Vladik was leaning back on the edge of his bed propped up on his elbows, with one leg on the floor. The other was extended towards me. I was bent over, with his sneaker-clad foot secured between my knees. I was holding his little foot in my lap, concentrating on unpicking the convoluted knot in his laces. He was studiously watching me as I did so, his pretty green eyes fixed on me, his head tilted back slightly. I could tell he enjoyed the attention.
I eventually unpicked the knot and retied his long lace into a new double bow.
"All done," I said, brightly.
I released his little foot back onto the floor and he fell backwards onto the bed, using his legs to roll forward and flip himself up into a standing position with one quick somersault.
"Thanks," he said, with a grateful nod.
"Now go and help Anton," I said, "Our guests will be arriving soon."
I gave him a friendly pat on his rump as he walked past me, and he flinched playfully with a cheeky but adorable smile.
I stayed behind to tidy up and set about smoothing out the bedclothes. Then I went around the room picking up the dirty socks and boxer briefs that the boys had absent-mindedly abandoned on the floor, trying to get their bedroom back into some semblance of acceptability. The bathroom was no improvement. There were wet towels on the floor, numerous puddles of water around the shower cubicle, and smears of dried blue toothpaste all over the basin. Little boys - you just had to love them.
The doorbell chimed. We had spent all day preparing for Yura's birthday, and now our guests had started to arrive. I went down to the lobby to let them in. It was Nikolayev, standing behind the diminutive little figure of Misha who was holding a rather large, brightly colored and elaborately wrapped box - obviously a gift for Yura.
"Hi Mark!" said Misha, beating his father in greeting me.
I was actually taken aback that he even remembered my name, and I was delighted to hear that sweet little high-pitched voice of his. It was so squeaky and cartoon-like that you couldn't help but melt when you heard it. Misha was such a cute little thing.
I welcomed Nikolayev and Misha and showed them into the drawing room. The French windows were open and the boys were outside playing on the lawn. Misha ran across to the other side of the pool where Yura and Vladik were amusing themselves throwing a Frisbee around. Yura greeted Misha by bumping fists with him. Misha had never met Vladik of course, and it was heartening to see that they too bumped fists by way of introduction. They all started yammering away in Russian and Misha joined in their game. They fell in together, and happily started playing without any formalities whatsoever. Little boy etiquette was always so uncomplicated.
I escorted Nikolayev down into the basement where Anton had set up the little cocktail bar and was busily preparing drinks like a genuine bartender. He appeared so at ease in that role, a role which I had assumed on many occasions in the past. When I was with John, it would have been me mixing the cocktails and entertaining John's friends at his parties. Anton reminded me so much of myself when I was his age.
As soon as Nikolayev stepped into the room and sat at the bar on one of the high stools, Anton thrust a bottle of beer into his hand, having already levered off the cap. He obviously knew what Nikolayev liked to drink. They had already met at HQ of course, so immediately struck up conversation. As they talked, Anton was busy mixing brightly colored non-alcoholic cocktails for the boys. From what I could tell they comprised mostly of sweet sodas. I steeled myself for an evening which would no doubt be characterized by a roomful of hyperactive, sugar-crazed little boys.
I sat down on the high stool next to Nikolayev at the bar and listened to him chatting with Anton.
"Mark tells me you're studying criminology."
"Yes," said Anton, as he was lining up the boys' drinks on the bar.
"What are you hoping to do long term?"
"Hopefully something to do with criminal justice," said Anton, "I could work in probation, the courts or the prison service, maybe even become a police officer."
Nikolayev smiled at that.
"I think you would make an excellent police officer," he said, "How would you like a job at the Police Department?"
Anton gave him an incredulous, disbelieving look.
"Digital forensics," said Nikolayev, "Would you be interested in that?"
Anton did a double take, blinking in disbelief.
"Would I?" he said, enthusiastically, "Of course I would!"
