Chernobyl (Working Title)

As it says in the header, this story just has a working title. In this tale, Anatoly is getting the news that he dying. He’s been diagnosed with a form of thyroid cancer that was common for workers who helped clean up after the accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station in April 1986. Faced with his own mortality, Anatoly, who’s always been a “keep your head down and go with the flow” kind of guy, is motivated to start a journey.

This piece is still in the early stages of development. This is only the second revision of this excerpt.

“I am sorry Anatoly. There is nothing else to be done. The cancer has spread too far.”

Anatoly Mikhailovich Shablikov stared unblinkingly at the young doctor. Temporarily at a loss for words, he nodded slightly, his mind fighting against reality. He had known this day would come, had anticipated it for more than three decades now, but its sudden arrival, the finality of it, shocked Anatoly into silence.

“I am sorry,” repeated the doctor, the clarity of his Saint Petersburg accent contrasting sharply against the slurred Russian common in Moscow. “We’ve tried everything.”

“How long?”

“It is hard to say. Four months at most. Maybe two months more with proper care.”

Anatoly mouthed the words. Four months. In four months, he would die. Finally. It would all be over. He would die. This physician would attest to his death, he would be placed in a cheap coffin and buried in a state graveyard. He looked at the doctor.

“Nothing can stop it now?”

“No. I am afraid not. We’ve tried everything.”

“It’s done then. The state has finally killed me.”

“Anatoly. The state does not exist anymore. We are just Russians now.”

“Maybe so doctor. Maybe so. But they have killed me just the same.”

“As you say. If you have any further questions, please return. We will see you to discuss care in the next few days. Is that satisfactory?”

Is that satisfactory? What a ridiculous question. Anatoly’s mind raged now, angered at the new immediacy of his death and the overly-clinical manner of the doctor. Hello sir. You will die in a most uncomfortable manner in the next four months. Come talk to us about how best to go about it. Is that satisfactory? Of course it isn’t satisfactory you asshole!

“Yes. I will return next week.”

            Two hours later, Anatoly sat in his tiny apartment on Novokuznetskaya Prospekt, a half-empty bottle of illicit samogon in front of him. He’d come straight home after his appointment and started drinking, a learned reaction to stress which he’d been denying himself for years, especially during the months of chemotherapy. I went through all of that for nothing. The pain and exhaustion, the hair loss and the near-constant nausea, for nothing. He chuckled darkly, thinking about the dozens of times his doctor had told him how well he was doing. The old Soviet state may not exist anymore, but we still can’t tell the truth, not even to each other. Anatoly laughed again. After years of not drinking, the half bottle of bootleg liquor consumed in the past two hours had done its job. He was quite drunk. Maybe the drink will kill me. Would a whole bottle be enough? Anatoly eyed the container closely, as though the hand-written label might contain some helpful information. He picked the bottle up and pressed the cool glass to his lips, guzzling down half of what was left. The liquor burned its way down his throat and, hitting his nearly-empty stomach, warmed Anatoly briefly, causing his skin to flush.

            Cheer up Anatoly. At least you made it this long. He snorted, a ripping, throaty noise that echoed in his sinuses. Your brother died after what…two weeks? Your wife died after two years. You’ve outlived them all. Even collected a pension for your trouble. He snorted again, this time with contempt. You know what the pension was for. Anatoly…take the money and never speak of what happened…or we can make you disappear into the gulag. Happens all the time. Prisoners get lost in the gulag system. Take the pension. Take the pension and keep your mouth shut. He’d done it too. He’d taken the pension and he’d kept his mouth shut. He’d never mentioned how his brother had died. He’d never mentioned how his wife had died. He’d stood by, the threat of a lifetime of imprisonment and hard labor hanging over his head like the sword of Damocles, and kept his mouth shut while his brother was blamed for the “accident”. Accident? Accident! Accident my ass. That was no accident. But it had been an accident. The state had said so. The KGB had said so. And even though the rest of the damn world knew the truth, I didn’t have the balls to defend my brother or wife. He took another long pull from the nearly-empty bottle and rose, unsteadily, to his feet.

            Anatoly began stumbling across the ninety-nine square meters of his apartment to the small bedroom, using furniture and walls to steady himself. His head was spinning, his vision blurred as everything in his apartment shifted out of focus and appeared in triplicate. Steady, Anatoly. Steady. Almost there. His bed, or one of the three beds he could see in his drunken stupor, neared slowly, sliding in and out of his view as he bounced across the apartment. Halfway there, he crashed into the cheap, wooden chairs bracketing the door to the short hallway and fell in a heap, the last of the bootleg alcohol splashing onto the floor. Anatoly looked up, saw the three beds drifting lazily ahead, and decided that crawling might be safer. He pushed himself to his hands and knees, still clutching the empty bottle, and began moving again, shuffling along as the hardwood floor abraded his hands and knees. He wobbled this way and that like a new born calf, creeping ever closer to the beds in the distance. Just a few meters more. Almost there. He was sweating profusely now. Come on Anatoly! Almost there. He paused. Take a rest. Just a couple of minutes. Anatoly slumped to the ground, exhausted by the effort. This is nice. He flopped to his back, sending the bottle rolling across the floor to the wall. I’ll close my eyes for a minute. Then I can get in bed. Anatoly Mikhailovich Shablikov was snoring loudly in thirty seconds.

