The smell of muddy water on the air complemented the slow, heavy way in which time slithered along. Ivan felt the tension and the sensation of sharing something without acknowledging it. They had all dropped their lives to come back to the Ledge, the old place of their childhood. They had all changed, that was for sure. Amya had a husband and three children; Konstantin was climbing the corporate ladder at a large and reputable bank; Nikolai was a level-headed, playful father of two with a beautiful wife and a construction job. And each of them still carried that one gloom on their backs, shoved under the load of life with an ever-growing weight.
The children spent their youth around the lake together. The pier was much younger, more beautiful, and safer in those days. The lake was a refuge, the loving mother of the “Ledge,” the little wooden dock that served as a home for the group’s childhoods. They would get Konstantin’s rich, new parents to haul the canoes to the nameless body of water, and the children would pretend to be back in the arms of Matushka Volga. From the window of their orphanage home in their younger years, they could see the people swimming in the river despite its poor state. The entire area had been loyal to the Volga, and the Volga was loyal to them. It was central to their lives. So after leaving the river, the children ran to the Ledge to preserve what peace of mind they could.
Amya was the first of the group of friends to be adopted. She was the darling of the home. Wide eyes, a round face, and dark hair exaggerated her youth, and couples never stopped by without at least commenting on her beauty. She was the most logical choice to leave first. Next was Konstantin. He was chosen presumably for his intelligence and respectfulness. Not long afterward, Nikolai was taken home by a middle-aged couple from Austria. Ivan was the last. While his friends were taken at four and five, he left the home at seven. The years without his group of friends left him paranoid and withdrawn. It was his apparent calmness and impassiveness that led the older couple to take him in. They had lost a child the year before and claimed they needed to fill a void. So, they stuffed Ivan into it.
The others thought that Ivan would improve after being adopted, but it was just the opposite. Ivan got thinner; he spoke differently and with pessimism; he stopped joking and laughing and talked of his hatred of their calling the lake “Volga.” His friends grew uneasy around him, but they still maintained that they would not break the ties of their “family.”
The years came and went like rockets for the others, but Ivan’s lingered like the standstill of winter. He would begin to lighten up and speak freely, only to block emotions out overnight. He felt the time drag by, and everyone could see the years on his young but aging face. Bruises circled his eyes, and he kept his hands closed and his face tense. Other children said he was like an old solider, disturbed and troubled with things from the past. Soon enough, fear set itself in Ivan’s tracks, released itself as he exhaled, slipped into everyone around him. No one dared to trace Ivan’s footsteps.
At fifteen, he stared out at the world through the wise and hollow eyes of a prisoner. As his friends swam and dove from the Ledge, he scanned the shores for water snakes, looked hard through the water for snapping turtles. But one day a softness overtook him. It was a red letter day for the orphans, and nobody went against Ivan’s gentle wishes. They all lay upon the glossy Ledge that evening, watching the white shadow of the moon stride into view.
“It’s like the factories of the towns never existed,” Nikolai mused. “I wish we would never have to leave.” And everyone silently agreed. The thought of leaving so injured Ivan that he began to cry, but his friends spared his pride and ignored it.
“You know,” Amya had said with a lightness in her tone, “one day we’ll all be rebellious and great, writing songs and lounging about and disappointing our parents. And we’ll always know just what words to say. Maybe we’ll be geniuses. Intelligentsia.” Everyone laughed, but Ivan actually felt a longing for that future. He took his gaze from the sky and watched his friends’ faces. Something in them looked to be on the verge of mourning. They realized—they must have—that the joy of the day would never last. Ivan did, as well.
The next day was the beginning of an age, an era of remorse and things that tied the friends to their past. When Kostya headed up the path to the Ledge, he saw his friends bursting with angry words. The Ledge was slick with last night’s summer rain. Two figures lay sprawled out on the pier, their clothes soaked in dark-red. Konstantin dropped his swim trunks and edged up to the outburst. Ivan’s eyes were raw and fearful, buckling in under the shouts of his friends. Konstantin slipped over to the bodies and turned them to the skies.
“His parents.” Kostya stood and slung his arm across Amya’s chest as a restraint. All the yelling died out. “What happened here?” he asked. Ivan shifted, averted his eyes, moved to the edge of the pier. Sitting down, he ran his hands through his shabby hair. A sound escaped him that was something between a laugh and a sob.
“I know,” he said, “I shouldn’t be, but I feel partially… relieved.” His shoes were halfway underwater; he realized that he’d never touched the lake before. He let his feet hang there. “They were gone for a week. Got back this afternoon. I guess they knew where to come to find me.”
“Why?” Amya sobbed. “Why did you put this burden on us all?” Konstantin threw her a warning glance.
“I apologize, my friends. If I hadn’t, though, they would have beaten my head in with a rock or maybe drowned me in the lake… I was sure they wouldn’t come back this time. I thought that—since they unlocked the basement before they left this time—maybe they had abandoned me. I usually stay locked up in there all day unless I’m at school or here with all of you. Being out for so long made me… hopeful. Obviously, they came back.” Silence fell on the friends. They suspected things of Ivan’s parents, but they never expected it to come to what it had. Anger and fear were replaced with sympathy and uncertainty.