Analyzing and recovering data on computers was precisely what had made my unit famous. It was only through our expertise that Operation Ganymede had succeeded, and it was our technology that had prompted the Moscow City Police to seek our assistance. For Anton, given his resourcefulness and ingenuity, it was right up his alley.
"Good, that's settled then," Nikolayev affirmed, "It'll only be a few hours a week while you're studying, but I'm sure they could use a guy like you."
Anton grinned, unable to believe his luck. Then he saw how I had sat quietly at the bar, having overheard the entire conversation, and observed the smug look on my face. He detected that I had something to do with it.
"Thanks Mark," he said quietly.
I smiled and leaned over confidentially.
"Now you don't have to hustle at the park anymore," I whispered.
He smiled back.
"I might just have to get my kicks elsewhere," he whispered back playfully.
Anton was a bright, resourceful young man and this opportunity would be useful for his future career. I was thankful to Nikolayev. It was good to know that Anton wasn't going to have to put himself at risk anymore by hustling at the park every night.
The next time the doorbell chimed it was Elena, and she had brought along her fifteen-year-old daughter Oksana. She looked very much the modern teenage girl. Her pretty oval face reflected her mother's good looks. She was immaculate, with minimal makeup that made her look quite natural, with great artistry in the way she had accentuated her eyes. She knew how to emphasize her best feature. She had a healthy, radiant complexion, with very clear skin. She was heavily perfumed and very well-dressed in expensive designer casuals. Her long fingernails were elegantly manicured and her shoulder-length blond hair expertly coiffed. She was a girl of exceptional quality, and would no doubt be very popular with boys.
Elena and Oksana came into the bar area and joined in on the conversation with Nikolayev. Oksana's eyes seemed to widen when she saw Anton busily gliding around behind the bar. She took one of the high stools at the corner of the bar, next to her mother. They exchanged greetings and no more than a few polite pleasantries, but the conversation didn't seem to go any further. Anton mixed her what looked like a frozen margarita, though of course without the tequila, and she sat there absently stirring the thick, velvety mixture in her glass with the bendy straw that Anton had stuck into it. As she took the occasional sip of her drink, her eyes were following Anton's slim, long-haired figure as he maneuvered around so expertly behind the bar.
The doorbell chimed one more time, which was odd because I wasn't expecting anybody else. Curiously, I went to the front door and opened it. It was Zhukov! He was standing there in his suit and tie, and even had a gift tucked under his arm.
"Surprise!" he announced.
It was indeed a surprise.
I was delighted to invite him in, flattered that he had made the effort to come to Yura's birthday. I knew Yura would be thrilled by the gesture.
I escorted Zhukov down to the bar where he and Nikolayev greeted each other in a very buddy-buddy kind of way. Their friendship went way back of course, to the time when Nikolayev was just a fresh-faced and idealistic cadet. Anton poured him some wine, which Zhukov took the time to savor, holding the stem of the glass between his fingers, swirling it around and sniffing the bouquet like a true connoisseur.
I decided to go back upstairs to see how the boys were doing in the garden and took the tray with the drinks Anton had prepared for them. When I stepped out of the French windows, the boys had already changed into their swimming togs. I could see their discarded clothes and sneakers strewn absent-mindedly all over the lawn, and Yura and Vladik in their Speedos. Misha was lying on the grass giggling uncontrollably with Yura and Vladik on their knees laughing, pitching into him and trying to pull his Speedos off him. Misha was apparently finding the whole game great fun, writhing with laughter, his little hands were grasping the waist of his little lemon-yellow Speedos, trying to keep them on. Yura and Vladik had already pulled the back of the skimpy little garment down far enough to expose Misha's tanned little butt. Misha giggled and struggled, wriggling around on the lawn in a fit of hilarity. Fortunately, he was finding it funny. But I was alarmed by their risqué antics. Misha was innocent and uncorrupted. He knew nothing of the kind of games that Yura and Vladik had been indoctrinated into from such a young age.
As soon as I saw what was happening I shouted out, "No!"
