Bitter lake

x files

The truth is out there…

“Wakey-wakey, passenger!” the fat train driver cried to Mihail. That good-natured, if not quite sober, man allowed the city boy to take a ride in one of the sand carriages for a humble price of two hundred rubles and a bottle of vodka. “Wake up, I said! It’s your station.”

Mihail woke up to the cold, windy night, dug his backpack out of the sand, yawned, sneezed, and jumped to the ground. It was quite a fall and the landing hurt. Limping, the young man headed to the Bitter Lake village.

The sand was everywhere: in his backpack, in his pockets, in his shoes, in his hair, and under his clothes too. “And it cost me two hundred! Unbelievable!” Mihail thought bitterly. “Now I’m a noble truth-seeker that looks like a filthy bum. Isn’t that great…”

In the village, Mihail fell asleep in the crown of an ancient oak he climbed to save himself from a pack of stray dogs. He spent the night doubled up between a thick branch and the tree’s trunk, with the dogs howling below.

In the morning, the voices of the villagers woke Mihail up. A lot of people, most of them old and ragged, had gathered around the oak and now buzzed angrily, pointing at him. Somehow, the dogs that drove Mihail up that tree seemed less threatening…

“Just look at this drunkard!” the old ladies chattered nodding at the oak. “Drinking till they see devils, they are.”
“Get down, you parasite!” yelled some old man in a very belligerent and very shrieking voice. “I’ll show you! You ugly thieving fascist!”

Yelling obscenities didn’t seem enough to him, so he threw his walking cane at the “drunkard” in the tree. It was a very good throw. Mihail lost his balance and fell from his branch. He was about to give out a scream of terror but the fall ended too early…

“Damn, it’s sand again…” he thought a moment after landing.

“Looks like he kicked the bucket...” some sensitive old lady said, cautiously poking him with a stick. She jumped away with a scream of terror and dove back into the crowd when Mihail got up.

So there he was, standing on the pile of sand like a monument on a pedestal. A beaten up, ragged, sleepy monument of a young bum.

Mihail took his ID out of his pocket and, showing it to the villagers, introduced himself:

“Mihail Lisitsyn, paranormal expert.”
“Para- who?” asked the belligerent old man, squinting his eyes suspiciously.
“You filed a collective complain, remember? About ghosts, demons, little green men, other stuff?” the expert did his best to make things simple.
“You look like one of those things yourself!” someone young shouted from the crowd. A roar of laughter followed.

There he stood, ankle-deep in sand, perplexed, not knowing what to do. He thought the villagers would greet him like a hero, a saviour. That was what he always wanted to be, that was what he taught and fought for since he was a kid and an avid "X-files" fan. His surname even had “fox” (lisitsa) in it, just like Mulder’s name…

The villagers checked his ID very thoroughly, with super serious faces. Mihail even began to hope for breakfast at the very least but no, he wasn’t getting it. All he got were directions, rumours, and spooky stories. In an hour, he got fed up with all that. He heard of the circles in the fields, of mysteriously stolen cows, of wolf-men, and ghost-women… And no one had even offered him bread and water. Worse: they didn’t even want to sell anything to the poor paranormal expert. All he could offer was money, and money meant little in a village lost in the middle of nowhere. Vodka - the "liquid currency" commonly accepted in such places - would do but he had already given his last bottle to the train driver.

Angry and hungry, Mihail tried to steal some apples from one of the half-wild neglected orchards but got bitten by the tiny, whiny guard dog and had to retreat to the nearest raspberry bushes. At least those didn’t belong to anyone and the raspberries were good. Not that they helped much with the hunger, though.

Sitting there, in the raspberry field, Mihail cursed everything thrice: his job, his stupid dreams, the village, the villagers, and the - most likely - imaginary creatures they complained about.

“If I ever get out of here in one piece,” he thought, “I swear I’ll find a normal job. Some manager? A courier maybe? Yeah, a courier sounds nice.” He threw another handful of berries into his mouth and wolfed them down. Something crunched on his teeth… too late he realized what it was: one of those little bugs the wild bushes were infested with. Mihail felt sick…

It was already past noon when luck had finally taken mercy on the poor expert. He came up with a new idea about getting food and, unlike all the others, it worked! A local boy gladly exchanged a loaf of bread he most likely stole from his mother’s kitchen to Mihail’s sunglasses - shiny, oversized, well-worn thrift store stuff. No adult would accept such a deal; as to the kid, he was very happy with the new addition to his ragged look. Mihail was happy with his own part of the deal as well. Finally! Some real food in his stomach!

