THE BOOK HOUSE
by Ann McDougall
I do not remember my name. Not many of us do. I will write more, but right now I have to go. They’re coming.
“Are you sure it’s empty?”
I stare at the house nervously. It sure looks empty, all smashed windows and broken stairs. Vines choke the red brick walls. But you can never tell with houses. Tula glances over at me and grins.
I shiver a little. This is why I could never be a picker like Tula – too scary. Just the thought of doing this alone makes my stomach flip flop, but she does it all the time. She points to the door, which hangs open on rusted hinges. Two red circles have been carefully painted on it, one inside the other.
“Two circles.” I whisper. “So probably no bodies, right?”
“Yup. But see how the paint’s cracked? It’s been awhile, maybe a year or two. There could be anything in there now. This will be fun!”
I shake my head. That’s easy for her to say. Pickers like Tula spends their days going through empty houses like this, finding stuff to trade at the swap. They live for the thrill of exploring. That’s fine for her, but I’m not really feeling the fun.
She laughs at my expression.
“Don’t worry, Esa, I pick around here a lot. It’s usually fine, and there’s lots of good stuff. And Rana’s okay with you coming, right?”
I press my lips together when I hear my sister’s name. I’m a bit mad at Rana today.
“Actually, she doesn’t know I’m here.”
Tula raises her eyebrows at that but doesn’t say anything. Instead she tilts her chin toward the house. We move down the path, stepping over broken glass, bits of concrete and the tall weeds that poke up everywhere. I start talking fast to distract myself from my fear.
“No, it’s not like that. I’m not hiding anything, it’s just that when I woke up this morning she was already gone, which is really annoying, because we were supposed to go to the swap early together. I guess she forgot.”
“That’s not like her.”
Tula steps lightly onto the crumbling front porch, but when I try it the whole thing lets out an awful creak. We freeze, listening, but there are no sounds from inside.
“She didn’t draw you a note?” asks Tula after a moment.
“No. She didn’t even even lock the door behind her!”
“The book house has a key?” my friend sounds surprised. Locks that still have their keys are pretty rare in Tower City. The door to the house swings open with a creak when Tula pushes on it, as if it wants to prove the point.
“Yes,” I say, following her over the threshold, “we’ve always had a key. Rana wears it on a chain around her neck so she won’t lose it. We’ve had it since…”
I trail off, amazed.
The house is in really bad shape, maybe the worst I’ve seen. Every window is smashed, even the sliding doors that lead to the backyard. Tiny squares of glass cover the floor, mixed with droppings from raccoons and other animals. The shards glitter in a shaft of sunlight that pours through a wide crack in one of the walls. Vines have curled in through the windows and are starting to take over the walls and floor, crowding thirstily around big brown water stains. Photos still hang on the walls, but water has blurred the faces so much that they’re impossible to make out. A sofa in the corner has a healthy–looking patch of moss growing on it.
“Wow,” Tula says, whistling. “You’d be crazy to live here. That’s a good sign.”
“Or not!” I squeak. “Is it worth it? Can a ruin like this have anything good?”
“Only one way to find out!” she laughs, taking a deep breath. “I AM PICKER! I COME IN PEACE! IF YOU ARE HERE, LET US KNOW! IF THIS IS YOURS, WE’LL JUST GO!” She shouts it at the top of her lungs, practically making my heart jump out of my chest. Her sing–song chant echoes through the house. For a moment we just stand, listening. When there’s no response she relaxes.
“What was that?” I ask.
“Picker’s Pledge. It makes life easier.”
We make our way across the rubble of the first floor. The living room doesn’t have much of use except a few CDs tucked in between water–ruined books on a shelf. They’re still bright and shiny enough to use for mirrors, so we slip them in our packs.
“Someone’s picked here before,” Tula remarks as we enter the kitchen. I begin opening cupboards and see that she’s right – no canned food, no pots and pans, and the only dishes left are broken. There are a couple of dull butter knives still in the drawers. I take them, knowing that Rana will be able to sharpen them into something useful. There’s a refrigerator, but Tula stops me as I reach for the handle.