Yura and Vladik stopped and looked up guiltily. They let Misha go immediately. He got up, scrambling to his feet, still laughing manically. He pulled his Speedos back up, apparently amused by the whole thing, and ran off.
"Come here!" I called out to them.
Yura and Vladik looked at each other, then fell in together and walked around the pool towards me. They came and stood before me looking sheepish. I put the tray of drinks down on the metal table by the wooden bench.
"You can't do that to Misha," I explained, "He's not used to those kind of games."
"We were just messing," said Vladik, playing it down.
"You don't mess with him like that," I said.
Yura bit his lip.
"Sorry," he said.
"That's okay," I said, "No harm done. But please remember, his father is also my boss. So let's treat Misha with a bit more respect."
"Sorry," Yura said again, and then, somewhat cowed, they both turned and walked off to go and find Misha.
Inwardly, I was relieved that the adults, and Nikolayev in particular, were still downstairs and hadn't witnessed their antics. Although this kind of sexualized behavior was no surprise to me, I knew that it wasn't easily forgiven by those who didn't really understand what these boys had been through. Their boundaries were somewhat skewed, and not on a par with other boys their age.
Eventually, everyone came upstairs and joined us outside by the pool, and we started our little party properly. They brought their drinks and Anton switched from bartender to chef by firing up the gas barbecue. He started grilling hot dogs and burgers. Zhukov pulled out a couple of slim, cellophane-wrapped cigars from his inside pocket and offered one to Nikolayev. He and Nikolayev stood by the edge of the pool savoring the expensive cigars as they talked about Operation Ganymede. Elena stretched out on one of the sun loungers, cradling her drink, and strategically lowered the wraparound sunglasses that she had habitually perched on top of her head.
As Anton was tending the barbecue, Oksana saw an opportunity to strike up conversation with him. She was standing quite close to him, smiling and fawning and giggling, trying to impress him with her witty repartee as he was cooking. She was quite obviously flirting with him. Anton was not particularly attentive, however. He paid polite lip-service, from what I could see, but he was distinctly cool and aloof throughout their exchange. That didn't seem to dissuade her. I couldn't blame her. Anton was extremely handsome.
In no time at all, Anton had served up food for everyone, and we were all standing around by the poolside chatting amiably. I watched Anton and saw how much he relished his role in looking after everyone, ensuring that all had enough food and fetching drinks and getting them whatever they wanted. Anton was one of those people that always had to be doing something. He always had to feel as though he was being useful, sacrificing his own enjoyment in the interests of looking after everybody else. But I wondered to myself, whilst Anton was busy looking after everybody else, who was looking after Anton?
I turned my attention to the boys who had sat down in a little circle on the lawn on the far side of the pool to finish their burgers and hot dogs. They crammed their mouths full and eagerly gulped down their drinks. They left the paper plates and plastic cups on the lawn and hurriedly jumped back into the pool, impatient to resume their fun and games. Yura and Vladik seemed to have bonded well with Misha. Despite their ill-conceived assault on him earlier, they were getting along just fine. In the pool they were hoisting Misha up so that he could sit on their shoulders, and he was finding it quite exhilarating to be lifted so high out of the water. Yura and Vladik took it in turns to carry him, and they splashed around quite happily, playing with the Frisbee and goofing around with some inflatable pool toys.
As they played, I noticed how Elena and Nikolayev and Zhukov were casting curious looks at the boys. I detected that they were focused mostly on Vladik. Then I realized just what it was they were looking at. The welts were still clearly visible on Vladik's back. They were healing nicely, but were still quite prominent. The rope marks had still not faded completely either. The redness of those rope marks, particularly around his neck, had faded into a dull brown, but they were still very prominent against his slightly tanned skin tone. As the boys were swimming, I knew that Vladik was very conscious of those marks. But he made no effort to cover them up and was not ashamed of them. He displayed those marks like they were battle scars, a trophy of the adversity he had overcome, the unmistakable testimony of his ordeal.
