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William Falo: Nothing To Lose

Image: Unsplash, downloaded (https://unsplash.com/photos/rlSg_Up0O8g) 24.09.2022.



The Girl from Moldova


I wasn’t a criminal, but the war changed everyone. Angry and poor, I agreed to help take orphaned dogs from the war zone out of Ukraine because it paid a lot of money, and nobody would get hurt, but I was wrong.

Everything went as planned until I approached a ferry, and a jet flew so low it shook the battered truck and sent vibrations through my hands that spread through my body into my heart. It caused me to hyperventilate and slam on the brakes. The sudden stop made the dogs in the back start barking. The sketchbook alongside me fell to the floor, opening to the picture of a small girl alone in a village. It was me. I was raised in an orphanage, and my parents remained unknown to me. I heard they could be in Romania but didn’t want me for some reason. Someone else said they sold me, and the traffickers got caught, and I was brought to the orphanage. Nobody adopted me.

With a shaking hand, I reached over to close it but stopped to stare at the only sketch I

had made of myself until a tear fell on the paper distorting the image. I closed the book and looked up. The war continued, so I searched the skies for Russian fighter jets intruding over the Mordovian sky. I helped the numerous refugees who came to Moldova, and my heart broke for them. Above me, the jet faded from view, leaving a wisp of white smoke in the moon’s light. I was poor after I had aged out of the orphanage. When I met a Serbian guy named Zoran offering a lot of money to take orphaned dogs to Italy, I couldn’t resist, but I should have known better.

Once my hands steadied and the dogs stopped barking, I managed to drive away. I reached the ferry without any more incidents and drove on it along with other people going to Sicily. A man on the dock paced back and forth, making it obvious he was my connection.

“I’m Tomas.” He said in broken English with an Eastern European accent.

“I’m Sofia; how much farther?”

The man didn’t answer; instead, he walked to the back of the truck and signaled me to open it. I touched the knife on my belt, but it felt small when I spotted the black handle of a gun on his.

At his command, I lifted the trailer gate and stepped back when the smell of dog feces and something else hit us. We held our noses and peered into the darkness.

He pulled out a flashlight and shined it into the truck causing the dogs to bark and whimper.

I climbed in and saw the horrified eyes of the small puppies looking at me through the beam of his flashlight until he cut it off, leaving me in the dark.

“Let’s go,” he said.

“What’s in the back there?” I pointed at the large containers behind the dogs.

“Nothing you need to worry about?”

I followed his small car with the tinted windows through streets I could never find again until we reached Italy, the destination. We crossed into Sicily, and the ride didn’t end until we reached the most dangerous-looking neighborhood. A light flickered above a large door revealing the barred windows that dotted the building like sores on a giant monument.

He helped with the unknown large containers, but when we moved one, I felt something move and became suspicious; when I looked at him, he touched his belt where his gun was located. I finished at midnight, and Tomas handed me a large envelope. “Why did they send a girl?” He asked.

“Do you have a problem with it?” I felt the coolness of the knife against my body.

“Not at all. I was just wondering why you.”

“I speak English, and I have no fear.”

“No fear; how come.”

“I have no family and nothing to lose.”

“Big deal.”

“My whole family died in the war, and I became the youngest sniper in the Serbian Army.” I looked at his gun.

“Are those dogs going to Serbia?”

“Nah, staying in Italy.”

I didn’t believe him and started doubting if this was a legitimate operation.

Just get out of here, I thought, but the key turned, and the truck wouldn’t start. I kept trying until Tomas tapped on the door. “You’re not going anywhere.”

“Shit,” I said. “Where can I stay?”

“With me,” he said.

“No way. Take me to a motel.”

“Okay, get in. I will get a mechanic to look at it once I get rid of the dogs.”

“I hope that’s tomorrow.”

“Maybe,” he laughed. I didn’t.

“Who buys the dogs?” I asked.”

