It was an unimaginable price to pay for freedom. What did I expect as I clambered out from that muddy hole into the starless darkness and turned my face to the open sky for the first time in ten years? Wind and the rain pierced my skin and the air closed around me. My pyjamas hung like rags from my soaked skin, loose yellow cotton offering nothing but pointless modesty.
“Otto,” I called into the hissing downpour singing off the iron bellies of two water tanks that towered above the entrance to the bunker. “Where are you? Come back.”
He hadn’t stopped to say goodbye.
The strength of my own voice surprised me, coming from my lungs at such a volume. There was never a need for shouting in the closed confines of the bunker. Out here, in the open space that surrounded me, my voice was swallowed by darkness and drowned by the relentless splatter of rain. Where did Otto go?
He was the reason we were here. It was all for him that I risked everything. I hadn’t had time to think it through and I certainly hadn’t anticipated the rain. Or the mud. The mud that smothered the front of my pyjamas. Red like blood all over my hands, my face, my feet. It was for Otto that I had made this crucial mistake, but there was no way I could imagine it would be like this, having lived so long in constant climate control.
“Mother,” I said, my breath curling from my lips. “What have I done?”
I stared back down into the hole at my feet and hugged myself for warmth. Somewhere beneath me she was sleeping in the constant warmth of the bunker. No idea what her only child had just done. Ten years of safety thrown away. One step into the storm and I was dripping with the contamination she had saved me from. And I could never return.
Never. It came upon me in instant. The full impact of the mistake I had made. I’d only thought of Otto, old Otto with no time left on his ticking time bomb. One foot already in the proverbial. I was just letting him go to live his final days in freedom. Just saving him from the premature fate mother had suggested earlier that day when he lost control and leaked on the kitchen floor. He was old and he was going to leave me anyway, taking the door into the endless nothingness beyond the little we already had. In the moment there had seemed no harm in releasing him. No harm to him, he’d be dead before the contamination rotted his bones.
But me? Sixteen years old. Healthy. Not about to die. I could have kept living. Could have made it. But now my time was limited. What did I inhale with each breath? What leached through my skin as the rain fell in my eyes and filled the corners of my mouth? I could taste the deceptive sweetness on my lips. Just like the children who tried to soothe their scorched throats drinking the black rain that fell on Hiroshima. I would get sick and I would die.
Ten years earlier, the Earth’s mantle had swayed and cracked as the ice sheets melted. The Earth shook. Nuclear reactors were destroyed, engulfed by tsunamis and rocked off their foundations. Plutonium, Iodine, Strontium, Tellurium flowed like rivers of toxic sludge into the swirling mists of air and sea. The poisons were carried in currents to every corner of the globe. They called this event Fukushima. I had read about it in the fragments of newspaper that mother had used as packing paper. I had seen the coloured images that showed the flowing tide right across the Pacific ocean.
Boom. A crack of thunder shook the ground as it bounced between the tanks and knocked me back to reality. The sky became day and the sudden image of a house remained etched on my retinas as darkness swallowed me again. A house a few metres away. Our house. It had appeared like an apparition from a forgotten dream, but I was certain it was real. A house. Warm and dry.
I stumbled forward on numb feet. “Otto,” I called again. “Wait for me.”
For a dog who couldn’t climb the mossy stairs out of the bunker, he’d certainly found his feet on the rain-drenched grass. I’d carried his whimpering frame up those stairs, his ribs crushed in my arms as he cried out in pain. I’d pushed him over the rim of the hole where the entrance sank into the muddy ground, his front paws digging into the soil as he tried to resist. Then he scrambled to his feet and slipped into the darkness. But he couldn’t have gone far. The cold would freeze his arthritic joints before he had a chance.
As I stepped blindly, my bare feet found the sharp edge of a broken brick and I fell forward, dropping the satchel I was carrying. The only thing I’d brought, hideously unprepared, into the world. The satchel contained the keys to all three bunker doors plus a mystery key and my father’s wallet with $25 and his driver’s license. The only photo I had of him. I scrambled through the brick pile, blindly feeling for the only treasure I owned. The one thing in this world I didn’t want to lose.
Lightning split the sky again and in a brief moment I caught a glimpse of the wallet, lying flat among a bundle of weeds. The satchel lay in a crack beneath the wallet but as I grabbed it I heard the keys fall. I felt around madly, fingers burning in the freezing cold, but the keys were gone. Fallen through the cracks, somewhere my fingers couldn’t reach.
I sat back and raised my chin to the sky taking a moment to breathe in the crisp air and collect my thoughts. As much as it hurt to know I was going to die. As much as the winter rain ripped through my bones and made me ache all over. It was real. I was here and not there anymore. I was actually free.