It was perhaps appropriate therefore, that it was Misha who deigned to enquire about Vladik. His childish innocence failed to dissuade him from asking the obvious questions. During a hiatus in their pool games, he sidled up to me purposefully as I was sitting there alone, just watching the boys splashing about in the pool. I noticed how his dainty little feet left tiny wet footprints on the tiles as he approached. He perched himself quite deliberately on the wooden bench next to me, still dripping wet, tucking his little hands neatly into his lap. I gave him a reassuring smile as he did so. He looked so cute in his new Speedos. The lemon-yellow color contrasted nicely with his tanned little body. His skin was always a shade of light brown, like caramel. His thick, honey-colored hair, usually spiked with gel, was now slicked back with wetness. He perched next to me on the bench and looked up, and I knew there was something he wanted to say.
"Mark, what happened to Alex?"
"What do you mean?" I asked, turning to him.
He shuffled his little feet, then sat well back on the bench so that his feet were off the ground, and he swung his bare legs back and forth under the bench nervously.
"Something happened to him didn't it?" he said, looking up at me with a serious stare.
I looked straight back at him, and I could see there was genuine concern in his expression. He seemed to have an innate understanding, despite his tender age, that Vladik had indeed suffered in some way. Even in his slightly immature, underdeveloped little mind, his instincts told him that Vladik had been through something extreme and traumatic.
"What makes you say that?" I asked.
"Those marks on his back," Misha replied, "What was it Mark? What happened to him?"
"Some bad men took him away," I explained, "That's from where they tied him up and beat him."
"Why did they do that?"
"Because they wanted to do bad things to him."
He stared at me quite intensely for a long time, perhaps weighing up the wisdom of seeking further details.
"Did they do bad things to him... y' know, down there?" and he gestured, pointing a little finger towards my crotch.
He seemed to detect that Vladik's ordeal was in some way sexual, even though he probably didn't understand the fundamentals of it all. He was only seven, and still very innocent and naïve.
"Yes," I said openly, "They hurt him a lot."
"Yes. Ivan too."
"And the other boys my daddy told me about? The ones that died?"
"Yes, them too," I said, "They were Alex's friends."
"Is my daddy going to put those bad men in jail?"
"Yes," I said, "Your daddy is going to make sure they will go to jail for a very long time."
I could see him processing this information in his mind. He looked like there was more he wanted to ask, but apparently thought the better of it. His pretty eyes shone out like two dark little gems of lignite, sparkling with warmth and vitality, lighting up his little waiflike face. There was genuine empathy in those eyes. He furrowed his sparse little eyebrows momentarily and frowned.
"It's all over now," I said, reassuring him, "He's with people that love him now. So let's make sure we look after him, okay?"
"K," he said, nodding affirmatively, looking reassured.
He stuck up both his little thumbs enthusiastically, his expression brightening.
"I'll look after him," he said, then he jumped up off the bench and skipped away.
As I watched him go, I was left breathless. Even a relatively unworldly kid like Misha seemed to have an almost supernatural grasp of things. Sometimes I felt that adults seriously underestimated kids' understanding of the world around them. That was the wonder of little boys. They knew a lot more than we realized and were sometimes much more astute than we gave them credit for.
It was Anton that disappeared into the depths of the kitchen and remembered to bring out the cake. He had stuck candles in the top and brought it out already aflame and everybody closed in and sang 'Happy Birthday' to Yura. He looked at the elaborately decorated cake as Anton set it down on the little metal table and he glanced up and caught my eye. "Is that for me?" he seemed to be saying. He was obviously overwhelmed, and more than a little humbled by the gesture. But of course, it wouldn't have been a birthday without a cake. He stood by the table with Vladik and Misha either side of him.
"Make a wish, make a wish!" they were clamoring.
