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Chapter 10: Crystal Lake - I
Kick, kick, kick.
"Don't," I said.
Vladik was standing by the car repeatedly kicking the tire.
Kick, kick, kick.
"Don't do that," I said.
He carried on kicking, the stiff toe of his sneakers rebounding off the hard inflated rubber. Kick, kick, kick.
"Stop that," I said, a little more forcefully.
He stopped, but only long enough to look round at me defiantly, focusing on me standing just a few yards behind him, and tauntingly said, "Make me!"
I took a deep breath. He couldn't possibly have known the countless times I had heard that mocking refrain. All this because he didn't want to go on the hike with us. His truculence had descended into outright defiance. But now his attitude of non-compliance was starting to wear thin.
"I'd rather you just did what I ask," I replied.
"Why should I?"
"Because it would make my life easier?" I countered, phrasing it almost like a question.
"Why should I?" he said again, "You've never done anything for me."
"Only because you won't let me," I replied.
He turned his cute blond head once more and glared at me with an incensed look.
"Fuck you!" he hissed.
That was his answer to everything. Clearly my entreaties were not getting me anywhere.
Anton, who had been standing behind me witnessing all this, decided to intervene. He stepped forward so that he was between Vladik and me.
"You should do as Mark says," he reasoned, with a more even tone.
"Why should I?" for the third time.
"Because he's responsible for you and he knows what's good for you."
"Yeh, he knows everything," Vladik quipped, heavy with sarcasm.
"He knows a hell of a lot more than you do," Anton interjected, coming to my defense.
Vladik turned and glared at Anton this time.
"Why don't you shut the fuck up!" Vladik retorted, with a scowl, giving the tire another kick just for good measure.
"I will if you will," Anton replied cleverly.
Anton turned to me and smiled a crooked little smile of faint amusement, looking almost pleased with himself. He knew he could get through to Vladik, and that he could talk to him on his level much better than I could. He flashed me a knowing glance that said, "Leave this to me," and I was happy not to interfere. I was actually relieved to know that Anton was an ally, and that he had an innate understanding of the challenges concerning Vladik. It gave me a lovely warm feeling of solidarity to know that we were both reading from the same page.
He went over to Vladik and put a hand into the small of his back. Vladik stopped kicking. Anton guided him away and around to the other side of the car. They stood so that the car was between me and them. Their top halves were visible just above the high sloping hood of the Constellation. They walked some distance away, up to a spot on the higher ground just off the dirt road and, when Anton felt I could not hear them, he turned Vladik around so that they had their backs to me. He put an arm across Vladik's shoulders and seemed to be gesturing with his other hand. He was evidently giving him some kind of vigorous lecture, during which Vladik listened and didn't interrupt. I watched them for a while in this confidential huddle, and Anton would turn and look back periodically, sometimes gesturing over at me by jerking a thumb over his shoulder. I couldn't hear everything he was saying, but when they both turned to face each other, and they were in profile to me, I could just make out some of the louder passages of Anton's diatribe, "...done everything for you... ungrateful little bastard... treat him like shit..."
Was Anton sticking up for me? Whatever it was, Vladik seemed cowed and humbled by this. Anton had an excellent grasp of the situation. Watching him in action was a real revelation. God, he was good.
"I won't!" Vladik was protesting.
"Oh yes you will!" said Anton, and that was the last thing I heard.
And with that, Anton turned and marched back purposefully towards me, leaving Vladik up there by the road, kicking his little heels into the dust and evidently mulling things over.
Anton came towards me with an air of accomplishment about him, and he continued straight past me towards the tent.
"That's him sorted out," he said, as he went by.
Anton went into the tent and finished packing his gear. I followed and crawled in after him. I sat there watching him stuffing things into his backpack.
"What did you say to him?" I asked.
"A few home truths," said Anton.
"Don't be too hard on him," I said, afraid that Anton might have upset Vladik.
"Don't worry, I was firm, but fair."
"He just needs time to come around," I said.
Anton stuffed the last of his things into his backpack, zipped it up, and looked over at me, pushing his spectacles back up his nose.
"Oh, he will," he said, with a wry smile and a tone of absolute certainty.
