Yegor and Aleksei ate on the wide bench against the windows in the cafeteria, enjoying the cold air that rolled off the glass panes, combating the stuffy room heated by crowded students. Oddly enough, three others had joined them: two sisters, Dacha and Inna Volodina, and a boy; Ilya Tarasov. Inna was a nice quiet girl a grade below them. He had known her since first grade, but they had never had a reason to talk before. Dacha, the younger sister, subtly flirted with him.
Aleksei felt awkward with the situation, and not only because of Dacha. Yegor had always been popular, so frequently there was a crowd around him. But this time Aleksei, was the absolute centre of attention. Others had taken more notice of his brazen act than he thought. There was a sense of excited apprehension in the air, like the quiet before the curtain rises or the brief silence before a song.
He was about to excuse himself, saying how he needed to refill his glass, but in truth he wanted to get a breather when Radik and his cronies strutted into the cafeteria. The trio stopped when they sighted Aleksei. Radik glowered.
Noticing their attention, Aleksei smiled and waved. The familiar gesture infuriated the other boy. Somewhere in the recesses of his mind, Aleksei was certain he was being an idiot. For some reason, he just did not care.
The broadly built youth advanced halfway across the room and stopped. The cafeteria fell quiet. All eyes were looking between Radik and Aleksei, as though they were two tigers readying to protect their territories.
Aleksei kept his face calm, but his heart was racing. He felt his hand begin to gather water vapour.
Radik simply glared and pointed at Aleksei. A silence rolled across the room. The last time Radik had done that, the unfortunate rival visited the hospital under mysterious circumstance. Aleksei straightened up. His hands had become wet, and a single drop fell to the floor. For some reason, the fact that he could do something no one else could, gave him a rush of confidence.
He raised his head and stared into Radik‘s face with a disinterested expression. “Radik,” he lectured, “it is rude to point. Did your mother not teach you manners? Or did you simply forget?”
“I’ll see you later,” he guaranteed.
“Of course you will,” Aleksei replied in a factual tone, “we go to the same school, don‘t we? Your memory must not be serving you today. Are you feeling ill? We have a nurse.” his voice dripped patronage when he said the last phrase. 'Why am I sounding like such a brat?' He wondered.
“We have an astronaut!” Radik’s wingman, Sasha, said reprovingly, “Why don’t you return to the old worm you were, and hide under a rock before it’s too late?”
“Perhaps,” Aleksei replied, “I’m not the timid worm you think I am. You should learn to read people.”
Radik was once excellent at comebacks, but he was out of practice since he had not been challenged as of late. He decided to leave while he had some remaining pride. He was fine with this though. Later he would have his way.
Aleksei was relieved, but he was careful not to show it. He sat down, forgetting about his drink, and began to eat his lunch.
Yegor tapped his arm, “Listen,” he began, “Radik has it out for you. I have not seen him this mad in a while.”
Biting the inside of his cheek thoughtfully, Aleksei tried to come up with some way to redeem his idiocy. Unfortunately, nothing came to him. “What do you suggest I do? If I back down, he will make my life miserable, and if I confront him, his cronies will beat me to a pulp. The best thing I can do is remain in a public place, and hope this blows over.”
“But why were you provoking him?” Yegor questioned.
“I felt brave today, like you said, I have changed.” Aleksei smiled meekly.
Yegor patted his friend’s shoulder heartily, “Whatever happens I will be there right beside you.”
Aleksei smiled. Yegor was far from perfect, but he was forever faithful. The clouds broke and a few of the sun’s rays poured into the room, making everything feel warmer.
The bike tires made a familiar humming sound as they rolled over the concrete, soothing Aleksei’s tired mind from a long day of school. Yegor had wanted him to go to his house until Radik calmed down. In spite of his friend’s concern, Aleksei did not believe it was necessary, though even after his reassurances, he could see Yegor’s worry. He passed by the alley where he had experimented with the fog the day before.
‘Maybe I should try it again.’ He thought to himself. As he turned around, he noticed out of the corner of his eye that he had been followed. He smiled. I really am getting cocky, but this might work.
On the other side of the street, Radik and his devotees Sasha, Mikhail, and Pieter watched Aleksei enter the alley from Sasha‘s sedan.
“What is ‘Leksei boy up to, eh boys?” Radik declared, pushing the door open eagerly.
As he entered the narrow space, Aleksei felt the sudden rush of moisture. The constant shade provided for a wet environment, added to by the drizzle. He ceased his now habitual ‘stay away’ command, and allowed water to amass on his left hand and it was soon coated with dew. Then he flung all his fingers out and repelled it, the water became a doughnut ring cloud around his wrist. He guided this mist with his right hand and the small wisp twisted as it followed his gesture. He was on the verge of gathering more water vapour, when he heard Radik raise his voice in mockery.
“Where is the crowd now Aleksei?”
Aleksei’s first reflex would have been to spin around and face his assailants, but instead he caught himself, lowered his hands allowing the cloud to vanish, and calmly turned as he whispered a silent prayer.
