The city of Slobodinsk, near Rostov-on-Don, Southern Russia
At first, Volya didn't realize he had a date with destiny at the principal's office. It was just before geometry. He was better at math than everyone else in his orphanage, so he was looking forward to spacing out next to his best mate Toshka all period long. But nope, no dice.
"V-AAH-lya Wolkov," the loudspeaker's announcement blared. "To the principal's office."
The call had to be extra-loud like this, because Volya's math teacher, a twitchy alcoholic, took to keeping everyone outside his classroom before the bell. This was to save his frayed nerves.
Similar consideration wasn't made for the boys' nerves. They jostled in the dingy hall, twiddling their thumbs. Even with Volya's off-the-charts hearing, he could barely hear what Toshka was saying over the chatter of their classmates. It was a decent approximation of being confined with ten monkeys, a rooster and a weasel in a sealed barrel.
Before the echo of Volya's screwed-up name died down, heat rushed into his face. Thank God for the mop of curly hair that hung into his eyes and the burned-out halogen lamps in the hall. When he turned red, he turned seriously red.
"Sod off," Volya muttered preemptively. Sniggering broke out on all sides of him, anyway. All conversations ceased, so he could hear Toshka's breathing now. Which wasn't much of a comfort, because it sped up in anticipation of trouble, intensifying to a bit of a whistle at the end of every inhale.
"Valya Wolkov," the loudspeaker sputtered through the hiss of static for the second time. "To the principa—"
Volya pounded the wall behind his back with his fist. His name was V-O-lya, with an O, as in a word volya, yes, volya, the word that meant freedom, not Valya with an A.
Volya was an idiotic name, all right, but was a little respect too much to ask for? He had lived in this effing orphanage forever. They should have learned his name by now.
It was all he owned.
"Oh, look, our freak got 'Valentine-d' again," Dimon the Bruiser jeered, then hummed an insipid pop-song. "Hey, Valya-Valya-Valentaaaine!"
"Hello to you too, Dickhead," Volya shot back.
"Don't be like that, VAH-lya." The Bruiser's grin was more of a snarl than a smile. Somehow, without moving, he seemed to stretch upward until he loomed.
Thanks to the dim light, Volya didn't get to enjoy the view of the Bruiser's stained teeth, wider than an average snow shovel. The stench of cigarettes and something even fouler, though, assaulted his nose. He wrinkled it, then bared his teeth too. "Sod off."
"Still here? Gee, when will you clue in that nobody wants you around?" the Bruiser said. His cronies picked up their cue, a good little Greek chorus.
"Nobody wants you here!"
"Is he deaf or something?"
The Bruiser slipped down the wall a bit, sticking one of his overgrown legs out to block the way.
Seriously, genius? Like the taunts would rattle Volya to the core, and he'd dash away, maybe even in tears, tripping over it? He glared from under his fringe. "Hah!"
"P-please, guys, don't fight. It was just a stupid m-mistake with the n-name," Toshka piped up.
Thanks for the assist, mate, Volya thought, while warmth spread through his chest. Alas, with Toshka stepping in, leaving before the bell rang was out of the question. Toshka had to get inside the classroom first, under whatever protection the old coot could offer.
The Bruiser decided to forgive Toshka's stutter this time and smiled at him. "Aye, totally a mistake. Can't ask much of freaks, right?"
Toshka gasped at how his words got twisted, and Volya's fists clenched tighter.
His deadbeat mother penciled in Freedom on his birth certificate and disappeared into the blue, leaving him to deal with the fallout of her lousy life choices. Worse, now Toshka had to deal with it. Hell, no!
Volya forced his fingers to relax, folded his arms across his chest and rolled his shoulders back, straightening to his full height. "Pick on someone of your own size, jerk."
The Bruiser matched him sneer for sneer, then ground the sole of his sneaker into the wall, leaving a muddy footprint. "Flattering ourselves, are we?"
Volya's chest heaved. So, okay, maybe he didn't grow as freakishly large as the Bruiser, but he boasted the right combo of wiry and squat. Had the right gleam in his eye. Maybe today was the day to settle their score once and for all.
The loudspeaker, however, wouldn't shut up.
"Valya Wolkov. To the principal's office, please."
The bell announcing the next period rang right after that, and the classroom door opened a crack. The teacher stepped out gingerly, as if expecting a pack of wolves waiting for him. His rheumy eyes squinted at Volya.
"Wolkov, do you need the Queen of England's invitation to entice you to attend the office? Because I can arrange that."
In his boozy dreams, but there was this unwritten code among the boys... like, for example, they had to feed the teachers' delusion that humor worked when dealing with difficult adolescents.
"Well, since they've said please this time, I'll go," Volya said, while pushing Toshka closer to the classroom's entrance.
The cowlick on the back of Toshka's head flashed red, then disappeared when he turned to meet Volya's gaze. For a second, Volya forgot everything else. Looking into his mate's eyes was like peering into a cloudless summer sky, dissolving in the pure blue and the boundless joy of it.