He left it at that and got up, lugging his backpack with him, brushing past me and out of the tent.
* * * * * *
The best thing about Crystal Lake was that it was a closely guarded secret. It was as yet unspoiled by tourists and really only well known by the locals. That was due in part to the fact that it was so remote, and not particularly prominent on any map. That was what I liked about it. It was possible to spend days there without ever seeing another human being. Those we were likely to come across were equally discreet, or were from the far side of the lake. There was a small hamlet there, really only just a few scattered houses, and there was a small resort with split log cabins for rental that were spread out across a few acres of forested land. There was also a modest-sized bar and diner and a small jetty where the pleasure-boats could tie up and refuel.
It was towards the resort that we were headed. But to get there meant a protracted hike around the perimeter of the lake. There was a vague path that had been carved out of the wooded area that surrounded most of the lake. The trees afforded us some welcome shade from the harsh sun as we made our way along the forested path. It really wasn't that far in distance, though the heat and the undergrowth sometimes made it quite heavy going. When I had followed this route in the past, it had been with boys who were brimming with enthusiasm and excitement. Trying to do it with Vladik's grudging surliness made it less of an adventure and more of a chore. But I hoped that the trip would be worthwhile. We had deliberately taken the long way around the lake because there was a special place that I wanted to take the boys to - a hidden cove way over on the distant shore of the lake that was very well concealed and virtually undiscovered.
One significant thing happened on the hike. We stopped on a piece of high ground, where the forest gave way to an outcrop of rocks perilously close to the edge of the lake. The bank here was quite steep, almost a vertical drop down into the lake. It was a nice spot to rest, with the rocks partially shaded by the trees, and high enough above the water to afford a spectacular view across the lake. As we paused to rest, the boys perched on the rocks looking slightly flushed and invigorated by the hike. They had little damp patches of sweat breaking out on their temples. I thought it might be time for some sustenance, though we had only packed light provisions. I brought out some energy bars and bottles of water and handed them around. Vladik was sitting on a rock close to the edge, looking out over the lake. He was still moody and grudging, but I suspected he had perhaps started to enjoy the hike. At any rate he seemed to have lost some of the stiffened resentment with which he had started out. He took the energy bar from me. That was an achievement in itself. Unfortunately, Vladik dropped it. It fell to the ground and bounced lightly just once, disappearing over the edge of the steep bank, and we all watched his energy bar tumble down the side of the rock and plop into the still waters of the lake below. Vladik stopped, frozen in disappointment. There was a momentary hesitation where he had to instantaneously decide how to react. He looked down and puckered his lips in frustration. I felt so sorry for him.
Yura and Anton watched this happen, but they had already bitten into their energy bars and were busily chewing away. They looked at each other, no doubt apprehensive as to how Vladik might react. I held out my energy bar, which was still untouched in its pristine, shiny wrapper.
"Here," I said, "have mine."
I stood close to him with my arm fully outstretched. Vladik looked at the energy bar in my hand, then quite deliberately looked up at me with an expression of utter incredulity and incomprehension. I could see the look in his pretty green eyes which betrayed his sentiments exactly, as if he was saying, "Why the fuck would you want to do that for me?" I returned his stare with a benign, almost benevolent look that said, "Because I love you, you little fool, can't you see that?" At the same time, I could see how much he really wanted it, so I tore open the end, peeled down the wrapper halfway, rather like peeling a banana, and proffered it to him. He took it, but made no attempt to take a bite from it. He just looked at it, as though he was deciding whether it was worth eating. Just then, as he held the half unwrapped bar in his hand, and before he had time to change his mind, I broke off a piece and stuffed it into his mouth for him. He readily accepted it. I pressed my fingers into his open lips just for good measure, making sure it was between his teeth. He crunched down on it with his back teeth, his cheeks bulging as he chewed. The others were spectators to this little transaction. To them Vladik probably appeared surly and ungrateful. But they didn't know what I knew. Vladik may have failed to thank me, but the fact that he had accepted anything from me at all was a tremendous leap forward. He even let me feed him. That was an unequivocal vote of confidence in my favor. I was pretty sure that Anton's stern lecture had paved the way for this amelioration in his attitude, and Vladik was starting to mellow towards me. We were definitely making progress.