Everybody gathered around and there was a brief pause. Yura looked at me, and for the first time in my life, I couldn't tell what he was thinking. I honestly could not perceive what he might wish for. He closed his eyes tightly. Then, he opened them again, puffed his cheeks with a big mouthful of breath, and blew the candles out with one big puff. We all cheered and applauded.
After the cake had been thoroughly demolished, it was time for the presents. Yura was showered with gifts by everybody. He sat on the lawn in his Speedos and worked his way through the little mound of gifts that we had all amassed, roughly ripping the paper off, in that impetuous, almost reckless way that all children have with gifts. It didn't take him long to tear excitedly through them all, unboxing and unwrapping one gift after another. I myself had bought him the latest iPod, plus various video games, an expensive pair of limited edition sneakers and some novelty t-shirts. I still had one gift I had kept back to give him later, when we were alone. In the meantime, he opened the presents everyone else had brought. Anton gave him a real magician's set, so he could teach him how to perform sleight-of-hand conjuring tricks, of the type Anton had so ably demonstrated at Crystal Lake. There was a set of Nerf guns from Nikolayev, and Zhukov had given him a rather sophisticated digital camera. Elena gave him a skateboard with all the protective gear. What impressed me was that everyone was unusually generous in the quality and expense of their gifts, and to me, that demonstrated how much genuine affection there was for this little boy.
As Yura opened his presents, and the overwhelming wonder of the day continued, the look on his face was priceless. I had never seen him so happy. He was the center of attention, and evidently relishing it. I looked around the pool and saw everyone assembled there together. Nikolayev was sitting on the wooden bench, at that moment with Misha on his lap, like an adorable little boy doll, looking cute and alert, his eyes bright and glinting with enthusiasm, watching the proceedings with his little mouth gaping open in wonder. He had donned a tight little t-shirt but was still in his Speedos, his tanned, slender little legs still bare, nestled lovingly in his father's lap. Elena was still on the sun lounger, now sitting up, looking pleased for Yura, smiling and passing the odd quiet remark to Oksana who was standing next to her. Even Zhukov, who had met Yura only once before, had acknowledged the importance of the occasion by flying in all the way from Moscow just to be here, and was standing there chewing on the end of his now dormant cigar. Over by the barbecue, Anton was standing just behind Vladik, with his arms affectionately around Vladik's shoulders. Vladik had reached up and was leaning well back against Anton's chest, hanging onto Anton's arms as though welcoming the way he was hugging him. They were very close, and really quite tactile with each other. Their budding little liaison was a pleasing sight. All the people who were of any significance in Yura's life were here. It was a heartwarming scene.
When all his presents had been opened, Yura sat there amongst the pile of torn gift-wrap, empty boxes and discarded packaging looking rather overwhelmed and humbled by everyone's generosity. Then Anton said he had one more thing for Yura. He said he had written a song for him, and offered to perform it for everybody. There was a little smattering of applause to indicate everyone's approval, and Anton went to get his guitar. He brought out one of the high stools from the kitchen and set it down on the lawn. Everyone else gathered around and the boys settled down expectantly on the grass by his feet, still in their Speedos and t-shirts. What followed was an award-worthy performance.
Anton rested the guitar on his thigh and struck up a really evocative little tune, slowly at first, plucking the strings of his guitar with nimble precision. After a brief, sweet, haunting little intro, he opened his mouth and launched into the most beautiful ballad, crooning to his own lyrics in a voice that was rich and vibrant and reflected the deep emotion of his song. I watched the way his fingers moved so ably across the frets of his guitar, the way his wrist curled as his hand maneuvered up and down the shaft. As he played, I noticed how beautiful his hands were. He had such long, dexterous fingers.
The melody was soulful, with some rather nifty little riffs. There was a very catchy chorus and a clever middle-eight where he temporarily changed key and finished up with a rambunctious reprise of the chorus. It was not only music of exceptional quality, but it was also intelligently arranged and flawlessly performed. Anton was damn good. Even as he was singing, I could see Oksana looking on sycophantically from the sidelines, open-mouthed and misty-eyed, dreamily captivated by the beautiful music that was emanating from this young man. It looked rather like Anton had acquired his first groupie.
