Black Road

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.”

25 thoughts on “Black Road

  1. Sofie says:

    I read the novel opening of your book in workshop #3 and I loved it. Now I read this piece and I’m still hooked. I love your voice and the story is very compeling. Great job! I wish I could read more. If I came across this novel in a bookstore I would definitely buy it.

  2. Bjorn Schievers says:

    I,m very busy at the moment, but I skimmed the text and will read it properly tonight.

    Two things come to mind right away. I said about the opening of your book not to mention Fukushima too early. Knowing what chapter three is like and thus getting a better idea of your story, I am 100% convinced you shouldn’t mention Fukushima at all. While reading chapter Three we should still think this is genuinely post-apocalyptic. Have you ever seen a movie called The Island? It’s about a group of people who live underground in a post-apocalyptic world. But there’s a yearly lottery that sends people to paradise, an island on the surface where things are still good. However, the MC finds out they are actually clones of people living on the surface, bred to use their organs if the surface person has a medical emergency. Given your plot I think it’s worth taking a look at!

    I love this, her and the dog in this ‘assumed’ post-apocalyptic world. It reminds me of a story called A Dog Of Flanders (where I’m from). I only read about it in a comic book, but there’s a book in English and a movie on Youtube. What I think might be relevant is the relationship between the dog and his boy, I remember them freezing to death in the comic, but I’m not sure if this happens in the original story.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Dog_of_Flanders

    I’m absolutely certain I would buy your novel too, I agree with Sofie.

    I’ll be back tonight to read the text properly and give you more feedback if necessary/possible.

    Bjorn 🙂

    • Eliza Worner says:

      Thanks, Bjorn. Do you think the bit about Fukushima gives it away too blatantly? When I originally wrote this in first person present tense there was no foreshadowing or revealing anything early, and revealing everything through Dana’s interpretation of events. I did want to continue that even though I changed tenses. I think I will go back and remove that bit, it was kind of dropped in anyway.

      • Bjorn Schievers says:

        Well, if you don’t mention Fukushima I as a reader think she actually lives in a post-apocalyptic world. Anything I come to know I find out through her eyes. If you already tell me on page one the world is still there, it takes away the fun of discovering it with Dana. I want to experience what she goes through, thinking the world is gone. She must be confused finding people alive in the outside world, then someone mentions a bakery… What? Maybe at first she thinks some people adapted to a radioactive environment? Or they found a solution to clean the air? Maybe it’s a small area that was saved nearby? Or maybe Seth is one of very few survivors in Dana’s mind. Till she finds out the truth of course.

        What I really wonder is what will happen in the rest of the book if she knows by chapter three or four the world is still there?

        🙂

        • Eliza Worner says:

          It was my original intention to keep the mystery going but it was implausible to continue past a certain point in the novel. I couldn’t keep it up just for the plot, and I had to concede to it, but at this point in the novel she has no reason to suspect differently.

          For the story, there are still so many mysteries. She is searching for her father and trying to find out why her mother hid in a bunker. All kinds of things happen and the plot doesn’t hinge on this one idea.

          However, it has been a major concern of mine that I am setting an expectation. I just hope the tone remains sinister and dark enough that this detail doesn’t matter. It is one big gamble.

          • Bjorn Schievers says:

            I am extremely busy till 23 September. I’m not saying I won’t find time here and there to read other people’s writings, but I just can’t promise which days I’m able to both read and comment. After 23 September I’ll have way more time. But please do send me the first two chapters, I’d love to give feedback as soon as I can. How many chapters did you say you have yet?

  3. Jennifer Eller-Kirkham says:

    The story is developing really well. You capture the scene well – I can picture it all, and you develop her feelings and growing knowledge at a good pace and with good tension.
    A couple of small expression points:
    The past tense of ‘pass’ is ‘passed’ not ‘past’ (first paragraph).
    I’m struggling to picture ‘I lifted my weight over my aching feet’ not sure what that means (I stood up? I took a step?)
    ‘Standing in guard’ rather than just standing guard?
    Not sure if she’d know how to shake hands after so long in the bunker. Minor point.

    The character of the man comes across clearly. Still interested and would keep reading.

    • Eliza Worner says:

      There are 2 things I get wrong every time: I always misspell “restaurant” (I did it again) and I invariably misuse “past”. Thanks for pointing it out.

      I’ll have a look at those other things, too. Thanks.

  4. 10penguins says:

    I started thinking she was dreaming or hallucinating. You definitely got my attention. If this was a book I wouldn’t be able to put it down. I’m gonna see if that bakery really exists before I quit reading. While I love what you have, I would be very disappointed if the world was “as it should be” and she spent 10 years in the shelter missing it all.

    Now that I’ve read more, I wonder about the title. I feel that the title doesn’t match the writing. The title feels very heavy, while the writing is light and fanciful, even though the subject matter may have a bite to it.

    • Eliza Worner says:

      I hope you don’t quit reading once you find out if the bakery exists or not.

