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, wind and rain stinging my cheeks as I braced myself against a winter I hadn’t known for ten years. My pyjamas hung like rags from my soaked skin, loose yellow cotton offering nothing but pointless modesty.
“Otto,” I called into the deafening 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.
It was all for him that I risked everything. Perhaps I hadn’t thought it through. I 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.
“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. I was dripping with contamination and could never return.
Never. It came upon me in instant. The full impact of the mistake I had made. I was just letting Otto go to live the rest of his few days in freedom. Saving him from the fate mother had suggested earlier that day when he leaked on the kitchen floor. He was old. Too old. One day soon he was going to leave me to the endless nothingness beyond the little we already had. There seemed no harm in releasing him. He’d be dead before the contamination rotted his bones.
But me? Sixteen years old. Healthy. Not about to die. Could have kept living. Could have made it. But not anymore. 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.
Speaking of history, who would write the stories of us, the last humans on Earth? There was a job for me. Nothing better to do as I died slowly with my insides burning. My last days on Earth, curled up somewhere in grotesque agony, hands shaking as I coaxed the last of the ink from the only pen I had. At least it would be something. Some mark left on the pages of time.
Boom. A crack of thunder shook the ground as it bounced between the tanks. The sky became day and the image 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 another 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 outside again.
The keys weren’t important. They were my past and I could leave them behind. I wasn’t going back. I found my feet and teetered down from the pile of bricks, hands outstretched as I felt my way to the nearest wall. My fingers touched the peeling wood and I slid my way along carefully, step by step, towards the front of the house.
As I rounded the corner the clouds danced with light and I found Otto, curled up against front door, shivering so hard he couldn’t stand. I climbed the steps, one, two, and the rain stopped abruptly as I found shelter under the curved roof of the porch. The wind whipped my face and, if it were possible, I felt even colder.
“There you are,” I breathed out in a frosted wisp. “Come on, let’s get inside.”