The leaves of Lehigh Valley were turning, trails slippery. Alex conceded silently that Dave had been right, that the Susie situation was distracting him and that they shouldn’t have taken the most difficult trail out of Jim Thorpe. He felt the front wheel of his bicycle hit the boulder and he lost his grip of the handle. He imagined Susie’s laughing—she would, too. The last thing she’d said to him was to marry his bike. Her face was still lodged solidly in those spaces of his mind that he could not fill with any other thought.
Maybe he had even closed his eyes before the bike hit the boulder.
He was rolling downhill, hitting rocks with his body, too fast to register the hurt. He just knew bones and skin were rapidly snapping open, though life did not flash before his eyes. All he could think was, this is bad, this is really bad. When trees and sky stopped switching places, his body rested on grass, and he saw water. Pain shot through his legs.
He convinced himself it was vital to remain aware of his surroundings, so he stared at the trees until they started to move. The trees turned into people. They were running back and forth, and their steps resounded on the cement floor. He could hear terrified voices.
Alex jumped to his feet. Nothing hurt, nothing was broken. His arms and legs were seeping adrenaline, and his neck was tight. The air was hot and bristly, and it was dark in the reactor room. His face hurt as if thousands of needles pushed against the skin from inside. He thought vaguely, I didn’t realize you can feel the radiation. An enormous, ungraspable thought hovered above his eyes: lives, many lives depended on him. “Where is that Dave,” he mumbled. “Dave,” he let out a raspy shout. Without Dave, it would be hard to open both valves, yet the seconds ticked faster than the speed of fusion. There was enough steam in his lungs to cause a burst of blood and fear. There was steam in the bubbler pool that could cause a megaton explosion if the water wasn’t drained before the corium reached it. Tongues of black corium flowed like lava with implacable precision, faster than he could shout for Valeri in the dark. He ran—almost floated to the water and dove in.
There was a muddy light somewhere in front of him—he was not alone in the water. Someone else was already turning a valve. That was Valeri. Alexei parted the murky water with his arms, barely seeing more than his own sleeves suspended like algae. Then the light was extinguished, and he had to remember where he had seen the other valve. He reached blindly, like a mole. The air in his lungs was long gone—perhaps he had drawn in no air when he’d dived, just corium fumes. The valve rumbled with the sound of sinking submarines, yet it turned, and the sluice gates opened. The water around him rushed past in waves, leaving him in the dark. He crawled, steaming, out of the concrete grave.
Everyone cheered. Their cheers stung, poisoned with enough radiation to kill them, and kill thousands more.
Later, Alexei Ananenko would die, and so would Valeri Bezpalov.
Alex opened his eyes again. His hurting legs were resting in the cold water of the river. No one was around. A sweet-scented fall wind stirred the red and yellow leaves in the thick branches. His head was pounding where he’d hit his head.
He adjusted his protective gear and pulled the big goggles over his face. The gear rustled on his body. He was one of the liquidators.
“Not your cat on the roof rescue,” laughed another firefighter.
“We may rescue the cat, but we won’t be around for the old lady to thank us,” he grinned. That was easy, laughing in the face of death. There was no other choice but to take it easy, like a drill, and pump the cooling water among the chaos of the shouts, and of the sand and lead and boron dropped from helicopters.
A brigade of young firefighters thought they were called to extinguish an electric fire. They did not know what graphite was, and they picked up hot pieces and marveled. Even seeing the devastation to the crumbled, smoking reactor, they did not know why their mouths tasted like metal, and why there was something deathly in the eyes of others. The young fighters carried their hoses and ran where others ran from. When darkness fell over the frenzy and brought with it the smells of great, smoking pits, the heaviness in people’s voices grew.
The trucks the brigade had come with stayed parked in the same spot for over twenty years.
Heavily radioactive fires smoldered through the night, through the days to come. Firefighters with scorched faces answered questions to foreign reporters, and a few weeks later, their bodies stopped fighting the poison and shut down.
Alex coughed out river water. Where is Dave, he thought.
One side of his face felt sticky, and he rubbed it. There was blood on his palm. Some part of his body must be hurt, he assessed as he dragged himself out of the water. His eyes turned to the sky—a pure sky. This same sky had looked just as pure decades ago, when the forests had felt the poisoned breath of the Three Mile Island power plant.
The air around grew nebulous—evil, maybe. He saw movement from the corner of his eye, and as he lay on his back, wet in the grass, he turned his head to see who was coming.
It was someone, or rather, something between a grown child and a creature. Its rags hung about its body, useless. Its arms had the shape of bones, too long for a child’s body. Its feet had twisted toes. The face of the child-creature was pained, but quiet. Its head was oversized and shaped like a skull-balloon.
The eyes did not accuse: they only blinked, half-open.
The child with a head like a balloon drew closer. Alex felt no fear, only an immense sadness, something deeper than any loss of leaves in the fall. The tall child-creature held something in his hand, and he wanted Alex to take it. Vizmy tse, vizmy tse, the child said, and somehow Alex understood that he was saying, take this. It was an apple with boils on it, an apple poisoned by the very tree in which it had grown.
