After replacing the handset, I sat up in bed and was then interrupted by Yura who sidled in from the hallway. He pushed open the door of my bedroom and stood on the threshold in his pajama bottoms rubbing his eyes.
"What's going on?" he asked, his sleep clearly disturbed by the interruption.
He must have been startled by the phone ringing.
"Good news," I said, smiling in the semi-darkness.
I didn't get the chance to finish. He knew instantly.
"Vladik?" he exclaimed, instinctively.
Yura brightened, and his little jaw dropped open.
"Oh yes," I said, "I'm going to get him."
"Can I come too?"
"I think he would like that," I said.
Yura sprinted over and threw himself at me, hopping up onto the bed excitedly, and hugged me tightly.
"Oh, I'll be so happy to see him again!" he exclaimed, overjoyed.
I rubbed his smooth back. His body was hot from having just emerged from under the bedclothes, and was now cooling in the stillness of my darkened room.
"Go and have a shower," I said, brushing back his sleep-ruffled hair with my fingers, "and be ready to leave for the airport in half an hour."
And so it was that within a very short time we were both dressed and ready for this welcome but unforeseen journey. It was still dark when we started up the big SUV and set off for the airport. With Yura safely strapped into the seat beside me, I headed for the Interstate and set a course for the airport. There was not much traffic. We soon reached cruising speed, and were able to make good time.
Yura was uncharacteristically quiet on the way to the airport. He slept most of the way. The sudden and early awakening proved too exhausting for him, despite his anticipation of seeing Vladik again. In the silence, I concentrated on my driving and wondered how the arrival of Vladik would impact on this strange idyll that Yura and I had fallen into in the short time that he had been here. We had been constant companions in the house for the duration, and Yura had been surprisingly quiescent to his circumstances. I was lucky. This assignment had so far proved to be pleasurable and rewarding for me, and Yura was never a problem. He was content to linger around the house with me, just hanging out and passing the time doing normal, unremarkable things. He was charming and funny and never once complained about being bored. In fact, he never grumbled about anything. He was a pleasant, undemanding little boy to have around. Despite all the terrible experiences he had been through, and even in view of his tender years, I swear he was the most unassuming and innocuous person I had ever met. Naturally, I wondered how Vladik would be in comparison.
Pretty soon we arrived at the airport and I was able to hustle Yura into the terminal without too much formality. I kept him very close to me, ensuring I had an arm around his shoulders at all times. Waiting at the gate, Yura was talking incessantly. It was all idle chatter, not about anything in particular. He was finding it difficult to contain his excitement and he just couldn't stop talking. For my part, I tried to remember what Vladik looked like. I knew he was blond, and I could vaguely recall from having seen those videos that there was a blond boy in them. But I had no specific recollection of his features. My only expectation was that he was probably a good looking boy. As I have already said, all the boys in those videos were exceptionally beautiful. That was the defining merit of those videos - all the boys were pretty beyond belief. What a shame that three of those lovely boys were now dead. What a waste of those young lives. It was arguably the most extreme boy porn that had ever been recorded, and I was about to meet another one of its protagonists.
In the end I didn't need the codeword. Although I had prepared a sign, Yura spotted Vladik emerging from the gate long before I did. Vladik was accompanied by the airline's Passenger Service Assistant, who had obviously been assigned the task of escorting him from the aircraft. The only thing that made my heart jump was that Yura ran out unexpectedly, calling out to Vladik as he meandered through the crowd, belting headlong towards him at warp speed. Vladik stopped dead in his tracks, dropped the little backpack he was carrying, and held up his arms just as Yura jumped up onto him, nearly knocking him over. The Passenger Service Assistant, in her royal blue uniform, let out a little squeal of surprise. The two boys held each other tightly, Vladik holding Yura up for a few seconds, and then releasing him back onto his feet. There was instantly a bond between them, which was evident from the way Vladik's face lit up at the sight of Yura racing towards him, and the way they hugged each other so affectionately. There was a genuine affinity there which hinted at a former intimacy, almost as though they were long-lost brothers.
