tagNovels and NovellasThe Freshman Ch. 34

The Freshman Ch. 34

bycaligula97236©

Chapter 34 - A night in the Temple of the Ancients

Following the trial, Jason and Cecilia faced the reality of having to live their lives as a normal unmarried couple in Danube City. What that meant was staying with families in two separate houses and adhering to the social norms of one of the most conservative countries in Europe. They could see each other whenever they wanted, were free to travel about Danube City and to any other part of the country, and could spend their time as they pleased. What they could not do was sleep together. Sleeping together came to an abrupt halt the day they checked out of their hotel room.

Vladik Dukov came by in his police van to pick up the three Americans from their hotel rooms the day after the trial ended. They had different destinations: Cynthia would stay with her sister Kimberly and her husband Sergekt Dolkiv, Jason would stay with the Prime Minister's friend Alexi Havlakt and his wife, and Cecilia would stay with the Prime Minister's brother.

Both Jason and Cecilia knew that they could expect to be treated kindly by their host families and that the arrangement was necessary to make sure they lived in houses of people the Prime Minister could trust. He valued their contribution to his country and wanted to safeguard their lives. He also wanted to make sure their difficult transition to a life in the Duchy was made as easy as possible by people guaranteed to treat them well.

There was another issue that concerned the Prime Minister, and that was the public image of Jason and Cecilia. Like it or not, the Americans now were public figures in the Duchy. They were unofficial representatives of the United States and would serve an important role in helping to soothe the anti-American sentiment now sweeping the capitol. They absolutely had to lead honorable lives that satisfied the social norms of the country and present themselves to the Danubian public as living proof that not everyone from the U.S. was a money-grubbing degenerate.

Following the trial Jason and Cecilia would have to follow daily routines typical for any unmarried young Danubian. In spite of their huge contribution to the country, the special treatment Jason and Cecilia received from their hosts would be rather modest. They were given what Dukov considered necessary to lead secure and productive lives, including full university scholarships and student visas, free study materials, a small weekly allowance for entertainment, and free room and board. They were expected to use those resources to move ahead with their career goals, but also they were expected to fit into the culture of Danube City. Their moment of notoriety came and went, and now it was time for them to live normally and settle into the society as ordinary citizens. They had been assigned their place in Danubian society, which would only change if they got married or left the country. They would move in with Danubian families and be subjected to the expectations and restrictions typical of most "proper" households.

Before the newcomers had a chance to balk at their situations, Kim was quick to explain the Danubian concept of "household". A person who lived in a Danubian household was considered a full member of that family, even if he or she was unrelated. Being a member of a household was crucial to ensure that the newcomers were respected by everyone around them. "The household" was an important part of every person's identity under Danubian protocol. Over time, as their ability to speak the language improved and they settled into a daily routine, which household Jason and Cecilia belonged to would be more important in the minds of the Danubians than the fact they were foreigners.

Kim cited her own life as an example of what was expected of the two newcomers. When she was first sentenced and placed under the custody of Vladim Dukov, the Spokesman faced a very difficult situation about what to do with her. Finally, since she had nowhere else to go and was under his custody anyway, he simply decided to make her a member of his household. At first he did not tell Kim that her arrangement with his family was likely to be permanent, just in case it did not work out. However, over time Kim learned that she had entered into an unspoken, but official agreement with the Dukovs. The agreement allowed Kim full use of anything in the house, but at the same time imposed responsibilities very similar to those imposed on Anyia Dukov, who was 14 at the time.

Whatever objections the couple might have to the restrictions, their situations did give Jason and Cecilia an immediate feeling of belonging. Being members of households also kept them busy. The Havlakts expected Jason to help with gardening and house repairs. Alexi Havalkt never asked Jason do anything by himself, but if he was outside in the yard or working on the house, he expected Jason to drop what he was doing and go out with him. Cecilia, as a member of Victor Dukov's household, had to go shopping with Tiffany and help her carry groceries at least three times a week. On top of the shopping, there was always the intense cooking required for the weekly Sunday dinners for Vladik and Jason.

