Dust billows as I kick in the old window. I finish knocking out the rest of the broken shards before pushing my goggles up onto my forehead and peering inside. The interior is masked by an almost solid gloom, accompanied by the thick odour of decay.
I swallow dryly and glance behind me at the ruined street. Nothing moves within the crumbling buildings except a few crows. The wind whistles forlornly through gaps like broken teeth.
"C'mon, Bess," I whisper.
She hunches beside me, snuffling loudly, fur bristled. Together, we make quite the salvage team. Me: a way-too-skinny teenager wearing half an op-shop's worth of mismatched clothing, tools and other junk. Her: a scraggly blackish-brown mutt of indeterminable breed. She might even be part possum. It wouldn't surprise me.
"Smell anything?" I ask.
Bess plops her butt on the ground and gives me a doggy grin, tongue lolling out.
I sigh and scruffle a hand over her head. "Idiot."
With a deep breath, I turn back to the window, giving it my full attention. I can't keep stalling. Pushing my face into the darkness, I wait for my eyes to adjust. Huge rectangular shelves come into view below, barely lit by the light filtering through the street-level windows. I worry for a few seconds that the huge room might have flooded, having been built so low into the ground, but then the floor emerges from the darkness, dirty but still dry.
"Well, looks like we're going in," I mutter.
Holding onto my various bits of gear to keep it from snagging, I crawl through the opening into the ancient library. Inside, the top of one of the shelves acts as a ledge alongside the windows, about two metres from the floor. I crouch there, listening intently. Satisfied with the silence, I drop down.
A collection of desks and chairs stand a little ways off. Ears pricked and eyes searching, I make my way over. I wish my heart would stop jerking around so much. There are signs someone has been here, although I can't tell how long ago. Books have tumbled to the floor in a few places, their pages splotchy and mouldered. No footprints, though.
As quietly as I can, I pull one of the desks and some chairs over to the side of the room. With them, I build a makeshift staircase so Bess can get down as well. She follows me without any trouble and immediately sets to sniffing everything in sight.
"Oi, stay close, girl," I hiss at her, pulling around my rifle.
I keep my finger on the trigger and the safety off as we move off through the dilapidated bookshelves. Although I hate to say it, it's quiet – too quiet. There should be rats or something, but the place seems empty. I consider turning back but the hollowness in my stomach reminds me of why I'm there. If I don't find something valuable, I don't get to eat.
Bess sneezes on the dust, sending a jolt through my nerves. I grit my teeth.
She doesn't really listen but we continue our sweep, stepping between the streams of light from the windows. It's weak and grey, swirling with motes of dust and probably several dozen species of mould spores, but it gives me the courage to keep going. You'd think I might have gotten used to the darkness after all these years, but I haven't. I still remember when things were bright.
I was eight when they blew up the world.
All I can really remember is the blaring sirens, the air filled with smoke and running, running, running. After we made it out of the city, I missed the noise. The silence that came after was somehow more terrifying.