Chapter 13: Of Battle Scars

Five days. Five days left of Russia. My grandfather allowed me to go to come to the work site with him again. On our way there we stopped at the general store. Aleksei was there buying snacks for the work day. When he saw us enter the store, a look of pure guilt crossed his face. He blushed when I saw it, and I smiled.

"Polina." He greeted me.

"Aleksei." We both stood there smiling at each-other while my grandfather bartered with the shopkeeper. I knew Aleksei's little secret, and he knew that I knew it as well.

"Polina, I know you're leaving soon. Me and the boys were thinking of getting a good ol' fashioned dance going. Something small, maybe in a warehouse near the mill? Its not everyday that pretty girls visit us out here and before all of you are gone we would love to show you that we know how to have a good time."

"I think you've already shown Kristina you know how to have a good time." I couldn't help but grin ear to ear when he just got redder from my comment. "But of course we would love it. Just make sure it's soon, I don't have a long time left."

"Of course." He nodded, and then turned to make sure my grandfather was out of earshot. "Just, don't tell the boss. He would kill us if he knew we were taking his granddaughters out like that. I'll talk to the boys and let you know exactly when. And don't worry, things aren't as posh with us as they are during the holidays – although you did look nice in that dress."

Now it was my turn to blush. He smiled and walked past me, waving. "I'll see you at the Power House!"

As he exited the store, someone else entered – and their eyes met with a sudden coldness, passing each-other with an unspoken hostility suddenly polluting the air. It was Konstantin. But I had never seen him like this. Although his hair was short and proper – it was obvious he hadn't shaved. A rugged stubble covered his face. Where he wore only the most professional clothes, he was now in dark American-style jeans and a sportscoat. The zipper on it must have broken because it only zipped halfway up, revealing that in this brutal cold he wore nothing but a white tee-shirt underneath. Around his neck was a tiny silver catholic cross that I had never noticed before. His thick neck made the thin chain appear more like a dog tag than a religious symbol.

I was taken aback. Despite the dirt on his jeans and sleeves, he could have stepped out of an Abercrombie and Fitch catalog back in the States. Beads of sweat appeared on his dark gypsy skin despite the freezing weather. His eyes met mine and suddenly I felt very aware of the fact that I was staring.

But he did not greet me.

In fact he pretended to not even see me – when he looked directly at me.

He walked past, and greeted my grandfather a the counter. In hushed tones they exchanged a few sentences, and the shopkeeper handed Konstantin a backpack with a flashlight strapped to one side of it, and a small hatchet to the other.

After this he turned and walked out of the store, my grandfather taking care of the bill after him. Again he looked right through me, not saying a word.

This might have been the most indecisive, bipolar human being I had ever encountered. I was awestruck – only the previous day he had taken me out on what I thought to have been a date – and everything was amazing until suddenly his mood changed. And today it was almost like… he didn't even know who I was.

We had finally made it to the Power House by midday. My grandfather once again brought tools and food for the workers. I learned that in the dead of the winter there was about a month where loggers did not work where they usually did. Instead, my grandfathers crew worked for the Power House, expanding, building, fixing.

I did not see Konstantin. Even when my grandfather called lunch break, and all the workers gathered around his car for the baked goods my grandmother had made, he was not in sight. I took a small paper bag full of food and a thermos of soup. As soon as I spotted Aleksei, I went over to him – the rest of the men I did not know well enough to confide in.

"Where is Konstantin?" I asked, in a tone that I hoped was nonchalant.

"He is down in the steam tunnels. Has been all morning. Probably will be all day, actually." He answered, ignoring the fact that I sounded a little worried – either out of disinterest, or out of respect.

"He wont come up for lunch?"

"He can't. You can't keep going back and forth between the steam tunnels and the outside. It is hot as hell down there – it might as well be hell actually. If you switch that many times between the outside and those temperatures – you're just asking for trouble."

I silently looked at all the workers eating lunch and suddenly decided that this was my moment of bravery. "Can you show me how to get down there..?"

"Are you serious? Of course not."

"Please? I just want to take him lunch that's all. Afterall… it's not like I'm scaling a building or anything, this is perfectly safe."

And with those words I knew I got him. Aleksei sighed, and glanced at the other workers off to the side, making sure my grandfather wasn't paying attention.

