We returned to the castle with a newfound respect for one another. There was still no amicability between us, but we were now able to discuss our plans without ripping each other’s heads off because they both pointed toward a common goal.
“I’m ready,” I told Gage after a council meeting one day. I knew that I could leave and not worry about the king making any rash decisions while I was away.
“I know,” he astounded me. He was so wise; he seemed to know before I did whatever the situation.
We left after a week. The king promised me that he wouldn’t make any decisions without me. I believed him. He seemed to be a lot happier now that we had come to a mutual understanding about the world.
It took a long time to get where we were going. We crossed rivers and mountains and a long windy plain that seemed to go on forever. Then we arrived in the west kingdom.
“This is what life should be like,” Gage informed me as we walked through rows of little houses. People stopped and greeted us warmly and wanted to know our stories. I felt love from people I had never met.
“Joby?” I heard the familiar, yet slightly deeper voice call out to me. “Is that you?” I turned around to stare straight into the face of my childhood friend, River. He had aged gracefully and didn’t look much different from the boy I knew at age 16.
“River!” I cried and wrapped my arms around him.
“I can’t believe it’s you!” he cried out and we took a little time to catch up while Gage stood waiting patiently. I found out that River had been caught during the ambush, but for some reason they wanted to keep him alive. He had been a slave for two years before managing to escape and make his way to the west. He had gotten married and had a son the same age as my children.
River offered to let us stay with him at his house but Gage spoke up and told him that we still had a long way to go. He mentioned the library and River nodded knowingly.
“You are in for a treat,” River smiled at me. “I learned to read in that library. I still need a little help, but I know enough.”
Then we went on our way. It was two days away from the west kingdom. We came upon a large stone building in the middle of the night surrounded by a tall stone wall. It was built like a fortress and seemed impenetrable. Gage explained to me that it was like that because if it was ever destroyed, we would lose a lot of valuable information.
Gage hollered loudly at the large metal gate that barred the way into the huge complex. A moment later, a man appeared on the other side, asking us why we were there. Gage explained that he was there to train me to be a better leader and the gate was unlocked and swung open, allowing us to make our way inside. It was firmly shut behind us.
The man who had answered Gage at the gate lead us to two rooms, which he explained were ours until we left. I lay down on the bed and went to sleep immediately. Gage woke me up the next morning and I followed him into a large room filled with people copying words into fresh books and then putting them on shelves.
“Look around,” Gage whispered to me, “but don’t disturb anybody. They are doing important work. If you read something you like, let me know. I will talk to the big man here and he will have someone make you a copy.”
I took in everything I could for three days, and I found some things that I really liked. I fingered through old books, magazines, and newspapers. I found a few diaries written by hand by people who lived before I was born. I learned a lot about the world before.
“There is one more thing that I need to show you,” Gage approached me after the third day. “I haven’t been back there in a while. It was my childhood home.”
We walked for a few days again. Gage seemed to be getting more tired as we journeyed on. I began to worry about him, and asked if he wanted to go back. He told me that I needed to see what he wanted to show me. It would help me understand.
“But don’t the people at the library take trips here to find more books and other written articles?” I argued with him. “I could wait until they do and come back with them.”
“I need to be here with you,” he explained patiently, “What you need to know, nobody else can tell you about this place. Nobody else is old enough to remember. I think I am the oldest person alive now. I haven’t heard from my sister in a long time.”
It was fuzzy at first when I saw it. I wasn’t sure what I was looking at. Then as we walked closer it began to take form. There were buildings for as far as I could see, all kissing the sky. It looked like a metal and stone forest, beckoning us into it.
We approached the first building and Gage motioned me inside. I opened the door to a little house, smaller than the buildings in the middle.
“These were rare.” Gage informed me. “They were only built on the outskirts of the city. They were for police and their families to help keep people in the city.”
I walked through the little house, staring at glass from the broken windows. I came to a little bedroom door and opened it. I gasped at the sight of two skeletons lying on a dusty bed surrounded by cobwebs and debris. I turned around to face Gabe who was two steps behind me.
