Seventeen year old Talia finds herself as sole survivor of a train crash, trapped in the freight container she stowed away in...
It gets so cold in the desert at night. Even locked in my metal prison I can feel the icy chill as the sun dips out of sight. A last red flash of defiance and the darkness starts to crawl across the sky. Of course I can’t actually see the sky, but because the freight container was so badly damaged in the crash at least I get snippets of the outside world leaking through. Enough to tease me, and make me start screaming again, hammering useless fists against the solid metal doors until my knuckles bleed.
I’m not sure why I bother. Nobody has answered my screams for help because for some reason the rescue operations I vaguely remember hearing haven’t reached this far. All day I have used precious energy shouting and battering at the walls, kicking the panels as hard as I can. Now I am exhausted again…
The silence is strangely terrifying. I used to long for peace and solitude. You don’t get much of that in the Camps. Now though, I’d give anything to be lying in my shack, trying to sleep through the babble of a dozen different dialects, wailing of babies, and shouting of brawling teenagers.
If I close my eyes tight, and shove my fists in my ears like a little kid I can almost block out the quiet blackness, creating my own little world of flashing lights. My heart thumps reassuringly, and I can, just for a moment, rid my mind of terrors that lay sprawled next to me. It makes it a whole lot worse that I’m not alone in my prison, and I try hard to keep my eyes fixed anyone but the other end of the container.
I force myself to dream of happier times. Really force myself, because I’m strong. I have to be because I have no one else to rely on, and that’s how it’s been for a long time. Strong and brave, as my mother used to say. She never told me girls had to beautiful did she? Just they had to be strong and brave. Think of Kellar. Kellar, who got you into this mess… Anger is also good, and I encourage myself to get mad with him, enjoying the surge of adrenalin that accompanies the rage, making blood pound through my veins, and my head spin.
A noise outside makes me jump, jolting my thoughts painfully back to the present. I open my eyes, straining my ears to identify the noise. A deep snuffling, low rumbling and the panther soft tread of the loda arista or ‘little tigers’. They’re back again, and I guess they can smell food. Dead bodies really stink, and my companions have been dead for four days now, and I think it must be at least six days in total since the crash, because I have no idea how long I was drifting in and out of consciousness from my own injuries. In the daylight I fight for freedom, and at night I cower back in my prison, pathetically grateful for its meagre shelter. A paw scrapes the walls, and I cringe backwards. If I had anything left in my stomach I would be sick at the thought of the loda arista feasting on those poor girls’ remains.
Despite my best intentions my eyes slide sideways, drawn irresistibly to Livvie’s out flung hand. I blink back stinging tears of frustration and remind myself that I did everything I could to try and save her. Everything except get us out of here. I think I’ve worked out why nobody has come to find us. The same crash that gave me tiny windows for day and night in my prison, must have thrown the freight container far down one of the ravines at the centre of the Barren Lands. At least that’s what it feels like. We’re certainly not in the middle of the desert. In a cruel twist of fate I can almost taste my freedom in the breezes that whistle through the cracks and holes, but the stupid metal box wasn’t damaged enough for me to get out. Believe me I’ve tried…
The snuffling of the wild animals stops abruptly, replaced by an eerie howl. I shiver with terror, and try to hunch even smaller in my corner. The metal wall is freezing against my bare arms, but in a way it comforts me. It’s something solid in this hell, something I can lean against; even see if I press my nose right up to the metal. The darkness always makes everything worse.
Clicking claws, scrabbling on the rock above me indicates the loda arista have found other, easier meat. They’ve gone and I take several deep breaths, ignoring the tight hungry feeling in my belly. Ignoring the bodies of my three friends as they sleep endlessly beside me. Think of Kellar…
It’s Kellar’s fault I’ve ended up in this dusty, claustrophobic freight container, hunched in a corner, bones shaking as the huge cross desert train rattled towards Leonore. Funny. One minute I was the happiest girl in the world, ready to finally shake off my past, then bang, it came up and bit my arse. A tiny part of me wonders if this is punishment for my plan. Did fate know I was plotting a murder of my own?
The constant repetition of the events that led me here are as soothing as a nursery chant and I drift between sleep and a kind of unconscious wakefulness until the morning light slides in once again to illuminate my prison. Surprisingly, today I’m feeling quite optimistic, and I manage to stand up stiffly, shaking the exhaustion from my muzzy head, and the cramps from my legs. I rake slightly shaking fingers through my tangled blonde hair and plait it carefully out of my face. All this is accomplished without seeing the three dead bodies decomposing next to me. Determinedly I stare at the metal wall. Strong and brave Talia. Today, I’m sure, is going to be the day I escape, even if it kills me…
I risk a glance sideways, and then wish I hadn’t. They’re really beginning to smell. Focus Talia. I drop my head into my hands, blocking out the hell that is mine alone.
