I don't really know why I wanted to go to Chernobyl. Perhaps it was because of the history? Perhaps it was to see what a post-apocalyptic would look like. I had always had a fascination with the place ever sense I had learned about it, and about radiation.
Radiation, the silent killer. Something that can be neither heard, nor smelled, nor felt, yet it can cause death in one of the most painful ways. I had watched lots of documentaries on the Chernobyl disaster and its aftermath, I was always intrigued by radiation and how it can kill you without you noticing until it's far too late. I did some research, and found out that while 400 roentgens were enough to kill a person, some of the workers from the power plant received over 1000!
Death by radiation has many of the accompanying symptoms: vomiting, nausea, etc. and in extreme cases there were reports of skin from the affected areas turning black and falling off. Many deaths took place within a few weeks or months of the disaster, though some of the more heavily irradiated ones died within a few days of the incident.
I believe it was a combination of fascination with the area and with the deadly radiation that can still be found in some parts that attracted me to the site. Strangely enough, people can book tours of Pripyat for a relatively cheap price. Luckily for me and two of my close friends, James and Henry, who shared the same interest, it was summer break and classes did not pick back up until August. The three of us had been saving our money for years in hope we could finally get the opportunity to go, and we eventually did that year.
With somewhat of a hassle, we arrived in Pripyat with our tour guide, Yuri. He was a middle aged man with grey hair. He wasn't very tall, but he was certainly strong and muscular. He had driven us there in an unmarked white van, something that's expected for tours. Getting into the town isn’t exactly easy, one has to go through various military checkpoints and what not that are mainly around the infamous Exclusion Zone, the zone that was isolated from the rest of the world because it was deemed too radioactive to live in.
The sight of the town was something I'd never forget. Buildings of all shapes and sizes, each in a different state of decay and disrepair. There were roots and weeds, even well sized plants growing out of the cracks that had developed on the asphalt. The overcast sky added to the grim atmosphere. If anyone wanted a picture of what a post-apocalyptic world would look like, one need not look any further than the ghost town of Pripyat. After letting us gaze at the sights for a few moments, Yuri told us he would let us walk around the city, but we were not allowed to go out of the city and that we were to meet him at the large Ferris wheel in two hours. We agreed and set off to explore.
We passed each of the run down tenements, asking one another which one would be the best to explore first. James pointed towards a large five-story tenement that had a caved in section of a roof. We both agreed that was as good as a place to start as any other and entered. Yuri had told us to be careful while we were in the buildings, stating that parts of them were prone to collapse. We heeded his advice and took things slowly. The first floor was completely void of anything, spare a few chairs and tables. The second floor had a series of small rooms which had all kinds of household materials arranged as though someone had been living here yesterday. Henry picked up an old piece of paper that had writing which neither of us could read except for the Cyrillic "CCCP" which the three of us knew as the USSR and a bold "1986". The two other floors yielded similar results, James had even found an old TV that was still plugged in.
We looked at our watches, it was 7:35, we had to meet Yuri back at the wheel by no later than 9 PM, so we quickly decided the next place we wanted to see was the school building. This place was probably the most fascinating in my opinion. The dusty desks still had opened books on them, illustrating innocent pictures alongside the Russian captions. The rooms were littered with gas masks, as if that would do anything to prevent the radiation from entering the skin of those children and teachers. There was even still writing on the chalk board in one of the rooms. It was as if we had taken a step back into the 80's.
8:00, one more hour until we had to go meet Yuri. The sun set below the of the buildings, leaving a small sense of eeriness amongst us. It was as if the shadows moved into crude forms while our eyes were focused somewhere else, only to appear natural once we brought our eyes to them. We merely decided to walk the blocks, keeping the large Ferris wheel in our peripheral vision until it was time to go. It was around this time that our experience turned from that of innocence to something… dark. As we rounded corners and observed the broken and shambled buildings, we couldn't help but feel that we were being watched. As if someone or something was in one of these hundreds of buildings, watching us with peering eyes. Although we never did tell one another this feeling of being stalked at the time, I am sure we all dismissed it as some sort of wild animal. The town of Pripyat had become a wildlife sanctuary since the disaster with the removal of humans.
