Thanks to Darkniciad for critiquing the plot of this story.
Chris and Layla found the house near sundown. They had walked over twenty miles that day, looking for food and shelter. Judging by the smell, the house wasn't very clean, but it had the advantage of having four standing walls and a roof. They dragged themselves in through the side door, threw down their packs for pillows, and slept.
In the morning Layla woke up having to pee. Automatically she scanned the room for all possible exits. If they had found the shelter, others probably would, too.
Light streamed in through windows on the east and west sides of the room in which they had collapsed. Amazingly enough, the windows weren't broken. Layla studied them for a moment. They appeared to be made of ice, or frosted over, but of course, that was impossible.
She'd check them out later. The call of Nature was more important at the moment. Carefully she inched open the door through which they'd come last night. It was adjacent to the west window. She slipped out, pushed her way into the vegetation and squatted along one wall. Men were lucky. It was easier for them to avoid poison ivy.
As she was preparing to leave the impromptu loo, a rustling noise reached her ears. It was probably Chris, but Layla automatically held her breath. She went still as a rabbit in the brush. Her tanned, dirty skin provided a little camouflage.
It was Chris. He swept his gaze in an arc, met her eyes and grinned. "I think we're the only ones here." He went behind a pine tree and did his business while Layla looked around.
She knew better than to move much, or suddenly. That was a quick way to get into trouble. A rotting board could break underfoot, causing injury or attracting unwanted attention. So Layla stayed pretty much on the same spot, turning just her head to take in the view.
A gap-toothed path of bricks led around the house. To the south was a pile of collapsed and decaying wood. The regular shapes of the boards were still evident. It must have been a platform of some kind.
The mess was situated underneath another door, and some broken windows. The bottom of the door was thigh-high up from the ground, so the wood must have made a raised place where the inhabitants could go in and out.
Chris would understand it better; he'd been nine years old before the war. He remembered all sorts of stuff, and he could read, though his writing was limited.
"Should we go in?" Layla pointed with her chin.
Chris nodded. "This way."
He led them back into the cement-floored room where they had spent the night. "This was the garage," he informed her.
"Garage." Layla thought a moment. "For cars."
She'd seen a car once. It was a rusty, claustrophobic thing. Despite explanations involving speed and great distances, Layla failed to see its appeal.
Chris tried a door she hadn't noticed earlier. She hadn't seen it because there was no light around its edges. It led inside the house.
"Phew." He waved a hand in front of his face. But he stepped inside anyway. Layla followed.
What must have once been a nice living space was now an ugly ruin. The broken windows freely admitted the elements. Decaying garbage was littered among the weeds that grew up through the floorboards. The walls were marked with jagged symbols. Layla couldn't read the words, but their ugly intent was clear.
She and Chris held still, listening. If anyone was here, they didn't show it.
He lifted one hand to get her attention. This was easy as she was attuned to his movements. Silently he pointed down the hallway, then held up five fingers. Layla nodded. That was enough time for a quick reconnoiter.
Watching the placement of every foot, Layla swerved right and set off down the hall. At her back, she knew Chris was exploring in the opposite direction.
The first door on the left was the source of the stink. Fumes rose up from the bowl of what she knew was a toilet. It amazed her that people used to defecate indoors. Weird! There was also a big set-in tub, and a sink. That was cool, though — that water used to flow where and when people wanted. This room had a skylight, so although it had no windows, daylight made for easy visibility. Nice.
Off to her left, she could hear Chris' careful footfalls. The noise he made was as identifiable to her as the sight of his face. The sounds reassured her, and she continued down the hall.
It was darker here. Layla knew why: the people had been able to push a button and make light. Sometimes she still wondered if it had been worth fighting for, all that opulence. Maybe. She couldn't really imagine the former glory.
The next room, on the right this time, had a window facing west. A cursory glance revealed nothing of interest, just more trash and weeds. It was the same with the room at the foot of the hall.
The last door on the left had a big pallet of some kind on the floor. It was decaying, like everything else. Two human skeletons lay on it. The bones appeared to be embracing. At their feet lay another, smaller set of remains. This set of bones belonged to a four-legged creature. It had sharp teeth and a tail.
