The Back Road

in The Ink Well2 months ago

There are many roads with many vehicles speeding away from home or toward it, along side roads, rivers, bays, through farmlands, industrial estates, cities, highways. They are abandoned without fuel, wrecked, burning on the side of the freeway with no way of getting emergency vehicles in to extinguish them. No one is of a mind to help as they have their own urgent concerns to tend to. There are roads with abandoned caravans and overturned SUV's, and in one, two young children are hiding under a blanket behind the front seats as instructed by their mother, who should be back by now, but isn't. She never will be. There is a truck with a driver hiding in the cab and feeling less tough than he did the day before. There is a bus load of school children hushed by a teacher who wished like hell she didn't come in to work that day. There are empty roads too, that one day, like all roads, will be covered in grasses and trees, the asphalt upturned by tree roots and fractured further by rain and sun, giving lie to the truth of permanence they once promised.

There are also back roads, roads to nowhere or into the wilderness, where one can hide for a while and come out renewed.

On this back road, the unpaved route to the riverside town of Clarissa, which takes travellers to a car ferry across the William River and onward to the city, Wal and his daughter are travelling in an old Landcruiser ute. It is more rust than anything. They are late for the last punt across, but they would make it if they could ford the creek without having to stop and use the winch like they did a week ago. There's been no rain for a week and they cross it easily, making good time.


Sam can smell the stale and acrid funk of her underarms and wishes she had swum in the creek like she was told this morning, but didn't expect the day to be so warm and for the road out of the Western Wilds to be so long. Her Dad had politely wound down the window when she complained about his body odour, but she was only saying that to be mean. She breathed in the forest along with her father's scent, thick with woodsmoke and his particular scent of celery and pine. He could be an Ent or a lumberjack or both. She worries about his injured hand but doesn't say so aloud. The bandage is thick with grime and blood from where he had cut it with the knife scaling a trout two days ago and it needs attention, but she doesn't know how to give it.

Now they are within twenty clicks of Clarissa, she begins tugging at the top of her phone to pull down her social feeds, but the rude SOS letters are persistent. She has not had any reception for a week and is furious that she has none now, so close to civilization. There should be 4G. Drops of rain fall like fat insects on the windscreen and the road dust is stifling, that particular scent of earth and moisture colliding after a hot day. The water bottle is half empty and warm, and they pass the last few sips over the gap between them. Wal wishes she would talk to him but she is focussed on the phone, sliding her grubby fingers down the screen impatiently. He guesses she misses her friends. She is getting too old for trips into the wilderness and expected she only came because she had no choice with her mother on the mainland with Frank.


He slows when he reaches the end of the worst of the gravel and crunches the diff lock off, reversing a little so it moves the way it was meant to. His injured hand throbs painfully. He'll have to sort out that clunking noise. Bloody thing drinks more oil than his ex wife drank rum and coke, and that was saying something. He motions for the water again, his mouth stale and tasting of this morning's bacon, salty and greasy. They had cooked it on the fire as they had run out of gass at the beginning of the trip. He had tried to make a joke of it, but he had forgotten the USB lead to recharge the torch,the phones or the walkies too, and the fridge had stopped working on the last trip and he had not had time to fix it.

'We'll make do', he had said. She had glared at him, but there were moments in the trip where she felt happy, watching the dragonflies skip across the water, the ferns droop and bow to the river, her father's stupid loud singing startling birds. He watched her daydream and pretend to be angry with him, and cast again, his line shimmering in the afternoon light as it serpentined across the river. She did not have it easy, he thinks, with her anxiety and the bullying that had gone on at her last school. He is not always there for her and he wishes it otherwise.

He thinks of how things always turn bad with time. When he bought the ute Sam was a baby. By ten she was driving it down the road on his lap. Now fifteen, she barely grunts at him and looks at the both it and him with contempt when she thinks he is looking, and with love when she thinks he is not. It is complicated to be a teenager. He remembers.


Now, roaring of the wilderness and towards civilisation, Sam lets the screen fade black to save batteries, rummages under the seat for the missing lead for the twentieth time, gives up, huffs, and looks out the window. She is startled by a sudden thumping across the fields. The forest has thinned out to paddocks now, the dairy country on the outskirts of Clarissa, skelotons of giant trees bleached bone white in the sun and barbed wire strung sadly between rotting fence posts. The thump becomes a low rumble, and Wal turns toward the sound, leaning toward his daughter to see better as the mob thunders across the grass and down toward the road. It's lucky he stopped - a minute later and he would have making the choice between ploughing into the animals or themselves into the ditch.

They've never seen this many before. A mob is always twenty at most. Out west you know to slow down when you see one - there's always another to follow, and the vehicles around here are full of craters from colliding with the beasts that seem to wait til the last moment before leaping from embankments and over the road. Good eating when they're fresh, but the last thing on your mind is dinner when there's a roo kicking on your backseat because it's just smashed through the windscreen. Sam's face is white and she is rigid, paralysed. Wal puts his hand on her shoulder and feels the familiar tremor of his girl. 'Sam', he says quietly. 'It's okay'.

