Chapter 1- Rehabilitation by C.B. Stone
the world’s changed. I don’t know this because I witnessed the change, or even because I felt it. No. This is all I’ve ever known, but I know it’s changed because I see what’s left behind.
Jacob is striding ahead of me, his strong back broad and straight, his steps sure and true. I often imagine he’s balancing the world on those shoulders. His unruly blond hair is brushing past the nape of his neck, and I know his ice blue eyes are laser focused as he makes his way through the rubble. He’s quiet, as am I, every step stealthy because though we know there aren’t any people out here anymore, there are other things.
Dangerous things. We pick our feet up as we walk and make sure not to kick any of the debris surrounding us on accident. I grimace, eyes scanning the ground looking for anything that might beof value. The pack I carry slung across my shoulder is light at the moment, but I’m hopeful we’ll be able to find something useful today.
Ahead of me, Jacob stills. He lifts a hand, signaling me to stop, then drops to his knees, crouching. I immediately follow suit, making myself as small and insignificant as I can, so whatever he’s spotted, won’t spot me. After several slow, quiet moments, hearing nothing but the sound of my breath as it clouds the air in front ofme, I shuffle closer to Jacob.
“What is it?” I whisper in a voice quiet enough I don’t think it’ll carry beyond us.
He inclines his head in the direction in front of us. I squint, eyes searching along the cold terrain for the threat spurring us to crouch down out of sight. At first, I don’t see much beyond the norm. There isn’t anything visible other than the ruins of the Old World city. Then I catch movement out of the corner of my eye. I didn’t notice it before, because its coloring matched the gray landscape around us, but now I see what has us stopped.
“A cougar,” I mutter. The hairs on the nape of my neck rise and I suppress a shiver.
The large animal’s gray fur looks mottled, missing patches here and there, striped by burns in others. It looks skinny, no doubt starving as are most things in the Old World. But I don’t need telling to know its teeth work just fine, regardless of its meagerappearance.
And its claws.
We wait in silence, holding our breath and watching the mangy animal limp and sniff at the air. After a while, it finally decides it’s not going to find food or water in this area and lumbers off.
We wait a few minutes more for it to disappear from view before we straighten back to full height. I shrug my shoulders as I do, trying to loosen muscles gone tight with nerves. I expel a puff of air, its smokey tendrils drifting off towardthe sky like a lazy feather. “Guess it didn’t find anything good out here,” I mumble, then look over at Jacob, unable to hide the relief in my tone or my face. “We got lucky.”
Jacob looks down at me, a small smile on his face. “Luck has nothing to do with it.” He winks.
I roll my eyes and start moving, passing him before he takes the chance to start this conversation again. Maybe if I just ignore him, he’ll get the hint and won’t start babbling on about fate and what not.
“Don’t roll your eyes,” he chastises, his voice carrying with it a gentle laughing tone as he follows behind me. “It’s true.”
Apparently, I am wrong about his babbling. I sigh. It doesn’t matter if I keep walking or not, he’s still going to bring it up.
“Can’t we just keep moving?” I ask, my voice reflecting irritability as I try to derail the subject. But Jacob isn’t to be sidetracked.
“We are moving,” he reminds me, laughter still coloring his voice.
Which is true, we are, but that isn’t the point. I meant just moving, as in no talking to accompany it. I sigh again, the small crease indicating I’m cranky appearing between my brows. But Jacob is Jacob and he’ll keep instigating this conversation—no matter how dangerous it is—because it’s the type of man he is.
That’s how much he… well, how important it is to him. I frown, a part of me proud he’s so firm in his beliefs, another part worried it will get him in trouble one day.
“Think about it, Sinna,” he tells me, and I can hear the excitement in his voice. “What were we doing the first time we met?”
I try not responding. Instead, I scan the area, looking for potential places that might hide things we can use or trade when we get home. It’s the main reason we’re out here anymore anyway, but it isn’t the first reason we came into the ruined city.
“We were looking for a—”
“There!” I point ahead of us, not caring I just interrupted him. In the distance, maybe a mile away, there’s a long building, the space of several Old World houses, and it’s about the height of three of them piled on top of one another.
Jacob looks, bright eyes filled with hope as they search. Too late, I realize how my exclamation must have sounded to him. Sureenough, when he spots the building, his shoulders slump a little in disappointment and he lets out a sigh.
“—a church,” he finishes. “We were looking for a church.”
I feel guilty for getting his hopes up. Although we go out mostly now to find Old World items we can trade, Jacob still can’t resist keeping an eye out for that fabled church.
“There aren’t any left Jacob.” My voice is quiet as I rest a gentle hand on his arm. “They were alldestroyed after the War.”
