Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Laura Magalas

The Prypiat River and a part of the Chernobyl NPP
Photo Credit: Andrzej Karon

It’s her third trip in the last two months and I haven’t heard from her since she left. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind her going on trips. She goes on them all the time for work, taking water samples or pictures or whatever it is that ecologists do. She works with the water people in our more rural areas of New York, running tests and making sure that our water is just as bad as it is in Jersey and the other states around us. She’s gone to Washington to see how bad it is on the other side too. I don’t mind her work trips. It’s what she does.

I don’t mind the apartment being empty either. That’s the great thing about being a freelance writer. I make up my own schedule. And with her being gone, I don’t have to worry about whether or not the TV is too loud. I don’t have to worry about using up all the hot water. I don’t even have to track down a coaster to put under my beer (which I do anyway, what with self-preservation being very important to me). I don’t mind any of that.

What I do mind is that the trips seem to be getting more frequent. They also seem to be getting longer.

See, it used to be a weekend here or there. Then it was a few week-long conferences and lab trips once in a while. But over the last six months, it’s become regular. Once the month starts, she’s gone for the first two weeks of it. It’s not the fact that she doesn’t call that worries me. We call each other twice when we go on trips away from each other: once to say we got there safely and once to say when to be picked up at the airport. She hasn’t called me once in the last three months to come get her at the airport. I’ve just been sitting at the table or on the couch or in the kitchen when she walks in. Up until then I’ve been nervous or wondering where she’s gone now, but when she comes home weighed down with her gear and suitcase… everything else goes out the window. I’m just happy she’s home and we make up for lost time.

I’m such a goner.

“Still no word from Alexa?” asks my brother, Mike. I’m at his house for dinner. He’s at the sink trying his best to wash some salad without getting it everywhere. Most guys would have let themselves go by now, but not my brother. Divorce looks good on him. “I’m surprised she hasn’t called,” he says.

I tap my hands from where I’m sitting at the island in the middle of the kitchen. “I’m sure she’s fine.”

“You worried?”

“Why would I be worried?”

“I don’t know,” he lies. I’ve talked to Mike about Alexa’s trips more than once. He knows I’m worried. But it’s not her safety that has me concerned, and he knows that too. He’s just trying to be delicate, which is why he says, “Maybe she’s just out of reach.”

“Yeah,” I say, liking this game.

“Or maybe she’s just cheating on you.”

And just like that, my initial fears return. I look at my niece Cora sitting at the end of the island, clearly pretending to be doing her homework. She shrugs at me. “What?” she says. “It’s possible. I mean, Mom cheated on Dad, right? Everyone always thinks it’s the guy who does it. Girls do it too.”

“Enough, Cora,” says Mike.

Cora puts up the typical teenager defensive, but her affection for her dad makes her apologetic tone sound almost genuine. “What? I’m sorry,” she says before turning to me. “I’m sorry Uncle Nick. I shouldn’t have said that. My bad.”

She looks at me and all I can see is my twenty-three-year-old brother holding a pink-wrapped bundle in his arms. I give her a smile. “It’s okay.”

Her face lightens. “Besides, she has to come back. I totally hate having to do bio by myself.”

“Speaking of bio,” says Mike, making a brushing motion towards Cora’s books. He puts the food in the empty space. Within minutes our plates are filled with Caesar salad, steamed vegetables and some kind of cheese pasta that is so rich, it almost leaves our attempts at being healthy completely pointless.

“So how’s school going?” I ask Cora. She gives me her typical response of “the usual” and I try again. “Well, what are you working on in biology?”

Now she becomes more animated, and it’s not in a good way. “A report. They’re making us take our own samples of the river that runs behind the school and compare it to other rivers. I was hoping Alexa could give me a hand with it, you know, because of all the stuff she does.”

“Looks like you’ll have to learn to do it on your own,” says Mike.

Cora rolls her eyes playfully at her dad. “You think?” she says. “Maybe I was secretly hoping that Uncle Nick could help me with it.”

Mike shakes his head and I speak up. “Well, I can’t guarantee anything, but if you wanted me to read over your report and see how it sounds, I can do that. Give it a little edit, maybe tighten it up?”

“If it was any tighter, it’d be giving itself a hernia,” she says, before looking at me thoughtfully. “But that actually sounds pretty good. Thanks, Uncle Nick. I might take you up on that.”

Conversation turns typical after that, with father and daughter talking about their school and work days, enemies and allies and co-workers encountered, and articles that I have yet to write. I always enjoy Sunday dinners with them. They’re all the family I have left.

I’m enjoying myself so much that I almost forget the empty seat next to me and Cora’s earlier comment. Almost.

I think Alexa’s cheating on me.

This isn’t exactly something that has happened to me before, so I’m not sure whether or not this is a regular suspicion or something that I should be completely ashamed of thinking. But it’s the truth. I don’t want it to be the truth, but I think it is. I hope I’m wrong. If I’m right, I wouldn’t be surprised.

Alexa is what my father would call a “perfect catch.” When he wasn’t using the phrase to describe a marlin he almost caught once, he would use it to describe my mother: beautiful, smart and funny. Alexa has this way of always making you feel like who you are and what you do are the most important things in the world. I love it when she asks what I’m working on. She always reads my articles before they’re published. I came across a collection of all the magazine issues I’ve been published in when I was in her room the other day. This filled me with two thoughts. The first was that I don’t know half as much about her work as she knows about mine.

The second was that I’m having so much doubt about her going on trips for work, I’m reduced to going through her things.

