One day when I was eight years old, our driver was driving me to school. On this particular day, my father was in the passenger seat, headed to work, and I was sitting in my usual seat behind our driver. It was a rainy day in October. The winds howled and splashed the rain with great force against the windows. Every so often our driver would sigh and mutter some profanity in Brommin. My father didn't seem to mind, and I didn't understand what was being said.
I had my head buried in a textbook. I don't recall the exact one. I remember being anxious about Ms Gourdin's class, so it had to have been either English or science—both of which I was equally dreadful at. It didn't help my case that every boy in my year had a crush on our new teacher and wanted to impress her.
I gave up reading halfway through and put the book back in my school bag. There was nothing left to do but look out the rain splattered window. Either that, or actively listen to the hum of static coming from the stereo, and I hated the Brommian music our driver played. So did my father, but he was too absorbed in his paper to pay it any mind. I trained my gaze on the whirl of indiscernible trees that we passed on the road. The greenery of Elhem whizzed passed, opaque behind the foggy windows.
It was then, in the seconds that followed, that I saw a figure—something blue in the otherwise dark green backdrop. As if on cue, our driver cursed again, this time louder. He slowed down the car. My father had the sense to look up from his newspaper.
- What's the matter?
- You didn't see the boy? Our driver asked. He glanced at the rearview mirror. Our eyes caught before he adjusted his view to see what I assumed could only be a person.
My father looked out his side of the window. It was on the wrong side of the road.
- On the road? He inquired. - In this weather?
It was only when the driver manually rolled down his window, as you did back in those days, that my father and I both saw the boy bicycle past us.
My father's eyebrows shot up to his hairline. He told the driver to call for the boy. In the meantime, I had the sense to notice that the boy had on a similar school uniform, and without having to exert much brainpower, I knew without a doubt who he was.
I felt a twinge of nervous energy race through me. The driver rolled up beside the boy, going at about the same speed. He had shouted to him once before but the boy hadn't heard him over the howling winds. When he did it this time, he looked back at our driver, startled to notice the car's proximity. I unbuckled my seatbelt and scooted further out on my seat to catch the exchange of words.
It didn't surprise me to hear them speak in Brommin since the boy was from the outskirts of town, from a settlement in the flatlands belonging to some Brommian farmers. His name was Yuri Karamov, and he was in my parallel class. He was also considered a bumpkin since he had repeated a year. The thought of arriving at school in the same car as him made me queasy.
The exchange was brief, and to my short-lived relief, it had at one point even seemed like the boy's stubbornness had convinced the driver that he wasn't worth the trouble. Unbeknown to me, the driver slowed down to a complete halt and rolled up his window. I was too preoccupied with scooting back to the backrest of my seat to notice that the boy had abandoned his bike on the side of the road. Before I knew it, the door to my side flew open, exposing me to the elements.
Rain dripped down on my bare kneecaps. A gust of wind tousled my hair. My surprise was nothing compared to the boy's. He looked like a hare caught in headlights. I didn't greet him. I did as my father said and scooted to the other side to give him some room in the backseat.
His jacket was dripping wet, staining the fabric of the seat a dark grey colour. He smelt faintly of wet, unprocessed wool, which was to say he smelt like a sheep farm. I imagined not much of him was dry since he had ventured out in this weather on a bicycle. The flatlands were very far away—and I remember thinking, he should have just stayed at home.
- What on earth would possess you to head out in this weather? My father asked. Our driver grumbled in agreement.
The boy wouldn't look up at my father, who returned to his paper after adding a curt, - I hope you won't do it again.
At some point, my father must have realised that Yuri was a student at my school, and maybe he even recognised who Yuri was (we lived in a small town and Yuri's parents were probably the people we bought our milk and bread from). So it didn't make much sense to scold him since the bicycle was his only mode of transportation.
Yuri didn't say anything, and I was thankful that he hadn't verbally acknowledged my presence. That meant I could ignore him in school without making it awkward.
He sat motionless, not bothering putting on his seatbelt. I wondered if he knew how to use one. Some upperclassmen taunted Yuri because of the way he read. It was painstakingly slow and at the level of a first year student. If he didn't know how to read, did he really know how to buckle up?
His hands lay fisted in his lap. As much I was trying to ignore him, my curiosity insistently drew my gaze to his frame. The hood of his jacket was still drawn over his head and every so often a drop of water would fall on his stained trousers. His school uniform was a hand-me-down, the colours dulled by repeated washes. The sleeves of his jacket were coming apart at the hems. He was tall, but he had a bad posture. He never looked me directly in the eyes, even at school, and I got the sense that he didn't quite dare.
I was eight years old, but the overriding sense that I still get from remembering that car ride is that even at that age, something had conditioned me to feel sorry for Yuri. I felt his misfortune like a second layer of clothing, and I didn't like it.
My hands fisted by my side. Before I could process it, I was saying, - Hey, grabbing his attention.
I instantaneously regretted it. His eyes were the clearest shade of blue I had ever seen. They were two piercing crystals framed by his contrasting pale skin and his dark hair and thick eyebrows.
I was tongued tied.
- D-Do you know me? I spat out. My stomach did somersaults, rearranging my organs.
- No. His expression was neutral, and he would have seemed otherwise unaffected had it not been that he wouldn't, or for whatever reason, didn't dare hold my gaze. His eyes returned to stare at the back of our driver's head.
- I'm Ru Konstantin. I'm in Ms Gourdin's class. 2F.
I waited for him to acknowledge that we went to the same school and had even come face to face a few unfortunate times. If I really thought about it, I couldn't have told you the people Yuri befriended. I didn't know a lot about the peers in my parallel class. All I knew was what everyone else whispered about them in the hallways. Their class was filled with Brommian, and it went without saying that they weren't liked in school.
- I'm Yuri Karamov. 2E.
Curt, gruff, evasive—coupled with the fact that he wouldn't look at me. Yuri Karamov was rude. I must have been expecting something else because a feeling kin to vexation weighed my jaw. My inability to think of something that would give me the upper hand made my teeth clench. I returned my gaze to the window.
When I dared cast a glance his way again after some time, I saw a flicker of movement from his head, indicating he'd been looking at me without me having been aware of it. A peculiar feeling came over my stomach and I had to curl my toes to stop the restless flutter from affecting me.
Fortunately, when our driver dropped us off, not many kids were out in the schoolyard. I stepped out of the car and strode the short distance towards the entrance without so much as sparing a backwards glance. Truth be told, I was mortified of being seen with him. And for reasons unknown to me at that age, I knew I'd be better off if I didn't bring it up at school.
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If We ExistGeneral Fiction
🏆A 2018 Wattys Winner🏆 Two boys, one ethnically segregated town. Two sides, one war. Yuri Karamov's existence is like Schrödinger's cat, simultaneously both dead and alive. In Ru Konstantin's mind, Yuri is still the same vibrant young man he was w...