98 years post-collapse
Mason’s mother Delna had named him after history; that’s what she always told him. She had taught him his letters and numbers at home before he was three years old, basic reading and arithmetic by the time he was four, and when he was five, Mason went to school with eight-year-olds. All this was because it was very important to Delna that he learn about pre-collapse history. He never had a bedtime story set after the year 2027—while his friends heard about Nera the Cat and Bumpi’s Trials, Mason heard about the Librarian of Auschwitz and the Seven Years’ War. Mason liked the stories, and he liked feeling more educated than his friends (although he would never let them know it, because he never wanted to make them feel bad for how little they knew), but he didn’t really get what the big deal was about the past. Stuff happened now, just like it had happened then. Sure, maybe things had been easier for people back before, but what could they do about it? All their cool old stuff had been destroyed almost a hundred years ago.
When he was eleven years old, Delna took Mason on a trip. She said they were meeting his namesake. It was a long trip, almost ten days of walking, but they could make it—and on the morning of the tenth day, they did. Their surroundings were nothing like Mason had ever seen. Huge, square rocks rose around them, embedded with shiny metal and some clear stuff he had only ever heard about—glass, he thought. It was just like in drawings, but better. The ground was covered in a soft carpet of grass and wildflowers, but when he tried to drive a stick into the dirt, it was stopped halfway. When he pulled it back up, he saw rock. He did it in different places too, and the result was always the same. There seemed to be a layer of rock under the entire place.
“The road,” Delna said. “Back then, they covered their roads in a thick layer of a melted rock mixture, and it dried hard. They called it ‘asphalt.’”
“It was easier for cars to go fast on a hard, even surface.”
Cars. Big shells made of metal, with wheels underneath, and people sat in them, and explosions made them roll faster than a person could run. He could almost imagine it—the green replaced by black, lights shining through the glass of the big metal rocks people used to live in. Animals lived in them now, and plants grew up the sides.
They wandered through the maze. In some places, you could barely pass through all the plant life. It was a purposeful sort of wandering; Delna knew where she was going, but she let him explore. It was hours before they reached their true destination: a clearing, with some sort of white building in the middle. Instead of metal buildings, lumps of rock coming up to just above Mason’s knees were arranged in even rows all around.
“Be respectful,” Delna said, “this is where they honored the dead.”
He bowed his head. They walked towards the white building, which was smaller than the ones covered in metal, only a little smaller than Mason’s own home. It had doors in the front that didn’t seem to match the rest, like they had been built post-collapse.
The inside of the building wasn’t dirty like the others, someone had kept it clean, but the amazing part was on the walls. There were multiple handprints in a line at the top of both the left and the right walls, with writing in different languages underneath. On the back wall there was only one handprint, and under it he saw the letters M-A-S-O-N with more words underneath, a message that wasn’t his to understand. But Mason was his name.
He lined up his hand with the paint on the back wall, and he understood.
12 years post-collapse
Nobody younger than Beatrix remembered what things were like before the collapse. Beatrix herself had a leg up in that regard; she was the keeper of World Encyclopedia WXYZ, and her sister was the keeper of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. There were thirty Bookkeepers, all under the authority of the Head Librarian; twenty-one of them were the keepers of the twenty-one World Encyclopedias, one was the keeper of the World Encyclopedia Research Guide Index, one of the World Atlas, one A Short History of Nearly Everything, one Math for Real Life for Dummies, one My Child Is Sick!: Expert Advice for Managing Common Illnesses and Injuries, one the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5), one The Way Things Work, one The Kitchen Garden, and one the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. The Library of New Afel had other books, but these were the most important in their collection; if something unthinkable were to happen, the Bookkeepers were to guard their books, and even if the books themselves were destroyed, the Bookkeepers had them committed to memory. These were the books with which they were rebuilding society.
