Suzy Vitello’s award-winning short fiction has appeared in Mississippi Review, Plazm, Tarpaulin Sky, various anthologies and other literary journals. She has been a prize winner in The Atlantic Monthly Student Fiction Contest, and has been a recipient of an Oregon Literary Arts grant. She holds an MFA from Antioch, Los Angeles, and is a long-time coordinator of and participant in an infamous workshop in Portland, whose members, past and present, include Chuck Palahniuk, Lidia Yuknavitch, Cheryl Strayed, Chelsea Cain, Monica Drake and others. She is the author of The Moment Before, The Empress Chronicles, The Keepsake, and a chapbook of short stories, Unkiss Me. Suzy lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband, son, and a dog named Ruby. Learn more on her website.
Words in a Hurry Press
©Suzy Vitello 2015
Excerpted from Chapter 27 — “Liz”
Cory is shivering after getting off the phone with his buddy. Literally, physically quaking. Panic in his face like I’ve never seen. The way he looks makes me scared, too. “What?” I say, my voice twice as high-pitched as a squeak as normal.
He takes his hand off the receiver of the landline, and sort of leaves the phone off of the hook. “That was the weirdest conversation I’ve ever had,” he says.
“Yeah? You look like a zombie. What was that about?”
“Well, first off, this dude, this guy on my soccer team, Jakub, he used to only speak Czech. Even in Munich, he wouldn’t, you know, sprechen Deutsch. But on the phone just now, he only spoke German.”
I’m baffled that Cory’s so freaked out about that. “That’s not all that strange.”
“His reaction to me when I spoke Czech was, though. He started asking me all these questions. Like, ‘was I all right,’ and ‘had something happened to me.’”
“Maybe he wondered why you called him out of the blue.”
Cory’s not looking at me. He’s still in zombie-mode. “So when I asked about Alika he said, ‘have you left the planet?’ I mean, he seriously acted like I was brain damaged.”
That gets my attention. “Do you think something bad happened to her? Are we too late? Oh, Cory, I hope not!”
“I don’t think so, because Jakub was laughing. He goes, ‘check out the tabloids.’”
I’m already gazing around the room, looking for a computer, but since this is a Waldorf family, I doubt there is one. Finally, I spy an iPad on top of a bookshelf.
“Alika Lichtenstein,” says Cory as I boot it to life.
Google brings up all sorts of stuff under Lichtenstein, but when Cory peers on the screen, he just shakes his head as I scroll. I click on the Images tab, and I see castles and important looking men in suits, and then, a delicate-looking girl, big brown eyes and a hairstyle sort of like Princess Kate. Cory points to the fancy waif-girl pictures and says, “Whoa.”
“Um, yeah. But, no. Click on that page.”
When I do, there’s a whole slew of photographs of Alika in designer dresses, and in most of them, she’s walking next to a short man with a peanut-shaped head. The captions are all in German, but the names are clear: Kaiser Joseph Franz und seine Verlobte, Teresa Alika Lichtenstein.
“That’s her?” I ask.
Cory doesn’t answer; instead he continues his zombie behavior, just blankly staring at the screen. “She’s engaged to that creepy looking Kaiser dude. That’s insane. Kaiser? I mean, in 2015?”
I pop back to the Google page and slide the iPad to Cory. Suddenly, I hear a rumble. Thunder, from outside. I feel my anxiety rising, sweaty palms, heartbeat galloping. “As far as I know, the whole emperor thing ended with the first World War.”
Cory pops out of zombie and narrows his eyes. He turns to me and says, “You know, last night, with all those restroom attendants? That was going back twenty years ago. I mean, last time I was in Prague, things were way more modern.”
I think about the last time I felt the locket around me. It was on the train. “What if there’s some sort of connection between the missing pages in the diary and all this strange stuff?”
“Alika had dreads, and there’s no way she’d wear a dress like that. And those weird girl shoes.”
“Cory, what’s going on?”
He types some words into the search bar of the iPad and scrolls down through the links until he finds the Prague government Wikipedia page. There, front and center, is the peanut-headed guy, Kaiser Joseph Franz. As he reads the German, Cory’s eyes grow wider and wider until he looks like one of those pug dogs. Then, he closes his eyes altogether and leans back in the plastic chair.
“Remember when I told you not to mess with history, Liz?” he finally says.
“Is this guy some sort of Nazi, this Kaiser?”
“I don’t know how such a simple little thing like warning a historical figure about an unhappy marriage would turn the world upside down, but, apparently, it has. At least in this neck of the woods.”
“According to this,” Cory says, sitting upright and showing me the iPad screen, “not only is there no Czech Republic, Prague is part of the Austrian Empire, ruled by the Habsburgs.”
It hits me like a bolt of lightning—which is appropriate, because the thunder is coming closer. “Alika is a modern-day Sisi! She’s engaged to the Franz Joseph of 2015!”
✗ ✗ ✗
It doesn’t take long before I realize that I need to contact the one person who can help us make sense of all of this, but first, Cory convinces me to venture out with him. “Before you get ahold of Dr. Greta, we need more info.” Jakub has agreed to meet us at a café in Joseph Franz Square, across the river from where we are now.
