“She’s awake,” I heard a male voice say. His voice was not fully developed, but he sounded like he was in his teens. I could hear bodies moving and shuffling around me. I blinked a few times trying to adjust to the light. My body hurt, I had a dull ache all over, and it felt like a huge weight was resting on my face. I was in what looked like a bedroom with two or three other people. The teenage boy and a matronly woman hovered over me. I wondered if she was my mother. A man stood in the background with his arms crossed, looking mildly amused.
“Can you hear me?” the woman said to me in a calm, sweet voice.
I tried to nod and immediately regretted the motion. The pain was overwhelming and I felt tears forming in my eyes.
“Oh, dear,” she said. “Careful, now. Just try talking.”
“I can hear you,” I said. My voice was steady.
“Good, now, do you know who I am?” she asked.
“No,” I said.
“Do you know who you are?” she asked. I realized for the first time that I didn’t know who I was. It was a weird sensation.
“Your name is Brândusa,” she told me. “I’m Diana and this is my son, Vladimir, and my husband, Costin, is over there against the wall. We run a ski school in Predeal, Romania, and live in the nearby village, Timisu de Sus. You are one of our workers.”
“And my family?” I asked. Surely I had family somewhere.
Diana shook her head. Apparently, I did not.
“So, what happened?” I asked.
“You were in a snowboarding accident,” she told me.
“It was awesome!” the boy chimed in, grinning madly. She gave him a look and he added, “I mean, your jump was awesome. The landing, not so much, but still, you’re alive, right?”
I smiled. It hurt to do so, but I liked this kid.
“The doctors said you would likely have some temporary memory loss and disorientation, but that it would come back in a week or so,” Diana said. “You also had to have some facial reconstruction surgery.”
That explained why my face hurt so much.
“Mammoth! Come here,” Costin yelled out suddenly. I could hear the padding of a dog on the wood floor and head of a giant malamute appeared next to me on the bed. Vladimir grabbed the dog’s collar and pulled him away from me.
“Sorry about that,” Costin said.
“Oh, it’s fine,” I said. “I like dogs.”
Vladimir let go of Mammoth, who came back to the bedside and propped his muzzle next to my hand. I pet his head, and he gave me a sideways look, almost like a smile.
“Good thing,” Vladimir said to me, “because we have a Samoyed, too. Her name’s Happy.”
I couldn’t think of anything to say to that, so I asked how long they thought my recovery time would be.
“Bandages come off in a week, and then rest for another week after that,” Diana said.
“And then what?” I asked and reached to touch my face for the first time. It was covered in bandages.
“Well, then you can go back to work. There will still be some time left in the winter season,” she said. “We’ll put you inside at rentals or ticket sales. Not on the slopes. Not until you’re ready, anyway.”
“What did I do before?” I asked. Apparently, I was on the slopes.
“You were the snowboarding instructor,” Vladimir said.
“Oh, ok,” I said. I had no recollection of this any of this. It was just a big blank, like my memory had been erased or something. The feeling became overwhelming, and I thought I might start to cry. I didn’t want to cry in front of them, plus, I knew it was going to hurt if I did. I tried to think about something else, but there was nothing to think about, nothing at all. Romania. I was Romanian. That seemed interesting. I felt no national pride, though, in fact, I felt slightly judgmental about Romanians. The poor country of the E.U. Surely I didn’t feel that way, though, if I was, in fact, Romanian.
“Okay, well, that’s enough for now. You should probably rest,” Diana said. “Let me know if you need any pain medication. The doctor left some. Do you want some now?”
“Yes, that would be nice,” I told her. She and Vladimir helped me sit up, and Mammoth readjusted his head when I moved. The room was smaller than I originally thought. Costin was in the doorway because there was no space in the room. He smiled at me now, since we were facing one another properly. If I had to guess, he was mid-fifties, and definitely older than Diana.
Diana handed me two pills and a glass of water. I took them and swallowed painfully. Every movement was painful.
