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Clear The Block

Four years after the end of civilization, the survivors expand one city block at a time, taking in refugees, and working together to rebuild society. But all tragedies we left behind are not forgotten.

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    Leaning lightly against the tree, hiding from the light of the early morning sun, Jordan squinted down the block of abandoned homes she and her Keeper group would shortly surveil. She double checked her triplet of pencils, sharpener, and two notebooks. She checked that the soft leather-bound volume of permanent records, with its post-Fall glue, remained safely wrapped in vellum and protected from the elements. Less carefully, but still with an eye for detail or damage, she checked her working notebook, strapped across her chest and affixed with a small chain to a harness which prevented its drop or loss.

    Sam, Jordan’s best friend, leaned in the same shade, and squinted her dark chocolate eyes at the speaker.

    “We have a two-week job and a week to do it,” Cole Dahler, Sam’s husband began. “Two Keeper teams, two blocks, one week for completion. The Pennsylvania Commonwealth is expanding again.”

    “How big was the newest influx?” Julian asked. The four of them had been refugees not so many years before.

    “Almost a hundred. They are scared, and looking to find somewhere to call home. The Commonwealth has already sent the caretaker crews through so we shouldn’t have any trouble. I expect no squatters or Abnormals,” he tilted a hand asking for forgiveness from their fifth, Axel, a teen on his way to being a Hulk. “Stick to the new protocols. Someone always stays with the Keeper, and in our case, couples separate, as always.

    “Bodies haven’t been cleared yet, so mark them with the usual flags for the cleanup crews. The usual targets apply. Art, books, workable kitchenware. You know the drill. Catalogue the list and stay awake for anything unique or new. The archive is always looking for records.” Cole looked over his small crew with stern blue eyes. “Any questions?”

    Jordan loved them all. Together since they had fled Long Island just five years before, they were family. Even Axel, their hulking Abnormal friend, protected the group with utmost solemnity. Six foot three and fifty pounds heavier than any amount of food could account for, built of solid muscle, he fancied himself their knight protector. He wasn’t as big as some Hulks rumors spoke of, but he was big enough to give most would-be aggressors pause.

    “We have the west side, and the bravo team has the east. We meet in the middle.”

    “Stay safe,” Julian said as he rose on his tip toes to kiss his wife goodbye.

    “Relax. We’re only two blocks north of the freeway,” Jordan answered, bending down to steal a second kiss. “Besides, Sam is with me, and she never misses.”

    Sam, who hugged Cole goodbye with her left hand, lifted her bow in her right hand and winked at Julian.

    Freshly back from their longest mission in Millville, they had all needed time to clear their minds of psychological and physical abuse they’d seen there. A simple clearing job seemed a welcome easy day’s work.

    Axel walked about nearby as backup for both crews, and Jordan remained unconcerned. Much of the old city center had been ravaged by the Fall as electricity died off and again as disease spread and food stores ran out, but that memory had faded. The Commonwealth repaired what they could and spread north to the old suburbs, where lawns could be reclaimed and turned into usable farmsteads.

The first three houses on the street were standard two-story Capes. Their first target’s red brick facade crumbled into the untended garden. A tree had smashed through the roof, perhaps during a forgotten storm, and had torn through the flooring all the way to the first story. Years of weather had done the rest and the entire structure sagged toward the wooden trunk as large around as a person was tall. They didn’t even dare to enter it in its dilapidated state.

    “Not this one,” Axel said. His giant fifty-pound maul rested on one shoulder as easily as if he held a whiffle ball bat.

    They marked it on the lawn with a red flag as tagged for demolition.

    Jordan watched a demolition crew once. Cole had basic and fast-acting pyromancer skills, but the rapidly advancing magical arts allowed for an undisturbed wrecking crew to put on a display of destruction deserving of an audience. The fire had burned white hot, consumed the structure and reduced it to ash, including the bricks, in less than the time it took for one of the worker’s cigarettes to burn out.

    The triplet moved past the second house which swallowed Cole and Julian, and aimed for the third cape on the street. Axel nodded once, and began a circuit of the buildings, whose worst damage appeared to be peeling paint and a few lose slats of siding.

    Sam opened the front door slowly, taking in the scene, the sounds and the smells.

    Her nose crinkled and Jordan, who followed after, caught it too.

    “Someone died here,” the Keeper said. “Long time ago.” The acrid, sour smell stuck. The first time she had seen a body, civilization’s collapse was ongoing. She pushed the memory away of the lifeless eyes which had tracked her every movement, bulging slightly out of their sockets with fear of mortality. She shook her head.

    “I’ve got downstairs,” Sam said as they entered with the stairs directly in front of them.

    “I’m up,” Jordan answered in turn.

    Her exceptionally long Olympian like legs carried her gently up each step. The wood had been carpeted over with a runner of bright red, adorned in white and black cat hair even these years later. Her book was in hand, and she made small notes of details as she went. The walls were unadorned, perhaps stripped down during the Fall for anything useful, even metals of picture frames.

