The Book Savers
Growing up after The Accident
When I was little, my grandfather started talking about what the world was like before The Accident. The days of bright sunshine and carefree living burned bright in his mind and he loved to talk about how it used to be. A time when traveling was easy and comfortable, the sun was visible all the time, and large swaths of land were covered in crops and animals. All things that were little more than stories these days.
No one knows what actually happened that day; only that it happened late in the spring and was an unplanned altercation between countries. I was young, and we lived in a remote area with no big cities nearby. I remember hearing sirens scream for days and the TV was always turned to the news, my parents ushering us back out of the room, anything we used to watch long forgotten in the monotonous drone of confused and panicked anchors.
Soon after, the skies no longer glowed the bright blue I remembered, then the clouds turned dark, and ash fell from the sky. I haven’t seen a bright blue sky again, and my memory of them has become foggy, forcing me to rely on photos and stories. The moon is often hard to find for the 10 or 12 days around the new portion of its cycle, only really visible when it is close to full.
I know the state we live in used to be called Georgia, but there aren’t clear boundaries between the states anymore. No one can really tell where they belonged without electronics, but we try to maintain some idea of major landmarks. Once, I got to go on a trip with my family to Amicalola Falls, a big waterfall near here that used to be a common travel destination. We stayed a few days for a trading event, and it took us three days to get there to make sure we didn’t wear out the horses.
One of my grandfather’s favorite stories to tell was how they were often considered poor Before The Accident because they were farmers with a small equestrian setup. Now that the style of money used back then no longer exists, nor do the jobs all those people had who looked down on my family. Even many of my aunts, uncles, and cousins now live and work with us.
As our old neighbors found themselves hungry, and our farm still produced food, word of its sustainability began to spread and the people who once wouldn’t even speak to us in town now came begging for help. Some even asked if their children could come live with us and work in exchange for taking care of and feeding them. Eventually people from up north started finding their way down near us, bringing with them stories of extreme winters and no crops.
Grandpa’s purpose was never to gloat; quite the opposite. The moral of the tales he told was not to point out my family’s sudden rise to importance, it was to point out how quickly the tables could turn. He taught us to treat people well no matter what station they held. The person on top today could easily find themselves on the bottom tomorrow.
“We have a duty to help those who are less fortunate than us, even if they did not help us on an earlier day,” he would say when one of us would ask questions. “Karma can be kind or cruel. You must never stop appreciating what life has given you because it can be taken away in a moment. What would happen if a blight or drought struck the farm, or our horses ran away? We would very quickly find ourselves being the ones needing help. Kindness, as your grandmother would say, is the key to a good life.”
On good days, he tells stories after supper when the sun has gone down, ending the day's chores, or when the weather was too bad to work. Before The Accident, Georgia was not known for winters, but we sure get them now, and spend a good deal of summer and fall preparing for it.
“Athena!” he calls. “Gather the children and bring them ‘round to the fire. I still have a bit of energy left in me yet today. Think of something you want to learn.”
I love learning, which everyone says I get from my grandmother. Even though Grandpa is a farmer and horse man, my grandma, Sophie, loved to learn and they say she never stopped. They met at the University of Georgia where he majored in agriculture and she was a veterinary student. When my parents had me they honored the place, naming me after the town the school called home. I love stories of the Greek Athena, how strong and wise she was, always striving to live up to the name I bear.
I don’t have many memories of my grandmother. Her riding a beautiful chestnut-colored horse with a black mane, in a window seat reading while the sun shined through her hair, and a few others like those. My last memory is her hitching up a horse trailer to the truck two days after The Accident, my grandfather and father begging her to not leave. She told them she had to, that she had to help because, even though she was “only a vet,” her help was desperately needed in the city. Many of the hospitals had been overrun and a plea for help had been given. She felt it was her duty to see what she could do.
Just before she climbed into the truck with her assistant, two horses in the trailer, expecting there would be no fuel to return, she handed something to my grandfather. I remember a ray of sunlight glinting off the trinket as she closed his fingers around it. Then she got in the truck and drove away.
It was the last time we saw her.