By the time I arrived on the scene, they were babbling away excitedly in Russian, their little high-pitched voices tripping over one another and their eyes as wide as saucers. Yura was affectionately hanging onto Vladik's lapels, his little hands grasping the thin jacket that Vladik was wearing. Vladik was looking a little overwhelmed. He was happy to see Yura, but still slightly disoriented by the flight and the over-exuberant welcome. He was looking about him in a very nervous way, observing the bustle of activity of the cavernous terminal building, and he appeared scared and distracted by the noise and general commotion around him. I stepped up and introduced myself to the Passenger Service Assistant, who seemed only too pleased to hand Vladik safely over to me. I thanked her. She bade him goodbye and immediately left. I held out my hand to Vladik in greeting, introducing myself as Mark. He looked at my hand without making any attempt to shake it. He decided to ignore my outstretched hand and simply said, "Alex," as though it was clear that we all knew it wasn't his real name, and gave me a challenging and contemptuous stare. He almost curled his lip as he said it, and in that one gesture I was able to gauge his outlook immediately. He was stolid and intransigent, almost hostile. I had seen that look many times before. The specter of hurt and anger was in his eyes, and deep down inside, I detected that there was a lost, lonely, vulnerable little boy, with a lot of anger and resentment. And in that single instance, I knew straight away that Vladik was going to be trouble. Vladik's initial response to me was cold and unwelcoming, but probably only to be expected. I could see that the whole experience must have been discomfiting for him, especially as he had made the journey alone. I thought that it must have been quite daunting for this little boy, travelling as an unaccompanied minor, fresh from whatever experiences he had been subjected to, and suddenly catapulted halfway around the world, not knowing what to expect at the other end. He was right to be scared and defensive. That was the good thing about having Yura there. It must have been at least some consolation for him to see a familiar face.
For the first time I got a really good look at Vladik close up, and only then did he appear vaguely recognizable from the videos. I could understand straight away what the pornographers had seen in this little boy. He was a little older than Yura, perhaps an inch or two taller, and he was of course exceptionally pretty. He had a cute round face and big, clear eyes that were an unusually distinctive shade of emerald green, accentuated by two little smudges of blonde eyebrow. He had a neat, slightly upturned nose and cherry-red lips with a cute little overbite, which showed off his two front teeth. His blond hair had been clipped quite short so that at first glance it appeared to be made up of little prickly strands of gold. This clearly revealed the shape of his noble head, accentuating the cuteness of his occipital bone, that area right at the back of the skull above the neck. How I loved the way the back of the head sometimes curves upwards so gracefully in some boys, complimenting the back of their neck in such a pretty way. There was no doubt, Vladik was an exceptionally beautiful little boy.
I let Vladik and Yura chatter away as I led the way back to the car. As we walked out of the terminal, I noticed that Vladik was walking quite slowly and hesitantly. His gait was somewhat halting and erratic, almost as though he had a slight limp, and I wondered if he was nursing some kind of injury. I reached over and took Vladik's little backpack - alas all the luggage he seemed to have in his possession - and he grimaced slightly as I lifted it off his shoulder. Yura didn't seem to notice.
Yura opted to sit in the back seat with Vladik on the return journey, so they could carry on talking and to keep Vladik company. I thought that was a nice gesture, and entirely symptomatic of Yura's thoughtfulness and consideration. Yura was doing most of the talking, telling him about the house we were going to, and about the swimming pool and the gym and the video games, and this carried on as we left the airport and headed back towards the Interstate. Gradually, Yura calmed down and his conversation turned to more serious matters. He was asking Vladik what had happened to him, trying to elicit where he had been for all these months and telling him how we feared he might be dead. This made Vladik very uncomfortable and his monosyllabic responses made it very clear that he didn't want to talk about it. I called to Yura from the driving seat.
"Hey little buddy?"
Yura looked at me in the rearview mirror.
"Give him time," I warned.
