I don’t remember what things were like Before. I can’t. Even the eldest people I’ve seen meandering in the streets were only infants Before. I’ve heard stories though. My mother used to tuck me in every night, with a candle flickering by my bed, and fill my malleable little head with fairy tales of days when people didn’t have to run. She told me that once, a long time ago, people could look each other in the eye; that they could shake hands and walk away with nothing in their pockets but what they had prior to, because Before people didn’t have to take.
And I used to believe her. It was the books. She had a beautiful stash of books. Most of them had yellowed pages that fell apart if I squeezed hard enough with my thumb and forefinger. But the stories were still beautiful. Each page was another adventure that made me spin around and around, wondering why we didn’t go on adventures, swashbuckle with pirates, run away with princes, or speak in rhymeto our true loves. Somehow I believed in every story I read, just like I believed that things were better Before.
But that was a long time ago. I’m seventeen now. Or sixteen. That’s another thing. After so many days of struggling to get by, time just passes by, and then most of us learn to forget the useless days of the week. Everyone lives by the seasons, so long forgotten birthdays and hopeless holidays have become just some other fairy tales left in the times Before.
I only know a few things about myself these days: I need food and water to survive, I’m a girl, my name is Charlie. There’s one more fun fact, but I don’t really like thinking about it.
It’s not so bad, though. I don’t have to follow anyone’s orders or be back home at a certain time, not anymore. Besides, we don’t have to worry about a government taking away our homes or forcing us to pay taxes or eating our brains. We don’t have a government. “True freedom is freedom from all of the world’s influences.” At least that’s what the imposing posters say. Except the posters show a group of people, a family perhaps, hugging and smiling in front of a nice white home and a garden lively with flowers and red tomatoes on bright green stalks. I’ve never actually seen what the poster depicts as freedom. Our old farm was pretty similar, but instead of a nice shade of white, the wooden planks on the side of my house were rotting and peeling with gray mold, and in place of the flowers and red tomatoes were thirsty fields on which itchy, withering grass vagrantly grew. But the really sad thing is that it’s not there anymore. The one place that even remotely looked like the freedom in the posters burnt down a long, long time ago.
It’s a dangerous thing, getting lost in my head. Sometimes I swim in my thoughts so long that by the time I come up for air I’ve walked two or three miles.
I can see a town up ahead. It looks familiar, though it probably isn’t. It’s probably just like the last town: stale, squalid, and antiquated. An old dirt road cuts through the center of the patches of buildings that sag from the weight of the soot that covers the roofs under dead sheets of ash. In the far corner plumes of dark smoke spit up into the atmosphere. What these people are burning escapes me; there isn’t a tree around this detached little hole for miles.
I continue shuffling down the road, kicking rocks and watching the road cough up dust after it. My head itches. I haven’t bathed in days and now my hair has faded from its natural rust shade to a less attractive, discrepant shade of oily toast. Not to mention a cut above my eyebrow from a mistake I made a few days ago has dried up and swollen, probably from infection. I need to find food and some alcohol to clean my cut with, but the chances of finding any available water look scarce. According to stories, during the War, the governments took away most of the water and hid it where no one could ever find it again. Those guys must have been masters at hide-and-seek because everywhere I’ve ever been has suffered from a dearth of water ever since.
A few feet outside of the town is a wooden sign that used to be painted blue. I imagine the sign probably looked very welcoming in its time, maybe even decorated with beautiful white lettering. But the sign’s message extends only to “Welcome to...” since the spot where the name must have been has been scratched off. I scoff at the irony. I probably wouldn’t have remembered the town’s name if it had been there, but now I’ll remember the town for its lack of one.
As I take my first steps into the obscure vicinity of this dying ecosystem, a daunting wave of fetid intimidation smacks me across the face. My eyes burn from the stench forcing me to cover my mouth and nose with a ragged piece of cloth. I stare down the road, glancing back and forth between the buildings. It seems only a meager handful of people reside here, most of which stare me down like I’m the one who smells incredibly putrid. A man in leather and denim eyes me with a drunken look as he staggers across the road meanwhile a woman thin as paper with dark, sunken eyes flaccidly turns her attention from her meatless hands to my foreign body, avoiding eye contact.
“No gold here,” rasps a voice to my far left. I glance over to discover my first contact in this town. A decrepit man with a thousand wrinkles sits stoically on a creaky, old rocking chair wearing khaki pants up to his waist and a deep blue button up. He stares vacantly into my eyes and for a moment I wonder if he actually said anything. I rip away from his gaze and begin my vain search for whatever crumbs I can get my hands on.