There was a final detail about their lives that Cecilia and Jason would only discover much later. The Prime Minister and several of his cabinet ministers, along with the members of "Socrates' Mistresses", had pooled money out of their own salaries to support them and finance their university enrollments. As much as he wanted the country to express its gratitude to the two young Americans who had saved his government, Dukov felt it was inappropriate to take money out of the national budget for what he considered a private matter. He did not want the young couple to feel obligated to the Parliament, nor did he want any Deputies to question why Americans were getting public money that could have been used to help Danubians. Instead he and the people close to him made their own arrangements to help Jason and Cecilia set up their lives in Danube City. It was a question of honor, for both the Prime Minister and his guests.

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Kim addressed another issue that had been in the back of Cecilia's mind, but had been afraid to bring up to anyone. She had been wondering how she might be received in a society that was the most isolated country in Europe and had seen very few non-Europeans. Somehow, Kim had picked up on Cecilia's unspoken anxiety and decided to bring it up herself.

Kim admitted that the Danubians were very closed minded about the outside world. The country felt besieged by foreign influences, which was why foreign music and entertainment were very much frowned upon. There was only grudging acceptance of any foreign fashion influences, and Kim speculated that the society never would accept any clothing such as swimsuits that directly manifested foreign values. The Danubians were especially hostile to any perceived threats to their traditions, such as being told their legal system was deficient or that they needed to change their faith. That embedded hostility explained why recently passed laws prohibiting the proselytizing of non-Danubian religion were very popular among the public.

"They're totally adamant about the whole religion thing. You have these foreign missionaries coming into the country, telling people here that they're going to Hell because they're following beliefs that are 3000 years old, and yes, they get offended. Really offended. It's not something they're interested in hearing, so they made it a crime to promote any foreign religion in Upper Danubia. Even the Prime Minister, who's probably about as open-minded a person as you're going to get in this country, puts his foot down when it comes to religion. On that he's as intolerant as anyone else."

So the question remained, how was it that Kimberly Lee, who was not from the country and not even European, could find herself fully accepted by the Danubians? The answer was that she had become one of them in her habits, her outlook in life, and in the way she carried herself. During her two-year sentence she had internalized Danubian values and morals. Her friends and her lifestyle were Danubian, and she usually wore Danubian clothing. As for her hair, it always was done up in traditional braids.

"If you really want to fit in, do your hair up like I got mine. If you do that one simple thing, you'll be sending a signal that you understand this country's values and are willing to accept them in your life. As long as you don't challenge the way people here think and make that clear to everyone, they'll accept you. They don't care about your skin. They care about what's in your heart."

Cecilia sighed. She was not thrilled about the closed nature of Danubian society, but at the same time was relieved that she would be judged depending on how she behaved, no so much on how she looked. She felt somewhat reassured that she controlled the extent to which she would be accepted.

She took a chair and sat down, allowing Kim to braid her hair. It turned out that her friend was right about the hairstyle. When Cecilia went back out on the street with her hair braided, she noticed far fewer curious looks from passers-by.

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Cecilia heaved a sad sigh as she got off the van and let Victor Dukov and Jason help her unload her suitcases. Jason could not follow her in. He would be invited over for dinner Sunday afternoon. It would not be proper for him to enter the house anytime before the first formal dinner.

Tiffany Walker helped Cecilia get her suitcases upstairs and set up her room. Cecilia's room was nice, with solid furniture and plenty of room to hang her clothes and keep her things. The room had a radio but no television. The window overlooked a tree-lined street that led westward to the National University, which was only about five blocks away.

Tiffany helped Cecilia unpack and put away her clothes. Cecilia noticed Tiffany looking at her clothing with interest, as the naked young woman asked what kind of clothing had become popular in the U.S. during the two years she had been living in Danube City.