Layla skirted the bed and peeked in the small anteroom by the east window. More stink. She wrinkled her nose. Why would you want to poop so close to your resting-place?
That seemed to be about all there was to find. She doubled back, feeling a bit less edgy now that the initial sweep was over. Chris met her near the entrance to the first stink-room.
"There's nobody here, Lay. It's ours if we want it."
"Do we want it? Can we do anything about the smell?"
"I think so." He nodded and looked around. "Obviously we can cover the windows. And there's a lot of other work to be done. Our biggest problem would be the Marauders."
"Right." Layla's nose was getting used to the odor. "What did you find? Anything good?"
"Yeah, I think so. Come with me."
From their starting point at the place where the garage let them into the house, Chris led them on an easterly path.
"This was the dining room," he waved, "and this was the kitchen. Through here, the little Central Command unit." He showed her some flat metal boxes that were rusting, but still stuck on the wall.
"Then through here, another little stink room. Wait a minute." Chris pushed down one eyebrow, as he did when he was concentrating on a puzzle. "Something isn't right."
Layla waited patiently. She liked him when he was like this. His ability to figure things out had kept them alive.
Chris turned and retraced his footsteps. "There should be something else here..."
He stepped into an alcove, a closet he had told her these were called, and pushed. Nothing happened. Pulling on the shelves yielded no results either. He ran his fingers along one inner corner, then another.
"Hah!" he exclaimed, and pushed in a different place. To Layla's amazement, the wall swung back.
Chris looked over his shoulder and smirked. "I knew there was a space unaccounted for. Come on!"
He took a step and stumbled. "Be careful. The stairs lead down."
"Should I shut the door behind us?"
Chris considered briefly before he said, "Yes. If we have to I'm sure we'll find another way out."
Layla listened to his hands rubbing against the wall as he felt his way down into the darkness. His footfalls proceeded at a temperate pace: one, two, three...
The door had a little knothole near one edge, just big enough for a couple of fingers. The design made inherent sense. She used the leverage to pull the door shut behind her. She grimaced, strained her hearing as hard as she could, and followed.
Near the base of the stairs, Layla thought at first her eyes were playing tricks on her, for she imagined dim rays of light. Automatically she went into still-mode and controlled her breathing to the slowest, most silent motion she could manage. Chris was doing the same.
After a few moments of stillness, during which they both listened as hard as they could, he lifted one hand, a pale flash of skin in the dim. This time the sign language was different: follow me.
Layla watched where he walked, stepped where he stepped. Her eyes adjusted to the weak light. It came from a dotted line perimeter around the ceiling. The walls were very high, greater than twice the height of a man. The dots of light were wide apart. Layla counted nine of them, including the one over the foot of the stairs.
This room appeared ... clean. Layla looked around in surprise. Shelves held orderly rows of objects. It was too dim to see exactly what they were. The walls were plain, except for some squarish decorations that looked intentional. The only vegetation was a single vine creeping in through one of the corner dots in the ceiling. The floor wasn't covered with garbage.
It was the strangest place she had ever seen.
Chris turned a palm in her direction: Stop. Layla stayed put as he slowly turned a doorknob and eyed the space beyond. He slipped through and was gone for several moments.
Then he reappeared. Layla had never seen him look so happy.
"Tools! Layla, new tools! "
"Oh, my god, you're kidding!!" Her mouth fell open in shock.
He grabbed her hand and pulled her into the next room. Layla clapped a hand to her mouth. "Oh my god!"
The ceiling-dots in this room were brighter; it was easier to see. Stuffed inside layers of plastic were tools large and small of every description. There seemed to be one of everything: a shovel, a rake, a scythe, and others whose purpose was not immediately apparent.
Layla ran across the unobstructed floor to the shelves. With a look of wonder and delight, she touched the dusty packages. She held up a new pair of scissors. "Look!"
Chris was lifting even smaller parcels out of a bin. "Look at this!"
She stepped over to see what he was holding. It was a shiny thing, not as big as her little finger.
"Give me your hand," he said. He twisted the top of the shiny thing. Now it made a kind of vee shape. Layla eyed the silver bird mistrustfully.