Yura nodded, and immediately understood. Vladik needed time, just as Yura did. He would talk about it when he was ready. Yura stopped questioning and just chatted to him reassuringly for a while. As the noise in the back seat gradually abated, and the boys settled down, I was able to concentrate on my driving. As the road rushed by beneath us, and the drone of the engine hummed hypnotically, I could see in the rearview mirror that they had eventually fallen asleep. They had their eyes closed and their arms around each other. That was so cute. Vladik was propped up against the edge of the big leather seat, with his head tilted against the window. He had one arm around Yura. Next to him, Yura had fallen across onto Vladik and was asleep with his head on Vladik's shoulder. He had one hand resting on Vladik's lap almost as though he was hugging him. Both boys had their mouths slightly open and their heads were rocking in unison as the car rode over the bumps. They were a picture of boyhood innocence. Two tired little buddies with a very special friendship.
The Constellation swallowed up the miles effortlessly and we made good time against the traffic of the morning rush hour. When I looked in the mirror again I saw that the boys were stirring and were actually awake, but they were mysteriously quiet. They were still sitting in much the same position as when they were asleep. Yura's head was still resting on Vladik's shoulder, and Vladik still had one arm around him. But they were both staring ahead wordlessly. I wondered why they weren't talking. Then I saw that they were actually holding hands as well. Yura had reached across and had his little hand in Vladik's, and their hands were resting on Vladik's lap. It was just so cute.
At the house later, I showed Vladik to the bedroom next to Yura's. He followed me silently, not feeling the need to catch my eye, and simply going through the motions with a demeanor that was so imbued with disinterest that it bordered on resentment. He said the first thing he wanted to do was to have a bath. That he communicated this to me was at least a concession of sorts. He was sitting on the bed forlornly while the bath was filling. I went through his stuff, helping him to unpack. It was almost an exact replay of the day when Yura first arrived: I put his backpack on the bed and opened it as he watched. Again there was very little in it, and again I cursed the Moscow Police. He had even less than Yura. His jeans were frayed, his t-shirts were old and faded. There were no socks or underwear and no toiletries of any description. Was I to assume that Vladik's flight was so rushed and so secret that there hadn't been time for any formalities whatsoever? It had to be. Why else would he have been put on a flight on his own? This poor boy who had only just been found, fresh from whatever harrowing experiences he had been subjected to, was so hurriedly flown out of Moscow that he barely had time to catch his breath. This kid must have been not only traumatized, but severely confused, very scared and more than a little disorientated. I made a mental note to raise the matter with Nikolayev at the next opportunity.
I managed to gather up a change of clothes for Vladik and laid them out on the end of bed. There were still plenty of new things that Yura hadn't used. Fortunately, and coincidentally, he and Yura were pretty much the same size. I got some toiletries and put them in the ensuite bathroom where the bath was filling, and I left him a fresh towel.
As I emerged from the bathroom, I saw him sitting on the bed looking glum and despondent. I flashed him my best 'cheer up' expression. He refused to acknowledge it and merely showed me a look of distinct annoyance. It was probably cold comfort to him, but I wanted to show him that I was on his side. It reminded me so much of that day when Yura had first arrived, and I remembered how scared and disorientated he was. The only difference was that I was starting to realize that getting through to Vladik wasn't going to be quite so easy, and he was already putting up a defensive wall of surly hostility, emphatically rejecting my friendly overtures. I tried to remind myself that after what this little boy must have been through, he had a right to be angry and distrusting.
"Don't worry," I reassured him, "We're going to take good care of you."
He flashed me another antagonistic expression, distinctly unamused.
"You can go and take your bath now," I said, ignoring his hurtful look.
Just like Yura, Vladik had no shame when it came to undressing. He quite readily got up and started taking off his clothes right in front of me. He stripped slowly and forlornly, but without hesitation, displaying the same lack of shyness that was consistent with boys who had been abused. Nevertheless, there was a very touching air of innocence about his guilelessness. His physique was still very boyish, having not yet developed the muscled hardness of adolescence. He was perhaps slightly stockier, with a more substantial stature than Yura, but nevertheless svelte and well proportioned. There were traces of fine downy hairs on his forearms, which looked almost translucent, and his skin tone was very warm, slightly tanned, with the tell-tale light areas on his pelvis where his Speedos had perhaps covered him.