      This is a lighter scene in the novel, but there is ample darkness. As the title hopefully suggests, the story gets darker. It’s certainly not a case of “and then I woke up and it was all a dream…” BUT this story is actually a reimagining of the Wizard of Oz so there are certain elements that I have incorporated in my own way.

      I hope everyone enjoy the story when it is finished and no one is disappointed.

  5. allisonnewchurch says:

    I only had a few comments and I see others have already pointed most of those out.

    Question though. I was envisaging her being on grass or perhaps gravel so was a bit thrown by the chap screeching to a halt on his quad bike. I ride one and I’ve never managed to screech to a halt. Perhaps I’m not trying hard enough.

    I just loved the line “skin drooping like a pumpkin left on the vine too long”.

    I loved your opening and after reading this, I want to read the rest.

  6. anastasiapoirier says:

    First off, thanks for posting and letting us read your work, which if you’re anything like me, is always terrifying.

    On to business, I’m having a hard time getting into this. I’m interested in the premise (I love apocalyptic type stuff) but this seems a bit convenient. Granted, you said this is chapter 3, so maybe she’s had some trials before this, I don’t know. Anyway, I’ll get into the areas I had some problems with (skipping over the past/passed issue as it’s already been addressed).

    This sentence struck me as odd: “Breathing had returned to normal” maybe it’s just me, but I’d prefer a “My” in front of that. Or just cut it entirely and just start with “My lungs no longer burned with acid” but that too could be clarified as I’m not sure what that really means. Is it smoke? Is the air acidic? Just a bit more description.

    So the air is acidic but there are trees and birds and grass and everything’s full of possibility? I’m not sure what apocalyptic event has occurred, but I’d imagine there’d be damage still visible after 10 years, plus ten years without society (which I’m assuming is the case, since she’s coming out of a bunker where she’s hidden for 10 years) would lead to some pretty drastic changes. Have you seen that documentary? I think its called Life After Humans, it may be good research for you.

    “My mouth fell open and I dug my heels into the soil beneath me, trying to find something firm to connect with.” Is she on quicksand or something? Why isn’t the soil firm?

    “I willed myself to breath” Should be “breathe”

    ““You alright?” He said, ignoring my lack of speech.” I’d take out the “ignoring my lack of speech.” it sounds weird, what does him asking if she’s “alright” have to do with ignoring her not talking? If anything, her not talking would further prompt him to ask this.

    “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?”” It seems his appearance is quite shocking, She should notice this far earlier. Also, it’s kind of ironic, him telling her she doesn’t look so good. Maybe play on this?

    “He frowned and glanced down at the dandelion clutched in my fist.” Huh? Where’d that come from?

    “I managed to say, stammering my own name.” You don’t need to say she’s saying her own name, we get it.

    “I dropped the sweaty bunch of leaves and wiped my hands on my jeans, shaking his offered hand.” It was a dandelion, now it’s leaves. When did these things get in her hands?

    ““You aren’t eating them weeds, are you? Jeez, you must be starving.” This seemed to come out of nowhere. Is that why she had dandelions and leaves in her hands?

    “”How’d you get out here, anyway?”” This is a weird question. I imagine she got out the same way most people go anywhere, she went. I’d take this out and just have him ask where she came from.

    “His questions shot in rapid fire required no answers.” How could they require no answers? She’s just not responding.

    “He was satisfied by the sound of his own voice as he chirped at me,” Not sure you can/should liken a man’s voice to chirping.

    After this, I stopped reading.

    • Eliza Worner says:

      Thanks for pointing out the superfluous writing. I will go back over those bits more carefully.

      Don’t worry about the dandelion (which is a plant with leaves and flowers), this extract is from the middle of chapter 3 and the dandelion hasn’t merely appeared out of nowhere.

      I’ve also wondered about Seth’s description and whether it should come earlier. I need to work on that.

  7. Jennifer F. Santucci says:

    I like Seth’s characterization. He seems big and obtrusive physically, but he also seems to have a heart because he’s concerned about Dana. I think his physical description of his face is fantastic and is placed just right. I don’t think she’d be able to see all those details until he came closer, so it seems to fit where it is. Also, I read his description of someone who has gone through a stroke. I’m not sure if that’s what you intended, but I also realized if Dana is seeing his face in this condition, she might not know what a person who’s suffered a stroke looks like and might attribute it to the nuclear fallout. Seth asks her about breaky and then later he says he’s going to the bakery. If I remember correctly, in the UK and Australia (I think that’s where you are.) breaky is slang for breakfast? If you have readers who don’t know that, they might think you got breaky and bakery mixed up. (If you meant, breaky.)

    I really liked this scene and her interaction with Seth, but I think the tension could be amped just a little. We see what Dana sees and we get an idea of what she’s feeling (For example, overwhelmed when she sits down as Seth starts talking to her). Maybe just a touch of her anxiety about seeing the motorcycle approach? Why doesn’t she run away? Why does she stay? Is she afraid when Seth approaches her? I’m assuming Seth is the first person she comes in contact with outside of the bunker, so if this is the case, I’d expect a little more of a reaction from her.