Tomas hesitated. “Pet stores, and then they sell them as pure breeds and make a fortune?” He turned away without answering. I grabbed the sketchbook and pencils and sat in his car, leaning against the window.

The place he took me looked empty and was appropriately named The Lonely Hearts Motel. He left me at the office and promised to call me when the mechanic arrived.

The room smelled bad, and a few bugs scurried across the floor when the light hit them. I couldn’t sleep after numerous attempts to call Moldova, where I knew a few people, and itching all night at real and imaginary bugs that I felt crawling on me. I gave up and sketched the dogs with big brown eyes. After finishing the details, it looked too real, and I crumpled it up.

Tomas called in the morning and told me it would be another day. Despite my numerous calls and pleas to Zoran in Serbia, he wouldn’t send another driver to Italy to come to get me. I was stranded.

With nowhere to go and no desire to stay in the motel, I boarded a bus going to tourist locations, mainly the Shrine of Saint Rosalia on Mount Pellegrino. The tourists on board made me feel nauseous despite my lack of food. The motel’s breakfast of day-old pastries took away my appetite.

“I’m from America,” the man said. I clenched my fist around the pencil I used, snapping it in two before turning around to see a man sitting by himself. With a smug look, he talked to a couple across from him.

“Hi,” he said when he saw me looking at him.

I turned away, afraid of what I would say. It forced me to bite my pencil until it left my teeth marks on it, and I pictured a jet flown by him dropping bombs on my village.

“Rude,” he mumbled to the couple. I got up and moved to an empty seat near the front of the bus. I began to sketch the area we passed filled with traffic and people until someone called out from the back of the bus.

“Stop, please, we need to see that,” a woman with a straw hat pointed at a crowded street market. The other passengers shouted in agreement.

The bus driver slammed on the brakes sending someone to the floor with a thud. I looked back and laughed until he glared at me. The passengers disembarked, given a stern fifteen-minute time limit by the driver. He shut the engine and stood outside smoking a cigarette leaving only me on board with the American. I tried not to look at him, but he moved to the seat next to me.

The sleepless night and the lack of food took a toll on me, and I tried to close my

eyes, hoping for him to remain silent, but I knew Americans never did. He lasted ten minutes.

“I’m Peter. Do you speak English?”

“A bit,” I said before realizing I should have said no.

“You’re not a tourist aren't you?”

“Today I am,” I looked out, hoping to see the passengers returning.

“What’s your name?”

“Sofia.”

“Is that Italian?”

“No Moldovian,” I hoped that would make him leave me alone.

But I was wrong. “I’m going to Santa Rosalie’s Shrine.”

“Good for you.”

“Are you going there?”

“No,” I lied.

“What are you sketching?”

“Annoying people. You are next.”

Instead of being offended, he laughed. The sound of footsteps coming up the bus steps made me smile when the other passengers flocked in and took their seats. That ended all further conversation, and I waited until everyone got off, hoping Peter wasn’t waiting for me outside the bus. To my relief, he disappeared into the maze of souvenir stands crowded with people. I headed up the hill glancing at the plastic glow-in-the-dark saint’s that lined the table of one stand.

Clouds drifted over the hill from the Mediterranean Sea, forming strange shapes in the sky. I stared at them too long, became dizzy and began to wobble. The view from the top gave me a chance to sketch before I headed down. I promised myself to get food and water soon and sleep later. The trail that led down contained plaques filled with information about Saint Rosalia. It stated she died in a nearby cave, and during the Black Plague, she appeared to a hunter and led him to her bones. She ordered him to carry the bones through Palermo, and after that, the plague ceased.

“A fairy tale,” I said aloud before heading down the hill to find some kind of food.

Before I reached the bottom, I heard sobbing from around a bend. I stopped and stepped backward when I saw Peter on his knees with his hands over his eyes. I tried to sneak by him, but I stepped on a branch that snapped, making him jerk up. What a disappointment for someone who used to sneak around during the war to avoid perverted orphanage workers. I cursed in Moldovan.