Sprawled on the pile of sand under the tree, he chewed on a blade of grass, enjoying the sun. Mihail looked at his watch. He still couldn’t drop the useless habit. The watch had already been dead for several days; that “water-resistant” signature on it turned out to be a lie. Well, you need a proper job to buy proper things and Mihail didn’t have one; no wonder that crappy off-brands were the only things he could afford. But then there was an old proverb saying that “misers pay twice”...

A brown, bubbly liquid moved under the watch’s glass now where the numbers used to be. Mihail didn’t hurry to throw the wretched thing away though, because - speaking in proverbs again - “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure”.

“Hey, kid!” he called. The boy approached him, his new sunglasses blinking in the sun. “Listen, how far is that field with the rings?”
“Well,” the boy scratched his shaggy head, thinking. “You’ll get there in the evening if you start walking now.”
“Hmm…” hummed Mihail, shaking his head. “No, that won’t do. Hey, do you have a bike?”
“I do.”
“What kind?”
“Nice. How about I borrow it from you until tomorrow? I’ll give you a sun-powered American smartwatch for that.”
“American?” the boy brightened up. He hesitated just a brief moment before completely falling for it. “Deal! Give it to me and I’ll bring you the bike.”
“Nope!” Mihail wagged his finger at the kid. “Bike first.”

Several minutes later, Mihail was already riding toward the thrice-cursed fields at full speed humming the X-files song to himself. The day was sunny, the breeze was fresh and cool, the landscape was wild and strikingly beautiful.

Leaving the village behind, Mihail thought about the boy who looked so proud and happy with the ugly sunglasses on his little nose and the broken watch on his arm.

“I’m such a villain!” the expert said to himself, not even sure whether it was a praise or a scorn. “Well, let the kid play. He doesn’t know how to tell time yet anyway and what America is.”

Soon, the road changed drastically. What used to be a dirty mud track studded with boulders became a perfectly smooth asphalt road that would make any Moscow street look ugly. Mihail, who grew up in Ufa, used to have a very high opinion on Moscow roads. But the road he was following now was way better! What was it even doing there, in the wild land untouched by civilization? What kind of anomaly was that?

In an hour or so, the sickly, thin forest that grew on the sides of the road turned into an ancient, dark wood. The trees there were tall, thick, and shaggy; their roots burrowed into the perfect asphalt in a slow but angry assault. All that that place was lacking were bandits. Maybe there even was a gang or two, who knows, but they just didn’t care about the ragged man on the rusty bike.

Mihail kept moving forward, whistling silly songs and trying silly tricks (like riding with his hands behind his back) to keep boredom at bay. It didn’t end well. One of the roots got in the way of his bike and - with his hands still behind his back! - he sprawled on the ground. It hurt. It hurt very much.

Getting up, Mihail saw the burnt branches on the treetops and tried to calculate the size of the flying saucer that had passed there. He gave an impressed whistle when he realized how big it was.

“Okay,” he thought. “Green men - check. Next in line: ghosts, demons, un… undead, werewolves… oh, shit! I hope at least half of that is old wives tales.”

He thought about other things as well. For example, about how rarely heroic dreams resulted in heroic deaths and lead instead to the non-heroic ones…

Now, he was no longer in the mood for whistling and sightseeing. The forest gave him creeps. To make things worse, the weather was taking a nasty turn.

“Ah, I wish Dashka were here, along with her unbreakable scepticism!” sighed Mihail. “She’d say: ‘Mishka-Mulder, you little coward! Werewolves don’t exist. Only bad movies do!” Yeah, that’s what she’d say. And then she would sing some happy song to finish my fears off completely.”