When he had finished, the notes petered out and with one last strum of the guitar, Anton hung his head as if to denote the end of the song. We all broke out in enthusiastic applause, genuinely enthralled by his performance. I could see Nikolayev and Zhukov exchange glances, nodding approvingly, looking impressed and somewhat disbelieving at how good this boy was. They had definitely enjoyed it. What I liked most was that Yura jumped up and flew into Anton's arms, thanking him for the song, clearly moved by Anton's very unique and personal gesture. They hugged for a good few minutes, nuzzling closely and having an impromptu little boymoment of their own.
In the aftermath of Anton's performance, the gathering dissolved and everyone gradually descended into their own conversations. As everyone else was talking, I took Yura aside and beckoned him back into the drawing-room. He came over curiously, still in his bright red Speedos. He had put on a long t-shirt that came down well past his hips, below which only his bare legs were visible.
"C'mere little buddy, I've got something else for you," I said.
I took the opportunity to lead Yura to the little study upstairs and closed the door on the noise and commotion filtering up from the hallway. Bringing Yura into the study, finally, it was just me and him. I wanted to have these few special moments alone with him.
He sat down obediently on the swivel chair, half excited, half bemused by why I had invited him up here. He tucked his hands dutifully into his lap, between his naked thighs.
I leaned over and opened the desk drawer beside him. There was the little box I had stored away for him. It was not much bigger than a cigarette packet, but was elaborately decorated with pretty ribbons and a little bow. I took it out and presented it to him.
"This is for you," I said, "A very special gift for a very special boy."
Yura looked at it, then looked up at me with a slight smile of uncertainty.
"Take it," I said, "open it."
With an expression of gratitude and wonder, he slipped off the pretty ribbons to reveal a rather expensive looking presentation box. He held it up in his palm and lifted off the lid. The inside was padded with cotton fiber. He dug his fingers in and lifted out the precious item that was nestling there. It was a little silver pocket-watch, complete with a hinged cover and a matching chain.
Yura's eyes widened in wonder at the shiny object. He felt the weight of the timepiece in his hand, curling his little fingers around the flat silver case.
"Oh Mark, it's beautiful!"
He depressed the little clip on the side. The hinged cover flipped open to reveal the ornate watch face. Yura smiled with delight. I pointed to the inside of the hinged cover.
"Look," I said, "I've inscribed it for you."
It was inscribed in Russian, the Cyrillic characters engraved into the silver in a flowing archaic font. He read it.
"To Yura. Love always. Mark."
He looked up, genuinely touched. And with that, he got up out of the chair and stood up on tiptoes. He reached up and threw his arms around my neck, hopping up at the same time. I caught him in a tight embrace, lifting him off his feet, and he buried his face into the side of my neck. I could feel his warmth through the thin fabric of his t-shirt. He stayed like that for a few moments, his slight, bare-legged frame suspended against me, hanging from my neck.
"Thank you Mark!" he said.
Some boys might have considered that an odd gift. Not Yura. But then, as I had already conclusively established, Yura was quite unlike any other boy.
I released him back onto his feet.
"Thank you, Mark," he said again, "I love it."
"Come with me," I said, beckoning him out of the door.
We left the pocket-watch in its box sitting on the desk by the computer and I took Yura along the hallway and into my bedroom. I sat him down on the bed and closed the door.
"Look," I said, "I want to show you something."
Gently sitting down on the bed next to him, I opened the little drawer on the nightstand and pulled out a slightly older looking little pocket-watch. It too was silver, but was slightly more shopworn, not as shiny, with a duller patina that showed its age. Holding it gingerly in my palm, I showed it to Yura. He took it, appreciating the feel of it between his little fingers.
"I've had this for over twenty years," I explained, "John gave it to me on my eighteenth birthday."
