Signs

Written and translated into English by Eyewittness

Betaed by SurefirePhoenix

Disclaimer: I own nothing except for a couple of characters created by me and my weird imagination.

Warning: OC, violence, spoilers.

A/N: This story is not related to the movie of the same name, so any similarity is coincidence. This translation of the title seems the most accurate to me.


Chapter 1

Autumn 1985

September turned out to be unstable, one day shining with almost summer warmth and another raining cats and dogs. During the three weeks that passed the weather was so unpredictable in its variety that if it suddenly began snowing, most likely nobody would be surprised. Today it was cool and cloudy outside, sudden gusts of wind ripped the yellowing leaves from the trees, threw them on the sidewalk, and whirled them in pools.

From the railway station the distant hum of a departing train could barely be heard – faint like a fading recollection vanishing from memory, it could be mistaken for something else such was the distance between the station and the surrounding area, transforming the sounds across the distance as they moved on the wind around the obstacles of houses and trees – out there where there's the railway embankment and rails run out towards the horizon. From time to time train whistles could be heard – alarming, long; here, at this distance, all the insistence and sharpness disappeared, their echo merging with the sound of the wind, dissolving in the air, seeming to call out to you, and sometimes you felt a great wish to obey the call.

Leaving the schoolyard, he often heard those whistles and the clatter of wheels muffled by the distance. But they never caused such a vague alarm as in autumn.

He wanted the winter to come sooner. That's the more stable season at least. In winter you feel calmer, especially when it snows. Snow covers everything like a blanket, and it becomes somewhat more comfortable, in spite of cold.

The thoughts about winter hadn't left him since he opened the closet that morning and bumped into his skis that sat right behind the door. He was still half asleep at the time and had hurt his arm. His mother, who hadn't left for work yet, peeped out into the corridor.

"Honza, what are you looking for?"

"The jacket," he answered, wincing slightly.

"Which jacket?"

"The warm one."

"Why do you want it now? You'll be hot in it."

"No, I won't. I'll unbutton the lining for now."

"OK, as you wish. Oh, where did I put the car keys again?"

Those were the words he heard almost every morning; there were very few weekdays when he didn't. For him that question had become one of those trifles you don't pay attention to anymore (because Mom always asked it rhetorically), but if he didn't hear it life would seem to be somewhat lacking something.

Unbuttoning the lining he remembered their neighbour. He was a mocker who was mad either on politics, or on history, or maybe on both things at once, who, seeing him in this jacket would surely say "Oh, that's Jan playing anarchist again" and suchlike. The jacket was black on the outside and red on the inside, with red zippers crossing the sleeves, three stripes on each one. Usually Jan didn't answer to these remarks at all. Such mild teasing had also become somewhat ordinary to him. Probably it would last until he grew out of the jacket. Or lost it somewhere.

The man usually grinned at Jan, convinced that the boy just didn't get him since he never reacted. But Jan did. Well, he knew that black and red were the colours of anarchists, but the thing was that such characterisation didn't fit him at all. He was no anarchist. Anarchists, they were always active, always protesting against something, and he followed the tide whenever possible. So, who speaks about misunderstandings here?

…It began drizzling and Jan was glad that he had his jacket. There wasn't a long way left to go, but without it he would've been drenched by now.

People were hurrying around him; nobody paid much attention to the pensive senior pupil with a schoolbag hanging from his shoulder, as he splashed through pools, hands in his pockets, head slightly down. But then – what was there to pay attention to? Jan was just going home. Yes, he preferred to say "home", not "visiting". After all, he could have two homes, couldn't he?

People that he met on his way didn't know that he had been walking like this for almost two hours already. Not very quickly, but persistently he was striding through the wind and rain, not taking the bus or the metro out of principle. He wanted to get really tired so that he could sleep calmly today, without waking from strange dreams and sad thoughts in the middle of the night. It happened more and more often lately. Jan didn't know himself what was worrying him. Nothing seemed to be out of the ordinary, but he still couldn't find peace and didn't know what to do with himself.

To his surprise, his Mom had offered to pick him up after classes and drive him "home", but he refused – there was no need. He'd answered that he would take the metro, and even brought his season ticket and put it in his pocket to seem convincing. He'd said that he would come back Sunday evening then left.

Taking a long walk and being alone for some time – maybe that would help?