Anatoly’s eyelids blazed orange against the sunlight pouring through his curtain-bereft windows, staying shut for just a bit longer as his central nervous system began to report in. His head was pounding, like the percussion section of a May Day marching band was performing inside his skull, threatening to shove his eyeballs out of their sockets. As he lay on the floor, just a meter shy of the single bed, his hands moved slowly to cover his head, a reflexive movement intended to dampen the pulsing sensation of his brain. He moaned audibly while the rest of his nervous system began to catalogue his aches and pains.

            His feet, sockless, were freezing, but otherwise intact. His knees felt slightly raw, a reminder of his drunken crawl the night before. His back was stiff, it felt like one of the hardwood planks that made up the floor he’d slept on. His thighs were…cold? Cold thighs? Why are my thighs cold? I’m wearing pants. The realization hit him when the smell did. Good god, what is that? Urine? Lovely. I pissed myself. The smell of stale urine was cut by another scent, one that Anatoly couldn’t quite place. He started to roll off of his back, placing his hand on the floor to push himself upright and felt a soggy mass squeeze between his fingers. What the hell? Against his better judgement, Anatoly opened his eyes and tried to focus on whatever he’d stuck his hand in. Vomit. Some Russian you are. Can’t hold your liquor. He stayed there for a few seconds, looking at the acidic puddle with its bits of partially digested bread and cabbage and wiping his hand on his shirt. The sour smell wafted towards his face. Oh shit. Anatoly lurched forward, struggling past the bed towards the lavatory. He barely made it.

            After he’d emptied his stomach into the bowl, Anatoly pushed the little handle and heard the rush of water as the remnants of the previous night were carried away to one of Moscow’s sewage plants. He put the lid down and turned, sitting on the toilet and leaning sideways on the sink. He was exhausted again and closed his eyes, still breathing heavily from the rush to the toilet. After several minutes, when his breathing and pulse had slowed, Anatoly opened his eyes. He kept leaning the side of his head on the cool porcelain of the sink and looked out of the bathroom. He could see every room in his flat from here, all the way to the door. What a shithole.

            The bathroom, consisting of a small sink and the toilet, was tiny, with barely enough room to stand. The white tile on the floor was yellowed with age and cracked in several places, grout missing here and there. The wallpaper, crispy and old, was 1970s Soviet-chic, a pretentious design that probably imitated some tsarist-era palace. The bedroom, hardly big enough for a proper bed, consisted of grayish-white plaster walls and a hardwood floor that looked like it might have been more than a century old. A small chest of drawers, with at least three layers of paint peeling from the dented and scratched surfaces, stood against one wall and the bed, a cheap metal frame with an equally cheap mattress was pressed against the flat’s back wall, providing just enough room to get dressed. A single, bare bulb usually lighted the room, but the wiring had shorted out weeks ago and the owner had ignored all of Anatoly’s requests for repair. Beyond the bedroom was the combination kitchen/dining/living room. It couldn’t be considered a proper kitchen, with only one burner, a small refrigerator with an overly noisy compressor, and a sink. Neither was it a proper dining room, with one rickety wood table and three mis-matched chairs, two of which were still laying on their sides after the previous night’s stumbling. The room was only a living room in the sense that a living person could exist there, watching television while eating. Anatoly owned a small television which sat on the kitchen counter opposite the table. There was no room for an armchair, much as Anatoly would have liked one, and the prospect of stuffing a sofa in the flat was preposterous. Everywhere he looked, Anatoly saw squalor. The tile on the kitchen wall, a pale green color that had been a trademark of socialist architecture more than thirty years before, was coming apart. The kitchen faucet was leaking, the constant ping of drips of water hitting the metal basin completely out of sync with the pounding in Anatoly’s head. I live in a shithole.

            Anatoly blinked. I hate this place. I really hate this place. I’ve lived in this same shitty flat for twenty years. Twenty years. Twenty damn years in this shithole. Anatoly grunted, shifting on his seat so that the back of his neck rested on the cool edge of the sink. He moved his hands to his head, rubbing his temples and trying to appease the demons that were still trying to shove his eyeballs out of their proper place. Cheer up Anatoly. You only have to live here for four more months. Less than that now. You’re going to die here comrade.

            Anatoly stopped rubbing his temples. You’re going to die here. He opened his eyes and lifted his head, fighting the heaviness of the hangover. He looked around again. His gaze stopped at the chest of drawers taking in the two pictures there. Even though he knew them by heart, he examined them. Valentina Ivanova. My poor wife. Dead for what? Thirty-one years now. Died of the same thyroid cancer that’s killing me now. Vladimir. My older brother. Been gone for thirty-three years. Died two weeks after the accident, which they blamed him for.

            Anatoly sat up, head aching, and looked around again. He looked at the rotting floorboards of the bedroom, the puddle of vomit drying in the sunlight. He looked back at the pictures of his wife and brother. He looked at the kitchen, with the dripping faucet and broken tiles. He looked around the bathroom, at two roaches in the corner, one alive and one dead, on its back, legs pointing at the ceiling. He looked back at the pictures. The hell with this. I’m not dying in this roach-infested shithole. Anatoly stood, unsteadily, and moved to the dresser.

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