PART I — TIRANË
Chapter 1 — Sihana’s End
The Forever Green tower hovered over Skanderbeg Square, its icy blue lights shining like electric ghosts. Sihana hurried across the gently sloped plaza with her hands balled up in fists in the pockets of her denim jacket. Her right hand gripped an old pack of cigarettes, empty except for a one terabyte SD card and a pair of prepaid SIM cards she had stolen from some German tourists a few hours earlier. She took a quick glance over her left shoulder at The Albanians, the recently-restored mosaic adorning the National History Museum. Everyone’s always trying for utopia, she mused.
Sihana reached into her breast pocket and pulled out her own mobile. With a quick swipe of her left thumb, she entered her passcode and quickly opened Signal. Without breaking stride she tapped out a message to her sister.
where we found that cat that time
Tiranë had changed in the nearly forty years since the civil war, but Sihana’s jaw still clenched as she walked alone at night. She subtly altered her path to avoid a rowdy group of drunk men chanting nationalist slogans. “Death to Serbs!” they chanted. She tuned it out. Being harassed by a group of drunk nationalists wasn’t part of the evening’s agenda. Her new tack put her on the course of a black-haired woman arguing loudly into a cell phone, a large tote bag slung over her shoulder. She deftly slipped her own phone into the woman’s open tote.
Better not to destroy it, she reckoned. This might buy me some time. She assumed her phone was being tracked and dumping it off on another person would lead the people tracking her astray. She was heading east to the neighborhood she lived in as a child: a small, ground-floor apartment she shared with her parents and her younger sister, Elira, before the civil war. Hers was one of thousands of families torn apart by the war. Both of her parents were killed within weeks of each other: her father in a riot, and her mother hit by a stray bullet while preparing dinner. Terrified and orphaned, Sihana grabbed her sister and a loaf of bread and fled to safety in one of the old Hoxha bunkers in their neighborhood. Inside the bunker they found an abandoned kitten crying for its mother.
The two girls tried giving the kitten water and some of their bread, but the young stray needed milk and they had none. They spent the night in the bunker trying to keep the poor creature warm between their bodies, fighting and losing a battle against their own exhaustion. When they woke, the kitten had passed. They had no more tears to cry that morning.
During Enver Hoxha’s reign, Albania underwent a decades-long process of bunkerization. Hundreds of thousands of reinforced-concrete domes dotted the Albanian landscape, with a densely populated network of bunkers covering the capital city. In the years since the fall of the communist regime, most of the bunkers have been systematically removed, some because the rusting steel and crumbling concrete posed a safety hazard, and some to make way for the ramshackle wave of real estate development that would beset the city. A few, however, remained, and their concrete domes poked out of the ground like oversized tortoise shells. Those that remained became popular locations for Tiranë’s teenagers to get high or get laid. The couple Sihana came across this night were looking to do both.
“Out,” Sihana boomed. “Now.”
“What the fuck? Piss off!”
“I don’t have time for this. Leave, or I’ll tell your parents you’re fucking.”
“Fuck you. They already know.”
Sihana conspicuously looked around at the graffiti-coated concrete and trash covering the subterranean floor of the cramped bunker. “Yeah? Then why are you doing it in this disgusting place?” The teenagers stared blankly. Sihana quickly stole the lit joint from the girl’s hand, took a hit, and coughed. “Fine, leave or I’ll tell your friends you’re selling them shit weed.” Cursing her, they picked up their stuff and left.
Slipping her backpack off her shoulders, Sihana pulled a screwdriver from a pocket and pried loose a rusty metal strap lining the concrete dome. Pulling the cigarette pack from her pocket, she hastily but carefully stuffed it into a small gap between the metal and the concrete. She took one last drag from the joint she had stolen, gathered her composure, and climbed back onto the street. She watched as the teenagers rounded the corner and she headed off in the same direction. As she approached the intersection, two men in expensive suits appeared out of the narrow, unlit street. She found herself face to face with them.
“Where is it,” the taller of the two asked in English.
“Up your ass,” she retorted.
“Very well.” A muffled shot cracked and Sihana felt a biting pain in her ribs. “We’ll give Elira your best. This little game you’ve been playing at is coming to an end.” Sihana clutched at her chest and collapsed.
“The only thing that’s going to end is you,” she coughed, blood running down her cheek as she lay in the gutter.
“No,” said the shorter man, wryly. “We won’t.” The taller man looked up the street and noticed the two teens looking back curiously at them. “Let’s go,” he said to his colleague and the two men quickly slid back into the night.
Sihana rolled over. Looking back to the bunker, she saw herself and her sister as children desperately nursing a dying kitten some thirty or so years before. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she mumbled, before her world faded to black.
Elira was woken up at exactly 7:01 AM by the rhythmic beat of a hammer drill pounding against the concrete wall in the downstairs flat in her Hamburg apartment. “What the fuck,” she asked to no one in particular, “isn’t it Sunday?”
“It’s Saturday, bitch,” mumbled a voice through a pillow next to her.
“I didn’t ask you, bitch,” Elira playfully snapped back, “Why the fuck do they have to drill at seven in the morning?” She kissed Jax on the shoulder three times. “C’mon, reach me my phone.”
“Mmmrf.” Jax rolled over and blinked at Elira. Their blue eyeshadow was equally smudged over their face and pillowcase. Elira sighed.
“Take off your makeup before bed,” she grumbled.
“I passed out last night.”
“Whose fault is that?”
“Yours, actually,” Jax retorted suggestively. Elira tickled her partner and rolled over them to paw at the phone on the nightstand. Jax mock grunted in reply.
“You’re such a morning person, I love you.”
Elira glanced at her notifications. 68 Signal messages, she thought to herself, you’re killing me. She opened the encrypted messaging app. One of her group chats had erupted in an argument overnight. She spent a few minutes with the backscroll attempting to understand the drama and tapped in a response. Thinking better of it, she deleted it before sending and closed the chat. Not now, she thought, what else is going on?
Her heart stopped when she saw the message from Sihana. “Fuck. I have to go.” She bolted upright in the bed.
“What’s up babe,” Jax mumbled.
“I have to go.”
“Where? It’s 7 am.”
Jax perked up. “What the fuck? Why?”
“I can’t say. I don’t know. I love you. Just…” Elira paused. “Just don’t worry. I’ll be back soon, promise. I need to go right now.”
“Is your sister ok?”
“I don’t know.” Elira rummaged around in a pile of clothes on the floor. She slid into a sufficiently clean pair of leggings and threw a black, oversized sweatshirt over her head. She sat on the bed and pulled on a pair of black combat boots. “I love you," she reassured Jax. “I’ll stay in touch. If you don’t hear from me in a week, go to Martin’s, ok? And don’t mention any of this to anyone. If anyone asks, just say I’m away with a client.” Elira slipped her laptop into a backpack and reached into her closet to grab a small duffel bag that was already packed with clothes and toiletries.
Jax sat up in bed and watched Elira’s frenetic packing. “Babe, what are you talking about? You’re scaring me.”
“I’ll explain later. Just… please trust me. One week from now. 6 PM, if I’m not back, go to Martin’s. Either I’ll be there or he will be, ok? Don’t tell anyone this, don’t text about this. I love you.” Elira paused, looked at her partner, and planted a kiss on Jax’s forehead.
“I love you, too.”
Elira bounded out the door and down the stairs of her apartment building and out onto the street. Jax sat up in bed, chewed gently at the two piercings in their lower lip and ran their fingers through their cropped, blue-tipped hair. “What the fuck was that about?” they said to no one in particular. The hammer drill downstairs rattled out its incomprehensible reply.