EVENT: PROLOGUE

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
The ordinary morning routine of a young Chilean housewife is disturbed by a premonition, then shattered by disaster. A prologue for a longer work, introducing characters.

Submitted: September 30, 2012

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Submitted: September 30, 2012

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PROLOGUE: NORTHERN CHILE, 2001

 

The thunder of the third explosion smashed through the charged air, the shattered peace of the blue sky rent asunder by a roiling Vesuvius of black smoke above the plant as the workers began to scatter. This was the moment Tomas had dreaded, the bad news born of unheeded warnings and safety compromises over the last  two years. How many times had he warned them? he asked himself as he ran. Finally the chickens had come home to roost. The development of a mass produced pesticide involved the processing of a number of gases under pressure, and once the seals of the containment stations became too old, a recipe for disaster ensued. The wall of the building cracked and he joined the others in a rush for the door, pressing, fighting with them to get through, even though he heard his voice shouting:  “Don’t crowd! Take it slow! God...!” Outside the sky was beginning to turn black.

White mountains formed the base of the visual field taking in the vista of Santiago beyond the window and the faded blue of the mountains walling in the city. The landscape was beginning to shimmer  under a cerulean blaze which called everything to become a part of its existence. The radio played quietly, innocuously in the background making a peaceful hum to keep Elena company without playing on her nerves .She kept her hands working, working the wet grease from the plates and trying to not to think too much, in case this was one of her bad days. Although the sun was halfway up the wall of blue light outside, it was early enough for the worries of the day to start crowding in on her mind, to start her winding inwards toward a possible migraine, not too frequent, but something she had noticed appearing now and again in her life, a black thing to be avoided in her inner landscape. And the black thing was always tied up with the departure every morning  when he kissed her on the cheek as she lay in bed, or as she took the still warm cup from his hand when he got up from the breakfast table, or as, dozing, she heard the door close, ever so quietly, yet never so quietly that her awareness could not feel his passing out of her morning, for she feared, deep within herself, in some unknown part of her body and her blood, that he may one day depart and return not. She recognised the irrational nature of this thought, and sometimes wondered where it came from. Just as quickly, she guessed it came from the desire never to lose him, a protective instinct she wanted to extend to her own children in the future. A plate made its way out of the sink, a horn honked in the streets below, somewhere in the brown and yellow grid of the awakened city, insubstantial things, The day stretched ahead with the possibility of familial phone calls, coffee, newspaper reading, television, knowing little and everything, and the feeling, the hope, that everything was and would always be all right. Ahead was the bluish wall of the Andes mountains, a kind of troubled rampart older than time, wider than experience, something that had always been there to hem in the life of anyone who chose or needed to live here, to the east, behind her spine and her vision was the wasteland of Northern Argentina and the oceans beyond, to the south, left of her was the changing landscape, the unknown belt leading to the roaring chaos of the southern seas and the frozen mystery of Antarctica. To the north was a jumble of ancient bricks and forests leading to a land of strange brass noise, and somewhere in that mix was the plant, always in her mind, at least over the last two years, the length of time he had been working there.

She herself had been born on a farm, one of seven children, and a bright girl, somewhat quiet, given to introspection. She was the third of them to be born, which put her in the odd position of rarely feeling that she owned her own clothes. She had an older and a younger sister, so the clothes she did have were inherited from her older sister, then passed down to the younger. She remembered her mother’s chiding if she fell down whilst playing, “You’ve torn a hole in it! Don’t you ever think of anyone but yourself? Why can’t you be more careful?” She would have to change or if she had nothing to change into, would have to sit in her room, shared with her sisters, wearing only her underclothes whilst her mother mended her clothes, always oppressed by a cloying feeling of guilt. Play was a strange thing to look back on as well. While her older sister and brother would sometimes trick her, or in the case of her sister hit her, she learned this behaviour from them and if she did the same thing to her younger sister and brother, they hit her again, for being a “bully,” and so would Mother. Over the years, she began to realise bitterly that no-one among her family was inclined to treat her with any respect. She made up her mind to use her intelligence and escape as soon as she could.