Tiffany then invited Cecilia over to see her own room. Tiffany had a computer and several shelves of books. There were study materials on her desk and pictures of herself and Vladik Dukov on her dresser. There were also a bunch of pictures of her family members in the U.S. and of several young women, who she explained were co-workers at the strip club where she had been working before coming to Upper Danubia.

What struck Cecilia about her housemate's room was the complete absence of any clothing. The closet was empty, even of hangers. There was only a single item Tiffany was ever permitted to wear during the summer, and that was a pair of orange tennis shoes when she rode her bicycle. If she wasn't on the bicycle she had to take them off. Another thing about Tiffany's room that struck Cecilia was that her bed had a sheet covering the mattress, but no covers. Tiffany explained that as a criminal she was not supposed to cover her body, not even at night. As best she could, she adhered to that condition of her sentence. Except during the coldest part of the winter she slept on her bed completely uncovered.

Tiffany talked about her daily life, which actually did not seem all that bad. She had a fairly normal relationship with Vladik, in spite of being a criminal engaged to a police officer. She went on to explain that he had been performing public penance when she met him. Essentially penance gave him a social status no better than that of a criminal and not much better than her. She comforted him during a very difficult time in his life, while he helped her adjust to the reality of her sentence. When he ended his penance Vladik flatly told his parents that he wanted to become engaged to her. He proposed the previous summer and gave her the three engagement presents that always accompanied a formal proposal.

Tiffany talked about their social life and their frequent evenings in the Socrates Club. Cecilia was curious:

"So you're always goin' there? Just to dance and listen to a bunch of people talk about their lives? Doesn't that get boring after a while?"

"No. That's not all we do, Cecilia. Most nights we go upstairs, you know, to the intimacy rooms. I think Vladik would go nuts if we couldn't go upstairs."

"What's upstairs?"

"The rooms, you know, for making love."

"They actually got that?"

"Sure. I mean it's just for members, but that's one thing out of a bunch of things they do to try to make our lives a bit better. You know, it's tough being a criminal, but in some ways I think our lives are easier than most people here. The society doesn't have the same expectations of us, and we don't have to be so stuffy in our day-to-day living. We can hug each other, show our emotions, make love when we want...in a lot of ways our lives are a lot more natural than average people. Kim can tell you...she and Sergekt were a lot different when they were criminals than they are now."

"What about Vladik?"

"When he's on the street, he's a cop. When he's in the club with me, he's my guest and no better than anyone else. And, that's good for both of us. If it weren't for the club, we'd have a real hard time finding a place we could spend time with each other...you know, like alone..."

Cecilia's heart jumped. She had dreaded the possibility of being forced back into a life of celibacy, even though her emotional relationship with Jason was stronger than ever. So there was a place where people could go to make love...

"What do you gotta do, to be able to use those rooms?"

"You have to be a member of the club, or the registered guest of a member. But you gotta remember the club is mostly for criminals. To be eligible for membership you have to be collared. If you're not collared they'll let you onto the main floor, but you can't use the upstairs rooms or the gym, not unless you're the guest of a member who is collared."

"So you gotta be convicted of something, right?"

"Or performing public penance for the Temple. The club considers a person performing penance a criminal as far as membership is concerned, because they're officially wearing a collar."

Cecilia was quiet, as she contemplated that interesting piece of information. The two Americans then heard a voice calling them from downstairs. It was Mrs. Dukov.

"Deevonay étek Cécilekt, yahúk hochtúckt yeestesh dék?"

Tiffany answered back.

"Doc-doc. Nam dék idém."

She turned to Cecilia. "Lunchtime. Let's head downstairs. After lunch we'll go out and I'll show you around the neighborhood."

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While Cecilia was getting to know Tiffany, Jason was struggling to communicate with Alexi Havlakt and his wife. He quickly settled into his room and joined them for lunch, then sat for a long period of time while they showed him a bunch of pictures of their kids as they were growing up. Of course, because of the language barrier, Jason did not have a clue about who were the people in the pictures. Sometime in the future he would have to see the pictures again, when he could figure out what on earth the older couple was saying.

