Author: Robert J. Dornan
Genre: Historical Fiction
In the early morning of her sister's wedding day, Mila Kharmalov stared in stunned silence at the coloured sparks streaming from Reactor Four of the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant. At that very moment, her life and the lives of everyone she knew changed forever.
Years later and on another continent, Adam Byrd was writing biographies for everyday people looking to leave their legacy in book form. When the woman he loved phoned from Kiev offering him the chance to write the story of a lifetime, he jumped at the opportunity not realizing that his voyage would be a bumpy ride through a nations dark underbelly. With the help of his friend's quirky cousin, Adam is nudged into a fascinating adventure of love, greed, power and psychotic revenge, culminating with a shocking finale.
23 Minutes Past 1 A.M. is a work of fiction based on factual events from Chernobyl and villages throughout Ukraine.
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“Oh, for the love of God… shut up!”
Okay, I didn’t actually say that, but I was thinking it. Trust me, if you were in the same situation, you would be thinking the same.
My name is Byrd. It’s a surname that has inherited a great amount of teasing from a young age but if there’s any consolation, it’s spelled with a “Y” like the Renaissance composer and not an “I” like the Boston Celtics basketball player or your common flying rodent. My friends get a kick out of it and have recently begged me to join Twitter because whenever I send a message, my followers can brag they received a tweet from a Byrd. When trends are catching up to you, you gotta know you’re riding the edge of something or worse – falling off the aforementioned edge.
My tiny name insecurity has led to me ask everyone I meet to call me by my first name, which is Aaron. Yet, like everything else in this world, when you think you’ve got it bad, you can rest assured that someone has it worse. I have suffered the à propos amount of name calling but nothing - and I mean nothing - like my cousin, whom I adore simply because of the courage she has to wake up in the morning. Why you ask? Her first name is Robin.
Some parents don’t deserve their children.
A few years ago, I had an epiphany of sorts and decided I would go into business for myself, writing biographies for average, everyday people who wished to leave some sort of legacy for their children and family. Pretty good idea eh? Not really but I guess Lady Luck shone upon me as the business took off fairly quickly. Word of mouth spread and I was soon juggling three clients a month. When I launched an Internet site half a year ago, my clientele shot up to eight a month. Do the math at fifteen hundred bucks a crack and minimum costs. Even I can’t believe how fortunate I am considering any other writing adventure I have finished in the last decade has been a dismal failure.
Auto-biographies is not difficult work as long as my recorder functions properly and since I’ve created a template of questions, I’ve found I can complete a minimum one hundred page life story in five days or less if the customer doesn’t call with new information, which of course was often the case. Hey, I was taking a crap this morning, and I remembered a crazy night that involved magic mushrooms and a fat chick named Glory. Experience has taught me that editing for future generations of grandchildren is a gentle topic.
My workload is divided between the very interesting and those who had nothing much to be proud of other than offspring who I figure will eventually turn out just as boring. Today’s client fit the latter profile to perfection.
Rhonda Greenberg was pretty for a middle-aged housewife. Actually, she was drop-dead gorgeous and defining her as a housewife is a misnomer. Her hair was dyed blond to hide the grey that sprinkled her natural brunette but to be fair, the blond suit her. She jogged every day and bragged that she could do two hundred sit up’s in a row. Based on what I was staring at whenever she looked elsewhere, I had few doubts of her exercise routine. In fact, before I learned more about her, I would have considered dating the woman if she wasn’t married. That’s the beauty of attraction, ain’t it? Once we get to know someone better our hormones take a nose dive. Well, not always but if I was a betting man I would lay down my cash each and every time.
Anyway, Rhonda fit the profile of someone I would have dived into if she never said a word but once that mouth opened and she started to drop the f-bomb every second sentence, I kind of went limp. I felt like asking her where she hid the moonshine and straw hats but in the end, fifteen hundred bucks will never be something I’ll say no to, so here I was sitting in the expansive dining room with the posh motif listening to Rhonda talk about her cheerleader days.
Yah... big surprise there.
Not surprising was that this gorgeous woman had found herself a sugar daddy and lived in a home that could only be illustrated as a mini palace. Chandeliers hung from the front hall, in the kitchen and oddly enough outside the first floor bathroom. Clearly, sugar daddy did not pay much attention to Rhonda’s lack of vocabulary or design skills and hell, I don’t blame him.
My buxomly client was about to detail how she lost her virginity to her second cousin while their families were observing a religious fast when mercifully my cell phone rang. Looking at the call display, I saw a very long phone number, which looked more like Bill Gate’s paycheck than any phone number I was accustomed to reading. I was tempted to push the Ignore button but my curiosity got the best of me and I answered hello while lifting a finger, asking Rhonda to hold on.
“Aaron, it’s Lena,” the sexy voice began.
I nodded my head after figuring out the long string of digits was coming from Ukraine. Realizing a need for quiet and privacy, I excused myself from the mammoth dining room and headed to the equally huge front hall. I rolled my eyes when a brooding Rhonda exhaled an exaggerated long sigh.