“It’s this way in every building,” he informed me. “The skyscrapers are worse. It smelled awful here when everything was rotting. Now there is just nothing left.”
“What happened?” I whispered, feeling myself tearing up.
“War. Disease. Starvation.” he spoke out as if reading off a numbered list. “You name it. A classic example of what happens when people rely too much on the government and then the government disappears.”
“Why didn’t they try to help themselves?” I asked, incredulously.
“Some of them did,” Gage explained. “And that is why there is still a human race. But we are going extinct. There are not a lot of us left. But you and your husband have just taken the first step in making sure that we don’t repeat our mistakes and destroy ourselves. Now it is up to you to try and correct the other ones as well. When you are teaching, make sure they are the right lessons.”
“I don’t know how to do that,” I said. “I don’t even know what they are.”
“Look around the library,” he smiled, “and read the history books. Copy them and bring them back with you. Put two and two together, and don’t make the same mistakes. I’m too old now. I didn’t do my part when I should have. I let others who were less experienced make the decisions when I should have been there all along.”
We stood there staring into the room of death and I made a promise to myself that I would never let this happen. These people were never even buried.
“There is one more place that I would like to go,” Gage said to me after our few moments of silence. “Would you come with me?”
“Yes,” I agreed.
“It’s in the middle, which is a little run down,” he warned me. “So be careful.” I followed him for what seemed like hours and stared up at the huge buildings that never seemed to stop climbing into the sky. Gage had informed me that each one of them used to house thousands of families.
“Here it is.” Gage stopped in front of one of them. “We will have to take the stairs, I hope it is still stable enough to support us.”
We walked up ten flights of stairs and Gage lead me to “his apartment door.” We opened it to find two skeletons sitting on a couch, holding onto each other like the vines of very strange trees clinging to each other in the forest. I cringed at the sight but it seemed to have no effect on Gage.
“These were my parents,” Gage mentioned, a little sadly. “My sister and I watched them get sick and die. Then someone came and got us. I don’t remember them too well, but my sister could tell you some stories about them, if you were to ever meet her. I don’t know why we never got sick.”
He took me through, room by room, explaining to me what some of the strange things were that I had never seen before. Radio. Television. Lamp. He explained electricity and that we weren’t able to find any books on it to help us reproduce it.
Then he shuffled me into a little back room filled with pictures of animals like deer, rabbits, raccoons, and all of the wildlife that I was used to seeing in the forest. It seemed out of place in this world that I had entered with him. It was a child’s room. His room.
He walked over and lay down on the bed that was too small for him. His legs dangled over the edge and he brought them up to crumple himself into a little ball.
“Can you find your way back?” he asked me, drowsily.
“What do you mean?” I gasped. “Why?”
“I’m going to die here tonight,” he said, matter-of-factly, “with my parents. I would’ve liked my sister to be here as well, but you can’t always have what you want.”
“I’m not going to leave you here,” I argued.
“I want to be here,” he smiled softly at me. “This was my home. I remember some good things about this place. It was filled with love. After all the disaster this is where I want to spend my final moments of life.”
“Then I am going to stay with you until you pass,” I whispered. I couldn’t imagine why someone would want to be here, in this metal graveyard when they could die somewhere much more beautiful. I realized at that moment that every individual has their own sense of what beauty is and nobody should try to take that away from them.
He slipped away quietly into the night. I watched over him and held his hand as he took his last breaths and went vacant. I thought about burying him but knew that it probably wouldn’t be what he wanted, so I just let him lie on that bed alone for eternity before walking out of that city forever. I never wanted to return to it ever again.
I made my way back to the library and spent weeks finding what I needed to bring back with me. I copied them down fervently and by the time I left I had a wagon full of books that had to be pulled by a horse. I went into the west kingdom to work for the horse, but River refused to let me and gave me one of his.
Now I was ready to fulfill the promise that I had made to myself, and to the man that I had come to think of as my father. I was going to start a school for all of the children in my kingdom.