But as Vladik slipped off his shirt and jeans, I was alarmed. I spotted what I thought looked like bruises on his golden skin. There was a dark band of faded redness around his neck, and similar marks on his wrists and ankles. They were entirely consistent with having been hogtied - where the arms and legs are bound and secured to a rope around the neck. They were not fresh rope marks, but I could tell they were fairly recent. I gasped inwardly, reeling at the thought of what appalling things this boy must have endured. I was startled, but I tried not to look too perturbed for fear of alarming him.
I moved into the ensuite bathroom to turn off the water and Vladik followed me in a couple of seconds later, totally naked. Silently, he stepped into the steaming bath, which I had filled with bath foam, and he lowered himself in very slowly. As he sank down into the water, his face was contorted in a grimace of pain. At first I thought maybe I had mixed the water too hot, but I soon realized that it was something more than that.
"What is it? What's wrong?" I demanded.
"It's nothing," he said, not very convincingly and rather too aggressively.
I hesitated, not at all accustomed to having my kindness thrown back at me like that. I had to remind myself that Vladik was not Yura. I couldn't expect him to be as loving and receptive and forgiving as Yura was.
But then, as Vladik lowered himself fully into the water, he screwed up his eyes and threw his head back, clearly beset with pain.
"You're hurt," I observed, concerned.
He then bent forward in the bath, nearly doubling over, and it was then that I saw the marks on his back. They were even more prominent than the rope marks - the unmistakable telltale welts from a concerted whipping - a haphazard network of ugly red scars crisscrossed all over his back. They were more recent than the rope marks too. Some were so fresh that they were still bright red from where they must have once been oozing blood. Lesions that deep could only have been caused by some pretty brutal and sustained flogging. It must have been excruciating for him. It was apparent to me at that moment the extent of the unspeakable acts that had been perpetrated against this little boy. But it shouldn't have surprised me, given what Zhukov had told me. Nevertheless, even that couldn't have prepared me for something like this. Tears came to my eyes, which I tried very hard to suppress, and a strange mixture of emotions welled up inside me. I felt shock and pity, even disbelief at the extent to which this boy had been mistreated. But most of all I felt anger. A barely concealed rage rose up inside me that anybody could make such a concerted effort to inflict such cruelty on a child. I took a deep breath and turned back to Vladik, trying to put on an upbeat tone.
"That looks painful little buddy," I said solicitously, looking down at him, "We need to do something about that."
"No!" he snapped, "Leave me alone!"
I tried appealing to him.
"Why don't you let me put something on that? I'm quite good with injuries."
I waited, letting the moment pass, and then when he was more composed, he looked up at me plaintively, perhaps at this moment acknowledging that maybe he did need my help.
Horrified at the thought that he had been sitting on a plane for so many hours with these horrible injuries, I offered to get him some salve to soothe the pain. I had some magical stuff that I used for sports injuries and gym strains, a clear gel that was pretty miraculous, even on open wounds. I brought the tube of salve into the bathroom, locking the door behind me. Vladik was still sitting there submerged in the foamy bath, waiting patiently, but still wearing an impervious mask of emotional neutrality.
I knelt down next to the bath and squeezed a little of the gel onto my fingers. Then I put a hand gently on the back of Vladik's neck and had him bend forward for me. He quiescently leaned over, resting his elbows on his raised knees. He winced violently as I applied the gel. It was cold to the touch. He closed his eyes and gritted his teeth and bravely bore the pressure of my finger as I smoothed the gel liberally all over the tortured skin of his back. I focused on the area between his shoulder blades, where the scarring was particularly bad, and it was apparent that great force must have been used to inflict such deep lesions. Clearly, the blows had been hard enough to break the skin. This boy must have been flogged so brutally, and with particular malice and vehemence, it was heartbreaking. As I was massaging the gel in with my fingertips, gently rubbing it in, Vladik turned his head and I could feel his pretty green eyes watching me intently, his worried look gradually giving way to wonderment and curiosity. The oddity of this situation struck me. Here was a kid I had only just met, whom I had known for barely a matter of hours, and yet he was sitting there naked, not at all fazed by this stranger massaging salve onto his back. Just like Yura, there was something deeply attractive about the way he trusted me, albeit fleetingly, and I was oddly drawn to the way he just sat there and watched me while I ministered to him. I guess it was a boymoment of sorts.