"What do they want with you?" Toshka tugged down his sweatshirt, so worn that Volya could barely make out which pop-band was on it. Buzzkill, probably, since it was Toshka's absolute favorite for two months running.
"Maybe the principal will give me a sticker for staying out of trouble?" Volya winked. "I'd love myself a gold star!"
Toshka gulped and was carried by the press of the other boys into the classroom. It closed with a bang, leaving Volya in the empty hallway. There was nothing for it, but to trek to the principal's office.
Volya walked, dragging his hand along the teal wall. The deserted space echoed—not with Volya's footsteps, because he had an uncanny ability to walk without making a sound—no, his presence itself echoed off the walls. Or at least Volya thought it did, though he couldn't say if he sensed it as a shadow, a whisper or a smell... he'd call it energy, but who the heck sensed energy apart from charlatans and anime characters?
By the principal's doors, Volya paused and perked his ears.
He wasn't afraid of what waited inside. If asked, he could have pointed out the fresh cracks spider-webbing the leather, visiting this office was so familiar to him. It was just that the conversation filtering into the hall weirded him out.
"Very, very talented... Of course, we understand that! It's impossible to miss," the principal said. Her tone was set to eleven-out-of-ten on the groveling scale. It could only mean a major donor visit.
So why call in Volya then? He wasn't an exemplary product of this fine establishment by any stretch of imagination. What in the actual Hell?
His heart stopped beating for a minute.
Could it be that from all the boys here, he was the one to pull the one-in-a-billion ticket of being a lost child of someone filthy rich? Wouldn't that be funny?
No, no, no, that can't be it.
Not after seventeen years.
You're not that stupid, stop it.
An unfamiliar woman took over from the principal, saying something in... was it English? A velvety baritone responded. It also belonged to a stranger, was also in English. Volya tried to pick out familiar words and grimaced. Like, math made sense to him. But English? Not so much.
The unfamiliar woman murmured in Russian, "I'm glad to hear that."
Was she... interpreting? Okay, in this case, whoever the moneybag was, he wasn't family.
Volya rubbed his sweating palms on his jeans, hating the visitor for reducing him to the breathless fluttering of hope. He had nearly passed out here!
Meanwhile, the principal cooed in Russian. "We try to do what we can to foster, in such difficult circumstances, with such meager means, the boys' love of arts. Including the band, of course."
While the interpreter did her job, Volya expelled a sigh of relief. If it was about the band, then he was off the hook. The band was Toshka's idea, so, naturally, he'd joined and did whatever Toshka asked of him. All he needed to do in the office was to tell them to talk to Toshka and that would be the end of it.
He knocked, then popped his head inside.
"Ah, here he is, our nightingale," the principal exclaimed. She beamed at him. "Come in, Wolkov. Come in!"
Volya's jaw hung.
The biggest compliment she had paid his vocal cords to date was saying that his howling kept the younger boys in their beds after the curfew. And, honestly, she had nailed it. He sucked at it. If it wasn't Toshka asking... if he could play any musical instrument, even a kindergartener's triangle... he wouldn't be stuck with singing in a million years.
With a blush still blooming on his cheeks, Volya edged inside.
The office dwarfed the other rooms in the orphanage, but the ambiance was the same. The furniture held it together since the Soviets. Floors sported the vomit-colored layer of wax while matching mold took over the ceiling.
The two large windows, however, were recently cleaned with unusual thoroughness. The glass let in so much sunlight that it partially blinded Volya and he experienced a hallucination.
He saw a guy sprawled in the armchair in the middle of the office. And not just any guy. He saw Liam Anders, the lead singer of Buzzkill.
Volya squinted against the dancing spots in his vision. Did he stare at Toshka's Buzzkill sweatshirt so much that Liam etched himself into his subconscious? Daydreaming about Toshka was one thing, but he didn't want to add Toshka's idols to the list.
The phantom refused to melt away.
Come on! If Liam Anders had traveled to Russia for a concert, he would be chilling in Moscow. He wouldn't be hanging out a few clicks to the South from nowhere.
"Volya!" The principal lifted from her desk with a smile of a piranha breaking the dark surface of the Amazon River.
"Yes, Anna Leonidovna?" He took a step backward.
"Volya," said she, pointing at the guy who looked exactly like Liam Anders. "Volya, this is Liam Anders."
And so, the delusional dream continued, with Anna Leonidovna as a bonus.
"I'm sure you've recognized him. He's your generation's idol, after all."
The interpreter murmured in English into Liam's ear.
"Uh-huh," Volya replied. "Suuure."
Anna Leonidovna shot him a warning look, like, don't sass me, Wolkov, but clung to the caring educator's tone. "Liam is the spokesperson for the Supra-Agrino Fund created for the revitalization of the Ponto-Caspian Steppes region."
Volya shifted from foot to foot. She wasn't going to ask him to repeat all these names back, right? And if she did, he hoped the interpreter could cover up his oopses, because he couldn't summon an ounce of caring about the Fund.
This was Liam effing Anders before him. He wasn't dreaming it up.
Liam Anders, the idol of millions, in the flesh. Wait till he told Toshka about that!
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