He entered the house and went up to the second floor. The familiar door appeared before him, much more seldom than he wanted it to. It would be so great if he could come here every weekend…

Reaching the landing he brushed the raindrops off his bag and jacket, wiping his cheeks automatically with the back of his palm. His bangs were wet, the tips falling into his eyes, as always, but as always he didn't notice it at all. His long hair, straight as straw, and of the same fair colour, didn't darken with age, though everybody kept telling him that it would definitely happen at some point. Right now, however, it was indeed slightly darker than usual, and the tips of strands bent a little, due to the damp air and drizzling rain. Jan didn't have the habit of flicking his bangs out of his eyes or running his hand through his hair like those with long or unruly hair often did. He observed the outside world through his fair strands thoughtfully and a bit absently; it added some childishness and naivety to his appearance, though he was pretty tall and at first sight could seem a couple of years older than he actually was.

Jan took a key out of his inner pocket and inserted it into the keyhole. Or rather he tried to...and failed.

At first he thought that his Dad had changed the locks, but then thought it was absurd. Why would he invite his son for the weekend then change the locks, without telling him or giving him a new key? However, that kind of thing was not totally unexpected on his Dad's side. He could be too absorbed with his own matters and forget about the obvious.

But then he realized that it was all his own fault. Just today, at the very beginning of his little journey, he dropped the damned key on the street and it got stuck in the drain. After fiddling quite a lot Jan had managed to pull it out, but he damaged it in the process. So here he was – he couldn't enter the apartment until his Dad came home.

He was very angry with himself and nearly cried because of his own helplessness. Of course he could have a copy of the key made, but where?.. He couldn't boast of any thorough knowledge of this part of the city. And even if he did, so what? When you desperately needed this kind of help, you could never find it anywhere near. He'd planned to arrive earlier, to make dinner, and maybe even do something about the house (and there were things to do for sure). He'd hoped to please his Dad. And now, because of his own clumsiness, he had to hang around at the door. He didn't even admit to the possibility of returning back to Mom. No. It was out of the question.

Jan slowly rubbed his eyes and sat on a windowsill. There were two apartments on the second floor, and two windows, at opposite ends of the landing. For some reason he chose the window close to someone else's door, hoping that whoever lived there was already at home and won't crawl out any more that day. He'd had enough socializing to last him until next week.

Next week… Maybe it would be better than this one? This week had turned out to be kind of hard – hard to concentrate during classes, hard to get up in the morning, one glance at the alarm clock had been enough to make him depressed. Almost every time he'd been called out to the blackboard he had a great desire to snap and to ask to be left alone.

In general, it was pretty easy for him to study, and he didn't quite understand why studies caused so much trouble and pain for a lot of students. As for him, he got on well at school and was often asked for the loan of his homework to copy, because those who addressed him knew he wouldn't refuse them. He was neither a crammer nor an A-student. Probably, he was just too soft. It was difficult for him to say no to somebody. However, he was seldom pointed because of it. He couldn't even remember the last time that happened. Most people just noted that in spite of some aloofness and self-consciousness he was nice and not at all hard to deal with.

It was like that until recently. But now Jan felt that he'd begun to change; it was becoming more and more difficult for him to remain the same. So, did it mean that he was himself before, but now he was acting, pretending to be somebody else? Perhaps, others would soon notice too. It was most likely they wouldn't attach any great importance to it and say that it was all due to his teenage years. Of course, yeah, what else could it be?

Pressing his forehead against the window he looked down into the yard below.

Wet asphalt, parked cars already covered with fallen green-yellow leaves, a woman walking the dog, a swing and a sandbox, a newspaper dropped or thrown away by someone just a moment ago. It wasn't even wet yet, or maybe the rain had stopped? Huge letters of the headline, black against the white sheet. If he strained his eyes, he could even manage to read it. Yes, it was yesterday's paper; his mom brought the same issue from work.

He closed his eyes, and the black letters imprinted on his retina slowly vanished into the darkness. It was very quiet here; an agreeable smell of roasted fish and fries reached his nose from behind somebody's door. It would be cosy to sit here if it wasn't for his wet sneakers. Maybe if he put his feet on the radiator they'd get drier?..

"Falling asleep?"

He opened his eyes with a start. After his long walk across the autumn city he felt he could fall asleep in the warmth of the landing.

A mere metre from him, on the bottom step of the stairs leading up the landing, stood a girl. His age, perhaps… at least she looked like the majority of girls in his class did; dressed in a white windbreaker, her brown hair was arranged in a tight ponytail; in her look he could see a mixture of slight puzzlement and interest. Interest seemed to prevail. Jan was so deep in his thoughts that he couldn't say for sure whether she had come down from the upper floor or come up from street level. He hadn't heard a door close either, from above or from below. Some people were really good at sneaking. His cat walked with louder steps.