“Thanks, is there a book or something I could read?” I said in an attempt to minimize the overwhelming emptiness.
“Oh, sure,” Diana said. She hadn’t anticipated this. Apparently the doctor hadn’t mentioned that I would be literate and terrified. “Anything in particular?”
“Maybe a newspaper?” I asked. That seemed logical. Get back in touch with reality. Costin nodded and went down the hall returning quickly with a paper. I decided the house must be small.
He handed me the paper. I recognized the two large photos of presidents Angela Herron and Aleksy Kachurin, but when I tried to read the headline, I couldn’t get very far. It was all in a foreign language.
“What language is this?” I asked.
“Romanian,” Costin said, as if that were obvious. It was obvious, since we were in Romania, and we were all Romanian.
“I can’t read it,” I said. I felt embarrassed, but I knew I could read. I knew it. I was completely sure of the fact that I could read.
“You can’t read it?” Diana said. She sounded startled. “But, you can speak it.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“We’re speaking in Romanian,” she said. “This whole time we’ve only been speaking Romanian.”
I didn’t say anything. Everyone was looking at me. This wasn’t fair. Why couldn’t I read Romanian? I was Romanian! I was an adult, and I knew how to read!
Finally I spoke, “Do you have anything in another language?”
Diana and Costin looked at each other with worried expressions. Something was wrong. I should be able to read Romanian.
“Oh! I have my English homework,” Vladimir said suddenly. He raced from the room and returned in a few moments, shoving a sheet of paper in front of me. I looked at it. It was an essay about his dogs.
“This is English? All of it?” I asked.
“Yes, can you read it?” he asked.
“Yes. Perfectly. It’s about Happy and Mammoth and how you race them up the mountain,” I said. He nodded excitedly. “And there’s a spelling error here.”
“Where?” he asked, concerned with his work.
“Here,” I pointed to the word. “It should be g-r-e-e-n, not g-r-e-n-e, if you want to say green.”
“Thanks! Good thing I did it in pencil.” He sounded truly relieved.
“Are we still speaking in Romanian?” I asked him.
“Yes. Should I speak in English with you, just to try?” he said.
“Sure.” I said. The pain medicine was starting to make me sleepy, but I wanted to know.
“Hi Brândusa, my name is Vladimir. How are you?” he said, somewhat clumsily.
“I’m in horrible pain and confused, Vladimir. Nice to meet you,” I said. He laughed. “That was English? Is this English?”
“No, you’re back to Romanian, now,” he told me.
“Weird,” I said. He nodded. I looked at Diana. She looked very concerned. Something was wrong. “Well, maybe I should rest. Could just be a glitch and I’ll wake up reading Romanian and not knowing English.”
“Maybe,” Diana said. “You should rest.”
The three of them left the room. Vladimir turned back and smiled at me. I gave him a little wave before he shut the door. Mammoth still had his head on the bed. I looked down at him and spoke, “What do you think, Mammoth?” He licked his nose. “Agreed,” I said to him before moving myself back down to a lying position. I turned on my side to face Mammoth and reached my right hand out to scratch his head. I tried to focus on his sable coat and his vivid blue eyes so I wouldn’t have to think about this giant void I felt. As I started to slip into sleep, I hoped that when I woke up, something would make sense.
The next two weeks passed in a blur of sleep, pain medication, giant dogs, Vladimir’s laughs, walking around the small house in order to exercise my muscles, and my facial bandages coming off. That day, when I finally got to see my face again, had been interesting. I thought it would help me remember, but I didn’t recognize my features at all.
My first outing came on a Sunday to church in the village. Diana prepared me for it the best she could by explaining that everyone would know me and was aware of my condition. My memory still hadn’t come back, at least not in full. I kept waiting for something to trigger it, but nothing seemed to. I was hoping the familiarity of church would do the trick. According to Diana, I was Romanian Orthodox and attended worship service every Sunday before the accident. That morning, though, even after all the standing, sitting, praying, and recitation, I remembered nothing more.