But it's not okay. They keep coming, an avalanche of fur and muscle, and Wal picks up on their scent through the rain and dust, that particular pungency of roos, the males exuding a curry like scent to ward off predators. There is the heady smell of eucalypt too, and wet bark, earthy and primal. The mob roars around them, a river of beasts, a flood, ominous. This is not normal, Dad, she wants to say, but that would reveal a weakness and she wants to be stronger. She would use the tricks her counsellor taught her, naming her environment (tree, windscreen, sky, cloud) but she cannot label anything but the roos - they are all there is.

After they pass, she shrugs Wal off, refuses his comfort. It's her way of controlling the situation. He admires his daughter's fierceness, though he wishes he could embrace her so as to absorb her angst. It's nothing, he wants to say, but it feels like a lie. He wonders what they are running from. Last year he had helped bury hundreds of pilot whales on the beach by Walterville, and had not got the stench out of his hands for weeks. It had felt like a premonition, but nothing else had happened, and he had forgotten that awful feeling that something was going to go badly wrong until now.


At the river it is very quiet, though the echo of the mob is still pulsing through them. There are no tourists in their white RV's and top loaded Landcruisers with solar panels sparkling in the sunshine. There are no rental cars with families stuffing themselves with crisps and queuing for the toilets either. Sam checks her phone again. The three letters defy the fact there should be reception here - she should have reassuring texts from friends. She reads the last few to pretend: 'good luck babe, hope you don't die in the forest' from Jack, and a series of emojis from a girlfriend that wouldn't even make sense to a codebreaker (eggplant, peach, cloud, lightning, laughing face).

Wal's pacing by the crossing, waiting for the punt. He can see it on the other side but there's no one around. The water is calm and dark, a mirror, wide, silent, as if it had absorbed all into it's blackness.

'Come on', he says. 'Something cold and sugary I reckon'll do us good.' There's a store on the other side of the empty carpark. The fly wire is open and there's a buzzing inside. Sam jumps up the steps two at a time, stops when she crosses the threshold, looks at her Dad for reassurance. She thinks (flyscreen, window, bell, posters, door handle). There's no one here. He pushes her back to the door, remembering the pilot whales and their briny, cloying, dead fish sweetness. It is the same here, but it doesn't take long to see it's because the power is out, and the fridges rubber seals are oozing with the stench of what rots inside them. There is another smell too, behind the counter.


He thinks now that if this was meant to be a special time between him and his kid, that God had a funny way of making it memorable. Sam's gagging over the railings of the shop porch.

Across the carpark he hears his walkie crackle into life. He runs now across the gravel, picks it up with his good hand.

'Hello?' the voice says. 'Thank goodness', he hears, but the voice is broken and distorted so, it sounds more like 'nk 'dness', and he's only piecing it together in his mind because he is willing it to be something, anything, and he does not know what to do. He can hear Sam crying, and the sound of the punt coming across the river.

'I didn't think anyone was left alive', the voice is sobbing. 'Are you there? Are you real? Are you safe? Are you real?'. He curses the missing lead as the batteries die.

'Safe from what?' Sam screams at her father, her eyes wide. His hand throbs, and he pulls her close, wrapping his arms around her like she's little again. She rubs her face on the softness of his flannel, searches for reassurance, for love.

'Dad', she wails. 'Dad.'

There is a metal clunk as the punt hits the shore, and a thousand birds rise from the trees, startled, fleeing skyward, leaving the pair alone by the river to whoever had arrived there to greet them.

Images co-created by me and Midjourney. Apologies to the curators of Inkwell that had to deal with the longest story I'd written here in a long time. I was experimenting with an omniscient narrator and a few other techniques I hoped would work. Thanks for your wonderful curation and patience.

With Love,


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I don't think anything would have worked as well as the omniscient narrator. You pump the pace up so that we are breathless with expectation as we read. You have already given us a foretaste of calamity. They are rushing headlong into...what?

The image of the whales works well. Ominous, prophetic.

Voice is great here. Although this is no Tale Told by an Idiot its omniscience and tone reminded me of Faulkner. We really do get inside the heads of the characters.

Smashing good job.


I've just read the comments. I politely disagree. Don't touch it :)

@agmoore ... You can't understand how happy it makes me that YOU stopped by to review. I'm always hoping you will.

The deaths of the pilot whales was magpied from a conversation I had with a park ranger. It had happened to him the year before. Beached whales seem so prophetic, so symbolic, so disturbing. It's a scene I would love to flesh out further.

Thankyou again.

Funny you mention Faulkner. I was experimenting with Chat Gtp today and showing my son. I wrote 'write a passage in the style of Faulkner's as I lay dying'.