Much later, Vladik was persuaded to join Yura and I by the pool. It was a lovely day, and that was good enough for Yura to slip into his Speedos and jump straight into the pool. Rested after his bath, Vladik had changed into his new clothes and came down looking clean and refreshed. His golden blond hair was silky and freshly washed and this was accentuated by the bright red sweatshirt that he was wearing. Yura was overjoyed to have his little buddy there with him and was jumping around in the pool showing off for us. Vladik was standing by the poolside observing, and I went up to join him. Standing next to him, we both watched Yura's antics for a while, and I was passing comments and laughing at Yura's waterborne acrobatics, trying to make some connection with Vladik. But he was still cold. I could feel his neediness and his apprehension. After my ephemeral little boymoment with him in the bathroom earlier, I could sense his need for reassurance, despite his outward hostility. I looked down at him as he was standing next to me.
"Hey little buddy..."
He turned to me, his pretty emerald eyes squinting against the bright sunlight.
"...Everything's going to be alright you know."
"Like you give a shit," he said sarcastically, flashing me a hateful expression.
"Don't be like that," I said, with a more conciliatory tone, "I just want us to be friends."
"You can kiss my ass," he said tersely, and turned away dismissively.
God, this kid was really hurting. His words did jar a little, but I wasn't fazed by it. Deep down I knew how much he really wanted to believe me. It was already clear that getting through to Vladik wasn't going to be easy.
It was very heartening to see that even Yura made an effort to make Vladik feel welcome and put him at ease. In the early evening we sat down to dinner together and I made sure Vladik was treated to some good old American fare. He was quite reserved at dinner, still a little awkward, maybe even homesick. But Yura's enthusiastic chatter masked his reticence. Unfortunately, he didn't seem to have much of an appetite. He teased the food around his plate and didn't eat much. Then, well before we had all finished, he put his fork down and made it clear he couldn't eat any more.
"I'm not hungry," he said, with a tiny, almost inaudible voice.
I felt so sorry for him.
After dinner, Yura insisted that they should try out the games console. He had been looking forward to having someone new to compete with, so Vladik, having nothing better to do, and eager to indulge Yura, agreed to play with him. It was good to see that Vladik soon relaxed and was totally drawn into the game. He and Yura sat side by side on the big sofa, grasping the game controllers, their little bodies twitching abruptly in harmony with what was happening on the big plasma screen. It turned into a noisy, if energetic game, with both boys becoming totally engrossed in the on-screen antics that they were oblivious to everything else. It was fascinating to see how their eyes looked almost hypnotized, as though they had actually been transported into the screen. You could see the colors of the TV screen reflected in their enlarged pupils. Their nimble little fingers and thumbs were clicking away on the controller buttons and they were fidgeting excitedly, absently talking away, letting out excited little screams and shouts to one another as they bounced around on the sofa. For me, it was good to see Vladik relaxing. It was amazing to see how good Yura was at putting Vladik at ease, and it was heartening to see Vladik allowing himself to be the eleven year old boy that he really was. I realized, watching them, that one way of getting through to Vladik was probably through Yura.
I knew the boys would be at the game for hours if they were not given a time limit, so I told them they had about an hour and would then have to get ready for bed. I left them to it and in the meantime I had time to slope off to the little study upstairs to catch up on some work. I thought I had better check and see if my unit had been in touch, or if Nikolayev had left further instructions. I emailed Nikolayev to let him know Vladik was safe. I was sure he had total confidence in me anyway. I was delighted to see that I had a message from Anton. He said he had been very busy with his studies since our meeting a few days back, but he thanked me for meeting him and assured me he would be in touch again soon.
