Yuri, on time as usual, shovelled the coal into the blazing hot furnace. The belching heat flowing into the room, scorching anything close, he knew the very moment when the fire needed attending. Three large pech's, the furnaces heating the large tower block, hacked into the infrastructure as best they could afford, heated each room within the domicile. He couldn't remember how long he’d been here, his daily routine fading into the next day, then the day after that.
Sitting onto the small stool, brushing away the sweat from his brow, with his arm, he gazed into the flame’s radiating, flickering, beauty and relaxed for another few seconds. He was a man of few words, a face as hard as the leather upon his broken shoes, but steadfast in his beliefs. He simply wished to keep everyone warm. He’d do more, if he could, but the flame spoke to him. He was the witness of keeping the fire alive, the ongoing perpetual heat that allowed them to survive.
Sitting there, on his own, day after day, his mind often wandering, but today was a special day. It was his birthday. Thirty-eight years old. No cards, no visitors, not even a moment to smile. This was his life and his life alone. He knew that he lived a singular life yet, in those moments where his mind wandered away from him, he often wondered what it would have been like to have experienced the world, travelled, seen the stars from the top of a mountain or more. He’d have liked children, even a супруга, but for that he would have to speak to a woman. Any woman.
Each day, he’d leave this place, walking a short distance to view food. He’d spend time, considering the many options yet, each time, every single time, he’d come away with the same selection. His only enjoyment was collecting the small little trinkets that sometimes appeared near the front of the shop’s window. He often thought that the shop keeper got them for him, ever so often, but he shook his head not allowing any consideration or emotion appear into his mind. He wanted to feel but feeling, to him, burned hotter the fires in front of his eyes.
He knew that he was lonely, but not intensely so, as his life was his life and the day was his day. His mind returned to the room, noticing the third furnace ask for his help. Standing, his strong legs pushing against his ripped trousers, he walked across to the coal pile. Grasping the large shovel, he quickly slid the blade under the coal, tilted slightly, bending his knees, to rise with the shovel and coal held above the ground. His muscles, wired, taught, from years of the same punishing routine, held the shovel in place as he turned, walked across the room, depositing the coal into the fire. Again, he repeated the same action. Clockwork, steady, resilient, he accomplished the task and returned to the stool.
He knew that his simple life would not sedate many, would not be for most people, but for him it was all he asked for or required. A simple life. A worthy life. A life where his task meant that people could sleep, stay warm, be loved and above all, cared for. He’d smile, if he could, but his chapped lips kept his feelings in check.
His thoughts, once again, moving through his mind, wondering if he should maybe read a book. Maybe he could listen to music, ever so often, or even walk a distance other than the shop. The same thoughts, week after week, yet nothing changed. He did want more. He wished for more, but deep inside he knew that he was meant for something. He had no idea what, or where, or how, but something was out there.
He remembered first arriving here, as a child, seeing the flames. His Father, before him, spent years in this room, keeping them warm, until the day that he left with no words, no goodbye, or any inclination that he would leave or be returning. He felt lost, alone, abandoned, yet the flame soothed him. Calmed him. Embraced the part of him that was thrown away and left behind. He felt no ill will, no anger, as he’d decided long ago that there were always reasons for such things. His world, this place, the flame, even the haze when arriving in the morning, were all wondrous to his beating heart.
Once again, as before, he left the stool, ready to provide the dark substance to the flame. His body, never weary of the same action day after day after day, enjoying the purpose and guile of the flame constantly moving in front of him. He arrived back to the stool as he heard footsteps. Standing, confused, while welcoming the chance to see people, he relaxed his taut frame and shaped his lips into a smile. Whether or not he felt the smile was another thought within his mind but, in this moment, at least he tried.
The large metal door, slightly open to allow further air into the room, opened and two men walked into the room. Their faces changed, wincing as the heat hit their soft skin, stepping back towards the doorway. “Tovarisch,” said the man closest to Yuri, “Vy gavareeteh pa anglisky?” Yuri, standing silent for a few seconds, thoughts once again moving within his mind, knew that the word ‘comrade’ was only for the military, or police. Long forgotten, a part of his past life. Thankfully he knew English, mostly small words, but enough to reply.
“Da, yes,” he replied, while nodding his head slightly. The two men looked at each other, smiling, also nodding.
“Good, good. Brother Yuri, we have heard many stories about you, your work. We would like to take you somewhere to say, ‘thank you’. Pozhaluista?”
Yuri, slightly worried, hesitant, looked across to the flames, the three furnaces, wondering what would happen to them in his absence. He did not wish for the flames to perish as that would mean many hours of work, cleaning, removing ash, the once weekly task pushed aside and the routine abolished. “Net, I cannot. We need fire!
“Do not worry Yuri, we have help!” Yuri, looked confused, as a young man walked into the room from behind the door. “Alexey will take over for a while. He too works like you!” Still hesitant, wondering why this was happening, Yuri reached over to the wall to grab his shirt and jacket. He would wash, should wash, but the two men in front of him seemed eager to leave. For once, just this once, he was glad that someone had noticed what he gave to the people above him. He nodded to Alexey, glanced at the flames, then walked towards the doorway. Stopping, just for a second, he felt the heat against his back and he felt sadness. He quickly pushed it aside, knowing that he’d return, the flame only a small distance away.
The car seat felt strange, especially when compared to his stool. His small apartment also had the same stool to sit on. Eating, looking through the window, stitching his trousers, enjoying the quiet time away from the flames, the same stool. This felt soft, springy, a feeling that he’d not felt since travelling in a car with his Father. Such a long time ago, years, so many years that he didn't actually know how many.