It was only 8:25, and our mood had completely changed with the setting of the sun. The sun was just above the horizon, leaving a small amount of light left. We had decided to stick in a group and to never split up. James took his coat off of his waist and put it on. I kept looking around at the cracked and crumbling buildings, the overgrown trees, the cracked pavement and the many kinds of debris that lay strewn about. It was hard to imagine that at one point in history this place was a thriving city. It surprised me that it only took twenty-five years to turn a nice looking metropolis into an overgrown ghost town. And to think all of this was done by something you can't see, hear, smell, or taste.
8:45, we decided it was time to head to the Ferris wheel. It wasn't that hard at all to spot, for the towering object stood above all else in the city. Strangely enough, the amusement mark was scheduled to open just a few days after the accident. The Ferris wheel itself has become an icon of Pripyat and the Chernobyl disaster. Perhaps it symbolizes innocence lost by a tragic disaster?
The Sun was almost gone, and with that being duly noted, Henry took out his phone and turned on the flashlight to help guide our way. It didn't take us that long to get to the amusement park, Yuri was a smart thinker by telling us to meet him there. As we grew closer, the Ferris wheel grew larger. The amusement park was just around the corner. "I'm ready to get the hell out of here, place is getting creepy" James said quietly. The two of us nodded in agreement as we rounded the corner. Our feeling of relief was vaporized in an instant.
Yuri was not there, and it was 9:07 PM. The sun had set now, leaving us in the utter blackness of night, and Henry's flashlight did not help much. James cursed softly. The darkness had unveiled a whole new tone upon the city, a feeling of sinister darkness and eeriness. We assumed he was on his way, perhaps he had to get something from the van. We sat down on the broken asphalt and waited in the darkness, a never-ceasing feeling of uneasiness constantly upon us. The abandoned cities always did succeed in creeping me out. It was able to give anyone so many places to hide and just watch us from afar. James cursed aloud after finding no one waiting for us. I am sure Henry did the same, although he usually refrained from swearing unless it was under extreme circumstances. My heart sank to the bottom of my chest as fear overcame me. I wondered how we would ever get out of here with our only mode of transportation, besides walking, taken away from us. I was always in some aspects a paranoid person, and this set me off real bad. My brain started racing a thousand miles a minute, tons upon tons of illogical and poorly-based ideas and what-if scenarios pouring through. Henry, after having seen my distress, tried his best to calm me down.
“Look, everything’s going to be fine.” He said, “We just need to figure out what to do. Who knows, maybe they’re out looking for us right now!”
In most cases blanket statements such as “All will be fine” fail to lift my spirits and ease my concerns, however what never fails is logic, and in some cases, hope. The hope that they were looking us, that they could be on their way right now, was reassuring enough. “Y-you think so?” I asked. James chimed in as well, saying that with all those soldiers at the checkpoint, they could kill anything that tried to get in the way.
Suddenly, we heard something shoot across the asphalt, as if a giant spider had scurried across in great speed. It was close, whatever is was, it was close. Our heads immediately turned to the source, but the darkness left us practically blind and vulnerable to whatever was out there. Whatever it was eventually crawled into the tall grass and stopped, for we did not hear it any further. The three of us set in silence and fear. I set alongside them, trying to comprehend what thing could've made that noise. The way it sounded... it didn't sound natural, it couldn't be natural. "Probably a fox," Henry said.
Where the heck could Yuri be?
“S-should we stay here?” James asked.
“Well how else would Yuri find us?” Henry questioned in return
Well, there’s also… that thing out here.” I added.
As if on command, the rustling in the grass stared once again. We could hear the creature grunt as it crawled. It was crawling fast, we suddenly saw out of the corner of our eyes a black mass rush across the road with the speed of lightning, our eyes trying to follow it as best we could. Before we could even focus our eyes on the speeding figure, it had disappeared into the grass on the other side of the road. Henry shined his flashlight into the grass, our eyes noticing an object. I’m sure all of us were thinking it was human in some way. Its pale-gray color tainted that of the otherwise dark green flora.
