“The Wonderful Works of Nikolay the Wonderful,” he read out loud as he stared at the book I’d handed him.
His eyes returned from the book to me, and a questioning look formed on his face.
I couldn’t help but giggle. Nikolay was the smartest man I knew, a bona fide genius. Yet, whenever it came to things like social interactions or love, he acted like a young, innocent boy.
“It’s a present, a collection of all the memories we shared,” I blurted out and felt myself blushing a bit.
Each page of the book contained one memory I shared with Nikolay.
The very first page detailed how Nikolay and I had met. We were about the same age, but he was already a professor while I was nothing but a lowly research assistant. Nikolay seemed so distant. Not just to me, but to everyone. At first, I detested him because I mistook his social inaptitude for arrogance. In time, I learned that it was just how he was. He simply didn’t understand how people worked and so he didn’t bother with them. Once I looked behind the mask though, I learned how special he was.
On another page, I’d written about that long night we spent together, talking until the early morning hours. I was so fascinated with him. When you talked to Nikolay, it felt like he could answer all the questions you never thought of asking. As he laid open the mysteries of the universe, I laid open the ones about humans and social interactions.
I told him so many things in the book. I wrote how much I cherished our relationship. It differed from that of other people, but it was exactly why I liked it so much. As an introvert, I hated crowds, or to be honest, most people, in general.
There’d been those nights when I let fellow students or colleagues drag me along to a bar or a club. When they introduced me to their charming friends. During these nights I learned that I wasn’t made for those normal interactions either.
My relationship with Nikolay was so much different and because that our love flourished.
It wasn’t just stories though, I added pictures, newspaper clippings and details from his many research projects. I even added the interview that called him ‘one of the rising stars in the field of neuroscience.’
Nikolay’s reaction to the book was as simple as it could be.
“Oh,” was all he said before he gave me a nod, put the book down and returned to his work.
I was a bit shocked, but not in the least surprised. Nikolay didn’t function like normal people and there was no reason for me to be mad at him.
I was surprised the next day, though, when he asked me to marry him. I was so blown away, I couldn’t say a thing. Instead I threw myself at him, kissed him and nodded repeatedly.
Our wedding was a quick and private affair. No church ceremony and no big celebration. Instead we went to the registry and after that spend a bit of time with my parents.
I liked it that way and didn’t want to make a big deal out of it and Nikolay, I was sure, didn’t either.
After our marriage we continued to work at the university for a few more years.
During that time, Nikolay worked on countless projects. Some funded by the university, others by the private sector. When some of his discoveries were commercialized, he earned a small fortune.
It was nothing compared to what his sponsors made, of course. I remember how mad I was about it, how I told him they’d cheated him, but Nikolay didn’t care. All he cared for was his research and with the money he’d made, he could build his own private laboratory. Finally, he told me, he could indulge in his own independent research without relying on outside funding.
After his parents had died Nikolay had inherited their old home. It was a small colonial house, far away from the busy city and at the edge of a tiny village. Here Nikolay decided he’d build his laboratory.
He didn’t even need to ask me to come along. No, a life far away from the bustle of the city and its people sounded like a dream to me
The laboratory Nikolay had planned wasn’t big. It was nothing more than a few rooms in a small one-story building. Still, Nikolay was as happy as a little boy the night before Christmas when constructions began.
Once it was finished, he spent a sizeable chunk of his fortune on computers, state-of-the-art research equipment and all sorts of chemicals and contraptions.
Many people weren’t happy with his decision. I still remember how the university begged him to return and the checks they threw at him. Nikolay didn’t even bother to look at them. It was never about the money for him.
Worse even was the private sector. No day passed without new offers arriving, but Nikolay ignored them all. Eventually, they stopped chasing him and instead painted him a madman. The mad scientist, they called him. A man too obsessed with his own demons to further the advancement of mankind.
When I showed him the articles and asked how he could take it, he’d smile and tell me they might be right. Maybe he was mad. Back then I could still laugh at his words.
In the months to come, Nikolay would engross himself in his research. For days, sometimes even entire weeks, he’d lock himself away from the world, only leaving his laboratory to stock up on food or supplies.
One day I asked him about his research and what he was trying to do. He started explaining with his usual vigor, but after only a few minutes I had to stop him. I didn’t understand a single thing, so I pleaded with him to make it as simple as he could.
He tried to explain, he really did, but I still wasn’t able to make fully sense of it. The only thing I understood was that he tried to uncover ‘the mystery of life’ as he called it. From what I gathered, he was referring to the brain and its functions. One might be tempted to think he was talking about the soul or other less feasible things, but Nikolay was always practical, always logical.