He only nods. I know he still dares to hope one survived, even though he knows the truth. I’m convinced that’s why, out of everything the Elite has banned since the War, belief is most dangerous in their view.
You’ll do crazy things for what you believe, even when you know what you’re doing is pointless.
“Let’s go,” I tell him.
In perfect sync, we start moving toward the large building. I’m not sure what it is—maybe a school or a prison perhaps. Those are the buildings we find most often, and most of the stuff inside them is deteriorated beyond any recognition or value. But every once in a while we we get lucky and find something good.
Personally, I hope it’s a hospital we’re walking toward. Hospitals always hide the good stuff. Drugs, antibiotics, and other medical things most people back home don’t possess and can’t get. A hospital would bebest case scenario in my book.
“Maybe it’s a library,” Jacob muses out loud. His voice is still saddened, but he’s trying to stay lighthearted and act as we always do on our trips into the Old World.
“A library,” I scoff. “What about a hospital? Hospitals always have the best stuff.” My words escape unthinkingly, echoing my thoughts of moments ago.
Jacob just shrugs. “Depends on what you’re looking for I guess.”
I roll myeyes at him again and we fall back into easy silence. Libraries are okay, I admit to myself. I’m not sure I’d ever let on to Jacob though. Books are rare and hard to get your hands on. The only people who can print them anymore is the Elite and most of those are so filled with propaganda (and are flat out boring, if I’m being honest), people just aren’t interested in reading any of them.
But Old World books are a different breed altogether. They’re filled with adventure, romance, and most dangerous of all (at least according to the Elite), Old World history. There’s a market for such books, albeit a narrow one. First, only people who can and do read want them. That narrows down buyers considerably. Then you need to find people willing to take a risk they’ve gotten their hands on a banned book. The list given out by the Elite containing banned books you can’t read is so long no one’s real positive exactly what’s onit. And to top it all off, you have to find someone who isn’t going to turn you in if you sell them a book.
I know a few people who fit the profile, but they can’t buy books often and are only on the look out for specific ones, so I don’t much like making book runs.
Jacob’s looking for a specific book, too. That’s why he’s so interested in the libraries. The thing is, the book he’s looking for is definitely banned. It’s the only one onthe list that everyone knows it’s illegal to have.
Worse than illegal in fact. Having it could land you in Rehabilitation. Or worse.
Secretly, I hope he never finds the book he’s looking for. I don’t tell him this, but in my heart I hope for it every time we leave the safety of home.
Please don’t let him find it.
I’ve been in the lead, but Jacob takes over as we head toward the entrance. I can’t help but feel slightly annoyed at him for putting himself ahead of me. It’s not a jealousy thing. I know it’s about protecting me, his going ahead, but it annoys me no end that he thinks I need protecting.
Nevertheless, I follow him up concrete steps toward the set of double doors. Jacob pauses right outside them. There’s a couple windows looking into the building, but they’re narrow and dirty, covered in years’ worth of dirt and grime. Inside, it’s impossible to see athing.
Jacob glances at me and raises his eyebrows in question. “What do I think?,” he asks me silently.
Being out in the ruins of the Old World is dangerous for a lot of reasons, but the most pressing one right now is we don’t know what’s inside that building. It could house another wild cat like the one we saw earlier, or could be filled with toxic mold, or be ripe with some other unexpected danger.
When we get insidethe building though, it isn’t what either of us thought it would be. It isn’t filled with poisons or dangerous predators—at least, from what we can tell—but it also isn’t quite as exciting as we’d hoped. Instead, it’s a school. For younger kids it looks like. At least that’s what I think, based on the rotted and molding smiley faces plastered on the walls.
“So much for the hospital,” I mutter, my voice echoing through the long hallway, sounding eerie.
Jacob shrugs and acts as though it doesn’t matter, but I can tell he’s disappointed, too. He was really hoping for a library. Or a church. I mentally sigh, my innate worry for him rising up again.
“There might still be something good,” he says with a smile.
I shake my head at him, amused. “Ever the optimist.”
Together we walk down the hall, our steps cautious. Debris taking the form of everything from bricks to shoes to scrapsof old, shredded clothing litters the ground. We’re treading lightly, because although it doesn’t look like anything is here, we know better than to assume there isn’t. I glance at the doors along either side of the hallway and cringe back, trying to put more distance between them and myself. There are large X’s on some of the them. Both Jacob and I avoid these automatically. There aren’t any history books that talk about the Old World and the Last War much, not in anydetail at least, but we have been out here enough times we know exactly what’s behind those doors.
And I have no desire to see it.
“Must have been close to one of the bomb sites,” Jacob murmurs, as though afraid to wake the dead. Or maybe he’s just showing respect. “My dad used to say that when the population got exposed to toxins from the bombs, a lot of people suffered. Some decided it was better to just… go out quietly instead.”