With a low growl and a grunt, it sprinted across the road, Henry’s light failing to keep up with it. Henry shined his light into the grass, but couldn’t find anything. It must have been practically on its belly.
“It’s… it’s a wolf!” James declared
“What kind of wolf is pale-gray?” I asked back, my voice clearly emitting the fear that was engulfing me
“Well, lots of wolves are grey!” he retorted
“It didn’t have any fur, James!” I argued, my voice almost turning into a whine or a whimper.
The rustling continued as the creature moved around us. It moved slowly, however, and we could hear its low growl that was so quiet it carried with the wind. It jumped across the other side of the road again, all three of us throwing ourselves backward as it suddenly exposed itself once again before going back into cover. It continued this pattern, as if it was a wolf circling its prey.
“We need to get out of here!” I yelled
Henry shined his flashlight in all directions, looking for any sign of shelter that was close by.
“Do you see anything, anything at all?” James asked him. Henry didn’t respond, he was too busy looking frantically for any building or structure that was near us, for anything would be better than being out in the middle of a road way out in the open. James and I looked in opposite direction, I looking at one side of the road while he looked at the other. We hoped it was with this method that we would have a great chance of having an eye on the creature so that it could not sneak up behind us. It was with a shaking hand that I took out a tiny pocket knife I had since I was a young boy and flipped it open, prepared to use it in self-defense if the time came.
The creature once again jumped, but this time onto the road. The moon was behind it, and thus its features were hidden in darkness. We could tell, though, that its form was indeed human, but yet at the same time it looked to be something else. It was as if parts of its body were stretched at random, leaving its form to be abnormal and crude-looking. It growled at us as it made it inched towards us at an immensely slow rate. All three of us feared that it would pounce on us like a cat at any moment. James nudged Henry in a rather rough manner to find some sort of safe house, but Henry, not in the mood to be pushed around, shoved him back even harder.
“Guys! Stop fighting!” I hissed.
Henry’s light eventually revealed a cellar. He pointed to it, telling us that would be our best option.
“Okay, run fast, as fast as you can!” James told us, “On three! One, two, three!”
At his command the three of us bolted towards the cellar; the creature letting out a growl. I heard it leap from the grass and race towards us as fast as it could, eager to feed. None of us had to time to look at it, and I am sure none of us would wish to either, afraid of what grisly site would greet us. Henry was the first to reach the door, letting out a sigh of relief as he discovered it was unlocked. Without taking care to be the gentleman and letting us go first, something which was very unusual for him, he practically threw himself down the stairs. James and I went right after one another; I was the last and thus shut door behind us and began searching for a lock.
There was none.
“There’s no lock!”
We could hear the creature as it slammed against the door with hard force, almost knocking me off my feet. It started to scrape at the door with what we assumed to be its claws, its growls sending a shiver of fear down our spines. I tried with all my might to hold the door closed, my adrenaline was pumping vigorously in a situation of life or death. I knew that my adrenaline would have to run out soon, and thus I knew I couldn’t simply keep the creature at bay for however we were going to be staying here. I called down for assistance and for someone to find something to keep the door shut.
“Here!” James said, taking a nearby chair and giving it to me. I placed it under the door knob, sighing in relief as I slowly descended the stairs, my eyes locked on the door and not looking elsewhere until I had reached the last step.
The three of us fumbled in the dark and found two chairs and a stool and proceeded to place ourselves around each other in a small circle. James placed his phone down on the floor, the flashlight shining up while lighting our faces. The creature gave up as its scratching ceased, a small whine of defeat was emitted.
“Good god…” Henry whispered with anxiety, a hint of fear and energy in his breath that one only receives after having just escaped the grip of Death’s hand. I am sure James would have mocked him for being such a coward, but even he was catching his breath and calming himself down after what had happened, we all were.
“So, what the hell are we supposed to do now? That thing is out there!”
“We'll... wait until morning…” I replied
“Morning, are you nuts!?” James argued, “That’s over ten hours from now!”
“And risk leaving with that thing out there? Tell me, what odds are there is that it’s going to be out there when the sun is up?”
