The winds of autumn were just beginning to blow across the steppes, and swept empty bags and scraps of paper over the sidewalks of the city. The sun still shone brightly over the clear sky, but in the passenger terminal of this noble city, a dark cloud hung over two families.
One was a family of three boys and one girl, watched with the caring eye of their father. The father and eldest son were decked in military uniforms, with insignia on their collars denoting their ranks. The youngest daughter was in a light blue summer dress with a white bodice, with great tears standing in her grey smoldering eyes. This occasion was affecting her the most, and slowly becoming a tearful event for all of them.
The other family was a pair of foreigners, a father and his son who had traveled through Europe in months prior. Their summer trek had brought them here, and it was becoming just as difficult for them to say goodbye. For in the weeks they spent travelling through the Old Continent, no greater friendship had been made than here. The foreigner's son in particular was taking it hard, having grown so close to the four boys and one girl in such a short span of time. Why did they have to part now? Why did God decree for them to be separated? Why did the fates conspire against them?
Each parting was accompanied by words spoken in the native tongue, fond reminiscences of happy days spent together, and hearty exchanges of farewells and promises that, to some, seemed impossible to keep. But not to the foreigner's son. To him, all things were possible. The fact that he had traveled here, had met so many people, and had formed such strong friendships with the members of this family was proof that anything and everything was feasible if one just set one's mind to it. Even with that optimistic thought, his voice shook with each word, and lips quivered with each promise made. He couldn't lose these people. Not after he had lost so much in his life.
As the foreigner's son came to the daughter, his father boarded the train with both their bags. As far as he was concerned, the time for goodbyes was over. After seeing what Europe was about to become, he feared that he and his son may never cross paths with these fine Russians again. A dark tempest was fast approaching, and one that would engulf all of them; he knew it when he saw it, and knew that his son had to see the world before there would be nothing left to see. It was that fear and that sense of dread that had carried them here. And it was now that fear and sense of dread that was taking them back.
"Peter, hurry up!" his father called, as he set the bags down in the vestibule. "The train will leave soon!"
"Just let me say something to her, Father," answered the son, reluctant to leave his little friend so soon.
"Alright, but don't make me leave you behind!"
The boy, Peter, turned to the girl, and saw her heart breaking. He offered comfort as he rested a gentle hand on her delicate shoulder.
"I still…can't believe…you're leaving so soon…" she eked out, crying in-between her words.
"I wish I could stay longer too," the boy admonished. "I wish I was born in this country instead of America right now."
"Will I ever see you again?"
"What does your heart tell you?"
The girl paused for a moment, in contemplation. She searched through her being, wondering what the future will hold for her and her newfound friend. In merely three weeks, they had been inseparable from each other. He had a much deeper friendship with her than any the foreigner's son had made in previous travels. Likewise, the girl had never known a boy like him, and now, as he stood in front of her awaiting departure to his home country, the chances seemed slim. But as the boy had taught her, nothing was impossible in this life. Not if one believed.
The boy smiled, joining her in her optimism.
"Then we will meet again."
"Please come back!" she cried, leaping into his arms, sobbing.
Peter comforted her, running his fingers through her soft brown hair like a finely knit crochet, calming her and speaking comforting words in times when comfort was a luxury nary to be found.
"Tanya…please don't cry…I promise…I'll come back."
"You…you do?" she sniffed, staring up at him with entreating grey eyes.
"I'll come back to you," he vowed, resting his head against hers, trying to impart some sense of faith in her. "I'll come back to you, your family, and everyone else. It'll be just like before. Nothing will change, I promise you."
"You swear you will come back?"
"As God is my witness."
They broke apart from their embrace, as her crying subsided and he wiped away the remnant tears from her smooth marble-like face. He was about to board the train, but felt he could not simply leave her with words. She, his newest and closest friend he ever made, deserved more than a mere promise from him. Thus he parted her hair and gave her a gentle affectionate kiss on the forehead.
Soft, warm, and tender, all her sadness melted away, along with her surroundings. The train station, the train itself, and the platform she was standing on faded away leaving only the soft and soothing sensation of Peter's lips on her head.
As soon as his lips left her head, and she had recalled her senses, he was already on the train, joining his father. Her brothers and her father were all waving goodbye, saying they would stay in contact, and would not forget him. But the question in her mind was: would he?
Peter, still on the steps of the passenger car, looked to her with the brightest smile he could muster, as if this was merely a dream, or a scene in some great play.
