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They said they had it under control.
They say to keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.
They say that radiation can do both wonders and horrors.
They told the truth.
If you'd ask me where I've gone to in my life, I'd tell you I've been to a heck of a lot of places. Then I tell them something that they don't want to hear: I've been to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
Actually, I haven't.
But, you know, it gets the chicks, right?
It seemed to be working with this one. She giggled as I retold the Tale of the Drunken Officer (I was making it up on the spot), and as the taxi pulled over to her stop, she handed the driver a 50-dollar bill.
"Keep the change," she said to the driver. Then to me: "Don't make things up. Ever. Again."
Then the door slammed and she was off.
"I think she was thinking you told her the truth," the driver commented as we merged into traffic one more. Busy day. I could hear the crows cawing over the skyscrapers.
That night, something happened.
Actually, that thing happened to me.
I said to myself, "I'm going to tell the truth from now on."
I was living alone in an apartment, and I had been cooking meals coming out of a box for over a week now. I shot a glance at the dirty dishes lying in my sink.
Well, whatever works, right?
I grabbed one of the plates from the mini garbage dump in my sink and gave it a quick wash. Then I realized that I was boiling a pot of instant noodles.
Eh, the soup wasn't that good anyway.
I did my best to place more noodles than soup onto the plate, then threw the rest of the gunk away.
I took the plate of the steaming noodles over to my desk, set it down, and booted it up.
Of course, I had no intention of going to North Korea. I mean, that place was messed up. I think.
I thought about the chick-magnet places. North Korea. Aaand that's it-
I waited for the computer to log me in and as my desktop popped up with that cheesy Microsoft tune I double-clicked on Google Chrome.
I then typed, "Chernobyl Tour Packages". Heck, I wasn't going to go there alone.
I scrolled through the list that Google had so generously given me, and bookmarked a few tours that seemed low-cost and did most of the sights there. And by 'most of the sights' I meant both Pripyat and the plant itself. Some neat pics for my future girlfriend to admire. "And you can see in the distance behind the ferris wheel, you have the da-la-da apartment, and this and that, and over there, in the distance, you can just see the Chernobyl plant and the nests crows have made on it-"
Oh, stop fantasizing, silly me.
It was late at night and I had finally found a decent tour.
This tour package was a seven-day tour to the town of Pripyat and the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. We would be provided radiation suits and other gizmos. No guns. I was hoping for guns.
A short breakdown: It spent three days in Slavutych, a town near Pripyat, and we'd take a van to and from the two towns every day, taking pictures and all that good stuff. Then we'd get some camping gear (included with the tour) and drive over to The Zone, and camp there. We would venture near the plant and its surrounding sites for four days before heading back to the airport and flying back to America. Sweet.
I scrolled past down the cheery customer reviews that had obviously been faked (This tour great. Nancy D. California. I mean what?) and saw that the price was affordable. $1000 US dollars. I had a decent job to support me, and I had enough money to pay for both this tour and my apartment, so I scrolled down further to see where I could pay, since I had that $1000 in cash, not credit. Seeing that they only accepted credit, I sent an email to their company email address asking if I could pay, in advance, in cash. A few minutes later, they said that they had a contact in Manhattan that could meet me at Barnes'. It was a local coffee shop a few blocks away from my apartment. I said okay to that, and that was it; I was booked.
Morning was cold.
Nope. Not morning. Afternoon.
Which mean that the morning was even colder.
Oh, what was I saying.
Anyways, I spent a few more hours than I would have liked to spent searching up Chernobyl and all that good stuff. It was now 11:00 A.M., and the appointment was at 12:30 P.M. 90 minutes for me to get changed, grab lunch, eat lunch, meet my contact, pay, and think through all of this.
And of course, I had the afternoon, which I could spend playing S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and getting further creeped out by the place.
I was starting to have second thoughts about this, but then my thoughts returned to the previous day, and the sound a taxi door makes when it's slammed in your face by a smoking hot girl who's your age.
No. I made a pact with myself the previous day, and I would abide by that pact for the rest of my life.
But it's fine to make a few exceptions here and there, right?