Alex blinked many times, and the vision faded. Soldiers ran past him. A convoy of people came from behind, sullen, carrying very little. Most of them did not know they would get cancer and give birth to babies with the wrong shapes.
Their belongings would remain in the town of Pripyat, frozen like broken clocks.
The leaves of fall returned above him, soothing in their innocence. For a moment, the bulbous head of the child floated above him, and the eyes staring at him were his own eyes in plastic reflection. An oxygen mask went over his face. A face was bending over him from between the leaves—someone else’s face. It was a beautiful woman, and her hand pressed the oxygen mask. She was not among leaves, he could see that now. She was an EMT, and there were tubes around. The ambulance shook him slightly as it passed trees and buildings.
“He’s awake!” the young woman said, turning to someone. When she looked back at him, her smile was soft like the autumn light. She took away the oxygen mask.
“Did I fall?” he asked, feeling stupid.
“Do you know what day it is?” she said, close to his face.
“I think it’s Sunday. Is my bike ok?”
“You’ll get it from the police station later,” she said, pulling the yellow hair away from her face. Round and smooth face. Blue eyes pure as the sky.
“My friend Dave—where is he?”
“He’ll go to the hospital later. You have a good friend.”
He tried to smile at her and the dried blood pinched his face.
“Tell me your name,” she said. “No, don’t sit up.”
“Yeah, first aid drill,” he muttered, letting his head fall back. His head hurt. “My girlfriend Susie broke up with me. Tell me, what does a girl want to hear, to go back with a guy?”
She shook her head:
“I’ll tell you my name if your name is as pretty as you are.” He finally managed to smile.
She looked as if she was going to roll her eyes.
“Katya,” she said. “Now your name, or I’ll write down that you’re not coherent. They’ll put you under.”
“I like Katya. You’re Russian? You don’t have much of an accent.”
The oxygen mask went back on his face. Her firm hand rearranged his head, shaking the achy brain all around his skull.
“Ah!” he said, louder than he would have if she’d been a man. The corner of her mouth painted a vague smile.
“Ukrainian,” she said and turned to bring a syringe.
He pulled at the mask.
“Alex Bower.” He spelled it too. “And how did you end up in Pennsylvania?”
“All right, kid, no more questions. You know, they’ll make you take off that lip ring when you get to the hospital.”
“Come on, tell me, when did you come to the States?”
“In ‘86, with my family. I was just a girl.”
“No way! That’s the year I was born. How weird is that.”
Her face did not change.
“So you don’t remember your home country much?” he continued.
She gave him a look as if she was angry, or sad, or both.
“What, there’s bad stuff? ‘86, that was communism.”
She just looked at him.
“Ukraine?” he said.
“We’re at the hospital,” she announced. “It was nice meeting you, and don’t bike in the rain again!”
She bent close to him to release a buckle. She smelled like autumn leaves and peppermint.
“Yeah, but—Ukraine is where that place, Chernobyl was. With that freaky explosion at the nuclear plant.”
She gave him a fast look and her eyes changed color.
“Were you there? Were you close?” he said as the gurney slipped from the truck and onto the ramp.
A scared child surfaced in her eyes. Her head bent in an infinitesimal nod.
“We were evacuated,” she said. His gurney went into a bright hall.
“I know my leg injury is nothing compared—”
No, that wouldn’t work. He took a deep breath. He had to tell her.
“Katya, you have to believe me, I’m serious now. I had a dream when I was knocked out.”
“We all have dreams,” she said, turning to walk away. “Get better.”
“Please, wait,” he shouted after her. “Katya, the dream was about Ukraine. Will you come see me later?” He could not read an answer in her slightly bent shoulders as she turned around the corner.
The nurses and doctors took over.
He didn’t expect her to come back at all, but he kept thinking about it through his knee surgery and sleeping spells. He counted two nights and two days—enough time for Dave and for his mother to come see him.
On the third day, Katya was at the door.
“Oh, hey! What do you know, the pretty nurse brought flowers to the wounded soldier!” he shouted, looking past his leg in traction.
“I didn’t bring you flowers,” she said, walking to the bed. “Alex, right?”
“Katya from Ukraine,” he answered, pointing with fingers from both hands.
She sat on the chair, hands folded on her lap. Her eyes were serious, so he closed his and tried to remember. He had wanted her to come see him for something, and it wasn’t to tell her how beautiful her hair was.
“I’m here because you wanted to ask me about Ukraine,” she said. “You had a dream, you said. You’re going to tell me that meeting me wasn’t random, I think.”
“That’s right. Chernobyl,” he answered. “That’s what my dream was about. Like I knew I was going to meet you.”
She watched him and her eyes were remote, though it looked as if she wanted to pay attention.
“I’ve been dreaming the same dream since I was a girl—just not as often anymore. I left my doll on the ground, in front of my house. It’s probably still there. I dream of that.” Her voice shook imperceptibly.