Well, now he was sad. Dashka (Darya) was his childhood friend, his best friend. But after school, life drew them apart. She was a smart and reasonable kid and got herself a proper education and a good job. Mihail was a silly dreamer and got a degree in paranormal science, that brand new thing no one was sure wasn’t a hoax back then. They kept in touch for a while - Birthday cards, occasional calls, short letters - but soon lost each other. Sad.”

It was starting to rain. The cold droplets fell on Mihail’s dusty clothes and rolled down. It took a much heavier rainfall - which came soon - to break through the layer of dirt and dust and actually wet the cloth.

Mihail decided to stop under one of the trees to think and rest for a while. He leaned his bike against the ancient tree trunk and sat on the gnarly root nearby. It was almost comfortable.

The rain was washing the dust away from the road, making it as shiny as the newly made one. The man hiding under the tree looked like he needed a shower as well but he had decided he’d rather be dusty and warm than wet and cold.

Watching the rain, Mihail got lulled by the monotonous noise and decided to have a nap. The monstrous root was long enough to lie on it; the rolled-up jacket made a soft enough pillow. Sure, there were, supposedly, various horrors in those woods but the rain made the idea of meeting them irrelevant for some reason.

Mihail dozed off and fell into a dreamful sleep right away. He saw Dashka in his dreams. She was riding the old Kama bike and singing, unaware of the dark void swallowing the road behind her.

“Dashka!!!” Mihail cried to her but she didn’t hear him. She kept going and the void followed her, closing the distance…

He woke up with a half-choked moan of despair but sighed with relief when he realized that it was just a dream.

“Sleepyhead!” said an unfamiliar child voice reproachfully. “The rain has ended already.”

Mihail sat in his wooden bed and looked around. His borrowed Kama was still where he had left it but it was no longer alone; someone leaned another bike against it. It was just as old and rusty. Its frame had been repainted several times so the original brand name was no longer visible. Someone took care of that; fastened there with insulating tape, there was a piece paper with a single word written on it: STEED (well, a good name for a bike!). The bike’s pannier rack was modified to hold a huge mushroom basket.

The bike’s owner was chilling on the gnarly tree root nearby. It was a young boy. Messy blond hair, ragged clothes… was it the kid Mihail had borrowed the bike from? Did he realized he got robbed… No, it wasn’t him, though they did look alike.

“I heard you took the road and thought you’d die there without help,” the kid explained. “So I followed you.”
“Oh yeah, thanks…” Mihail sneered, not in a kind way. “It’s not a place for a child, you know. Don’t werewolves hand out there hand in hand with the living dead and ghosts? And flying saucers…”
“I haven’t met any monsters here in daylight,” the kid shrugged. “They come out at night only. Saw a flying saucer once; it flew low and burned the treetops… I go there for mushrooms often, I know the forest well. As to the road, it makes a detour; you won’t reach the fields by nightfall if you keep going this way. How about I show you the shortcut through the forest and you will, say, deal with the monsters?”
“Can’t promise anything. I’m not a ‘ghostbuster’. My job is studying the anomalies. But if I find enough proof that they exist in your area, an army of exorcists, mediums, and soldiers armed to the teeth will take care of them.”
“Sounds good enough,” nodded the boy. “Let’s go then. And don’t be afraid, I’m not a werewolf.”

It was almost evening time. But in summer, the sun sets late, so there was enough sunlight still. The air was cool and fresh after the rain and a beautiful, perfect rainbow semicircle appeared on the horizon.

The forest path they followed was filthy from the rain; puddles were everywhere. Both Boris’s (that was the boy’s name) ragged pants and Mihail’s jeans were brown with mud up to the knees.

As to the forest, it turned out to be not as scary as it seemed. Well, maybe the rain had just washed the werewolves footprints away…

“Hey, expert, do you have a gun?” asked Boris.
“Yes.” Mihail decided to be honest with his young companion.
“Cool! I want to be an expert too!”

The expert gave him a crooked smile. The boy didn’t know what he was asking for; how unrewarding the job was and how much nerves and time it took Mihail to get a gun license.

The path left the forest and joined the road again.

“Here you go!” said Mihail’s guide triumphantly but the expert didn’t hear him. He stopped his bike at the far side of the road and was looking upon the fields now.
“What’s this?” he asked.
“Bitter Lake, what else?” said Boris in a careless tone.