James remained silent for a moment or two before replying, perhaps hesitantly in submission, with an affirmation of my idea. Henry deemed it the best option we had, and thus we decided to make this decaying and smelly cellar our home for the next eleven hours or so. The both of us sat in silence for a good five minutes or so, not really knowing what to do or what to make of the situation we found ourselves in, much less having the ability to produce a decent conversation to pass the time. I did remember, however, that I had put a small pack of crackers in my pocket. I took them out and tore them open; they would have to suffice as our dinner. There were six of them, so to make things fair I handed two to James and two to Henry, leaving the other two for myself.
The three of us immediately downed the first, leaving the second for some time later.
It was at this time that I had immediately regretted not bringing any more packs of crackers. I thought about bringing an entire box with us that contained around 15 packs of those, however I eventually denied it and only brought one, believing we would be back to our Hotel in a while; James and Henry never were one for snacks anyway.
“Hey, Henry” James said, his speech being partially obstructed by the cracker he was chewing on.
“Didn’t they give us one of them… Geigulus counters?”
The three of us chuckled, Henry taking the liberty to clarify by asking if he meant a Geiger counter. James, having shown a small blush from the embarrassment, affirmed him.
“Do tell, how quickly are we killing ourselves?”
Henry took it out and turned it on. They had taught us how to use one, thankfully. “Well… they said the normal average dose was about… 0.01mSv, and the level here is… about 2.62mSv”
The three of us listened to the crackles the counter made. In all honestly, I found the sounds a Geiger counter made to be rather soothing. I don’t really know why I find it so comforting, but I do know that the sounds of a typewriter and things of that nature provide the same feeling of ease. “Heh, keep it on” I told him
“I don’t know… why not?”
Henry, after having not seen any negatives to it, proceeded to do so.
“Well guys,” James said, “How is this for a trip?”
Henry chuckled, “I reckon it’s better than staying at home…”
“It’s an interesting one” I added.
“Do you think anyone will believe us If we told ‘em we had encountered a mutant creature?” Henry asked
“Do we even know if that thing outside is hostile? I mean… we could be sitting in here for nothing!” James replied back, thinking aloud
“Number one,” I stated, “It could be a wolf, or something. Whatever it was, it was circling us, and I doubt that is good. Second, it sure as hell beats standing outside in the open! At least here there’s a semblance of comfort and safety from the outside.”
“It could’ve been the wind…” he continued.
“It was pale-grey! It had to have been an animal!”
“Damn…” Henry sighed.
“What?” we both asked in almost perfect unison
“My battery’s almost dead… we’re gonna have no light in a minute or two, guys…”
James and I cursed under our breaths. “How much you got left?” I asked.
“One percent” he said, the both of us proceeding to curse again.
Within a few moments, the light went dark. The single thing that provided us a tiny bit of solace, being able to see our surroundings and being able to take comfort in the fact that they were safe, was gone. The three of us instinctively moved closer to one another so that we could at least find comfort in knowing that we were next to one another. The only light in the room was the faint glow from Henry’s Geiger counter.
“So, wanna hug?” I asked sarcastically. With the response of laughter and a slap on the head, I felt it was indeed worth it.
“Hmm… I wonder…”
“Hmm?” I asked to James.
“Do you think we’d get some kind of… compensation… for our tour guide abandoning us in this place? Some money, or a free trip, or… something?”
“I don’t know” I replied, “But if they did give us money… how much do you think it would be?”
“One thousand dollars!” he exclaimed.
I laughed. “Dude... Ukraine isn’t exactly the richest country… and besides, why would they risk the money on three guys who got left in Chernobyl?”
“Because we almost died!”
“It won’t be much, if it’s anything at all.”
“They should at-“
“Uh… guys…” Henry interrupted.
What?” James asked, a bit irritated by the sudden interruption.
“W-why does this thing say the levels are going up?”
Henry explained to us that the levels of radiation were going up, albeit slowly, for no apparent reason, as far as we could tell. “Is it broken? James asked. Henry, having at least some knowledge on techy gizmos, said that it couldn’t have been, as there was no reason for a malfunction. I asked him if he was holding it closer to the ground, as radiation tends to cling to soil and many forms of matter. He said he wasn’t.