“What did you say?” Peter turned toward me.

“Why are you crying?”

“No reason,” he wiped his eyes.

“I’m not stupid.”

“Why do you care?”

“I want to know why that’s all.”

“I miss my wife and kids.”

“Did they leave you because you’re a bad person?” I smiled, but he didn’t.

“No, they—“

“What?”

“They died in an accident.”

“What kind of accident.”

“My wife drove drunk and hit another car. My kids were with her. Amber and Victoria.

Twins.”

“I’m sorry.” My smile disappeared.

“The thing is, it was my fault. I worked all the time, leaving her alone with them. I can never get them back or say I’m sorry.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” I said. It sounded shallow, so I tried to change the conversation, fearing I would show more compassion than I wanted. “Why are you here?”

“My family is from Sicily. I visit and give a gift to someone in need here.”

I wanted to say I was in need but kept quiet.

“How about you?”

“I am doing business. I needed to deliver something.”

A family walked by with a young girl with no hair using crutches. Peter stood up and

slipped a handful of Euro’s into her mother’s pocketbook. I watched for a minute before heading down the path to the church built in stone.

A few people gathered under a maze of pipes that carried water from the ceiling. They

claimed it contained miraculous healing powers. I just wanted to quench my thirst. I drank it in when nobody was looking. A group of people entered the church, and I spun around to leave, but the floor felt like ice, and I slipped, striking my head on the floor.

My parents looked down at me from the ceiling. I saw my mother reach down and touch my cheek before someone shook me.

“Sofia,” Peter said, holding me.

I ran out of the church toward the parking lot. I stopped at the bus and waited until the driver let me in. Inside, I collapsed in a seat and rubbed my cheek, feeling warmth, realizing that the water must contain hallucinogenic drugs.

I hoped Peter wouldn’t ride on the bus, and my wish came true this time.

The next day, the mechanic failed to fix the truck, and I was stuck another day in Italy. Despite my pleas to take a train back, Zoran told me to wait for the truck fearing it would disappear if I left.

With nowhere to go and the memory of the vision of my parents haunting me, I returned to Santa Rosalia’s shrine, not expecting the American to go there again.

The trails filled with a mist from the bay, making people in the distance look like ghosts. I felt better than the previous day due to a regular night’s sleep and some cheap food. I almost smiled until I saw the young girl with no hair and her family. They laughed and practically ran to the church. “A miracle,” the mother told a man who stopped them and asked what happened.

“Someone gave us enough money to pay for Celia’s treatments.”

“Who?”

“An angel. It just showed up in my pocketbook.”

“A miracle,” the man said.

“Peter was the miracle,” I said under my breath.

I walked uphill with my head down. Why would he give the money to a stranger? I had never heard of such a thing.

“Here, boy.” I recognized Peter’s voice and looked up in time to see him trying to coax a dog from the edge of a cliff. The dog responded to his voice and walked toward him. When it reached his side, Peter picked it up and started to carry it away until he saw me.

“You, I am shocked to see you here again.”

“I had nowhere else to go.”

“Why?”

I just looked away and slowly reached out to pet the dog. It licked my hand.

“I have to take this dog down the hill. I think someone lost it. Do you want to come?”

“The dog trusted you.”

“I volunteer in an animal shelter in the USA. Are you coming?”

I didn’t answer but followed him down the hill.

After he found the owner, I began to leave. “Where are you going?”

“Somewhere.”

“Stay with me. We can have lunch.”

“No, the dogs.”

“What dogs?”

“They’re in trouble,” I said.

“Show me,” he said.

“Can you fix a truck engine?”

“Maybe.”

“Okay, but we’ll only look. It can be dangerous.”

We rode a bus to the warehouse and waited from behind a stack of crates when the mechanic started the engine. He shut the hood and left. It was fixed.

“Where are the dogs?”

“In there,” I pointed at the building.

Inside, a mechanic closed the truck’s hood.