"You won't forget me, will you?"
Peter laughed, wondering how she could even entertain that notion.
"Me? Forget you? Never in my whole life."
The girl smiled, and at that moment, the engine's whistle blew a long mournful and low tone. It was singing a one-note eulogy to their parting, a serenade that spoke of happy days gone by, and important memories shared. The train gave a gentle nudge forward, and started moving. Its wheels turned slowly…sadly. As his car moved farther down the platform, the girl instinctively followed it, not wanting to waste a single moment with the boy even as he was moving farther and farther away from her life. Soon the walk turned into a run, and then into a sprint. As she chased the car, and her dearest friend aboard it, Peter called out to her.
"I won't ever forget the times I spent here with you! I will write to you! I'll come back to you! I promise!"
As she reached the end of the platform, she called out in one resolute and steadfast voice:
"I KNOW YOU WILL!"
With that promise between them made, the engine gave another somber blow on the whistle as it sped out of the city, to the steppes beyond, and to the ship that would eventually take the foreigner and his son home. She waved goodbye, and wouldn't stop waving until the train was eventually out of sight. He would return, as she knew he was a boy never to go back on his promises. How could he, when they had spent so many happy times together, and had grown inseparable in such a short time? She would wait, wait as long as she had to, but he would return to her.
Four Years Later
September 3rd, 1942
Mill Valley, California
The young 16-year-old continued walking down the street, neither looking left nor right. His body was straight as a ramrod, back erect, shoulders thrown back. His ash blonde hair was hanging in his face, his dark hazel eyes looking straight ahead, as they always did. He always was one to keep moving forward. He was wearing his usual white dress shirt with the collar buttoned up, something which helped him focus on what was in front of him. He wore his grey knickerbockers with the long black socks, his old dirty brown shoes, and his brother's oversized hole-riddled patched grey jacket, buttoned and tied. When he reached a crosswalk, he cautiously crossed the road, even though he knew that there were no cars on the road; the nation needed to save gas for the war effort. Yet he always went through this ritual, whenever he left his little house on a hill to go anywhere, high school or otherwise. It had become second nature to him, like breathing or blinking. All he kept thinking about was his father, his friends, and that little Russian girl.
Dammit! Why must I think of her now? It's bad enough that my father could die any day. He's in the Pacific. He could be caught by the Japanese and be tortured. I have no loved ones in Europe, so why must I continually think of it?
You do have loved ones there, he told himself. Don't try denying it. Think of Jacques, of Vladimir, of Tanya! Who knows what horrors they are facing? Keep them in your thoughts always, like a good friend should, he scolded himself. He stopped and looked around. There was no one. He was just glad no one heard him talking to himself. All the same, it wouldn't have mattered to him if anyone did. He knew he wasn't crazy.
He had friends here, too. He had lived here for most of his life, in this quiet valley town in the shadow of San Francisco.
Tom, the wise old owl with reading glasses always carrying a book.
Donald was the spiritual one who carried a Bible with him wherever he went, wearing a necklace with a cross and always having a constant devotion to God.
Lawrence, or Larry as everyone loved to call him, always laughed and joked and kidded with all who knew him.
He didn't have anyone else, though. Of course he had his brother Willie, a tall thin 20-year-old who had dropped out of college the year before. Young and ambitious as he remembered him, back before his mother became ill. He had his father, even if he was now in the Marine Corps. Besides them, however, no one else. No one whom he could really relate to, no one that could really understand him, help him, talk with him, fight with him.
At that thought, Tanya suddenly popped into his head. He remembered when he first met her in Stalingrad, those four long years ago, when she was still a little girl of nine. I wonder what she looks like after four years, he thought. Tanya, even if she was Vladimir's little sister, looked very different than her brother when he met them. He thought about those mysterious grey eyes, the long dark hair in curls, that cheerful smile, that soothing voice. If he could talk to anyone, really talk to anyone, he could talk to her.
Tanya, keep well. Stay safe. Perhaps I'll see you again when this horrible war is over.
He arrived at the high school at about ten minutes to eight, and he treaded up the steps to the top of the green. He had passed by this high school many times in his life, and he and his friends often played games near there and always sat to hear the clock tower bell chime to tell them when it was time to go home. He couldn't spot his friends anywhere today; perhaps they were late, he thought. It was of no consequence, however, as he simply made his way to the main hall for his first class. He could use a day by himself, now that he thought of it. He went to his locker, out of the cold autumn winds and went to the business of sorting his books and mentally deciding what to use for yet another day of classes. As he found the materials he needed, he heard a voice call out his name.