I stuffed two thousand dollars (just in case, y'know?) into my coat pocket, and opened the door, and that is how alcohol I was greeted by a strong gust of wind that instantly turned my face numb.
I walked. I walked to get me over my second thoughts. I walked to wake me up from the lack of sleep I got the previous day. A secondary reason for walking was also to pass by Charles, who was the local friendly hot dog vendor.
"Hey, Mike," he greeted me as I shut my eyes against another strong gust of wind.
"Uh, Charles, one- no make that two doggies."
"Doggies, eh?" He chuckled. "You get more and more creative every day, Michael."
Yeah. You have no idea.
He packed the two hot dogs into a plastic bag, since he knew I was walking into town, and probably would stuff my other hand into my pocket, and he asked for payment. My pockets were stuffed with 100 dollar bills, and I was running short on time, so I just grabbed a bill, threw it at him, and asked him to keep the change. Hey. Charity.
As I walked to Barnes', I realized that I was indeed waking up- waking up to the abruptness of my decision. I had the sudden urge to run back to Charles, hug him, and ask him for change. But my contact was probably enjoying a horrible latte in Barnes' already, so I tried my best to shield myself from the cold and from my regret.
Half an hour later, I made my way into Barnes', and into a crowd of tired customers recovering from hangovers lining up for a coffee that would make you want to drink so much alcohol to mask its taste that you'd be lining up here for another hangover.
I scanned the tables for a Russian-looking man. Of course, there are tons of Russians in Manhattan, and my contact could be an American, so I searched the tables for single men. There was, strangely enough, one.
I made my way over to the table as a drunken couple shouted over the sound of crows outside for their coffee.
"Chernobyl dude?" he interjected.
I sat down, trying to make enough space for me and my coat. "Huh? Oh, yeah, Chernobyl dude. That's me."
"Welcome aboard, man." He gave me a high-five.
"So, uh, we do what now?"
"We wait for you to finish your hot dogs, then we talk about money, then we talk about the tour. And the monsters." He laughed at his joke.
I realized that I was still clutching the plastic bag full of hot dogs. I wasn't hungry any more, so I offered a hot dog to my contact, who happily chowed it down, grimacing as he washed his quick meal down with Barnes' specialty: Americano.
"Is this place usually a crow-magnet or something?" he commented. The crows were raging outside.
"I don't know," I said after some reasoning. Crows don't usually come to this part of town. "It's strange for crows to come here at this time of year. Hey, uh, by the way, what's your name?"
"I'm Anthony. I've been to Chernobyl and its surrounding area, including Pripyat. I've made it back six times." He grinned.
"'Made it back?' Is that what you guys nickname 'Coming back from Chernobyl'?"
"Well," he admitted, "with all the negative attitude towards that place, and all of that, well, stuff, it's fun to give it a nickname. Though," he explained, "it's kind of dangerous around there. Radiation, not monsters. You won't find any monsters there. The only monster you'd find is going to be Alex, our driver." He laughed again at his poor attempt at a joke.
We, or rather, I ate in silence as it began to snow outside.
"Did you know that it's dangerous to eat snow in Chernobyl?" Anthony said. "Could get you radiation sickness. Or worse."
"Does it even snow in Chernobyl?" I asked. "I mean, with the radiation and all?"
He turned back to me. "You might have done your research, big guy, but I can assure you, you will have a great time with our tour company in Chernobyl. You came to see me about payment?"
I nodded, and we went over a quick discussion about what would be covered, and what wouldn't be covered. Basically, a thousand US dollars was enough to cover everything in our week-long trip, including camping gear, food, medical equipment (this was when he whipped out a medical form for me to sign and also the time where he remarked that I was one of the healthiest people joining the tour), and the like. He then asked for the thousand dollars, which I handed to him. He then got up and said that he would see me again on the tour, which was to take place two days from now- Sunday- and he said to "keep digging". I'm not sure what that meant, but with Anthony and his bad jokes, I'm sure that he knew what that meant.
"It was nice meeting you, uh..."
"Michael Loggins. Same goes for you, Anthony."
"Alright. Thanks for the hot dog, man. Could you tell me where you got it?"
I told him.
He made his way through the maze of people still standing in line and out the door, gazing, apparently, in wonder at the snow, and sticking out his tongue, twitching slightly as the snow reached its destination and melted into its liquid form.
