What Happens In Russia...

Steve's puzzled cry echoed throughout the suburban neighborhood.
“You've got to be kidding me!” he scratched his head, “Another plate of my shish-kabobs. Gone!”
He stared down at the empty plate in front of him sadly. This was the third plate of his prize-winning shish-kabobs that had disappeared. The first was stolen when he turned his back to grab the salt and the second was snatched from right off the grill.
Shrugging his shoulders, Steve turned to head back into his kitchen to prepare yet another serving of meat and vegetables drenched in a secret sauce of his own creation.
Once he vanished through the door, a tiny shadow partially emerged from one of the bright green bushes lining the back of Steve's yard. The leaves rustled as a black and grey figure made its way from the bushes to the grill. The raccoon sniffed curiously at the bottle of sauce Steve had left on the table next to the grill. He licked the lid daintily and immediately jerked his nose back. The smell was overwhelming. The raccoon sneezed repeatedly, trying desperately to get rid of the mixed scent of chili powder, hot sauce (Steve's favorite), and crushed cloves. Clearing his head, the raccoon returned to his search of edible food.
Suddenly, a wild scream caused the raccoon to leap into the air and scramble off the table, dashing back to the bushes. Steve came running around the corner of the house, dancing and screaming joyfully.
“Yes! Yes!” he jumped up and down, waving an envelope marked Congrats, Winner! , “I won! I won!”
Tearing open the envelope, he quickly read the letter enclosed.
“An all expense paid trip! To Russia!” he exclaimed excitedly, “Oh my word! I can hardly believe it! I actually won the cooking contest! Finally, I won a cooking contest!”
The very next day, Steve was packed and ready to go. He had made sure to pack plenty of his own food, just in case the hotel's dinners were not up to his high standards. By five o'clock AM, he was dressed and loading up his car. He struggled to lift the heavy suitcases full of food into the trunk of his car. By the time he was finished, Steve was completely out of breath. Suddenly, he gasped. He stood up quickly, narrowly missing the upraised truck lid.
“I forgot the hot sauce!” he exclaimed, “How on earth could I have forgotten the hot sauce?” He sprinted back inside to retrieve his precious sauce.
While he was inside, tiny paws patted on the concrete sidewalk and up to Steve's car. The raccoon had returned, drawn by the smell of the food. He climbed carefully into the trunk, sniffing for a snack. He avoided the bag containing Steve's various sauces and climbed further into the pile.
Steve returned, shoved the hot sauce into the topmost bag, and slammed the trunk shut. He clambered into the car.
“I've got to hurry!” he muttered to himself, “I can't be late for my plane!”
After a long and tedious plane trip, Steve finally landed in Russia. He gaped at the awesome scenery around him: the snow-capped mountains and the cities scattered across the countryside. Steve shivered. The climate in Russia was very different than that he was used to. He pulled on a heavy jacket and hailed a nearby cart.
“Can you take me to this address?” he handed the driver his vacation brochure. The man stared at the paper than nodded.
“I know where you want.” he gestured for Steve to get in the back, “I'll take you.”
The ride was long and bumpy. Steve found himself wondering just how far from civilization this spot was. When he tried to ask the driver, he was rudely pushed back and told, “Sit down! It's just a little further.”
Finally, the cart came to a stop and the driver motioned for Steve to get out. The driver climbed down from the front, snatched Steve's bags and threw them roughly to the ground (much to the dismay of the raccoon, who had found his way into one of the bags and was rather confused concerning his whereabouts).
Steve clambered out of the cart and stared at his vacation spot. The otherwise flat landscape was broken by an enormous mountain. Upon the side of the grey mountain top, there sat a great stone ledge. And upon that ledge, sat an ancient, decaying castle. The tall, circular tower that protruded out of its center loomed forbiddingly over the bleak landscape below it. The crumbling brick was the same dark grey as the mountain. A few thin windows of the medieval style were cut into the walls and the only visible entrance was a huge doorway in the front. A collection of overgrown sedges surrounded the castle walls and dead vines entwined themselves throughout the broken stones and bricks. There was a thin, rude, winding path that cut up the side of the mountain that led to the front doorway.
