Sweat stung Trish’s eyes and she scrubbed her face with the hem of her threadbare shirt. When the shirt was new, it stretched taught over her soft belly. Now it hung limply and revealed the hollowed dimples of her ribcage as she lifted it.

“Why’s it called the Library?” Susannah’s youthful tones cut through the silence of the barren wasteland.

“In the old days, libraries housed thousands of books,” Lani responded as she stirred the pot of what would have to pass as soup—cactus water flavored with old bones, cactus chunks, and whatever insects, snakes, and rodents happened across their path.

They were a ragtag bunch that she held together with little more than hopes and hollow promises that things would be better once they reached the Library. Most people thought it was a fairytale. They weren’t far off. It existed. At least, it did eight months prior when she dropped off her last group of survivors.

“What’s a book?” Thomas cut in predictably. Though they were siblings, he shared few features in common with bright-eyed Susannah.

“It’s how people used to pass along knowledge before the turn of the century. Before information went digital.” Lani couldn’t have been more than a child before the digital era began, when physical books were recycled as passé and replaced with space-saving tablets. Even Trish herself could count on her fingers how many times she’d seen an actual book, much less held one.

“Digital?” Susannah asked.

Lani tapped the young girl on the forehead. “Much like everything you know is kept here, there was a massive brain that stored all the information in the world. But that brain died and took with it everything we knew.”

“Oh.” The girl worried at her cracked lips. “So why’s this place called the library if the giant brain is dead and there aren’t no more books?”

“Trish? You’ve been there. Why don’t you explain it? Maybe it will stick this time.”

Trish let out a slow breath and squinted at the kids. Even though the hour was late, the sun still beat down with blinding intensity. “Everyone makes their way to the Library. Either this one or one of the others spread around the world. Lani said that digital was like a big brain of shared knowledge? Well, everyone who lives at the Library has their own knowledge—what they read, what they’ve experienced, what they’ve been told. Each person is like a book.”

“So even though I don’t know anything… I can still go to the Library?” Susannah asked.

“Even human libraries need readers.” Lani set down the ladle and wagged a hand at Thomas. “Go tell the others dinner is served.”

Dinner. Trish’s stomach surged in protest. Every meal was a gamble with fate—would they die of starvation or from whatever went into their next meal?

* * *

Trish shielded her eyes from the sun and stared at the cracked and peeling picture of a family long since broken apart. Her wife had mocked her for wanting the tangible photograph. That was before digital died. Now most days it was all she had of them. Even when they were together, she didn’t recognize the stranger inhabiting her wife’s body. She folded it along well creased edges and tucked it into her carrysack.

“We’ll make camp next stop,” she called out. “Keep an eye out for any edibles.”

Hsss. She whipped out her pistol and fired in the direction of the sound. The bullet pierced the skull of a hooded snake, only inches from Thomas’s foot. “Stay alert.” Tonight there would at least be meat in their watery meal.

Thomas’s lip trembled and his eyes brimmed with tears as he stared at her. His chest rose and fell with each heavy gulp of air. “You could have hit him,” Susannah cried, rushing to his side and flinging her arms about him.

“If I missed, that would have been the least of his concerns. Be careful when handling the body, the teeth are still venomous.”

“You could have shot him,” the girl repeated.

“Susannah—“ Lani chided, “that is the way of the road.”

Thomas sniffled loudly and pushed his sister away. “I’m fine Suze. She… she didn’t hit me.” He knelt down next to the snake and gave it a vicious prod. The desire to kick it warred with practicality on his face. Practicality won out as he gingerly lifted it by the tail. “Thanks.” His eyes met Trish’s.

A bite from that snake and… well, they didn’t have the bullets to spare on giving him a clean death. She would have given him a choice—stay behind and waste away or hope that he bled out swiftly from a slit throat.

She had not always been that fast on the draw. Once she would have taken the time to evaluate, to aim, perfect the shot. Once she had.

Trish evaluated her exhausted and terrified group. “Another hour and we’ll stop.” She would prefer to push on for another few hours, but at least one hour would get them far enough from the smell of gunpowder and blood. If they could make it that far. “Only a few more days left.” Her words were a soft, whispered promise.

Through a mixture of coaxing, cajoling, and flat out ordering, she managed to rally her group onto the road, or at least, what she considered to be the road. She had traveled this path so frequently that her feet knew the steps to take, even when she was worn to the bone and her mind wandered. Each step was a reminder of an unseen landmark.

Though the snake’s blood would seep into the ground and by her next journey would no longer be visible, every time she passed that spot she would remember what could have been.

They stopped in a petrified grove. Once it was filled with giant trees whose leafy arms provided shelter. Trish settled against one of the solid trees. When her eyes closed, she could feel the weight of her son, nestled in her lap. She could feel the heat of her wife’s arm pressed to hers, smell the sweat of her hair. When she opened her eyes, it was gone.

Bile rose in her throat and she swallowed it down as she fumbled in her pocket for the photograph. Her thumb brushed across the face of the little boy.

“Who’s that?” Susannah’s voice was small. Her hands were stuffed under her arms.

“Shouldn’t you be helping Lani with the fire?”

The girl scuffed her toe. “Yeah. I am. But she thought… and Thomas said… I shouldn’t have yelled at you. Thanks for saving his life.”

Trish passed the girl the photo. “My wife and son.”

“I’ve never seen a picture before,” the girl held it gingerly in her hands. “This must be really old. From before digital.”

“I’m not that old,” Trish laughed softly, hoping to dispel some of the nervous energy. “Even during digital, people would still print pictures. Though, not many.”

“Will I get to meet them? At the library?”

She gently took the photograph back and folded it, trying to hide the shaking of her hands. “I am sure you will meet my wife. Our son did not…”

Too slow. She had been too slow.

“You should spend time with your brother. The road is dangerous, anything can happen.”

“If life is so dangerous, shouldn’t you spend this time with your wife?”

Trish closed her eyes and shoved the photo blindly into her bag. “I don’t deserve to spend time with her.”

Susannah wrapped her arms around Trish. “I bet she misses you.”

Trish awkwardly patted the girl on the back. “It isn’t that simple.”

This was her penance. The price she paid for leaving her son to die. Because she was too weak to hold the knife to his throat. Too weak to let anyone kill him. He was a fighter. A measly snake bite wouldn’t kill him.

She spent the night with him tossing feverishly in her arms. She spent the night knowing he was in pain but hoping…

In the morning her caravan left without her.

A week later, she stumbled into the Library with bloody fingers and a hollowness that no amount of food could fill.

A month later she left.

She did not say goodbye.

When she returned with a group of stragglers, her wife quietly let her into her apartment—their apartment—one that should have been filled with the sound of childish laughter.

She was barely home for a week before she found another excuse to leave.

She returned with an orphaned child, one that her wife took in and doted upon.

Trish pressed her lips softly to the girl’s forehead. “I am certain my wife will love to meet you. She will likely insist that you stay with her.”

“And will you stay with us, too?”

“There are others out there. I must help them make their way to the Library.”

Happiness was for other people. People who deserved it.

At the age of six, Eliza was certain of two things. The first was that she had stories to tell. The second was that she had no talent for illustrating them herself. Talent or no, she still wrote and illustrated her first book, one that should be located and locked away if only to prevent her parents from embarrassing her terribly by showing it off alongside baby pictures. Now she spends her days writing stories that she isn't embarrassed to show off after a little bit of polishing.

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