In the end, she ate the paper, its shiny, slightly furry surface sticking to the roof of her mouth and making her gag. Her husband laughed when he found out, but it was something she had to do. She didn’t trust the power it had over her, and the only way to break that power was to break it up with her teeth. It sat in her stomach, making her queasy, but through the dizziness and chills that followed she was content. She had finally finished it.
Nina wished she had worn more clothes at the border point. Her children resembled giant balls, their puffed-up coats bulging around them. She was shivering through her jeans, and her scarf offered little comfort. Her husband David’s face was set like concrete, but she could see him shaking in his leather jacket.
“It’s ridiculous,” he said, for lack of anything to do but complain. “I remember when they’d let you in with just a passport.”
“At least they’re letting us through.” She took out the envelope containing her documents and thumbed through it for the fifth time. She ran through all the explanations she could possibly give if the guard questioned those papers: excuses for everything from incorrect orthography to the variation in color between her and her husband’s work permits.
“Next!” The guard’s order rattled through the loudspeaker, and David jumped. He took Lara and Petra in hand and walked, with only a little hesitation, up to the booth. They’d registered the children on his papers, and so he was the one who had to explain the situation to the guards. At the time, he’d insisted on it–he was the one who’d travelled through this very checkpoint several times, back in better days. Now, Nina was frantic with anxiety, and she squinted towards her family and their conversation with an unimpressed officer. After a couple of minutes, the officer gave them all back their passports and other papers, and they set off towards the exit.
It was her turn, and she stepped forward feeling the crescendo of blood in her body, rising in fear. When she reached the booth, she saw that the officer’s eyes were a jaundiced yellow, though the rest of his face was pale and papery. She placed all her papers on the wooden surface, and he took them from her. She watched his eyes flicking through her passport, work pass, and entry permit.
He collected her papers together, stamped her passport, and handed them back to her, along with the card that proclaimed her to be a temporary resident with the right to work.
“Thank you,” she whispered. The officer ignored her as she stuffed her papers into her handbag and walked towards the rest of her family.
For a little while, nothing strange happened. Then Nina tried to go to work.
She had obtained a job before they had come, at Saint Anthony of Padua Gymnasium. She would replace the school’s former French teacher, who had disappeared one day in mysterious circumstances, according to the student who shown her to the principal’s office. Nina asked what these circumstances might be, and was told that the most popular theories were elopement, involvement in a cult, and selling her soul to the devil. She felt rather less enthused about her new job, but kept on walking, her shoes clattering on the polished floor.
When she entered the office, the principal–Dr. Lisa Amstutz, the plaque on her desk said–shook her hand, and Nina introduced herself, tripping a little over a language she knew more as an intellectual exercise than a living thing.
“Of course, since you are a foreigner, I need to see your residency card,” Dr. Amstutz said. Nina pulled her card out of her purse and handed it over. It was the first time she had needed to use it.
Dr. Amstutz frowned, and stared at the card for too long to be reading it.
“What is wrong?” Nina started forward in her seat.
“This says you’re not Nina Marinovic.” She handed it back, and Nina saw that the name printed in black ink was NIKA MARINOVIC. She closed her eyes and opened them in the hope that the letters would change while she wasn’t looking, but they remained as before.
“There must have been a mistake,” she said. “I really am Nina Marinovic–this card just has an error—”
“I’m sorry.” Dr. Amstutz rose from her chair and gestured towards the door. “We can’t have someone teaching here if they’re not who their documents say they are.”
“I have a passport from my country–won’t that do?”
“Not if you don’t have the right to work.”
“If you give me time, maybe I can get new papers. It’s a mistake.”
“I don’t have time.” Over the top of her glasses, Dr. Amstutz regarded her the way one regarded a criminal’s photo in the newspaper.
Nina felt hot and embarrassed, and gave up the fight in favor of scuttling away. “I’m sorry,” she said before closing the door.