As if on command, the creature that had been for some time kept at bay by its own boredom rediscovered its interest in capturing new prey, taking the care to show its newfound zeal by scratching at the cellar door stronger and in a more intense manner than before.
“It’s back again!” I shouted.
The creature, becoming stronger by the minute, was able to stab its long claws through the wooden door. The three of us fell back onto the floor in shock. Its claws were long and sharp, and if we hadn’t seen its form to be human while in the brush, I believe all of us would’ve assumed it to be some sort of wild animal. The creature began to shout and snarl, tearing at the door more frantically, almost whelping in what appeared to be a sense of fear and distraught. “What’s it trying to get away from?” James asked; none of us answered back.
Henry began to slowly walk forward closer to the door with the Geiger counter. To this day I still don’t know if it was out of a hunch or if he did it for no reason at all, but he found that with each step he took, the radiation levels spiked dramatically. “The radiation levels are soaring!” he exclaimed. None of us were concerned to ask how high they were going, perhaps because we were picked up in the fright of what was upon us, what with the creature attempting to tear down our door. He looked through the claw hole for a second, I reckon to see if he could get a glimpse of the creature, before jumping back in fear, falling down the stairs with a pale-white face of absolute shock and horror; he had a large cut right above his eye from where one of the claws had scratched him. Henry held is hand up to the cut and winced in pain. After asking if he was alright, which he said he was, I turned my attention to the door.
“James, if that think breaks it down any more, we’ll have to hold it back, y’understand?”
James, always willing to be as macho as he possibly could, obliged. It should be said that even he had a tremble of fear in his voice. The creature tore down even more pieces, some of them falling down the stairs unto our feet. I did truly believe this is how we were to die, being trapped inside a tiny cellar in the Ukraine, mauled to death by a creature we could not escape. I quickly took one of the chairs that we were using and ran up to add it to the barricade.
Suddenly, a deep and firm rumble began to come from an unknown source. It seemed as if the very foundations of the Earth were shaking uncontrollably. The shaking became more and more intense, with the rumble increasing in volume. It was around this time that a bright light, incredibly bright, shined through the windows. We didn’t even see anything outside, it was as if the light enveloped everything, leaving nothing but the rays. After dissipating within a few seconds, it revealed the sky and the nearby surroundings, having been lit up as if it were day time. The sky was completely enveloped in thick, dark clouds. Queer colors of blue, red, green, and the like coloring the sky in what I assumed to be some sort of rare event of light particles. Intense lightning and thunder exploded in the sky.
“W-what!?” I screamed.
The wind picked up extremely, the trees and plants being pulled in a single direction. The noise of the wind was incredible; it was as if a tornado was enveloping us. I could’ve sworn I saw leaves and branches being torn off, pieces of debris that were not held down and light enough flying in the direction that the wind was blowing. The foundation that we were under creaked immensely, I couldn’t help but fear that it would collapse underneath us. It was slowly but surely, however, that the rumbling, wind, and the lights calmed down. It was a good few minutes or so before they completely vanished, leaving us in darkness once more. All three of us just laid on the ground for what seemed like forever after having seen such a bizarre event. The sound of the creature was lost sometime during the spectacle as the roaring overcame all, and now that it had left, there was nothing but absolute silence. Not even the chirp of crickets or the occasional blow of wind graced us with their presence; it was total and utter silence.
“G-Guys” Henry muttered.
“Guys!” he exclaimed once more after we had said nothing.
After having taken a few seconds to process his calling, I finally responded with a “W-what, Henry?”
“The radiation levels, they were 7,500, at least!”
Once again, the both of us said nothing.
Henry crawled to a corner of the room and sat down, cradling the Geiger counter as if it were his own child. I eventually noticed him and went to sit down beside him after having noticed he had a look of great concern on him.
“What’s wrong?” I asked him, a hint of fear in my own voice..
“7500… do you know how much that is?”
“I-is it… bad?” I asked hesitantly.
“We’re… not going to make it, p-probably” He said shyly, his voice trailing off towards the end.