"Don't worry, I'm not going to hurt you." His smile was reassuring. Gently but firmly he moved her hand so the tip of her fingernail was in the mouth of the object. There was a loud click as he squeezed the tips of the vee toward each other.
"Oooh!" Layla yanked her hand back as her fingernail dropped to the floor. She looked at Chris for explanation.
"It's a fingernail clippers." He demonstrated on his own hand, clumsily at first, then with increasing skill. "See, if you trim them before they break, they hurt less. This works better than a knife."
"Do mine!" she demanded.
They sat on the floor and played with the new toy until all of their fingernails were trimmed to the quick.
"It feels funny." Layla rubbed the newly exposed fingertips. "I wonder if we could do our toes, too?"
"We need a bigger tool for that. I bet there's one here. But come on, now, let's fix the lights before we do anything else."
"Look at the height of the ceiling." Chris pointed. "See? The only way this makes sense is if the roof is under the ground, not under the house."
The young woman thought for a second, puzzling it out. "So...?"
"So that means if we find the same place, outside, the light source has to be there. I can't imagine this place has electric power."
"Okay." Layla shrugged and followed him back up the stairs.
At the top of the steps, they held still and listened again, although it was becoming increasingly apparent that the place was deserted. Chris pushed open the door and took point. There was no sign of human life, so they went back the way they came.
Once outside, they made their way around to the back of the house. Part of it sat up on a little hill. He paced, one eyebrow pushed down, while Layla watched and waited.
"Here." Her companion knelt and pushed aside some dead leaves. A hard round thing was underneath. It looked like the back of a turtle, only without color.
"Hmmm." Layla nodded. "So there must be some kind of tube that leads down."
"And probably mirrors," Chris agreed. He lifted an index finger and tipped it ninety degrees. Layla followed the point and found the next dot. She cleaned it off and set about finding the rest, glancing at Chris occasionally for direction.
It was obvious why some of the light-dots were clearer than the others: the dimmer ones were down the hill, where debris had followed gravity's command. Further still down the slope, Layla heard a familiar sound.
She got Chris' attention and waved him over excitedly.
"What is it?" he asked.
She just looked at him and grinned. Under the birdcalls and the breeze, the sound of a running stream carried clearly.
Chris grabbed Layla's arms, and she his. They hugged each other and danced to the ground.
"Oh, Chris. Water."
He held her and rolled his face against her neck. "Is this heaven, or is this Iowa?"
She pulled back and looked at him, confused. "What?"
"Nothing," he chuckled. "My grandmother used to say that whenever she was really happy. I don't really know what it means."
* * *
Not everything in the basement was treasure. Someone had preserved food, or tried to; there were apples, peaches, corn, and many sweets. The glass jars were still intact, but the metal lids were corroded. It was a shame to throw away the maker's good intentions.
There were books, too, but these fell apart so easily, the two decided to leave them mostly alone. Besides, only Chris could read. Once in a while they treated themselves to a story; he would read aloud to her, making up the parts where he didn't know the words.
In the tool room there was one place which Chris warned her very carefully to avoid.
"Hold out your hands."
Ever obedient, she stuck them out. He laid a heavy object in her grasp.
"What is it?"
"It's called a chainsaw. It does the work of ten men."
"Why don't you use it?"
"Look, see this?" He took the thing away from her and placed it back on the shelf. Now he was pointing to a boxy red thing with a yellow nozzle.
Layla nodded. "It's a box."
Chris shook his head. "No. It's gas. It's what makes the chainsaw go."
"So what?" She failed to see the point.
"Layla, listen. This is important. People will do anything for this stuff. They will kill for it. No matter what happens, no matter who ever comes here, no one must ever know it's here. If they find out, any chance we have to live here is over with. Okay? Understand?"
"Okay, Chris." Layla trusted him completely. "But why don't we just get rid of it?"
"We can't. It's poison."
The discussion was over. It was just as well; the chainsaw and the gas made Layla uneasy. She wanted to get away from the damned things.
"I found something else!" she brightened.
The smile returned to his face. "What?"
She dragged him over to a spot near the books. "It's a funny kind of paper."