Steve gaped, both awed and disappointed. He pulled out the vacation brochure again. There was a castle on the cover, but it most definitely was not the castle he was looking at. The building on the paper was beautiful, well-kept, surrounded by flowering plants and bushes. An array of smiling servants stood just inside its wide, welcoming doorway.
Steve looked up again. At the foot of the mountain, in the shadow of the castle, was a small, poverty-stricken village. The small, broken-down homes of the villagers were scattered throughout the barren land, far away from one another. A few farms could be seen here and there, but the summer famine had taken its toll and the fields lay bare.
Ever the optimist, he decided to make himself comfortable in the castle.  Sighing, Steve picked up his heavy bags and began the slow trek up the mountain.
It took him nearly an hour to reach the castle doorway. He walked carefully through the great stone arch into the main hall, gazing about him at the spacious room filled with ancient armor and artifacts.  Steve dropped his bags and went to inspect the kitchen.
As his footsteps faded, a bag on the floor began to shake. Soon, a small grey head poked out and the raccoon struggled his way out of the now-nearly-empty food bag. He sniffed around. Not smelling any more food, he patted to the doorway of the castle and began to climb down the mountain to do some scavenging. He didn't know where he was, but he didn't entirely care as long as there was food around.
Steve was similar. He stood in the large kitchen, completely happy. He was on a free vacation, in the huge kitchen of a castle, with plenty of food and all the time in the world. He decided to get settled in first and then begin cooking. After retrieving his bags from the great hall, he wandered around until he found what he believed to be a bedroom. He dropped his bags on the bed and plopped down next to them, sending billows of dust up into the air. He coughed and gasped, fanning away the dust with his brochure. Once the air cleared, he noticed something he had never seen before. The small print of the brochure. It read:
One way plane ticket ONLY. Paid expenses include and are limited to: one plane ticket, salted peanuts and other various snacks on the way, and lodging. Everything else you furnish yourself. Company not  responsible for any mishaps that may occur to you while on our trip including but not limited to: death by Communists, death and/or maiming by angry villagers, death and/or scarring by various diseases, and accidents.
He vowed never to enter another cooking contest ever again.
The next day, early in the morning, there was a great ruckus down in the village. Below the mountain, two farmers were standing on the doorstep of one of the thatch-roofed houses.
“You,” the first yelled, in Russian of course, “You, rat! You stole my bread!”
“I did not!” the other screamed, “You don't know what you are talking about.”
“I do too. How am I supposed to feed my family if people like you are stealing my food?”
“I tell you, I did not take your bread. Did you ask Sven? He has enough children that he would need it.”
“I asked Sven, Peter, Alexi, everyone! They all deny it.”
“Then I cannot help you. Good-day.”
The door slammed in the first farmer's face. Scowling and muttering, he stormed away from the hut and made his way home. He had lost a loaf of bread during the night and he knew that it didn't just disappear. Food was scarce in the village and a loaf of bread was of great worth.
Back at the castle, Steve was enjoying the peace and quiet. To most people, the empty castle would have been erie and spooky, but Steve didn't mind. After cooking himself a delicious meal, he dug out his stash of cooking magazines and settled down to read and catch up on his sleep.
As the sun rose the next morning, it spread its golden arms around the mountain to wake the village. When the light crept into the homes of the farmers, it revealed yet another burglary. In the home of Alexi Peterson, a bowl of grain had been scattered and devoured. Alexi cursed as he picked up the broken clay bowl. He was just about to pay a visit to his nearest neighbor when his youngest daughter called him over.
“Papa, “ she cried, “Look! Look!”
Her little finger pointed down to where the bowl had lain the night before. In the dust from the spilled grain, there were tiny raccoon paw prints. Her father gasped.
“They are like no animal's I have ever seen before!” he turned and ran out the door. Outside, he saw the tip of a black-ringed tail disappear into a nearby bush. He yelped and ran to the bush. Pulling the branches aside, Alexi caught a glimpse of the raccoon slipping away. He cried out, “ Great Lada's ghost! I must tell Peter and the others!”
Once they heard Alexi's news, the other farmers quickly called a meeting of all the villagers. The group met in the largest house in the village, the home of Sven. Once all had arrived, Alexi stood on a broken barrel to address the group.
