Old Jacob was already out of his chair and shuffling towards the door by the time Mallory struck her tiny fist against the wood frame. He had spied her further down the drive, her right hand catching the base of the willow tree as she swung herself ‘round it, using the momentum to propel her into a sprint. Jacob’s bones ached watching it.

“Mister Jacob! I came for a book. Mom said I’m ready.” Jacob had expected her to hold up her fingers in a display of her age, like a child her age was wont to do, but she didn’t. Maybe he wasn’t as aware of how people acted at her age as he thought.

“C’mon in now. Let’s get you something worthwhile.” Pushing the wooden screen open enough for her to slip through, Jacob eyed the faded pink scar on her collar; the years had caused it to almost vanish into the starry whiteness of her young skin. “I see your mother has been putting the rosehip oil I gave her on your scar.”

“Yeah…” she peered up at him with eyes so intensely bronze they seemed to gleam and whisper of bullet casings. “But I told her that I don’t care about a scar. I like your scars. I liked mine too.” She swiped one finger gently across her collar as she lamented the fleeting mark. Jacob smiled down at her and ruffled her hair. Never one to flinch, she laughed and swatted his hand away. “Why didn’t you put the oil on your scars too, Mister Jacob? Did you not want them to fade either?” Without even thinking, his right hand had hovered towards the long, jagged fissure that ran from cheek to throat. It was one of many, but still the most visible and the most painful, when it had happened. Her puce eyes ran the same route as his finger as she awaited an answer.

“My scars were a little too deep and little too old for that. Besides,” he craned his back downwards so as to intimate the idea of a secret, “someone’s gotta look a little scary to keep the bad folks away, right?” She giggled modestly but the smile attached to it was touched by tempered acknowledgement. He straightened himself out and gestured towards the back of the house where his library stood. “Shall we?”

She fluttered quickly through the house, passing thru both dining room and kitchen without even a glance about her. There was still a rigid respect in her walk, it lacked the tampering motivations of most children. Still, it was a walk that Jacob would struggle to keep up with at his age and in his condition. Such was the task of youth, he supposed, to trudge on even when the old fell away behind them on the path.

Entering the room-turned-library full seconds before Old Jacob caught up, Mallory stood perfectly still and took in the almost obscene amount of books. Shelves had been built into the wall but those were long overrun and new fortifications (bookshelves made of objects as simple as bricks and two-by-fours) had been assembled in front of them, allowing just enough space to slip in between, should one need something from the original shelving. The set up resembled a literature labyrinth more than any common conception of a library. What had once been probably a guest bedroom or a child’s play area had become a living cathedral for the works that built a civilization Jacob could only faintly remember anymore. Unless he read, and so he continued to build onto his collection when the rare moment presented itself.

“Well, well, well…what on earth are we going to find for you today,” Jacob muttered, scanning the chamber for some idea of where to begin his hunt. Mostly alphabetized (mostly), his eyes seemed to only catch upon all of the wrong choices; The Divine Comedy was too difficult for a child of her age, Gaddis would be a massive bore, Gogol too would probably fail to ignite an interest for someone unfamiliar with not just Russian culture but the very idea of that great empire that existed decades ago. He saw Lolita next and shuddered at how her mother would interpret that, letting a quiet and dark chuckle pass his lips as he continued to gaze. Slowly lowering himself onto his ever-weakening knees, he had a feeling that whatever he was looking for was likely on a low shelf, an intimation that was rooted in nothing in particular.

Mallory’s hands skipped across the rows of novels as she patiently paced the timeworn and noisy floorboards. The same hand that had gripped the willow bark, Jacob noted to himself, praying that the healing properties transferred to the worn and weathered books, extending their influence and mere existence to what generations would hopefully come after both of them. The uselessness of the orison mattered not; Jacob knew every little morsel of care helped keep the memory alive.

“Robby Shue found a metal hawk landed in the creek yesterday,” Mallory proclaimed in a matter-of-fact way. Jacob’s ears perked up at the mention of a crashed drone, his hand hesitating on a copy of Salinger. “Too obvious a choice,” he thought to himself before turning his head to acknowledge her statement.

