Chapter 11

A/N: This chapter is unedited so far. Any suggestions on beta reading would be greatly appreciated.


"Jan, are you going anywhere for Christmas?"

They were sitting on the carpet in the living-room at Irena's place and sorting the box with Christmas decorations out. Fur tree boughs which Jan had gathered near the Christmas tree market, as he intended, now stood in a vase on the table like a thick flower bunch.

"For celebration? Mom will go to her friends' place, as far as I know. And take me with her."

"Against your will?"

"Well, not quite, I don't care where to go, actually, as long as they don't pester me too much with their talks and questions there."

Irena smiled, examining the funny decoration which looked like a wrapped gift – something small of the cubic form in coloured foil and tied with a narrow ribbon. The "gift" looked so natural that Jan barely kept from pulling the ribbon and unwrapping the foil.

"Oh, by the way," he remembered the news he didn't share yet, "look what I've received."

He took a piece of strong blue-gray paper out of his shirt pocket.

"'Invitation'," Irena read aloud, "'to the special training course at The Wolf's Hole ski lodge.' Hm! Interesting."

"Yeah," Jan nodded, "and strange a bit."

"Strange?"

"Why was it sent to me?"

"Why not? And who sent it?"

"I don't know. That's the point."

"Well, it has an address on it. And a phone number. When you go to pay for it, you'll get all the details, I'm sure. It arrived by mail?"

"Yeah, took it from the mailbox."

"Here?"

"No, at home. I mean, at mom's."

"And what did she say?"

"Well, nothing special. But she is yet to say…"

"What do you mean?"

"She will constantly ask me, "Honza, and you aren't going to run away?", "Swear that you won't leave me." Until when is she going to remind me?" Jan stood up quickly and turned away towards the window.

Irena came up to him, and hugged him around his waist, her chin resting on his shoulder. Jan rubbed his cheek gently up against her hair which was loose now. One of her bright fluffy hair holders, almost always arranging her hair into a neat ponytail was around her wrist now. Jan thrust his fingertips, as if unintentionally, under that terry rim, soft, but pretty tight. It even left an imprint on her skin… The touch on Irena's arm made Jan feel as if an electric current ran through his body. He could get everything from this touch – from intense excitement to the utmost relief, to bliss splashing out in pushes… It was quite enough for that. And Irena knew pretty well what was going on with him, because she was hugging him. His cheeks and neck felt hot. So be it… And did he ever tell Irena that she looked much better with her hair being loose? No, he didn't. Tell her now, maybe? No, a bit later. So, what were they talking about?

"You know," Jan broke the silence until he lost the thread of his thoughts completely, "I asked in my class, and at school in general who else had received such an invitation. Nobody, as it turned out."

"But it's even more interesting that way. Isn't it?"

"Well, it depends," Jan disagreed, and added after a short pause, "Pity you haven't received one, too."

Irena muttered something unintelligible in response.

"Irena, is somebody still watching you?"

"Watching?"

"Um, well, following. Remember, you told me?"

"Oh. Actually, no. Looks like they buzzed off. I still have no idea what it was. And I will most likely never know."

"But, on the other hand, it's good they buzzed off. I didn't know what to think already."

"It's good, of course. Just some uncertainty remained."

"Now I have uncertainty, too," Jan said with a frown. "It's unclear who and what's going to be there, at the lodge."

"All of you will be cut off from the outer world…" Irena suddenly uttered with a thoughtful air.

She was looking out the window, but her expression was sort of odd, as if she saw not the yard and not the wall of the next-door house, but something else, something that Jan was not able to see. Her words echoed in his ears, and in them one could sense that very uncertainty and suspense, and some unknown danger, and hopeless isolation imprisoned in cold… Jan shook his head, trying to get rid of the obsession.

"Why cut off?" He asked as cheerfully as he could. "And what the cableway is for?"

"A cableway is a cableway, but apart from it some other means of communication are necessary, too." Irena finally stopped looking somewhere into the distance and glanced at Jan. "So, as far as I understand, you aren't very much thrilled by this invitation."

"Well, I'd rather stayed here." Jan shifted from foot to foot awkwardly, as if tired of standing. "Holidays begin, after all. We could meet every day. Or almost every day. Well, if you are not against it, of course. As for me, I'd be glad to anytime."

"Jan, I'm leaving."

"For the holidays?" he asked automatically before he realized the absurdity of his own question. What holidays could she have, she wasn't a student.

"For good. Leaving the city."

He stared at her with incomprehension. She dropped her eyes and was now looking at the window sill.

"The manager fired my mom. I always said he was a wanker."

"But… but he didn't fire you!"

"He didn't hire me officially, either. I wasn't in the staff."

"But why leave the city? There's no work here, or what?"

"Jan, tell it to my mom. Our relatives, as soon as they knew what has happened, yelled, "Come to us!" Even found her a job, if they aren't kidding. As for her, she wanted to move to them for a long time. And now the right opportunity arose."

