The Ugly Duckling

Cycling

As a full-grown adult, Vladimir Chenko stood 6‘5” and weighed 225 lbs. The fighter spent his entire life being mocked for his pasty skin, bulky figure, but worst of all, his awkwardness and inability to fit in with the rest of the crowd. Due to his solidarity, Vlad was given all the time in the world to reflect on who he was, why he wasn’t accepted, and if he even wanted to be accepted. Maybe it was his destiny to forever fly solo.

Naturally, because of his size, the troubled child did what any bored Russian would do when they turned 12: finda group of misfits and fight for money. Vlad was a natural but no one would want to fight him because of his disfigured features and his sheer overpowering size. As one child later retold, “I stepped into the ring with the beast. It wasn’t so much a ring as much as a whole circle of other dirty, mangy children chanting our names. Immediately, we circled each other. I trembled slightly, and I knew he could smell my fear like the smell of fresh dung on a dairy farm. I reeked of it. As he slowly, steadily closed the gap between us, I was able to see past his squalid eyebrows and into his little eyes – eyes that seemed devoid of any life! It all happened so fast – he was on top of me, pinning me down, and then I was choking beneath the weight of his forearm combined with his stench. A rotten cross between a rotten egg and spoiled milk.”

But Vlad found something he loved and wasn’t about to give it up, no matter how much the other children protested his unfair advantage. After the sun went down, when the Russian cold bit through all of the natives’ coats, their sweater, their henleys and their long johns, Vladimir would roam the streets preying on the very youth that wrote him off. He would single them out and see if they would stay and fight or turn and run. Those who ran he would let go with little more than a crazed cackle. The ones who summoned the courage to stay; those who dug deep down and mustered all of their mental toughness just to face this beast of a being, would be toyed with for a minute or two, until Chenko decided it was time to put them out of their misery. The fights were tap-out or choke-out. The hospital was rich with patients who broken their bones and cracked their ribs, but the morgue hadn’t received a call from a fighter’s parents. Not yet.

As time progressed, the other kids would stop fighting during the days while they went to school, but would continue to roam the streets at night. For many of them, with their age came a larger connection of guts somewhere deep down inside them, and they came looking for a fight. This didn’t faze Vladimir, as he was still larger and stronger than the rest of them. One day, while chopping wood to work on his explosive power, Vlad began to reflect on his life – his entire measly existence beginning with his state of being a social pariah as a child all the way up to the fact that he was a social pariah at age seventeen. He found an uncanny resemblance between the Russian youth and ducks – they try so hard to appear calm and dignified, when beneath the surface, their feet are working maddeningly fast to move them forward. Similarly, the youth will fight at night to uphold their reputations, but during the day, they will uphold themselves as if they were calm and dignified.

After thinking about it for a while, the Russian fighter, now standing 6’3” and a hulking mass at that, decided to join the army. The only family he ever knew had abandoned him on an orphanage’s front stoop almost two decades ago so he had nobody to ask, nobody to answer to. Lo and behold, Vladimir enlisted in the army where they had free reign and honed his skills. They created a lean, mean fighting machine. As he worked his way up through the ranks, he continued to become stronger, meaner and always more dangerous. Now that he knew how to kill a man, how to take another man’s very life while feeling minimal regret, he was extremely dangerous to anyone he deemed an enemy.

One day, while getting ready for reveille at 0600 hours, Vladimir, now a general, was greeted by a childhood acquaintance of his. Boris was shorter than his counterpart, but stood, just like Chenko, with a straight back, the way they were taught in the military. He walked into the General’s barracks, removed his hat, and saluted Vlad. Where his beret had been a second earlier now sat a mane of perfectly combed hair perched across a face looked like it was etched from marble. The corners of his lips climbed his face and then parted, enabling him to speak. “General, my old friend. How have you been?” Vladimir shot him a dirty look. “Don’t call me your friend. You’re as cowardly as the duck I made you out to be all these years. You can fly in a pack, and may even derive strenght from your numbers. But alone…you are a coward! Call me what I am. You would dub me a social outcast because of my strength and slight awkwardness, but as soon as I become general, we are friends? Tell me how this is so.”

Boris looked down at his feet and wrung his beret between his hands as he thought of something to tell the intimidating General. It was true, Vladimir was 225 lbs. of a ruggedly masculine, strong man. At just 28 years old, he was still in his prime, and any fool who would challenge him physically would surely be put in his place. How could it be that just 15 short years ago, Boris would rile all his friends up and mock Vladimir? “Vlad, I am sorry. We are sorry. We were young and stupid. If you could forgive me, if you could forgive all of us, then maybe you could come over to my house for some of Yolena’s cooking. What do you say?”

Vladimir paced the room in front of him several times, and then stopped and turned to his old acquaintance. He thought back to all those times when Vlad would ask for the ball, only to be pointed and laughed at. All the times when he would ask to come over for dinner, only to be ignored and left at the orphanage. All the times they would put their bars of soap in it’s sock-like temporary housing while they rained down pain upon him. It was true: when they ganged up on him, three or more, he would be unable to take them. But alone…alone, Vlad was the lion in the jungle and they were his prey.

He walked right up to Boris, completely unaware of how the scenes were about to unfold, a lion approaching a sleeping gazelle, removed his standard-issue sidearm from its holster and held it in front of Boris’s face, point blank. “Vladimir! Wha-wha-what are you doing??” Boris frantically searched Vladimir’s eyes for an answer, but he would find none. The General spent the better part of the last two decades being deceived, verbally and physically abused and tortured by people just like this man. By this very man! “You know, my old friend…this is usually the part where I say something smart.” And with that he pulled the trigger.

As the 9-millimeter bullet made its way down the muzzle of Vladimir’s gun and traveled the five-foot distance to Boris’s right eye, the target attempted to turn and flea, but it was no use. Boris stood no chance playing Superman as the little piece of copper tore through his iris, and blasted a hole in his head where blood would begin to pour from in just a moment. Boris’s body rocked back and hit the bookshelf behind him, then slid further down to the floor with a slight thud. Vladimir holstered his handgun, turned around to pick up his beret from the table, combed his hair once, and then looked in the mirror to affix the hat atop his head. He turned back to his fallen comrade, stepped over Boris’s body and began to walk out through his office’s front door. But something stopped him. He realized that he was no longer this ugly duckling. Lying on his floor was a marvelous swan, possibly the most marvelous of its kind, who had just invited him over for dinner – accepting Vlad as one of “the guys”. Grinning, Vladimir turned around one last final time and proceeded out the door locking it behind him. It had just dawned on the young general that he was no longer an ugly duckling. He would celebrate later, though. The time was 0557, and Vladimir had never been late for reveille before. He wasn’t going to let a ghost from his childhood stop him now.

 

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