* * * * * *
After an hour and a half of walking we finally arrived at the spot. The hike was well worth the effort. The splendor of the cove, when we finally reached it, was quite breathtaking. We left the cover of the trees and I led the boys carefully down a small embankment. We clambered over a few rocks left by some ancient glacier and down to the soft, white sand of the cove. Behind us, trees covered the curved shoreline. In front of us was a gentle slope of whitish sand that disappeared down into the transparent waters of the lake. It was our own private little beach. This secret little spot was hidden from view except when a boat would pass directly opposite. It was such a special place, and the scene of many a lazy afternoon for me and the young boys I had shared it with in the past. It was heartwarming to see Yura and Vladik stand on the edge of the sand and they both turned and looked at each other simultaneously. Then Yura turned to me. I knew exactly what he was going to ask me.
"Go ahead," I implored him, "It's okay."
Yura looked at the lake, then at Vladik, then back at me. We had brought no bathing gear, and Yura knew that.
"That's the general idea," I said.
This place was made for skinny dipping. As soon as the boys understood that, it turned into a race to be first into the water. They both shrugged, as if to say, "What the heck," and started to strip. In a matter of seconds their sneakers, socks, t-shirts, jeans and underwear were all scattered recklessly on the sand and their pink little butts were stripped bare. In no time, both of them were naked and running headlong towards the water. Their impetuosity and excitement was reflected in the way their arms were flailing outwards wildly as they belted towards the water and their little feet threw up small plumes of fine, powdery sand as they ran. They splashed into the water, then when it was waist-high they jumped and fell onto each other. That pretty much set the tone for what followed. They started splashing and dunking each other, shrieking and goofing around.
As I stood there with my backpack slung over one shoulder, Anton stepped up beside me and we both stood there and watched, shoulder to shoulder, basking in the warming sun.
"I love those boys," said Anton, with a little laugh.
"So do I," I said, wistfully.
And as we watched the boys playing and frolicking in the water, I knew that Anton had the same love and affection for them as me.
"Shall we?" Anton asked, pulling off his thin t-shirt.
I nodded. It was time for us to get some sun too.
I dumped the backpack and pulled off my shirt too, then sat down in the sand, preparing to stretch out and take it easy. Anton sat down next to me, his elbows resting on his raised knees, and we watched the boys playing naked in the water.
The boys swam out towards a rocky outcrop some distance away on the left hand bank of the cove. There were some rocks that rose up steeply on one side and tapered down towards the water. The rocks protruded into the lake far enough from the bank so there was a sufficient depth of water to jump into, and they were high enough to provide a good platform for jumping off. They were really only accessible from the water, but they were perfect for diving. I admired the boys' perseverance in swimming over there. There was one rock in particular that was fairly broad and flat, and was perfect for diving. They had obviously recognized that it was a good spot, and were busy exploiting their good fortune by jumping off the rock repeatedly, engaging in all sorts of silly antics, screaming and doing somersaults, jumping off backwards and in all manner of different orientations. We watched as they climbed out of the water once more and stood together on the rock, synchronizing their dive. Then, they simultaneously jumped off together, launching themselves into the air with their arms and legs flailing madly, and screaming dementedly as they hit the water. Their sheer unrestrained joy was heartwarming. It was especially good to see Vladik so happy and exuberant.
It was perhaps an opportune moment for Anton and I to be watching because what happened next was strangely fascinating and endearing. We watched the boys climb back up onto the flat rock, puffing with sheer exhaustion, laughing and chortling away between breaths. They had tired themselves out fairly quickly and needed to get their breath back. They sat down naked on the rock, resting and allowing their little bodies to dry off in the afternoon sun. The rock was wide enough for them to stretch out comfortably. Vladik was lying back with his legs stretched out, propped up on his elbows. Yura decided to settle down cross-legged next to him, and at the same time they were carrying on a quiet, disjointed, absent conversation.
