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After Before

by Naomi Tyhurst 9 months ago in science fiction

The Little Black Book

The sinking face of the house’s hollowed remains stared at me through its empty window frames, appearing resigned to its fate. Thick blankets of moss and foliage enveloped the structure as if the earth itself was slowly ingesting the old house’s skeleton. I doubt a single person has laid eyes on this place since its initial destruction… which was all the better for me.

I scraped gritty strands of hair from my face, and adjusted the straps of the backpack currently digging into my shoulders. I know I was dawdling in an effort to work up my nerve, and that hesitating was only counterproductive. I also know what kind of unpleasant surprises were most likely lurking inside a deserted, rotting building. I wore tall, sturdy boots and a thick coat as a layer of protection despite the muggy day for this very reason. I patted myself down to double check that my meager tools were both secure and within easy reach. Satisfied, I sucked in a deep breath and finally approached.

I peered through a yawning gap in the wall that was lined with shattered brick and metal paneling like rusty teeth. Here, the sharp, fresh tangy smell of the forest clashed with the acrid stench of mildew and old fire pit. Crinkling my nose, I leaned into the hole and checked the shadows on the other side for coiled snakes before entering into what had been the drawing room. Its layout was surprisingly intact despite being open to the elements. Frameworks of broken furniture still sat in their original places. A complete fireplace with full chimney still stood ironically at one end of the room, and even bits of charred picture frames and nails were still attached to the sooty walls. I could imagine the house’s ghostly residents still here, stuck in the macabre routine of their previous lives. I shook off the chills creeping over my skin. If I allowed my overactive imagination to scare me away now, I would go achieving nothing but a waste of time. Besides, I didn’t actually know if anyone had been in the house when it had burned down.

Years of detritus coated the floor in a layer of natural mulch that matched the forest outside, making the ground appear deceptively solid. I unclipped a collapsed selfy stick from my belt and extended it to its full length. The wires and plastic clip had been removed, leaving the point exposed for prodding suspicious areas. There could be a basement below me, despite there being no obvious signs yet, and I had a healthy concern about falling through rotten floorboards and being buried in rubble.

I explored the drawing room, then passed through a bedroom, bathroom, and a hallway without finding anything useful enough to scavenge. By the time I got to the kitchen, I had very little hope of finding anything but spiders. I nudged aside a rotten cupboard door with the end of my selfie stick, and was surprised to uncover a pile of cans. I slid my backpack off and squatted there, slightly shaken over the bounty. I reminded myself though, that even canned food could spoil after being exposed to extreme heat and dampness. I picked up each can, inspecting them one at a time for dents and bulges. I set aside every can with a physical flaw which was the clearest indication that its contents were no good. By the time I had nearly gone through the entire pile, only two cans of unknown contents had been tucked into my backpack. I’d have to find out later if even those were edible once I opened them. Setting aside another small can, I noticed a dull shine towards the back of the cupboard. I started to reach into the cupboard, thinking it was another can until I saw that it was moving.

I don’t know how I missed the warning hiss or smell, but I jerked back into a near somersault. Surprise had already punched the air out of me, and I could barely think clearly enough to curse myself as my backside slammed through rotten wood and into open air. I curled my body and covered my head just before my side hit the level below. Ash, dirt, and debris rained down on top of me, but I stayed still in the fetal position until the world stopped moving. Once I could breathe and saw that I hadn’t been buried alive yet, I slowly unclenched my muscles and sat up. Instead of the entire floor coming down, I saw by the dappled spotlight of the hole I’d crashed through that I may have fallen through an old trapdoor.

I retrieved the small flashlight from my coat pocket, relieved that I hadn’t lost it in the fall. At first I couldn’t make out anything through the disease-filled clouds of dust, but as it settled and my eyes adjusted I saw the basement that I had been trying to avoid. One would have expected a similar state compared to the house above, but it seemed the fire hadn’t reached this level somehow. This basement wasn’t just an underground storage area. It still had the setup of a small theater, a mini bar, and a-

A grunt jerked out of me as my flashlight’s paltry beam swept over a dark seated shape. I pressed my free hand against my heart to calm it as I cursed my nerves again. The shape was just an empty old swivel chair behind a large desk. Nobody was here, but there were enough dark spaces down here to keep me twitching at every little noise.

I looked up. The hole I had made was definitely too high to jump back up through. My backpack did not fall through the hole with me, so my rope was also unavailable. I blew out a soft breath, anxiously hoping that the house’s owners had either designed the basement with a cement staircase or stored a ladder for the trapdoor down here. If I was really lucky, there might be a window or door to the outside.

