This scene occurs in Chapter 3. It’s the morning after 16-year-old Dana has emerged from a bunker after 10 years. She believes she’s alone in a world destroyed by nuclear fallout. She has gone in search of food for herself and her dog.
I tuned my ears to the babble of birds and the rush of air through the grey branches surrounding me. The air moved like a secret being past from tree to tree. From where I sat, the avenue of trees blocked the house entirely and only the tops of the water tanks broke the scene, so isolated and quiet in the valley below.
Breathing had returned to normal and my lungs no longer burned with acid. A peaceful solitude descended over me, a harmony with my surroundings that showed no present danger. Alone in the world, Otto my only companion, I felt less lonely than I had in a decade. The world surrounded me, an expanse of endless possibility. I lifted my weight over my aching feet and confirmed the path to the gate. It would be much easier from here on.
Over the rising and falling of the neighbouring hills, a low murmur broke the silence, like a swarm of insects, changing in volume and pitch as it traced the shape of the land. I whipped my head from side to side, trying to find the source of the noise. As it grew louder, the illusion of safety vanished. Something was coming.
My legs bowed beneath me when I saw it, sunlight flashing from the smooth metal front. A vehicle, coated in gleaming red, cut across the property in a straight line towards me. It bounced across the uneven terrain, roaring as it cleared the nearest verge and I saw a man hunched over the handlebars like he was ready to pounce. In a deafening roar of the engine, he came to a screeching halt barely meters from where I stood.
“Hey, you.” His voice boomed at me, so unfamiliar in its masculinity. “Whatcha doing?”
My mouth fell open and I dug my heels into the soil beneath me, trying to find something firm to connect with. The man climbed off the four-wheeled motorbike and took two strides towards me. I stepped backwards into the firm trunk of a gum tree.
His face softened and his arms fell to his side. “I didn’t mean to scare you.” He took half a step back.
I willed myself to breath and stared, wide eyed, unable to speak.
“I didn’t mean… I just, you gotta be careful round here. We get vagabonds from time to time.”
“Vagabonds?” I said, an echo. The word meant nothing to me.
“Yeah, you know. Hippies and stuff.”
My temples throbbed and my head swam. I needed to sit down again and my legs gave out just as I expected them to. He took three steps and was by my side, offering me a hand the size of a loaf of bread.
“You alright?” He said, ignoring my lack of speech. I stared at his face and he stared back through pin pricks of pupils. His left eye was surrounded by a track of wrinkles that flared from a sunken eye socket and his eye stared constantly inward. When he spoke only half his face moved, his skin drooping like a pumpkin left on the vine too long. “You don’t look too good. Where’d you come from, eh?”
I shook my head and took another breath. “I didn’t think…”
“Are you looking for something?” He frowned and glanced down at the dandelion clutched in my fist. “Who are you?”
“Dana,” I managed to say, stammering my own name.
“I’m Seth,” he said and offered his giant paw once more. I dropped the sweaty bunch of leaves and wiped my hands on my jeans, shaking his offered hand. His skin was hot and dry, his hands rough like dirt.
“You aren’t eating them weeds, are you? Jeez, you must be starving. How’d you get out here, anyway? Where’d you come from?”
His questions shot in rapid fire required no answers. He was satisfied by the sound of his own voice as he chirped at me, my brain barely registering what he was saying.
“Well, look. If you’re really that hungry why don’t you come into town with me. I’ll buy you some breaky. What do you say?” He smiled, revealing a row of uneven teeth.
Town. The word bounced like an echo inside my head, and I heard the swinging pendulum of time as I struggled to keep up with unfolding events. How long did I stand there gawking?
He tried again. “You shouldn’t be here, you know. This is private property.”
“Huh?” I said, choking into reality. “Do you live here, now?”
With that he laughed, an abrupt squawk. “No, I live up the road. I ‘spose I shouldn’t be here, neither.” His face hung with a childish innocence. “I just like to check on things.”
“Do you know who lives here?”
He shook his head. “Nah, no one ever comes.”
I looked down towards the valley where the hidden house sat, empty and abandoned, standing in guard beside the sunken bunker. I could have told him the truth, but I couldn’t find the words. Nothing made sense.
“Anyway, you coming into town with me, or what?”
“The town’s still there?” I asked, reeling at the concept.
He squinted at me and shielded his eyes from the sudden glare of sunlight from behind a cloud, shuffling his feet while he made a kind of clucking sound. Neither of us spoke for a moment.
“Well,” he said wrinkling his face. “I’m heading to the bakery.”
I wheezed on my words, stuttering. “A bakery?”
“Mmm yup. You like donuts?”
My voice escaped me again. Everything came screaming at me at once. The birds squawking, the wind howling. Seth’s breathing in sluggish slowness. Otto’s feet padding in the grass. My senses had gone wild. The smell of eucalypt burnt my nostrils. The taste of dandelion soured my throat. My fingers tingled and my cheeks ached in the cold. A shiver ran through me to my toes and for a moment my vision went black, returning in swirls of colour and light.
“Okay,” I said at last. What else was I going to do? “I’ll go with you.”