The boys suddenly went very quiet. Their conversation petered out and they just sat there silently looking into each other's eyes. Then Yura fell across Vladik, deliberately goading him into a playful struggle and they started wrestling. It happened so quickly, and yet so casually, like it was the most natural thing in the world. But it was a good-natured kind of wrestling, the huffy-puffy kind of wrestling of the type that only boys can engage in, a gentle, playful, sensuous kind of frolicking, interspersed with spontaneous little gestures, almost like two little puppies having a friendly play-fight. And that was exactly what it appeared to be - a play-fight, where they clearly enjoyed the physical contact and the unrestrained joy of tumbling and writhing together. They scrambled about on the rock, giggling and letting out little squeals of excitement as they each fought for supremacy, not really intending to hurt each other. It was beautiful watching the way they interacted with each other. They laughed and giggled a lot and there was eye contact and lots of smiles.
Anton and I watched the boys in their little tangle. First Yura struggled free of the stranglehold that Vladik had forced him into, and he quickly scrambled up and got astride Vladik, beating him into the ground and forcing him into submission. Then Vladik wriggled out from under him, overpowered Yura and sat on top of him, giggling victoriously. But he relented and they just collapsed into a heap together, with their arms around each other. They laid there for a while, catching their breath, and Yura buried his face into Vladik's neck. Vladik had his arms around him. Though they stopped short of actually kissing, their closeness was tangible. You could see that the affection that passed between them was deep and genuine. It was apparent in their caring gestures and the gentle way they ministered to each other as they laid there. The way Vladik cuddled Yura, so gently and closely, was testimony to his fondness for Yura. It also reassured me that Vladik was actually a very loving little boy. Despite his outward truculence and hostility, this proved that he was capable of very real affection. Watching him with Yura was fascinating and at the same time strangely pleasing. They both had these broad, almost manic grins, clearly in a blissful mood. But there was also something else. Something in their posture, their demeanor, their very expressions, that denoted something very special had taken place. This physical closeness was a token of the friendship between them, an open declaration of their mutual affection. I shouldn't have been surprised by this display, considering what these boys had been through, but I still found their wrestling and nuzzling to be shockingly intimate.
I remembered that Anton was sitting on the sand next to me and had witnessed all this with me. We instinctively looked at each other and exchanged a good-natured laugh, perhaps slightly abashed that we had unwittingly intruded on what was clearly a private moment between the boys. It was clear to both of us that Yura and Vladik were very close, and I knew that we had both enjoyed watching them interact. Then when we looked back over towards the rocks once more, the boys had gone. The flat rock was abandoned. The boys had slipped back into the water and were busily dunking each other and splashing around happily, their moment of tenderness now apparently forgotten, lost in the haze of that occluded twilight zone that lay somewhere between their libidos and their memories.
* * * * * *
I was so relaxed, I must have fallen asleep. I was lying face down in the sand, with one arm up around my head and my face turned to one side, buried into my elbow. I guess it was to shield my eyes from the blinding sun. The peace and tranquility of the cove induced a soporific stupor that was consolidated by the warming, enervating rays of the sun. When I woke up again, Anton was sitting there with Vladik. I opened my eyes and, without stirring, just watched them for a while. Vladik was obediently plopped in the sand with his ankles splayed out underneath him, totally relaxed, and Anton was knelt down behind him busily smearing his back and shoulders with sun cream. The welts on his back had faded somewhat and were healing nicely. Anton had said nothing about that, and I knew that it was because he was well aware of what Vladik had suffered. He had been through it himself. Anton was studiously rubbing Vladik's little body all over with the sun cream until his golden skin was greasy with the stuff. Yura was sat nearby observing enviously.
Then the most extraordinary thing happened. As Anton was rubbing his shoulders, Vladik turned his head to look at him and gave him the most affectionate of smiles. Anton smiled back. There was a nice rapport developing between them. Vladik was quite receptive to Anton and carried on sitting there while Anton rubbed the sun cream all over him, their harsh exchange of earlier apparently already forgotten. When he had finished, Anton slapped Vladik gently on the back and sent him on his way.
"Me next," said Yura.
Anton was about to put the sun cream away, but relented.
"Okay, come on then," he consented, and Yura came and settled down in Vladik's place.