Those couple of weeks leading up to that Sunday would have felt much longer without Vladimir there. He spent a lot of time with me. Before my accident, he had worked afternoons at the ski school, but for those two weeks, he came home after school to keep me company, instead. We went over his homework and he practiced his English with me and taught me how to read Romanian. Finally, I could tell if we were speaking in Romanian or English, and I could pair written words with spoken ones. Two weeks and I was bilingual. It was a nice feeling, but not as nice as when Diana said I could come back to work at the ski school with them. I couldn’t wait to get out of the house, away from the village, and back into the world.
I grabbed my scarf and opened the front door. It was Wednesday, and Vladimir just got back from school. When he had worked afternoons at the ski school, he got a ride into Predeal with his friend’s mom, who worked as a server in one of the hotel restaurants. She was waiting for us with the car running. It was my first day back to work, February 20th to be exact. I wanted to remember the date since it symbolized my freedom in a way.
“Are you excited?” Vladimir asked me. He sounded more excited than me.
“Yes,” I told him. “Definitely. More than you can imagine.”
“Good! Me too.”
“I can’t wait to see the mountain. To actually see it, not just the pictures,” I told him. “And to see the town, too. I’ve been here for how long, and I have no clue what Predeal is like.”
He laughed. “Well, it isn’t too much to write home about. Just a ski town really.” I opened the back door of the car and slid in. Mrs. Antonescu, as Vladimir called her, said hi and made some comment about how I was looking great. We had previously met at church. It felt nice to be in the car, instead of just walking. Even if it felt like Mrs. Antonescu was driving excessively slow. We crept from the village and finally passed the turn-off for the American Hotel Academy. I had never gone beyond this point before. The mountains rose around us, and the road, shadowed in the snow-covered evergreens, began to wind as we elevated. Over the past two weeks, Vladimir had told me all about Predeal and how it rested at the highest altitude of all the towns in Romania.
Finally, the road straightened out again and the train tracks from town met back up with us, running parallel to the road. We emerged out the pass with Predeal lying below us, clustered and crowded with its A-line rooftops covered in snow. I gasped. Maybe it was just seeing it all at once, but it felt so big compared to the village.
I’m sure I looked like a wide-eyed kid in a toy store as we drove through the main streets to the ski school. There was so much energy and so many people walking around. The buildings were a disjointed mixture of old Transylvanian architecture and an almost post-modern style. The newer buildings were either hotels or vacation homes of wealthy Romanians.
Mrs. Antonescu pulled up to a somewhat flat building and stopped. Vladimir piled out of the car and I followed his lead after thanking Mrs. Antonescu for the ride. She smiled and told me to be safe. I chuckled to myself. I would probably spend the bulk of the afternoon inside the office. That seemed safe enough.
“This way,” Vladimir said. We walked past the main entrance towards a plain door with a key code. He entered the numbers quickly and told me, “I’ll get you the code later. If you ever forget it, you just have to go through the front door and someone will let you in.”
The door opened directly into the office. Diana was inside and across the room at the counter, talking to a woman. Her conversation with the customer ended quickly, and she turned to find us standing in the back of the office.
“You made it!” she said brightly. “So, this is the office, which is probably where we’ll have you working for a while, but today I thought that maybe you and Vladimir might want to head out to the slopes before the lifts close.”
Vladimir broke into a huge grin. “Seriously, mom?”
“Yeah, why not? It’ll be fun,” she said. “It’s been dead today anyway.”
“You think it’s okay?” I asked. I couldn’t believe it. I was actually going to get back out on the mountain today.
“I think so,” Diana replied, “but if you aren’t up to it, then don’t push yourself.”
“No, I am definitely up for it.”
“Awesome!” Vladimir said. “Come on, I’ll get you some gear.”
I followed him out of the office and into the lodge’s main hallway. It was nearly empty. We walked down to the equipment rentals area and Vladimir pushed open the door and called out, “Guess who’s back!?”