“You don’t want to see inside a fridge that nobody’s used for eight years. Or smell it. Trust me.”
I pull my hand back quickly. Behind the kitchen there’s a staircase leading to the basement. I remember that we also passed stairs leading up near the front door.
“Up or down?” I ask.
“Down. Scariest stuff first.” She laughs at my expression again. “You’ll be okay, Esa. Don’t be n– don’t be n–”
“Um, thanks, but I can’t really help it.”
Tula tends to stumble like that over words she doesn’t use very much, which is a pretty common kind of damage. My sister has a worse version, where she can’t get a lot of words out at all. It doesn’t bother us, because she makes signs with her hands instead, but it means that I do most of the talking when we’re at the swap. Of course, Rana would say that I do most of the talking no matter what, and then give me a gentle bump on the head with her knuckles. I roll my eyes when she does that, but I secretly kind of like it. I think about it now to try to distract myself from the basement stairs, which lead down into total darkness. Tula pulls a couple of sun sticks from her pack and hands one to me. The light bulb inside is glowing, but it’s not very bright.
“It’s early. Not much time to charge these in the sun this morning.” she explains.
I grip mine like a weapon and we descend. At the bottom of the stairs Tula stops short, holding her light up so I can see too. The weak bulb shines back at us from the basement floor, reflected in something perfectly smooth. After a second I realize that it’s water. The entire basement is flooded.
I lean forward as my eyes adjust to the dim light. It looks like this basement has been underwater for awhile. Moss and mildew are growing on the walls in spongy green sheets, and the furniture that hasn’t sunk completely has taken on the look of slimy river rocks. There are bugs everywhere, munching away happily at the soggy wood and plaster, and little squiggly things that look like tadpoles scatter when I hold my light to the water’s surface.
“I guess this is as far as we can go.” I say, trying to sound disappointed.
“Are you joking?” answers Tula.
And then she jumps.
My jaw drops open as I watch Tula spring like a frog, landing lightly on the back of an old chair. It shifts under her weight but doesn’t fall, and in a second she’s jumped again, coming down on the back of a sofa, a bookcase, the top of a TV, and finally landing with a satisfying smack on a table top.
“Oh, cool!” she shouts, pointing at something I can’t make out. “Come on, Esa!”
She grins when I hesitate
“Rana would do it. Maybe I should have asked her.”
Oh, that’s it. I plant my hands on my hips and glare back at Tula. Her smugness is pissing me off now. The couch isn’t too far from the stairs, maybe only two arm lengths. I squint at it and squat down low, trying to build up as much power as I can.
I jump, flying over the murky water with my arms and legs wheeling. Tula lets out a whoop. My feet catch the very edge of the sofa back, but it’s not enough to balance on the slippery fabric, and they slide off immediately. I tip forward, hitting the back of the sofa chest first and grabbing desperately. Foul smelling water gushes out where I squeeze the cushions, and something with a lot of legs scuttles over my knuckle, but I manage to keep my grip. I hang on like this for a second, waiting for my heart to slow down even as my shirt soaks through. Falling into nasty old water like this is dangerous – it’s way too easy to get an infection, and you never know if there’s something sharp just under the surface. Or something that bites. After a moment I’m able to stand up shakily. Tula claps for me.
“We’ll make a picker out of you yet!”
But jumping is easier now that I’m on the sofa and over my fears. I manage to hop onto the TV without much difficulty, though the screen cracks under my weight, and from there to the table where Tula is waiting. She smiles approvingly and points into the water next to us.
“Check it out. No one has opened that before.”
It takes me a moment to recognize the white, cube–shaped object that’s sticking out of the water.
“Yup! And look at that padlock – there must be something good in it!”
A combination padlock hangs from a latch at the front of the fridge, firmly closed. There’s a brown spot of rust where the bottom edge touches the water, but otherwise it’s in good shape. It would be really hard to cut off. I’m about the say so when Tula holds her light closer.