They were so pretty and fun, and so happy to be travelling to Leonore to get married. And now they’re gone. Sometimes I feel I know more people in the Other Place than I do here on earth. Everyone is dead.
‘Strong and brave,’ Talia I remind myself, and breathing shallow and deep I make myself step over the wreckage and the bodies, ignoring the pools of dried blood with their sour metallic smell.
It takes me until sunset to explore every inch of my prison, making myself dig shaking fingers in every crevice, and by now I’m totally weary, dispirited. As the last rays of precious light drip through the gaps I give a howl to rival the loda arista. Tears of hunger and frustration pour down my cheeks and in my desperate thirst I actually stick my tongue out and try to lick them. I can’t understand why nobody has come to rescue us. I suppose hours after it happened, when I definitely heard the shouts of emergency workers, the whirr of helicopters I was just waiting for discovery. All along I’ve assumed at the back of my mind I would be discovered and sent back to Arista. The day after Liv died I’m sure I even heard a huge grinding clanking, suggesting that the main express engine was somehow back in action. But nobody came to collect the last freight car. Gradually the shouts stopped, until one day there was silence. The noise of the cross desert express blares and thunders distantly every two days, but of course the train never stops. Why should it? Nobody lives in the Barren Lands.
Panting, I resume my position next to the wall. My heart’s racing, and pounding painfully against my ribs. I’m sure I can feel blood pulsing around my body at a furious rate. Shaking my hands crossly to rid them of pins and needles I’m suddenly convinced I can’t breathe, and take huge lungfuls of air, gulping it like water. I’m dying now; the walls are closing in, and any minute now I’ll be down among the bodies… A panic attack, my rational self whispers, but this time there’s no way I can talk myself down. I let it happen, feeling terror mounting, my head buzzing, until everything goes red and fuzzy.
When I wake I’ve got a blinding headache and my throat is sore and dry. Even my tongue is dry as I run it round my cracked lips, and it feels horrible. It’s still dark, and for a moment I lay where I must have fallen, not caring, not feeling. Perhaps I’m dead already. But I can still feel, still think. This is good I tell myself weakly, maybe being dead isn’t so bad after all. Perhaps I’m in the Other Place. My parents might be here, my friends, my brother… everyone is dead. Defeated, I close my eyes before my inner self can reason that nobody dies of a plain old panic attack. Unlike my companions my only wounds are self inflicted.
Drifting uneasily between blessed unconsciousness I even wonder if I could engineer another panic attack and make myself faint again. Then I smell it. A sharp dangerous scent that stirs other memories. Even as I roll over and haul myself to my trembling feet I can almost taste the thick wood smoke. Obviously as it is still dark I can’t see anything, but the air I’m breathing becomes muggy and a distant crackle of flames drives me to throw myself once more at the barred metal doors.
From the light and shade in the day I surmised the freight container had rolled far down the embankment into this woody ravine. The loda arista only live where there are woods and rocks to hide and hunt. In daylight too, I can see the patterns of leaves on the walls, and hear the sigh and creak of pine trees outside. For the last few days (or weeks?) this seemed to be a good thing, as we were sheltered from the worst of the sun, but in a fire this would be the very worst place to be, especially if, oh yeah, you happened to be trapped in a metal box.
Once again my heart is racing, my hands wet with sticky sweat, and I try to think logically. This area between the two cities isn’t called the Barren Lands for nothing. It’s literally a couple of hundred hectares of sand and mountain. Mostly desert, with a line of rock ravine running straight down the middle, dividing the warring kingdoms of Arista and Leonore. Wild animals live in the ravines where there’s food and water, but rarely venture out into the desert. Of course I’ve never seen this, but we’re taught the basics of geography at the charitable school in the Camps. The one with the barred windows.
I dredge my cloudy brain for more information, before reluctantly admitting to myself I should have paid more attention in class. To my east and west is the desert, itself bordered by cruel wire fences, blinding searchlights, and trigger happy guards. Conclusion; I am miles from civilisation and nobody would see smoke from a fire, or if they did, bother to come and put it out. Everyone knows no humans live in the Barren Lands.
My whole body soaked with sweat now, I try to shield my stinging, burning eyes, choking on the invisible menace. Leaning heavily on the doors I crouch low, praying for a miracle, or a quick death. The smoke drifts thicker, no longer wispy and cloud like but a heavy lung filling blackness.