Descending the steep slope took Mihail a long time. When he had finally reached the lake, he was dirty up to his neck and all sore from the scratches the wild bushes gave him.

The lake’s water was as thick as jelly and smelled foul. It wasn’t a swamp smell, it was a smell of a chemical waste dump. And a chemical waste dump it was. Several empty barrels with biohazard markings were floating in the middle of the lake along with various trash. A thin film of something resembling gasoline, iridescent with all the colours of the rainbow, shone under the sun. The cherry on top of the cake was a dense fog above the shore. Too heavy to raise into the air, it filled every crevice and hole in the ground like some poison gas from World Wars time.

Mihail had spent barely a minute by the lake but the foul smell and the metallic taste in the mouth the poisoned place gave him followed him back to the road.

Also, on his way back, he nearly stepped on a two-headed snake… It was an impressive place all right.

“Here’s the truth, Mulder, my old pal…” thought Mihail gloomily. “It’s not as romantic as I hoped it to be. Just a radioactive dump. Anomalies grow around them like mushrooms after the rain. There’s only one thing I can’t yet explain: the road. Someone took good care to build a perfect road in the middle of nowhere and for what? Nor for just dumping the waste here for sure…”

“Time to go back, expert!” Boris called to him. “It’s going to get dark soon.”

Mihail nodded. He’d had enough of this place.

They rode in silence for a while. Finally, Mihail asked, “How do you even live here, by that lake?”

“Fine, I guess. It's not that we can do something about it,” answered Boris.
“You should’ve filed a complaint about the radioactive dump, not about the anomalies. The authorities would be already questioning those who pollute your land…”
“But that’s us…”
“My great-grandpa told me that there used to be a secret city. Underground city. Some shady stuff was going on there. Then, just before the war, it had been was. Some people ran away just before it happened; they founded our village.”
“And what about the dump?”
“It’s what left from the time when the city was open. That’s why it’s our dump. So you see? We tell about the dump - the big guys find the city. The city is a state secret, so the one who tells about it is a traitor and traitors get executed. That’s what my great-grandpa always said.”
“Are there still people closed inside the city?”
“Yep. They keep adding the stuff to the lake. Everyone in the village knows that, they’re just afraid to tell.”
“And you are not?”
“Not anymore… Well, you go without me now. I have to gather some mushrooms; can’t go home without them.”
“No way! You’re coming with me. It’s getting late.”
“I’ll be fine. See?” he pointed toward the glade not far away. “Here’s my father, picking mushrooms too. We’ll go home together. And you must go and do what you promised me!”

Mihail left father and son at the glade and returned to the village alone. The familiar kid - the one with the watch and the sunglasses (still on) - met him my the gates. He examined the bike, made sure it was undamaged, and told the expert to drive it to his yard.

“My ma allowed to let you in for the night. You’ll sleep in the attic,” said the kid and added, with a very meaningful gesture: “You owe me, you know.”

Oh yeah… that kid will go places. Mihail said goodbye to his cassette player.

He rolled the bike into the yard and leaned it against the wall by the other three: one tiny, toddler-size, one a bit bigger, and the third… the third looked very familiar. “STEED” was written on a piece of paper fixed upon its frame with insulating tape.

“Whose bike is this?” asked Mihail.
“It’s my brother’s,” the boy answered, suddenly very grim and serious.
“And where’s he?”
“Dead. A werewolf got him and my pa last year…”

...A freight train filled with coal to the brim rumbled its way through the night. As black as a soot sprite, the paranormal expert sat in the open carriage on a pile of coal and watched the endless moonlit fields with little islands of forest run by.

He still couldn’t get his mind off the ghost boy and the underground city full of people who had no idea that WWII had ended half a century ago.

He was to tell the authorities about that. It was his duty to let them know…

Yet the first thing he did when he reached civilization (a shabby miners’ town but a civilization still!) was running into the nearest phone booth and making a personal, very personal call…

Soon, he was shouting into the phone, trying his best to make sure his voice carries through all the static, clicking noises, and someone else’s talk in the background.


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English is not my native language.
If you see an error or a typo, please, tell me. I will fix it.