I used to ask what she gave him, but no one would answer me. An expression I couldn’t recognize would flash across my father’s face before he could school it back to neutral, telling me to run off and help my mother. She wouldn’t tell me either, though, putting off explaining until I was older. My siblings were too young to even remember the day, and I knew better than to bring the pain back to my grandfather’s heart by asking.
A few weeks after she left, a rider galloped up the long driveway of the farm, hollering for my parents and grandfather. They brought him into the house and closed the door, but I hid beneath a window and caught part of their conversation.
“That can’t be!” I heard my grandfather exclaim in horror.
“All that information!” my mother cried.
Their voices grew hushed and I couldn’t pick out more than bits and pieces. However, when the rider left, my father, grandfather, two uncles, and a few neighbors went with him. My mother’s brother, who fortuitously used to be a contractor, gathered the people he thought were strong enough and put them to work on a patch of land.
By the time the men returned, multiple wagons in tow, a basic building was erected, and I learned why there had been so much activity. It turned out people took up living in parts of the school and were looting the library for books to burn to keep warm. The rider was a professor and came to Grandpa for help since no one else seemed willing to try and protect them. He knew we were avid learners. They weren’t able to save everything but took all they could to the new building. Over time, more books made it to us as well, and I would often find my grandfather in there reading.
“Come sit, Athena,” he would say, “let’s read together.”
This was my favorite way to spend time with him. It was quiet and just us. None of the other children are bookworms to the extent I am, and I would be tasked with taking care of the library, so it was important I learn everything I could about it. Over time it became my escape.
Birthdays were special because we were given the day off from work. Within reason, we were allowed to do whatever we wanted, and I usually elected to spend mine in the library with the books.
On my 20th birthday, I awoke to an empty house and a note from my grandfather on the kitchen table to meet him in the library. When I arrived I found most of my family waiting for me, conflicted smiles on their faces.
“My dear, dear girl,” my grandfather started as my mother’s gaze shot to the ceiling, “today you begin the next phase of your life. You are an adult now, though you will always be our little girl. However, I have a mission for you that will take you away from home for some time. Do you think you are ready for such a task?”
I looked past him to my parents; Dad rubbing Mom’s back as her nose and eyes turned red, small sniffles escaping from time to time. He nodded at me encouragingly, then nudged my mother, who looked over and laughed through her tears.
“You’ve always wanted to see the world, to have adventures like in your books. I’m so excited for you! I’m just going to miss you is all. Promise me you’ll write often and come back to visit from time to time?”
“Of course, Mama!”
She wrapped me up in the biggest, tightest hug of my entire life, then gently pushed me toward my grandfather, who held a small satchel in his hands.
“My, how you’ve grown, Athena. None of us could be more proud of you. Your horse is ready, as is Pip with his mount and your supplies. Take this, it will tell you everything.”
After more goodbyes, I walked out back to find Pip, whose real name was Philip and was the son of one of the neighbors from Grandpa’s stories. He was quite smart and strong despite his simple name and was waiting for me with a grin on his face. We got along fabulously, despite our different interests. He was also one of the few children at the farm older than me.
“You ready, Little Owl?” It was a nickname he had given me when we were young.
“I don’t know! I think so. Are you?”
“You know it! I’ve been waiting for this for years! Didn’t you know this was coming?”
“No. Well, maybe, but not really. I never thought we’d get to do this. The world is so dangerous, and we’ve never been further than the waterfall…” my voice trailed off as my nerves made my stomach flutter.
“Haven’t you looked in there yet?” Pip asked, clearly excited. “I think it’ll help.”
Looking down at my hands, I shook my head. Gently opening the bag, I poured half its contents into my hand. It was a silver heart-shaped locket. A letter stayed tucked inside. Confused, I opened the locket, the little bit of sunlight catching it and flashing me in the eye, recalling the old memory of my grandmother leaving.
It held two pictures. One of my parents, and one of me. I noticed it had an inscription on the back as I turned it over.
Always follow your heart.
I love you.
With a smile on my face and tears in my eyes, I latched my grandmother’s locket around my neck, knowing not only what she had given my grandfather that fateful day, but also that I was about to fulfill my own purpose, alongside the best person with whom to take this journey.
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