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William Falo
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overgrownpaths.jpg
Art by Kevin Duncan

Overgrown Paths

 

 

William Falo

 

Jelena heard the orphanage doors close behind her, then walked into the streets filled with pain. The day after her seventeenth birthday, the Belarus government that forced her to stay here told her to leave.

            She saw an old nail in the street and used it to pierce her skin, then grimaced while she slowly cut a word into her arm. It helped release the pain that built up inside her as she walked deeper into the city until she heard the metal sounds of the Chausy train station. It sent chills through her and caused a violent cough to erupt from her lungs. She spit out mucus and became dismayed when she saw it was speckled with red spots of blood. She wanted to go home but was homeless. 

            The orphanage director told her to call a distant relative in America because she could get better medical care there, but it seemed hopeless to her. She hurried away from the train tracks toward a desolate, litter-filled street.

            Night came quickly, and she found a spot on the sidewalk to rest. She rubbed her arm often where the words “No hope” were cut into her skin. A little brown dog limped toward her and she tried to shoo it away but it wouldn’t leave. There were other people here and she became scared. Stories of rape and kidnappings reached the orphanage and she kept a wary eye out.

            “Hello,” said a scraggly-looking boy with dirty blonde hair. “What’s the dog’s name?”

            She hesitated, then answered, “ ‘Dreamer.’” She looked up into pale blue eyes. “What’s your name?”

                “Petya.”

            “I’m Jelena. How long have you been here?”

            “A few months,” he said. “But I’m leaving soon.”

            “Where are you going?”

            “I’m going south.” He petted the dog as it curled up near Jelena.

                “Toward Chernobyl? Isn’t that dangerous?”

             “I don’t care. Can it be any worse than this?” He pointed around him.

            She looked around and noticed some people lurked in the shadows while others seemed to be in a trance. She felt afraid and shivered. “My grandmother lived in Bartolomeyevka and I would like to find her,” she said.

             “Do you want to come with me? I know a way to get some money for food.”

             Jelena imagined him robbing someone or something worse. A harsh cough caused her to cover her mouth while Petya watched. Her sleeve pulled up and he saw her scars.

             “Did you carve a word on your arm? What did it say?”

             “Don’t worry about it.” She quickly pulled her sleeve down to cover it. “I’ll come with you.”

            The dog limped and whined when she touched his leg. She slowly reached into her pocket and took out some tissues and money. If she took it to the veterinary office, her chance to call her aunt in America would be lost.

             “We’ll follow the tracks south,” Petya said. “The woods are dangerous, and checkpoints block the roads.”

            “No,” Jelena said. “I can’t go near the train tracks.”

             “Why not?”

            “I just can’t.”

             “Why can’t you?” Petya insisted.

             Jelena looked down. “I was told my mother jumped in front of a train when I was young. She had cancer from Chernobyl and my father drank a lot. They had a fight and my father tried to save her but both of them disappeared. I was put in the orphanage.” She sobbed and looked into Petya’s eyes. “I can’t go near the trains.”

            “I’m sorry, but no trains go south now and there’s no other way.”

            Jelena tucked her dirty blonde hair behind her ear. “I’ll try,” she said hoarsely, as her voice often became when she was upset or from the sickness inside of her. “How did you end up here?”

            “I lived in Pripyat and my father worked at Chernobyl. He died from the radiation and my mother started to drink all the time. Then the government put me in the orphanage. About a year ago they told me that she died. I would like to find her grave and put flowers on it. She loved yellow flowers.”

            That night Jelena awoke on the hard cement and saw a shard of glass shimmering in the

moonlight. With a shaking hand she gripped it and slowly cut into her skin. A thin red line

followed the glass as she wrote the word “Missing” on her arm. She now knew she was one of the missing.

            The next morning she took the dog to a veterinary office and gave them all her money. They wrapped its leg and gave it some medicine, but the chance to call her aunt was gone.

            She saw Petya carrying fruit. “How did you get that?”

            He just looked away.

            The thought of him selling his body made her feel sick.

            They started to walk out of the city and toward the tracks that horrified her. The dog limped behind them but Jelena was leery of carrying it, afraid of becoming too attached to it.  At night, Petya tried to get close to her, but she tried to keep a distance between them.

            Once an orphanage aide had crawled into her bed and his hands roamed freely over her until she bit him. Sleep never came easy after that.

            One night Petya said, “I was always looking for someone to travel with, and in that time I did many things that I will be embarrassed about forever.” He sobbed.

             It touched Jelena’s heart. She put her finger to her lips, shushing him. “Don’t be sad. You had to survive,” she said and put her arm around him. They slept that way with Dreamer flopped across their legs. Jelena felt content and when a gentle breeze blew through the trees, she dreamed she heard her mother singing to her.

            The next day they walked deeper into the radioactive zone. Jelena walked alongside the tracks but never on them.

            They diverted into an abandoned village. It was silent and eerie, filled only with the memories of those who lived here. She pictured children playing while adults danced with faces filled with smiles and sometimes tears. Jelena thought she could almost hear them in the wind but the only thing they saw were small pieces of the past.

             Among the vacant houses they saw a doll with no eyes, tattered clothes, torn pictures, and other items that were left behind. She noticed a graveyard filled with crooked crosses and crumbling tombstones. The path leading to the graves was overgrown and she knew it meant nobody came here in a long time.

            She read the tombstones and noticed many children were buried here. Jelena held back tears and knew they were now among the missing. For the first time she became afraid of loneliness in this life and beyond.

            They reached Bartolomeyevka but her grandmother’s house was empty, and Jelena knew she must have died. They found a curled-up picture of her father and mother holding her as a baby. She yearned to feel the serenity and comfort she must have known at that precise moment.

            She noticed Petya watching her and saw compassion and maybe something more in his eyes.

            As darkness fell, they found her grandmother’s grave. Jelena scratched “Love” on the tombstone and promised to never let this path become overgrown. She cried and desired to cut herself, but Petya grabbed her hand as they walked away. She felt peace and comfort from his presence. 

             Later, he said, “We came all this way for nothing. What do we do now?”

             “It wasn’t for nothing.”

            “Then what did we gain?”

            “We became friends, and that is something special,” Jelena said. “Despite all the bad things that happened we found a friendship that is better than any treasure. We’ll go to your mother’s grave, and then we’ll live each day hoping the next one will be better than the one before.”

             “Jelena, you can still go to America and get help. We’ll find a way.”

            “No, Petya. I found what I needed here.” She picked up Dreamer and gently rubbed Petya’s arm. She thought, This is my family now.

            Then Jelena took out the jagged piece of glass tinted with her blood and threw it against the ground.

            It shattered into hundreds of pieces that shimmered like diamonds in the darkness.

 

 

 

William Falo lives in southern New Jersey with his wife and two daughters. His fiction has appeared in the Northwoods Journal, 55 words, Zapata, Pens on Fire, Brilliant, Bewildering Stories, Long Story Short, The Greensilk Journal, Yellow Mama, Shalla Magazine, Skive Magazine, ShatterColors Literary Review, Sage of Consciousness, Bartleby-Snopes, Delinquent, Mississippi Crow, 34th Parallel, The Bottom of the World, Frame Lines, eMuse, and Shine and is forthcoming in Delivered, and Conceit Magazine.

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