At that moment the real meaning of Irena's words registered in Jan's head completely. When he realized the full horror and inevitability of the situation, all he had energy for was to move away from her silently, sink onto the carpet, and hide his face in his palms. The thing she said sounded like a verdict to him. It was as if somebody stunned him, striking him on the head with something blunt and heavy. He felt a heavy burden of despair oppressing him again, despair he existed with for god knows how long before meeting Irena. At that time he didn't feel that he was living, at all. There were only prostration and indifference to everything around him. "You are like numb," Irena said, patting him on the head for the first time. "Thaw," she asked, encountering his cold wariness and appalled by it. He tried to become himself for such a long time, and was coming towards it for so long. The world which became brighter for him then, with the first snow, when for everyone it was the beginning of night, and for him the break of day, now faded again, as if the picture in a color TV was devoid of all colors with one turn of the brightness knob. Why did she get him out of that state – to return him to it again just by means of several words?

Jan sat on the floor, burying his face in his hands. Tears pressed between his fingers. Irena tried to calm him down, immediately squatting beside him, she was telling something to him, convincing him of something, but he barely heard her. He just thought, thought with shudder about that nearest future when she won't be here anymore. He didn't even want to ask where was she leaving for, he feared to know that, and did it really matter after all, if she won't be here.

With his reasonable part he understood that he behaved like a little one, he was ready to cling to her and to whine, "Don't leave, please, don't leave" – and he did really say so, – but he couldn't keep from doing that.

Now Jan understood his own father, who was afraid to stay alone, as good as he never did before.

...

"Honza, it's not done like that. Make a list and mark what you've already taken."

"I can do without a list."

"You will forget to take half of the things without a list."

"Mom, please, leave me alone."

After returning from his father's home Jan immediately began packing for the trip. There was a day and a half left until the beginning of the course.

The things that he intended to take, from sleeping bag to small articles like handkerchief and comb were now piled up on the sofa. Jan simply loitered around the apartment, and when he remembered what else did he need to take, he just found that thing and added it to the pile. His mother, who was watching his preparations silently for a while, finally decided to interfere.

"You've quarrelled with dad?"

"I didn't quarrel with anybody."

"Why are you so upset?"

"I'm just the same as always."

"No, Honza, not as always. What happened?"

For some time Jan just stood, head down, hands in his pockets. Then he said in a low voice, "Irena left."

"Oh. So that's it. But I suppose she promised to call you?"

"Yes, she did. But she is not here anymore, can you understand that? And it's not known when I see her again."

"So, now you'll stop visiting dad because of this?"

"Mom, you two have conspired, or what?"

"You know pretty well that we haven't talked for ages."

"Why do you both ask the same things then?" After a short pause he added in a low voice, "It's good that I'm leaving."

"With the mood you are in now it's better not to go anywhere at all."

"And you would be glad to not let me go."

"Honza, frankly speaking, with you I have less and less reasons for being glad."

Jan didn't answer anything to that, he just flinched, as if from pain. Flinched barely noticeable, but his mother noticed it still. Knowing that a carelessly dropped phrase could become a time bomb for him and affect his actions in the future, on a second thought she hugged him awkwardly.

"Son, forgive me, please."

"For what, really?"

"Honza, I am sorry. I didn't mean it."

"I know, mom." Jan released himself from her hug. "I'll go buy batteries," he said, changing the subject.

"What batteries?"

"For the flashlight."

"It has batteries in it."

"They are almost dead."

"Honza, I'll go buy them myself a bit later, ok? Let's have lunch first, everything is ready."

"I don't want to. I need to pack."

"You have enough time left. And I will help you. Let's go. Please."

"OK, mom, you go, and I will in a minute."

She lingered a bit, as if wanted to say something else, but said nothing and went to the kitchen.

Jan squatted beside the armchair where the cat had rolled herself up into a warm cosy ball. She was sleeping on his scarf, putting her paws round it.

Jan dragged the scarf out from under her carefully. Looked thoughtfully at the two tight knots tied close to its both ends, and a faint smile touched his lips. He didn't remember himself already when and how these knots appeared. Neat Irena always wanted to untie them. Last time it was yesterday. Jan didn't let her do that. "You'll untie them when you come back," he said. And she looked attentively into his eyes. And nodded.

Nodded.

Jan hid the scarf into the sleeve of his jacket which hung in the hallway, and headed for the kitchen. When he appeared in the doorway, his mom looked at him inquiringly, noticing that he was smiling. He only moved his shoulders awkwardly in response. On the kitchen table he saw a matchbox and, remembering that he hadn't taken matches yet, he opened the drawer and got another matchbox.

"Honza, where are you going again? Sit down, everything is getting cold."

"I'm coming."

He returned to the living-room and threw the matchbox onto the sofa, to the rest of the things. As for him, he didn't need matches at all, but, as far as he knew, they were a necessary item for such kind of trips.

You will be cut off from the outer world, said Irena.

So what? And what if nothing really keeps you in this "outer world"?

Who built the Wolf's Hole? Maybe those who wished that "cut-offness" and wanted to keep away from the world, even if not for long? Because by no means everybody belongs here.

Cut off from the outer world…

Perhaps, that's even for the better?..

Aug-Oct 2011