He closed his eyes, as if he could not look at her saying that.
“What was your dream?” she said, and her voice was open this time, warm. “Tell me what happened.”
He looked again, and she was smiling.
“I was lying there by the river—”
“You were wet. You probably fell in the river.”
“Yes. I was lying there hurting like crap, and I thought my name was not Alex but—Alexei or something. That’s when I went into the water, although I don’t remember getting in.”
“Why would your name be Alexei?”
“Yeah, right? That’s from your part of the world. So why do I have to meet a Ukrainian right after I have some weird-ass dream?” he said, a fraction of his eyes looking to see if she was offended. “You said you were evacuated.”
“Three days later. They couldn’t even be bothered to tell the population we were being poisoned by the air and the rain. It was that secret. It was only when Sweden noticed radiation all the way there that our government admitted it and started the evacuation.”
His eyes rested on hers for a long moment, as if to see how deep the hurt still remained.
“Look,” he said, “I don’t know you, but there’s something strange that happened to me there in the woods. And then you tell me you’re from Ukraine.”
“So what’s the big deal with me being from Ukraine?”
“I had just broken up with my girlfriend,” he said. “I didn’t really care if I biked blindfolded and fell over the cliff. I hit my head, and it was all so unimportant—Susie, all that stuff. I saw things like I was someone else, from Ukraine. I know you don’t believe me.”
“What did you see?”
“There was a valve, at the reactor, that needed to be turned, and someone else was there with me. The graphite melted and people even later found smoldering graphite on the ground.”
She was quiet, waiting.
“Anyway, I’m not crazy, I didn’t just dream about nuclear physics. I’m a nuclear engineering major at Penn State, so I know some of these things. Before Chernobyl, we had an accident at Three Point Island, and it was contained before it became a Chernobyl. After ‘79, they really got this stuff in shape, the plant designs, the containment, the pressure relief valves, staff training. Tell me, what was wrong with your government, communism or not, that they didn’t have all the safety features that were put in place in the US and Europe? I read about this stuff. There was a big flaw in the reactor. There was a gap of a minute between when a power grid would fail and when external power would take over to start the cooling system.”
She looked at him and lifted a finger.
“What they told us was not very technical,” she said. “I don’t understand how reactors work, but you can’t explain in any technical terms the fear that paralyzes you when you leave your house forever. Or the perplexity of trying to picture with your mind the invisible poison you know is in the air.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—You know, I was literally obsessed with Chernobyl some years back. But I never met an actual person who was there.”
“Now you have.”
“But how do you explain how we met?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Radiation lingers, and I suppose it catches up.”
“Did you have any effects?”
“I have thyroid problems. My mom gave birth to a baby without a spine. He died.”
How does one respond to that?
“Tell me, Alex, what did you hope I would say to you?”
“What do you mean?”
“From the beginning, I feel as if you’ve been hoping for some answer from me. Do you want me to tell you that you shouldn’t be majoring in nuclear engineering? That the world is too obsessed with nuclear power, nukes, nuking, and they don’t have a clue what it does to people?”
“Come on, I’m not in this because I worship it. It’s precisely the safety aspect—”
“Maybe you want from me something to jumpstart your brain after your breakup? You want me to spell it out, that there is pain in this world bigger than losing your girlfriend?”
“I know that.”
“But at this moment it doesn’t matter much, does it? You wanted to bike off the cliff anyway.”
“Is it beautiful in Ukraine?” he asked without blinking.
She laughed softly.
“You’re a nice kid. Yes, it’s beautiful there and I miss it sometimes. But you leave things behind.”
He looked in those sky-blue eyes for a long moment. Something in her eyes came from far away and it made a tiny part of him shift slightly, just like fall makes a tree shift toward another kind of light.
“Thank you for saving my life,” he said. “In the ambulance. I think you’re a good EMT.”
“You’ll be back on your bike in no time.”
“Yeah, it will heal. That’s easy. I probably need to work on making it back to reality. That’s a bit harder.”
She smiled and nodded.
“You know,” she said, “there is something about love that is like radiation: there are things we don’t see, or we don’t pay attention to, until they explode. Love is invisible. You have to get away when it’s poisoning you. Contain it, move on. A really nice girl will love you one day.”
He laughed. She came to his bed, squeezed his hand.
“I’ll see you around,” she said. Then she was gone.
He looked out the window, where the fall sun was red with thoughts of evening. In that moment, it was easy to let the poison out.
Liana Andreasen is originally from Romania, and received mher PhD from SUNY Binghamton. She lives in McAllen, TX where she is an Associate Professor at South Texas College. She has published short stories in Fiction International, Calliope,The Raven Chronicles,The Horror Zine, The Willow Review, Mobius, a Journal of Social Change,Interstice, Scintilla, and Weave Magazine. She has also published academic work in Alecart, Texas Review, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Southwestern American Literature, The CEA Critic, American Book Review, and upcoming in Rampike.