"Okay. But if anyone finds out I let you into the steamtunnels—"

"Let's not entertain that thought! Just show me. Quick!"

He grabbed my hand and led me to the other side of the building. There he opened a door into the powerhouse and dragged me inside. Among the pipes, machinery, and many openings behind iron bars, was a trapdoor. It opened to reveal a set of stairs going down into the floor and into the poorly lit tunnels beyond. Steam came billowing out of the tunnels and into the drafty room.

"You can't spend more than ten minutes down there. I'll be waiting right here for you to take him the food and then you're coming right back – got it?" Aleksei was being very stern and I understood why. Suddenly this brave idea seemed foolish. I was about to go underground in a tunnel and enclosed space. What was I thinking. He patted me on the back to reassure me. "I mean it. No more than ten minutes. I don't want to have you lose consciousness and have to carry you out – your old man will have me skinned alive if anything happens."

"Where can I find him once I get down there?"

"You'll see – the tunnels have a lot of big pipes in them. Don't touch them for the love of god – they are insanely hot. They are what heats the entire village. Between the pipes is a path – it is marked only by the lightbulbs hanging from the tunnel ceiling. There is only one path. These tunnels lead to the schoolhouse. There will be two spots where the steam is allowed to escape along the path – if you reach either of them you have gone too far – Konstantin should be working closer than that."

"Okay. Thanks." I took a step towards the opening, but he stopped me with his hand on my shoulder.

"One more thing. Take off your coat. Take off the hat and gloves. Leave them here with me, and I will keep them dry. You'll need something dry once you get out. And Polina, if you start feeling dizzy you come out immediately alright?"

I nodded, and unbuttoned my coat and left it in his hands, along with my hat and mittens. I was in nothing but a pair of jeans and thin sweater when I entered what could best be described as a sauna. It was so hot and humid down there, as soon as the door shut behind me I felt I had entered hell itself. The lighting was dim, and I was now underground.

When Aleksei said pipes, he wasn't kidding. These things were huge and I could hear the water running through them. They were big enough to build a sidewalk on top of each, and two ran parallel to each other on each side of the tunnel. Even far away, I could feel the heat radiate from them. It hurt my skin, I was so unused to the temperatures down there.

But I gripped the paper lunch bag and started walking. At my height I didn't have to duck, but I knew a man as tall as Konstantin would have to have hunched over to be in there. I felt sorry for him. A day in this place would have been far too much. And who knew how many he had spent here.

I walked, feeling more uncomfortable and scared the farther I got away from the exit. The tunnel curved and turned, and I imagined all the above ground obstacles that it must have been avoiding. It was noisy as well. The pipes moaned and creaked so loud that I couldn't hear my own footsteps. Finally ahead I saw shadows dancing – someone was out there by a source of light. I hurried around that corner, and to my surprise almost ran headfirst into Konstantin.

It would be unfair to say the look of his face was of surprise. It was surprise and anger and confusion all at once. And then his expression relaxed in defeat.

"What are you doing here? You need to get out." He said matter of factly. The backpack he got from the general store was on the ground by him, and so was his sportsjacket. He was shirtless, and I was taken aback by how much muscle the winter clothes had been hiding. Where I had described him as a bear of a man, I could now think no such thing. He was more than that, leaner, taller than I remembered, and at the same time the portrait of what I thought a greek god would look like.

But he wasn't a god. He was an angry Russian man staring me down with his light eyes. His mouth was tensed. I had to act.

"I brought you lunch is all!" I thrust the paper bag at him nervously. He looked at it for what seemed like an eternity, but finally accepted it. He set down his tools and sat down on the ground. I kneeled, never taking my awed eyes off of him.

"You shouldn't have come. But thank you."

"I thought you might like the soup… my grandmother made it…" I finally got a hold of myself, and as he opened the thermos I could no longer contain it. "Why did you act like you didn't know me at the store? I wanted so badly for you to say hello… I'm leaving soon… and you don't seem to care."

He looked up at me with tired eyes.

"That's right, you're leaving soon. What am I to do, Polina? What do you want from me? You're just a girl."

"I'm just a girl?" I felt my throat tighten and I knew I sqeaked that last part out. I caught a hold of my emotions. I didn't expect to be this bold about the unspoken attraction I knew we both felt. Everything from our meeting, to the snowball fight, to the dance, and our venture into the taiga – I knew that it wasn't just polite pleasantries.