My friend Lena mentioned last week that she had to fly to Kiev but did so in a rushed text message, which was something that has always bugged the shit out of me. I have told her a countless number of times that it is so much easier to pick up a phone and call but for some unknown reason she is more comfortable with impersonal typing on tiny buttons. Personally, I think she’s conscious of her accent and preferred this mode of communication but I gotta tell ya that this is just silliness because Lena’s voice is both soothing and alluring with only a hint of inflection. I’ve never struggled to understand what she’s saying, so that being said I have to believe she persists on texting just to irk me.
I met Lena at a lackluster conference about three years ago and we immediately hit it off. I can’t recall exactly how we met but we sort of bumped into each other and have remained friends since then. We tried dating but something didn’t click and agreed to stop before our friendship suffered. In hindsight, I wish I knew why things were so awkward at that specific time but no matter how I try to piece together those few months, I can’t find an answer as to why we couldn’t make it work. One thing for sure, I’ve always found Lena rather guarded and not willing to share more than she has to. There were other obstacles of course and many had to do with my experiences with Eastern European women. Don’t get me wrong, Lena is extremely attractive and at times hilarious but in the back of my mind I always waited or expected for the crazy temper to burst through. A temper I have witnessed all too many times from pampered Russian princesses. Aside from that, there was a weird stigma attached to these girls, like they were all con artists working for the mob or some Russian pimp.
“Hey Lena,” I answered, “Good to hear your voice. Wassup? Where are you?”
“I have arrived in Kiev yesterday but had no manner in which to call you,” she answered.
Okay, I’m flattered to say the least but not quite sure why she found it necessary to contact me while on vacation.
“Aaron, my aunt is very ill. The doctors insist she has only three weeks, maybe less to live.”
“Oh,” I said still dumbfounded and wondering what this had to do with me.
I felt a pang of despair for my friend realizing that these situations are never easy. I peeked around the corner into the dining room and saw Rhonda staring at me with blank eyes wondering when I would be done talking so that she could continue talking.
“I’m sorry to hear this but it’s good that you’re there with her.”
Damn, that was lame. I never have any clue what to say in these circumstances.
“This is the aunt I told you about,” Lena replied, fully realizing that I wasn’t following her. “She lived in Pripyat before the nuclear reactor accident.”
Bells whistled in my head and my attention was now focused entirely on the phone call. Lena had once mentioned that if ever I should write a biography on anyone, it should be her aunt.
“Oh yah, I remember now. Pripyat is close to the Chernobyl nuclear plant.”
“Aaron, she has agreed to speak with you but you must leave immediately. Is your passport up-to-date?”
“Say what?” I replied almost too comically. “You want me to fly to Kiev? Are you kidding me?”
“No, I am not kidding you”, she answered back with a hint of anger. “There is a flight leaving Pearson Airport tonight. I checked for seating and there are still some spots available so if you hurry there will be no problem. Call my friend Anna, she is a travel agent and she will book it for you. I will text you her phone number in five minutes.”
I was uncertain how to reply other than, “Another text Lena?” I knew in my gut that this could be the story I had been waiting for since the day I began writing biographies. More than likely, every other piece of work I had written beforehand would pale in comparison.
“This is gonna max out my credit card,” I blurted sheepishly.
My response did not please Lena and I could hear her grumble thousands of miles away. I coughed hoping she would quickly forget my unintentional rudeness.
“This is going to change your life, stop being so indecisive. Text your flight number and I will meet you at the airport. You will stay with my relatives. If anything Aaron, you will do this for me and our friendship.”
She said goodbye without giving me a chance to defend my position and I was left shaking my head in wonderment as was often the case when dealing with Lena.
I hurried back to the dining room, apologized to an extremely displeased Rhonda, packed my laptop and then sped to my apartment. Lena had already text her friend’s phone number and I called the travel agent the second I walked through my front door. The midnight flight was booked fifteen minutes later. The first thing I did following my phone call was surf the Internet for weather in Kiev and then packed accordingly. I was to expect lots of rain and temperatures between ten and fifteen centigrade, which was normal for mid-April. After throwing whatever clean clothes I could find into a suitcase, my final task was the most difficult, and that was of course, calling my mother and letting her know where I would be. She approved of Lena but not of the culture she came from. No matter how many times I explained that Lena was Ukrainian and not Russian, my mom could not let go of her antiquated beliefs. I took most of this with a grain of salt especially since the day she described Russia as the land that nurtured Stalin and John Lennon.
At six a.m. the next day I was flying over the English Channel, eight hours from Kiev.
As anticipated, Lena met me at Kiev International at 9pm Kiev time. Her blond hair was hanging free of her normal head bands and she wore a short blue skirt that accentuated her near perfect body. When she wrapped her arms around my hips the smell of her hair excited me to no end and I was suddenly wide awake. She didn’t normally dress so revealing so I was surprised, albeit very happy.
“Kiev agrees with you," I complimented.
Judging from her puzzled facial expression, I could tell she was not certain what I meant but had a general idea and it pleased her. After seventeen years in Canada, Lena had still not caught on to many simple expressions.