In his most amiable voice, he greeted him, “Ah Radik! This is a coincidence to see you, your house being in the opposite direction.” He pretended to think a moment then asked, “Do you need help with your homework? I heard you earned a C in math. I'm not great, but I would gladly help with that.” Aleksei could not imagine why he was acting so daft. But the more the plan formed in his mind the more he liked it.
“No, friend, we just came to… socialise. You see, the four of us play a little game, a math game. It involves two teams, one teaches the power of greater numbers to the other. The second then learns not cross the first.”
“Really, Radik?” Aleksei spoke in full condescension. “All this is over Yegor bumping you in the hall?” Though he kept up his bravado, his heart raced.
Divine intervention would be helpful right now! He implored.
“Ok boys,” Radik said, “Game time.”
He walked forward but was surprised when the other three did not follow. Their eyes were fixed on Aleksei’s feet. Curious, Aleksei looked down. A fog had gathered around his ankles and was now spiraling around him, making a cyclonic design over the cement. He decided to use the effect to his own advantage.
Speaking slowly, and with a menacing tone, he ordered, “Back away.”
“It’s just a trick,” Radik asserted. “Why are you girls afraid of a little fog, huh?” He spread a few smacks to the backs of their heads and they came closer, taking off their jackets and rolling up their sleeves.
Aleksei extended his right hand, and a winding column of fog rose in front of them, stopping at eye level. He glared and repeated, “I said, back off!” He sought any bit of moisture in the alley and evaporated it, attracting it all to his hands he now held before him. The fog rushed from all directions, causing the ground to disappear, and spiralled up to his hands like twin tornadoes.
Radik and his companions stared in amazement, as the fog twisted around Aleksei’s body.
Aleksei raised his head and lowered his arms to a few degrees from his sides, with outward facing hands completing the theatrical pose. The fog twisted around his body, hissing deeply as though it was an affectionate boa. He hoped the show would scare them. But then something happened. The fog became frantic, whipping and grabbing his clothes and the frightening roar from yesterday, began to rumble. It took all of Aleksei’s effort to stay still, as the mist tried to push him every which way. Though he did not see it, he could feel the alley behind him become a turbulent maelstrom, as the mist pounded against buildings, dumpsters, and doors. Somewhere, glass broke and in the distance, dogs yelped in terror.
Fear began to clutch at Aleksei as he realised that he had no control. His eyes stopped their frantic shifting, in time for him to see Radik charge through the swirling column. Aleksei backed away, but was not fast enough to avoid a punch on the cheek. His head was smacked to the side as he fell down. He sensed that some connection was broken, and all around him the fog started to dissipate. In his relief, he almost laughed despite his smarting face. However, his delight was short lived as Radik’s three goons, spurred on by their leader’s confidence, decided to join in.
Aleksei knew that if he did not want to feel like he took a stroll through a meat grinder, he needed to move fast. He turned his head, glared into Radik’s eyes, and sneered. Radik was taken aback by the savage transformation of the normally placid boy’s face. It gave Aleksei just enough time to get back up. Radik tried again to knock him down, but this time Aleksei’s movements were too fast. He leapt to his feet and back flipped, putting some distance between them. Completing the back flip, his hands swung forward, and the fog moved once more, rushing onward like a gale. Now Aleksei knew he was once again in control. He just needed to be careful.
The mist hit Radik full force, knocking him back and onto his derrière. As the fog swirled in the alley, Aleksei snatched another stream of it and gracefully guided it over his head with his hands, rushing it forward to hit Radik harder. Radik dodged it in time by rolling over, letting the swirling stream zoom by him with a hissing sound, and smash into the pile of crates, causing them to tumble into chaos.
Focusing on gathering as much mist as he could reliably control, Aleksei twirled once, wrapping the cloud around him like a blanket then he made it circle him as he compressed it into a two metre diameter white ring that spun at a steep, diagonal tilt.
By this time, Radik and his partners were feeling that something very bad was about to happen, and began to run. Aleksei knew he would miss them, but decided to throw one last punch for good measure. He crossed his arms then swung them outwards. The ring rotated out in all directions, making a gale that carried the stray trash with it. Radik looked behind him in time to see the cloud rush out of the narrow alley. He and his friends ran across the street, scrambled into their car, and Sasha hit the gas, the tires squealing against the wet pavement.
In the alley, Aleksei leaned heavily against the brick wall. His body was shaking. Did I really do that? He asked then laughed nervously. I didn’t think it would work so well. A spell of dizziness forced him to sit down on a crate, waiting until the sensation passed before he decided to trust his legs. He looked up to the darkening sky. “Spasibo,” he said, “I don’t know what happened. I don’t know what you have given me, God, but spasibo. It scares me, but... but for now I have control.”
At last he walked out of the alley pushing his bike. He smiled when he noticed their coats still lying on the pavement. He considered picking them up and kindly returning them at school, however, if he had been insolent before, such an act would be outright wounding.
Feeling his cheek smart, he glanced into the pastry shop window. His reflection showed his reddening cheek just beneath his eye. He touched it and winced. Despite the pain, he considered himself lucky to have escaped with such a little souvenir. Besides, in a way, that blow had saved him. Aleksei smiled, only a little self-satisfied, that his hastily built scenario had played out so well. It was doubtful that Radik would ever want to cross his path again.