Previous Table of Contents Next



Thomas & Dmitri

By Milan Bhandari

Thomas gripped the string of his shiny black sled in one hand, while Dmitri attempted to keep both his hands within his coat’s small pockets. They walked in the middle of the snow-covered street, en route to the hill.

“Aren’t you cold?”


“Your wrists aren’t even covered.”

“They’re fine.”

“Don’t you have a real winter jacket, besides that bubble one?”

“Yeah, I just grabbed this accidentally,” Dmitri said, hoping to sound more spontaneous than self-conscious. The “bubble one” was a heavier blue coat, a hand-me-down from Dmitri’s cousin, which had been fine until Nick Taylor and some of the other eighth graders at the bus stop began calling Dmitri the “Michelin man” when he wore it, because of its thick, rubbery look. The teasing went on for a week and when, instead of trailing off, it spiraled into a new nickname, Dmitri relegated the coat to deepest corner of the hallway closet. The gray windbreaker he presently wore, though moderately more stylish, had failed to keep up with Dmitri’s latest growth spurt, and now came up short at the sleeves, leaving his wrists exposed to the cold air.

“Let’s see it,” Thomas said.

Dmitri smiled, thankful for the change of subject, and carefully removed the magazine page from his big leg pocket, slowly unfolding it before handing it to his friend.

“Ha!” Thomas shouted, holding the page up to his face. “She’s hot. Hot!” Dmitri watched Thomas’ gloved hands clumsily creasing the page, his fluffy thumb just beside the face of the exotic woman’s bright red lips, which were open slightly in a mischievous smile. He felt proud for having something his friend wanted, something he could share.

The boys reached the end of the pavement and continued straight onto a small dirt trail, frozen over, towards the base of the hill. They approached slowly, not over-eager, but simply as boys engaging in a habitual act.

“I wonder what Sheila’s up to,” Thomas said. It was a logical comment, after the picture, one Dmitri had been thinking himself, in fact. Momentarily both boys ignored the reality that Sheila’s whereabouts, though once intertwined with their own, had entered a different stratosphere for at least the present, if not forever. That she wouldn’t be out sledding on the hills after school, or that, as far as they knew, she hadn’t gone sledding at the park in two years, and further, even if by some miracle she did happen to appear on the hill on this particularly cold Tuesday afternoon in January, she wouldn’t be alone, was simply left unsaid.

“She’s probably stuck at some student council thing.”


“Feel sorry for her.”

“Me too.”

Dmitri didn’t think much about student council, other than it was something the other kids did—the kids with clothes from the mall and young, hip parents who drove them to dates. When Mrs. Trachsel first mentioned it in homeroom class, though, saying, “You should all get involved!” he thought it sounded like something he could really get into, until later that week when he saw the faces that showed up to the informational meeting after school.

Without discussion, the boys broke from the trail, which offered a winding, gradual ascent, and chose rather to climb directly to the top of the steep hill.

“I hope Nick and them aren’t here,” Thomas said.

“Yeah,” Dmitri agreed. Though they had their differences, lately more than ever before, neither boy could disagree with how much he hated Nick Taylor and his group of eighth-grade followers, who made it their sole mission, when they weren’t talking to girls, to harass the likes of Dmitri and Thomas.

“Hey—let me see it one more time,” Thomas said, elbowing Dmitri in the side.

Dmitri handed Thomas the page, and continued on to the top of the hill. Looking down was his favorite part. It was an amazing sight—far more impressive than one might expect to find anywhere in a boring town like Springbrook, but the snow had been falling long enough that the entire hill with all its weeds and crabgrass had been covered under a thick, beautiful blanket.

Thomas seated himself in the back of the sled and stretched his legs along its sides, wrapping both hands around the breaks before Dmitri squeezed his body into the front space, folding his skinny legs inward like an accordion. A whistling breeze struck his bare wrists, sending a chill up his arms, then down his back.

“Maybe we can trade spots later,” Thomas said. Dmitri didn’t answer. He knew offers from Thomas didn’t come free—he’d probably have to part ways with the magazine page for a day or two, which, even for the chance to sit in the back of Thomas’ sled, wasn’t worth it.

It took the first few times down the hill to pack the snow and forge a trail slick enough for the sled to glide. Once done, the boys went up and down quickly, becoming ever more efficient with each trip back to the top.

“Have you ever used one of those wooden sleds, with the metal legs?” Dmitri asked, on the way up.

“Yeah, I have. My cousin in Wisconsin has one. They’re okay.”

“I’m getting one of those.”

“Yeah, right! No you’re not.”

Dmitri stared at his friend, unsure what to make of his response. “Yes I am,” he said. “Last night we went to M.C. Sports for one and we asked the guy if they had any, but they didn’t.”

“They don’t have sleds at M.C. Sports, stupid!”

“Yes they do! I saw them there last night.”

“So why didn’t you get one?”

“Because they didn’t have the kind I want. I want one with metal legs.”

“You’re a liar,” Thomas said, before propelling them both down the hill again.

Thomas knew when he was being mean, but sometimes he didn’t care. He hated when Dmitri made up stupid lies, just to cover up how cheap he was. It had never occurred to him until just the other day when his mom had asked, Why doesn’t he get his own sled? in response to Thomas’ complaint that he needed a new sled, because his black one was falling apart, and when his mother asked how that could be since it had cost her forty dollars and wasn’t even a year old, he didn’t have a good reason (since it wasn’t really falling apart), but he wanted a new one, so he blamed having to ride double with Dmitri all the time, to which she replied, It’s not my job to buy toys for someone else’s child, which gave the idea a whole new life to Thomas, who suddenly felt a burning anger at Dmitri for taking advantage of him, and worse, of his mother. And now, here he was going on about how the reason he didn’t have a sled yet was because he was looking for a metal one. Give it a rest.