“Neighbors,” he called, “There is a new animal amidst us, the likes of which none of us have ever seen before! A small creature, with sharp claws, fangs, and tiny paws. It is a thief of the night. It had been stealing our food, right from beneath our noses!”
A scraggly farmer leapt to his feet, “This thing must be stopped!”
Alexi nodded, “I agree with Peter! We must discover what this thing is and why it came here!”
The famers discussed this strange new creature until nearly sundown.
As the setting sun painted the sky red, Sven stood and climbed slowly (he was a rather large man) onto a wooden barrel. Facing the crowd, he held his hand up for silence.
“Friends,” he began, “I know animals, do I not?” The villagers nodded. “I know more about animals than anyone else in this village. But I have no idea what this thing is.” The crowd began to yell and object. Sven paused, then continued, “I do know, however, where it came from. This creature has been sent by the Leshy! [Author's note: Leshy – woodland spirits from Russian mythology that are the guardians of wild animals and forests] The Leshy have told it to steal our food and have given it a magic cloak so that it cannot be seen at night!”
“Why?” one farmer yelled out, “Why are the Leshy angry with us? What have we done?”
Sven again held up his hand. Slowly, the cacophony decreased to an upset murmur.
“There is something new in the villiage that is angering the Leshy.” he cried, “We must find this thing! And destroy it!”
While the farmers plotted and planned, Steve was busy working in the kitchen. He was in the middle of creating, what he called, a “great invention that will change the world of ribs forever”. Singing to himself, he zipped open one of his food bags and pulled out the BBQ sauce, chili powder, and hot sauce. He gleefully measured and poured the ingredients into bottles, after mixing in a secret blend of 11 herbs and spices. After nearly an hour, he had almost three dozen bottles of  “Stevie's Wonder Sauce”.  As he dashed to get more bottles, his elbow brushed one of the bottles of sauce. It teetered off the edge and smashed onto the ground, splattering hot sauce everywhere.
One large drop landed on Steve's forehead.
“Whoa!” he cried, wiping it off with his finger, “That kinda burns! Oh well,” he stuck his finger in his mouth, “Still tastes fine.”
The scent of the spilled Wonder Sauce drifted out of the windows and rode a breeze down to the village. In one of the fields, a farmer and his son were working to prepare for the spring sowing. The son suddenly stopped and, leaning on his hoe, asked, “Papa, what is that smell?”
His father paused and sniffed, “My word! I've never smelled anything like that before! Come, Alik. Let's go ask Alexi if he knows what it is.” Dropping their tools on the ground, the two farmers made their way the the home of Alexi.
“Alexi! Alexi!” the father pounded on the door, “Come out here a moment!” Soon, Alexi appeared in the doorway.
“What is it, Lars?”
“Take a deep breath.”
Alexi looked at Lars strangely, but complied. Immediately, he gagged and began coughing.
“What in the name of Thor is that?”
Lars' son, Alik, spoke up, “That's why we came to you. We do not know what it is.”
Alexi shook his head, “I do not know. But whatever it is, we must find it and destroy it. We cannot live with such a stench hanging over the land.” The three villagers traveled to the home of Sven, who offered the services of his bloodhound. Thankfully for the old dog, his nose had never worked right since his encounter with the “Jack-rabbit of '92”. The powerful kick he had received in the nose had permanently messed with his sense of smell. He did, however have enough smell in him to easily follow the trail left by Steve's hot sauce. Many of the villagers followed them. The dog lead the mob of villagers up the side of the mountain to the castle where Steve was staying.
Steve leaned out of a window. He had been admiring the landscape while he waited for another batch of hot sauce to finish cooking. He was planning on marketing it back home so he figured he might as well use his free time to get started.
Suddenly, he saw a strange sight. A long line of Russian villagers, all following a dog, coming up the the trail on the side of the mountain. Steve grinned.
“Ah!” he cried happily, “the welcoming committee! They must have gotten mixed up on the time that I was arriving. Oh well, better late than never, I guess.” He dashed out the door to meet them, then paused and ran back into the kitchen and grabbed an armful of bottled hot sauce. “I'll give them a gift to show my appreciation for them coming here!”