The two men, sitting in the front, hadn't said anything since Yuri left the building or since sitting in the car. It felt odd, especially as they’d appeared with such warmth and friendship. It didn't bother him that much as he wasn't used to chatting, or small talk, or saying much of anything. He, instead, simply liked to watch the outside world when away from the heat. It was a beautiful world, from what he’d gathered from the small area he’d seen. This part of town, a new part, he’d not seen before. Swings, tall buildings, grass patches and animals all in front of his very eyes.
The car stopped, with Yuri still taking in the surrounding area. Virtually vacant, one building, in the middle of a clearing. It was an odd place to bring him, especially as this was supposed to be where he’d be thanked for his work. Hesitant, but still enjoying the change of life, he exited the car and walked with the two men. He found it odd that they knew his name despite not knowing theirs. They seemed friendly, non-threatening, but something within him sensed that he wasn't here for what they’d stated.
The building, old, rustic, battered by the weather, didn't seem to belong here. As one of the men opened the door, Yuri placed his hand onto the bricks. Cold, harsh, weathered, unlike the warm bricks of his home. The door opened and Yuri, removing his hand from the bricked surface, walked through the door behind them. Whatever was happening, or about to happen, he would soon find out. He remained calm, despite the nagging feeling at the back of his mind.
The room in front of Yuri, clean, sterile, featured no furniture of any description. No paintings, no light fittings, other than the hanging spotlights, which didn't seem natural for a building such as this. Aged, historic, which did not appease itself when matched with modern decorative apparel. In the middle of the room sat a glowing blue light, surrounding a view that looked pure white. It almost looked like a mirror, yet the view did not show the room that they were standing in. To Yuri it all seemed bizarre, but to the other two men it resembled a portal to another place.
“Ya ne paneemau?” asked Yuri, confused.
“Brother Yuri, I know that you do not understand, so we ask you to walk through the portal!”
Yuri, suddenly feeling very alarmed, tensed slightly. His facial demeanour changed, signalling the two men to step back a few feet, as Yuri watched them both un-button their jackets to grab their side arms. This, to Yuri, was a little too much. He’d never, ever, been in such a situation that his mind started to race at a thousand miles an hour. His adrenaline spiked, nerves firing all at once, as he felt the heat rise from within his body.
The two men continued to step away, feeling the intense heat hit them. One of the men, covering his face with his arm, fell to the floor, “Please, Yuri, go through the portal. We mean you no harm!” Yuri, not knowing what all of this meant, walked forward, carefully, keeping both men in his sight until he stood just in front of the portal. He did not know why, or if he should do as they’d asked, but if it meant escaping from this place and returning home, he’d do anything. He wanted the fire, needed the fire to surround him, yet this place was nothing like what he knew. Yuri, looking down to his feet, read the letters and said them within his mind, ‘Quarantine area 20’. He did not know why the words were there but he was beyond understanding anything at this point.
Yuri stepped through the portal. All at once his view changed, glancing behind him as the portal closed, sealing him wherever this place existed. He blinked, a few times, adjusting to the view, as the racks of guns and provisions faded into view. He was used to a dark room, filled with flame, haze and comfort, while this place was cold, bright, with many people in front of him. As he adjusted, he noticed every person, hundreds, all wearing the same clothing, stop what they were doing to walk towards him. He felt the fear, wanted to run, to hide, to return to his safe place, but he couldn't. His frame tensed, his muscles on fire, fists clenched, until his eyes softened. His Father was here. In front of him, with not a day of age added since the last time he was with him.
“My Son,” said his Father with the largest smile Yuri had seen for many a year, “Welcome to your future.” Yuri, confused, smiling, happiness swelling within his body, threw forward his arms and embraced his Father. Years of hidden grief welled within them, tears appearing from nowhere, as many hands placed themselves onto the both of them. A re-union, a brotherhood, the start of a possible new life.
“Yuri, we have much to explain to you, so much, but first, these men are all your Brothers and Sisters. We are the same.” Yuri stood staunch, both hands being shaken, the many, many Brothers and Sisters welcoming him to wherever this was. He’d never felt so much before, the smiles, his Father being here, everything overwhelming him, yet comforting at the same time. “Come, Yuri, this way!” his father motioned.
They walked, for a small distance, reaching the end of a small rack filled with grenades and other items that all seemed so foreign to Yuri. His Father sat onto a stool, the same stool that he’d known from a child, as he himself sat down. Comforting, the familiar being just that, he waited a few seconds for his father to finish what he was doing. Slowly, with pause, Yuri could see his Father thinking about what he was about to say. Yuri did not mind how things were said, blunt or not, the words all eventually describing what needed to be said no matter the intention. He was still a simple man, an honest man, just like his father in front of him.
“Yuri,” his father began, “We have a gift. We have skin that can embrace the heat, beyond a person’s ability. We are all living explosives, we have a purpose and here, in this place, we are hidden and trained. One day, soon, we will leave this place and fight for what is right. This is all we do. We serve. We have served. You will keep the world free from cold. We will keep people warm. First, you will train. You will train again and again. Just as you shovel coal for one hundred and twenty years. You will learn to fight for another fifty years. Sixty years. When called for!”
Yuri, understanding, accepting the words, felt a new feeling within him. He’d felt pride at what he did at the building, keeping everyone warm, but this was truly a way to help the world. He wanted to believe that he was special, that he had a purpose, which involved this very moment. He would gladly die to save another. He would gladly use every scrap of fire within him to keep everyone warm, the simple requirements within his heart, finally finding a place that meant more. He would never forget his life. He would never forget the warmth he brought into the world. But this, this here, would remove the haze from his mind, his life, creating a reason for him to exist. Today was his Birthday. Today was the greatest day of his life. To him, this man, Yuri, he now had exactly what he’d always wanted. A purpose greater than his own life.