He turned to find a group of boys about his age coming towards him wearing smirks on their faces. They didn't look to be the most amiable people in the school. That much was made clear when the leader of the pack, a tall black-haired boy with dark indigo eyes, slammed him into the wall of lockers. The others quickly took the opportunity to smack the books out of his hands, spreading them out all over the tiled floor.
The gang of boys laughed as they left him rubbing his head, his materials spread all over the tiled floor for him to pick up.
He growled in frustration as he tried to hurriedly pick up his supplies before the bell rang. It would be terrible if he arrived late to the first class of the day. This kind of harassment was something he had grown accustomed to in the last years. He wasn't part of the in-crowd by any stretch of the imagination. The nature of his surroundings made him one of the "others." His mixed background also made him a target. Whether it was through alienation, harassment, bullying, or the simple glare, he never belonged.
At the thought of fitting in, Tanya appeared again in his mind. In his times abroad in Russia, she and her family had always been accepting. In fact, everyone in her neighborhood had accepted him as one of their own. It was ironic how he felt at home in a country that wasn't his, among people who were not his own nationality. He never encountered much antagonism overseas, so why couldn't people here just be the same?
"Bastards…" he muttered under his breath as he struggled to gather his things.
"I agree, they are," said a female voice from somewhere behind him.
He looked up, and saw a fair-skinned blonde girl, about 16, with a pink ribbon in her long flowing hair. She wore a blue dress with a white apron with pockets, striped red and white stockings and black penny loafers. Her eyes were dark blue, dark as the bay at sunset when looking out from the Golden Gate and her lip redder than any rose in bloom.
"One should always be kind to others," the blonde girl spoke.
"The Golden Rule, if that's how it's called," he said in obvious agreement.
She knelt down and set to the business of helping him gather his materials of necessity. In the short span of time it took to clean the floor, he realized how it was the first time a girl had approached him, at least here at home anyway. He never garnered much attention from the fairer sex in this town, for reasons as varied as what humanity's purpose was. His lack of family wealth, his lack of physical attractiveness, and his lack of athletic ability hampered any chances to garner attention from girls in his school and in his neighborhood for that matter. He thought nothing of it, however. He always viewed the campus as the outsider, knowing he didn't belong. It never accepted him and it never would.
They stood up, and the girl handed him what things she had collected off the floor. He nodded in thanks and left to go. He felt this girl had a momentary bout of kindness, and come the next day she would be off with her crowd, laughing and mocking him as all did. But as he left to go, she followed him, to his great surprise.
"You have the same class as me, I take it…" he said quietly.
"No," the girl corrected, "I merely have a class on the same floor. What's your first class?"
"English. Mr. Dawson."
"I have Ms. Gregory."
"I hear she's an old shrew if ever there was one," he chuckled.
"I suppose we shall see," the girl giggled in response.
She laughed. The first time a girl other than Tanya ever laughed at anything he said.
"So how was your summer?" she posed to him.
A good question. He hardly ever left his house other than to go to work, as he had been glued to the radio, hoping for some good news from the war, but was found wanting. There was nary a day that went by when he didn't think of the girl he left behind in Russia. What could Tanya be doing now? Did she still remember him? How had the war affected her and her family? He had to give some answer that wouldn't depress her, so he merely shrugged his shoulders.
"Okay, I suppose. Just listening to Edward R. Murrow with the radio reports."
"Things are not looking good," said the girl, gravely.
He nodded, in obvious agreement.
"Tell me about it," he responded in a low voice. "Russia has been taking a real beating with the new offensive in the south."
"Things have been going better in North Africa, though. Montgomery's British Eighth Army has stopped Erwin Rommel at El Alamein, in Egypt."
The bell rang, signaling the time to go to class. The blonde girl bid him goodbye and they went their separate ways. For now, anyway. He merely turned to the classroom door that he was assigned to for the first hour, but before entering, he looked over his shoulder. For what reason, he could not tell. Then he called out.
The girl stopped and turned to him for a moment, as if she was resisting the urge to go. He had to know that this girl was genuine in her show of kindness, and did not experience a mere moment of sympathy only to return to the golden crowd to judge and mock. It was not the easiest thing in the world, but he managed to eke out a question.
