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. terah7 says:

    This is one of my favorites so far. Excellent, excellent voice. I read all of it and I want to read more. I’m interested and intrigued about what happens. I am a first sentence/first paragraph reader. If they don’t pull me into the story, I will not read the book. Your first sentence hooked me and your first paragraph literally grabbed me (shook me a little) and threw me into the story.

    I do have a few suggestions. I would wait and explain the Fukushima later. Its presence on the first page seems too soon. Holding out (for a just a little while longer) would pull your reader into the story even more. I figured out pretty early that Otto was not a human but I’m not sure readers will be convinced that she sacrificed her life for a dog “with no time left on his ticking time bomb.” I’m hoping that Otto plays a huge part in the story as it unfolds.

    Again, great job! Good luck!

    • Eliza Worner says:

      Thank you. I actually haven’t developed Otto’s part very well and I see now that I need to. I guess it was in the back of my mind that it was lacking. Definitely got my thoughts whirling now.

      I added the Fukushima part in at another reader’s suggestion that it was too vague in the opening. But I did worry it came across as an info dump, so I kept it short. I have certain worries about what I am revealing and where. I’m still scratching my head about it. Maybe you’re right and I should just wait a page or 2.

  2. Sofie says:

    Of all the entries I have read so far, I like this the most. I really, really liked it and loved the voice. I was drawn into the story right away.

    As far as the dog is concerned, I wonder what is so special about him that she sacrifices 10 years of safeness. But I guess this will become clear when the story unfolds.

    There is only one problem: now I really want to read the rest!

  3. 10penguins says:

    I love the imagery. I got so caught up in the story. I was a little confused about Otto at first. It took me a while to realize he was a dog. The end left me heartbroken. No Otto, no way to get back to safety. Just this little bit has a wonderful story arc; I have to keep telling myself that this is just the beginning. There is so much more to come. Cannot wait to read more! Well done!

  4. tukkerintensity says:

    I really liked your writing style and voice. I’m also intrigued by this kind of “post apocalyptic” tale.

    Just some grammatical stuff first.

    It came upon me in instant. ~ in an instant.

    Wind and the rain pierced my skin and the air closed around me. ~ The wind and the rain or maybe ~ The Wind and rain….

    You use the word “had/hadn’t” and “was/were” a lot. Look at this sentence for example. “I hadn’t had time to think it through and I certainly hadn’t anticipated the rain.”

    This one is just personal preference, but I didn’t really need the Boom. Just A crack of thunder… would have been great. ~ Boom. A crack of thunder shook the ground as it bounced between the tanks and knocked me back to reality.

    I didn’t mind the Fukushima thing at all – I don’t think this story is about the past so getting that out of the way didn’t seem rushed to me.

    I wouldn’t mind knowing the narrator’s name by this point (and though I suspect she is a she, however, there is no indication of sex).

    Beyond that I agree with the others that there must be a very strong reason for someone to suicide themselves after a dog especially if the dog is dying and doesn’t seem like he can be saved and the narrator seems fully aware of what he/she is sacrificing.

    Other than the writing was fantastic and I really enjoyed it and would definitely read on.

    • Eliza Worner says:

      Thanks for the feedback.

      I guess what I am seeing is that I lost something by deleting the two chapters that used to precede this one. The idea was she had only thought of releasing Otto and returning, but I think it never quite sat properly with me anyway, so I think you’re all right that she needs a very good reason to have made that choice whether she thought it through or not.

  5. Bjorn Schievers says:

    The first paragraph sucked me into the story right away. I’m wondering how long you worked on that. It tickled my curiosity and made me want to know more, maybe part of that is that I love post apocalyptic atmosphere.

    At first I was wondering whether Otto would be a dog or a younger brother. The moment you spoke of Otto being old and not having long to live I definitively settled on a dog. And I must say I wondered what makes the dog so special that she’d sacrifice her life for it. I find it hard to believe that would be the ONLY reason. Also I see the main character as a girl, even though I don’t remember you saying that anywhere.

    I really liked your story opening, I love the voice and am very interested in reading on. In my opinion I think it would benefit the atmosphere to say nothing of what caused the situation till later on. I do like the explanation for it, but I think I would have preferred to soak in more of the environment before having it explained to me.

    I think I’ve learned something from reading your opening. 🙂

    • Eliza Worner says:

      Did you learn something? Please share because it may be a fluke that I got it right. ;p

      As I mentioned for the last 3 drafts this story started 2 chapters earlier and it was only recently I decided to start at this point in the novel. Honestly it was because the chapter before this was a slog to write, I hated it so I ditched it.

      I think I will move the information. The story is not what people expect it to be and I’m struggling with how to achieve that and when to present the relevant information. It’s causing me some grief.

      • Bjorn Schievers says:

        I don’t think it’s a fluke, I think you know what you’re doing for the most part and worked hard on your text.

        I come from a movie background, where you would usually give an overview of the scene before you go to your main character. I keep hearing again and again I should do the opposite now. 🙂

        Your opening is a very good example of starting with a character, staying close to the character and drawing the reader in. You have a great opening line that is not cliche, in my humble opinion. And you immediately piqued my interest in that opening paragraph. Why is she climbing out of a hole? Wait, what hole is she climbing out of? Oh, and this is her first time in the outside world in ten years? What’s the outside world like? You made me ask a lot of questions in the first paragraph and I must have the answers.

        In the second paragraph she’s looking for someone. So she’s not alone and out there randomly. It’s because of someone else. And I want her to find that someone. I start caring about her, or at least about her finding Otto, whoever Otto is. He’s clearly important to her if she’s coming outside for the first time.

        It also seems very visual or tangible, the rain, the mud, the blood.

