Beat| Chapter One
The shattering of glass awoke him from his dream.
"Damn it," a hoarse voice whispered.
"Hush," the man said, pushing himself upwards and blinking in the dark. The fire in the hearth had died. He knew not when. "What? What is it?"
"Broke me glass cup, is all."
"I said I broke me glass cup."
The man fell back down on his makeshift bed of blankets and rags. The smell of mold and dust clung to them, but he had grown accustomed to it. "You break everythin'," he stated, flipping to his side and tucking an arm under his head. "Keep quiet and go to sleep." When he closed his eyes, he could not return to the dream.
In the morning they ate dried up beef and washed it down with water.
"I thought you gone broke it," the man asked dully, chewing on a tough piece of the meat. It hurt his jaw, but hunger hurt more.
"Gone broke what?" Tom asked.
"The cup. Woke me up last night when you did."
"Found me a new one." The muscles in the younger man's hands twitched as he held his cup.
"Cupboard. They a many of 'em there. The family 'fore us must've left 'em all behind."
The man nodded and swallowed his beef. His back tooth was sore and it pained him with every touch. "My back one is a hurting more and more. Might gotta pull it out soon."
"Want me to?"
"Maybe. Let's just wait n' see; maybe we find us a doctor."
"Ain't no doctors 'round these parts, you know that," Tom said as he took sip. His lips were white, dry, and cracked. "Gotta head east to the barracks to find one of 'em." He sniffled a little.
"Huh? Naw, ain't sick. Why? Is you?"
"No, but your lips chapped. Always chapped when you catch something." The man poked at his tooth with his tongue and winced. "You tell me when you start feelin' somethin' wrong."
"Alright," Tom answered with a nod. "But when we heading back there, to the barracks?"
"When we gots a need to."
An hour later and they were down in the basement, shifting through empty cardboard boxes and shelves of dusty household items. The man blew at a bottle of oil and frowned when he shook it. "This one empty as well," he said. He threw it at the floor. "Ya find anythin'?"
"Half a broom n' some dingy sweaters," Tom answered, holding up a sweater to show. It had a hole at the pit and a few loose strings. "Might we sell it?"
"I reckon," the man said, scratching his cheek. "Put it over with the stuff. That n' some of 'em other sweaters. Keep a few for us though." He turned back to the shelves and reached his hand back for a bottle without a label. He shook it around and popped the cap open when he heard liquid swooshing inside. It smelt weird.
"What you got?" Tom asked.
"Don't know. Smells strange. Here." The man capped the bottle and tossed it to his brother to smell. "You know anythin' 'bout it?"
Tom arched a brow after taking a whiff. "You know what? I think I smelt this sorta thing 'fore. Smells like what 'em tinkers be sellin' over in the barracks, you know, 'em soaps and bars for cleain' up good."
"You think so?" the man asked.
"Pretty sure. Heard it's supposed to be good for the skin, so I think we should keep it for ourselves, you think?" Tom smelt it again and grinned.
"Rather try sellin' it. Put it with the stuff."
"You sure?" He clutched the bottle to his chest and frowned. "Not much in there…that is to say I doubt it's worth the bother to sell."
The man did a quick roll of the eyes and responded with, "You can keep it if nobody wants it. For now, put it with the stuff."
"Alright," Tom said slowly, slumping over to the corner and dropping the bottle in defeat. "You promise it goes to me if nobody buys it, right?"
After that, they searched in silence. The man managed to find a few nails scattered around, three leathered bound books he could use for feeding a fire, one shoelace, a can of beans—expired he assumed, but still eatable—a butter knife, an empty bucket with dried paint on it, and a pair of wool gloves. He kept the last for himself. Tom had only found one pair of jeans meant for a child, a wooden chair with one leg broken off, a hammer, and more cardboard boxes.
"Put the jeans with the stuff to sell, and the rest we can use to ourselves. Put the chair up with the books over by the hearth, alright?"
"Alright," Tom said, dragging the chair up the stairs first. "We gonna eat 'em beans?"
"I reckon so," the man answered as he examined the hammer. It was rusty, but still usable. "I can cook it tonight in the pot, just start up a fire, yeah?"
"Yeah, but you want me to use 'em books too?"
The man nodded. "But rip the leather off first, we can keep that."
"You sure? Don't ya wanna try and sell 'em first? Maybe they is rare and some smart fellow will pay us a lot for 'em." Tom pulled the chair up past the first step and stopped to look down. "There ain't many books 'round anymore, you know?"
"I doubt it, but go 'head. The wood from the chair should make due till we get back." The man pushed past and took a grip of the chairs back. He kicked at it until all legs had broken off. "We'll use the seat first, legs for another night."
"When you think we gonna head out that ways?" Tom asked, tossing the seat into the hearth and brushing his hands on his pants.
"Thinking 'bout tomorrow, 'fore the sun rises."
"How long you reckon we'll be staying?"
The man glanced over at the window. "Not long, maybe two days. Don't like it there that much. Too many soldiers running 'bout; don't feel safe with 'em guns."
"But they protecting us, that's all," Tom reminded the man. "I talked to one 'fore, back 'bout a year ago. Said something 'bout me joining up with the squad if I was feelin' up to it."
"What'd ya say to that?"
"Told him, 'Naw, sir, I can't right now. Gotta leave soon with my brother, but I appreciate what you is doing and hope you have a nice day there.' That's what I said." Tom walked over to the window and sat on the edge. "He told me to have a better one. You think he'd be there tomorrow?"
"Probably dead," the man answered.
"Why you say that?"
"'cause 'em type always die."
That night, the man sat by the fire, huddle under his blankets. He blinked and winced as he stared at the book. He scratched at the leather and dug his nails into it. When he pulled the cover flap back, he frowned at the symbols inside.
He turned the page, but the letters still remained foreign.
Again, he turned a page, and again, and again, and again, and again. He stopped.
He knew that word, a word his mama taught him. She had written it out in the dirt with her finger. "That's what lies behind the black clouds, boy," she had told him afterwards, reaching her boney hands up to the skies. "The little light that pokes on in is from it, you know? You ain't ever gonna see it clearly though, but it's there. Always there."
The man shut the book and laid it beside the empty bowl that once held beans. His brother was across the room, asleep. There was a light rainfall outside. He never remembered falling asleep.
They woke before the first rays of light and made way for East, with a small wheelbarrow full of broken and found goods.