All the Little Dead Things
...and with a happiness I will never feel.
We moved slow and steady, always bent at the waist and staying low between the piles of broken buildings and smoldering ruins.
The sky was grey today, just like every day, but the ash had stopped falling for a moment - bad news for covering our tracks. We did this every dawn and sometimes at dusk too. When there was just enough light to guide our hands through the rubble of the world before, but also enough darkness that we could run and hide from other survivors.
It was just me, and my brother, Barry. Before that, it was me, my brother, Barry, and our sister, May. May’s been dead a while now. Hard to tell how long. The batteries ran out of the clocks a long time ago and it’s not as if the dates matter anymore. I mean, I miss May but truthfully, I can barely remember her face now…
Today we would try to find what we looked for every day – food… medicine… clothes… and bullets. Nothing else mattered. Barry always takes the lead – he is older – and says we aren’t allowed to talk outside, and that if we do someone or something could find us. So, I stay quiet and talk to myself in my head while I search the rubble for anything that could be useful. Food… medicine… clothes… bullets.
I do not know what most of the other things are… I was born after the world died so I have never been able to use most of these dead things. They are all broken or rotted or have no electricity. Some things are attractive or enticing, but Barry says its pointless to keep them. Relics of the old world he says, clinging to a past that has long since left them behind.
Today we’ll rummage through an old building deeper into the city than we’ve ever gone. Barry says that lots of people used to live in these buildings. A… “high rise,” he calls it, and that there might be some useful things the occupants left behind when everyone fled the cities. Of course, that was forever ago, but people usually avoid the cities these days. They are home to the worst of people and ash so thick it chokes.
We do not stop through the main entrance and start on the second floor where the people before used to live. It was not hard to get in and once up the stairs and into the hallway Barry nods towards a door. I know the deal: I check one room, he checks the other and if I find trouble, run straight back home. Our movements are routine and deliberate. It is how we’ve made it this long I suppose…
Some doors are still locked from the time before and even though Barry showed me how to “pick” the locks, I’m lucky as this one is already open. The door is heavy, and it takes my whole weight to shift it. I do my best to stay quiet, but the door almost violently scrapes along the dry wood floors as if sounding an alarm to my being there. The first room is empty as far as useful things go. A big open room with a kitchen and couch facing a wall with shelves. I imagine that this is where everyone would meet and talk and play. There is a television along the wall above the shelves, but I’ve never seen one working. I only know that they have lights behind moving pictures. Nothing left in this room… Just more dead things.
On to the next.
There’re only two other rooms – a bathroom and a bedroom. I’ve scored in the bathroom! Pain killers! I just know Barry will be so happy with me. But... nothing else. Before I go, I take the lid off the back of the toilet. There is still a bit of water left by some miracle, and it looks clean enough. I scoop a handful into my mouth and since it did not taste too bad or smell I lower my bottle down and let it fill too.
I open the next door and am welcomed by a fresh cloud of ash... The window is broken, and the ash has crept in and laid claim to everything inside. What must have once been a room of vibrant colors had now surrendered to the overwhelming blanket of ash that has consumed all our lives. My eyes rest to the bed and two long dead skeletons that almost appear to have been staged and using the ash as a blanket, lie together side by side. I used to fear corpses like this, but not anymore. Their time had come… and now gone. And for all the marvels that Barry goes on and on about in the world before, none of their grand things were enough to prevent this moment. And now they – like their things – are dead.
It is easy to search through this room. Really there is nothing left. No clothes. No shoes. Nothing. Probably searched and cleaned out a long time ago… but what is this? Something shining and resting just under the hand of one of the corpses. It had caught my eye just as I had turned to leave almost as if calling out for its rescue. I gently lift the skeleton’s hand as if not really wanting to disturb their slumber. One gentle blow from my lips scatters the ash about the room and there it is – a tiny locket in the shape of a heart cast of what must have once been a vibrant gold. It looks odd. Such a small delicate thing. It almost comes off as alive in this room where everything else but me is dead.
I gently lift it from its corpse and slide my nail under the rusted latch. It only takes a little prying to get it to open. On the inside are two pictures – one on either side. On the left is a baby… I haven’t seen a baby before, at least not outside of pictures. The picture is molded and faded but I can see just a single tooth in the baby’s smiling mouth. What it must have been like to be so happy. To not have to starve between meals or worry through sleepless nights…
The other photo shows a man and woman also both smiling. Their arms wrapped around each other and behind them… THE SUN. Something I can only dream of seeing someday! It is difficult to tell with a picture that has been so exposed to the elements, but I can just make out that the woman has blonde hair and bright blue eyes. The man has brown skin and no hair. They are both SO CLEAN. It is hard for me to imagine what life was like before especially since Barry never tells me as much as I would like to hear.
Suddenly I am overwhelmed with the sense to keep this small thing; this relic with the smiling couple and the sun behind them mirrored by the baby I assume was theirs. I rest my eyes back to the corpses and wonder how it all came to this. How it went from smiling and hugging and fun and the sun to… this. I wish I could have known it. To live their lives for even just a moment. To feel the warmth from the sun that I can only ever experience through Barry’s words.
I move towards the door, locket still in hand but I freeze just before crossing the threshold. My fantasies of seeing the sun are replaced by the insatiable realization that I am starving. I have not eaten in days and the silence is shattered by my stomach intent on letting the world know how displeased it is with that circumstance.
I look down at the locket in my palm and again my thoughts drift to the sun. The sun I would never see. I think of the woman and her calm, blue eyes embracing a man she loved. A calm and love I would never know. I think of that baby grinning bigger than I had ever seen… and with a happiness I will never feel.
Food… medicine… clothes… bullets. This is the world now. And this locket is a thing of the past.
I slowly and intentionally allow my hand to fall downward until the locket, still open, tumbles to the floor below. I raise my foot and with barely any pressure collapse the locket under my weight. And as I step through the door, I dare not look back, but I break our rule of silence for just a moment, as if whispering it aloud exemplifies the significance of what I have to say or maybe it is just to convince myself it is true,
“All these little dead things”
And in a moment, I am gone. Gone from that room and on to the next. Gone from the past I would never know. And gone towards the future that I am cursed with.