NINE

DOC

Ilook down upon a valley from a high place. Where I stand, exactly, I cannot see. Below me the land is beautiful and serene; towns are scattered across it like gems on velvet, bright against the moist, lush green.

The biggest of the gems is a city that stands afar off, at a river’s edge-a cluster of crystals thrust into the sky, aloof. I do not recognize it, but feel I should. It is not a real city, but an archetype, I know these things even in dreams. The analytical mind. I decide the city is Kiev, my home.

I dismiss analysis and attempt to absorb the serenity-to breathe it in with the perfume of wet earth. I give myself a moment of this-a gift to myself-but a moment is all I am allowed. For the moment is drowned in the wail of sirens.

As I look down from my eagle’s nest, the gleaming, crystal city belches smoke.

A war?

When my eyes penetrate the smoke, I find that the city is a city no longer; it is an ugly, sprawling industrial complex. Gone are the buildings of my imagined Kiev, in their place, the ungraceful pilings of a nuclear reactor. The single fluted tower that has always reminded me, with much irony, of a minaret, tells me all I need to know.

I have been here, and know that the smoke is not smoke, but something far more sinister. I am instantly afraid. I don’t want to be here. I cannot be here.

In the villages and farms there is an awakening. A froth of humanity boils from the buildings. Somehow, they are at once antlike and individual; I see the masses and I see faces among them, and I am plunged with them into terror.

I must find a way down from this cliff, but my frenzy accomplishes not a thing. There is no way down. I can only run back and forth along the edge of my aerie, a flightless, dithering bird, trapped by its incapacity.

Fevered, I look again to the pylons of Chernobyl, but again they have changed. Where they squatted like broken gargoyles, there is now a tower. It is black like the candles I have seen in the windows of dark, cluttered shops-a votive to a demon. It glistens as if in a sheath of oil or water or glass. It terrifies me for reasons I cannot name. It terrifies me more than the leaking reactor.

The cloud now reaching to embrace the countryside is neither smoke nor radiation. It is a swarm of insects small as gnats. I tell myself this is a good thing, that these mites cannot possibly be as fearful as the horrors brought by the cloud of radiation.

But the comfort is false; the swarm overtakes the fleeing people and swallows them. They produce their own horrors, for their bite not only draws blood, it destroys and distorts so that what emerges from the swarm is less than human.

Yes, yes, a fine conceit. The Change-I understand. I protest this heavy-handed dictator of a dream. You may stop now, I tell it.

But it doesn’t stop. And though I dream knowingly, I cannot stop myself from wishing I could fly from this cliff. Damn dreaming. Let me help!

As swift as thought, I am in the valley. The insects have flown, leaving a countryside that is twisted and torn, and people who are also twisted, dead or dying.

“Dr. Lysenko! Here!” I recognize the voice of a colleague- a Dr. Kutshinski. But his is not the only voice.

“Dr. Lysenko! I have no more dressings. What do I do?” “Doctor-my daughter-please, won’t you look at my daughter?”

“I can’t find my wife. Help me find my wife!”

“Viktor, what’s happening?”

This is Yelena’s voice, and it stops me in my fevered tracks, for she cannot be here. She is at home in Kiev. Safe. Still, I jerk my head up from the man whose wounds I cannot heal, a man whose flesh boils as if liquid and falls away from his muscle and bone.

Gdyeh? Where?” I ask. “Where?” I rise.

Someone thrusts a syringe at me. Yes, at least I can stem the flood of pain. But when I reach for the syringe, my hands are manacled.

I cannot suppress a cry of futile rage. Impotent. Shackled. Yes, that’s how it was-is.

In the face of futility, I struggle against Shiva (for behold, I have become the destroyer of worlds), struggle to become a preserver of lives.

The dream becomes confused, muddy, horrific. I am awash in death and blood, while creatures that are mere parodies of humanity press around me. Always, I am conscious of the Tower, looming over the valley, casting its shadow, drawing my eyes. Though my hands are locked together, I toil.

“Viktor, will you come home? Your time there is done.”

“No, Yelena,” I tell her, patching flesh that will soon explode with malignancy of one kind or another. “Can’t you see

how much there is to be done? Can you not see the need?” “Papa, when will you come home?”

That is Nurya, whose voice is like the sweet song of a flute.

“Papa? Papa!

I weep. Can they not understand? These people need me. “Wait,” I tell my wife and daughter. “I’ll be home when I can.”

They fall silent. Too silent. I turn to see where they have gone and the field hospital dissolves away.

