Seven Steps to Reunite with Your Children When General Mutafchiiski Says to Stay Home
Author’s note: On March 13, 2020, Bulgaria entered a State of Emergency and introduced new laws with strict punishment for breaking quarantine. Punishment included fines up to 5,000 leva and three years of prison during regular law, and up to 50,000 leva and ten years in prison during a State of Emergency or pandemic. A week later, they shut down their borders and restricted intercity travel.
1 Fill the tanks.
The Government hasn’t shut down gas stations yet. But stopping on the road will be too dangerous. I fill up both tanks — gasoline and LPG — at the station down the road from my apartment. The attendant eyes me warily, and I pay with a contactless card even though I wear a face mask to keep stray spit particles from reaching her. Keep the distance, slow the spread, right?
I try to look as unsuspicious as possible. My papers aren’t in order. I tried to get the stamp from the mayor’s office. But the sour woman behind the desk didn’t think a mother reuniting with her children was worth breaking quarantine.
“Grandparents look after children all the time. It’s a Bulgarian tradition. Get used to it.” She waved the next person past me.
2 Check your route.
I check the route on my phone for the tenth time. I can usually drive to my in-laws’ in my sleep. Just three and a half hours of highways. But that route takes me straight through three large cities. With quarantine in effect, there’s no way I’d make it past the roadblocks.
The fine for leaving my city without the stamp is…honestly, I don’t know how much. Fines have been skyrocketing since the state of emergency was declared. 5,000 leva? 50,000? Five months’ pay or five years’?
I still don’t know how I’ll get into my destination city. My in-laws live on the edge of town, and both roads to them will definitely have road blocks. But my kids are there. I haven’t seen them in two weeks and, with laws getting stricter each day, it could be another two months before I hold them in my arms.
My husband thinks I’m insane. “Stay here. They’ll be fine,” he assures me. They will be fine. But he isn’t used to cuddling them every day. He goes entire weeks without seeing them. I am used to feeling their little beating hearts against my chest and getting their sticky kisses on my cheek. The smell of my two-year-old’s scalp is worth the however-many-leva fine.
3 Obey as many laws as possible to avoid detection.
I pull onto the road, careful to obey all speed limits. Last week the police gained the right to stop and question people about their destination within the city. General Mutafchiiski made another television appearance, his bald head shining on camera. It isn’t a crime to be outside, he assured us, but they want to emphasize the importance of only going to work, home, and grocery stores. I don’t have it in me to lie. But, as I hoped, the smallest road out of town isn’t monitored. It’s barely more than a dirt track, but my Subaru can handle it. There’s ice in the holes, but I can handle it. Slow and steady.
Once outside my town, I’m in the clear. No one can prove I left. For all they know, I’ve been outside for the entire quarantine. The nose of my car is pointed in the wrong direction. I should be heading to the address on my identity documents. But there’s no proof. I could just be turned around. I am a foreigner, after all.
4 Keep focused.
I listen to Google maps tell me when to turn, keeping to barely-there roads around the major cities. My tensions remain high — I keep my music low and grind my teeth. It’ll be worth it. I think of General Mutafchiiski more than I think of my kids. I think of him announcing the shut-down of schools and daycares. I think of him urging us to keep our distance. I think of him shutting down public parks. My kids needed fresh air. They couldn’t stay in my apartment all day for three months. It takes more than five hours to reach my destination, and even that is not the end.
5 Ditch your car far enough to avoid suspicion.
The line to get into Varna is two kilometers from the city limits. Cars inch forward. I pull off onto a side street that leads up to a small village and park my car. Two kilometers. It’s an easy walk on most days. But I need to keep out of sight. The drivers waiting on the road would get suspicious. Someone would mention to the cops up at the barrier that there’s a woman walking the road.
I slink into bushes on the side of the road. Down into the drainage ditch. Dogs bark, and my hair stands on end. Security dogs for the warehouses, sure to be even less understanding than the police. The bitches have their pups stolen every year, why would they have any sympathy for a mother trying to get to her kids?
My heart pounds as I overtake each idling car. I count the distance to my children in car-lengths and shrubbery. My hot breath fills my mask.
6 Run fast when exposed.
Ten car lengths from the police barrier, there’s a small gas station. Behind the gas station is a large pasture, where my in-laws keep their sheep. The entrance to the property is in the city, but I sneak up the hill, exposed to all the cars, heart thundering.
No one comes.
7 Hold those babies tight.
I open the back gate.
“Mama!” Squeals and hugs and kisses overpower me.
Five thousand? Fifty thousand? Five million…this moment is worth it.
Koji A. Dae is an American writer living in Bulgaria with she/her pronouns and anxious depression. She has work published with or forthcoming from Daily Science Fiction, Thrilling Words, and Short Edition, among others. When not writing, she is parenting her children or dancing the blues.
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