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Previously in Unbound Fiction:

"Bienvenue à Dilbrith College, Marie-Claire Tremblay!!," by Simon Fanning (Jul 19, 2000)
"Marie-Claire is scheduled to arrive on the three o'clock train. And would Abélard himself not have relinquished his philosophical pursuits in order to accommodate his immaculate Héloïse?"

"The Limbo of Infants," by Sandra Riley (Jun 21, 2000)
"They like to go to Chi Chi's for cha-jitas, Claire and Tom, when they are off the island on an interstate, looking for a place to stop."

"Cicada," by Judy Wilson (May 24, 2000)
"These are things my son taught me to care about. Saturday nights he taught me to feel the thrill of the drag strip. 'The trick,' he said, 'is to not blink when the lights go green.'"

"Lyris," by Tom Drury (April 20, 2000)
"She climbed down the outside of the bridge and stood on a narrow ledge. It was not a far drop to the river; it might even be a pleasant jump in the summer."

"Contamination," by Dalia Rosenfeld (March 22, 2000)
"Igor spends most of his mornings in a cave, across the street from the park where we used to grill hamburgers and toss Frisbees over each other's heads."

"A Catalogue of Change," by Piya Kochhar (February 24, 2000)
"In the early morning the girl looks at the lady's palms, which are pink with thin lines. The heart crossed at Jupiter. The mount of Saturn marked by a bursting star."

More fiction from Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

August 23, 2000

Travel Guide for Ameri-Students Touring Former Soviet Countries, by Anthony Doerr

Now that you have successfully deserted your sixteen classmates, three fat teachers, and one pompous Belorussian tour guide in Minsk by skulking past their rooms at dawn and through the empty hotel lobby, take the first train to Lithuania. Get off in Vilnius, look at the churches, handle leather books at the market, buy three large beers called Juozos and drink them as quickly as you can. March up Pilies Street and shake your head No to the old women by the Gates of Dawn who hold out paper cups or Pringles cans for change. Try on amber rings, listen for Americans in the streetside market, and wonder if your disappearance will make the papers, if Mom and stepdad Rick back in Oklahoma City will scream into the cordless when Mr. Bristol phones to inform them that their teenager has disappeared from Minsk altogether.

Get a room in a hotel near the McDonald's and take some hotel stationery from the end-table drawer. Write,

Dear Mom & Rick,

Greetings from Lithuania! I decided to skip out on the rest of the Ameri-Student Tour because all anyone did was shop in Nike stores and talk about pizza, Doritos, and pot-smoking. On the first night the instructors handed out a manual of things we were supposed to do on the trip, like: "When writing home, be sure to mention how kind everybody has been to you. Assure your parents you are safe." So I split. But look, don't worry about me. Lithuania seems pretty mellow. I figure I'll poke around here a bit.

Jeff

Shred the letter. In the morning walk from one churchyard to another; follow the winding avenues past pink bell towers, past church after church after church. Walk fast, play it safe, talk to no one, blend in, don't use so much English, don't pull out a map in front of people, don't talk to the girl at the table next to yours. You are incognito, you are escaped. By now Rick has almost certainly hired a private detective to escort you home. This detective could be anywhere -- eating in that café, pretending to sell drugs by that fountain. Caution is paramount. At dusk sit in a quiet churchyard and try a postcard.
Dear Mom & Rick,

You guys should see the KGB museum here. They used to cram five or six prisoners into a room the size of a phone booth. They also had cells where the prisoners had to stand for days in three inches of water with no place to sit or lie down. Did you know the arms of straightjackets used to be twelve or fourteen feet long? They'd knot them behind your back.

Jeff

Tear up the postcard. No one wants to get a postcard like that. Buy another Juozo and drink it as quickly as possible. In the morning walk the same streets you walked the day before. Always know where you are, don't get lost, don't stay anywhere for very long, don't fall asleep. Wear shoes sensible for walking. Look for water sin gas; go to the same restaurant twice because they serve chocolate-chip pancakes. Worry about bacteria suspended in ice cubes in your drink.

After the fourth or fifth day of this it will become clear that no one will find you, that there is no private detective, that maybe no one is even looking. Go to the park and smoke an entire pack of cigarettes to celebrate. Pet a stray dog. Smile at a businesslady. Stretch your legs.

