As promised, a snippet from Dreamers Perish.
Anelie saw the courier before he arrived. She sat on a cushion in the bay window of the unfamiliar home, rereading Uncle Karol’s letters. Somewhere she hoped to find anything that would tell her what had happened to him, what had gone wrong. Occasionally she glanced out at the people walking under the streetlights in the cold October rain, almost hoping that her uncle would materialize out of the dark. Back in Boise, it was rare to see so many people out on the streets at night. Here in Chicago, she saw the victims of what Hoover was calling a “depression” on every corner, holding out hands and empty buckets to passers by.
The man wore a long gray trenchcoat, his face hidden under a hood that was dripping water. When he stopped on the sidewalk and looked up at cousin Janus’ house, Anelie inched forward on the cushion, her breath fogging the window. There was something about the way he held himself, something in his broad shoulders and stance that was familiar. He mounted the steps and opened the trenchcoat, taking from under his arm a flat package. For a moment, he just stood there, looking at the house, rain darkening the brown paper wrapping. He knocked.
Anelie jumped off the bay seat, rushed out of the bedroom and down the stairs. She hurriedly unlocked the door and stood on her toes to undo the deadbolt her mother had insisted must be used while she was away. She opened the door to a burst of cold, wet wind and goosebumps popped up on her bare arms. The man was standing as far under the overhang as possible, getting only scant protection from the downpour. He stepped slightly into the light of the doorway and Anelie studied what she could see of his face. She let out the breath she had been holding and her shoulders sank.
“Is Marta Kaczmarek here?” The courier read the name from the package, pronouncing each syllable and consonant slowly with exaggeration, so it sounded like “Kacks-maah-wreck.”
“It’s not her home, but she lives here,” Anelie said, choosing to ignore how he mangled the name. “I can take it for her, she’s my mom.”
“Sure.” The courier drew out a pencil and a pad of receipts. “Sign here at the bottom, miss.”
Anelie signed the slip, took the package from him and shut the door.
Nothing about Chicago was what she had hoped when she dreamed about coming back. The two years she had spent in Idaho were like an exile, and Uncle Karol had been Anelie’s link to the outside world. He sent letters faithfully every week, letters that Mother preferred to narrate aloud. Later, Anelie would sneak out of bed to read the letters by candlelight, and she would notice things that Mother left out. Uncle Karol wrote honestly about Chicago. Not pretty, but true, thought Anelie. Once he had told about a friend who had lost his job at a meat packing plant. Karol had taken him to a diner, bought him a meal and tried to assure him that there were still jobs in the city. It was true, but you were better off if you had some kind of skill or experience. All the entry level jobs were long since gone and men with college degrees were working at the grocery or on the construction line. A week later, his friend’s wife woke to the sound of his car in the shed. The motor was running, floorboards removed, the exhaust stuffed with a wet rag. His body was inside, cold to the touch. Mother had skipped that story.
Karol had been helping fellow immigrants who had just moved to the city to find some place to stay and work. In the last letter, Karol had said that he’d met a philanthropist, a rich industrialist from the old country who wanted to fund purchase of a home for Polish immigrants. It was in disrepair, but he had plans to transform it into a place for people to have a community together. Mother’s eyes had lit up that night as she talked about moving back to Chicago to help her brother clear out the building and renovate it. Anelie remembered the excitement, the plans, laughing as they talked about sharing a room with Uncle Karol, Mother imitating the great rattling snores he made when he slept.
The next week, in place of a letter came a telegram. The text was short. REGRET INFORM YOU YOUR BROTHER K. ZELAZNY DEAD. PLEASE RETRIEVE PERSONAL EFFECTS IMMEDIATELY FROM DISTRICT 17 POLICE EVIDENCE LOCKER, PULASKI RD CHICAGO.
No more detail than that. Anelie refused to believe it. The telegram didn’t even say how they knew it was him. And how could they? How could they know? They’d confused him with someone else, mixed up their names and identified some unfortunate homeless man as her Karol. A few days later, Mother had called father’s cousin, Janus, and asked if it might be possible to stay at his house in the outskirts of Chicago until they could find something more permanent. Twelve hours later everything they owned was on a train heading east.
Anelie took a moment to look at the package. She turned it over using both hands, squeezing it lightly to get the feel of it. It was a full three feet long and two feet wide, maybe the size of an newspaper that had been unfolded. Underneath the wet brown paper wrapping it was stiff and unbending. Mother’s name and Janus’ address had been written in all capital letters on the paper. Anelie caught her breath. In his letters, Karol had occasionally slipped into a habit of writing in all uppercase, especially when spelling out names. The only cursive script in each letter would be his signature at the end. She suppressed an urge to tear open the paper on the spot. Instead, she set in on the end table and then locked the door and threw the deadbolt.
Mother and Janus had left for the police station an hour before, and Anelie didn’t expect them back before bedtime. She carried the package back upstairs to the bay window and sat. She carefully unfolded the brown wrapping, making certain not to tear it or leave a mark on it that she couldn’t undo. Inside, a second layer of cloudy waxed paper covered a broad, thin book. A faint smell of rubbing alcohol wafted up to her as she removed the book. It was slim, and looked to only hold a few pages of heavy white paper. She opened to the first page and her goosebumps raced back as she took in the words. In the center of the large ivory white sheet, a brief message was written in dark pencil.
“Take your daughter and go back west.”
She blinked and read the line again, searching for some additional explanation. There was none. With trembling fingers she turned to the next page. An intricate black and white drawing filled the space, depicting a room with high vaulted archways and a ceiling with repeated ribbed domes. Those same arches swept down to pillars with finely carved caps. From the ceiling hung a multi-leveled chandelier, tilted crazily at an angle. Two aisles of benches lined the floor. Pews, Anelie realized as she looked closer. This was a church or maybe a cathedral. In front of the pews was a raised altar. A pulpit lay cast on its side, top broken off and lying on the floor. A chipped and scarred stone angel presided over the altar, right arm and wing missing. Anelie had never seen a drawing so meticulous. Confused, she turned back to the page before, and then fumbled for a moment looking for a page in between the stark message and the beautiful drawing, but one immediately followed the other. She turned the page again.
On the third sheet, the artist had done nearly the same drawing, but a wash of color drew her eye. A smear of dark crusty red ran down one of the pillars. Anelie followed the smear down to the base of the pillar in the drawing. There, the artist had sketched a slumped, crude figure in contrast to the detail of the architecture. Instead of recognizable features, the figure had an oval for a head, a rounded rectangle for the torso. It sat against the base of the pillar, primitive legs splayed out. In the center of the oval head was a small red dot, and the smear on the pillar stretched down to become a red blotch spilling out on the floor. In the figure’s circle hand rested a gun.
Anelie cried out and dropped the book…