    Homes harbored patterns: Arms around loved ones, smiles real and pretend to unseen photographers, social events wanted and forced. Here, no pictures of family or connections greeted the long-gone owners.

    Keeper training just three years past echoed in her mind. Details, details and more details, kept them honest in their work. When Cities had collapsed, and people needed meaning, Ava Williams, the Keepers’ founder, had given it to them. When people had asked, “Will we survive,” Ava assumed humanity would.

    She taught the value in keeping the record of the Fall. History inevitably recorded the things which came after, but too often the transition would be lost. A historian by training, a leader by nature, she held the New Commonwealth together by force of will, and a belief in the possible.

    Details mattered, but especially names, and outcomes. People deserved to know their family’s ends. Ava believed it, and so Jordan did too.

    In a world haunted by so much death, and so little hope, memories and meaning behind them were all many people clung to. In every town they had been to in their journeys, people asked the outcomes of other places, and of the people who lived in them. The world had been interconnected, but now dangled like a puppet with all its string severed.

    Like searching for a missing person everyone knew to be gone, families wanted closure. Knowing who had survived, and who hadn’t, gave people the opportunity to move on, and restart. Keepers did more than record stories, they enabled life to begin again for the survivors of the Fall.

    Jordan stopped at the landing on the second story. A shadow-filled bathroom stood at the top of the stairs. A hint of light from the windows in the bedrooms to the right and left illuminated an old claw foot tub. She noted it as solid and cast iron, mobile if needed and stylistically appealing. Toiletries such as solid bar soaps remained, a luxury. 

    She moved clockwise around the upstairs. Walls remained completely bare of decoration or personalization. The first bedroom had been converted to a mismatched home library. Bookcases of different models, colors and sizes lined the walls, covering every inch available, with one wedged into a corner so that access to the books wasn’t possible without moving several dozen out of the way. Shelves bowed low under the weight, held up only by the next shelf down, and so on to the floor.

    No other furniture filled the space.

    She whistled. “You may not have known it when you were here, but this is an invaluable home.”

    Books grew rare in the end, with most of humanity’s records having moved digital, now irretrievable. This trove brought a smile to her face. The cleaners categorized them all eventually, but the Keepers had the responsibility to identify and immediately retrieve the most important works, unique works or rare pieces for the Archive. She took slow minutes to peruse them.

    Classics stood at attention, organized by author and then title alphabetically, with meticulous care, not one out of order. The sun shining through the window had faded the jackets and covers of many, but they otherwise showed no cracked bindings, and no serious wear. The collector, as she had named the erstwhile owner in her notebook, selected a wide range of pieces from around the world, without prejudice to origin. Chaucer sat beside Cheng'en. The room carried dozens of titles she was certain the Archive had no record of in its basements.

    “Hour check!” Sam called out from below.

    “Check,” Jordan called back down.

    She reached out empathically to her husband, certain Sam was doing the same with Cole. A gentle brush of consciousness waited on the other end, like reaching through a dark tunnel and finding warm soft velvet just barely in range to make contact with the tips of fingers. Julian was content, going about his work, and she felt the same gentle brush back.

    Bedroom two sported an identical layout, with an additional pair of bookshelves in the middle of the floor, holding even more titles. The shelves dug into the old carpet, leaned precariously at an angle toward one wall, and the floor creaked ominously under Jordan’s added weight. Experience told her there was no danger, but human nature made her move one slow silent step at a time.

    The scent of the room almost overcame the ambient scent of rot and fruited undertones of a human corpse somewhere in the house. It smelled like the library in the Archive, where the wooden, earthy smell of slowly creeping, decomposing books filled a room. Vellichor. The oppressive heat of the room added to the experience. Dust covered every surface in a thin patina, and Jordan cleaned off the top of one short shelf near the window to work in clear daylight.

    Minutes passed as she took notes on the contents and titles. Unlike the other room, this space spilled over with technical works, science texts, math texts, and several years of magazines. These last items were hastily stuffed into a shelf, some squeezed in and sitting atop others, perhaps the last edition.

“Eclectic,” she said. “You knew what was happening didn’t you?”

Few people could have been masters of so many topics. Perhaps there had been multiple occupants? Or just one obsessive trying to catalogue it all before the Fall.

    Jordan smiled at a sensation of Julian’s laughter in the house next door. Something passed between Cole and her husband strong enough to be felt even the distance though two houses. The empathic connection grew stronger all the time, and she and Julian had been together longer than Sam and Cole.

    Moving across the hall she observed the first bed in the house. Wedged against the far corner of the room, a narrow college dorm-sized mattress sat forgotten and ringed round by a dozen piles of books as high as the mattress top. The room, like the hall, possessed no adornments except for a single large desk facing the blank wall left of the door. Its chair had been pulled out and faced the window.

