Chapter 01

If someone from the crowded bus paid any attention to the girl in the black coat, they would have seen a very cinematic stream of expressions passing her face. Jana Brauner, as it was, was having another imaginary argument with her History of Atheism teacher, and wasn’t sure herself whether it was the imaginary lengths this argument came to or the fact that she couldn’t help herself fighting with him all the time that made her angrier. Quite possibly it was both of these reasons. She didn’t even know he existed a month ago, but ever since she found out, he was ruling her world, but not in a pleasant fashion. The books she read, the music she listened to, the thoughts her mind drew from numerous conversations she had, everything was immediately scrutinized for his sake. What would he think? What would he say? And then the arguments would start in her head, because she was certain he would say things which would offend her and most likely ignite her rage. It was as if he looked at her once and immediately knew the fuel which would burn best in her heart. In an adverse fashion.

The teacher’s name was Zoran Mladenović, he was only slightly older than Jana, very smart and perfectly aware of it. Jana was fortunate enough to only have one other teacher she considered an idiot, but while it was somehow possible to come to terms with him, Zoran just haunted her days and nights and constantly nagged her mind to try to prove him wrong. There was nothing she longed for more in her life right now. And at the same time, she didn’t believe she could ever make this resolution come true.

She got off the bus and took three more stops by a tram. She was on her way to a lecture held at theArchdiocesanMuseum. Zoran would, of course, disapprove of her even setting foot on its soil, although Jana had eagerly waited for six years to see the result of the Museum’s reconstruction, and the lecture had nothing to do with religion or the church anyway. Neither did the Museum, surprisingly, at least not to a great extent. She passed the security man at the staircase to the first floor and smiled at him as well as a couple of elderly female Museum workers upstairs. After all, she was happy she had found such a great way to educate herself. The Museums inOlomoucoften organized free public lectures on the most interesting topics, and Jana, who was much into art and culture, was drunk on bliss when she could attend.

She took her usual seat at the edge of the very first row and took out a book from her handbag. It was a short collection of quotes by Comenius, and, obviously, she was wondering whether Zoran would admit their ingenuity even though the author of these thoughts had been deeply religious. She managed to read about five pages before the speaker was announced and the lecture began. This time it was a young lady introducing the life and work of Lola Beer Ebner, an Israeli fashion designer of Czech origin. Jana enjoyed the lecture very much. Afterwards she went home, ravenously hungry, longing for a nice supper with hot tea. She got those about half an hour later, and while she was at it, she also got an invitation to a traditional Erasmus students’ party. She’d never been to any of those before, since at the beginning of the term she had been sick and when she got better she had already been used to a different day routine. Staying up half the night with the prospect of a boring lecture the following morning just seemed too dangerous.

Still, no harm in taking a look just once, right? She squeezed herself into her freshly washed shiny black jeans, put on her favourite purple blouse and over it a furry black sleeveless turtleneck, complemented with a loose silver bead chain around her waist. The only other pieces of jewellery she wore were her long, butterfly-shaped purple earrings.

She was ready to set out with her German roommate at nine. They met one of her friends first, and after ten arrived at the party. The crowd wasn’t big yet, and so they settled at one of the tables, ordered drinks and started chatting away. The bar gradually filled with people, who started mixing with each other, founding arbitrary chat and/or drinking groups and dancing. Jana wasn’t exactly amused. As a result of her illness at the beginning of the term, she hadn’t met any of the students present in the bar, and while she couldn’t possibly ask Sina, her roommate, or Julia, one of her other classmates, to stay close to her all night, she occasionally found herself what she had mostly been: an observer. Well, at least she saw what the parties were like, she told herself as she finished her glass of Kofola and decided to call it a night. She paid for her drink and disappeared to make her “safety stop” at the ladies.

It was when she re-emerged in the bar and aimed for the coat hanger when she almost bumped into Zoran, who had just come with some friends.

“Oh, Jesus Christ,” she muttered.

“Hey,” he greeted her fairly cheerfully. “Fancy seeing you here.”

“Hey. Well, likewise.”

“I’m here practically all the time. You see, my weekend…”

“… has six days, I know,” she finished the sentence for him.

“Well remembered. So, can I buy you a drink?”

“Actually, I was just leaving.”

“So soon? You know, if you really want to get in the spirit of these parties, you have to leave here by the first morning tram.”

“That would be rather inconvenient, given that we have school tomorrow morning.”

“Great, you can go straight there from the party.”

Jana gave him a you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me look and put on her coat.

“There’s another reason, Mr. Mladenović. It’s quite enough to have to be in the same room with you at school. I really can’t be bothered in my spare time.”

„Says the girl who took me out to a cemetery.”

„Which completely cured the girl of any hope she could ever have a pleasant conversation with you. Thanks, but if we were the last people on this cursed planet, I would run away from you. Good night.“

With that she spun on her heel and left the bar. She was burning hot with a strange concoction of nervousness, shame and anger pulsing through her veins. She walked to the bus station, found out there were no buses this late, and set off on the three-kilometre walk home, wondering all the time how she could have been so childish and what he might have said if she hadn’t left.

