Authors: Brenda L. Harper
Yet there were more than forty times that many who lived in this one city.
It made Dylan’s head spin with the enormity of it.
“How many people live in your city?” she asked Wyatt as she rushed to keep up with him.
“Not many. A few hundred.”
“How is it possible that so many people could live in one city?”
He glanced at her. “Their cities were large, sprawling places. And they had these places called apartments where the people lived stacked on top of each other.”
“Have you seen those? Apartments?”
“Yes.” He gestured toward an unsteady stack of stones off to one side of the road. “I’ve seen a lot of things in these ruins.”
“Do you always come alone?”
“I’m not alone.”
He ignored her as he continued to walk quickly toward the middle of the ruins. Dylan wanted to pursue her questions, but then a shadow fell over them and she became aware of the tall, dark things springing out of the plants around them. So tall, they blocked out the sun in some places. Dylan continued to walk, her head rolled back on her neck so she wouldn’t miss anything. She forgot to keep her eye on Wyatt, to make sure he didn’t move too far in front of her. Instead, she studied each of the buildings they passed, studied the stone and other materials that created their façade, comparing it in the back of her mind with the soft limestone that formed the dorms in Genero.
She had never seen anything as tall as these buildings. D dorm, like the other dorms in Genero, was only three floors high, not counting the stilts on which it sat. That had seemed tall to her. But these…some of these buildings had fifteen, twenty rows of windows to indicate the floors that filled their interiors. She couldn’t imagine why someone would need that much space, or even how they could walk up that many flights of stairs.
Running up D dorm’s stairs was exercise enough.
Dylan turned as she walked, watching the buildings in front of her as well as those behind. They was so quiet, these forgotten structures. A part of her felt as though it was unnatural. There should be laughter, should be voices, should be people walking through this street with her. When she closed her eyes, she could feel them around her, busy people rushing from place to place, all dressed in clothing she had never seen before and could hardly assign the proper names to. One woman brushed passed her so closely, she could feel the breeze of her movement caress the skin of her bare upper arm. Another, a man in dark clothing with white underneath and something like a rope around his neck, rushed by her other side on the suddenly weed-free street, the windows of the tall buildings beside him unbroken, something small and rectangular pressed to his ear. She could even hear what he was saying, words that meant little to her, but a tone that was familiar.
“I know, darling,” he said. “I will make sure Santa Claus knows you would like an iPad for Christmas.”
A girl about Dylan’s age rushed up the street and wrapped her arms around the shoulders of a young man her own age. The man laughed and spun around until she slipped from his back and moved into his arms. And then he pressed his lips to hers, kissing her in a way Dylan had never seen with an enthusiasm that seemed misplaced, and yet, perfect in some way. Dylan stared at them for a long moment, wondering why they would touch in such a way, what purpose there was in it.
It’s called love,
her invisible friend informed her
That’s not the kind of love we learned in Genero.
No, that is romantic love, between a boy and a girl. It’s one of the many things left behind with this society.
But, again, her invisible friend chose not to answer her question.
She opened her eyes, and the street she had seen in her mind’s eye, the people, disappeared, to be replaced by the weed-choked street and the disintegrating buildings. And Wyatt, standing in front of her with a look of annoyance staining his perfect features.
For a moment Dylan’s eyes moved to his lips, and she found herself wondering what it would feel like to press her lips to his, the way the young couple in her vision had done. What would it feel like to have those thick, full lips on hers? Would she be able to taste his skin? Would he taste her? Would it be pleasant?
The thought sent a little shiver up and down her spine.
“Will you stop daydreaming?” those perfect lips said. “We have work to do.”
“You have work to do,” she clarified.
“As long as you’re traveling with me, it’s your work, too.”
Dylan groaned, but she followed him as he moved farther down the road.
“What are we looking for?” she called after a minute.
“I told you,” he said. “Tools, metal. Anything we can use back at Viti.”
Dylan stooped over and picked up a thin piece of metal from where it had been sticking up out of the weeds. “Like this?” she asked.
He glanced back for only a second, waving his hand to show his impatience. “No, too thin.”
He didn’t answer. “Are all men this obtuse?” she muttered under her breath, growing annoyed at the lengthening list of unanswered questions that kept sitting in the air between her and her strange companions.
They walked over something Wyatt called a bridge into a narrow grouping of streets where the buildings were a little shorter than the others. Dylan found herself running her fingers over round signs sticking up on silver poles every few feet, faded numbers inside thin pieces of glass, some of which were broken, covering papers with increments of time written across them. She wondered what these were for. Why would the people of the past need posts on the street that kept track of passing time?
“This way,” Wyatt called from farther up the street before he disappeared around a corner.
Dylan rushed to catch up. She turned the corner just in time to see Wyatt walk up the steps to an inconspicuous, squat building with a glass façade that was mostly broken now. She moved into a slow jog to catch up with him, her eyes moving over the details on the outside of the building, a building that looked so much like the ones to the right and left of it. But when she stepped inside, there was very little that was familiar about it.
It was a deep building, one that seemed to go on forever. She couldn’t even see the back wall. A counter stood in front of her, whatever it once held forever gone in the rubble that lay dusty across its surface. Behind that were rows and rows of shelf that looked nothing like the thin glass shelves that filled the library at D dorm. But the books were familiar.
She walked to the first set of shelves. Most of the books had been blown from the dark surface of the shelves, but some remain. She picked one up, held it in her hands as though it were the most precious object she would ever touch.
Gone with the Wind
, the cover read.