Yura looked at it with a studious fascination, holding it with all the care and respect of an object that was valuable in financial as well as sentimental terms. He pressed the catch on the side and, sure enough, just as on the one I had given him, the hinged cover flipped up and inside was the inscription, this time in English. I read it to him.
"To Mark. Love always. John."
"He must have really loved you."
I nodded affirmatively. Then I gently closed the cover on the pocket-watch and placed it back into the drawer of the nightstand.
"It isn't much is it?" I said, "All I have to remember John is a single photo and that watch."
"But you have your memories," said Yura.
What a profound and intelligent remark.
"Oh sure," I said, "John is always in my heart. I'll never forget him."
Then Yura looked at me quite intensely for a moment, with a little twinge of sadness in his expression.
"Will you do something for me?"
"Sure little buddy," I said, looking up, "Anything."
"One day, will you tell people about me?"
"Tell people? What do you mean?"
"Tell them what happened to me and to Vladik and the other boys?"
"People already know what happened to you," I said, "It was all in the papers and on TV."
"But they don't really know what it was like do they?" said Yura, with a serious, very mature expression, "All they see is our faces on the news. They don't know what we really went through."
"Then you will have to tell them," I said, "just like you told me."
"You could do it better than me," he said.
I thought carefully, beginning to realize the full magnitude of what he was proposing.
"I'm not sure," I said, shaking my head, "I'm not the best person to do that."
"You are," said Yura, quite emphatically, "No one else can do it. No one else knows me like you do."
Once again Yura stunned me by the sheer candor of his remark. He was quite right of course. No one knew him like I did.
"Okay," I said, shrugging resignedly.
"So you will?"
"If you really want me to."
"No. You have to promise me," Yura demanded.
I looked at him, wondering why this was so important to him.
"Okay, I promise."
He smiled and leaned in towards me, happy. He lifted my arm and placed it around his shoulders, then snuggled into me, apparently satisfied with my undertaking. I held him against me, taking the time to savor this little boymoment with him, which was the only opportunity we had had to be alone together all day.
As I sat there on the bed, with this wonderful little boy in my embrace, I realized just how important it must have been to him. He was concerned that his experiences would be forgotten - that no one would ever know what he had been through. But I wasn't going to allow that to happen. I knew there and then that I had given him a solemn undertaking. He had made me promise, and I was determined to keep that promise.
"C'mon little buddy," I said, breaking the reverie, "We should get back. People will be wondering where we are."
We got up, still entwined, and headed for the door, arm in arm. As we walked, Yura looked up thoughtfully.
"Do you ever wish John was still alive?"
He never ceased to amaze me with the sheer depth and gravity of his questions. It deserved an honest and considered reply.
"Yes," I said, "Sometimes I still miss him, even now."
He smiled tenderly, and I knew he sympathized with that sentiment.
Back with our guests, I informed everybody that we had one final piece of entertainment lined up for the evening. I gathered them all together and assembled them on the upstairs terrace, the one that led off from my bedroom. It was a good vantage point to look out over the grounds of the house, and I had a particularly spectacular surprise planned. I ushered everyone out of the sliding door and brought the boys to the front. Misha was clutching expectantly at the balustrade, hooking his chin just over the top. It was now early evening and the sky was beginning to darken. It was the ideal time for the pièce de résistance.
"What are we supposed to be looking at?" Elena asked.
Everyone else echoed that sentiment with a few curious murmurs. Nikolayev didn't say anything because he knew what was coming.
Almost without warning, a bright flash erupted at the end of the garden, right over by the far wall of the well kept grounds, increasing in intensity, then fired up into the air and exploded in a majestic starburst of colors. Then a whole bank of fireworks erupted in a sequenced wave, one after the other, fizzing upwards in a dazzling array of different shades. A series of loud bangs echoed like gunshots into the night, each one exploding in an individual starburst. Everyone gasped.