Not that I’m going through anything serious. I’m not raiding her closet and digging through drawers. I’m just thinking about her. The next thing I know, I’m in her room. It just sort of happens. I end up in there every few days, just sitting. Her bed is creased with spots where I’ve sat, releasing an air of perfume—the raspberry scent that I bought her this past Christmas.

I sat down at her desk the other day. It’s an old, beat-up piece of oak with every available surface covered with all kinds of notes and papers from her work. The more I read, the more I realized how little I know about her work. I didn’t know what any of the papers meant. There were graphs and statistics, spreadsheets and reports. She is always so willing to hear about my work, about what I’m doing, that I haven’t thought to ask about hers outside of the usual “How’s work?” She sometimes goes into detail about the specific rivers that are being analyzed, but other than that, nothing. I always get lost in all of the complicated terms and language that she speaks. She notices and tries to summarize it as best as possible.

I’ll start researching biology now if it means she’ll come home.

It isn’t just the extra trips that are making me suspicious. It’s how she doesn’t want me to pick her up from the airport anymore. How she isn’t really sure where she is going until she reaches the airport. I’ve even noticed that she’s started taking a different bag during some of her trips. We’ve been living together for the last four years and I haven’t even met her parents yet. She has a brother who lives in Minnesota, but I only met him once when we first started going out.

Our first meeting was completely random. My car was in the shop. For the first time in forever, I took the bus. She got on the bus with crutches and I was the first person out of my seat. We started talking. We both missed our stops. Everything went from there. I found out about her work and she found out about mine. We talked about anything and everything, from how her Ukrainian parents hated her being out past nine o’clock to the guy on my little league team who terrorized me into quitting baseball. How I’d never learn the name of her hometown (something starting with a P that I wouldn’t be able to pronounce) and how she didn’t like any sport but soccer. All of the smaller details, the early days when we used to talk about anything and everything that crossed our minds.

Maybe she has someone else to talk to now.

I’m at Alexa’s desk when the phone rings. It’s been more than two weeks since she left. I’ve given up hoping that she’ll call. When she comes back (and I emphasize the ‘when’ in my mind for hope), I won’t know she’s coming until she gets here. I answer it on the third ring. It’s Cora.

“Is it okay if I fire off that report to you now? I’ve finished it and I need you to read it over.”

I smile. “Is that because it’s due tomorrow?”

There’s a beat on the other end of the phone, then: “So can you still do it or not?”

I tell her yes. She says that she’ll email it right now. She doesn’t say it, but I can hear her relief. As a writer, I know stress and last-minute writing when I see it. It’s nice to be on the other side for once.

I head over to my computer and check my inbox. Nothing yet. Waiting and not wanting to let her down, I log onto my real Facebook. When I first decided to write under an alias, my family was divided. My dad and I liked the fact that I could write something without anyone immediately knowing who I was (not that I write terrible commentary but people get offended by everything nowadays). My mother and brother thought that I’d do myself more credit using my real name. I’m not famous by any means, but I’ve never regretted my decision to write under a pseudonym. Under my real name, I have fewer than fifty friends (which by today’s standards, makes me a loner).

I check out Cora’s Facebook page (which makes me a stalker, apparently). Some girl named Kate is taking up most of the page with things like “OMG, no way” and “I hate this assignment” and “You sure I can’t steal your measurements?”. One sentence catches my eye. It says “4pH in our little river isn’t so bad. Could be worse… Could be Pripyat River.”

Something tweaks inside me. Before I can figure out what it is, a chat window pops up. Cora’s sent the report, and could I please not be “super mean.” I pull it from my inbox and read it over. I change a few sentences here and there, but my heart isn’t in it. The back of my mind is still trying to figure out where I know the name from. Overall, it’s a good report. I send it back to Cora and message her that it’s all done. She asks if I got lost in all the extra measurements and charts. I tell her that I navigated it pretty well. I’m about to tell her that I recognize most of it from the notes on Alexa’s desk.

That’s when I stop.

Alexa. Pripyat.

Pripyat is the name of the town that Alexa came from. It’s where she was born and raised. Waiting for Cora to respond, I type in the name of Alexa’s hometown to see what comes up. I freeze.

A lightning bolt could have struck me. I wouldn’t have felt a thing.

I say goodbye to Cora and she thanks me for reading her report. My mind is buzzing. Everything is slowly starting to make sense. Picking up my laptop, I take it to Alexa’s desk. I look through her paperwork again, only this time, I know what to look for. I do some web searching. She has electrochemical analysis readings of different rivers, pH measurements and charts. In a pile of papers, I find different readings. A non-science person wouldn’t have noticed the difference. By the time I’m finished researching and learning about Becquerel and Curie measurements and comparing them to her readings and notes, I feel like attending a conference. It all makes sense: why she doesn’t want me to get her from the airport, why I haven’t met her parents.

Why she didn’t tell me where she was going.

I’m still sitting at her desk when I hear the apartment door open. I hear her put down the bags, including the extra one that she’s started taking. The one that probably has some extra items. Gifts for her parents. Maybe even a Geiger counter.

She sounds tired from the trip. I would be too, getting off a plane and having to go through customs. Especially after coming from Pripyat. They probably checked her thoroughly. Since the nuclear reactor blew there, it’s been a dangerous place to visit. No wonder she didn’t want me to go.

She’s surprised to see me sitting at her desk. I’m happy she’s home safe. I watch her carefully, wanting to see the change in her reaction when she realizes I know where she’s been going.

“I missed you,” she says.

“I missed you too,” I say. “How was Chernobyl?”


Laura began writing stories on her grandfather’s typewriter at the age of ten. Since then she has continued to write and daydream excessively, feeding often on the support of her friends and family. She, like half the population of the world, is currently working on a novel. Email: atellix[at]

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