There were others, some with the covers torn off, some missing pages. But the farther she moved into the cavernous room, the more shelves of perfect, completely intact, if dusty and dirty, books she found. Some were familiar, books she had read in her studies at Genero, some she had only heard of in discussions of the things lost in the war that had devastated the previous society. But they weren’t lost. They were sitting right here for anyone to walk in and take.
“What is this place?” Dylan asked as she walked up behind Wyatt. He was studying a shelf of soft-cover books, his fingers moving along their spines as he read the titles. “Is it a library?”
“A bookstore? What is that?”
He glanced over his shoulder at her. “A place where they sold books in the previous society.”
“Why would they sell books? Weren’t they free for everyone to read?”
He shook his head as he continued to search the titles for something in particular. “Their society was obsessed with money. It was how they got the things they needed to live happily.”
“What do you mean?”
He sighed as he slowly turned, his eyes falling immediately to the small stack of books she had gathered almost absentmindedly and held pressed to her breasts. “We only need food, water, and companionship to help us survive. But them…they needed other things, material things.”
“Like books and clothes and computers and things they called games and these little pieces of plastic that played music.”
“Didn’t your mother ever sing to you?” He turned back to the shelf of books, his finger automatically moving to the last spine he had read.
He groaned. “Sorry,” he muttered. “I forgot you don’t have families in Genero. Your…” He paused, searching for the right word. “Guardian. Isn’t that what you call them?”
A memory of Davida singing to her in the darkness of her dorm room immediately flashed in her mind. “Davida sang to me sometimes, when I had trouble sleeping.”
“That’s music,” he said, as his fingers tripped over the books, and he finally found something he had been searching for. He tugged the book from the shelf and studied the cover for a long second before shoving it into his own bag. His finger moved back to the shelf, continuing along the remaining books, forcing him to crouch down as he moved to the books on the lower shelves.
Dylan saw more books in a little alcove to his left. She stumbled over some of the debris that was scattered even in this section of the store to reach it. These books were different, bigger and heavier than the ones in her arms. She pulled her bag off her shoulder and shoved the books she had already chosen inside before she began looking through these new books. She pulled one off the shelf and opened it. Inside there were pictures of the human body, but the outer layers had been torn away to reveal bone and muscle, showing the reader how they lay together. Another page showed the bones alone with labels that gave each a name.
Dylan picked up another book, and it showed pictures of people in the same sort of clothing, all the same gray and white colors, including the little hats on top of their heads. There were names of people and places under these pictures, of battles that took place in some long ago war. Another book described another war, showed vehicles that rode on water and others that appeared to ride the air. She ran her fingers over the pages and images flooded her mind, images of a time and a place that was different from hers, different from that of the people who last inhabited this city.
She pushed the book away, her mind too overwhelmed to handle any more information.
She began to turn when she felt a harsh breeze move over her.
Dylan dropped behind the shelves that ran along the sides of her little alcove. A moment later, Wyatt came around the corner in a low crouch.
“Stay here,” he whispered.
“What is it?”
He glanced at her, his blue eyes filled with something she did not understand. “Just stay here,” he said again.
He moved around a low table that marked the entrance to the alcove and disappeared. Dylan dropped to her knees and slipped the knife out of the waistband of her broken coveralls, holding it so tightly in her right hand that her knuckles turned white. She closed her eyes so that she could listen without distraction. In a second she could hear the thump of books falling from shelves. With that came a heavy sound of breathing, almost like the huffing sound she had heard her first night outside of Genero.
They’ve come for you.
Dylan’s eyes opened and she searched the alcove around her. “What do you mean?” she whispered aloud, too distracted to keep her words inside her head.
You must survive. You must fight.
And then the voice was gone. She wasn’t sure how she knew it was gone, that entity that continuously helped her over the last few days, but it was.
She tightened her grip on the knife.
A noise to her right made her pull back into herself, making as small of a target of herself as she could. Silence fell heavy in the cavernous room. Dylan bit her lip, fear skittering through her chest, making her heart skip a few beats. She closed her eyes again, reluctantly this time. Instinct screamed at her to keep a watch, to keep her eyes on the space around her. But with her eyes closed, she could hear something.
It was breathing, each breath a slow, measured beat. It was close.
And it was thinking only of death.
Dylan’s eyes opened again.
She wanted to cry out, wanted to bring Wyatt to her side. But this time she listened to instinct and stayed as still and quiet as she could.
She even slowed her breathing as best as she could.
Suddenly there was a loud noise at the front of the store. Dylan jerked, the noise startling her even as she tried to ignore the fear trickling through her body. A book on the shelf against her side banged to the floor. She closed her eyes, became aware of the quickened breathing of…whatever it was that was stalking them. And then it was gone, rushing off toward a second sound at the front of the store.
A collision of some sort sent quivers through the walls, seeping into Dylan’s body through her touch against the shelf beside her. She bit her lip, imagining Wyatt clashing with some unseen foe. But then he was at her side.
“We have to go,” he whispered harshly in her ear.
Wyatt grabbed her hand and pulled her through the debris of the store. They ran in a low crouch away from the sounds of fighting to a large, metal door with a thick piece of metal across its middle. Wyatt pushed hard on the metal and the door slammed open, tossing them out into the sunlight. They ran down a narrow street onto a wider one, rushing around crumbling buildings and low, oddly shaped vehicles.
They ran for a long time, passing many buildings before Wyatt finally pulled her up the steps into another building, this one further in decay than the bookstore had been. They ran up a set of stairs and into a small room that was filled with rotting furniture.
“We’ll be safe here for a while,” he said as he pushed the warped door as tight against its jamb as it would go.