That was followed by flare upon flare, shooting upwards, bursting and shattering high up in the sky in all the colors of the rainbow, each one with a pronounced thud. Then there was a series of rapid-fire explosions, thundering into the air like puffs of flak, the visual effects becoming ever more convoluted and inventive, starbursts within starbursts, expanding ever outwards. There were rockets that hissed upwards at tremendous speed, disintegrating into a myriad of cartwheels, burning their short-lived energy, fizzling out and tumbling down out of the night sky in all directions, whistling and bubbling as they fell.
I looked down at Yura's face, lit up by the multicolored lightshow and his eyes were wide with wonder. Nikolayev saw that and smiled smugly. It had been his contact that arranged this extravaganza for us, and when he had handed me his card and told me, "He'll make your party go with a bang," he was certainly true to his word.
Misha was excitedly climbing all over the balustrade, cooing and gasping as the pyrotechnics continued. Even Zhukov had a look of wondrous appreciation on his face. Anton hung back, and I saw how Vladik had shifted over to Yura, and they had their heads tilted together and their arms around each other. That was particularly heartwarming. Even Vladik was making this a special day for his little buddy. The love that passed between those boys at such moments was so beautiful.
We watched as another sequence of graceful arcs shot upwards, shattering into a million little stars and then streaming down in sweeping, fiery curves, like napalm trails. In another, the little stars erupted into instantaneous sparkles, popping mutedly and giving up their intensity in a momentary fizz of pure energy. It was like a big tube of glitter had been thrown up into the sky, its contents tumbling back down to earth in a little shower of glowing raindrops, shimmering brightly in a rainbow of crackling sparks.
Yura looked skywards and the dazzling smatters of the fireworks were reflected in his pupils. He had the most wistful expression, with his little mouth hanging open as though breathless with wonder.
"It's beautiful Mark!"
His happiness was palpable.
He went on staring at the whizzing, popping, flashing, soaring fireworks that were launching up into the night sky with the most graceful synergy and coordination, their timing calculated to perfection, their luminous colors arranged for maximum impact and their symmetry choreographed with great skill and ingenuity. It was breathtakingly beautiful.
Then Yura turned to me as we were standing at the back of our little group, watching this colorful spectacle, and looked into each of my eyes. I looked down at him and smiled, expecting to see his happiness reflected back. But he didn't smile. He just closed his eyes ever so gently. Then he buried his face into my chest and burst into tears.
"Hey, what's the matter, little buddy?" I said, holding his head against me.
He sobbed violently into my shirt, and emitted a strangulated little howl.
"Oh Mark!" he cried, "I never had a birthday like this!"
And he carried on crying. I could detect the profound grief in the spasms of his shoulders as his little body shook against my chest. They were shudders of deep sorrow, and I knew he was crying from his sense of loss. It was his lamentation for all the birthdays he had missed. Even on this, a happy occasion, possibly one of the happiest days of his life, the specter of the past had reared up, like a storm cloud on the horizon, forever ready to rain down the legacy of those ugly memories. And as I held his sweet head against me like that, even as his childish tears spilled onto me, his grief was so tangible, my heart was welling up in sympathy.
I let him cry. I held him to me and stood with him at the back of our little gathering, just inside the sliding door, and stroked his back. I smoothed his hair and squeezed his shoulders and waited for his tears to abate. Meanwhile, our guests continued to be enthralled by the fireworks display, and they went on cooing and gasping and uttering superlatives to each other. The fireworks eventually built up into a crescendo of dancing explosions, culminating in a spectacular finale where everything was going on all at once: every firework of every description being released in perfect sequence, turning the sky into a multicolored extravaganza of explosions. The noise was deafening, but the effect was mind-blowing. We could actually feel the bangs, and the flashes were so bright they momentarily turned night into day. The display assaulted our senses so completely, it was like being caught in the midst of an air raid. The next time I looked down at Yura, he had turned to face the fireworks again. I held him close to me, his head still tilted against my chest, and as the flashes continued to illuminate his pretty face in the semi-darkness, I could see the tears still in his eyes. But he was smiling once again.