“Vlad!” exclaimed a petite girl in her early twenties with choppy, dark hair. When she saw me, her eyes widened. “And Brandi! Hey, how are you?”
“I’m great. We’re going up today,” I said, smiling. I was used to pretending I knew who someone was when, in fact, I had no recollection of him or her whatsoever. “We’re going to see if I can still snowboard.”
She smiled at me and then gave Vladimir a look I’d become used to. It was almost like she was checking with him to make sure what she said to me was appropriate. Everyone seemed to do this. They’d say something really simple to me, then look at Vladimir, Diana, or Costin for approval. As if I were such a delicate flower.
“So, what do you need?” she asked me.
“Everything,” Vladimir cut in. “We didn’t know we were going up today.”
The girl nodded. She looked me over and then disappeared behind a rack of skis. When she came back, she had bright red ski pants and a jacket, which she placed on the counter.
“Try those on. Do you know what shoe size you are?”
“Thirty-eight,” I told her, and she disappeared again while I pulled on the coat and pants. Vladimir had gone behind the counter to grab his red ski outfit. I assumed that these were the instructor uniforms. The white embroidered script of the word ‘Instructor’ on the upper left side of the jacket confirmed my suspicions.
I looked over to Vladimir, who was pulling on his jacket. The outfit made him look older and gave him the appearance of authority.
“What’s her name again?” I asked him in a whisper.
“Nicoleta,” he whispered back.
She came back around the rack of skis with a pair of snowboarding boots.
“And the board?” she said, somewhat hesitantly. Vladimir had prepared me for this moment, telling me I rode a 148cm board, regular footed. I relayed the information to Nicoleta, who smiled and went to pull a board for me.
Once Vladimir and I both had our boots laced and our boards in hand, Nicoleta whined that she wished she could come with us. We gave her pitying looks. “We better hurry to get some runs in before close,” Vladimir said before Nicoleta shooed us out the door.
I followed Vladimir out of the lodge and down to the lift. He put his front foot into the bindings and clicked the straps on tightly. I put down my board and did the same. An overwhelming feeling of déjà vu came over me.
“Vladimir!” I exclaimed.
“What? Are you okay?” he asked.
“I think I’m remembering.”
“Are you serious?” he asked.
“Yeah, I think it’s starting to come back. Come on, let’s get up the mountain.”
Vladimir grinned and led the way to the lift, kicking with his free foot to move forward. A blond lift operator with a scruffy beard said hi to us both and welcomed me back. I thanked him before I sat on the lift and headed up. Vladimir told me his name was Mihail and then asked if I remembered how to get off the lift. I panicked a little bit. There was a special way to get off the lift? He laughed, seeing my reaction, and explained to just ride down the landing ramp with my right foot on the middle part of the board and my weight forward. I nodded. The ride was long enough that I didn’t need to worry about it immediately. I turned around to see the view. Predeal stretched out below us, and Mount Postăvaru jutted up behind the town, its peak hidden just above the cloudbank.
“It’s beautiful,” I said.
“It is,” Vladimir agreed. After a few minutes, he nudged me and said, “We’re at the top.”
I turned back around and took a deep breath. Vladimir got into position, and I imitated him.
“Keep your tip up,” he reminded me, and flexed his board’s tip to demonstrate.
I steadied myself, tipped my board up, and as we arrived at the lift’s landing, I felt my board make contact with the snow. Vladimir pushed off lightly from the chairlift and slid with ease down the mound. I took a deep breath and went for it. My feet cooperated, and my knees bent easily with the movement of the board down the short hill.
“I did it!” I squealed.
We skated around to the top of the trail. The view was stunning, more comprehensive than from the lift. Vladimir sat on the ground and strapped in his right foot. I sat next to him and did the same.
“You ready?” he asked once I finished.
“I suppose,” I said. He wiggled his eyebrows at me and stood up.
