repeat the vow like you really mean it?”

I wanted her to know how ridiculous her idea of happiness was—next to some guy she had just met, to whom she wanted to entrust her life, giving up on her plans and dreams. Or maybe she just had none.

“Don’t you believe in love at first sight?” she asked, changing the subject.

“Know what I believe?” I cocked my head to one side. “I believe that two people can feel infatuated and want to have sex as quickly as possible. That’s what they call love at first sight, but actually, it’s just the urge to procreate. Or pure desire.”

“Lena!” she scolded.

“What?”

In fact, I might have regretted going out with her, but I’d assumed that after a few sangrias I’d be drunk enough to enjoy her company. It was just a matter of time—I was trying to cheer myself up.

The waiter brought us two sangrias. Luckily for me, they served drinks in huge glasses. I drank from the straw until a piece of strawberry got stuck in it. I crushed the tasteless fruit and started to suck again, hoping the alcohol would go to my head and stupefy me to match my companion’s level.

“Would you like to meet him?” Agata offered cheerfully.

I started choking. “Who?” I tried to cough up. “I’m sucking like a honey wagon, and you—”

“Lena!” Agata scolded me with a smile and explained, “My fiancé Bartek.”

“Sure!” I shouted louder than I should. “Bring him in!”

“What is it with this attitude of yours?”

“What attitude?”

“Patronizing?” she suggested, unsure whether I’d be offended.

“Well…” I sighed. “I haven’t seen you in six months. In the meantime, you’ve met some fancy-pants—”

“Don’t call him that!” she protested.

“I’m sorry.” I laid my hand on my chest.

It also gave me a chance to pull the corset of my short dress up a little higher. Lack of straps turned out to be inconvenient after all. Bare arms may be hot, but my breasts were too large for dresses like this.

“I didn’t mean to offend anyone,” I added more seriously.

“It’s okay,” she reassured me.

So why do you protest? I thought. Why couldn’t we have an open conversation without all that pretense? It had been like this since I could remember. Whenever one of us kids had cracked an inappropriate joke, we’d been forced to apologize or were even punished. Our manners had been very important, but to me it had only limited our true thoughts and real intentions. Our personalities.

“Who is he?” I asked, pretending to be more interested.

I realized I shouldn’t have asked that question. Agata couldn’t stop glorifying the guy. From what she told me, it seemed she had found a copy of God. Her husband-to-be was not only omniscient but also omnipotent—thanks to knowing lawyers and judges. Last but not least, he was irresistibly handsome. I was beginning to wonder if she hadn’t made it all up. As if there weren’t enough crazy people in my life. But the more she talked, the more convinced I was that unfortunately it was all true. She rambled on for a few hours. Over another sangria, her stories even started to seem funnier and more interesting. Every now and then, I added a sharp reply, for which I apologized immediately.

I came home drunk. The first thing I noticed was that my luggage was not in the hallway. I was more than certain that it had been there when I’d left a few hours before. I struggled to climb the stairs, frantically opened all of my closets and saw my clothes neatly piled. As I shuffled through the hangers, I couldn’t help swearing. I threw the clothes out of the closets, tears rolling down my face. I had told them to leave me alone. They wouldn’t give me any space.

Exhausted and crying, I flung myself on the bed. Why? Why couldn’t he let me make my own decisions? Why didn’t he respect my requests? Why couldn’t I leave my stuff wherever I wanted like a normal person? I hated that.

I woke to someone knocking on the door. It seemed like someone was pounding on my head. I barely sat up when my father entered the room. He looked fresh and smart, wearing a designer suit.

“If this is your routine when you’re alone, away from my reach, then we must talk.” He stood over my bed like an executioner.

“What routine?” I asked.

“I don’t like you drinking, coming home at night, sleeping till,” he checked his watch, “four p.m..”

“Oh my.” I ran my hands over my face.

I was trying to be gentle so it wouldn’t hurt. Moving or touching my head seemed like torture.

“Agata got engaged. We wanted to celebrate,” I explained although it wasn’t the actual reason. It wasn’t the first time I’d gotten wasted, but I’d never had to tell him about it. I knew that the moment he found out about it, that would be the end of my freedom. Looking him straight in the eye, I lied, “If I drank all the time, I wouldn’t feel so wrecked now.”