When he had finished, Yura ran off and went to play with Vladik in the water. Anton put the sun cream away and watched them for a while, then I saw him rise up, quickly removed the rest of his clothes, and followed Yura into the water. He ran down into the lake, and I watched his naked teen body wading in. He tipped into the lake and swam out to where the boys were playing. They saw him approach and both swam over to him, excitedly jumping onto him, squealing and laughing as they clambered onto him. He shook them off, then chased them. When he caught them, they jumped up and both clung to him again, trying to pull him under. They were giggling with excitement as he lifted them clear of the water. He was very strong, with one boy hanging off each arm. I stretched out on the sand and watched them, their high-pitched voices shrieking with exhilaration, and Anton rising up out of the water with both boys clinging to him like limpets.
Anton was really good with the boys, and his easy-going, natural demeanor was perfectly suited to them. He genuinely liked them and they were very drawn to him. I think we all were. It wasn't just his smoldering looks that made him so attractive, though that was a big part of his persona. It was more his actions, his body language and the way he moved. There was just something about this boy that was infinitely appealing.
I fell asleep again. I don't know how long I was asleep, but this time I was pulled back from my reverie by the sensation of little fingers stroking my back. I knew it was Yura. I just knew the feel of his fingers - even though his touch was feather-light, and it was only the barest contact of the little pads on the tips of his fingers, I knew it was him.
"That feels good, little buddy," I murmured, without moving.
He pressed his fingertips into me a lot harder and then I felt him throw his wet body across me, and sat astride my hips, rather like mounting a bicycle. His body dripped water all over my back, giving me an impromptu little cold shower. He started massaging my back. His little hands reached up and squeezed the hardened fleshy muscles in my shoulders, in exactly the same way he had seen me do to him. He was actually quite good at mimicking my actions. His little fingers were light and nimble, and his touch was delicate and tender. His massage was ineffectual, but his touch was loving and authentic. It sent magical shivers all through me, warming my whole body with little soothing waves of electricity from the energy he projected into me. And all the time he was doing this, he said nothing at all. When he had finished, he just got up and ran back towards the water. What a wonderful little boy he was.
I watched Yura running back to the edge of the lake. I looked out across the cove and saw that Vladik had climbed up onto the rocks, and this time Anton had joined him. This was his opportunity to bond with Vladik and perhaps enjoy a little boymoment of their own. Vladik stretched out, looking set to do a spot of sunbathing on the rock. Anton settled next to him. Watching them together was a beautiful sight. But that left Yura all alone. He saw that Vladik was now in the company of Anton, and they were now stretched out on that rock where there simply wasn't room for three. Yura looked around and decided to come back over to me. He came running back to where I was still stretched out sleepily on the sand.
"Swim with me?"
"In a minute," I said, still sleepy.
"Come on Mark. Swim with me. The water's great!"
"In a minute," I said again.
"No, now," he insisted, and proceeded to tug at my wrist as though to drag me into the water, "come on."
"Yes sir!" I replied, with a mock salute.
He laughed, but stood there expectantly, waiting for me to get up. Resignedly, I rose up. I could see the excitement and anticipation in Yura's eyes. He really did want me to swim with him, and of course I was loath to disappoint him. He waited for me to pull off the rest of my clothes, and then he grabbed my wrist and literally propelled me over to the lake.
We ran into the water together, and at a good depth we plunged under the surface. The sudden coolness of the water made my hot skin tingle all over. As we rose back up, Yura lunged at me, playfully pulling me back under. He seemed overjoyed to have got his way, as though coaxing me into the water was his cue to start misbehaving. That pretty much set the tone for what followed. We spent a good long time playing in the water, with Yura engaging in some crazy antics. A lot of his behavior was boyish exuberance. And he liked to play very physical, tactile games in the water, with lots of bodily contact and rough and tumble. He was highly excitable, constantly laughing and giggling, his high-pitched screams and shouts echoing off the surface of the lake. He splashed me, and I splashed him back. He would jump on me and try to pull me under. He was also very good at diving under the surface and swimming between my legs. What he loved more than anything was climbing up onto me and using me as a diving platform. He would step up onto my shoulders, balancing himself precariously, and then spring upwards, diving back into the water, sometimes gracefully, sometimes clumsily. I would hold onto his heels and propel him upwards as he jumped, and no sooner was he in the water, he would come back for more. He also liked to entice me into chasing him, disappearing below the surface, darting around, twisting and turning with all the agility of a little otter. Several times I found myself ambushed by him swimming up behind me, jumping on me by surprise. I tried my best to swim after him, but he was too fast. I was quite impressed that Yura was such an accomplished swimmer.