Outside the castle, Sven's bloodhound stopped. “Alexi!” Sven called, “I think he's found something!” Alexi sprinted to catch up with Sven at the head of the group. The big man pointed to the castle.
“There,” he said, breathing through his mouth, “He says its coming from there.”
“Good.” Alexi paused.
Sven looked at him, waiting. “And? What should we do?”
Alexi gulped, trying not to breathe with his nose. “Well, I guess we go inside.”
They never had the chance. At that moment, Steve came rushing out the door, carrying an armful of filled bottles. The villagers looked at one another.
“A witch-doctor,” one of them whispered, “Look at the bottles he's carrying! And the evil smell!”
Alexi extended his hand cautiously. “Greetings,” he called, “We are from the village below.”
Steve stood just outside the castle doorway, still smiling. These people were strange. The one that appeared to be their leader was still speaking, but Steve could not understand a word he said. He decided to communicate with body language.
The villagers stared as the strange man ran toward Alexi, grinning foolishly. He shoved the bottles at the villagers. Lars and Sven recoiled and Sven's dog began to howl. Even Alexi looked frightened. Alik stepped forward cautiously and slowly accepted one of the bottles.
“Careful, Alik!” Lars called, “You are my only son!”
Alik held the bottle up to the sun and studied it. Carefully, he opened the lid and took a sniff. Lars screamed as Alik collapsed to the ground.
“My son! He is dead!” the old farmer began to wail. Soon, the entire group had taken up the mourning call and were weeping and crying.
“Seize him!” Alexi shouted. Sven and two of the other men leapt at Steve, who reacted as most people would. He screamed and ran, dropping the bottles in his panic. Sven leapt into the air and landed on Steve. Steve had never been sat on before, let alone by a man of Sven's size and he began to cry.
Suddenly, Lars cried out. He nearly fainted as Alik leapt to his feet.
“Papa,” he lifted his hands, “I am all right! The smell overwhelmed me, that is all!”
Lars ran to his son and threw his arms around him. Steve continued to cry and beg to be set free. He tried offering them money, food, everything he had. All he wanted to do is go home to his waffle maker and grill.
“Please,” he blubbered, “Please, I'll leave! Just let me go! Please! Please! ”
“He is putting a curse on us!” a villager cried, “Just listen to his chanting!”
“Yes!' another agreed, “Alexi! Let us take him back to the village and sacrifice him to the Leshy!” “Maybe that will appease them and cause them to recall their horrible beast!”
Alexi nodded, “Take the sorcerer to the village!” he cried, raising his fist into the air.
Steve passed out.
When he awoke, he was tied to a pole in the middle of the village. Steve struggled against the ropes that bound him. His blue polo shirt was stained with spilled hot sauce that let off an evil-smelling reek that filled the air.
“The sorcerer is awake!” Alik cried, “Alexi! Sven!”
Sven stomped over to where Steve was tied. He crossed his arms and stared down at Steve.
“You are powerless! Without your potions, your magic has no effect.”
Steve began to cry again. He begged and pleaded to be released.
“Please! I have money! I'll give you anything you want! I'll cook for you for a month! A year! PLEASE! PLEASE!”
Alexi joined Sven by the pole. Steve continued to wail. Alexi turned to the large farmer and nodded.
“You, evil being,” Alexi leaned closer to Steve, “You have angered the Leshy and caused them to plague our village with a creature that steals our food. For this, you shall die!”
Although Steve could not understand the words Alexi said, the basic idea was pretty clear. He continued to scream and plead with a new vigor and zeal.
“The sorcerer is going to curse us all!” one of the women cried.
Alexi narrowed his eyes and gestured to Peter, who nodded. Peter went into his house nearby and momentarily returned with an old rag in his hand. He strode quickly over to Steve and, ignoring the man's protests, stuffed the cloth into Steve’s mouth.
Sven laughed, “There! Much better, Peter.”
By now, all the villagers had gathered around the now-gagged Steve. It was nearly evening, and some of the villagers were getting impatient.
“Alexi! What are we going to do with the strange man?” one farmer called.