“I’m going to teach you a picker secret. See the letters?”
I squint, leaning forward until I see what she’s talking about. There are faint letters printed on the metal of the lock’s dial.
“Remember what they look like. When you see those letters it means you’re lucky, because these are easy to open.” She reaches into her pack and pulls out a thin piece of metal. It looks like it was cut from a pop can and shaped into a round point, with the metal folded back on either side to make two little handles.
“What is that?”
“I’ll show you,” she says, lying down on her stomach. “Hold my legs.”
I do what she asks, feeling her muscles stiffen when I touch her. I know it’s not personal – Tula just doesn’t like to be touched. I’m not sure if it’s part of her damage or if it’s because of what happened last year, before I met her. I’ve never asked. With my weight holding her steady she edges forward, leaning out over the water until she can grab the padlock. Once she’s got it she slides the piece of metal into a tiny gap in the lock, fiddling until it opens with a gentle ‘pop’.
I can see her smile reflected in the dark water. She hooks her fingers into the loop where the lock hangs.
I do, grunting. There must be something in the fridge, because it’s really heavy. But soon enough it bumps against the table leg and Tula sits up, rubbing her sore arms.
“If it’s locked it must be something valuable, right?” I ask.
“Yeah!” she frowns. “Unless it was raw meat. That would be bad. Oh well, only one way to find out!”
She leans over and pulls on the lid. It opens with a puff of stale–smelling air. Tula lets out a whoop that echoes through the basement.
“Esa! Come see!”
I lean over and my eyes bulge. The freezer is full of shiny cans of pop and beer. They’re in perfect shape, no dents or anything. Her eyes get big.
“Esa, this is a good find.”
She’s right. The beer will sell really well at the swap, and it’s been forever since Rana and I shared a can of pop. My mouth waters when I think about the sweet taste. Suddenly my annoyance at Rana for leaving without me this morning is gone. I don’t even mind the smelly water soaking through my clothes. If I hadn’t been at the book house Tula couldn’t have invited me to go picking, and we wouldn’t be sharing this find now.
We fill both our packs with cans, but the freezer is still half full. Tula tells me happily that we’ll have to come back. Next time I’ll bring my rubber boots. When my pack can is so full I can hardly zip it up I throw it onto the stairs, not caring about the loud thump it makes when it lands. We’ve made so much noise now that the house has got to be empty. A couple more scary, wobbly jumps and I’m back on the stairs, with Tula landing easily behind me.
“Okay,” she says, “upstairs now.”
We make our way back up to the first floor, staggering a little under the weight of our packs.
“So where do you think Rana went?” Tula asks, stepping carefully through the glinting broken glass. I shrug.
“I don’t know. Sometimes a group will go out hunting if someone spots big game nearby. There usually isn’t much warning, so she might have gone to do that. She’s a strongkid, so she gets asked a lot.”
“Wouldn’t you hear her go?”
“I’m a pretty heavy sleeper.” I don’t add that I slept in much later than usual today, and when I woke up I was so groggy that I didn’t even notice my sister was gone for twenty minutes. Rana is always nagging me about my sleeping in.
“It’s just annoying,” I continue, “because I worry when she doesn’t draw a note. I mean she might be checking the traps, she might be hunting, but she could be kidnapped by a gang for all I know! It makes me kind of mad and –”
I stop. Tula has turned to face me, her mouth pressed into a thin angry line. After a moment I realize why. It hits me like cold water in the face.
“Oh. Oh, Tula…I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean…that was such a stupid thing to say. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
She shakes her head, looking at the floor.
“It’s okay, Esa.” she says in a quiet voice. “You didn’t mean it, you were just talking. That’s what you do.”
“It’s okay, Esa. Come on.”