Cory has written back to Sisi. We told her that history has turned inside out since she gave up the diary and the lockets. We tell her that we’re going to try and find out more, and write back. We ask her if she’s well. If she’s found Count Sebastian. And then I tuck the diary in my rucksack, and we venture into the town.
All the way down the cobblestone streets toward the river, it feels like we’re racing the storm. Thunder, lightning, and clouds thickening. It’s getting darker as Cory compares the Prague he remembers with the Prague we’re walking through. He points out that the signs are all in German—something he didn’t notice last night—and a bunch of familiar places are named something different. I look up at the quaint streetlights that we pass, and they remind me of Gaslight, when Bergman thinks she’s going mad. That’s how I feel. Like I’m either dreaming this, or someone is playing an awful trick on me.
We pass placards in front of cathedrals advertising concerts. But the composers are foreign to me. No Mozart or Bach. No Haydn. No Marriage of Figaro. No Beethoven concertos. Instead, the signs advertise choirs. Pictures of Jesus on a burning cross and cartoon doves.
As we walk toward the river, the sun now completely obscured by charcoal clouds, it keeps running through my head, Cory’s warning about messing with stuff that could really change the world. That very first night I found the message the Count must die in my food diary. The same count I had been hoping Sisi would marry instead of Franz Joseph. And now I’m struck again by the resemblance that count had to Cory. And the Dr. Greta—Sisi’s governess relationship. Maybe all sorts of things are being undone and redone. Done over. What if, in this alternate history, someone else marries Franz Joseph. What then? Do the World Wars come out differently?
By the time we get down the hill, my stomach is a churning mess. Everything seems patchwork. There’s the usual slew of tourists, throngs of college student types. Ex-pats. Gypsies. Beggars. At the entrance to the Charles Bridge there’s a line of armed guards, and they seem to be checking passports—or some sort of papers. Cory stops me before we get too close. “Uh-oh,” he says. “This isn’t good.”
We watch a transaction between a guard—one of several in complete uniform, pistol at his belt—and a family with a couple small children. The husband hands over a small book—like those moleskin diary type books—and the guard leafs through it, asking the children questions. It’s like the TSA if you look like you’re from the Middle East.
The family is finally allowed to proceed across the bridge.
We watch a few other interactions, and watch as an older guy with a cane is turned away. His little moleskin book shoved at him harshly. The whole thing is super bizarre. As the old guy starts creeping back up the hill, Cory approaches him.
“Entschuldigung, mein Herr,” he says, the German way to politely ask something, but the guy does the same thing the restroom attendant did last night. He holds up a knobby finger and goes, “Neh, neh.”
“Maybe we should see if your friend can meet us on this side of the river,” I suggest.
But Cory points to a large group of people heading toward the bridge. “Let’s see what that’s about,” he says.
Leading the group is a woman holding a bright yellow tour flag in one hand, and a stack of the little books in her other hand, and she approaches a different guard than the one who wouldn’t let the old man cross. There seems to be a section of the bridge entrance for tour groups.
We watch the guard nod briefly after lazily scanning the books and the tour group, and then he just waves them across. Fat raindrops begin to fall from the sky.
We wait until the next tour group comes along—one full of students not too much older than we are—and we hook on to the back of it just as the leader hands over the booklets. This time the guard looks up and down a few times, and even crooks a finger to do a quick count. I hold my breath and Cory grabs my hand and pulls me really close to him, and the two of us shadow a large girl with earbuds stuck to her temples, and somehow we make it through.
Holding Cory’s hand feels safe and wrong at the same time, but I’m not letting go. If we have to pretend we’re a couple to get through this crazy situation, so be it. We part from the tour group, but don’t stray too far in case one of the Nazi guards is watching. I’ve heard of “police states” before, but this doesn’t quite seem like that. The group stops at the base of one of about a hundred statues on this bridge, and we slowly inch away from them, heading to the other end where, as far as we can tell, there are no guards.
We’re almost across when we come to the famous statue that Cory says is rubbed shiny in a particular place from people making wishes. The statue is one of the taller ones, some fancy Pope-looking guy with a halo of stars around his head. Cory points to the plaque at the base of the statue where there’s a relief carving of a priest being thrown off a bridge, and below that, a woman, a child, a soldier and a dog. “It’s not shiny,” Cory says. “No wishes, no good luck, no legend. No shortcut to happiness in this version of Prague, looks like.”
“What’s with the priest, again? What did he do?”
Cory looks at me like he’s not sure he wants to tell me. Maybe because of my OCD and my history of ritualizing things and being superstitious, I don’t know.
Finally, he says, “The king, Bad King Wenceslas I guess we could call him, had him thrown off the bridge.”
“Well, the king thought his wife was cheating on him, and this vicar, John of Nepumuk, wouldn’t reveal what she said in her confession.”
“Integrity!” I say. “Finally, someone in history isn’t a total asshole.”
“Yeah, he kept his mouth shut and took the fall.”
“I think we should rub the priest for luck, long as we’re here,” I tell Cory. “Who knows, we might start the whole rubbing-for-your-wish thing.”
Cory makes a game show buzz sound. “Probably we shouldn’t bring attention to ourselves. Let’s just get to the other side of this bridge.”
I can’t help it, though. Just like when I need to tap my fingers seven times, I touch the tiny upside down priest being dangled from the bridge. Another thunder burst, this one right on top of us. And I touch the priest again. Seven agains.