I’d ask him if he needed any help, but he always declined. He had it all under control. He was making slow but steady progress, and the laboratory was too small for two people, anyway.
Oh, he’d gotten better at it, but I knew he was lying. Still, I couldn’t blame him. Deep down, I knew I didn’t understand what he was doing and would only be in the way.
Instead, I spent my days with my own interests, the ones I’d abandoned when I went to college and majored in science. Writing, arts, crafts and most of all painting.
I soon learned that these were other aspects of life that Nikolay didn’t understand. When I showed him the first painting I’d done in over a decade, he was more impressed than I’d ever seen him before.
It was always like that with him. So many things others couldn’t do came to him naturally, yet things easy to us were a mystery to him.
That night we made love like never before. Nikolay was so different and it was the first time he took charge of things.
At first, I was unsure, but after the sixth week, I knew I was pregnant. When I told Nikolay, he was dismissive at first, then panicky, but finally happy.
Our relationship had always been a distant one. I’d gotten used to not seeing him for days, yet it still hurt. The moment he’d learned about the pregnancy it all changed, Nikolay changed.
It was during this time, during those beautiful months we spent together, that I returned to the ‘Wonderful Works of Nikolay the Wonderful’.
No week passed without me adding a fresh page and filling it with pictures and memories. Other people might have called the things I added mundane, but to me they were special. There was a page about us watching a movie together. Another about spending the morning in bed cuddling and talking. I even wrote a long, lavish passage about a country walk we shared. Most of all, though, I wrote about all the times we sat together and talked about our child.
If it was a boy, he wanted to name him Alyosha, after his late grandfather who’d introduced him to the wondrous world of science. If it was a girl, he wanted to call her Ivana, after his sister who’d died during childbirth.
He had become an entirely different person. Sure, he still worked on his research, but not with the same vigor; gone was the time when he stayed at his laboratory for days on end. No, it seemed for the first time Nikolay had learned that there were things more important than research, books and science.
As I grew heavier and daily life became harder, Nikolay spend more and more time by my side.
I was happier than ever before and often imagined life with our child. I saw myself reading him or her fantastical stories while Nikolay’d talk about the stars that illuminated the universe.
Life was like a dream, a dream I’d never thought possible.
But like all dreams, it had to end. In a single moment, with nothing more than a missed step, it ended and turned into the worst nightmare imaginable.
It was a beautiful Sunday morning, and Nikolay’s call from downstairs awoke me. Breakfast was ready, he announced.
Still sleepy, I went through the ordeal of putting on my clothes before I waddled down the hallway to the stairs. For a moment I felt drowsy, like so often during these later weeks of the pregnancy. I staggered for a moment, but then I took a deep breath and prepared myself for the descent.
My hands reached out and clung to the railing on both sides. Yet, I’d barely taken the first couple of steps when a sudden, sharp pain shot through my entire body. I cringed, lost my balance, and one of my hands slipped off the railing. I called out in shock, tried to put my foot down to steady myself, but found nothing but thin air.
Do you know that horrible feeling when you realize something bad is about to happen, but there’s nothing you can do about it?
The moment my foot didn’t land on a step, I knew I would fall. My one hand still holding onto the railing slipped off, and I felt myself toppling forward. For a moment I felt weightless, as if gravity had stopped working before I crashed down.
I felt the pain only for a moment. A blazing pain that cut into my abdomen. I heard myself screaming before sweet oblivion took me away.
The time after the fall was the hardest in my entire life. So much of it just isn’t there, memories gone or reduced to unrelated bits and pieces.
I can still see Nikolay’s pained face when I woke up, and the stern and determined look of the doctor. I felt something was different about my body. There was something… missing.
There was no need for words. I knew what had happened, and I knew what I, we, had lost. Lying in the bed I cried, wept, screamed and wailed and then I went away. My consciousness retreated to a dark little place in the back of my mind.
I can’t tell for how long I was there. My memories during that time were hazy, as if hidden behind thick fog or mist.
In one I’m in my bed, with Nikolay standing above me, making me take some sort of medication. In another we’re at the family graveyard behind the house and Nikolay’s holding a small wooden box. Finally, I’m outside, sitting on the porch staring out at the empty fields ahead.
When I returned to myself I was alone at the house again. Nikolay was back at his laboratory, back working on his damned research. Fleeing from the real world like he’d done so many times before. I waited for him to come back, to take me into his arms, but he never came. Not that day, not the next, and not the one after.
I spent those days apathetic, staring out the window, bothering myself with chores that didn’t need doing or in bed in a medically induced sleep. Existence was strange, I was less a person and more an empty husk trudging along.
