Week 13

It was raining. For any normal man, riding through the downpour would be agonizing, the droplets cold and sharp. But Putin felt nothing.

After many hours of mental effort, Putin had learned to regulate his radioactivity; with iron will, he controlled even the elements now.

A centimeter before the rain could touch him, it fizzled and evaporated. Inside this thin protective glow, Putin was warm and dry.

Leaning into a sweeping curve, he entered a small river valley. The wind and rain blew harder in the notch, and Putin increased his glow.

Though his might could contain the decay of atoms beneath his skin, it could not halt the surges of memory that battered his mind.

He saw Mila, his wife, with her plodding waddle and face like a stuffed cabbage. Long ago she’d felt comforting, familiar—like an old couch.

But those days were past, the good feelings fading and flaking off like yellow paint from an old Lada. Now they were strangers … or worse.

When she learned of Chernobyl, she would think him dead. It was for the best. She could find some walrus from the nomenklatura to marry.

Others, though, would be looking for him. Surely he had been seen somewhere along the many miles he’d traveled: Glowing men can’t hide.

Suddenly lightening shattered the darkness. In the jagged glare, Putin saw the particle accelerator exploding and the face of Dr. Antonosky.

The subject! Putin realized he’d been so focused on recalling the distant past, he’d forgotten why he’d traveled to Chernobyl.

Who was the mysterious man Putin had been sent to interrogate? How was he different? Did he even exist? Astride the Yunker, Putin rode on.

Slowly, like noticing a hair inside a dumpling, the landscape began to seem familiar. No details stood out, but the smell …

The hunt was on: Putin could tell he was getting close to his goal. He rode the Yunker hard, pushing toward the forest ahead.

He felt compelled to turn down a gravel path, casually drifting the Yunker’s rear wheel on the loose rocks like an old motocrosser.

Nearing the giant old-growth fir, Putin saw no opening into the woods. He sped faster still, weaving through the increasingly dense grove.

He pushed the motorcycle off a small berm and launched it into the air, tailwhipping the Yunker like a salmon rushing upstream to spawn.

Closer came the forest; still Putin spied no passage, yet no fear did he feel. He had the calm confidence of a carnivore in its territory.

Putin rode the Yunker’s two-stroke howl with grace toward the darkened wood, over roots and rocks, his eyes ever level.

Rushing toward the impending wall of trees, Putin grabbed the brakes and threw his machine into a sideways slide.

A meter from a massive fir trunk, the Yunker stopped. Putin dismounted and stared at a faint track leading into the great, grim forest.