She was still wondering about that when she eventually fell asleep athalf past midnight. Yes, this whole cemetery thing. The second lecture with Zoran had depressed her so much that she’d run down the stairs into the park afterwards, sat down on a bench and cried, something that Sina never understood („How can you let a lecture get to you like that?“). And later she‘d decided to email him about it, ask him a few questions, tell him about the fear she was constantly fighting and how he, hopefully unintentionally, managed to get it worse. His reply made him seem like a human being after all, but not for long. She wrote him back, but this time no answer came. They met in front of the classroom the following Monday, and he apologised that he’d been ill, saying it might be better if they talked about it in person. But they never managed to make any arrangements about it, so in the evening Jana emailed him an invitation to join her for a walk the following afternoon. It was to be the Remembrance Day, Jana had a few candles to light at the main cemetery and the dorms he was staying at were just across the road, so it seemed a convenient opportunity. To her surprise, he immediately agreed.

And so they met. His breath smelled of alcohol, and she remembered how she had attempted going to dancing lessons two years previously, but gave up after her partner showed up for the first one in the same state. She was wondering whether she should play indignant now, but quickly decided against it. She was too curious to agitate him.

„You realise, of course, that he won’t appreciate you doing this? It’s just for you,” he commented her lighting a candle for her old secondary school headmaster who had died in the spring.

She didn’t know what to say. There were particular reasons she was doing this, and she hated him for making her feel selfish.

„When you die, that’s it,” he said. „You don’t feel anything. There’s no point in all this fuss, really.”

She fought the urge to ask him whether that was what he wanted for himself when he died, to be forgotten and dismissed as if he had never existed.

He started reading out people’s names from the graves, laughing about how ridiculous the Czech language apparently was. She played along for a while, surprised at how easy it was to laugh with him, in spite of the indignation brewing up inside her. She loved her country. It wasn’t much, but at least it was peaceful. Someone making fun of it pierced her heart like a thousand knives. But he was funny, she had to give him that.

Then they got to the Red Army memorial and met an old lady fromUkraine, who was lighting a candle for her brother, who had been in the army and was killed towards the end of the war, just a teenaged boy. She told them that with tears in her old eyes, after all those years. Death didn’t touch Jana like it would other people. She’d always been in touch with it, and at the same time her mind’s protective mechanisms made her rather oblivious to emotions of the bereaved. Plus there was her problem with the Red Army, stories of how no girl was safe from them when they came… Zoran, on the other hand, was visibly shaken.

„This is horrible. I mean, my friend died in the war, she was sixteen, but I can’t even imagine what it would be like losing a relative, and this woman lost her brother!“ he said, waking up her guilt again. Why didn’t she feel anything? Why was it him so touched by this woman’s fate, when everything had so far indicated that it should have been the other way round? She remembered her grandma, who had died almost a year previously, and wondered again when she would break down from this loss. But so far the breakdown hadn’t come, making her wonder whether she had been turned to ice after all, emotions too far for her to reach. But she was human! She felt other things, all the time! She felt fear, she felt compassion and love, stories of human suffering could make her cry. But not death.

They sat down on a bench and he reminded her that they were supposed to talk about the email.

„So what did you write in it again? I’ve just skimmed it earlier.”

Brilliant. So he came to talk about her email, and hadn’t even read it properly. All her head could fish from it was the fairy-tale from Plato’s Symposium she had mentioned, a story about how every human being has their other half somewhere. She didn’t feel like mentioning it now. She felt too protective of her beliefs, they were too precious, crucial to her own essence to just offer them for slaughter, for slaughter them he would most certainly have.

From the cemetery they went on to his room to get his mp3 player, and he told her about his absolute hearing of sorts, reminding her strongly of Pain of Salvation’s Daniel Gildenlöw. They even shared the arrogance…

She was silent most of their consequent walk to the tram stop.

“What are you thinking about?” he asked.

“You,” she answered simply and honestly.

“That’s always a good topic. I love me,” he confessed proudly, which astonished her. You don’t often meet people who say they love themselves so openly, not unless you’re living the lives of Stargate Atlantis cast.

“So what conclusions have you come to?” he went on.

“Well, a) you’ve been drinking, so I can’t tell how much my other conclusions about you have been misguided by this, and b) you’re really unhappy, aren’t you?”

“Ok,” he uttered with a surprised smile. “Well, you’re certainly right about the first point, I have been drinking with my friends. That’s the trouble with teaching just one lecture in a week, your weekends are six days long. But why do you think I’m unhappy?”

“Well, have you listened to yourself? Nothing you’ve said to me today is positive, there’s nothing in this whole world that you seem to like. Czech is a ridiculous language, all European politicians are Nazis… You just don’t seem to have anything that would make you happy.”

“You’re really not scared of consequences, are you?”

“No, sorry. It’s just me, always honest.” She might have added that the reason she came to her extreme honesty was that she had been beaten up once for telling a lie. But she could not remember that at that moment.

“So what about you, are you happy?” he asked her on the tram.

“No,” she answered. There was no way she could explain the whole situation to him, that she simply didn’t matter. Happiness wasn’t something she expected from her life anymore. All she wanted was peace. And no fear. But he wouldn’t understand. And she didn’t feel like sharing anything else with him anyway.

When she got home, she found Sina sitting in the kitchen with an expectant look on her face.

“I’m giving up on him,” Jana told her. “He’s beyond saving. I can’t change him.”

“I move the stars for no one,” a quote from David Bowie’s song sprung to her attention. Well, that was totally right. She couldn’t move the stars for him, as he wouldn’t for her, either.

But then, his painful expression and his compassionate words about the Ukrainian lady at the cemetery… and then there was the first lecture when he said that Hitler had been evil. You don’t use words like that if there’s nothing more to you than being an arrogant bastard, do you?

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