    I also agree with Bjorn about dropping the detail in chapter 1 about Fukishima. Instead of using this fact, you could layer the story with details of “facts” that were told to Dana by her mother about the nuclear fallout. Dana has accepted her mother’s words as truth, but as the story unravels, so does Dana’s forced reality. You mentioned in one of your responses that it wouldn’t be believable to continue Dana’s ignorance for very long especially when she encounters people and civilization, but it would still be powerful if we see what she thought was truth and what the truth actually is.

    I’m really enjoying your story, Eliza! I’d love to read it when you finish.

    • Eliza Worner says:

      Ah thanks, Jennifer. You do seem to “get” the story very well. I don’t need to hit you over the head with a sledgehammer with information. You and Bjorn have set my mind at ease that I can stick with my original plan to reveal things slowly. I have now removed any mention of Fukushima and will reveal it in layers.

      I remember now in my earlier drafts (which I’ve been avoiding) that I did include a justification for her not trying to run, which is basically because she’s too exhausted (just prior to this scene she climbed a steep hill and wasn’t accustomed to the exercise) and also because she has nowhere to go, she’s quite isolated on this property. And finally because she doesn’t want to abandon Otto. But I did drop some of that information when I rewrote this scene, so I will go back and work on it.

      Thank you, again.

      • Jennifer F. Santucci says:

        Leaving out Fukushima and instead layering the details and eventually showing Dana her reality isn’t what it seems will make a more compelling story. Plus, the reader will get invested in what happens to Dana.

        It would be believable that Dana would get too tired to runaway. I think if you bring back those details, it will definitely help show why she can’t run or hide from Seth.

  8. johnsonofdaw says:

    A post apocalyptic world offers endless possibilities for great stories. It’s been used many times before of course, but that doesn’t matter if you make it your own, which you do. I think it will work very well not only for mainstream but for young adults as well.

    I have to say, however, that the reading experience was spoilt for me by something awkward about your writing. It didn’t seem to bother the readers commenting above, so I thought it must be just me, but Jennifer and Anastasia mentioned some of what bothered me. Here’s some more examples:-

    “The world surrounded me, an expanse of endless possibility.” Don’t you mean: The world was an expanse of endless possibilities, or an expanse of endless possibilities surrounded me?

    “Over the rising and falling of the neighbouring hills” Don’t you mean: over the rise and fall?

    “In a deafening roar of the engine, he came to a screeching halt barely meters from where I stood.” Don’t you mean: he approached with a deafening roar of the engines and came to a screeching halt barely metres from where I stood?

    “I dug my heels into the soil beneath me” Do the last two words add anything?

    ‘“Vagabonds?” I said, an echo.’ : Don’t you mean: “Vagabonds” I echoed?

    “Seth’s breathing in sluggish slowness.”: Seth’s sluggish breathing, or Seth’s slow breathing?

    I don’t want to cramp your style because you can use language beautifully, but I do think it needs some polish. Take this paragraph:

    “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?”

    There are some terrific, original, similes and descriptive images here, but I’m distracted from the effect by: “ignoring my lack of speech” and by wondering how wrinkles around an eye can flare, and how a sunken eye socket can have an eye that stares inward?

    There’s great potential here, but I think more care is required to bring it to fruition.

    • Eliza Worner says:

      Thanks John. I think it means, after all these years of writing and practising, that this is my voice as a writer. The fact is I will never be able to please everyone. I will take on what you’ve said and give it some thought, but I could make myself insane if I tried to alter my voice and my style to try to make it work for everyone. I feel that if I did that, I’d be left with something pretty bland and generic and I’ve long strived for finding my voice, something that will delineate my writing from others. And I’m ok if it doesn’t please everyone.

      I agree it needs polishing, but not at the loss of my voice. It’s a fine balance. I really do appreciate your comments and will see what I can do.

  9. Belinda Rimmer says:

    What a wonderful story, it drew me in for sure, I don’t know how old your protagonist is, but the voice seems quite formal, more like an adult’s. Maybe this is right for the story, perhaps being alone in a bunker without the usual socializing has caused this. I’m keen to know about the mother and her role, somehow she looms in the extract even through her absence. I felt your protagonist might be more wary, angry, sullen; she’s lost so much. She seemed too well adjusted. Could you make her more disturbed, more unsettled by what’s happened. You draw the hunched man well, but I still think she’d show more fear. Her acceptance of the bakery, is this genuine. Who can she trust? I wanted to get more of a sense of foreboding in their interaction. But I think you will do well with this. Best of luck.

    • Eliza Worner says:

      Hi Belinda, thanks for your feedback. I have thought really hard about the maturity of the protagonist who has lived all these years alone with her mother, who it is revealed throughout the story is a biochemist. From my experience around homeschooled kids, children raised beyond the confines of age-restricted peer groups are more mature and talk like adults, so this rings true to me.

      In addition, the story being told in past tense means she could be narrating from any point in the future. But that has always confused me about first person past tense, and I’m keen to hear other people’s opinions on the matter. The story was originally told in present tense and the protagonist’s voice was different.

      I have also thought more about her fear and distrust and will work on that some more, as I agree there needs to more conflict there.

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