But the fierce intelligence of her nature soon meant she had to learn to stand up for herself, and sometimes, for others. She fondly remembered the time when Herve, her older brother, had pushed too far once too often and she had pushed her brother into the stream. He had climbed out, furious, as she had laughed at the comic spectacle he presented, spluttering and dripping, caked in wet sand, and when he had clumsily swung his hand at her she had neatly stepped aside and kicked him in the rear, so disorientated was he that his head fell in the earth a second time. She had had the good sense to run away then but, as ever, she had earned a hiding from Mother. That time though, it had almost seemed worth it, and truth be told, Herve had begun to be a little more respectful of her from that time forward. Fortunately that was not her only abiding experience of childhood. The hot summer sun and the fragrance of the spring blossoms came back to her across the years and recalled the happy hours of playing with her younger sister, walking in the hills or the groves and working on the farm. But she had known that her future did not lie here, and her intelligence, plus her experience of her parents’ farm had won her scholarship to agricultural college in Santiago where she had studied applied chemistry and biology, hoping eventually to work in a company developing pesticides and fertilisers. That way she felt she could really make a difference to her country, plagued as it was by pests and crop failures. That was where she had met Tomas.

Musing, she dried the dishes as she reflected. Odd how things had turned out, because she seemed to have exchanged one sort of drudgery for another, cooped up at home all day with nothing to do except household chores. She hoped it would all change soon, just as she had hoped when she had caught the bus in her village on the first stage of her journey to the city. She had left the village for the last time on that day, leaving her childhood, her family and her past behind her, travelling into a brighter future.

It was in her first year of study that she had become close to Tomas, and for the first time in her life the drudgery of her past, almost soulless existence had left her, slowly broken apart by him. His dancing eyes, his brilliant smile and his wit, above all his passion, optimism and way of planning for the future, all captured her mind and gave her a new hope. Tomas wanted, like her, to change things. Unlike her, however, Tomas was city born, and did not understand farming in the same way as she. He believed in renewable energies like wind, solar power and the tides to make agriculture work with the environment. He felt that this would make food production ultimately cleaner and less expensive. Her own visions were more prosaic and leaned towards more efficient farming. She thought of her- self as more practical than Tomas, less inclined to big ideas.

Life on a scholarship was hard, but they managed. She went to visit Tomas’ family in the city and found them welcoming and hospitable. Tomas seemed to have inherited his good humour from his mother. She was a large, genial woman who always seemed to be laughing, both like Tomas and unlike him, for he, like his father, was slight and elfin, with a lean face and sparkling eyes. They moved in together during their second year at the Agricultural College, and on the one occasion she had taken Tomas to visit her own family she recalled the embarrassment she had felt. Her father had changed little, and although her sisters and brother had made a show of trying to make Tomas welcome, the atmosphere had been palpable. Herve had a fiancée who had come to dinner, a quiet, dark-eyed girl who was older than he, plain-faced, and she envisaged him as eventually taking over the farm when Father died. Father had gazed fondly at them both then asked Tomas how he intended to make a living after his time at the College, as they sat around the dinner table. It was a big table, a heavy wooden top about eight or nine feet long, with four oil lamps hanging from the rafters above, and Tomas thought it was wonderful.

“What are you going to do when you finish college?” Father’s opening gambit had been, in his usual low growl. She had inwardly rolled her eyes at this, and secretly wished Tomas would tell him they intended to get married and go and live in America, anything to set the old bastard’s teeth on edge. Tomas, of course, had explained politely that he intended to look for work in the biochemical industry, a comment that had Father pursing his lips, much to her amusement. She spent the evening concentrating on the food, which was one thing she could not complain about as it was just as good as it had always been. The roast chicken was golden brown and moist, the potatoes crisp and delicious. The soup was a hearty broth of root vegetables and the fruit salad at the end of the meal provided colour and freshness, bursting with ripeness. The wine provided a perfect vehicle for good conversation with Tomas ignoring the glowers of Father and Herve, whilst charming the pants off Mother and Herve’s wife-to –be with amusing stories of his own background and his own hopeless cooking, for Tomas would be the first to admit he was not a wizard in the kitchen. However he did further manage to impress Mother by helping to clean the dishes, which made her uncomfortable as she was forced to endure the  cut-with-a knife atmosphere around the table without him, which made her even angrier and after they had finally left she had berated him for leaving her alone. Tomas, unflappable as ever, had apologised and simply said he was trying to help. She had felt her anger deflated by this and apologised in her own turn, as Tomas had driven them back to the city. Privately she began to wonder what had happened to her own dreams and more and more she entertained the idea of them having their own farm, where Tomas could try out his farming methods, and they could begin to live a more peaceful life.