Around me, rain falls. The lights of police cars slither across the slick road and rainbows squirm in shallow, oily pools. The tow truck comes back onto the road now, our little car dangling at the end of a thick chain not unlike the ones I wear. Water streams from it. In all other ways, it seems as normal as the last time I saw it parked in the narrow lane behind our flat.

I look up and the Black Tower is there, like a funeral candle, upthrust from the trees. Its sides, slick and greasy as this patch of road, reflect no light. Somehow it is to blame for this. Or perhaps I am to blame and it merely witnesses my guilt.

Fury, blind and useless, builds up beneath my heart and pushes upward. I raise my hands to rage or supplicate, I am unsure which, and find they are no longer chained.

I wake, or at least I am moved to a different reality. Here, there is light. Sunlight, golden and warm, shrouds all. Then out of the haze comes a being of such beauty, I am stunned to the soul.

It is a girl. She floats a little above me in a halo of blue-white light. My heart leaps. And I dare to hope…“Oh, he’s awake,” the girl said, and flitted away.

So, I wasn’t dead after all, and this was not heaven and that was neither Nurya nor an angel. I was alive. Absurdly, I was disappointed.

My vision cleared enough for me to see that I was in a mere room. A sunny and pleasant room, to be sure, but a place built by human hands. I gingerly moved arms and legs. My left knee throbbed, convincing me to lie still.

Reflection overtook me. Heaven was not a place to which I hoped to go, but a place I had once lived and from which I had been expelled. I gazed down at my unchained hands and wondered at the language of dreams.

“Welcome back.”

Colleen stood to one side of the door, which was now open, and through which came Cal, Goldie, and a flare-a woman, not a little girl. This must be Enid’s flare, Magritte, whom I had taken for an angel named Nurya. Last into the room was a tiny woman with dark, graying hair and piercing eyes.

Cal came to sit at the edge of the bed and gripped my shoulder. “You gave us quite a scare,” he said. He looked weary and perhaps a little anxious.

I had nothing to say, so I tested my voice by asking the first question that came into my head. “How long…?”

“Almost six hours.” The tiny woman moved to the foot of the bed. “We have no doctor here, only one nurse and a medicine man. Do you think you might be concussed?”

“Possible.”

“Head hurt?” asked Cal.

“Among other things.”

“Well, at least we can offer something for that,” said the woman. “But I’d advise you to eat something.”

My stomach growled on cue and I managed a weak smile. “Advice I shall take, thank you.”

“I’ll see to it.” The flare bobbed and was gone in an aura the color of sky.

I did not miss the way Cal’s eyes followed her; she was like Tina-yet unlike her.

“Is there anything else we should do for you, Dr. Lysenko?” my hostess inquired.

Doctor Lysenko. How odd it sounded, still. For years no one had called me that, and now it was my name again, my reality. “Observe me,” I said, “in case I should do something peculiar.”

She smiled, her pale eyes kindling. “Now, I like that in a person-humor under duress.” She looked to Cal. “I expect you’ll want to compare notes and catch him up on things. I’ll get Cherise to have a look at him… in case he should do something peculiar.”

She left, and Goldie moved to take her place at the foot of the bed. “That was Mary, of course.”

“I had suspected as much.” I looked at Colleen, who leaned against the doorjamb, aloof. She seemed more than usually subdued. “You are all okay?”

Cal nodded. “Thanks to Goldie’s new friends. Colleen took a knock to the head, too, but fortunately it was just a glancing blow. She never lost consciousness.”

“Ah. You are a better man than I am, boi baba,” I told her.

She smiled, and the others threw me a puzzled look. Is muttering Russian a sign of concussion? Well, if not that, perhaps rhyming is.

“We are in the Preserve?” I asked.

Cal’s face became instantly animated. Whatever gray ghost had haunted it passed without rattling its bonds. “This is incredible, Doc. We are hundreds of miles from Grave Creek.”

“I don’t understand. The Preserve is not in the Adena mounds?”

“The mounds are only a portal to the Preserve, they link to it across miles of Ohio landscape.”

“But how? By what mechanism?” I found what he was saying strange but not impossible, and it struck me how much like a dream reality had become.

“Unknown,” said Goldie. “The only thing the two sides of the portal seem to have in common is that they were both Native American cultural and religious centers. It makes a strange sort of sense.”

What a perfect turn of phrase. What other sort of sense could it make? “They came through the portal and brought us here?”

Cal nodded, “Just in time, too.”

“And we have found Enid?”

The smile reached his eyes. “It’s just like Goldie said- Enid’s music has the power to render a flare invisible to the Source. Magritte isn’t the only flare here, and he’s protecting them all.”

I tried to sit up but thought better of it. “Then this place would be safe for Tina as well?”

