A teenager finds meaning to his life while treking to Chernobyl during his final days.
|Dust swirled along the floor as Petro creaked open the door to the old library. He knew no one would be looking for him here, as no one came here any more. They might look in the wood by his house, but the closer they got to Pripyat the less and less people would be looking for him. Pripyat has been abandoned longer than Petro has been alive. He knew that he shouldn't be here, and the risk it was to hide out in such a desolate place, with every intake of breath poisoning his lungs and body. But, Petro no longer cared.
He ran his fingers along the first row of books and then hit his hand against his jeans to get the layers of dust off that had gathered on his tips. He gazed around the quiet facility and thought that this was just how a library should be. Everything seemed to be frozen in place from the moment when people picked up their things and were rushed out of the city. Petro had been here many times before with his brother, Borys. They would sneak past the guards to hang out with the other kids who would gather at the old ferris wheel and drink and smoke with the freedom of those who knew they weren't going to get caught. They stopped coming though, once Borys started vomitting.
Borys' death wasn't the first death Petro had to witness in his life. When he was just five years old, his father died from cancer, which was also a product of the radiation poisoning, much like Borys' symptoms. His dad had been sick, though, and that's all Petro knew him as was the sweating, balding man struggling to breath and vomitting in his “special room”. If they wanted to visit him they had to wear masks and only stay a few minutes at a time. Same with Borys once he got worse. Petro and his grandmother would go in, with masks on, and bring Borys a special treat once a week. They couldn't afford much, but Petro always wanted to make sure his brother got a share of any treats they were able to get. His favorite was Turkish Delight, which Petro didn't like anyway, so he was always willing to share. And, even though he knew he would just end up throwing it back up later, Borys would always take it gladly and Petro would pat his hand and then be lead out by his grandma to make sure he wasn't exposed too much.
His mom and grandmother didn't know that he had gone with Borys a few times. They thought his own cancer was due to being exposed to both his father and his brother so many times. When they got back from the hospital four weeks after Borys died he heard his grandmother scolding her daughter for letting him visit the others without proper protection. That he should have just been sent away to his aunt, who now lived in the United States.
Petro found a turned over shelf in the back of the building, he dropped his bag that was slung over his should and sat on it; staring out over what was once a beautiful facility. Papers and books were strewn everywhere, some torn up from animals that had gotten a taste for the pages or that used the old bindings for their nests. He sighed and placed his throbbing head in his hands. He knew he didn't have much time--Borys didn't last long and he was older. But he was also more exposed, his mother would say to reassure him that he would survive, but he knew better. He could feel it. His skin was pale and stretched over his fingers, he never kept much down. The trip itself to Pripyat took almost all of his energy. He had hitched a ride most of the way with a nice old man who believed he was bringing his father, a guard, a special gift for his birthday. Really his bag was filled with just enough food to last him until he arrived at Pripyat. After resting tonight he would make the walk a little bit further as he traveled to Chernobyl itself. He didn't really want to prolong his death, but he did want to at least spend one night in a place that made him feel a little happier, and since his favorite pastime was reading, he couldn't think of a better spot to spend the night before he headed to the nuclear plant where he knew it wouldn't take long for the end of his days to catch up with him.
That was when it hit him, literally. He was thinking about how he was to die when a book flew from the shelf to his left and smacked him in the side of his head. The pain was unbearable and Petro fell over to his side and on to the floor as wave after wave of sharp knives raked at the left side of his body. His eyes were pinched tight until the pain turned to a slow throb and slowly he opened them to be greeted by a pair of small legs in gray tights. His eyes traveled up the little girls body to her dull, black eyes that were staring intently at him. In her hand was the book that had flown at him and she pulled it back as if she was going to throw it at him. Petro quickly tried to back away, while still staying close to the ground, and instantly the room started to spin around him. When he felt stable once more he opened his eyes expecting to see the girl again, but she was gone, and the book in her hand was placed directly in front of him. He could see the trail his foot prints and body left on the thick dust that covered every surface, but noticed that there were no small foot prints where the girl had been standing, though he was positive that she was touching the ground when he saw her feet.
Looking around the library he suddenly became fearful of who was in there with him. All the times he had been here there had been jokes about the ghosts that haunt the skeletal city, but no one had ever seen anything except for racoons and the occasional squirrel. So why was one reaching out to him now?
The book, he thought and he inched forward to pick up the leather-bound novel. He blew on the cover and used his sleeve to wipe off the rest of the dust that covered it, hoping to find a title, but there was none. Carefully he used just the tip of his finger to open the crackling cover and to turn the yellowed pages. For a while, there was nothing but faded writing that he couldn't decipher. Then, it began to get darker and he realized it was handwriting that he was reading. He was surprised when the first date that he could make out was May 2nd of 1986, his brothers birthday, but he still wasn't able to make out more than a few words. It was several months later in the journal when he began to read the secrets that it held.
