I tucked three books under my shirt as I got ready to leave. The owner was in the backroom and he wouldn’t miss a few books, besides he barely paid me anything. Before I could get out the door, a man came in the store, I could tell he was from the street since I came from there too. I know the look. I expected him to steal food or something useful, but he went to the map section. He was either stupid or planning something?
When he pulled the map of Ukraine out, I became interested. My mother lived there when Chernobyl exploded. I watched as he walked right out of the door with the map.
“Stop.” I yelled. Only I can steal from here. He started running, but I was fast. He didn’t get far. A stray dog darted in front of him and he tumbled across the sidewalk and I fell over him. We both crashed to the ground. The three books fell out of my shirt and joined the map on the sidewalk.
I grabbed the map at the same time that he did, but I managed to pull out my knife and point it in his direction. He let go of the map.
“Elena.” The owner gathered up the books while I shoved the map under my shirt.
“Did he steal all these books?” He pointed at the map thief.
“No.” I dropped the knife. I’m not a rat.
“Then you’re fired.” He walked away.
I picked up the knife and pointed it at the thief.
“It’s your fault.” I wanted to stab him.
“I just wanted a map. Why did you chase me?”
“None of your business.” He wiped off his shirt.
I held the knife out, my hand shook.
“I’m going there.”
He looked around and talked in a low voice. He watched too many movies, nobody cared what he had to say.
“A man who sells wildlife offered me a lot of money to go there and bring back wolf pups.”
This guy is insane. I should walk away. “How?”
He pulled out a gun and three darts. “Tranquilize the mother and steal the cubs.”
“Are you stupid.” I already knew the answer. “That guy’s a smuggler. You’re going to end up in jail that’s why he’s not doing it.”
“The wolves there are supposed to be unique. Real monsters. He said they are larger and more ferocious from the radiation. He might be crazy but he wants them.”
I laughed aloud.
He looked down and kicked at a stone. “The money he promises me would help me get off the streets. I’m tired of being dirty, alone, scared, and hurt so much. I just need a way out.”
I knew what he was saying. Something overcame me. I knew loneliness too. It was staring at me every morning in a dirty mirror.
“Maybe I can go with you?” Why did I say that? I might have lost my mind.
“No. You would slow me down.”
“I’m faster than you. Remember, I caught you, plus I got the map.”
He stared at me for a while then stuck his hand out. “Okay Elena. I’m Stefan.” His look turned serious. “Can you promise me one thing.”
“If I die there, bury me. I heard stories about strange things near Chernobyl roaming the fields.”
I didn’t laugh. “My mother lived there when it exploded. I’m not strange, am I?”
He didn’t answer, but I knew I was.
“You’re not going to die.” I said without much conviction. “But I might.” Recently, I noticed red flecks in a tissue after I coughed.
“Okay, but you also dig my grave when I die.”
“If.” I did mean when. A sickness from Chernobyl was a gift from my mother. It wasn’t her fault, but I got it anyway.
Linked by a burial pact, we left to make plans with the map at the train station. Dred overcame me. What was I getting into? An insane trip to steal wolf cubs from a poisoned land. I didn’t let Stefan see it, but inside I was trembling.
We jumped a freight train heading north and it rumbled on with a rhythmic sound that could hypnotize you if you let it. I didn’t let it.
I missed not having a book to read. “You know I loved that job because of the books. Now, it’s gone forever.”
“Books are lies. Look out there.” He pointed out the door. Houses and farms flew by in a blur. “That is real life. We never had that, we lived in stinking orphanages and never got a break. Show me that in a book.” He stared outside.
I looked down and said in a soft voice. “The only reason that guy gave me the job was he wanted me to.” I stopped.
Stefan stood up. “He’s a jerk.”
I threw the knife against the far wall and it stuck in so hard the handle vibrated for a long time. His eyes got wide.
“I’m going to make sure that you or that wildlife guy never hurt those wolf pups.”
“Okay.” He pulled the knife out and handed it to me handle first. I put it away for now.
The train eventually stopped and we jumped off and headed to the exclusion zone. Stefan heard about a way to get in while avoiding the guard posts.
A feeling of sadness overwhelmed me as we passed empty farms, occasionally seeing a stray dog. In the distance, the tallest part of the nuclear plant loomed over everything like a giant warning sign.
Stefan read directions from someone who was here on a tour. They saw wolf cubs and told the wildlife smuggler the location.
A tour bus left, while we watched from behind a bush. The people on it wore masks of some kind.
“We better not stay here long.” The thought of the radiation made me gag. I could taste it.
We found a clearing in the woods and saw a den. The idea was to tranquilize the mother or any other wolves then take the cubs in the sack. When we reached the nearest town, Stefan
was to call someone who would pick up the cubs.
The cubs were out of the den and stumbled around while a large mother watched. We were far enough away to not cause her to panic. He loaded the gun.
The cubs made small sounds that were barely audible. Stefan aimed and started to pull the trigger.
I hit his arm causing the dart to fire into the ground.
“Look at them. They’re not any different from any other wolves. They just want to be a family. Why should we destroy that? I won’t let you hurt them. If they can survive here, maybe there’s hope for us.”
“But the money.”
“That guy you meet might kill you to keep you quiet. You would be just another missing homeless person.” People on the streets went missing all the time.
The wolves were alert now. The pups ran in the den, the mother bared her teeth and stared at us with yellow, piercing eyes. Stefan stood up. I took the knife out.
“You’re right. I’m a bad person.” He dropped the gun and smashed it with his foot then walked away.
“No Stefan, you’re not. Maybe you’re just a good person in a bad situation.”
“Now that is a lie. I’m not a good person.” I’m not, but I could be.
“Do you want to see where your mother lived?”
“No, there’s nothing left. Nothing alive anyway and maybe I have to look forward, maybe there’s hope.”
“How do you figure?”
“Well, I’m not alone anymore.” I looked at him.
He reached out for my hand and briefly touched it. I looked up and he smiled.
“Plus, I am going to tell that guy at the bookstore he owes me a lot of money or I’ll tell the authorities he’s running sex cam’s in the supply room.”
“Yes. He wanted me to do it.” I looked away.
“Did you?” I punched Stefan in the side so hard he fell to the ground.
“Of course not.” I didn’t tell him, but I was tempted to do it for the money, but I couldn’t go through with it.
“You hit hard.”
“I should have stabbed you.” It wouldn’t be the first time.
We walked out of the exclusion zone. There was no need to bury anyone. That was a
victory. We slept in the same abandoned building then started a new day together. We had a long way to go, but I didn’t mind. I smiled. I wasn’t alone and I saved the wolves. I’m sick, but I’m still alive. Maybe I’ll see a doctor and maybe I could find love. It drove me on. Like the wolves, I can’t quit. I am a fighter and I won’t give up.
William Falo writes fiction. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Newfound, The Ginger Collect, Soft Cartel, New Reader Magazine, and other literary journals. Find him on Twitter: @williamfalo.