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.
I’m intrigued! Let’s have Robert share an excerpt…
The nurses at the reception desk were told not to stare at the late night visitor. He was a Ukrainian hero and deserved the highest level of respect. He arrived at midnight wearing sunglasses and a hoodie that covered most of his face. He said his name and the three nurses stood to welcome him as if honored by his presence. He was then led to Tania’s room. A wall light was lit above the bed. He didn’t recognize her.
Twenty-seven years had passed since the last time they spoke. Tania was worried that Yuri would miss their wedding. He told her not to worry. She could have had a huge ceremony if he had not been so naïve with Asimov. If he had said no to the Colonels request, Yuri would still be alive. Tania didn’t know this part of the story. She didn’t know the love of her life agreed to dive into the radiated water to protect his best friend.
It was his fault.
Samizdat adored the sisters but the government-owned newspapers wrote horrible articles about them. He plowed their path and never admitted so. Tania disappeared into obscurity, visited only by curious weekend thrill seekers. She has no hair and her skin is yellow.
It was his fault.
Alex pulled a chair next to the bed and touched her hand. She groaned but her eyes remained closed.
“I don’t know where to begin. I’m hoping you don’t open your eyes to see me speak. To watch the hurt in your eyes would be more painful than the burns on my face. I abandoned you Tania. I abandoned you to hide from life…and to hide from you. My memories of the days before the explosion are what allow me to wake each morning. They are my life force and I owe this to you and Yuri. Without the two of you, I would have been a lonely man with few true friends.
And I still abandoned you.”
“I thought you were dead,” Tania whispered.
A startled Alex let go of her hand and almost tumbled off his chair. “I’ve awoken you,” he said between excited breaths.
“If I remember correctly, it’s not the first time. Am I dreaming Alex?”
“No my friend,” he replied. “It’s me next to you.”
Tania rubbed her eyes attempting to see her friend better. “Why are you covering your face?”
Alex tugged on the top of his hoodie and lowered his head. He dared not remove his sunglasses fearing he would startle Tania. A patient on the other side of the room exhaled a long painful groan. This was followed by a seemingly chorused shuffling by the other patients. He closed his eyes. Everywhere he visited, there was suffering. It followed him like a shadow. Tania repeated her question.
“The left side of my face including my eye is scarred from radiation. In situations such as this, I am more comfortable not revealing my deformity. Please don’t ask me to do so.”
“And I look better?” Tania replied with a short snort. “I won’t ask you to do what you don’t want Alex. You were always a stubborn man anyway.” She paused. “I wish you had come see me many years ago but I’m thrilled to have you here.”
“I’ve wanted to sit with you for a long time,” Alex responded.
“Then why didn’t you?” Tania asked between short breaths. “Why do you choose now when my last breath is so near? Alex, we mourned your death. Your mother was heartbroken. I visited her little hut in the Exclusion Zone and it was a memoriam. Photos of you adorned every inch on every wall. Asimov gave her a medal from the Kremlin in your memory that was front and centre above the main room couch. She picked flowers and left them on your gravesite every day. She cried for years and died alone.” Tania inhaled a long breath. “I always wondered why your body was not entombed at Mitino.”
A full cup of water lay on the bed table and Alex handed it to his friend. She raised herself and sat upright. The sole light in the room warmed her bumpy, hairless scalp.
“They told me I saved the Soviet Union,” Alex whispered. “They told me I saved Europe. I was a hero in so many eyes…” His voice trailed for a few seconds and he continued. “I didn’t feel like a hero. The guilt was too heavy to endure. I ruined your life.”
“My life was not yours to ruin. You’re obviously here to say your peace so take a deep breath and tell me what has encumbered you all these years.” Tania stroked his hand with her fingertips. “Don’t fear judgment my old friend, it is not mine to deliver.”
Alex contemplated removing his sunglasses but did not. He had thought of this moment for more than two decades. The conversation took place hundreds of times while he lay in bed struggling to find sleep. He must stay strong.
“Asimov summoned us when someone from Pripyat mentioned Yuri and I were champion swimmers. I didn’t fully understand what the Commander was asking us to do but Yuri did. He didn’t chastise me when I eagerly volunteered. He was more concerned about you.
The suits they gave us were flimsy at best. After opening the sluice gates we tried to swim back as fast as we could but our legs were numb. My face stung like I had fallen on a bee hive. Smiles greeted us at the pond edge and pulled us out of the water. Within seconds I vomited, as did Yuri and Breshevski. I lay on my side and Breshevski was staring wide-eyed at me. I smiled, but he did not acknowledge me. His eyes were shining. I couldn’t understand how he could stare at me and not blink. Two men lifted him and as he was transported outside he yelled that Yuri and I were still in the water and someone had to save us. He was looking right at us. I learned later that his goggles were defective. By the time he reached the hospital his corneas had melted.