I stood up next to him without any help, and he said, “I’ll stop partway down to check on you.”
“Okay,” I told him. Then he dropped down the mountain fast. Moments later, he was only half his normal size from my perspective. He turned back to wave at me, beckoning me down the mountain. I waved back, turned my board parallel to the slope, and leaned my weight forward. The cold air rushed against my face, and the snow felt like soft butter beneath my board. I let out a laugh. This was heaven.
That’s when the memories hit me like a relentless gale. Laughing with Nicoleta in the equipment room, flying down the mountain on my board. Flickering candlelight during Christmas mass, and watching the sunset from the chalet. The cute, beardy lift operator, Mihail, giving me a flirtatious wink. Kids laughing and screaming in the distance as I watched them snowboard down their first run. A warm, gloved hand in mine, pulling me through an ice sculpture garden. Whose hand was that? I tried to see his face, but his image faded as I got above his elbow. I refocused on the present in time to see Vladimir balancing on his board, waiting for me. I swerved my board hard so it was perpendicular with the slope and came to an abrupt stop next to him.
“I see you remember how to stop,” he said with a big smile.
“I remembered much more than that,” I told him, my grin even larger than his. “I remembered everything.”
“That’s amazing! Wish we’d gotten you out here sooner.”
“Me too!” I said. “Hey, was there an ice sculpture garden around here this winter?”
“I just had a memory of one. But maybe it’s from a different time before I was living here.”
“Maybe so,” he said with a nod. His voice sounded distant, though, and he quickly added, “Ready for the rest of the run?”
“I’ll race you,” I said, and this time I wiggled my eyebrows at him.
“That’s hardly fair,” he said. I didn’t know which one of us he meant was faster, but he took off without warning, and I had to quickly follow.
“Gin and tonic,” Nicoleta said to the bartender. She turned to me, “What are you having?”
“A scotch, neat,” I said. I didn’t have any clear memories of drinking, but a scotch seemed like the right choice. She raised her eyebrows at me, but nodded. The bartender asked if I preferred a brand. I had no idea what brands even existed, so I told him no.
It was two weeks after I beat Vladimir down that first run. Nicoleta had asked me to grab a drink with her at a pub on the main drag in Predeal. The bartender put our drinks on two cocktail napkins and told us the total. We paid and took our drinks to a table near the window so we could people watch.
The television was on and set to the news, which was of course about the Russia-U.S. war. It had extended into Ukraine by now, despite how heavily the U.S. military was stationed there. Luckily, no fighting had come close to the Romanian or Moldovan borders yet. The story on the television was about a bombing of a solar panel factory near San Luis Obispo in California. Forty-six civilians were reported dead. The stocks in solar energy, which had been soaring now that the U.S. companies could undersell China’s solar panels, were plummeting as the day went on.
“Another bombing?” Nicoleta said about the news. “That’s too bad.”
“So,” she said, her tone changing into something peppier, “Mihail was asking about you again. He wanted to come tonight, but I said girls’ night only.”
“Mihail?” I asked. It wasn’t exactly news that he was interested in me, but I never thought much of it. “What’d he say?”
“Oh, just seeing what you’re doing at the end of the month once the season ends. If you’re staying here or not.” Nicoleta paused to take a sip of her drink.
“Why wouldn’t he just ask me?” I asked.
“I don’t know. He’s nervous?” she offered. “I’m sure he’s just trying to find out what you’re up to. I know he’s going back to Bucharest then, maybe he wants you to come with him?”
“I barely know him,” I said.
“I’m just passing along info.” She shrugged. “So, what are your plans? Do you know?”
“I’m not sure. I haven’t really thought about it,” I said. “What about you?”
As Nicoleta responded, three men entered the bar. They looked about mid-twenties, and they were speaking in English. American English.
I leaned in close to Nicoleta and said, “Do you know those guys?”
