He glanced through the plate glass window, his eyes darting from sky to street. Normally the sight of Wenceslas Square, of Prague, of his home, filled him with a sense of pride and belonging.
Today it filled him with dread.
Wenceslas Square had been the center of all activity in the city—a place where the women minced along the cobblestones in their high-heeled shoes, the children ran between ice cream vendors with shouts of glee and the men stopped to greet one another in the streets with wide smiles and pats to the back.
It had been the center of everything until the tanks came.
When the tanks came, the Czechs had quickly learned you either lived with communism or you didn’t live at all.
Not in the truest sense of the word, in any case.
The two young men before him held their collective breath as they waited for his decision. The two young men were good men, faithful employees, great Czechs. He had relied on them often to work on new business proposals and to rack up sales for his company.
Today, he relied on them to live for him.
They had come to him, asking for permission to go to Italy on a “promising business venture,” but he knew better.
They were going to cross the border, and they were never coming back.
As he had passed their offices in the last few weeks, he had heard snippets of whispered conversations—“America,” “getting out for good,” “a great house in the Caribbean”—that weren’t meant for his ears.
They were leaving, and they weren’t coming back.
But only if he signed the paper that lay in front of him, granting them permission to leave on business and swearing on his life that they would return and continue to contribute to the new, communist way of life in Czechoslovakia.
Swearing on his life.
As he stared at the paper that awaited his signature, he knew that by swearing on his life, he would also be calling it forfeit.
But in signing, he was giving his two employees a chance at life. Vaclav had a young wife and daughter; Jirké had a wife and a baby on the way.
He was hoping for a boy.
Slowly, he picked up his pen and with a flourish, he scrawled his signature at the bottom of the page. Vaclav and Jirké gave him grateful smiles as their let out their breath, and he stood up from his desk, his arthritic knees causing him to wince a little in pain.
Their goodbyes were perfunctory and lighthearted for the benefit of all who worked in the office. As far as they knew, Vaclav and Jirké would be back in a matter of days.
He knew they wouldn’t be back in this lifetime.
He was an older man than they, and he had to trust that these two men would take their families and create a life that every Czech deserved. A life free of oppression, of prying eyes and whispered conversations of plots and fear.
He had to trust in that.
Two weeks after signing his flourished signature, he was arrested and placed in a state prison. For two painful years, he thought every day of the two men he had set free with the power of his pen, wishing and hoping that they had indeed “gotten out for good”, and that their lives were what he had hoped.
He had to believe that they were living a full life—it was the only thought that made his penance worthwhile.
He knew he would never be able to know of their travels and families, of their trials and triumphs. The two men knew well enough never to contact him, no matter how great his sacrifice in giving them their freedom.
Forty-one years later, he sat dozing in his recliner with a copy of the Czech newspaper in his lap. The headlines were bold and triumphant—celebratory in the Czech victory over communism, in the return of their lives and their way of life.
The Czechs were dancing in the streets, but he was long past dancing.
The knock on the door roused him and he slowly crossed the room to the door with a slight scowl at the interruption of his nap. As he threw open the door, he gasped in disbelief.
Vaclav and Jirké, in the flesh and on his front stoop.
With whoops of glee and thankfulness, they threw their arms around one another and talked simultaneously, making up for forty-one years of silence. They showed him pictures of grandchildren and swimming pools, of grand houses and Christmas dinners. Tears streamed down their cheeks as they learned his fate at being left behind while tears streamed down his own cheeks as he learned of their success.
The moment he had seen the two men and the sheaf of pictures they had brought, he had known it was worth it.
They had lived more in those forty-one years than most Czechs had in ten lifetimes.
And for that, he was grateful.
They stepped out into the sunshine, intent on buying him dinner, and with a smile, he realized that Wenceslas Square once again filled him with a sense of pride and belonging.
He would have sworn on his life that he would never feel that way again.
Marissa Priddis is a librarian in a public library in Indiana, having received her Master’s Degree in 2002. When she’s not reading stories, she’s writing her own. She has been previously published in All Things Girl, Reading Divas, and Mosaic Minds. Marissa delights in NASCAR, Nine Inch Nails, stitching, dancing, and that very first slice of pizza. E-mail: theloudlibrarian[at]yahoo.com.