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TWENTY-EIGHT

The expedited passports arrived at the consulate on the third day. John was excited to get his, though he was highly reluctant to do what they were planning to do with it. All that morning, he was unable to stomach any food. Finally, he just put the lid back on the Tupperware container of pasta in front of him and went for a walk.

He really didn’t want to do this. But… he had bought his ticket. Spent a small fortune. And he had read in numerous reviews that Aeroflot was not particularly prompt about refunding money. So he was, in fact, going. Walking out of the hostel, he tried to comprehend what had happened to him. John wasn’t one to give into peer pressure. He had always been reasonably popular. He had self confidence. Thought for himself. So how was it that he found himself in this situation? He really didn’t know. Didn’t know how his mind worked anymore. He walked around the block. This relaxed him a bit. But returning to the hostel, he felt the anxiety well back up again. Three hours later, as he walked into the Russian consulate, he was still pondering.

The building looked claustrophobic, less due to architecture than the density of people inside. Looking around for a while, Katie spotted the line they wanted to stand in and took her place behind a fat man and his fat wife, John behind her. Initially, they had planned to walk in at different times. The idea was that if they were videotaped, no one would infer any of them were traveling together. It didn’t take long, however, to realize that such action would be futile. If someone wanted to see who he was traveling with, all they would have to do was check the record for the day he’d picked up his visa to see that six other people had also applied for the same arrival and departure dates, were traveling to the same destination, and were staying in the same hotel via the same travel agency.

The line barely seemed to be moving. It was also very long. Half an hour later, he was still a long way from the counter. Behind him, Cory coughed. He glanced back at her. Her eyes were fixed on the floor. Behind her, Brian was chewing a stick of gum morosely. At last, after more than an hour and three quarters, he came to the window where they asked him what the nature of his trip would be and had him verify some personal info. After about seven minutes of clearing up loose ends, the lady behind the glass slid his brown passport across the counter and told John to have a nice trip. John said thank you and flipped it open, looking at it quickly. He said thank you again and walked away. Stuffing the passport into his pocket, he walked past the Russian soldier at the door and back out into the sunlight. He walked up the street and came to a parking lot where the cars were parked, taking a seat beside Katie who was sitting on the cargo gate of Cory’s Baja.

“You get it?” she asked,

“Yeah,” John said, holding it up. He opened it for her to see. She tilted her head and then nodded. It was a neat little book. Near the top, there were two of what might’ve been griffons, with their tongues sticking out. As the team came back one by one, Viktor gnawed on a tooth pick and read a newspaper. By the time it was all over, everyone was drained from the experience and short tempered.

While they ate lunch, afterward, John re-rehearsed a last minute speech declaring that he wasn’t going to go with them to Russia. Eyeing the others apprehensively, he tried to fit suitable words together. But as the afternoon wore on and they began to make their final preparations, he found himself postponing his announcement until dinner time. Then he postponed it again. Until finally it was nighttime. The night before the trip. And as he was sitting on his cot packing his backpack, he suddenly felt the choking grip of inevitability. If he’d wanted to back out, surely he’d have done it by now, he thought to himself.

Resuming packing his clothes, he looked at the journal on his bed. He hadn’t written in it the last few days. He was about to pack it as well when a thought occurred to him. If things went south, and they were caught, it would offer a chronicle of their activities. That was an awful liability. Then again, if anything happened to him, it could serve as an explanation to his family. He bit his fingernail, something he hadn’t done in a long time. He glanced back up at Josh who was on his cot, playing with his phone.

Inhaling slowly, he picked the book up and opened it. Peered at his messy handwriting. A pen demarcated the page of his last entry. He took it in hand, then flipped the page and laid the book on his leg. For a fleeting second, he wondered if Katie would want him recording their plans. Then suddenly, he felt a wave of defiance. Suppose she didn’t. Who was she, his parent? Was his loyalty really so unshakable that he had no free will anymore? Looking down at the page, he began to write. A long, rambling entry.

He got everything off his chest. Then, he set the pen down and closed the book again. Walking to the window, he looked out at Paris. Inhaled the humid air. Returning to his cot, he lowered his backpack to the floor and lay down, facing the wall. Tilting his hand, he looked down at his watch. Six hours until they left for the airport. Processing this information, John let out a loud exhale. And then closed his eyes.

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