We make our way up the front stairs in silence, glass and debris crunching under our feet. Stupid. That was really stupid. My face burns with shame. I want to say something more to Tula, to apologize again, but I’m afraid I’ll make it worse. The second floor seems pretty empty. The only books on the shelves are water–soaked, and the beds have been stripped of their blankets. All of the clothes are either gone or ripped to shreds by animals. Quiet and embarrassment are going to drive me nuts, so I begin to root around in my heavy backpack. I could really use a can of pop right now. I find a can with red and white printing. Brown pop, my favorite.
Tula speaks softly, but her voice stops me in my tracks. We’ve just entered the largest bedroom on the second floor. My eyes were on the pop can when we walked in, but now I look up and nearly jump out of my skin.
We’re not alone.
There’s another person in the room, standing in a shaft of sunlight with their back to us. I can’t tell if it’s a boy or girl. The stranger is tall and thin with a mass of tangled hair nearly reaching the waistband of tattered jeans. Tula and I look quickly at each other, wide–eyed. My feet want to run, but the stranger hasn’t done anything yet, hasn’t even turned around. We could be three statues. Besides, I’m afraid that if we run we’ll give them a reason to chase us.
“Look,” I blurt out, making Tula gasp, “we thought the house was empty. We’re sorry. We didn’t mean to bother you.” I tense myself to run, but the stranger still doesn’t turn around, doesn’t even move. If I couldn’t see his or her shoulders rising slightly with breath I would think he or she had died standing up.
“Esa, let’s go.” Tula says quietly. I nod, about to follow her, but something is bothering me.
I can tell Tula is trying hard to keep calm. She nods slightly.
“Are you okay?” I say it loudly, surprising myself. “Are you hurt? Can you even hear me?”
Still nothing. I reach forward and lightly touch the stranger’s sleeve. “Hey…”
He –and it is a he – whirls around so quickly that I only have a split second to take it all in: the mouth smeared red with blood, the remains of a small animal – a squirrel? – still sticking to his chin, the sickly sweat and angry pimples on his forehead, and the mad look in his blue eyes. Stupid, Esa, touching him was stupid. One look at those eyes tells me all I need to know. This is a boy whose damage is so deep, whose mind is so broken, that he’ll never live with other people again. This is a loner.
He screams with rage.
I don’t have to tell Tula, she’s already ahead of me, stumbling through the hallway and down the stairs. He’s right behind us, his steps thundering on the creaky wood, his furious shrieks echoing through the house. Tula is out the door before me, taking the porch steps in two frantic jumps and landing on the sidewalk. She turns back to face me and her eyes widen.
Strong hands grab my shoulders, spinning me around easily. The loner gives another angry scream right in my face, ropes of greasy hair flying behind him as he shakes me hard. I squirm, trying to twist away or land a kick, but I can’t. He’s a strongkid. He lifts me easily. I swing my arms as best I can, trying to dig my nails into something, trying whack him with the pop can still in my hand.
The pop can still in my hand.
“Hey!” I shout, “look at this!” I lift the hand holding the can as best I can, nearly shoving it in his face. He glances down at it, eyes clouding with confusion. I take the moment, wrenching my other hand free enough to bring it to the can, I grab the metal tab on top and pull.
Pop explodes from the can in a satisfying brown fountain. It splashes in the face of the
loner, who winces with surprise and drops me. I stumble backward, throwing the can at him for good measure before darting down the stairs. His scream sends a flock of birds in a nearby tree flying.
A metal cylinder flies past me, hitting the loner’s shoulder. He howls again, this time in pain.
It’s Tula, standing in the street and grimly lobbing her hard–won beer cans. She’s a good shot, too. The can hits the loner square in the chest, and he staggers back toward the house. I run to Tula, and she lets one last can fly before turning and racing away up the street. I’m right beside her, legs pumping and elbows flying. We run until my legs burn and my sides are stitching. Finally, when it feels like we’re far enough away, we stop to catch our breath, doubling over and sucking in air in big greedy gasps. Tula turns to me and grins.
“See? Wasn’t that fun?”