He shrugged vaguely. Somebody else would have blurted something witty out in his place for sure, but he just didn't know what to say.

"Oh, I've seen you already."

"Err… what, today?"

"No, of course not today. Before. So, do you live here?"

"No." Jan turned away towards the window again. His voice sounded hoarse after his long period of silence. He couldn't remember whether he'd seen this girl before or not. He hadn't been here for a while.

"Waiting for someone?"

"For my Dad."

Her face suddenly lit up with emotion.

"You're Jan, aren't you?"

"I am." He was surprised, but didn't show that. Answering "I am" with a half-interrogative intonation, Jan looked at the girl, waiting for her to continue.

Maybe his terse answers and scowl could seem not exactly gracious, but then, nobody forced her to start a conversation with him. Who kept her from just passing by?

She smiled, probably at her own shrewdness.

"Hi. I'm Irena."

With these words she crossed the stairway and went down, a hand on the banister. Obviously, she wasn't going to explain how she happened to know him.

Jan watched her go feeling perplexed. All his thoughts and feelings could now fit into three words: "What was that?"

Well, as if it really mattered…

His mood spoiled completely, he wanted to leave the staircase, to be in the apartment, to sit in the kitchen or in the room in the dimmed light with a mug of hot chocolate, and then to read some fascinating book – dad had plenty of them – or to watch a movie, it was Friday, after all, and he'd seen several interesting titles for today in the TV program – anything goes as long as it could help him avoid the sense of being lost and unwanted, the sense he was too familiar with, and save him from falling into the abyss of hopelessness and desperation. He felt, almost physically, how time passed, how the second hand moved in pushes along the clock face, carrying the minute and the hour away, too…

Pity he didn't take any book with him. But how could he have known that he would be sitting here? He was close to going into the yard to pick up that dirty paper… Ugh, what an idiotic thought! He felt disgust and embarrassment as if somebody had already caught him picking up the paper and made a laughing-stock of him.

"Oh, you're still here?"

It was that strange girl again. What was her name, Irena? This time she went upstairs loaded with two packs of biscuits, a bottle of mineral water, a magazine, and something else Jan didn't bother to make out. She was carrying all this pressing it against her chest.

"Ah, you left the key at home."

"And what have you left – the bag, or the shame?"

He heard a note of contempt in his own voice, though he really didn't intend to insult Irena. She didn't do anything bad to him. And she hadn't lost her shame at all. There were just plenty of people who were much more sociable than he was. Now she'll get offended, glare at him indignantly, say something sharp in his face and disappear upstairs. Quite predictable.

Irena laughed, with a natural, sincere sound.

"Yes, I often forget about it. About the bag, I mean. That's why I carry everything like this. Mom always gets mad at me, the cashier just gapes, and people in the street offer their help. Wait a moment, I'll take everything home and be back."

She went on up without waiting for the answer. "Don't." Jan wanted to say to her back, but something restrained him from it. He got down from the windowsill and shoved his hands into his pockets. Maybe it would be better to go somewhere else just to kill time. He'd walked enough today, but still… Otherwise neighbours may begin gossiping that his father didn't want to let him in. As for himself, he didn't care much, but his Dad may feel uncomfortable because of it.

"Leaving?"

Again? Did she do it on purpose?

"Could you not sneak up to me like this?"

"Sorry."

"Yes, I'm leaving."

"Pity you left the key at home."

"I didn't leave it."

"Lost?"

"Broke."

"Broke? Hmm, show it to me."

"What for?"

"Please, just show it to me."

Jan sighed heavily, realising that he couldn't get rid of her so easily, and took the damned key out of his pocket. Took it by both ends and turned its edge towards her.

"See, it's bent. That's why it doesn't go into the lock."

"What did you do with it – open cans?"

"Not funny."

"Yes, you're right, that's not funny. Give it to me."

"Huh?"

"I said, give it to me."

Jan gazed fixedly at Irena. Despite his usual reticence he was about to tell her everything he thought of her – and couldn't avert his glance. He was looking into the deep-blue eyes with long, slightly curly lashes. How come he didn't notice at once that she had such wonderful eyes? And she was smiling in a very friendly manner. At him.

Mesmerized, he held out his hand without a word.