I had given the boys an hour to play on the games console. They took two. But at least they were able to bring their play to an end without me having to remind them. When they had finished, I heard them coming up the stairs and approaching along the hallway. They were giggling in hushed tones, trying not to make too much noise, but they were still hyper and excitable. Yura crashed into the room abruptly, almost falling through the door, just as I swiveled around on the chair to see what was going on. Yura dashed straight over to me and deposited himself on my lap, sending the chair rolling backwards against the desk. Instinctively, I threw my arms around him, to welcome him as well as to steady him and prevent him from sliding through my arms onto the laminated wooden floor. I was delighted that Yura had changed into his pajama bottoms and was already shirtless, ready for bed. He was pressing himself insistently between my thighs as I was sitting there. Behind him I could see Vladik standing in the doorway, also shirtless, his slightly tanned little body contrasting starkly against the white Harry Potter pajama bottoms he had chosen to wear. The rope marks were very prominent around his neck. Vladik was standing there unmistakably witnessing this moment of affection between Yura and I. Yura wriggled onto my lap, with his feet still on the floor, and I hugged him tightly. Vladik, observing all this, just came into the room quietly and sat down on one of the armchairs by the bookcases, and seemed to be eyeing our closeness with some suspicion.
I guessed both of them were exhausted and Yura was setting a good example for Vladik in getting ready for bed. It was uncharacteristic of Yura, who usually needed some encouragement. But tonight was going to be different. The usual dynamic was altered by Vladik's presence. I did not resent it. I liked having Vladik here with us. I was happy for Vladik. But most of all, I was happy for Yura, who was overjoyed at having been reunited with his special friend. He had talked of Vladik so much. Now he was actually here with us, safe and relatively intact.
As Yura hung his arms around my neck, languishing in my lap, he looked at me closely, directly into my eyes.
"Can Vladik sleep in my room tonight?"
I smiled. I thought that was very touching.
"Of course he can," I said.
"Is it okay if we sleep with the lights on?" said Yura, "Vladik doesn't like the dark."
Vladik averted his gaze, focusing on the floor by his feet. He was embarrassed by that and I could see how awkward he felt. But I thought his coyness was cute.
"It's not a problem," I said, dismissing it.
And with that, Vladik got up and headed out of the door. Yura wriggled out of my arms and went to follow him. I called out to him.
"Hey little buddy?"
Yura stopped midway across the room and turned to me.
"You will look after him won't you?" I said.
He was about to nod, then hesitated a moment. He came back over to where I was sitting and leaned over, putting his arms around my neck once again. He gave me a joyful little hug and spoke very softly.
"I'm so happy Vladik's here," he said.
Then he turned to go, wrenching himself away from me to go and join his buddy.
I carried on with my work, immersing myself in the computer once again. But I hadn't made much progress when, a few minutes later, I sensed someone standing on the threshold behind me. I glanced over my shoulder and saw that it was Vladik. He was standing there ominously, his lean figure wearing only the Harry Potter pajama bottoms, framed by the open doorway, looking at me with a troublesome and not very friendly expression.
"What's up little buddy?" I asked, swiveling on my chair to face him.
He looked both ways down the hallway, as if to check that Yura was not around, then stepped a couple of paces into the room. He stared at me stone-faced for a long time before answering.
"You think you've got it made here don't you?" he said, accusingly.
"I don't know what you mean," I replied.
"You may have fooled Yura," he said, "But you don't fool me."
"I'm not out to fool anybody," I said, playing down his assertion.
"Oh yeh? What's all this lovey-dovey stuff between you two?"
"I care about Yura very much," I said, "And for what it's worth, I care about you too."
"Save it!" he sneered, "I don't need your pity."
"Look, I'm on your side," I replied, "I'm here if you need me."
"I don't need you. I don't need anybody. Got it?"
"As you wish," I conceded, "There's no obligation."