Seeing the pictures reminded him of something. He needed to call his grandmother and ask how she was doing. As he thought about that, sitting in the living room looking at a bunch of pictures of people he did not know, the doorbell rang. Mr. Havlakt answered it and let in Cynthia and Kimberly Lee.

The two women did not have happy expressions on their faces. Kim briefly talked to Alexi Havlakt, whose expression suddenly changed and became very serious. It was Cynthia who took Jason outside.

"Jason, I got a question for you. Have you...ever talked to...talked to anyone in your family since you got here?"

"Uh, no. I've been kinda afraid to, you know, 'cause everyone's been saying I'm in so much danger and I didn't want to get anyone in trouble."

"You're grandma called this morning...she called my parents, and then she called me at Kim's place. She's gotta to talk to you, like...right away."

"About my folks?"

"Yeah."

"Are they OK?"

"No. They're not OK. They both got shot last Monday...I mean Monday of last week."

"Shit...I...didn't..."

"It wasn't because of anything you did. From what your grandma told me, Mega-Town had nothing to do with it. What happened was that some ex-boyfriend of your sister showed up at the house completely stoned and just started shooting...first your mom, then your dad, then one of your maids, and then one of her friends. What's weird is the police think that what he really wanted to do was kill Cassie, but it seemed she was the only one he didn't get. She got away, ran next door, and when the guy followed her, your neighbor shot him."

"And they're all dead?"

"I'm afraid so."

"What about Cassie?"

"She's in the psychiatric ward at the Carterville Community Hospital right now. I mean, she saw her friend's head get blown off and his body come down the stairs. She actually saw that guy get killed. And then seeing your maid shot up in the kitchen...and with your folks dead too...and her ex-boyfriend...she's pretty messed up. I suppose I'd be pretty messed up too, if I saw all that."

Finally Jason nerved himself to call his grandmother. He expected her to be distraught, but she seemed perfectly calm. She spent the next hour filling in the awful details about his parents' deaths. Jason was surprised when he found himself much more upset over Rita's murder than over the shooting of his own parents, and only later would understand why. Even in death, his father had managed to destroy the life of someone totally innocent. Mr. Schmidt's actions had managed to take one final person to the grave with him.

Jason's grandmother told him another detail, which made him understand why she did not mourn the death of her son. She had gone through his papers and realized how he was planning to deal with his financial problems, by cutting his ties to his family.

"You have to realize your father was a very sick man, Jason. I'm not surprised by anything that's happened. I knew it was coming. And as for your father, I stopped grieving for him a long time ago. He's been dead for years."

Jason's grandmother went on to describe the funeral of his parents. The only three people present were herself, Jason's aunt on his mother's side, and his fat cousin. No one else attended, not even Cassie. She was too distraught to even think straight and spent the day under sedation. None of Mr. Schmidt's business partners attended, nor did any of his co-conspirators. He was dead, thus his usefulness to them had ended. In contrast, Rita's funeral had been attended by nearly 200 friends, relatives, and co-workers from her maid service.

The conversation moved on to Cassie. She had calmed down enough that she would be released from the hospital the following week. Jason's grandmother already had a room in her condo set up for her, since the girl had no where else to go. It would be very hard, because Cassie was completely withdrawn and uncommunicative.

"Grandma, do you think there's anything I could do for her?"

"There will be, but not yet. When the time comes, when it's safe for you to come back and she's ready, I'll need you to come get her. But that's not going to be for a while. I'll tell you, when it's time." Jason heard his grandmother sigh over the phone. "I've got a very hard summer ahead of me, dealing with what's happened to your sister, but right now there's nothing you can do about it. Just be thankful you got away when you did."

By the tone of her voice, Jason knew his grandmother was not finished relaying bad news. She drew a deep breath and continued:

"There's more, Jason. Do you remember when you told me that you thought your father put his own money into the coup and you thought he got wiped out financially?"

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