"I am worried of gaining ten pounds a day. If the prepared food is not sweet, it is filled with mayonnaise. You’ll need new pants by the time we return home.”
Well, in your case it’s ending up in the perfect spots, I thought to myself. “We’ll have to take long walks after each meal. I’m looking forward to meeting your family.”
Lena smiled at the long walk comment. “And they are excited to meet you; I said some nice things. I should warn you that they may have mistaken my words as you being my boyfriend. My Russian is not as strong as it used to be and not only that, many of my family refuses to speak Russian and will only speak Ukrainian so that makes it even more difficult for me.”
“Don't worry about it. I liked being your boyfriend when I was actually your boyfriend so you won't hear me complaining.”
Lena looked me in the eye and half-grinned shyly before turning away. Okay, what I am about to say will sound incredibly vain or perhaps over hopeful but I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t believe it. Truth be told, I believe that Lena is in love with me and has been for at least the last two years. For whatever reason, she prefers to remain friends and as I said earlier, I don’t get it, as it makes no sense. From what I know from our circle of friends, she has never discussed her feelings with anyone even though many suspect that she wishes that she and I were still together. Anyone who ever saw the two of us chatting at parties or over dinner would come to the same conclusion. The comfort level, the laughter and the obvious sexual tension are as evident as the nose on your face.
I didn’t sleep a wink on the flight and never do on an excursion with moving parts. I once stayed awake throughout a two-day train ride to Moncton. My girlfriend at the time said that by the end of the trip I resembled a ninety-year old Robin Williams on Quaaludes. After a quick stop at a washroom – yah, I was feeling the effects of eight coffees - we stepped outside and found a taxi almost instantly. Lena got in the smallish vehicle first and told the driver where we were heading. I found it odd, and to a certain degree annoying, that she kept looking out the back window. I decided to keep this to myself as arguing half an hour after arriving was never a good idea.
“We can't visit my aunt this evening," she said, buckling her seatbelt while advising me to do the same. "It is much too late but I have asked permission for tomorrow morning.”
I didn’t understand the permission remark and like the rear window scenario, my Spiderman senses told me it would be better not to inquire.
“How is she doing?”
“Considering her situation, I would like to say as fine as expected.” Lena replied. “She is in good spirits and burst into tears when she realized who I was. It was very touching Aaron, a moment I will never forget.”
This perplexed me a bit, so I had to ask the obvious. “She has no photos of you?”
“Yes she does but face to face is different. She has been living in the Exclusion Zone for the last fifteen years.”
This piece of information confused me even further and Lena caught on swiftly.
"In time Aaron, there is much to learn. For now I will explain the Exclusion Zone as surrounding villages in and around Chernobyl. It was a very lonely life for her and for the few that choose to live there.”
I wanted to ask why she had preferred such and existence but decided to wait. Even if I had asked, Lena could only have answered what she had been told by her relatives. So instead, I asked the most palpable of questions.
“How does she look?”
Lena shrugged. "She looks like someone who has lived with radiation for twenty-five years. Most of her hair is gone...she has yellowish skin and a few open sores on her arms. The nurses have wrapped the wounds with gauze but she scratches nonstop as if she is filing her nails. She looks like a dying woman, a woman who is prepared and welcome to die yet she has summoned the energy to speak with us.” Lena looked out the rear passenger window for a few seconds and then glanced back at me. “What has both intrigued and disappointed me Aaron is that my relatives are not as anxious to visit her as I. It is disturbing to say the very least and when I question my cousin Boris as to why, he refuses to answer. I want to slap him…but he is a grown man and I am sure he has his reasons.”
Strange, I thought. “I did some research last night, which seems like an eternity ago, but I read that the citizens of Pripyat were not very welcome when they were evacuated.”
“Let my Aunt Tania tell her story,” Lena said quietly. “Hearing it first hand is better than an article off the Internet.”
I agreed and held Lena's hand. Thankfully, she did not push away and instead held my hand tightly.
Within half an hour, we arrived at the home of Lena's cousin, a heavy set man with one brow that seemed to begin and end at each ear. He was much darker than everyone else in the room and appeared to me as someone with a Gypsy heritage. He was introduced as Boris Kharmalov, a merchant who owned a successful cell phone store. It was obvious the man was doing well as his apartment in central Kiev was very large with every imaginable luxury. I was amazed at the size of the dwelling considering contradictory stories that clearly said most residents of this city lived in one bedroom apartments. This home had three bedrooms, a spacious chrome kitchen and a living room the size of six pool tables. Original paintings hung on most walls and a large television graced the wall in front of a leather lounger. I was graciously welcomed by several of Boris’s friends including a couple of stunning women who hung on every word Boris spoke. Before I had an opportunity to shake hands with every guest, I was handed a shot glass of Vodka.
"Drink," Boris said with a heavy accent. “Welcome to my home, Aaron.”
It didn’t take me long to notice that Boris was near fluent in English although I didn’t ask where or when he learned a second language. Three hours and several shot glasses later, I was allowed to say goodnight and sleep came very quickly. The only thing I cared to remember this morning was that Lena never left my side the previous evening and more amazingly, was lying next to me when I awoke.