"Yes. A girl. A young girl. From America. You can't allow your emotions to have such a strong grip on you. This isn't a movie – and I'm not the hero to your heroine. I know what you've been thinking. I didn't know American girls took everything to be so serious. I was wrong to take you out."

I sat back onto the dirt floor as if I had been slapped. All of a sudden this wasn't a fairytale. This was reality. I had allowed myself to imagine this world, these feelings, this man – and made it all just as it would have been in a book. But here sat a young man, covered in sweat and dirt, his body shaped and torn down by a hard life full of manual labor. He was telling me to stop being stupid. Why had I come down there. What had I thought would happen if I pursued him?

"I… just… I just thought…" I stuttered not because I didn't know what to say, although I really didn't, but because I felt that lump in my throat like I was about to cry. But now was not the time. I blinked, hoping to chase away the tears, but one managed to swell in the corner of my eye and fall helplessly down my cheek.

He saw it.

And a change came over him. He was all of a sudden… scared. He leaned forward, taking a hold of my face between his two huge hands – they were covered in dirt, and now so was my face.

"Hey now, I was too harsh. Don't cry." He looked me right in the eyes, his own face so very close. "Just go back out there. Don't cry."

But as anyone who is told not to cry, immediately more tears swelled up in my eyes and spilled over my eyelashes. I was so embarrassed, but now I was shaking with tears. I did not dare move though.

He grabbed me and pulled me in, his arms around me just a little too tight, my face buried in his chest.

"Shhh! I'm sorry little Sparrow. I shouldn't have said that." This was the second time he called me that.

We sat like that for a couple minutes, no more than three or four at the longest. I wasn't ever much for crying, and had stopped, just sitting there unmoving, the noise from the water pipes shaking the air around us. I remembered that I had a total of ten minutes.

"Aleksei is waiting for me…" I started, pulling away from him. But as soon as the words left my mouth I witnessed yet another change come over him, and suddenly he did not let me pull away – he did not let go. Instead his eyes met mine and the look was harsh.

"Aleksei? Why does he wait for you?"

"He showed me how to get down into the tunnels…" I said, unsure if I should have said anything at all.

He let go, standing up quickly, and turned all in the same movement – his open palm colliding with the section of the wall he had been working on – with enough force to make paint and pieces of dirt come flying off of it.

I got up off the ground, not bothering to dust myself off – my eyes wide and never leaving Konstantin.

"Bastard!" He almost barked at the wall. He wasn't facing me anymore. I could see the muscles in his bare back shifting with his rapid movement. He was angry. And this transformation had come out of nowhere. I had heard of the temper of Russian men before… but this was not the place or the time for a young girl to face it for the first time. "Son of a bitch!"

He spun around, his whole body tense.

"You know why I don't want you down here, Polina? Do you know why I ignore you?"

I shook my head slightly, although I didn't think the gesture was needed to make him continue.

"Because you've made my life hell! I can't stop thinking about you! I can't stop this rage that overcomes me everytime I see you talk to him! Because I can't help the animal I become when I think about you leaving! So many times I'd show up to work hoping you would accompany your grandfather that day. So many times I have seen you talk to Aleksei, wishing it was I that had the guts to talk to you! I can't explain it - it makes me feel stupid! It makes me feel like my entire life up to this moment had been meaningless! Do you know what that's like? To know that suddenly nothing matters to you but this one goal - this one person that isn't even sticking around? I spent my whole life building something it took you one glance to tear down. I lose control around you - I want to protect you - I want to keep you - you know what? I just want YOU."

And then it happened. I was right. This wasn't a fairytale. This was better than a fairytale. Next thing I knew, our lips were pressed together in a desperate attempt to be as close as possible. My arms were wrapped around his neck and just like that I was off the ground. I was flying. Again, as every time I've spent with him in the past few weeks – I felt the rush of flying. The momentum sent us both falling in the tunnel – unfortunately into one of the scorching hot water pipes. We both reached out trying to break the impact with the palms of our hands – and to no success – because the blazing hot metal from which the pipes were made melted the flesh – a third degree burn on my left hand – his right.

An identical scar, the memento that would forever serve as a reminder of that moment.