"I…I want to thank you…for what you did for me back there. Would you…like to join me for lunch sometime?"
He thought for sure the girl would laugh right in his face for even supposing to suggest such a thing, after they had only known each other for less than five minutes. Surprisingly however, she didn't laugh. She only smiled sincerely and said,
"Of course. Where do you eat lunch usually?"
"By…the large tree," he replied slowly, still in shock the girl had accepted his offer. "in front of Keyser Hall."
"Oh, I know which one you mean. I'd be happy to join you. But I must go now; can't be late to the first class. Ta-ta!"
He watched her walk down the hall to a door on the left, and watched as she opened the door. The lighting of the hall seemed to reflect off her golden hair, giving a heavenly glow to it. I wonder who she is, he thought. He was almost entranced by this girl, and he didn't even know her. He shook his head violently and broke his trance. You've got class to think about, he thought. He turned again to his classroom door and quietly opened it before slipping in like a ghost in the night.
He arrived at his home at about four in the afternoon, or so his pocket watch said. He opened the door and walked into the silent house. It was often silent, since Willie never came back from his job at Marinship until about 7:30 in the evening. It was a small house on a hill overlooking the neighborhood and a block or two from the church. It wasn't the best of homes, but it was still his home.
His family would not have afforded anything else, anyway. He came from a farming family about twenty miles north of the town. When the Great Crash of '29 came around, his father and mother were hit hard. They had no choice but to sell the farm after his mother died, and move down south where the jobs were. His father and brother got a job at the steel works, which managed to bring some money in before Pearl Harbor. His father left for the Marine Corps and Willie then took another job at Marinship, working as a welder for the Liberty Ships. No one was in the house but him. He was used to it now after one and a half years. His father was in the Pacific, Willie was at work most of the time, and his mother had been dead for seven years. It didn't matter to him now. The important thing was to get through these hard times as best as we can.
He went into the small kitchen and removed a Coke from the ice box. He then went to his work desk in the living room, took out his work and turned on the radio. Edward R. Murrow was reporting on the fighting near Stalingrad. The Russians were not doing well. They could only reinforce and supply their forces in Stalingrad by perilous crossings of the Volga River, under constant bombardment by German artillery and planes. Peter became increasingly worried about Tanya. What if she should get caught in the fight, he thought. She might be killed. I would never be able to bear that. He got up and was going to pack a suitcase to leave for Russia, but he immediately stopped himself.
I can't go! The school year's just started. This is more important!
Two sides of his head argued with each other.
Don't leave her there; she isn't safe.
Perhaps the Russians will fight back and she'll be alright.
What if they don't?
But what if they do?
She's my friend! I won't leave her to die!
You don't know if she'll die. The Russians are hard fighters. They'll push the Germans back.
Doesn't sound like they'll be pushing anyone back the way the fight's going now!
On and on and on it went, never stopping. He didn't know what to do. He tried to take his mind off it by going back to his work. He could work all day, but it wouldn't resolve the question. Should he stay or should he leave and help Tanya and Vladimir? He continued working for two hours, still contemplating his options. He then tried to find a middle ground. When was a time he could go away? C'mon, think, he said to himself. Then it dawned on him: Christmas vacation. It was perfect. He could go on working and still come to help Tanya and Vladimir. In any case, he thought, from the radio reports this battle looked to be a long and bloody one. When Christmas break came around he would catch the next boat for Vladivostok. It was the only way.
The thought was now out of his head and he continued working until around seven, at which time he had finished everything. He stood up and went to take his bath and prepare for bed. He never stopped thinking about Tanya and what horrors she must be facing. Hang on, Tanya, he said to himself. I'll be there. Just hang in there.
Nightfall came and Peter was in his little bedroom. There was only one window in the whole room and there was nothing but a bed stand and his cot. They couldn't afford anything else. He didn't care. Even if he was poor, he never gave a rap, never complained, but only worked harder to try and improve himself. He lay on his bed thinking about all the terrors Tanya must be facing. Please, God, spare her, he prayed to himself. Have pity on her, Lord, and spare her. Hold on, Tanya. Just hold on. Just hold on. Just hold on.
He continued repeating those three words until at last he fell asleep, was dreaming about Tanya. He saw her amidst the ruins of the city, standing near the docks. Tanya ran to him and embraced him tightly, crying softly into his shoulders. Tanya lifted her head and whispered in Peter's ear,
"I'll hold on. I promise I will. I'll hold on for as long as it takes."