Yura quickly exhausted himself. As his energy began to wane, I chased him and managed to catch him, hooking an arm around his waist as he was swimming away from me. I pulled him to me, making sure that he wouldn't get away this time. He struggled, his arms and legs waving frantically, but I was too strong for him. He splashed about in my clutches, laughing manically, trying vainly to get free, but clearly enjoying our little game. Yura wriggled so much that he eventually exhausted himself. He suddenly stopped struggling and almost collapsed onto me, utterly drained. He went very quiet, finally submitting to me, and turned to hug me, laying his head on my shoulder. His diminutive little body in my arms was exquisite. I was suddenly aware that I was supporting his weight almost completely. He was clinging onto me in something of a daze. It was so cute the way his little body was so completely spent after that particularly energetic little game. He was sapped of all his energy, the energy he had expended in playing exclusively with me. Supporting his weight, I carried his naked, almost comatose little body over to the bank and out of the water. His sweet little head was lolling about on my shoulder. I laid him down onto the soft sand by the side of the lake with his eyes closed. I settled down alongside him, still dripping wet. I looked over him lovingly, propped up on one elbow, and just watched over him protectively as he recovered from his breathlessness.
As we laid there, I looked over this beautiful little boy that was stretched out on the sand, and I sighed at the sheer wonder of him. I saw how his little body heaved with short, quick breaths as we both entered a period of resolution and enjoyed a prolonged boymoment. It was a beautiful, memorable little boymoment, made all the more special by the splendor of the lake and the idyll of lying there by the water, out in the open air, with the sun warming our bodies. The droplets of water glistened on Yura's pretty face, and his skin had a polished gloss of wetness which seemed to accentuate the contours of his tiny frame as he laid there, and his body pulsed ever so lightly with every little breath.
We laid there in silence for a good long time, basking in this perfect little boymoment. Then, when he had rested sufficiently, Yura tilted his head back and looked up at me. I could see his seductively long eyelashes still damp and clumped together, and he thought for a few moments, with a look of wonder and serenity in his pretty azure eyes.
"Happy?" I asked.
He slowly closed his eyes and nodded contentedly as he laid there.
"Oh Mark, why can't it be like this all the time?"
It was such a telling remark, and so symptomatic of Yura. It was a simple phrase, almost a rhetorical question, and yet it was imbued with connotations that betrayed his depth and maturity. It convinced me that he knew the value of these moments. He knew better than anybody the stark contrast between the simple, fleeting pleasure that we were enjoying right now, and the depths of the pain and anguish he had suffered in the past. What a shame that he had had to learn from such an early age that pleasure, and the enjoyment of it, was always going to be only transitory.
I looked around and saw the idyll of the situation we now found ourselves in. I took in the perfect scenery, with the beauty of the lake, the majesty of the forest and the splendor of the mountains rising up beyond the canopy of the trees. I saw Anton and Vladik, warming themselves in the sun over by the rocks. I thought about how special these boys were - precious and rare. I had now seen these wonderful little boys in all their glory, and thought of what a pleasure it had been to witness them frolicking so freely in the water, playfully interacting with each other, laughing and smiling, relaxed and untroubled by the cares of the world, temporarily reprieved from all the unhappy memories they had stored up inside. For the moment they were able to be the happy little boys that they really were, and their true personalities were able to shine through, free to express themselves and to enjoy the genuine regard and affection that passed between us. What strange set of circumstances had conspired to bring about this perfect moment? And as these thoughts were swirling about in my head, I had to sigh in wonderment at the sheer unencumbered pleasure that I was experiencing, and I thought to myself: it just doesn't get any better than this.