Jacob’s dad has been dead about as long as mine’s been missing. I don’t think they’d been friends or anything, but I think that if they’d gotten to know each other, they would have been. At home, neighbors didn’t like mixing, it was too risky. Anyone could be an Elite hiding out, just waiting to make their move. The only people you can trust are your family members.
It was a fluke me and Jacob even became friends. And if I’d been older, like I am now, I don’t thinkit would have happened.
I glance at him sideways, studying his strong profile as he stares at the X on one of the doors. I’m glad we met when we were kids… even if we can never agree on much of anything.
Folding my arms across my chest, I mutter, not able to help myself, “Or this was a testing site, just like the Elite always say. How people used each other to test out new drugs, new weapons, not caring what happened tothem.”
Jacob looks back at me casting me a sharp glare. He has always hated the Elite—I do, too, if I’m being honest—and he’s not afraid to say it either. Contradicting something his dad said in favor of something the Elite say… well, if it wasn’t necessarily very nice of me, it was important to do. I lift my chin, my stubborn streak stirring to life as I glare back at him. He forgets sometimes we live in a world with specific rules and breaking them comes with dire consequences.
Besides, the world we’re standing in right now is ruined. That’s kinda the point. If they hadn’t been awful, cruel people, why is their world obliterated, nothing more than X’s on the doors to mark where their people died?
“Let’s keep going,” Jacob’s tone is gruff, revealing just a hint of anger, so I keep quiet as I follow him.
When we decide the place is safe enough, we split up after finding amap on a wall. Jacob goes to the left toward the library (of course) and I go to the right, heading down the hall toward the nurses office.
I don’t know if there will be anything there worth scavenging, but I figure it will still be my best bet. I pass at least ten doors with X’s on them, and knowing each one of them holds a room full of bodies elicits an involuntary shiver as I walk. I can’t help it, it just feels creepy. I know they’re nothing but bones, mostly,but sometimes, if the room was sealed up tight… that’s why we never check the rooms anymore. We go where we think there will be the best stuff, look around, and leave as quickly as we can.
The nurse’s office is toward the back, near the big gymnasium that students used for physical activities.
Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to go to a school like this… and then I decide it must have been terrifying. All those other kids, none of whom you could trust, and a teacher at the front telling you what to think.
I imagine it is a lot like Assembly. We have it every other day in the After World, usually, although less often as we get older. All of us, kids eighteen and under, gather in the courtyard in the middle of town and watch the large glass screen light up. Most of us can’t read, so when the scrolling words travel across the glass there’s a voice that accompanies it. It’s always a bland, toneless man’s voice. Helists off the three main rules that govern the After World.
Don’t repeat mistakes of the Old World.
Don’t seek love, don’t engage in war.
And above all else, don’t Believe.
There are other things after that, usually. An update on Rehabilitation camps, success stories and sometimes failed escape attempts. Occasionally we get news of political things, but politics are only for the Elite, so no one cares too much aboutthose.
Most of us are more worried about surviving.
I reach the nurse’s office to find it’s mostly intact, only a few things obviously searched through. Some places look ransacked already when we get there, making me wonder if there are others who search the ruins like we do, or if people of the Old World were scavengers, too.
Pulling my bag off my shoulder, I start throwing things that look promising into it. Most of them, I don’t know what they are or what they do, especially since most of the labels look deteriorated, but it doesn’t really matter. People will trade for it anyway.
I stuff all of it in my bag, as much as I can fit, and I’m about to leave the room when I glance to my right and see something sitting on a desk. It’s covered in a thick layer of dust, but it still catches my eye. I can only make out the words healing and prayer, but that’s enough. My lips tighten, feeling a rush ofgladness Jacob isn’t with me.
I leave as quickly as I can and pretend I never saw the book at all. I meet up with Jacob further down the hall. He’s found some books too—picture books in fact, which are great, because people will be more inclined to buy them since they don’t need a lot of skill as far as reading goes.
“What did you find?” Jacob asks as we head out.
“Nothing,” I answer automatically, mind recalling an image of the book I leftbehind again and again. I remember the words written on it.
Healing and prayer.
Eyes grim, I repeat again as we step out of the building to head home, “Nothing.” Thankfully Jacob leaves it at that.
* * *
Home is a line of stones that make a short wall that only comes up to about my waist. This wall acts as a border between the After World and the Old World, separating the ruins from our peaceful little town. I can remember asking my dad about it once.
“Why is it such a short fence?” I was only eight and even then I could see right over top of it.
My dad looked down at me, his eyes crinkling at the corners and his mouth quirking ever so slightly into a smile. I remember he always called me Bean. “Because tall fences don’t keep people out like you’d expect Bean. Tall fences let you know they are afraid, which means you have all the power. But a short fence? Well, everyoneknows you can get over a short fence easy… so why would you?”