“It’s fixed.” He took money from Tomas and left the building.

Before I could warn him, Peter jumped out and ran into the building.

I pursued him until we both reached the door. It squeaked when he pushed it open. I hoped Tomas and the dogs were gone. Why did I bring him here?

The sound of whimpering made him continue inside. I looked around but waited at the door. Tomas sprang on him like a wolf, and they fell to the ground.

With lightning speed, Tomas grabbed Peter, subdued him with a gun, then tied him up and put him in a chair.

“I’m an American,” Peter said.

Tomas laughed and continued to talk on the phone. After he hung up, he started to fondle his gun, and I knew someone on the phone had decided to kill Peter.

I picked up a metal bar; the mechanic closed the truck’s hood.

“It’s fixed.” He took money from Tomas and left the building. I hoped Peter would keep quiet. “What’s going on, Tomas?”

“I found this American snooping around. Do you know him?”

I looked at Peter and rolled my eyes. “No, what is he doing here?”

“Snooping around like all Americans do. His snooping days are over. I can’t risk having

him go to the police.” I moved closer.

“Maybe we can fool around first. Let him watch.”

“What changed your mind?”

“I’ve been lonely.” I moved behind him and grabbed his hand.

“I have orders to kill him right away. “When he turned, I lifted the bar and swung it with

all my strength until it hit his head. He crumbled on the floor, sending blood everywhere. Peter gasped. I dropped the bar and untied Peter.

“Is he dead?”

“I don’t know, but let’s get the dogs out.”

We worked at bringing them out to the truck until I reached the two big containers. I pried them open and gasped.

“Oh my God.”

“What?” Peter said.

“Girls.” Two girls crawled out of each container. They were in bad shape and looked very young.

“Thank you,” they mumbled one by one. I hugged each one and hurried to find water while Peter called the police. There was no choice now. These were traffickers and dangerous. Tomas mumbled on the floor, so I watched him and guarded his gun on a workbench. The girls were weak but staggered to chairs while drinking a lot of water. They hugged Peter and me numerous times as sirens came closer.

“I can’t stay.” I ran outside when the sirens got closer. The truck started, and I drove away. I looked back once and saw Peter and the girls watching me. Tears fell down my cheeks.

###


The art teacher at Moldova State University handed me an envelope when the class ended. I feared it was a critique of my last sketch showing Saint Rosalia drifting over plague victims in Palermo. I opened the envelope and gasped when I saw it contained an invitation for me to enter a sketch in the Eastern European art show. Only the best got an invitation.

I didn’t know what to enter and leafed through half-finished sketches when a young boy

ran up the steps of the apartment carrying a small package. “Sofia, this is for you.”

“Thanks, Janko,” I handed him some money.

I sat down, looking at a sketch I could never complete. It showed my parents sitting

outside a house in the summer, but every time I tried to finish it, I drew them without any children.

I opened the small package and stood up. It was from the USA and contained a glow-in-

the-dark figure of Saint Rosalie. I laughed out loud, causing a few students nearby to look at me in shock since they had never heard me show emotion before. It was from Peter. He said he was coming to Moldova with a charity organization to help refugees and wanted to visit me. He told me the girls we saved are safe and doing well, and all the dogs were adopted by caring families. I wiped my eyes and planned to send him my email in the following letter.

I put the figure down and picked up the sketchbook to complete the picture of my family by adding a dog instead of bombs. When I walked into the building, I saw a black car stop in front of the building. “Sofia,” A familiar voice called out. It could be Zoran, but I thought he was in jail.

I kept walking down the hall, waiting for Zoran to come after me. I clutched my knife waiting to hear footsteps from my past, but he didn’t follow me, and I refused to turn around to embrace it and kept walking forward to my future.


About the Author: William Falo lives in the United States with his family, including a papillon named Dax. His stories have been published or are forthcoming in various literary journals. He can be found on Twitter @williamfalo and Instagram @william.falo.


 

#WilliamFalo #newprose


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