“What do you mean we’re not going to make it?” I asked loudly.
“We’re not going to make it? What do you mean!?” James shouted, finally tuning in on our conversation from afar.
“Don’t you understand? We won’t live!” Henry said firmly.
The three of us did not know anything more to say. We each took to our own separate corner of the cellar, reflecting on our own thoughts and how we would approach life and the future believing there was a great chance we might die. We spoke not another word to each other for the rest of the night. James and I tried to sleep some, but most of it was unsuccessful, us only being able to sleep in thirty minute intervals before being woken up again for the most trivial reasons. Henry didn’t sleep at all, he spent, from what I could tell, most of the night cradling that Geiger counter as he sat in that corner.
It was around the hours of the early morning that we heard motors running. It was faint at first, but soon became louder. Eventually they grew to where we knew they were right outside. James took the liberty to wander upstairs to the door. “It’s… soldiers!” he exclaimed. The other two of us walked up there as quickly as we could, trying our best to look out the window. It only took us a few seconds before we knew what to do.
We opened the door and walked out before stopping in our tracks as soldiers, who appeared to be escorting a small military convoy, pointed their weapons at us. We instinctively raised our hands in the air, not wanting to be shot after having nearly escaped death. We were quickly arrested and boarded onto a truck which took us back to one of the military checkpoints at the entrance of the exclusion zone. After it was discovered that we were indeed tourist who had, much to their disbelief, been abandoned by our tour guide and forced to spend an entire night in the city, we were let go. One of the soldiers gave me his flask of vodka, telling us he was sure what we had gone through was “hellish, to say the least”.
That was how the story ended for a week or so before symptoms of the episode started appearing in all of us. It was when we were back in the States that I had developed severe diarrhea, major headaches, and intense nausea. Upon eventual hospitalization, it was found that I was suffering from Acute Radiation Sickness. After having found that I absorbed an incredible amount of radiation, one which the doctors told me I would succumb to in a few weeks or so, I was forced to deal with the fact that this hospital bed would indeed be my death bed.
It was a while later when Henry came by to see me. The scar above his eye had healed and he looked, at least to me, to be in decent health. Our talk we had was nothing out of the ordinary until I jokingly brought up him falling down the stairs while looking through the door. His expression turned dark and unamused instantly.
“W-what?” I asked with curious innocence.
“You don’t know what was behind that door, do you?”
I assumed that question was a completely rhetorical one that the both of us knew the answer to, as neither Henry, nor I, nor James, spoke of the experience as whole much since we got back, much less about what Henry could’ve seen behind that wooden door.
“It was pale-gray, and it was a human…” he muttered.
“And?” I asked after he refused to do nothing more but stand beside me in awkward silence.
“It wasn’t an ordinary human.”
“How so?” I asked further.
“Well,” he continued, “Its eyes were… bulgy and irregular, they didn’t necessarily pop out, but they did seem rather bigger than any normal human’s”.
He went on to describe how its mouth was open and that it revealed a mouth full of row upon row of sharp teeth that he described to be the teeth of a Canine’s. Its face, he said, was disfigured and distorted into a bizarre fashion that he felt couldn’t be explained or described even if he tried his hardest. With giving me this brief description, he suddenly gave me a “Sorry, I have to go, I don’t feel that well” and left in a hurry. Within a few days I learned he too was hospitalized.
It’s been a week and a half since our trip, and already things have taken a rapid decline. I regret to say that James succumbed to Acute Radiation Sickness two days ago and I am quickly going to be following him. Henry is in a slightly better state than I am, but not much. However, he is in the same hospital I am. I asked the nurses and doctors several times if I could be moved beside him, or visa-versa, but each request I made about the issue was denied politely, each rejection featuring a complex excuse.
I never learned what happened to our tour guide, Yuri. I wonder if he made it out alive or died, or if he just forgot about us and never came to pick us up. Either way, I don’t really think about him that much, for most of my thoughts are about my friends and family and how I am going to settle all of my affairs before I go. Many hours are taken up by just me thinking about what will happen when I’m gone. What’s hardest to believe, however, is that my life is being snuffed out by something I can’t even sense.