FIRST
PLACE
GeminiMAGAZINE
2012
Flash Fiction
Contest
$1,000 PRIZE
ALWAYS THERE
by Andrew Stancek
Father wakes him before six and Roman
sees crisis in his bulging eyes and mouth
turned down like a sauerkraut barrel hoop.
“They actually did it,” Father says, voice
cigarette-raw. “We’ve been occupied. The
damn swine are all over the city with tanks.
The Germans when I was your age and now
you get the Russians. And Slovaks get to
surrender again.”

Roman had been dreaming about
her
somewhere in the throng lined up for onions,
clutching a net bag. Yesterday, as he
squeezed into the overflowing streetcar on
Sturova, the bell clanged and as the
streetcar began its uphill chug, he caught a
glimpse of her and he knew.

The radio is crackling in the background.
“The government is urging all citizens to
remain calm. Armies of five nations have
crossed our borders in the early hours of the
morning. We’ve been overpowered and must
avoid bloodshed. Accept. Avoid provocation
at all costs.”

Last week Aunt Marta gave him a plate of
pickled herring with dark rye bread and
when he bit into the peppercorn buried in
the onions, he knew that was how she would
taste. When he was cutting grass for the
rabbits in grandma’s hutch, the sickle hit a
granite outcropping, the blade slid into the
ring finger of his left hand and he knew that
was her touch, right there.

Father swears. “Always calm, always avoid,
always do nothing. A nation of cowards,
arms up in surrender. If I was younger,
damn it.” He looks at Roman, tousles his
hair. “But older than thirteen. Some of the
partisans in the Tatras in 1944 were
seventeen, sixteen even. Sounds like it’ll be
no partisans this time, no resistance at all.”

Roman breathes in Father’s reek,
borovicka
brandy mingled with cigars, shirt unwashed.
Maybe this is an opportunity to see her for
longer than a heartbeat, he thinks. In the
streets, by the tanks. She’ll smile.

“We’ve got no food in the house,” Father
says. “Who knows how long the stores will
be open. The soldiers will loot everything; if
they’ve been on the march for days they’ll
want our food. I’ll run to the corner, get
some rolls, rum, salami if there is any left,
bryndza. You stay by the radio, listen for
news bulletins.”

As soon as the door closes behind Father,
Roman throws water on his face, reaches for
his favorite shirt, realizes it’s red—the color
of the Revolution, of the Red Army, the
invaders. He’ll never wear that again. The
black one smells of the soccer field but she’ll
never notice. His bravery will make her
swoon.

The streets are unusually full for this time of
day with people milling about, gesticulating,
yelling; nobody is going to work. Roman
listens for a while but learns little and does
not want to be around when Father returns.
He decides to head towards the action at the
center of town. It takes him a few minutes
to realize all street signs have disappeared
and he laughs. Harder for strangers to find
people, important buildings—to occupy
successfully—if they cannot find their way
around. Somebody had a great idea, but
Roman wants to do even more. She inspires
him, leads him to greatness.

In front of the school on Red Army Street a
tank looms; three soldiers with machine
guns stand in front, grim-faced. Roman runs
past the crowd, ignores the kids touching
the armored tank belt, the adults jabbering
at the soldiers. As he moves towards
korzo,
the central square by the Slovak National
Theater, the crowds are denser, harder to
push through, the people angrier. A young
man screams on a street corner: “Twenty-
three dead, butchered right here in our city,
people. We’ll allow them to slaughter us? Is
no one going to do any—” The young man’s
voice is cut off mid-word as he is hustled off
by three burly men. Roman is not sure if
they are arresting him or protecting him,
helping or following the non-provocation
orders.

Roman is unafraid. Somewhere, he is sure,
she’s waiting. He squeezes through the
throng on the sidewalk to the front row;
someone elbows him and a man growls but
Roman has a perfect view now. At least
fifteen tanks are grouped in a circle in the
square. The huge poster of Comrade
Brezhnev in front of Hotel Carlton has a
huge red X and the word “Executioner”
under it. Around each tank a crush of people
is trying to engage the boy soldiers in
conversation. The soldiers laugh but their
hands remain close to the machine guns
strapped around their chests. Roman knows
his time is at hand. He feels her in the air he
is breathing. As he stares, the tank in front
of him grows to the size of a mountain and
the two uniformed boys smirk at him. With
his bare hands Roman is determined to
overpower them both, to climb up to the
cheers of the square, and then, seeing her in
full glory in the adoring crowd, to lift her up
next to him on top of the turret.

A squatting matron, checkered scarf over her
hair, hands him a tomato. “Don’t even look
at the swine, sonny. They act big now but
we’ll wait them out.” Roman smells the
aroma of the field tomato. He sees no sign of
her as he bites off half. Tomorrow he’ll fight
them. Tomorrow she’ll be there. Tomorrow.


Andrew Stancek was born in Bratislava and saw Russian tanks
occupying his homeland. His dreams of circuses and ice cream, flying
and lion-taming, miracle and romance have appeared recently in the
LA Review, Windsor Review, r.kv.r.y, Tin House online, Flash Fiction
Chronicles, The Linnet’s Wings, Connotation Press, THIS Literary
Magazine, Thunderclap Magazine, Istanbul Literary Review, and Pure
Slush. His novel-in-stories, starring a teenager named Mirko, set in
Bratislava in the sixties, is nearing completion.