It was almost a week before I saw Nikolay again.
The moment he stepped through the front door, I gasped at how different he looked. Before the accident he’d been happy and healthy, now he was a scrawny, indifferent man. His face had grown dark and haggard, deep circles surrounded his eyes. I almost didn’t recognize him, and for a moment I thought some ghastly apparition had appeared in our house.
“My god, Nikolay, you look terrible,” I burst out.
He gave me the weakest hint of a smile, but there was something in his eyes, a strange glimmer.
“Just tired,” he mumbled and made his way towards the bedroom.
“Nikolay, wait-“ I started, but he didn’t react and soon vanished.
I told myself to go after him, to get in bed next to him, but I couldn’t because of those damned stairs. I took one step, but the memory of the fall made me cringe back and for a moment the pain I’d felt flared up inside of me again.
Eventually, I returned to the living room to sleep on the couch. It had become my sole little world, my safe haven.
I can’t say when the dreams started. Those terrible dreams of the baby I’d lost. In them I ran through the dark, unlit hospital corridors while the distant cries of my baby reached my ears.
When I woke up in the middle of the night, the cries of my baby still fresh and lingering, the only to return to sleep was Nikolay’s medication.
One day, I couldn’t take it anymore. I made my way to his laboratory and called out to him. But there was no reaction. He only noticed me when I pushed open the heavy doors. His face showed a mixture of surprise and anger.
“Nikolay, I thought I could prepare dinner for us. It would be the first time we ate together since,” I broke up for a moment, swallowing the saliva that had gathered in my mouth before I continued. “I thought it would be nice for us to eat together.”
“All right,” he said in a voice as thin as a whisper before he nuzzled me aside and closed the door behind himself.
The word dinner didn’t fit the meager meal I prepared for ourselves, yet I still hoped he’d appreciate the effort.
As we ate, Nikolay was quiet. His eyes wandered back to the window again and again, from which he nervously watched his laboratory. Finally, I had enough.
“Can’t you talk to me for once?” I confronted him.
“I know you’re suffering Nikolay, I know you do, but you’re not the only one! You’re not the only one who’s lost something that day and, and,” I couldn’t continue anymore.
“I need you, Nikolay, I need my husband!”
“I know, Lisa, but my work-“
There it was. The ‘but’, the ‘work’. This was it. I couldn’t take it anymore. As I pushed myself up my chair clattered to the floor behind me. I stared at him, but his eyes rested on the plate in front of him. He couldn’t even muster up the courage to look at me.
“It’s always work with you! I thought you’d changed, I thought we’d finally be a real,” I broke up, not able to say the word, and I felt my eyes welling up with tears.
God, how could I’ve ever thought I could be more important than his work!
I stormed from the room, leaving him there by himself. As I cried on the living room couch, there was a shimmer of hope in the back of my mind. He’d come into the room, put his arms around me and tell me how sorry he was.
That last, small shimmer vanished when I heard the front door and knew he was returning to his laboratory.
I knew then that our marriage had failed.
That evening I took out ‘The Wonderful Works of Nikolay the Wonderful’ once more. As I started reading it couldn’t help but call myself stupid. I cried as I read the parts about our would-be family and about our child.
When I fell asleep, the dreams came back to me. Once more the terrible cries of my unborn child haunted me. I woke up again, a crying and sobbing mess. As I lay there, the baby’s cries still lingering, I reached out for Nikolay’s medication. For a moment I held it in my hands before I threw it aside in a fit of anger.
As I got up, the baby’s cries seemed to follow me, to echo through my mind. A never-ending illusion that wasn’t satisfied anymore by haunting my dreams. Had I finally snapped, gone mad at last?
I crossed the room, then the hallway, and then I stepped outside into the cool, fresh night air. I didn’t know what I was doing, didn’t know where I was going. All I knew was that I had enough, enough of all of this, this entire life.
The moon was bright and high in the sky, yet I couldn’t appreciate it. The baby’s cries were still torturing me, still not letting up. For a moment I screamed into the night, pushing my hands against my ears, desperate to drown them out.
At that moment though, when I pressed my hands against my ears, the cries almost vanished. They weren’t coming from inside my head, I realized, they were coming from somewhere… else.
In shock and horror, I listened more closely. My eyes wandered towards the family graveyard, but that’s not where they came from. No, they came from Nikolay’s laboratory.
In the bright moonlight, the place looked so different. A small, bone-white structure that stood in stark contrast to the dark and empty fields around it.
With each step, the crying grew more distinct, clearer, and my mind was ablaze with confusion and shock.
