“Of course, it is often the case with girls that they must make their own way out into the world and from there find their own way back. The more organized ones draft maps or make hatch marks in the trunks of trees, bend branches, leave a patter of crumbs. Sometimes a girl will tie a thread to something she wants to come back to and dole the thread out behind—a raveling hem of her cloak or the loose end of a golden ball, very precious, she was previously using to string the geese in a row to and from the lake.”
– Sarah Blackman, “A Beautiful Girl, a Well Loved One”
As if escaping Russian mobsters and Ukrainian rebels wasn’t enough, Liliya now faced a choice: the nuclear hot zone before her, or mutant wolves behind.
No choice, really. The thought of being torn to bloody bits in the silent woods around Pripyat, as much as it appealed as the ultimate escape from mobsters and rebels, also meant her daughter would never see her mother again. Besides, you could be treated for radiation poisoning nowadays, couldn’t you? And thirty years on, the radiation wasn’t even that bad any longer, was it? Liliya ran on, right past the yellow-and-red warning sign.
Several hundred yards beyond the sign, though, Liliya’s lungs began to burn. Oh, God, this was what the start of radiation sickness felt like, wasn’t it? How silly of her to put such blind trust in those who said the radiation no longer lurked in the ground as much as many wanted to think. She slowed to a jog, then a walk. If she was to die now after all, a serene, calm-inducing woods was probably the best place for it. She trudged through the thinner snow underneath the pines and birches, whose boughs shielded all but the center of the pathway. If she sat here underneath one of the birches, would Jack Frost, Morozko himself, crackle and snap along to ask if she were warm and comfortable?
Before long her breathing returned to normal, the pain in her lungs and her side vanished, and Liliya could think clearly once again. Only a lack of oxygen, then, not radiation, not that she could feel. If only this walk in the woods could help clear her mind of all her troubles! But rustlings in the shrubs to her right gave away some small animal; perhaps a mutant rabbit, or worse, the wolves still stalked her. She shuddered. The misshapen hulks had lurked in the shadows between her and her vehicle while she relieved herself on the side of the road. It would have been nice to think they had done her a favor, helping her escape the mobsters and rebels. In reality, like any good predator, they had successfully isolated her from the rest of her herd.
Liliya glanced to her right. In the center of the path she spied the tracks of a medium to large animal, boars perhaps. She quickened her step, but resisted the impulse to break into another run. That felt too panicky, a good way to step in a concealed hole and twist her ankle, or to trip over a root and fall face first into the poisoned snow. Nightfall was still several hours away, but she didn’t want to be in the exclusion zone by then. She had nothing to sleep on or in, no way to protect herself from the elements or anything else out here. At least she had left tracks that would help her avoid walking in circles.
Finally she came to what appeared to be a path, or a narrow road. Perhaps a poachers’ trail, or a smugglers’ route for illegal pieces of Reactor 4. Still, on a pathway she could move faster. Even though the snow here was thicker, perhaps she could find—
The mind she had clearly lost. How else could she explain the hut in the pathway before her? It rose above her on two chicken legs, took up the width of the path so that she couldn’t move around it.
She’d just have to go back into the woods, just briefly. That was all.
She turned. The two mutant wolves skulked at the woods’ boundary. Their misshapen heads bobbed and swayed. Low snarls filled the silence.
Shaking now, Liliya turned back to face the hut. It was ridiculous, this child’s myth now before her. A mind-bender, a prank.
A strong wind blew through the treetops, so that limbs groaned against one another and smaller branches shrieked with friction. Before Liliya could register what was happening, an old woman climbed out of a human-sized mortar, gripping the pestle in her hands for leverage.
“Well?” the woman demanded. “Did you forget the phrase to get my house to open its door to you?” She clucked her tongue, sniffed the air with a nose as wrinkled as if she had smelled something foul. “Russians.”
Liliya’s knees buckled. She fainted, crumpled into a heap in the radioactive snow.