“You’re right,” he said. “Just be careful.” He turned around and headed for the door. “What happened here?” He gestured towards the contents of my closet tossed on the floor. “You couldn’t decide what to wear?”

His joke was funny, so my reaction was unexpected. I wanted a loud scene, and instead I just chuckled. It was an impulse, not how I really wanted to respond. Even though I knew what I should say, I kept silent. He probably wouldn’t have understood what I wanted from him anyway.

That night, I went to the beach. I sat in the sand, sifting it from one place to another and watching the sunset. The sea was the only thing that drew me there. I loved being here, listening to the restless roar, the call of nature demanding something from the beach. I imagined the waves to be arms, reaching out for the sand again and again.

On my way back to the bungalow, I opened the car windows and enjoyed the warm night. Sometimes in the summer, the night seemed so hot that I didn’t want to go back inside. There was something magical about such a pitch-black, sticky abyss.

When I walked into the main house, I realized my father had been waiting to have dinner with me, so I had to sit down with him at the table. As usual, he lectured me on the need to make good choices. He praised Agata, her plans, her…predictability. It was clear to me that he was worried about not knowing where I was going with my life. Maybe if I had known myself, it would have been easier. I also felt that in a way I was waiting for his opinion on my life so I could do the exact opposite. But his ideas were vague. For the first time in a long time, he talked about my happiness, though he had it all wrong, looking through the prism of Agata’s plans.

“Maybe you would like to visit your mother?” He caught me off guard.

“Would that change anything?” I asked, finishing my meal.

Talking to him was more tiring than digging a ditch—though I had never done it, I imagined it must be exhausting. Lately, we had nothing to talk about except his questions about college or Mum. That was all we had in common.

“Who can tell?” Father put the cutlery together, which was a sign for the maid that the meal was over. “Maybe she can understand.”

“Yeah,” I said slowly, knowing he was fooling himself. “If she understood anything, she wouldn’t stay there a minute. She’s indifferent…to everything and everyone.”

That was enough. I stood up, thanked him politely for the dinner, excused myself and ran to my bungalow and then to my bedroom. Upstairs, there was no sign of my mess. I could toss it all out again, but tomorrow everything would be back in order, like in that Groundhog Day movie.

Krystian, Winter 2006

I remember a day when Mum made dinner and we sat all together at the table. Dad put on his Sunday best, and Mum hustled in the kitchen, placing dishes with steaming food on the small table. I smiled at the memory of hot dishes sticking to the flower oilcloth. The details, like the sound of a plate tearing away from the plastic tablecloth, brought my memories back to life. My image of the old idyllic life was only complete with Malwina, sitting still in the highchair. She tapped on the tabletop with a plastic spoon. I replayed that moment in my memory as often as I could. I wanted to engrave every second of it in my mind like it was stone. We were happy.

That’s not how teenagers usually describe their family. They’d grumble about the trouble, harsh treatment or punishment for disobedience, rather than paying attention to the little things. I was different from the rest because I’d gone through hell. It hadn’t been until those experiences that I had learned to long for the things that weren’t coming back because they were gone for good. It also made me realize that I hadn’t appreciated them before.

I’ll start from the beginning. Mum worked at a bakery with Dad. They usually divided their work so that one of them was home with us all the time. Mainly because of Malwina. We couldn’t afford daycare; I was too little to take care of her, and hiring someone was out of the question because we’d have to pay the babysitter too much. So thanks to the fact that my sister—four years younger than me—had to stay home, for a few years one parent was with us every day. Our life was really well organized. Years went by, and we enjoyed what we had. We couldn’t go on vacation, but Dad took us to the lake. It was enough. It was the fun that mattered.

I couldn’t understand why Mum got sick. When I was ten, she got the first signs of asthma from working in dusty conditions, but even though she would cough and lose her breath, she was still joyful and loving. She wouldn’t let us see she was out of breath.

At first, she hid the symptoms and lied to us that everything was all right. We were either blind or wanted to believe the lie. Then one day, she fainted at work. She was taken to the hospital for a check-up. They prescribed her lots of meds and told her to take everything regularly. It was obvious to us that the meds made her feel much better, but Mum only bought them once.