At first I thought it was something different and that the implications my mind was making were impossible. But somehow I knew that Nikolay had made the impossible possible, and that I was hearing the cries of my stillborn child from inside his laboratory.
When I reached the door, I put my ear against it. The crying ebbed down, got quieter, and finally vanished. I cracked the door, only an inch at a time, careful not to make any sound.
Inside I saw Nikolay, hurrying from one of his weird contraptions to the next. He was pushing buttons and punching numbers into computers before he rushed to something in the back of the laboratory.
I saw his face, and Nikolay, he was smiling. He went back to one of his computer, staring at the lines and lines of numbers that flooded the screen and an excited chuckle escaped his mouth.
That’s when I couldn’t take it anymore. This hunched over, haggard creature; was it really my husband?
I pushed open the door with all the strength I could muster to confront him.
“Nikolay, what’s going on!?”
This time the anger on his face was real. A hand shot up, urging me to be quiet as he leaned forward, almost pushing his face against the monitor.
“It works,” he pressed out in a low, awestruck voice. “It finally works,” he said again, this time louder and I could hear the triumph in his voice.
“What are you-?” I started, but broke up when the baby’s cries started again.
“My god, Nikolay, what’s going on in here!?”
That’s when I saw the tank at the back of the laboratory. There was something inside, something that was small, moving and crying for his parents, his mother!
Nikolay smiled at me, his mouth agape. All the anger was gone from his face and his eyes glowed with mad satisfaction.
I pushed him aside and rushed to the tank.
My eyes grew wide when I saw what was inside.
It was a small, gray lump of flesh. Countless cables were connected to it, shoved deep into the wet, grayish flesh.
I watched in horror as it moved, opened its tiny mouth, its black, empty eyes and then another cry followed.
My half-rotten, stillborn child was there, crying in front of me.
“It worked, Lisa, I brought him back. I brought our son back. Our dear little Alyosha,” I heard Nikolay mumble behind me.
And I, I just stood there, frozen and unable to say anything.
I stared down at the mutilated lump that would one day have been my son. I listened to those desperate, anxious cries, those heart-wrenching cries that should never come from a baby. And then I watched as my hands reached out. I carefully lifted the grayish abomination and held it in my hands.
My fingers almost slipped before they thank deep into the soft, wet flesh. He was so small, so tiny, I thought, and as I held him he giggled before crying again more intensely.
It was the worst thing I ever experienced. Worse than Nikolay’s abandonment, worse than the fall and worse even than the time that followed.
I started shaking as the tears streamed hot and heavy from my eyes. I realized how wrong all of this was. The thing I was holding in my hands, the machinery all around me, this goddamn laboratory and the research Nikolay conducted here.
Despair washed over me, the tiny form that would one day have been my son Alyosha slipped from my hands and I fell to the floor weeping.
There was a wet squish as he crashed back into the trunk and a moment later all sounds died down.
Nikolay rushed forward, kicking me aside, his attention focused on the thing in the trunk, the thing that was our son.
“No no no no no no,” he started in a panic and began frantically working on the small body.
He tore off the remainder of the cables before he pushed his hand deep into the small body, prying it open. There was a disgusting wet sound as the flesh parted. Then he began meticulously reattaching the cables before he pushed thick metal connectors deep into the baby’s organs.
“H-how could you,” I pressed out. “Nikolay, how could you do something like that?”
Yet he didn’t listen. He was too absorbed into his work as he hurried through the laboratory, trying to bring our child back once more.
“Why’d you bring him back?!” I finally screamed at him at the top of my lungs.
At that, Nikolay’s eyes focused on me, almost as if he’d forgotten I was still there. His face twisted into an innocent smile.
“So he could be the first.”
His face looked like that of a child, a child that didn’t understand what he was doing, no, what he’d done.
Or, I realized, a child that couldn’t understand.
Without another word, I got up and stumbled from the laboratory. I left Nikolay to his computers, his contraptions, his notes and data, and his ghastly research.
Back in the house, I picked up the book once more. The book I’d titled ‘The Wonderful Works of Nikolay the Wonderful.’
At first, I wanted to tear it apart, to burn it right then and there, but then I picked up a sharpie. I crossed out the title and in crude letters, I wrote ‘The Insane Works of Nikolay the Mad’ below it. I even laughed as I did it, and then I began to write.
I wrote down everything I’d witnessed that night, everything he’d done.
Once I was done with the last damned chapter of the book, I knew what I had to do.
I’d get a box of matches and some of the highly flammable chemicals he’d stored away.
And then, I’d return to his laboratory and burn it all to the ground. Him, his research, our son and myself.