“Hasn’t been one of those ‘round here in awhile, eh?”

“Not since I was six and Papa found one in the tomato field. All the men got to that one first, though, and I only ever saw it when they were putting it on Jackson’s trailer, before they put the tarp over it,” unfulfilled and bitter curiosity rang through her words but were quickly diminished by her bright return to the present tense. “The one Robby found I got to look at though because we didn’t tell the grownups until we had chance to poke at it.”

Jacob tried to play the stern adult for a moment and chided her for approaching such a potential danger, but the fact was that it had been several years since their people had suffered a loss under those sky predators and the last thing he wanted was to dampen Mallory’s intrigue for the wider world. Such attitudes built the very foundation that he had here before him, ink coursing like blood through their paper ventricles. He harnessed that same will and pried for more info, certain that he would hear a more sobering and ominous version when he trudged to the village center for his stew and smoke in the evening.

“Do you know where it was from? Did it have any stars on it? Stripes, too perhaps?”

“That’s the part I wanted to tell you about!” she replied, her eyes level with his crouched position, burning with copper vibrancy. “It had a flag on it like the one in the book you and Mom and Papa were lookin’ at during the planting fair!” Old Jacob nodded kindly at her words but inside he was filled with a puzzling amount of uncertainty. The flag meant it was an American drone, which meant the Eastern coastal cities still stood, or at least some of them, which was radically contrary to what the last group of Wanderers had implied. Or possibly it was a hijacked vessel. He took a moment to simply be thankful that all Mallory knew of the older times was a scar she couldn’t remember ever not having.

“Well I’m certainly glad that mean old hawk didn’t hurt you. You shouldn’t have gotten so close without the adults around, or at least Papa,” she appeared to be scrutinizing the shelf in front of her but Jacob caught a quick eye-roll, despite his own poor vision. He smiled at her and added a bit of reassurance. “I’m glad you got a chance to see one though. They were pretty scary back in my day.” At this, her mood caught back up to its former brightness.

“Is that how you got your face scar?”

“Sort of. That was a dangerous time. But it’s over, I think,” he again smiled at her, showing his teeth. Mallory blushed and then stared at his hand and the book it had rested upon. He followed her lead and found he had unintentionally stopped upon The Growth of the Soil. Exactly what he had been looking for, he only now realized. He pulled it from its place and used his other hand to assist in lifting his increasingly heavy body off of the floor. Feeling flooded back into his knees as he held the book outward. She regarded it pensively.

“Why this one?”

“Because it was my favorite when I was about your age, maybe a little older; I wasn’t quite as sharp as you,” he paused as she gently took it from his hand, both of hers clasped around its edges carefully, her youth correctly interpreting the object as more valuable than the shiniest coin. “It’ll also remind you that what we do…the planting, the sowing, the feeding of the goats and cows…is much more real than any metal hawk or walled city.”

“The metal hawk was real! I saw it!” she retorted, defending her honor at Jacob’s implied dismissal. He chortled and waved his hand lazily.

“I know it is, dear. I’m talking about a different kind of ‘real.’ I mean what God intended when he first walked around the Earth with his spade and his rifle and all his good books.” This answer seemed to confuse her but he could see it resonate through her face. She would think upon it later, as she tried to fall asleep. Jacob remembered himself doing the same, back in the old world, the old life, before the calls of the animals and the sounds of the wind through the trees filled the twilight. Back when it was only sirens and angry, hoarse voices. “Run on back to your Mom now; evening is coming and Old Jacob would like to go have himself some dinner,” he said, ushering her out of the library and towards the front of the house.

“Mom’s already in the center, helping Anna and Janelle with the sheep. Can we walk there together?” He nodded and reached first for his rifle, slinging it over his back, and then his walking stick.

“Of course we can, dear. But you’ll have to walk slow if you don’t want to leave me behind.”