It seemed everything was back to normal when one day the owner of the bakery called her to his office to ask if the rumor was true that she had asthma. He explained that, due to her illness, she could no longer work at the bakery and had to find another job. She begged him not to let her go, as she didn’t feel that bad and they exaggerated her illness at the hospital. He said he’d send her to the occupational medicine doctor to confirm she was okay to work there. But he never did.

Since she said she was fine, she was treated accordingly. He was unsympathetic and sent her back to work like everyone else. What’s more, the bakery staff did everything themselves, from cleaning to bringing supplies, milling grain, production and loading the bread in yellow crates to be ready for transport.

It was all going well until one day, during her shift, Mum was pouring flour into a large container where all bread ingredients were mixed together. It was so huge that she had to climb up a ladder to hold the bag while pouring. Her coworker brought the bag up the ladder to her and hung it on the last rung. All Mum did was cut the bag open and add the ingredients to the mix.

Nobody knew what went wrong. Mum probably had an asthma attack and passed out. The bag she was holding was so heavy that it pulled her inside.

The large dough-mixing blades tore her to pieces.

The guy working with her looked for her for a while, wondering where she had gone. Only when he climbed the ladder and glanced down did he realize what had happened. I heard people say they took fragments of her body out of the bloody dough, put them in a black bag and took it away.

It was a tragedy for everyone. They had to close the bakery for a few days, mainly due to cleaning the machine. The bakery manager was afraid nobody would want to eat bread mixed in a container where a woman had been dismembered. He cared more about his business than us. We were left to ourselves.

Dad couldn’t get over it. At first, he grieved in the usual way. Over time, he started to drink. He said only alcohol helped him forget. Reset his mind—stop thinking about her, his life, the loss. Dad’s friends often told me to help him, but what was I supposed to do? I was only twelve and had to look after Malwina holding on to me all the time. I was still a kid, waiting for my father, for his instructions.

But he could only see himself and his pain. Malwina and I were like two pieces of furniture. He steered clear of us. I had to get acquainted with house chores. I cooked—if I could find anything to eat—cleaned the house and looked after my sister.

It was fine while Dad had a job, even though the house without Mum was empty and miserable. Then some wise advisor told us that, in case of a work accident, we were entitled to huge payout. As it turned out—unlucky for us—Dad qualified for a widower’s pension and a single payment from the insurance company. It was the lowest rate in the group insurance, but to us it was a small fortune.

When I found out, I was overjoyed, expecting normal food, new clothes. But no such thing happened. To make matters worse, Dad quit his job and spent everything he got from the government on alcohol.

After two years of this, I went to social services to ask for help. The result was both good and bad. The good thing was that people started to care. We received food coupons deducted from the pension, so we could buy the groceries in a small, local store. The bad thing was that Dad beat me up because the guardian told him that unless he took proper care of us, we’d be transferred to a foster home and he’d no longer get the pension. He couldn’t let that happen, so as soon as he got the money, he tossed me two hundred-zloty bills, which I was supposed to spend on whatever we needed. It was meant to pull the wool over the eyes of the social services.

I really hated we hadn’t been taken into foster care. I would have gone to report him right away, but I was afraid they’d separate us. I would be fine, but Malwina… She was scared of everything.

She started having nightmares, screamed, cried, wet the bed. I had to sleep next to her because she didn’t want to be left alone. I would wake up to see the sheets were all wet. I asked her to try not to do it because we had already run out of clean sheets and towels. I even said I wouldn’t sleep with her if she wouldn’t stop. She begged me not to leave her and assured me I made her feel safe, but we both knew there was no future for us. We struggled to survive every single day, and we were losing hope anything would ever change.

On top of that, I had to encourage my sister to go to school. She didn’t want to because kids were mean to us. We were too hungry and terrified to focus, but social services arranged for free lunches at the school cafeteria and it turned out to be reason enough to go. One hot meal. Lunch—something we hadn’t had for two years.

