The Liquidator by Antonina Vovka

It wasn’t a  clean shot this time. The dog, a once beatiful brown retriever, jumped up with a squeel and dropped onto the ground. Whining and convulsing, it was desperately trying to crawl away from Sergey, when  he heard a noise from the backyard. Taking a last look at the dog and deciding that it doesn’t have long to live anyway, Sergey sighed and quietly started moving towards the back  door of the abandoned house. If it was another stray dog making the noise outside, he would much rather not scare it into running away – then he’d have to chase it down before killing it.

That’s what he’s been doing for the last month now – hunting down pets that were left behind by their owners. After the reactor had blown up and people left their homes in a hurry, it was crucial for all biological leftovers ranging from food waste to animals to be destroyed in order to prevent the spread of potential diseases, so special military units were dispatched to the ‘zone’. Sergey’s unit was tasked with ‘cleaning up’ Prypyat along with units of civilian janitors and medical staff that were assisted by caravans of trucks that were moving collected leftovers to the burial sites – all those people (at least half a million of them, if what Sergey’s commander said was true) came here with only one purpose – to contain the disaster that Chernobyl became. The government kept insisting that the clean-up was taking less time and money than it was originally expected to due to excellent planning and management, but Sergey knew that for the most part it was the volunteers who made the operation less expensive, thousands of them risking their health to help the cause or just to have a chance to come back to their houses and take what was left behind during the hasty evacuation – money, valuables, photo albums or just clothes – thousands of evacuees would have to start a new life from scratch somewhere else and every piece they could salvage from their homes was priceless;  some of them were hoping to come back for the very dogs that Sergey was killing.

Walking out of the house, Sergey was startled to find a roe eating from a compost heap. He guessed that the noise came from the roe pushing the little gate open to get to the heap. Sergey was relieved – wild animals weren’t subject to the clean-up, as they were unlikely to ever seek human contact, so he didn’t have to shoot the roe. However, he couldn’t keep himself from thinking about how the animal would likely die from radiation poisoning anyway. The roe was probably Sergey’s last glimpse of the local wildlife – soon the fences would come up, surrounding the station in a 30-kilometre radius circle. Almost three thousand square kilometres of contaminated land, plants and animals – that was the cost of the disaster that no one talked about then, but Sergey, having grown up in the zone of alienation himself, couldn’t help feeling like he was losing a part of himself with the forests that were about to be cut off from civilization.

Sergey remembered when his father had told him that the government was going to build a nuclear power plant just two kilometres away from Chernobyl – he was only twelve years old back then. Their family moved to Chelyabinsk (one of the so-called ‘companion towns’, built around the power station and meant to house the workers’ families) – and with his father’s new job in construction of the plant were able to afford more than anything they could ever dream of as the plant was one of the government’s priorities in Ukraine’s nuclear program and workers were compensated generously. After they moved, his father’s cough that he got from years of working in a coal mine was finally getting better. Sergey also noticed how much less dusty the air was in Chernobyl – there was no ash from the coal station, and it showed not only on people, but on their surroundings as well – even the forest around the city seemed more lush to Sergey as a child, but maybe that was just his imagination. His father kept telling him how their life was going to get better after that, how he was going to be promoted to become one of the reactor’s supervisors. His father’s excitement had passed on to Sergey – he started reading up on nuclear energy in the local library, and what he imagined was a future where nuclear fission was going to supply the planet’s energy demand and no one would have to go through the coughing fits that his father had.

It didn’t matter now. His father died three days after the blast – acute radiation syndrome; he had been one of the workers inside the station when everything broke down. Sergey didn’t really have time to mourn his loss as he had to take care of his mother, who was in Kiev at the time and hadn’t known what would happened until she tried to get back to Prypyat only to get  stopped by the new border control.

It didn’t matter to Sergey now. The nuclear plant, his mother’s grief, all his dreams about a better future for his people– all that he saw was an eerily quiet, empty town and the animal that felt at home in it after only a couple of months after it got abandoned by the people that used to call live there. He didn’t know that soon his mother would be relocated to Slavutich, or that he would die of cancer at the age of forty. All he saw was the roe that kept lazily chewing on potato peels while looking him straight in the eye. Why wasn’t it afraid of him? He felt the anger rising – how could this roe be so oblivious to the damage that was done to its home!? How could it not understand that he was here to erase any remains of the catastrophe!?

The roe huffed and turned its back on Sergey, walking away slowly. He thought about shooting it in the back of the head – wouldn’t that be better for both of them? He cocked his gun, the roe stopped. Sergey hesitated.