It wasn’t weird to have foreigners in a ski town, of course, but Americans were a rarity, especially with the war. Usually, they only came through the American Hotel Academy in Timisu de Sus, and I already had met this semester’s students when we hosted an open ski night for them. These three were not students.
Nicoleta did a sly turnaround to look at them and then told me, “No. But the one guy is cute.”
I didn’t know which one she meant, probably the one with the least amount of hair. The other two had their hair very closely cropped, but the other had his shaven off. He was probably balding. It suited him, though, and he had a nice, muscular build. They were all pretty well-built actually. Their plain clothes looked similar, too, almost like they were military-issued. As they ordered their drinks, the cute one turned and looked at Nicoleta and me. Mostly at me, since Nicoleta’s back was to him. He smiled at me, so I gave him a customer service smile back. That was enough encouragement for him, though, and I had to hastily whisper, “They’re coming over here.”
The three Americans approached our table, and the cute one said hello in Romanian. “You speak Romanian?” Nicoleta asked him in Romanian.
“A little bit,” he replied back in Romanian. His accent was strong. He jabbed his thumb back towards the other guys and added, “They do not.”
“Too bad,” Nicoleta said, and looked at me in a way that indicated we should be sharing a mutual disappointment over this fact. I decided to speak in English to them. Nicoleta knew I spoke some English, but she didn’t know that I was fluent.
“What part of the U.S. are you from?” I asked the other two in English. All three of them looked surprised.
“South Carolina,” the tallest one said.
“All of you?”
I interpreted this into Romanian for Nicoleta.
The cute one broke into a grin and said, “I’m Ethan. This is Matt.” He indicated the taller one then pointed to the other guy, “And this is Darrin.”
“My name is Brandusa, and this is Nicoleta,” I said. “So, what brings you guys to Predeal?” I asked them.
“Work,” Darrin said.
“What kind of work do you guys do?” I asked.
They looked at each other and then back at me. Finally, Ethan answered, “We’re in the military.”
I told Nicoleta this. Her eyes widened a little bit. I guess she hadn’t deduced this already from their dress.
“The U.S. military?” she asked me. I nodded to her. If they were from South Carolina, then obviously they were in the U.S. military.
“What branch?” I asked.
“Special Ops,” Ethan said, and quickly added, “Do you mind if we join you?”
I hesitated. They seemed nice enough, but the situation felt weird to me. Finally, I smiled at him and said, “Unfortunately it’s girls’ night tonight.”
They all smiled politely at this. Ethan put his hands up and said in Romanian, “My apologies. Enjoy your evening.”
Nicoleta smiled at him and said, “Nice to meet you.”
The three walked back to the bar and started talking again. I couldn’t hear them well enough to decipher much, but I did hear Darrin ask, “Is it her?”
“I don’t know,” Ethan responded before pointing to his ear. I assumed this meant that I could hear them, which I could.
“Well, that was interesting,” Nicoleta said with a laugh. “Why’d they leave?”
“It’s girls’ night,” I said simply, and raised my scotch to her. She clinked my glass and we drank.
She looked over her shoulder and turned back to me with a frown. “He is really cute though, the Ethan guy.”
That night, I had my first nightmare. It took place in the earliest hours of the morning, under a setting full moon. I was on top of a tall building in a large city. There was a man up on the roof with me, a man I knew I had to kill. The wind whipped my hair all around, and I could hear him shouting over the noise of the gusts. “You don’t have to kill anyone. You don’t have to be a killer anymore.” He kept shouting it over and over. His voice grew louder, and I realized he was approaching me. Panic and fear overcame me, but I couldn’t move. I tried to scream, but it came out as nothing more than a muted cry.
The man was coming closer and closer until finally he reached me. The gleam of the moon reflected off his eyes as he grabbed my head in both of his hands and moved his face towards mine. I couldn’t tell if he was about to kiss me or snap my neck, all I could focus on was the intensity of his eyes. He stared into me, anger emanating from his body, and he whispered, “I know who you really are.”