One day, we got back from school, and Dad was sober. He made us French toast and even asked us about our day. We looked at him suspiciously, waiting for a blow. We were afraid he wanted to tell us something, but all we heard was a promise that he’d try hard to pull himself together for the sake of Mum. Unlike Malwina, I didn’t believe him. Not after two years of constant drinking. Then he surprised me by signing up for rehab. The program was financed by the state, so the only thing he had to do was stop drinking and show up for regular meetings.

He even took us once and introduced us to the group. They all looked at us with pity because of Mum. I wanted to tell them we had come to terms with her death a long time ago and the only thing they should pity us for was our father. He was the reason we had gone through poverty, real hunger, cold and fear.

The meeting was mostly full of losers, people blinded by something in their pursuit of the meaning of life. They all had one thing in common: they were haggard, resigned and cared more about being intoxicated than normal life.

Somehow, they understood one another and discussed their problems with the whole group. Sometimes, they even lingered after the meetings were officially over to talk about their fears face to face. I hoped a stranger would reach him more than we could. He attended the meetings willingly, and over time, he met a woman who enjoyed booze and at some point simply lost control.

At first, they saw each other at the meetings. Then he started bringing her home. After loud sex with my father, she would leave the bedroom to get some drinks or snacks from the kitchen. She didn’t care if we saw her with her clothes off. I had never seen a naked woman before. It was a nightmare. Over time, they started bending their elbows again, and they were back to where they started. Officially, Dad was sober for less than three weeks.

As it turned out later, his mistress had also been into drugs. When she went on a bender, she did cocaine. One time, I saw my father drugged, lying on the bed unconscious for two days. I thought he was dead, but I was afraid to call the police. I assumed that, if that was the case, then his carcass would start to decompose and stink and I would know for sure that was it. But he came round. For many weeks, instead of alcohol, he spent everything on drugs, which were much more expensive. That meant Dad needed more money for it and there was nothing left for us. He spent it all on his addictions, forgetting about us completely.

Once, he woke me up at night. Malwina was asleep next to me, so I quietly went out to the hallway, waiting for some explanation. Dad’s eyes looked weird. His pupils were huge, and he talked gibberish.

He dragged me to his room and pointed to his mistress. She lay on the bed in an unnatural position, and the room stunk. I pulled my shirt over my nose, trying to block the smell. Dad drew me to her naked body. I protested, not knowing what he wanted from me. But although he was wasted, he was stronger than me. He quickly dragged me close enough for me to see the reason of his panic.

She was dead. She’d choked on her own vomit.

Dad had woken me up so that I could help him get rid of the body. Social services would now have reason enough to take us away.

I hesitated. He probably guessed what was going on in my head because he slapped me. He grabbed her hands and ordered me to take her legs. Although she was thin and devastated by addiction, she weighed a ton. Plus, she was stone cold and pale. It seemed like she had been dead for a while and Dad only noticed after he woke up from his drugged sleep. We carried her though the hallway, but I wasn’t sure where we were taking her.

Suddenly, blood dripped from my nose to my lip. Until then I didn’t realize he’d hit me that hard. I wanted to wipe it, but both my hands were busy. I tried to reach with my face to my arm, but Dad yelled at me that because of all my squirming he’d almost dropped her. He told me to straighten up and walk upright.

I didn’t want to wake Malwina up. She wouldn’t have been able to cope with what she’d see. So I let the blood flow. Its taste, combined with the woman’s smell, made my stomach churn. I asked Dad for a short break, but he told me to keep walking and to throw up on her—as it wouldn’t make any difference. I tried to control myself by imagining something else.

Finally, we went outside. Still holding on to her legs, I vomited on and around her. I couldn’t stop it. After a while though, fresh air helped me feel better. Dad didn’t care that he’d dragged me out into the cold night with no shoes.

We carried her naked body along the road. We could only make it for a while, so we dumped her into the ditch and ran back. Dad ordered me to go back to sleep like nothing had happened. As if I hadn’t just carried a dead body. He pushed me towards my room, and I went inside but I couldn’t go to sleep. Shaking, I sat on the bed and wondered how it was possible to get a corpse out of the apartment unnoticed.

A few days later, the police showed up. Dad was smart enough to have burnt her clothes and the sheets and covered any tracks. When talking to the officers in our home at the table, he remained calm. What’s more, he referred to her as a whore who slept around, like he was outraged that she had been unfaithful. He suggested that someone banged her, left her naked by the road, she tripped and choked to death on her own vomit.