"Wait here. Don't leave, I'll be back soon."

And she went upstairs again. The closing door clicked slightly overhead. Jan shut his eyes as tight as he could, because he didn't want to see neither the dull staircase, nor the yard beyond the window. It was just the face of that stranger he wanted to hold in his memory without missing a single trait. Was it appropriate to call someone you already knew by name a stranger? But then, he didn't know anything else about her.

He couldn't say how much time has passed. Time didn't exist anymore.

And then Irena appeared again.

"Here you are. Try to open again."

Jan took the key from her – it was warm, almost hot – and inserted it into the lock. This time it fit easily. Two turns, and the door was open.

"Thank you," he said, astounded.

"You are welcome. Now go home and have a rest, you look exhausted."

She touched his sleeve gently, smiled and went back to her own place.

In the dusk and silence of the deserted apartment Jan hung his jacket on the coat-rack, placed his sneakers close to the radiator and shuffled towards the kitchen. He turned towards the bathroom on his way, and there, warming his hands under the enjoyably hot water running from the sink tap, glanced in the mirror. Did he really look exhausted? He didn't know. He saw his own face in the mirror every day and couldn't tell whether he changed or not. Everything in its place. Light coloured eyes. Very fair and soft hair covering his ears and falling to the collar of his shirt. When summer comes, his hair would become brighter, as if absorbing sunny rays. Bangs, always long, down to the eyes and lower. Pale face, but maybe just his skin was very white. Did he ever look different? Well, not counting the fact that he had grown much during the past year. Not so long ago he turned the sleeves of his shirt and his jeans up, and now this shirt and jeans would soon be too short for him. He was probably as tall as his dad now.

Oh, by the way. Dad will come soon. It wouldn't hurt to make dinner before he comes.

In the kitchen Jan examined the fridge contents. There sat a foil-covered platter with pieces of fried chicken. Great. Even better than he expected. For sure, there are potatoes too. Boil them and then dinner is ready.

While he was busy with the potatoes and green beans found in the freezer it got completely dark outside. Having finished with the cooking, he poured some hot tea into a cup and settled down at the table, sitting on one stool with his feet on another. His thoughts returned to that weird girl, Irena. He realized that he wanted her to touch his sleeve again, to look into his eyes intently… And he wished to take her by the hand, to hug her in response… though he knew too well that he would never dare to. He huddled up embracing his knees, as if from cold, though it was very warm in the kitchen.

What was wrong with him? His classmates chatted with girls so easily, they dated them, and he wouldn't dare to approach any girl if there was any romantic interest involved. If it wasn't involved, that was another matter, but the thing was that in most cases they began to giggle and to make eyes at him, which embarrassed him and he didn't know how to behave. And even if he did approach first, what then? He's too quiet and reserved, they are not interested in him, he'll simply be told to buzz off. And he'd leave silently, shrugging his shoulders, outwardly calm and indifferent, but in reality torn with pain, resentment, and disappointment. He couldn't express his feelings properly, but that didn't mean he had no feelings at all. Jan realized that sooner or later he won't be able to bear this any longer and would simply break down. And he feared that, feared himself, feared the future.

Until quite recently life seemed almost serene to him, and only a couple of years ago did it became clear that it was far from it. It was impossible to live with both parents, he had to be constantly torn between them; Mom and Dad both wanted him to choose, but he would never be able to make such a choice! Ten years ago he was left with his Mom according to the court's decision; nobody asked him of course, he didn't remember that at all, but now he had the right to make his own choice. Well, he had the right, but to take advantage of that right was too much for him. If only those talks could be avoided tonight.

The apartment door opened and closed softly. Jan stood up and peered into the hall.

His father stood there and rummaged through his own bag without even taking his coat off. To Jan it seemed that he just wanted to conceal the awkwardness of the meeting. He felt awkward himself as if he came to a complete stranger's place and was making himself at home. To get rid of the feeling he stepped forward and held out his hand.

"Hi, Dad."

"Hello, Honzik."

They exchanged a handshake.

"How're things?"

"OK. Dad, let's go have dinner."

They ate in silence – Jan felt ill at ease, which spoiled his appetite a bit. He saw that his Dad had the similar feeling. Probably, they would never be able to have a normal conversation, because they were both too unsociable and what was the point in denying that? Each of them was too fixed on himself, on his own problems. All talks usually ended in the same way – dad lost his temper and began shouting at him. Jan either tried to defend himself, or lost control and raised his voice, too. His mother was easier to deal with in that regard. At least she didn't switch to shouting at the slightest pretext.