Last year they had married in a little church near her parents’ farm and just for once all the sadness of her past life had melted away. Everyone had seemed happy for them, and Elena wished it had always been like that: indeed the promise of a better life seemed around the corner. Even Father had seemed happy and good-natured: giving Elena a gift of some money from the farm. But once it was over, the family had faded back into its previous obscure reclusiveness and seeming reluctance to have her in its bosom.

The reverie was interrupted by the jangling of the phone in the living room, She put out the last plate to dry and hurriedly dried her hands as she walked though, all the time wondering: why do we hurry to the telephone? What is it about its insistent ring that makes us drop whatever we are doing to answer its call? Is it the urgent sound it makes or just a kind of consciousness we’ve programmed ourselves into over a hundred and twenty years of having telephones? Why didn’t she just leave it to ring? But she knew the answer all along: what if something had happened to Tomas, to one of her family? She would never forgive herself. She picked up the receiver.

“Elena?” The familiar voice of her younger sister, now married and living in (-) She had a daughter, Isidora, aged eighteen months.

“Hi Zara.”

“How are you?” Over recent years they had become closer, especially since she had given birth, something Elena wanted for herself.

“I’m fine. Just washing up. What about you?”

“I’m just catching a couple of minutes while Issy’s playing.” Zara called her Issy, while her husband called her Dora, which amused Elena. “I can’t take my eyes off her for long, she’s sat here playing with some blocks.” Elena sometimes thought Zara was just calling to boast. “Still, that’s something you’ve got to look forward to, I guess.”

Elena’s hopes rose at the thought of motherhood. It would change their lives, she thought. Would it be for the best? Would she want Tomas to consider a new direction in his life? She hoped so. “Have you seen Father?” she asked.

“Last week.” Zara replied. “We took Issy over to see them. Mother made a right fuss over her, like she always does. They asked about you, I said you were both doing well.”

“Thanks, Zara.”

“Father’s still the same. He asks about you a lot. I think you should think about going to visit them, Elena. They’d really appreciate it.” Father’s health had been failing over the last year. He’d developed bronchitis and was becoming steadily weaker. This had troubled Elena who had found herself locked in the horns of a dilemma between her duty as a daughter and the bitterness of past shame. She knew the best thing for her to do was talk to Tomas about it.

“I know. And thanks for telling me. I need to sort something out with Tomas. It won’t be long, but I can’t travel at the moment.”

“I know.” Zara said. “Do you-” A car backfired in the streets outside, a loud retort like a gun.

“What was that?”

“I think a car backfiring. What were you saying?”

“Oh, just asking if you needed anything. We’ll be in the area in the next few days and can do a bit of shopping for you if you like.”

“Oh, that’s-” Another loud bang.

“That must be some lousy car, Elena.” Zara giggled.

“Yeah, if it were mine I’d-” 

A louder, deeper bang.  Two more backfires.

“Listen, Zara,” Elena said. “That’s real kind of you to offer. I’ll call you back; I think something’s going on.”

“Yeah, OK. Let me know, will you?”

“Ok. Cheers. Bye.” Elena hurriedly hung up as yet another bang sounded outside. She could hear a siren. This wasn’t a broken down car engine.

She hurried to the window where she had been washing up and looked outside. With mounting horror she saw a burgeoning plume of black smoke rising from the edge of the city. The chemical plant. It was on fire. Her worst nightmare. The horrible premonition she had had that morning was all coming true. Tomas was out there. There were sirens in the streets. She could hear voices below.

 

Someone knocked at the door. She didn’t know what to do. The knocks sounded again, a fusillade of anxious rapping and the voice of Wanda, one of her neighbours. “Elena!”

She leaned over the sink and began to moan in terror. The cloud was billowing toward the city. She was twenty floors from the ground. She was eight months pregnant.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


© Copyright 2020 MARCUS DARWIN. All rights reserved.

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