I silently prayed they wouldn’t believe him. I hoped they’d take him in, but he got away with it. The police officer only patted him on the back, saying Dad hadn’t had much luck with women. He wished him a trustworthy partner.

That single night changed a lot in our relationship. I started blackmailing him by saying I’d report him. I used that argument whenever I wanted something. Unfortunately, I had to use it a lot because we hardly had anything at home.

But he was clever. He quickly realized I was bluffing. He started beating me more often. Over the next two years, it became a routine. At first, I only tried to block his blows, but I got angrier, until one day, I hit him back. At the age of sixteen, I was strong and able enough to take him down in minutes.

Malwina blamed me for the trouble at home. She thought that if I hadn’t provoked Dad or expected him to take care of us or give us money and I’d just left him be, our life would have been so much different. I tried to make her see that, if I hadn’t fought, he’d have forgotten about us altogether and we wouldn’t have hot meals or food coupons, but I couldn’t convince her. Her mind was already made up. Sometimes, she even defended him. When I hit him back, she would kneel next to him and help him up.

That was when I started looking for distant relatives. But my search was in vain. People denied any relations to us, fearing the responsibility. Mum’s parents were dead, and Dad’s parents had never kept in touch. I had nobody, no help, and to make things worse, Malwina blamed me for any fight, any problem. We ended up yelling at each other. Our solidarity was shattered.

Whenever Dad came home drunk, he was conscious enough to pick on me. He called me lazy and a parasite. He kept saying I shamed my mother and she was turning in her grave.

Then I said something I should have never even thought about. I yelled at him that it was all his fault that our life was so miserable, that he had made Mum sick, hadn’t been able to make ends meet and his children had been wasting away in filth and reek, because all he cared about was getting laid and boozed up. He kicked me out, locked the door and told me never to come back. He added that he’d never think of me as his son again, and from that time on, I was dead to him.

On that day, I became homeless at sixteen.

Lena, Summer 2015

I lay on a deck chair at the pool. The heat was almost unbearable, but I had nothing else to do. I read some mind-numbing magazines I found on my father’s desk and set out on a mission to find something positive in that rag, but it turned out almost impossible. After a few articles about fires, murders, corrupt officials and investigations, I put the magazine aside.

Hidden under a sunshade, I took out my laptop and tried to log in to my email and other websites. I quickly went to Facebook to check out Agata’s profile. Indeed, I had missed the news of her engagement with Bartek from a few weeks back. I clicked his account, but there was nothing except a picture of his feet on the beach. His profile was private, and since I wasn’t friends with him, that was all I could see. I rummaged through Agata’s profile to find a photo of her fiancé. To my surprise, there were some he looked really good in.

I had to admit I felt a twinge of jealousy that she had someone. I wasn’t ugly and didn’t have any problems with the opposite sex, but I was still single. I couldn’t stand guys’ childish approach to life. I wanted a man who’d ask me a thought-provoking question. I wanted someone who’d be self-confident but not cocky, who—like John Cusack—would hold a boombox above his head at my window. A guy who’d be proud to be with me not because I had big boobs but because we could talk the whole night through and I would be his inspiration. Someone special, someone ready to sacrifice.

It seemed like all my relationships had been like a trade—exchange of goods. At first, I enjoyed it, and when I moved to the dorm, a lot was going on. But I quickly got bored with one-night stands. It was nice, but I missed someone I could tell how I felt and who’d listen to me. In my freshman year, I met no such person.

I wondered what Agata’s boyfriend was like. He seemed like a guy with no opinion of his own. I messaged her, asking about her plans for that night, thinking I would meet him and find out. She quickly wrote me back saying they were going to the beach with Bartek’s friends and she wanted me to join them because she always felt jitters before meeting them. I said yes right away.

Later, I parked my Escalade near the main entrance to the beach and went to the place Agata mentioned in her message. The group of friends sat in a circle on the sand, right next to the volleyball court. They were talking about something when I approached them with caution, and then they all got silent and looked in my direction.

