The uneasy feelings began when we crossed the line of wire, past the guards distracted by a white delivery van. No one stopped us as we turned onto a side road. Rydell was driving, Vanya and Tori were asleep in the back. I watched the lights receding, the faint green glow on the road ahead.
“Are we there yet?” Tori touched my shoulder. The sudden shock made me jump.
“This is the Zone,” I said. “We’ve crossed the border.”
“You sure? It doesn’t look so different.” Tori said.
“See those lights back there?” I said. “That’s the border. It will get stranger from here.”
I told myself these heightened feelings were part of the atmosphere of this place. Tori and Vanya had never been here before, they had no idea what to expect. Maybe that was an advantage. Rydell and I had made the crossing into the Zone many times, but the rules of reality were different here. Anything could happen.
Ahead, the moss-covered towers of the reactor stood out in the fields around the forest of leafless trees. Along the roadside, sunflowers followed us with their eyes.
The feelings were slender fingers, brushing against my skin. Tori’s eyes were glowing mirrors. Vanya woke, growling, pawing at his hair.
Rydell stopped the car. “We should walk from here.”
Mist rose out of the fields, twining around the trees. I felt a rush of energy, an urge to run. Tori was swirling in the mist. Vanya howled at the moon.
Rydell said nothing. I could tell by his steady pace he was fighting the feelings. The mist lapped waves at his feet. Tori sparked with the fireflies in the fields. Vanya’s legs grew incredibly long, as he chased her through the trees.
“You okay?” Rydell said. He took my hand and we moved on.
I thought about how we met here, years ago. Rydell had found me, or I had found him. Only here, in the Zone, did I feel free to be myself.
The further into the Zone we went, the more surreal things got. Giant vines curled around our legs, wrapping us in tentacles. The shifting colors of the auroras around the towers made the scene almost bright as day. Green flames of fox spirits flashed in the distance.
Like Vanya and Tori, Rydell and I had once delighted in the peculiarities of the place. Sure, we had frolicked in the fields, chasing hallucinations. Those were fun times, but we were in business, now. There was an interest in what we offered. It could only be found here.
The fox berries were what we had come for. They grew only in this place, in the heart of the Zone. The berries were intoxicating, addictive and illegal.
They were worth the risk of angering the foxes who guarded them. Some chemical in the berries controlled the mutations that were becoming increasingly common after the meltdown. The drugs that were supposed to reverse the changes were ineffective and expensive. For many, the berries were their only hope.
For the foxes, the berries were the food of immortality. No wonder they guarded them so jealously.
What would it be like to live forever? Rydell and I had discussed this many times sitting together at the kitchen table. Our simple, ordinary life had never seemed ordinary to me. I wondered what the Zone would be like in 1000 years, or 10,000. I thought I would not want to be immortal, to live without Rydell.
I watched the others picking the red berries, filling their backpacks. Vanya’s paws were clumsy, he kept sticking himself on the thorns. Tori was becoming transparent, there and not there at the same time. Rydell was focused on the task at hand. He didn’t seem to notice the transformations. He didn’t even look at me.
And all the while the lights around us gathered, a circle of flickering colors. The fox spirits surrounded us–their many tails of bright green flame. Their eyes were black and star-filled. Their teeth were whiter than the moon.
And I was one of them.
“So happy you’ve come back to us,” they said. A chorus of dry leaves.
The lights of the border were far away.