Cal’s expression was suddenly guarded. “If we need a safe house for Tina, this could be it.”

“Except for one small fly in the ointment.” Colleen spoke at last. “Enid can’t leave. Seems he’s the one and only Key

Master for the portals that lead into this place. If they lose Enid, these people are trapped.”

“There must be a way,” I said, believing it. “We cannot have come here without reason.”

“Divine Providence, Doc?” Colleen crossed her arms over her heart.

“I doubt a theological debate is the best medicine for a possible concussion,” Cal interrupted. He touched my shoulder again. “Neither is anxiety. Rest. Let us worry about Enid.” He nodded to Goldie, and the two of them slipped from the room.

Colleen moved as if to follow, but did not. She let the door fall shut behind them, then swung back to look at me, her eyes subtly invading my thoughts.

“Are you sure you’re all right?”

We spoke the words together; our voices harmonized. Self-conscious laughter followed. I’m not certain why two human beings should be embarrassed at having spoken in unison, but it seems we were.

“I’m fine,” she said. “Sore, but whole. You, on the other hand, have a nasty gash on your forehead and a knee the size of a cantaloupe.”

I put a hand to my head, gingerly. A gauze bandage blocked inspection. “I, too, am fine.”

“Yeah? How many fingers am I holding up?” She showed me her fist.

“None,” I said, smiling. “Or all. It depends on how you look at it.”

She retreated again behind folded arms. “Doc, who’s Nurya?”

Breath left my body in a rush, leaving me winded. “What?”

“When you were coming around, you seemed to be having one hellacious nightmare. You shouted for Nurya. When you saw Magritte, you said the name again.” Color swept her face. “Shit, I’m sorry. I’m just too damn nosy. Forget I asked.”

So, she had not come into the room with the others. She had been there all along. It was she the flare had spoken to before leaving to find Cal.

“Nurya was my daughter. My little girl.” Even now, after so many years, the tears emerged easily.

Colleen sat on the edge of the bed-coiled, tense. “What happened?”

I could not look at her face, so I read answers from the pine knots in the ceiling. “You remember Chernobyl, yes?”

“Well, sure. It was all over the news. Even teenagers pay attention to the news sometimes. Christ, don’t tell me she got caught in that.”

“No. I got caught in that. Because of my expertise in triage. The disaster was… worse than even the American media made it. Doctors were brought in from everywhere. I was to set up a triage unit, then go home. But I couldn’t go home. There was too much to be done. What I failed to realize was that there was something to be done at home, too. My wife, Yelena, had contracted meningitis. She wouldn’t tell me this, but Nurya said her mother wasn’t feeling well. I simply didn’t hear her over the cries of the dying.”

I hesitated, testing the words as if they were an unknown trail. “Yelena was driving herself to hospital when she lost control of the car. It plunged into a stream. They drowned.”

Colleen had been watching my face. Now, she turned away. We sat in silence for a time, not looking at each other.

She was the first to speak. “My dad died when I was fifteen. He was two thousand miles away on some damned military training junket. He served in Vietnam for two tours of duty and then went to Texas to die of a heart attack giving a friggin’ seminar. He’d had a two-pack-a-day habit for years, and I’d just managed to nag him into giving up cigarettes. For a long time I thought maybe I just hadn’t nagged enough.” I could feel her eyes shift to my face; it was a gentle pressure. “It’s not your fault, you know.”

“Is it not?”

“You were needed-”

“At home. I was needed at home. There was nothing I could do for those poor souls that any other qualified physician could not have done. But only I could have made a difference to my family.”

Colleen made no reply. I had silenced her, and her silence was damning. Physician, heal thyself.

“So you came to America to start over,” she said after a

moment, “as a hot dog vendor.” The expression on her face

was so dubious it made me laugh.

“It was a life.”

“This is better.” She said the words with stark certainty

and meant them for both of us.

Our eyes met and locked. Detente.

“Yes, better,” I agreed.

“Doesn’t make us freaks, does it?”

“What if it does?”

She looked away. “Yeah, what if it does? Thanks, Doc.”

Her eyes met mine again at a slant. “You must have a real name.”

“Doc will suffice.”

She pursed her lips and gave me a look of grave disapproval.

“Viktor,” I said. “My name is Viktor. With a k.”

“Well, Viktor with a k, thanks.”

“For what?”

She didn’t answer, but stood and looked down at me and smiled. “Huh. Turnabout. Last time it was me flat on my back.”

The door opened. Colleen tensed; an instinctive movement. It was Magritte with a nurse and food.

“Well, I guess I’ll just go check on our progress,” Colleen told me. “Later.”

“Yes, later,” I agreed, but she had gone.

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