“Yes!” the man's wife agreed, “We must act before sundown, or he might escape in the darkness!”
“We must act now! Alexi! We must act!” the crowd cried.
Alexi nodded. “You are right,” he told the crowd, “We must do something quickly. Peter!”
Peter's face darkened. He nodded silently and disappeared behind his house. He soon reappeared, a large knife in his hands. Steve screamed, as much as he could with a cloth in his mouth.
As Peter made his way towards Steve, Alexi raised his fist into the air.
“Leshy!” he cried, gazing upwards into the sky, “Hear us now: Soon you will not be angered by this man any longer! Recall your horrible creature and let us live in peace!”
Peter drew closer to Steve. Steve closed his eyes, waiting.
Peter stopped directly in front of Steve. He raised his knife.
A young villager screamed suddenly. Nearby, behind Peter's house, two glowing eyes peered out from the shadows. A weird cry echoed through the air and a small figure raced from the house to where Steve stood. The raccoon climbed up to Steve's shoulder, drawn by the irresistible smell of Stevie's Wonder Sauce. He chattered happily, licking the sauce off Steve's face and hair.
The villagers were shocked. Sven looked to Alexi, who was standing silently, in awe.
“The Leshy's creature,” he whispered slowly, “It likes the sorcerer! This must mean that this man is not to blame for the Leshy's fury!”
Lars, Alik, and all the others stood unmoving, stunned.
Peter moved slowly forward. The raccoon hissed furiously at him. He dropped his knife and the raccoon subsided. Peter quickly untied the ropes that bound Steve, never taking his eyes off the strange new creature.
As soon as he was free, Steve yanked the gag out of his mouth. He spit onto the dirt, trying to get rid of the foul taste. The raccoon stayed on his shoulder, chattering.
Alexi stepped forward. He pointed a finger at Steve.
“You have been pardoned by the creature of the Leshy.” he decreed, “Still, you and the creature must leave. IMMEDIATELY!”
Steve understood. He dashed out of the village and ran all the way up the mountain. Never a fitness enthusiast, Steve was panting hard by the time he was out of the village. As he reached the castle, he realized the raccoon was still with him.
“What on earth are you doing here? They have raccoons in Russia?” Steve pondered out loud, “Oh well, you can come with me,” he glanced around, “I don't think they'll welcome you back into the village, either.”
The very next morning, Steve was on a plane heading back home. He had had to call in a plane on his own expense. He didn’t even think about the remaining week he was missing out on. All he wanted was to be back home, where he knew he was safe. Since it was a small private plane, the pilot allowed the raccoon, who Steve named Wonder, to ride with him.
Steve smiled down at Wonder. He loved his new friend. After the raccoon had saved him, he made sure that he always had plenty of Stevie's Wonder Sauce, which he renamed Wonder's Stevie Sauce, on hand. He did try to market it once. One can probably imagine how that went. He narrowly escaped a lawsuit from the taste-tester.
Back in Russia, once they were sure that Steve was gone, the villagers stormed the castle. They grabbed all the bottles of sauce that Steve had left behind in his rush to escape and dumped them in a secluded field. Once they got used to the smell, most of them forgot about the sauce drenched field.
The next spring, Alik was wandering near the old field when he noticed the deep, black dirt that had replaced the dusty soil. He alerted the other farmers, who realized the wondrous qualities the sauce had as a fertilizer. Using the rich soil from the old field, they were able to grow more food then they had in the last five years combined.
Working together to plant and harvest the food brought them closer together as a community and they decided that it was time for them to start working together more. They appointed Alexi as their leader and soon became known throughout the region for their incredible (if somewhat spicy) grain and vegetables. Although Alik spent countless hours over the next few years walking in the forests in search of the strange creature that had freed the sorcerer, he could never find the little ring-tailed thief.
Life for Steve went back to normal. Well, as normal as life can be after being saved by a raccoon from a group of superstitious Russian farmers who thought that your hot sauce had angered the woodland spirits and tried to kill you. The two together lived in Steve's home for the rest of their lives.
Steve remembered his promise, too. He never again entered another cooking contest.
Just in case.






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