I continued to sweep my flashlight back and forth as I tentatively circuited the basement, wishing I still had my selfie stick. Snakes weren’t vindictive, but stepping on one wouldn’t make either of us happy.

I did not find a ladder or a door to outside. There was a staircase, but it had partially collapsed and the door it had led too was blocked. My best hope were a couple of small, grimy windows, one of which was set in the office looking section. I just needed a way to reach it. I checked around the desk for snake nests and found a small gun safe instead. It was one of those heavy, cube-shaped designs that appeared solid with a keypad and a black dial on the front. Recalling an internet video I’d seen of a toddler opening a similar safe, I lifted up one side of it and dropped it against the hard floor.

Voila.

I turned the black dial and the safe was open. As laughably convenient as it was for me, I felt a momentary pang on behalf of the person who’d invested in such an unsecure box.

I pointed my flashlight into the safe, and blinked. Instead of firearms, my light exposed cash. Lots of it. Rubber banded and stacked, it filled up half of the space with the only other item inside being a little black book resting on top of it all. I picked up one of the wads of cash and stared blankly at Benjamin Franklin. Taking the corner, I flipped through the stack. All Benjamins. I put the money back down and picked up the little black book. The cover felt cool and smooth in my hand. Flipping through its first pages, I found a list of additions and subtractions and realized it was a handwritten ledger. The list only extended to the forth page, and the last number recorded was near the center.

I stared from the book to the cash numbly, and something like a strangled squawk burst from me, short and jarring. Then the hysterical giggles spilled out of me, wild an uncontainable. Anyone passing by would’ve been sure to hear my shrieky laughter. That anchoring thought made me slap my hands over my mouth. I’d muffled my voice, but my entire body shook as tears cascaded down my face and flooded over my hands instead. Tear tracks ran down the lengths of my arms to drip off my elbows as I sobbed like a fool.

All the while, my mind kept going over the last, ridiculous number in the book. $20,000. It burned like a neon sign in my brain and I mentally calculated all of the costs it could have covered: such as, nearly an entire year’s worth or rent. $20,000 would have paid off all of my remaining personal debt and still have a few K’s left over. With that amount I could have concentrated more on my dream of writing and art. It could have helped me launch myself into the careers and lifestyle that I had wanted.

My hysteria finally subsided, leaving me feeling calmer, worn out, and physically relaxed in a way that only a good sob could achieve. I leaned my head back against the musty seat of the rolling chair, hardly caring now about diseases and reptiles as I contemplated the cash-packed safe before me.

The last time I had filed taxes, the total of my yearly income had added up to almost $23,000. I smiled wryly without humor. A year of working full time; sacrificing vacations, health, and time to work towards my actual dreams; of stressing about groceries, gas, insurance this and insurance that, phone bills, bills, bills, and BILLS-!

All of that, seemed to be organized, rubber-banded, and stacked neatly into the box before me. $20,000, the number that roughly represented the value of a year of my life. The number that could have covered so much, and allowed for more… At least, it could have before the world had burned down.

I sat upright again slowly. This house that I was scavenging was just one of millions in a similar state. This was the result of the world suddenly tearing itself apart. All of those taxes and bills were a distant memory to me now. With the earth reclaiming itself and little to no known civilizations left behind, the $20,000 dollars before me was now worth nothing more than kindling at best.

I brushed a hand over my face to wipe away the remaining moisture and grime sticking there. I sighed, picked up the little black notebook, and tucked it securely into one of my coat pockets. It was the perfect size, fitting with only the top edge of the book poking above the pocket’s seam.

I shoved the desk close to the wall. After that I grabbed the gun safe, climbed up onto the desk, and hefted the safe straight through the window's glass. Once I’d cleared the rest of the jagged edges from the window frame, I squirmed my body through using tufts of grass on the other side to help drag myself out.

I rolled over onto my back, gazing at the rays of daylight slipping through the forest canopy for a long time. I closed my eyes for a moment before getting up and checking my bearings. The safe had rolled only a short ways away. Its door hung open with bundles of cash scattered haphazardly about it. I barely heard the cash rifling in the light breezes as I walked away, patting my pocket to make sure the little black book was still there. There were a couple pens in my backpack, and all the time I had left to live.

The old world was dead, but perhaps some of my dreams were still alive.

science fiction

Naomi Tyhurst

Art is meant to be seen and stories are meant to be heard. I create, because I want to share the dreams playing in my head.

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Naomi Tyhurst
Read next: ‘Hummingbird Salamander’ — Jeff Vandermeer’s eco-thriller, reviewed by a vegan.

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