Agata introduced me to everyone. I didn’t remember any names, but Bartek caught my eye. He looked like any girl’s dream come true. Tall, handsome and smiling like an actor. Agata wouldn’t leave him for a second. She held his hand like she wanted to claim him as her property and no other girl shall come close.

“Lena, right?” He looked at me amiably.

“Yes,” I confirmed.

“Want something to drink? Beer, water, Coke?”

“Maybe a beer. Depends on how long we’re staying here. I drove here.” I winced as if to say I hadn’t thought it through.

“Get a beer if you want. Sylwia and I can take you home later in my car,” assured a guy that I didn’t pay much attention to before. In his lap, he held a blond girl wearing shorts so tiny I could see her underwear.

“No way! My father would kill me if I left the car out here,” I explained quickly. “I guess I’ll stick with water.”

“So, what do you do?” Bartek scrutinized me. “I mean in your life.”

“I study.”

“What?”

“Polish. I want to write.”

“Write?” The blonde’s boyfriend raised his eyebrows. “Like what? Denunciations?”

“No.” I always got the same reaction. People didn’t take writing seriously. I was used to that. Nothing new there. I knew where this conversation was going.

“What then? Articles? Like a journalist?” Bartek asked.

“No, I was thinking fiction.”

“Fiction? Like space and UFOs?”

“No, but you haven’t asked a single question that I haven’t heard before. That’s the usual reaction.”

“You know,” Bartek said, “everyone knows that a dentist treats your teeth, a surgeon performs surgeries and…”

“A writer writes,” I finished for him. “Where are you going with those examples?”

My response irritated him because he frowned. “Just asking. Are you one of those hostile activists? Feminists?”

“You know what?” I looked at him with defiance. “I once heard that every woman can be called that if she opposes a man in any way. The definition is so ambiguous. It evokes strong emotions so you can never tell if it is used as a term or an insult.”

“Yes!” Bartek clapped his hands. “You’re writer material. You should write for some independent magazine.”

They all stared at me, including Agata. I wondered if that was what made her uncomfortable around those people. I felt weird too. I asked myself whether I should defend my profession, the activists or comment on his arrogance.

“Exactly,” I said. “I’d better write on modern equality of rights and guys like you or my father, who deprive women of their right to their own opinion in broad daylight just because they are some big fish. On those who use power and money to solve every problem. I’ve had enough of those pseudo-gentlemen who made up their minds a long time ago about what women should be like. The mutual silent understanding, in which the woman jumps as high as the man commands.”

“Whatever.” Bartek waved his hand disrespectfully. “Agata told me you are aggressive.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” I asked, stupefied. “I thought we were having a conversation.”

“Should we play volleyball?” He turned to the others, ignoring me completely.

“Whoa,” I scolded him.

“Listen.” He turned to me. “If you were nice, the conversation could have been so much different, but it wasn’t—because of this attitude of yours. I don’t want to spend my free time talking bullshit. Feel free to burn out. I won’t.”

He stood and produced a ball out of a bag next to a log. His friends got up and followed him to the tightly stretched volleyball net. Agata stayed behind.

“He’s not that bad,” she tried to explain his behavior when we were alone.

They played volleyball, and we talked, our eyes never leaving them.

“I guess that was the sweet side of him?”

“Why are you being so negative? Why do you assume you are under attack when someone asks you a question?” Agata was serious. She was looking at me as if I’d done something wrong.

“Didn’t you hear what he said?”

“Nothing,” she blurted, irritated. “Sometimes, I think those stories of your father treating you bad are all the same.”

“Which means?” I shifted my gaze at her and leaned slightly backward so that I could see her better.

“Exaggerated.” Her bitterness made me scowl.

“You don’t understand,” I began calmly. “Your mother is not in a mental facility, and your father is not addicted to making money—”

“Lena!” She stopped me. “For some time now, my parents have been arguing like hell. They call each other names, sometimes throw dishes, but no matter what they do, they are still my parents and I respect them. For what they do for me. Maybe you should take another look to see who’s got your back because you’re fixed on what’s coming. You’re fighting, thinking something is holding you down, and in fact you’re fighting the arms that keep you from falling.”

“So you think I’m a spoiled princess?”

“No.” Agata got up from the big log and stood in front of me. “I think you’re very independent, intriguing, brave and funny, but… immature.”