July 29th, 1986
I fear for my child. Our lives have been turned upside-down since the accident. I don't know what the future holds for my little one. His father is dying, already, from what had happened at the plant. Many others of our family and friends have been scattered throughout the world, some even to the United States, if they have not already passed on. I still can't believe our own little Dariya did not even have the chance to meet her new little brother. She would have loved this little one, who is no bigger than one of her dolls. I am happy to have this new life to care for, Pavlo and I need him in our lives.
Petro stopped reading, his mind finally catching up with the name of the child. Borys. Suddenly struck with an urge, Petro turned it to his own birthday, but the dated ended a year before he was even born. He stood quickly and when he was able to balance himself after the dizziness struck him he made his way to the shelf the book came off of. On it were many piles of journals, and after flipped through many of the pages he found two more that had the same handwriting of the woman's he believed to be his Mother's.
Page after page he read through the second journal, at least the entries that he could make out. When he reached the day of his birth, he noticed that he pages were more worn, as if someone had gone back to read that entry over and over again. And with blurry eyes he began to read:
I love him. That was my first thought when I saw his dark hair and eyes that look so much like his father. Young Borys is very curious about his little brother, his eyes shin with pride when he holds the little one in his arms. He is happy to be a big brother!
Petro is the quietest little thing. He makes no noise, he must know it hurts his fathers head when there is too much noise. Pavlo is in the bed next to us, resting after the days event. Things are beginning to get to hard for him, but he wanted to be here for me even though the trip to the doctor seems to have hurt him. We can't afford to stay here too long and my mother is coming to pick us up in her car so we don't have to take a bus back....
Petro hiccuped as his tears caused his breath to catch in his throat. He let the air out of his lungs slowly and shakily as he skipped a few pages and read some more about his life, his family. The things he realized about his mother, that he never knew before, amazed him. He went back to the first journal and turned back to the first entry that he had read, running his fingers over the beautiful name of his older sister that he never knew he had, Dariya.
That was when he realized that his mother and grandmother will be left with nothing once he is gone, or rather, now that he is gone. He read his mothers words, he knew how much her little family meant to her, and to lose her husband and all three children.... One of which Petro now believed was the little girl that lead him to these journals in the first place.
Petro kept reading. By the end of the third journal, his heart was breaking. He wanted nothing more than to be in his mothers arms, to hold her and let her know that he would always be there for her.
But, he wasn't always going to be there. He would die soon enough, and thinking of thoughts of home was not helping his resolve to just get it over with. Why prolong her pain?
He stood, shoved the journals in his bag, and began his long walk to the nuclear pire in the distance. He knew it looked much closer than it really was, but he wished it was closer, he wished that he didn't have so much ground to cover, because the longer he walked, the more he realized that he really wasn't headed toward Chernobyl.
He heard their voices before he could really see them, his eyes still blurry from the tears that were running down his cheeks. Then a flashlight was in his eyes, and the sharp noise of guns cocking reverberated in his ears. But, in the distance, he thought he heard the distinct sound of crying. Believing it was the echo of his own pain, he simply raised his hands and called out a greeting to the guards.
“Вы! Иди сюда! You! Come here!” A gruff voice called out from behind the flashlight in Russian. When Petro stepped closer to the guard, the soldier grabbed him roughly by the shoulder and pulled the bag off his arm, tossing it to a fellow guard to search. Considering the time of day, and the fact that no one like Petro had entered the gates earlier, he knew that their superstitions and titles encouraged them to act a little more violent than usual. But when the guard turned him around and shoved toward the outpost, a gun at his back, he heard someone call out his name. Petro turned his head toward the voice, but the guard barked another order at him in Russian and he quickly obeyed his tone.
Then he heard it again: “Petro! Petro!” It was getting closer until he was certain it was his mothers voice and his heart leaped from his chest. Ducking underneath the guards gun and out of his reach he ran toward her voice, hoping that the soldier would see the woman running towards him and decide not to shoot him for being insolent.
“Maty! Mother!” Petro cried as her enveloped her in his arms. His thin arms, weak from his sickness, felt strong around her small body. For once in his life he did not feel like he was the one that needed to be protected, he was the one doing the protecting. A few men and women from their neighborhood were behind her, explaining the situation to the soldiers. He was grateful for their help, for being there for her as she searched for her ungrateful son. Petro apologized repeatedly, his words barely a whisper in her ear. She simply held him tighter and cried his name over and over again.
He cared, finally, about what would happen to her if anything happened to him. He had resolve to live, when just had a few hours before he had the resolve to die. He didn't know how his mothers journals ended up in the abandoned library in the middle of the ghost town that is Pripyat, but he believed there was a presence there that he should thank for saving his life. Dariya, he thought the name again and realized that he couldn't wait to get home and tell his mother and grandmother his experience. He would give his mother back her journals and tell her of her little girl and how she showed him his mother's love for her family.
Petro sighed, in his 17 years he finally felt like he had a purpose. And since he had been diagnosed, he finally had the will to live. More than that, he finally felt he had a reason to live: for his family.