He took the clear plastic block from her hands and turned it over with awe. Whoever had lived here had wanted to be very sure that the encased paper would be preserved. It was big, about the size of two large books side by side.
"Can you read it?" she asked eagerly.
"I'm sorry, Lay. No, most of it, I can't." He pointed near the top. "This is the word 'ninth.' This must be page nine of something. Maybe we'll find the other pages."
He ran his fingers over the smooth surface, following the long horizontal lines. They marched in groups of five, like wires strung on poles. Little dots and sticks decorated the lines. Repeated symbols curled down the left side at the start of each bar.
His eye fell upon the name at the top left. "Beth. No, Beeth. Oh! I know what this is." He grinned at her. "It's music."
"That's weird, why isn't music written down like words?"
"I don't know, that's just the way they used to do it."
It took several days to drag the muck out of the first floor of the house. Under Chris' direction, they decided to pile it a five-minute walk in the opposite direction of the stream. Undoubtedly it would take months to disassemble the garbage that squatters and looters had left behind. Anything of value would be cleaned and utilized, or stored. Everything else, which would probably be most of it, would be broken down as finely as possible to give back to the earth.
The stink-rooms weren't bad to deal with. At first Chris tried to explain to Layla the concept of sewage lines and pumps, but she could not picture what he was trying to describe. The notion of digging special tunnels for waste did not make sense in her mind. Waste was for making plants grow. Why separate it off? At last he simply enlisted her help in filling in the stink-holes with dirt. And the toilet in the room with the skylight became a planter.
There was plenty to eat in the overgrown garden. Layla's greatest skill lay in tending plants. She was delighted to discover a wide variety of plants gone to seed: potatoes, lambs' ears, daylilies, onions, and more. Within a few weeks she had set up a larder in the basement. Braided bulbs hung over shelves of tubers. Using the marvelous tools they found, Chris built a rack so she could dry herbs. Every day Layla was thankful for the blessing of the house.
Chris also built some small animal traps, and some nights they feasted on squirrels and rabbits. They hauled stones up from the river bank and built a fire pit. Chris used the scythe and the loppers to clear a space for it.
One night as they lay under the stars, Layla said, "I've been thinking about something."
It was unusual for her to have an independent idea.
"I've been thinking about ... not taking my tea anymore."
She kept staring up at the inky sky, not at his face. It was as if she didn't want to see his reaction.
Chris studied her profile. "Do you want to make a baby?"
She rolled to her side and looked at him. "Is it safe now?"
"As safe as it will ever be." His eyes glimmered into hers.
"Oh, Chris. Really? Can we?"
His mouth fell to hers in a no-holds-barred kiss. "We can try."
They made love in the moonlight, naked as Adam and Eve. A new hunger infused their desire. Though the weather was growing chill, they coupled with only the sky above them and the earth below. Chris laid his lips to the place where the baby would come, mouthing his woman into ecstasy before he mounted her.
"I love you, Layla."
"I love you, Chris."
He rode her with his eyes on hers, telling her with his body and soul. Then he rolled them both over and held her aloft.
"I feel your heartbeat inside me," she whispered.
Chris looked up at her, dazzled by the sight of her breasts silhouetted against the constellations. Her face was radiant. It was as if he'd never seen her before. Layla who followed, Layla who was younger than he. Layla who knew nothing of the old ways, the magic and luxuries the previous generations had enjoyed. Now she would bear his child.
Drunk with desire, he imagined her a queen, a mother to a new race. He planted his seed in her belly with a groan. Immediately she rolled to her back and lifted her knees. Chris knelt before her, as a man worshipping a goddess, and lifted her hindquarters. They held the pose as long as they could, hoping his sperm would mate with her egg.
It didn't take much practice; Layla's next blood-time never came, but the morning sickness did. Chris was very careful with her. He worked twice as hard to provide every comfort he could, and stayed her hand from any heavy lifting.
For the second time in their relationship, he consulted her regarding a major decision.
"Winter will come calling," Chris announced. "We have two choices. We can travel south, so you can have the baby in a warmer climate, or we can stay here, so you don't have to travel."