Take a moment to enjoy the first few pages of my novella “Wormwood is Also a Star” out today in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction!

Wormwood Is Also a Star

1.

In 1992, in the Ukraine, Pripyat, inside the Angel’s Tear, in a squalid fourth-storey apartment, Mitka makes love to Vitaly the Witch Boy. After, she sits naked on the edge of the bed, smokes hand-rolled cigarettes. She surveys the quiet streets from behind a rain-spattered window.

It might be a Sunday morning out there, all still and cold. The trees, thick and lush and green, dance erratically in the damp breeze, and in the distance the great Ferris wheel juts up from the amusement park grounds, a stalled gear in a great, silenced machine. And then Mitka sees the shimmer, like a sheet of cellophane or a diaphanous sail flapping, briefly shifting the gray afternoon light, distorting her view of the drab city beyond. Mitka is reminded. Here, deep within the Zone of Alienation, a dome-like barrier, oblong and egg-shaped, encompasses roughly four and a half square blocks of the city center. It’s been six years since the meltdown, and still the radioactive legacy of Chernobyl’s reactor number four saturates, poisons—except for inside the bubble, the enclave, the anomaly, as it’s known; the Angel’s Tear to those few who actually live or work within its borders. Vitaly is one of those.

“Papers?” Mitka asks.

“Out.” Vitaly says from behind the folding screen that separates the bedroom from the bathroom.

She finds a battered Bible hanging half-off his desk, which is comprised of a gray-wooded piece of a door laid across two sawhorses. She opens it to where it has been bookmarked with a yellowed strip of newsprint, Revelations: ill stars and angels and bitter waters. On second thought, she turns to a blank page at the back and tears out a rectangle of the onionskin paper. Best not to risk anything when this strange bubble might, at any moment, pop.

Around them, the streets, the buildings are beginning to sag and hollow, everywhere a slow-creeping ruin, whether inside the Tear or not. The only thing that looks new is the laboratory compound, a refurbished bank with long silver trailers placed perpendicular to the building’s ends, making the shape of an upper-case “I.”

If she were to open the window, she could flick a cigarette butt and it would breach the barrier. You could walk through this invisible demarcation—she’d stuck the tip of her finger through once before, felt the tingle.

There might have been a time, months ago, when being so close to the edge was frightening. She sought the danger out. It was something real to experience, something daring to write about.

The precipice of death endures as a mild thrill. But it is Vitaly who now presents the greatest danger. The greatest thrill.

Mitka folds the rectangle of paper long-wise into a trough, and rolls a skinny cigarette from the shake at the bottom of Vitaly’s leather tobacco pouch. She would have to remember to order him some supplies once she got home. More tobacco, toilet tissue, tins of meat. He never eats enough.

The patter of rain on the window doesn’t cover the spatter coming from behind the screen, followed by a grunt, and then the lazy flush of the antiquated toilet that only sometimes works. Vitaly is so tall that when he stands, his head appears above the screen. Vitaly the Witch Boy, one of eight such children, emerges naked—so lank and pale in the gray light, bird-chested and hollow. At times, he did look angelic or divine or even unnatural, just like all the rumors said. And other times he was just a boy.

“You’re sick?” Mitka asks.

“The water’s bad.”

“We need to have it tested—”

“Not poisoned, just bad.” He washes his hands in the basin and dries them with the same threadbare towel she used to dry off after showering (she would have to remember to add new towels to that list). Sometimes Vitaly looks so willowy, a strong breeze might topple him.

Mitka says, “Still, you should have told me. I could have brought some fresh water.”

She inhales. The tobacco is stale. The paper puts off an acrid smell and her lungs burn.

This—the sleeping together—had only started by accident. Though even she had to admit that these things didn’t just happen by accident. Still, she never intended for anything to happen. Looking back, she isn’t sure how it really began. The interviews, all the visits for that first story. She spent hours with all eight of the children. And then she asked him to touch her, to use his gift and read her. They shared something. Maybe it was the same thing everyone else felt when touched by Vitaly. But it felt like more. She let him in.

***