“I just,” Nikolai said, “I just wish that… that maybe you had opened up. We would have listened, Ivanushka… Were they really that terrible?”
“Worse than I have words for,” Ivan admitted, removing his coat to reveal his scars and bruises. Amya’s hands covered her mouth, and she felt a shiver in her spine. “But I’m just glad they weren’t as bad as they might have been.” Ivan put his coat back on and slouched again. After another silent moment, Amya came to sit by her friend.
“What are we going to do? We’ll be on the national news now. I bet we’ll be in all sorts of trouble.” Nikolai followed her to sit next to Ivan. “It’s lucky we’re minors.”
“I don’t mind.” Ivan looked at his two friends, and they saw for the first time the guarded hatred flushed from his eyes. He said, “I’ll go to prison.” He looked down at his shoes and swung them back and forth. A sigh left his lungs, and he inhaled deeply, analyzing the flavors and aromas of “the Volga.” Amya was brought to tears at seeing such a dramatic change in her friend. “I can rest now that they’re gone. After all, it was my fault, not yours. I won’t drag you into it.” Ivan smiled and stopped swinging his feet. But as a breeze swept over the lake, Ivan let the thought of being covered in prison tattoos trickle into his mind, and the smile faded.
“No,” Konstantin said, walking over to edge of the pier, “nobody’s going to prison.” Ivan rose with his friends and stared Konstantin in the face with unbelieving eyes.
“What are we going to do about it, Kostya?” Amya asked, wiping the tears from her ivory cheeks. “Someone’s bound to find out.”
“We can manage. We’ll just say they never returned home, if any curiosity arises. No need to go to prison over this.” Konstantin looked at the lake, putting his hands on his hips and heaving a sigh that seemed to say, I don’t want to do this, but I have to. A wave of realization washed over Nikolai.
He said, “We’re putting them in our Volga.” And everyone knew it wasn’t a question; it was without a reply. The idea stung Ivan like hot needles, and his shoulders shrank. His eyes had just touched the sight of the lake for the first time after years of hiding behind fear. He didn’t want to lose the lake after just having discovered it. But he knew what had to be done to protect himself and his friends. He wasn’t going to let himself stand in the way of their futures.
“We’ll meet on the Ledge on this date every year. Right?” Kostya peered over the Ledge into the murky water, and a sickness mixed his insides. It hadn’t been too long since they tossed Ivan’s parents into the lake. Amya and Nikolai hadn’t heard their friend. They were lost somewhere within themselves. Nikolai looked as if he was going to jump into the lake himself, and Amya was giving the shiny wood of the Ledge a fierce beating, tears flying into her hair as she screamed. Kostya found that he was crying, silently. He stepped away from the edge of the pier and let his voice harden up. “Friends,” he half-shouted. Amya’s sobs slowed to soft wimperings; Nikolai came out of his shell enough to listen. “We’re going to meet here every year on this date. No exceptions.” After a lifetime of silence, Kostya walked away, off of the Ledge, onto the path that led to the road, pulling his cell phone out as he walked. That was the last time the three of them spoke for nearly a year.
And so Ivan looked on at his silent friends as they swayed in the fading twilight. The years had treated them harshly, but Amya still looked like the Ural Mountains covered in snow under the thin, milky sunlight. She hadn’t lost her porcelain-doll features in all the years since the horrible things had happened. Ivan comforted himself with the thought that things were better this way than they might have been. Seeing his friends once a year was worth the separation he put himself through all the other days of the year. He missed the spring, the fall, and the winter. Not that the seasons varied that much from spring to winter. But his friends brought the happiness of the seasons with them when they visited the Ledge.
After they stood in silent remembrance for a few minutes, after Ivan would observe them closely and smile at their aging faces, the three old friends would sit on the grass behind the splintery Ledge and light a small fire; they would tell stories, reminisce, and discuss what had changed since they all last spoke. Sometimes the fireside talk would turn to regrets or how none of them could ever touch the lake again. Then they would slowly disperse; Amya would say she had to get the kids from their babysitter and then rush off to the car to cry in private; Nikolai would spout out something about making it to dinner with his family; but Kostya, he would linger on for an hour or so after the other two had left. He would mumble things to the lake and sometimes reach a kissed hand down to touch the water. And always he would cry. It was a silent form of release, but it was no less extreme than Amya’s bouts of violent grieving. It was the most he ever cried, and it never left the Ledge.
Even after seeing all the pain of his friends, Ivan knew they led nearly uninterrupted lives with their families. None of them were in prison, and none of them had to visit the prison to see him. Even though the bodies that had rested at the bottom of the lake put heavy burdens on all of them, it was much easier than it could have been, Ivan knew. They had ties that held them together after all the years. There was no blame between them. No hard feelings existed in any way. They were basically normal people. And as for Ivan, he was happy just knowing he’d saved his family—his true family—from a lifetime of trouble and heartache. And as long as his friends lived to carry on his reason for existing, he would never forget the soft embrace of the “Volga.” He gave his friends their future together at the merciless yet loving hands of ”Matushka Volga.”