    Slumped, crumpled by time and gravity, the remains of the owner waited.

    Jordan settled her heartbeat, tried to remain calm with regular even breaths, but the smell was strong here. Closed against the outside for years, the wet remains of the occupant had soaked the upholstered wood, and seeped into the floor. She approached from the side, like she didn’t want to startle him. She said “him,” in her mind, but she wasn’t certain. Brown-green mold and rot stained the clothing and muted initial colors. The simple set of pants and a button-down shirt could have belonged to anyone.

    The bones of the left hand had collapsed to the chair, and surrounded a single ornate silver picture frame. Scrollwork and vines entwined around the image of a man and a woman standing on a beach at sunset, taken by one of them, holding the camera at arm’s length.

    “Him,” Jordan said, swallowing past the lump in her throat. Foolish. How many bodies had they seen in the years since the end? Did the living ever get fully accustomed to seeing the dead? She didn’t know that she ever would.

    His size matched the bulk of the man in the frame. She took notes to keep her mind calm. Do what you know when you’re afraid. The bed behind her couldn’t have slept two, and the house held no other signs of a second occupant.

Resting on his lap a piece of paper lay folded against a crease in the pant leg. Protected through sheer luck from the worst of the ravages of time and decay, it was dry and crisp as the day it had been scrawled. No more than a half page pulled hastily from a notebook by the look of the frayed edges. The pen that had written the note lay stuck to the floor at his feet.

    She stepped closer, with the trepidation of a mouse that knew a cat was about. Dust motes in the air swirled and writhed at her approach, pushed out of the way by her frame. Her hand reached down, to take up the paper, and her gaze met with the empty sockets where his eyes had once been, now collapsed, sitting atop his crumpled ribcage and spine. The eyes stared through her, and out the window to the sun beyond.

    The paper came free without effort, and she unfolded it.

    “Dragonflies don’t know they are beautiful, but they are beautiful nonetheless.”

    Scrawled in haste, the handwriting wobbled in aged fingers, and the fold sat irregularly across the page, the paper creased like it had been clenched in a fist.

Jordan felt the tear before she understood it, and she stepped backward away from him to lean against the windowsill. The house creaked beneath her added weight on the wooden floor. She read the note again, and looked at the figure, trying to imagine him as he was in the photo.

    His last thoughts had been scribbled on a piece of paper, to be found by a stranger a half a decade later, before they cleaned out his house. Who had he been? Who was the woman in the picture? Where was she? Jordan’s brown eyes jumped between the picture and the skull and back again many times before settling on the picture.

    “I’m sorry you were alone at the end,” she said at last.

    “Gone but never forgotten,” Julian said from the doorway.

    Jordan hadn’t expected his voice and jumped off the sill, and dropped her book. It stopped short of hitting the floor by the attached chain which jangled several times as it swung.

    “Oh,” she said in exclamation. She pulled it back up and clutched it.

    “I’m sorry,” Julian said softly, approaching slowly and as reverently as they all did when they handled homes of the dead in the presence of the former owners. “I felt your sadness, and the tears. I came over.”

    Sam stood in the doorway now too, and heavy footsteps below said Cole or Axel were in the building.

    “I was… thinking.” Jordan looked back to the body and the frame and then back to her husband. “He was a writer, maybe. Or just had something very important to say at the end.” She looked briefly out the window, but time had stolen whatever organization had been in the yard at the time of the Fall. If he had stared at a garden, its time too, had passed.

    “I am sure he would be happy that you found it,” Julian said, placing a hand gently on her forearm.

    “I’m glad I did too…”

    Jordan tagged the house for Keeper review. She hadn’t done that before. It was reserved for important finds that needed more meticulous assessment of multiple Keepers. She documented the rationale as “Discovered Library,” but in her heart, it was more.

    Enough unique books were found and added to the archive that her order wasn’t questioned. Three weeks later, the books had been catalogued, and the file sealed. The house had been cleaned, and smelled of the freshly cut wood that fitted the surface where blood had once dried. Soon a new refugee family would occupy the home, and the cycle of life would begin again. Jordan sat in the Archive penning her last entry for the site.

    “Eugene Arlingstein. Author of poetry and collector of books. Died between 0-1 After Fall. Final work, entitled Dragonflies. Gone but not forgotten.”

    She sat in the Archive, with a fireplace burning low behind her. Logs tumbling into one another as wood crumbled. Rain pattered on glass windows of the campus and the scratching of other Keepers filled the room about her. She knew the rules of the Archive. The last line was not a fact, and she shouldn’t have documented it. Documentation standard operating procedure required her to cross it out. She didn’t.

    Folded in the record log, the last poem Eugene had penned stared back at her.

    She closed the book, and placed it on its shelf.

For more about Sam, Jordan, Julian and Cole, head over here: 

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