Yuri vomited for a second time in less than three minutes. His arms could not hold him and he slumped into his own regurgitation. I was about to stand when two comrades wrapped my arms around their shoulders and dragged me outside. Yuri was not far behind and was eased onto a stretcher while we waited for another ambulance. I wasn’t suffering like Yuri and was strong enough to kneel next to him. I was overcome with emotion when I looked at his bright red face. The skin on his forehead was cracked like a car window. I cried openly, and a photographer snapped a picture. Yuri mumbled that if I continued to cry he would start calling me Alexandra. These were the last words he would ever say to me. I couldn’t stop bawling. Asimov was nearby and put his hand on my shoulder. Paramedics lifted Yuri and placed him in the ambulance that had mercifully arrived. I yelled out his name. I told him I was sorry. I was trembling and frozen in place. I didn’t hear the cheers from the workers in the background. I didn’t hear Asimov whispering in my ear. I could barely move so I sat with my head on bent knees. My best friend may die and it was my fault. Flashing lights blurred my vision. More photographers had gathered to take more photos.
Asimov, with the help of a few men, got me into a jeep and we drove back to the same hotel that Kremlin dignitaries were staying. They gave me a room with a shower that I used until no hot water remained. Aside from the tingling in my face, I was fine. They brought me new clothes. I had dinner with the Colonel and some other man I have long forgotten. They praised my efforts. I asked for updates on Yuri but none were available except that he was being flown to Moscow. I told Asimov that Yuri’s fiancée had to be called. The other man made a note and mentioned that Yuri’s condition and whereabouts would be posted in every newspaper across the Soviet Union. Asimov found his assistant’s comment inappropriate and said he would fly to Moscow himself and I was not to worry.
I did worry. It was all I did for years to come.
I had the strangest dream. It was an evening of sleep I never forgot. I excused myself from dinner early and returned to my room. Within minutes I was sleeping. I remember four white walls, a white floor and a white door. I was yelling for someone to save me but no one came. Every time I reached to open the door it would disappear and reappear on a different wall. A bright light blinded me temporarily, and I realized the door had opened. The same light shone whenever the door opened except once. Yuri walked in through the lights and stood in front of me. He said nothing and shook his head with disapproval before leaving through the wall behind me. You were next Tania, and you did the same as Yuri. Mila followed, as did my mother, Yulia, David and many others. Each paraded by me with contempt in their eyes. The last person to visit was Valeri Markov, a man I knew from the academy. When he entered the room there was no bright light. The door opened and shut. He smiled, tapped me on the shoulder and sat in the far corner. I asked what he was doing and where he thought he was. He said he was sharing a room with me… in hell. I woke up. Firecrackers from May Day celebrations burst in succession. Drunken soldiers and liquidators were singing. My face hurt.
The next morning I told Asimov I would return to my duties. He replied that I was to rest and not to worry about work for the next few days. He handed me two bottles of vodka and a radio. I wanted a newspaper and one was delivered to me along with breakfast and a prostitute. She drank my vodka and ate my breakfast. I read a small blurb about Reactor Four and that all was safe. There was no mention of Yuri or Breshevski. Maybe tomorrow, I thought. The prostitute danced around the room with a bottle of vodka in her hand. She had undressed and wore only her panties. She spent most of the previous evening celebrating May Day with married politburo officials and smelled like liquor and old men. She passed out but not before puking on the curtains.
Kali: Was there an event or experience more than any other that inspired you to write this book?
I had written a lyric based on Chernobyl for a discussion board I used to frequent many years ago. There were several musicians who would attempt to write music for posted lyrics but for mine, everyone balked because it was fifteen verses long. I was told that the lyric was excellent but it would be better off as a novel. At the time, I was working on two teen novels and had no intention of beginning anything new, especially something that would require extensive research.
On March 11, 2011, the Fukushima power plant caught fire and I understood what was happening. I understood what the mainstream news media was omitting from their broadcasts. I understood the danger and I understood the tears that this accident would cause at that present day and way into the future. I found it frustrating to watch how our newscasts dropped Fukushima in two weeks for more pressing news like Lindsay Lohan’s twenty-second rehab assignment or somebody cheating on their spouse.
Marine life was being devastated or obliterated every second of every day. Japanese cities as far off as Tokyo were experiencing radioactivity levels ten times the norm yet western media and western audiences were no longer interested. For the sake of ratings, it was time to move on and I couldn’t accept this. I began researching 23 Minutes Past 1 A.M. and within a few months, I was writing the novel.
Mila Kharmalov is a woman who began life in the Sleeping Zone of Moscow before moving to the beautiful little city of Pripyat. She inherited a strong personality from her father and before the nuclear accident occurred, she was experiencing some marital problems.
A journalist searching for a feel good story launched Mila and her sister into a spotlight that neither wished to be part of and from that moment on, she became an iconic figure that many considered a nations role model. She is calculating, at times inhibited, but more importantly, Mila is fearless. It is this fearlessness that pushed her towards politics and it is her bravado that intimidated the people she should have tried to befriend. In the end, her ethics suffered and her final plan was more vindictive than logical.