“You do exactly as they say in negotiation textbooks. You praise me a lot and then briefly state what you really think, all in one sentence, diverting me from the critique.”

“Listen to what I say rather than how I say it.” She squeezed my hand. “I’m going to play. Wanna join us?”

“I think I’m going home to ponder myself,” I said spitefully.

Agata didn’t stop me. I didn’t expect her to. I got into my car and headed home. As if that was not enough, on my way back, I had a nasty incident with some guy. He was skateboarding and going around something blocking his way, just to end up right in front of my car. I honked, and in reply, he hit the hood with a fist. He scared me to death. I didn’t know why he wasn’t riding on the sidewalk.

But the moment I looked to the side, I saw a crowd of people slowly heading for the beach. Women with strollers had to wait for more space between tourists to pass through. Now I got why he’d chosen the street. But I still couldn’t understand his attitude.

I stopped at the restaurant with the best fish in town and hoped it would be the highlight of the day. I had a lot of fond memories of that place and wanted to soak into them to cheer up. Hoping all that stress would go away as soon as I got my food, I sat comfortably in a wicker chair. I didn’t even look at the menu—I knew exactly what I wanted. After a short moment, the waiter brought me my order.

“Hey!” someone shouted close by.

A number of tables were on the sidewalk, which left only a narrow walkway. Passersby had to walk in two rows moving in opposite directions. I was sitting by the walkway, but at first I didn’t think the call was for me.

“Hey!” I heard again, but only then did I manage to identify the person the voice belonged to—the same guy with the skateboard in his hand. “Learn to drive that tank of yours, or you might kill someone!”

He seemed aggressive. I didn’t have a chance to take a closer look at him from the car. Now I stared at him, unsure how to react. My mouth went dry.

“Did you hear me?” He kept shouting. “You could at least apologize!”

He wouldn’t leave. People watched us, not aware of the reason for his outburst. From the looks of him, he could’ve been a troublemaker waiting for a chance to hit someone. He was the one who’d gotten right in front of my car, and now not only was he insulting me but also demanded an apology. As if any of that was my fault.

Then I remembered stories of people flinging themselves under luxury cars to get insurance money. They knew that since the driver could afford such a car, then he or she would also be able to pay through the nose for an injury. But I didn’t do anything to him so I was under no obligation to talk to him. To my surprise, the restaurant staff just watched the whole thing instead of chasing the guy away.

“Could I get a table inside, please?” I asked the waiter next to me, who stared at that guy.

My question brought him back.

“Certainly,” he replied, embarrassed.

He moved aside to let me through. Silently, he grabbed my plate and glass of water. Not looking back, I entered the restaurant. I took a deep breath, hoping it was the last trouble that day. It had thrown me completely off balance. I kept eating, but inside I still trembled and couldn’t enjoy the food. Plus the fish didn’t taste the way I remembered, or maybe it was the bitter experience that affected my taste buds.

At the bungalow, Father was waiting for me. He sat comfortably in the armchair, legs on a glass coffee table, going through some papers and sipping a golden liquid from a fancy, square glass with a gem-encrusted bottom.

“You hungry?” he asked the moment I closed the door.

“No, I ate at a fish restaurant near the beach.” I laid the car keys on a table next to the door and walked into the room.

I stood over him, wondering how long he’d waited for me like this. He was here for a reason so I waited, but he only pointed to the couch and, when I sat down, started talking again.

“On Saturday, Agata is having a party to celebrate her engagement.”

“But they got engaged a long time ago,” I pointed out.

“Yes. Agata was waiting for all her friends to come back to Sopot.”

“Let me guess.” I rolled my eyes. “She wanted to show off.”

“Even if that’s true,” Father put the papers back into a cream-colored folder, “she has the right to do so. We have plus-one invitations. If you don’t have anyone to bring with you, you’ll go alone, okay?”

“Are you taking anyone?” I replied with a tricky question.

“Saturday, you and I are going together. Be ready at nine.”

He got up and left. I wondered why Agata hadn’t mentioned it when we met in the club the day after I had arrived. She must have told me after I had blacked out. But because of all this, it suddenly seemed like she was ten years older than me. I decided to buy myself something chic to match those show-offs.