The boys went a few more times down the hill in silence—no cries or screams of excitement, just the howl of the wind and the slick, sliding sound of plastic gliding on ice. Dmitri wanted to break the silence, to say something that would prove Thomas hadn’t gotten to him, but he couldn’t get over his own anger—anger Thomas had flared up in him, but which had to do with much more than just Thomas. Dmitri thought about how yesterday evening he had gone to M. C. Sports with his parents, and they had gone looking for a metal sled. And the store did have them, too—perfect wooden ones with black metal bottoms. The only thing was they cost fifty dollars, which was just too much—much too much for a toy that will just sit around the garage in one month. Maybe for your birthday, his mom said, they will be cheaper then too—maybe we can buy two for you—you can give one to your friend for sharing with you—words that made Dmitri’s heart ache, and his lip quiver, since his birthday wasn’t until April. And besides, if he got a sled for his birthday, he wouldn’t get to have his usual—Nike school shoes, but would be forced to go to Payless. He clenched his teeth and wiped away the first tear before it even had a chance to fall below his eye so they wouldn’t see him sad, because then they wouldn’t know how angry he was, how much he hated them at that moment. He sat silently in the car the entire ride home, even as they said sorry and his mom looked at his dad, as if a look, however sad or pitiful, could bring enough money to spend on a sled. He thought then that being poor was the worst thing that could happen to a boy, even worse than being dead maybe, because dead boys didn’t have to see their friends with new clothes and toys and sleds everyday.

“It’s cold,” Dmitri said.

“Quit being a baby. You’re just mad.”

“No, I’m not. I’m freezing. I picked the wrong coat.”

“You picked the wrong-?”

“I hate the cold.”

“Since when?”

“Since always. I’m going.”

“Fine, baby—go! But, let me have the picture first.”

Dmitri stared at his sneakers and imagined the iced toes inside them. He wasn’t surprised by the request, but instead recalled how in third grade he and Thomas had gotten matching pairs of snow boots, which they wore the entire winter, only reluctantly shelving them when April arrived. In middle school though, none of the kids wore snow boots, no matter how cold or snowy it was. It was hard to separate the Thomas that he had always known—the old, generous Thomas who patted your shoulder and invited you over, who called you bud and offered you snacks—with this new, tough Thomas who bossed you around every chance he got. Taking the page out of his coat, he handed it to his friend, who pocketed the offering before pushing off in the sled once more.

Before turning to leave, Dmitri looked down again from the top of the hill. Except for the trails their sled had carved out—twenty or thirty crisscrossing lines—the white snow spread a coat over everything, melting the divisions between the street and sidewalk, the spaces between yards. All the rooftops were colored in the same white and even the different colors of the houses’ siding was muted, making them all seem more in harmony than in the summertime, when the poorer houses’ faded exteriors showed like sores around the block. In the distance Dmitri could see Sheila’s house, newly tan and beige, and a few houses down, Thomas’. His own was around a bend, invisible from here, but still there. It was a good street, Pheasant Drive, the only street he had lived on in his eleven years, a street on which, until now, time had moved gradually, in a straight, steady line, educating Dmitri at what seemed nature’s pace. In just a few months, though, life would begin to accelerate. His parents would announce the move without ever even putting the house for sale, to an apartment complex in nearby Downers Grove—just a few miles away, and yet another world completely, one Dmitri had been previously oblivious to. It was there, on Miller Lane rather than Pheasant Drive, where he would show off his new sled (a black plastic one with brakes, like Thomas’, after all), on his new hill, in his new, crowded neighborhood.

And though he would, in just a few short months, find a replacement for Thomas—or rather, a boy—James—to play the old role of Dmitri, while Dmitri took the role of Thomas—and though he would even find a replacement for Sheila—a girl named Tricia, who let him kiss her and do other things out behind the wooden fence that hid the clubhouse dumpsters—there would never again be Sheila or the big hill, or even Thomas. Ten minutes away, but for whatever reason, he would never come back.

They met once at the Fox Valley Mall Sears, old friends barely recognizable to each other, except that they were both with their mothers, who hadn’t yet begun to change.

“Dmitri has really grown,” Thomas’ mom said.

“So has Thomas,” Dmitri’s mom repeated.

The boys smiled awkwardly and looked around, neither knowing what to say beyond What’s up? It had only been two years since Dmitri moved, but in that time both boys had become more different than during the entire ten years they were friends.

Thomas hated standing there, having Dmitri and his mom just stare at him. He couldn’t believe how big Dmitri was, when he himself had barely grown since they last met. After he moved away, Thomas felt bad for a while, but not now, looking at him. You can’t feel bad for a giant.

Thomas dressed different, Dmitri noticed, in low, baggy jeans and unlaced high-tops, and had the beginnings of a mustache showing on his once-familiar face, now shadowed by a low-brimmed Yankees hat. Dmitri knew kids at his school that dressed the same way, but none he talked to. His memories of their years together existed not as many individual snapshots, but rather one or two distinct moments, accompanied by the knowledge that more of such existed somewhere in their now-invisible, shared history. He guessed that deep down Thomas was still the same old Thomas, interested in sports and nude pictures of girls and Sheila Peterson, but they didn’t have time for a deep down conversation, not at Sears. They exchanged cell phone numbers because their mothers told them to, but neither called, and when Dmitri’s phone died and he got a new one, he didn’t bother transferring his old friend’s number to it.

Previous Table of Contents Next