I realised I had never tried omniscient narration consciously before and it was quite the interesting challenge. It was fun to juxtapose the characters actions and thoughts and movements as they negotiated the world together and I was suprised how much that style of narration helped develop the themes that quickly emerged from a simple road trip, the tension between the two adding to the tension I was trying to build in the story without naming the disaster unfolding. Glorious fun

Why write, if it's not fun???

I looked up that book in my library...'Available'. Sounds interesting

It is. I wasn't sure at first but I really enjoyed how he told the story, and it lingered, which is a sign of a good read, right?

Oh and I also read The Promise By Damon Galgut recently. Now THAT had an interesting narrative style!!! It was omniscient, but it'd change perspective mid SENTENCE sometimes which was disarming but also epic once you got into the flow. Someone suggested it was like being in a room full of people. Really had me thinking for a while.

Told with such startlingly vivid imagery—the sights, the pungent scents, the flood of wild animals—that it’s easy to feel the suffocating proximity of danger. It’s impossible not to feel the fear! The real trick, of course, is to create a mystery that the reader feels bound to solve, and you do that, brilliantly. You do it in layers, building suspense until we’re almost wild to know. Perfectly done!

Thankyou so much. I appreciate you coming back as I know it's hard with power cuts. Thankyou xx

This is so ridiculously good!! The special time of finally getting an opportunity to bond with this strange creature known as a teenager... He hoped it would be a different kind of special time, yet the true glowing theme here is that he is protecting her so well that she doesn't even know! The descriptions are brilliant, you build the characters with such texture it is breathtaking!!

As a woman who was raised by a single dad, I have to say this story made me tear up a bit. I read it, and then I read it again. Thank you for sharing this with us 💚

@grindan Thankyou!!!! I really appreciate you taking the time to read it as I know it's long too. Dads who raise teenage girls are quite something.

It was an interesting read, although didn't read to the end as it was really lengthy. I love for a fact that daughter and father had the time to be in each other's presence especially on the road.

The understanding between them is just a delight.

A shame you didn't finish, but thanks for starting. I guess you didn't care about them enough to see what happened, so maybe that's my fault. I guess in Hive world it's long, but it's still reasonably short for a short story.

At least you are honest 🤣⭐️

May I humbly suggest trying again? This is a truly masterful piece which demonstrates a vast understanding of literature. The plot arc, action, descriptions, and dialogue are in breathtaking balance.

I promise that if you give it the time it deserves, you will find many things you did not notice the first time 😉😁. Reading is a cornerstone of quality writing.

I hope you have a wonderful day!

The plot arc, action, descriptions, and dialogue are in breathtaking balance.

Do have a wonderful day also.

Thanks, would do that now you mentioned...

suitably dark and apocolyptic for your style lol what a cliff hanger 😅 kinda feels like The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Road was the most horrifyingly beautifully crafted story, so that's a compliment. I guess he was a single Dad too right, moving through a ruined landscape.

And omg the cliffhanger... Who or what is on that punt??? I have no idea but I'm scared shitless 🤣🤣

Very few short stories are perfect, but this one comes incredibly close. There is the stray typo or syntax adjustment to be handled here or there, yet it is hard to even spot them as we read.

We are pulled into your story mere sentences in, invested in Wal and Sam thoroughly the moment we meet them. As we stumble to figure out what has happened in this world, the AI images perfectly complement our confusion and wonder! You build the plot just so, giving us only the information we need, as we need it. You let the pungent odors and wreckage explain, as much as anything can explain such an occurrence. Stunningly done!

Thank you for sharing this special time in a smoldering world, and for the value you add to the community with your quality engagement!

Thanks so much. Yeah bloody 'gass' I changed three times and it wouldn't stick 🤣 and I changed the tense on the second draft so I bet there's a few errors. Feel free to point out ways I could improve as I love the opportunity to develop here. Your words lift me up. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Excellent rich descriptions of the environment and characters, nicely complimented by the imagery. It has a desolate feel to it and yet the plot is very relationship-centric. Great tale!

Thanks a lot. I enjoyed trying to craft both the relationship between the characters AND the external sense of dread .. it was a challenge I'd set myself, so it was interesting begin a story with this kind of plan and structure.

Wow. You just blew me away! I don't think I have any words to describe how fantastic this is. You showed so much through your well-chosen imagery and descriptive prose. The story was perfectly paced. The suspense built wonderfully. The relationship between father and daughter - so brilliantly captured. Such relatable characters. You drew me in so that I felt like I was right there with them in the ute!!! Was that a long post? uh nope... not the way you wrote it!!! There is no substitute for quality writing. Part 2 anyone else? Yes please!!! !LUV !LADY !PIZZA

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Thanks so much! I was proud of this one for sure. Thanks for finding it, and being so complementary... I appreciate it!

You're welcome! It's all true! !LUV


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