On rainy days, on days when the air smelled like ozone and soot and water fell swollen with chronoradiation, Anton climbed to the roof of the tallest building in Pripyat to watch the sun peel the clouds from the horizon at sunset. The first nine blocks were easy: he pushed the girl ahead of him in a rusted shopping cart. The stairs were more difficult, but heâ€™d fashioned a sling out of an old backpack to secure the girl to his back. The whole ordeal took nearly three hours, so he always started early. Unfortunately, because the stairwell was windowless and he had no way to measure time, sometimes the sky was already dark when he opened the door to the roof.
Anton thought of the girl as Antonina, though heâ€™d never learned her name. Like most of the shadow children, her metabolism had slowed after the incident, and any physical aging in the last decade was negligible. Her body was eighteen months old, he estimated. There was no way to know if her brain grew in body time or thought time, but he fancied that she was nearly eleven behind those dark eyes. That was how old his daughter had been.
The front left wheel of the cart screeched with every revolution. Anton used it to keep his footsteps in rhythm. Every three shrieks, he leaned hard against the plastic rail to shift his weight from his leg. It was two thousand and twenty six steps to the building, but only one thousand and thirteen of them were painful. The injury was relatively minorâ€”a ligament torn during a game of tag with his daughterâ€”but, like Antonina, his body moved in Pripyat time and it could take decades for the tissue to knit.
Above them, the dim patch of light inched towards the horizon and the first shade of smog-soaked red spilled over the empty village. Anton estimated it would take another hour to make it to the roof, which put them perfectly on schedule with the darkening sky.
As he walked, Anton hummed a song heâ€™d picked up in the university pubs of Moscow back when his wife had been his girlfriend and his daughter had been a laughable impossibility. When Antonina’s chubby face opened into a broad grin, Anton tried to sing the chorus. Most of the words had been forgotten, and his syllables washed ahead like echoes swirling over the sooty streets.