        You had me even though you didn’t explain the situation till paragraph eight. So clearly one doesn’t need to know everything right away to care. You’re very efficient. Is that the right way to say it? I’m foreign.

        For me the trick is to try and execute what I noticed in your writing to make my opening better. 🙂

        Many thanks!

  6. maggiehasbrouck says:

    I like this a lot and like everyone else, wonder about the dog relationship. At first we don’t know it’s a dog and I don’t think that little mystery is needed. I want to know right up front about this dog and why she(?) cares enough to risk so much.
    That being said, 16 year olds are great at not thinking things through. If this is just a situation of rash teenage brain, I think that’s fine. But that moment where she realizes the stupidity of it all could be felt even stronger.

    I do like the questions surrounding the bunker, the toxic earth, the mystery key, and the missing father. I also think you made the right decision starting the story here. Really well done.

    • Eliza Worner says:

      Thanks for your feedback. I hadn’t intended there to be a mystery about who Otto is. It simply didn’t come out naturally in my writing. There’s no reason for there to be any mystery about it, and I don’t mind clearing it up.

  7. Jim says:

    Like those above, this is my favorite beginning so far. Good job! You hooked me on the story from the start.

    Letting me discover that Otto is a dog a bit into the story was fine with me. It made it a bit of a mystery, and I like that.

    Anxious to read the whole story.

  8. Jennifer Eller-Kirkham says:

    Hi Eliza, I agree with most of the comments above. I loved your opening when Ellen posted it in the earlier exercise, and I still find it intriguing. I love distopian stories. To add to what other crtiquers (sp?) have said about Otto, I also think you need more motivation around that. It does not really ring true to me that she would sacrifice her whole life for a dog, and devastate her mother, so there needs to be some other push factors there that send her out. Either she hates her mother, or she just cannot stand to be confined any longer. Even if she only intended to release Otto – it isn’t believable that she would think she could do that if she knows there is nuclear radiation that will get in the minute she opens a door. As a dog lover, I also don’t think you would send your dog out into an unknown world to die alone and in pain, possible to starve rather than with you there to comfort it. Just some things to think about.

    The mention of Fukushima was a slight jarring note for me. Because I have read a lot about Fukushima, and it was not nearly as large an event as you made it in this passage, so that was confusing for me. Was it the Fukushima that happened 4 years ago, or was it some other Fukushima?

    I love your last paragraph. I love the fact that the wind whipped and made her bones ache – it is a lovely detail because you suspect that her bones are going to ache horribly soon for other reasons, and that little bone ache will be the least of her worries. This beginning could lead off in many different directions and I am interested in where you are going with it.

    I do like the way you write and would be interested in forming a feedback partnership ongoing if you wanted to do that with someone.
    I am also writing mainstream – Across the Dark Distances is my first chapter if you want to have a read. Would love your feedback.

    Good luck with your project – it has a lot of promose.

  9. Jennifer F. Santucci says:

    Well done, Eliza! I enjoyed reading this in the first workshop and again here. It was already a strong sample and made even stronger with your revisions.

    I liked that you mentioned the detail about Fukishima. It wasn’t in the previous submission and this time it’s clearer that this is a post-apocalyptic/dystopian story. Some of the feedback was to leave this out until later which is possible. A compromise would be to leave in the details about the MC getting a glimpse of the newspaper about a nuclear event that nearly destroyed the world, but she doesn’t get to see the whole thing before her mom burns it for warmth (something along those lines). Is it necessary for the MC to know what the catastrophic event is at the beginning of the story? Or will part of her escape be about surving and discovering what happened?

    From the first submission, I thought Otto was someone like a grandfather who wanted to die topside. It would make sense why she went after him. I was surprised to learn it’s a dog. Jennifer Eller-Kirkham brings up good points about the motivation to follow. The MC has got her age as a factor for impulsive behavior, but it isn’t enough. The dog could represent an attachment/bond she had underground. The MC probably didn’t have any social interaction with other people her age, so perhaps the dog became her friend like in Castaway with Tom Hank’s character’s relationship with Wilson. Just a suggestion since you said you were going to develop this aspect of Otto more.

    • Eliza Worner says:

      That is definitely the relationship she has with Otto, which was clear before I deleted the first two chapters. I do hope it will be apparent as the story develops, but I wonder if I should make that relationship clearer in this opening chapter. He is her only friend and is a very important part of her life that she is unwilling to watch die or let her mother put him down. I have edited the piece already to explicitly state that her father gave him to her.

      Thank you, Jennifer. Your feedback is greatly appreciated.

      • Jennifer F. Santucci says:

        You could sprinkle a line (maybe where she says that he didn’t say goodbye) where she makes a remark that it was like her father leaving again (express the same feelings of abandonment maybe?).

  10. allisonnewchurch says:

    I haven’t read any of the other comments, yet, because I wanted to get my gut feel down on ‘paper’ before my thoughts had a chance to be coloured by others.

    I don’t care whether the writing has errors, I don’t care and I didn’t notice. If the tense changed, or the grammar wasn’t correct I didn’t notice. I’ve just been sucked completely in to the story. You could have committed every writing sin in the book and I honestly wouldn’t notice, nor would I care.

    My breathing has become rapid and shallow, the pace of my heart has increased, there is a burning sensation in my throat and my eyes are stinging.

    I WANT TO READ THE REST OF YOUR BOOK!!

    • Eliza Worner says:

      Wow thank you very much, Allison. I am going to have to stop getting distracted by everything (oh look, something shiny) and write this fourth draft because I’m afraid I’m only on chapter three. Eek. But this feedback I’m receiving is so inspiring and has given me great hope.

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