At sixteen years old, Beatrix was the youngest Bookkeeper of them all. She had been only four during the collapse, but reading about what life was like before had fixed the memories of her childhood in her mind forever. She and her sister Nikole were natural choices for Bookkeepers; Nikole had worked at the Wion Public Library after school and during the summers from the time she turned twelve to the collapse when she was fifteen, and Beatrix had basically grown up there. The Wion Public Library was long gone, and the Library of New Afel was pitiful compared to it, but it was enough.
The twelve-year anniversary of the collapse was upon them. The settlement of New Afel was thriving. Nobody had had to go hungry in almost a decade, and a school had just been opened. It was time to venture out into the unknown. Who knew what other settlements were out there, in desperate need of the knowledge in the Library of New Afel? And the citizens of New Afel needed knowledge of the outside world, too. Friends and family members had been separated, and the Library needed new books. Many people wanted a Bible—there had been one, years ago, but it didn’t make it. The Library needed more books of philosophy and religion and the ancient classics, and some of the fiction stories they had were missing books in the middle of a series.
So the Bookkeepers set out. They left their precious books at the Library of New Afel, and trusted the Head Librarian to keep them safe. Then, they headed south.
After the ninth day of walking, they came to a place the Keeper of World Encyclopedia B recognized.
“This was my apartment,” he said. “Three windows up, two to the side.”
The Keeper of World Encyclopedia B was named Amar, and he was thirty-four. He had just graduated from college before the collapse. His mother was buried only a few miles from where they had entered the city, so they took a way that would lead them through the cemetery before they left.
The city was abandoned, of course, and any corpses had since rotted away or been overgrown. It was amazing to Beatrix how nature had retaken its command. The buildings were all in ruins, plant growth wearing them away wherever the weather hadn’t. Some scaffolding on the side of a building was still standing, flowered vines winding up it like a trellis. Dandelions and tree roots had begun to tear up the sidewalk. The cemetery was much as Beatrix assumed it had always been, but the lack of human caretakers was seen here as well; a few of the flowers left on the graves had apparently seeded and spread, and untrimmed treetops formed a canopy overhead.
The doors to the mausoleum were badly damaged, and some of the Bookkeepers wandered inside.
“Hey, come see this,” said Henry, the Keeper of the World Atlas. Beatrix and Nikole looked over, as well as some of the other Bookkeepers.
“Huh,” said Nikole. “Does anyone know a Mason G. Ivory?”
“Well, I hope he finds whoever he was looking for,” said Henry, putting his hand on top of the smaller brown handprint on the back wall.
Beatrix thought for a moment. “A handprint. That’s actually not a bad idea,” she said. “Who’s carrying the ink?”
When they left the mausoleum, there were thirty new handprints on the walls. Fifteen on the right, fifteen on the left, and each of the Bookkeepers had written their name below their print. Below the line of handprints, they had written “Library of New Afel, ten miles north”—English and Spanish on the left wall, French and Arabic on the right.
As they were leaving, Beatrix said, “Do you think that could lead Dad to New Afel?”
“I don’t know, kid,” said Nikole. “Maybe it will.”
1 day post-collapse
Graham had checked the school, the house, and the cemetery, and Amy was nowhere to be found. Fighting had broken out, and he was bleeding. There were bodies. He didn’t want to look at them, but he couldn’t bear the thought that what if his baby sister was dead and he walked by her body and didn’t even know.
He ducked into the mausoleum to collect his thoughts. If I were Amy, where would I go. Exactly where he was now, probably, but Amy wasn’t here. That was a big problem. He was supposed to protect her, and he hadn’t been able to, just because the stupid high school was on the other side of town from the elementary school.
Would she have stayed with a friend? Amy never talked about friends, but it was a start. He took a deep breath and stood up, then let go of his bleeding arm to brace himself against the wall. His hand left a red impression when he took it away.
If Amy went looking for him, she would check the mausoleum, he knew it. She knew the rule for when she got lost—stay where she was and let him find her—but would she follow it in a situation like this? Better to be safe than sorry.
He wrote his name “fancy,” the way she liked: Mason G. Ivory. Under it, “Stay here, Cookie. I’m O.K. Let me find you.”
It would have to be enough.