"This is very good," his Dad said suddenly. "Thank you."

Jan's eyes smiled. What could be so good about boiled potatoes and green beans? Very plain food, it was difficult to imagine a simpler one. As for the chicken, he didn't even fry it. But he was pleased anyway.

"Honzik," his Dad broke the silence again, "tell Mom -"

Why did pleasant moments last for such a short time?

Jan stood up – abruptly, like a spring straightening up.

"Tell her yourself, Dad. Are you always going to communicate through me? Meet with her and talk."

"That's impossible!"

"Why so impossible? You are in the same city, no? What prevents you from it?"

"You know perfectly well why."

"No, I don't."

"It will all end in -"

"In her telling you to go to hell and you going there?"

"How dare you?"

"This is how!" Jan pushed his stool away with a rumble and turned towards the door.

"You're just like her! You don't care about anybody! You would step over somebody and not notice it. You don't have anything in common with me."

Those words caught Jan at the kitchen door. That last sentence hurt him deeply – firstly because his Dad had never said anything like that before, and secondly, because he knew how far from the truth that was. He didn't expect just one sentence to affect him so greatly, and he got angry. Feeling his cheeks begin to flush he got angrier, because he knew how noticeable was it. But he turned his head nevertheless. Looking his father directly into the eyes and said:

"I'm not her, Dad. And I'm not you. I'm me. I am…just what I am."

He sighed wearily and added, "It would be better if you two had never met each other."

"Then there would be no you!"

"So what? Who would notice?" With those words Jan turned away and left the kitchen slowly.

In the living room he turned the TV on and sat down on the end of the couch; for some time he just sat staring at the floor. From time to time he lifted his eyes and looked at the screen through his bangs. There was a detective movie on – an investigator was interrogating a suspect. The latter denied everything, shouted that he didn't know a thing and what the hell was he being interrogated for? It would probably be interesting to watch that movie some other day, but right now Jan himself felt like a suspect or defendant.

His dad entered the room. Jan didn't move and kept sitting, head down.

"Are you watching that?"

"No."

"Then I'll switch to something else?"

"Go ahead."

He switched over to the news. Jan stood up.

"Going to bed?"

"Not yet."

Jan went to the adjacent room closing the door softly behind him. He had an idea. Rummaging through the drawers of the writing table he found several sheets of strong paper and a lead pencil. The pencil was completely blunt. After looking a bit more, Jan found a pencil sharpener too. After all preparations were made he placed a sheet of paper on a book, and, equipped with a sharpened pencil, sat at the writing-table.

If only he could succeed in what he was planning to do. As for copying drawings, he could do that pretty well, but like this, just from memory… But he simply ought to; he had to capture Irena's face with her unique dark blue eyes on paper. He should at least try; otherwise he wouldn't get rid of this obsession.

He carefully began moving the pencil over the paper, trying to mark the outlines of her face, her eyes and her lips with the thinnest lines. Letting them be barely noticeable so far, later he'd make them clearer. As if out of spite, sad thoughts kept popping into his head – thoughts about his parents, thoughts that he'd hardly dare to even start a talk with that Irena anyway, and all he could do was to sit here and draw pictures… When it seemed to him that he drew one of the lines incorrectly, tears came to his eyes suddenly as if something fatal had happened, as if that incorrect line could distort Irena's face not only on paper, but in real life, too.

He let the pencil fall out of his fingers. That was absurd. He'd go mad thinking like that.

For some time he just sat, elbows on the table, his chin resting on his hands, and looked into the black rectangle of the window. The TV set mumbled in the living room. It was cosy, in spite of everything. Suddenly he imagined for a moment – what would he do if he didn't have a home and had nowhere to go. That thought was depressing.

He needed to get some sleep; right now he was too tired and too upset to draw, and tomorrow morning he could try again. Tomorrow he would do his best to succeed.

Jan stuck the pencil into the plastic glass on the table, put the sketch into a book, and hid it under the pillow. Only then did he go to wash up.

In the bathroom he locked the door and took a pill jar out of his jeans pocket. Shaking a couple of pills out of it onto his palm, he threw them into his mouth and drank some water from the tap. The pills were small; they slipped down his throat almost imperceptibly.

"At what hour shall I wake you?" his Dad asked when Jan returned to the living-room.

"Don't wake me."

With these words he switched the light in the smaller room off, undressed and climbed under the blanket.