At eight, this was a pretty big concept for me to grasp. It wasn’t until much later I understood what my dad meant, almost a year after he went missing. I was ten. Standing there at the fence, I remembered our conversation.
Everyone knows you can get over a short fence.
And it’s then I realized what he meant. It made me so angry. It made me angry a mere short fence couldkeep me contained within its walls. And why? Because no one even realized they wanted to leave and go beyond it. No one even realized it was a cage. I hoisted myself on top of it, swung my legs over, and hopped onto the other side, just because I could. I didn’t feel any different though, so I took another step. And then another. And another. Soon, the wall was only a small line in the distance and I could see the ruins of the Old World rising high into the clouds.
It scared me some, being only ten, and I thought about turning around to go home, but then I saw the little boy in the distance. He was ahead of me, but not far. Where had he come from? I wondered. And not knowing why, I ran toward him as fast as I could, worried if I didn’t, he might disappear completely.
The boy must have heard me because he turned around as I got closer and I remember he sort of gaped at me a little, a hint of surprise on his face. He looked a couple years older than me,with shaggy blonde hair and piercing blue eyes.
I stopped several feet from him and we both stared at each other, wide-eyed. It was the boy who offered his hand to me first.
“My name’s Jacob.”
I shook his hand that day and we’ve been fast friends ever since. I smile inwardly at that part of the memory. My meeting Jacob that day was one of my favorites in a tragically meager supply of good ones.
Our packs slung across our shoulders,we reach the town border and hop over the fence, heading back into the territory of Elite Sector Five. That’s our “official” town name. Not the most original in my view, and I sometimes wonder why no one ever came up with something more creative.
The Elite, when they took over after the war, basically carved up the country, sometimes based on old boundary lines, usually based on new ones. Of the three different Elite groups—the Soldiers, the Politicals, and the Scientists—each group got about five territorial spaces. Scientists got more, but only because they claimed several of the deteriorated Old World sites to use as testing grounds. No one lives there anyway, so the other groups agreed to it.
We belong to the Soldiers, but they don’t do much with us. Sometimes they come through and ask for volunteers to join the ranks of their army, but it doesn’t happen a lot and when it does, they tend to take the younger people. I’m guessing it’sbecause soldiers work a lot better when they’re still relatively healthy.
I’ve always thought it kind of contradictory we have an army and soldiers while one of the Elite’s main big rules is to forgo war. I know better than to ask about it of course, and even if I did, I’m sure they would just tell me there’s no harm in being cautious. Jacob finds the irony amusing though, and I’m inclined to agree.
Official town name aside, most of us who live here just callit the Gate. I don’t know where we picked up that name, but Jacob says it’s because we’re right at the very edge of the After World. I think people just got tired of calling it Elite Sector Five. Kind of a mouthful.
“I think we did pretty well today,” Jacob says quietly as we head toward the courtyard in the middle of town. “I think we’ve got some things people will truly like.”
He glances into his bag as we walk, examining several books he decided were in good enough condition to take with us. When I notice what he’s doing, I grab at his bag to close it, eyes darting to and fro, nerves frayed, to see if anyone is watching.
Of course, no one is. In fact, there isn’t a soul in sight. Thankfully. I squeeze my eyes shut briefly, trying hard not to be aggravated with his bent for putting himself at risk.
“Hey,” Jacob objects. “I was just looking.” All the same, he leaves his bag closed and refrainsfrom digging around in it, if only to keep me satisfied. My steps slow as I realize all of a sudden just how empty the town is.
“Jacob?” I say quietly, stopping and looking around at the mostly deserted area. There are small buildings that serve as homes, a couple of places that act as warehouses for incoming and outgoing goods, and a few others that are diners and health centers.
All but one of the health centers have closed signs displayed on thedoors. I am hoping to sell some of my haul to the one that remains, because I know they need it, but I also know they won’t pay the best price. Which is why I’ll save some of the stuff for the higher bidders later.
“What is it?” Jacob asks, noticing me looking around and slowing to a stop too.
The sidewalks are completely empty, as are the roads. The roads are never driven by vehicles, except on rare occasions when the Elite come to town with their large trucks, so people use them to walk just as much as the sidewalks. Right now though, there is no one walking or driving.
“Where is everyone?”
It isn’t until I say it that he starts noticing it too. I can see him looking around, a frown forming on his face. We both turn opposite directions, eyes scanning the empty sidewalks and roadways.
I hear him say “I don’t know,” just as we come full circle.
Our eyes must see the tracksin the snow on the pavement at the exact same time, because when we glance back up and look at each other, the words come out in unison: