Black Road

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.

34 thoughts on “Black Road

  1. Cat Lumb says:

    I think the other comments have summed up how I also feel about this opening. It’s the strongest one I’ve read so far (this is my 8th) and I feel a deep connection to your character because of it.

    As for the connection to Otto, I agree with someone above who said that if she had spent ten years in a bunker the relationship with the dog would be of particular importance; potentially the only spark of happiness in an otherwise prison-like life. (I know I can have the most terrible day and yet, when I get home and spend 10min with my dog I am overwhelmingly happy). Perhaps it’s her mother’s idea to set him free and your character regrets it as soon as he’s gone? That would be a strong motivator. Especially for a 16yr old who, I presume, might not be as confident as expected because of the limitations of her environment in the bunker.

    I wonder if you could manipulate the paragraph about Fukushima into a memory of her leaving the house as a six year old – you mention her reading the papers; even remembering the headlines might reveal enough so you don’t have to explain the circumstances as such. Just a thought.

    I really, really hope that this novel gets published soon: as the potential in the short piece above is fantastic and I’m just as desperate to read the rest as those above. Well done on such beautiful language and creating an intriguing opening with a strong character.

    Keep up the great work. Take Care

    • Eliza Worner says:

      Thank you, Cat. Yes her relationship with Otto is very special and he is her best friend. While I need to work something more into the story for him, he is always by her side and she never leaves him. I have some strong ideas to show their relationship more clearly as the story develops.

      I do need to think about this Fukushima bit, it is very relevant but needs to be treated with caution.

  2. chickinwhite says:

    I was intrigued when I´ve read the first 250, and now I really love it. You own a strong voice, and you´re stirring some strong emotions here. Though it is just a short part of th ebeginning, we already ask ourselves lots of questions – about her where and why and how etc…
    That means you are capturing your readers quite well!
    I am wondering where you are heading. Because, it´s some sort of apocalypse waiting out there? Or has it all been a mistake?(the hiding for 10 years)? I tend to believe the ladder, because, being out in th eapokalypse alone would lead to a quick ending of your novel, going back to hide, too. So, I expect her to find out that life is still going on on earth, and that she missed 10 years…
    I would lie to read on and find out!
    Damn good job, Eliza!! 😉

    • Eliza Worner says:

      You’re assessment is correct. It is hard to approach it as people are expecting one thing and they’re going to get another, which has me worried but I’m hoping I can achieve what I set out to achieve. Thank you very much for your support.

  3. Todd Roberts says:

    Great job. I think I’ve learned a lot from reading this, specifically with regards to how backstory can be presented with good pace and without confusing the reader.

    I will be as critical as I can, because you deserve at least that much for the help you gave me. Please keep in mind that I am *trying* to be pedantic, because I don’t have a lot of advice on how to better the story.

    //I called into the hissing downpour singing off the iron bellies of two water tanks that towered above the entrance to the bunker.//

    This sentence seems awkward to me, and if I personally wrote it, it would read: “I called into the hissing downpour.” There’s enough information there for tone and setting, and my patience is *mildly* tested by too many prepositions. If the two water tanks are going to be vital to the story in some way, you might simply break this into two shorter sentences, otherwise I think that the reader can imagine that the bunkers have any and all the amenities that would be needed for survival.

    “Wind and the rain pierced my skin and the air closed around me”

    This didn’t really give me any pause, but given the tone, someone might come to the conclusion that your skin really is being broken (as if the wind and rain were acidic, or something).

    “The strength of my own voice surprised me, coming from my lungs at such a volume”

    The part after the comma seems unnecessary, or, if you will, redundant 😉 However, would you be sacrificing some of your voice by deleting it? I’m not sure.

    Last thing:

    “Just like the children who tried to soothe their scorched throats drinking the black rain that fell on Hiroshima.”

    I’m torn by this sentence, but I don’t think it needs to go. I think that without a year being given, it might cause the reader to think that this event occurred shortly after WWII, though, readers will enjoy patting themselves on the back for knowing what Hiroshima is, and I think that’s more important. One idea that I had was to simply make the following sentence something to the effect of “They would be grandparents by now.” It accomplishes the execution of the idea that drinking the liquid is lethal and establishes a rough time frame.

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