There's an old woman whose job it is to sit below the park in the underground lavatory and sell toilet paper for 80 centae. She takes your money and feeds the loose end of a roll of brown paper through a little slot. Take a foot or two, wrap it around your hand. After some deliberation give her a twenty-dollar bill for a tip.

After you've been in Lithuania for six days your funds will get low. Start drinking only in the afternoons. Consider what is proper to write in a letter home. If you are attracted to a nun on the trolley-bus, or a forty-five-year-old woman who is crying as she passes you in the street, or if you think that drinking without getting drunk is a waste of time, or if you want to curse or piss outside or fuck the next hooker you see, or if you buy a Sprite for a little girl because the poverty of this place is breaking your heart -- if you feel these things then it might be best to write them in a diary but never in a letter home.

After a week sell your driver's license to a linen salesman for eighty American dollars. Eat at Burger King to celebrate. Buy an airmail letter and write,

Dear Mom & Rick,

Every summer storks fly all the way from Africa to nest in Lithuanian farmyards. Today I saw a tour bus hit one and the driver didn't even stop. The thing was the size of a second-grader and the bus just kept going. Blood and feathers were all over the street. If I ever make it home I'm going to keep a shovel in the trunk of the car. I'll stop for every dead animal on the road and bury it. It's the least we can do, you know.

Jeff

Take that letter to the mailbox, but at the last second turn away and drop it in a trash can. Move to a less expensive hotel. Follow a girl onto a bus because you can see her nipples through her orange tank top. Buy her dinner and kiss her fingers and beg her to go to your room with you. When she refuses get terribly drunk. Get lost on your way back to the hotel and blunder into the woods north of Vilnius where gypsies sleep in tents and make drums from goat skin and wait half their lives for an American like you to wander into their camp. In the morning your wallet will be gone and you will remember very little. Start drinking tap water. Drink a gallon of it. Imagine little microbe families blooming in your intestines.

Sell your passport for five hundred dollars cash. Buy a flashlight, climb on a bus heading west, and fall asleep. When you wake you'll be at Plokstine, an abandoned Soviet missile base that looks like a grassy field with four big pitcher's mounds in it. The pitcher's mounds are the roofs of the missile silos. There is no admission fee, no throng of tourists, just a few signs in English and Lithuanian and a single strand of barbed wire. One rusty wire under your sneaker: all that remains of alarms, electric fences, razor cable, Dobermans, search lights, and machine-gun emplacements.

Follow the sign to the bunker's entrance, which is a staircase in the middle of the field leading into the depths of the earth or maybe some more terrible place. When you descend notice the electric bulbs screwed into the cracked ceilings, the wet and rusty floors; see the whole place slowly buckling from the weight around and above it. Lie in one of the rotten bunks where off-duty Soviet troops once read comic books, slept, masturbated. Walk past the giant old generators, gutted by scavengers. Stand in the room where they had the button. A sign in English will explain how the control room could be sealed off with enough air and power for three hours. Think about why. Finally descend to a pair of long dripping black corridors and stomp along through rust-puddles until you can shine your light ninety feet down into the echoing cylinders where they kept the nukes. Put your hands on the iron collar around the rim of the hole where the 360 degrees of the compass are painted so soldiers could aim at a number and not a place. Better to aim for 245 than Frankfurt.

At dusk you will be miles away, above ground. Stroll near the river; pull tiny flowers from stems you pass. People are around you -- chubby people, drunk people, poor people maybe, but living their lives, walking in the evening and looking at the swallows looping overhead. Watch these different personalities inside their various bodies and think that they are good people, with good brains, 83 percent happy, 17 percent unhappy.

Breathe the air and walk down to the river and step across the boulders and see fingerlings rise for the evening hatch; think that you're young and will always be, and take off your clothes and swim. Swim and paddle and splash and flaunt your skin. After dark walk back to your hotel through the crumbling apartment blocks, flick at the gnats by your ear, walk up the steps and buy a liter of Juozo from the desk-girl. Order hot cepelinai, big egg-shaped potato dumplings filled with sausage and covered with cream, and the rain will start, cold loud drops. Eat and drink and watch the drops glide down your window. In the morning is when you will write your letter. Tell them you're sorry. Be sure to mention how kind everybody has been to you.


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More fiction from Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Anthony Doerr's first collection of short stories will be published by Scribner in 2002. His fiction is forthcoming in The Atlantic Monthly, DoubleTake, The Sewanee Review, and elsewhere.

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