He continued to stand in the doorway, with a seething hostility burning in his pretty green eyes. I got up and moved towards him.
"Look, no one said we have to like each other," I said, in conciliatory tones, "But why don't we try to get on, for Yura's sake?"
I extended a hand towards him in a gesture of friendship and conciliation, the second time I had invited him to shake hands with me today, but he just looked at my outstretched palm, distinctly unimpressed.
"Fuck you!" he said contemptuously, giving me the finger just to ram the point home, and with that he turned away, snubbing me conclusively.
The depth of anger in his words really punched home. His objective was to strike deep and hard, and his words were genuinely hurtful. But I reminded myself how this poor boy must be feeling so angry and scared right now - it was understandable that he wanted to lash out like that. I reasoned that I should not take his comments to heart. It hurt, but it really wasn't about me. It was about this poor, troubled, tormented little soul that had suffered so deeply and been damaged so profoundly that all he wanted to do was vent his anger and resentment at everything and everybody. Deep down, I knew that he just needed to be loved. He craved affection so much you could almost taste it. And I knew that he was capable of it. Had he not sat patiently and curiously watching me minister to him when I had tended his injuries in the bathroom earlier? For those few precious moments, he had let his guard down just enough to allow another human being close enough to show him some care and attention. I could see that I was really going to have problems with Vladik. It was nothing I hadn't seen before, and not anything I wasn't able to cope with, but it was clear that Vladik was going to be hard work. It was going to take time and energy and patience... and lots of love.
It was probably about an hour later that I thought to go to bed myself. It had been a long day for me too. On the way, I stopped by Yura's room to check on the boys. The door was ajar, and the lights were still on, but dimmed to a very intimate level. I peered around the door, stepping just onto the threshold. The boys were both sleeping soundly, their diminutive little bodies almost dwarfed by the king-size bed. They had kicked off the bedclothes so that they were totally uncovered. Vladik was lying face down with his head turned towards Yura. I figured it must have been painful for him to lie on his back. There in the half-light his skin had a smooth, matt texture and the scars were not so visible. His long legs were stretched out straight and his bare little feet were cutely turned inwards. Yura was lying on his side, facing Vladik, with one hand extended and resting lightly on Vladik's back. Both boys had their mouths slightly open, breathing in and out silently. They looked so cute and innocent.
I stepped into the room to pull the covers up over them both, and as I neared the bed I spotted something shiny sticking out from under the bed. I picked it up. It was the discarded wrapper from a packet of Oreos. It was empty. It had been ripped open, the contents obviously consumed and had then been carelessly disposed of in a halfhearted attempt to conceal the evidence. I knew straight away that it must have been Vladik. Yura wasn't in the habit of stealing food. But then Vladik had eaten virtually nothing at dinner. That was just another form of rejection - he wouldn't eat anything I had prepared, but he was obviously hungry. Hungry enough to eat a whole packet of Oreos. They were chocolate crème as well. I smiled to myself. I looked at Vladik, sleeping there so innocently, with his tummy full of Oreos, and I found it impossible to be angry with him. In fact, at that moment, my heart swelled with an inexplicable and overwhelming effusion of love for that little boy.
I reached over and pulled the covers up over them both, trying not to disturb them. And as I did so, Vladik stirred a little, letting out an almost imperceptible moan, and instinctively reached out for Yura, extending his arm as though subconsciously reassuring himself that his little buddy was still there. Seeing this demonstration of the closeness between them, unconscious though it was, was reminiscent of their behavior in the car earlier. Prior to Vladik's arrival, Yura had talked a lot about Vladik. Now, having seen them together, I understood why. There was something going on between these two boys that was genuine and enduring - something deep, something I couldn't quite place. But whatever it was, it was very endearing. And as I stood there, observing their closeness even while they slept, it was exactly then that I knew that my fears concerning Vladik's arrival were completely unfounded. It was by no means the end of the little regime I had built up with Yura. I knew that Vladik's addition to our little regime was not going to be an easy ride, but undoubtedly it was about to become a lot more interesting.