I looked down at the table, and realized I didn't touch the hot dog meant for me. I left a 100 dollar bill on the table, using the hot dog as a weight to hold it down.
When I got home, I realized I had nothing to do except pack.
That took up most of my afternoon. I then heard my stomach crying out for nourishment, and I took my coat out again to walk to Charles.
"You know," he said as he prepared my hot dogs, "with the business booming and all, I don't think it's necessary for you to, well, advertise." He wrapped my hot dog with a paper sheet. "Garnishes?"
"The usual. Hey, uh, did Anthony tell you? About my 'advertising'?"
He carefully dropped a few spoonfuls of onions onto the hot dog.
"I don't know who that guy's name was, but he done bought me dry. Had to go back and get some more 'doggies'!"
He chuckled, and handed the hot dog to me. He knew I knew the price. I gave the money to him, and he joked if I wanted back the change from this morning. I didn't.
As I walked away, a crow flew over and perched itself on my shoulder. I swatted at it, but it wouldn't budge.
Right as I was about to punch it, it cawed the loudest caw ever, piercing right through my ear to my brain. I reeled over in pain as Charles ran over to help me and the crow flew away."
"Hey, Mike, you want another hot dog? Here, here, I've got the money for the other dog."
I could only shake my head as I slowly made my way to the apartment.
I slept without the taste of Charles' hot dog in my mouth that night.
I did some final preparations, and, as per Anthony's orders, kept on 'digging', finding more trivia about The Zone every day.
I got my meal clock back on schedule, and stayed at home for both lunch, dinner, and the time in between those meals.
I checked once more that I had packed the right things from the trip, and shambled over to my bed.
And I stopped in my tracks.
I usually open my curtains to let in the morning sunshine as a natural alarm clock. It works half the time.
Right now, though, next to my window, was a crow.
It tapped at the window, tap, tap tap.
And was it just me or was it smiling?
It cawed and flew away.
I had nightmares that night.
I forgot them all when I woke up.
I motioned for the taxi to stop at the right place at the airport, and I got out as he helped me open the trunk and drag my luggage to the terminal. I thanked (and payed) him.
"Hello, Michael!" Anthony was grinning wildly. He hugged me and introduced me to the rest of the group, who was already waiting. Apparently I was the final addition.
"We have a total of eight people in our group, including you. Here," he pointed to an elderly couple who smiled as they were picked out, "is Maria and Eric, parents of Anna," he pointed to a young woman busy texting on her phone,"and here," he pointed to a young couple that would become Maria and Eric in 50 years," is John and Alex. Don't confuse that Alex with this Alex," he placed his arm around a hulk of a man who chuckled when Anthony did that, "our driver. And then, of course, there's me, Anthony, your tour guide." He smiled broadly at this brief introduction. Alex the driver whispered some Russian to Anthony, whose face brightened up again. "Welcome aboard!" Alex the driver whispered some more Russian to Anthony, whose face brightened up even further (and blushed a bit, I might say). "Guys, here's Michael, the newest addition to our group!"
The tour group all came to shake my hand, apart from Anna, who was still busy with her phone. Eric went over to her and tapped her on the shoulder. She looked up at me, smiled, and shook my hand.
"My name is Anna- did our guide already say that?"
I nodded, the image of the crow still fresh in my mind.
If the crow wasn't in my mind, I would've asked her if she was single- but this was no time for that garbage. Right now I needed to get out of Manhattan and go somewhere else. Fast.
Anthony checked us in and about an hour later we were flying over to some airport that I had forgotten the name of. I was sitting next to John, with Alex the girlfriend sitting two seats to the left of me; Maria was to my right, across an aisle which the flight attendants populated, and next to her was John and Anna, staring blankly into space.
I was spending my time on the in-flight entertainment, and that left little to no time for small talk. Small talk would come later. Later, in Slavutych.
Of course, I was thinking hard about my decision. Should I really have booked the tour? The crows? Everything was a muddle. Nothing was clear.
Things would clear up soon enough, when we reached Chernobyl, I was sure.
And for once, I was right.
Written by 41488p
Note: this is part of The Zone series.