The clouds were catching on the pointed tips of the skyscrapers like stray threads on a cotton sweater. A light drizzle spilled from the tears. They weren’t supposed to be here, and that’s what made it exciting. They were explorers, rediscovering ancient secrets and pocketing old-world treasures. Mikey found a little black rock—a pebble, really—with white writing on it: the number 2 and a funny-looking lowercase a with a circle around it. “Hey Ronnie, check this out.”
His older brother backtracked a bit, Mikey having fallen a little behind, as usual. Always had his head in the clouds, his mom often said. “Look.” Mikey held out his palm holding the strange square pebble. “What is it?”
Ronnie plucked it out of his hand with his thumb and forefinger, examining it carefully with one eye closed. At last he nodded. “Mine,” he said. “I’ve got a few of these already. Never saw one with a number though. If I find any duplicates I’ll give ’em to you, okay?”
That was fine with Mikey. He was just glad to help.
“Try to keep up,” said Ronnie. “Mom’ll kill me if I lose you.”
Mikey had heard this one before. “And if she kills you, you’ll haunt me every night and put the wind in my face when I pee,” he finished.
“That’s right. Now c’mon.” Ronnie turned and caught back up with his friends. Mikey kept up for a minute, but soon enough was behind again. He was trying to imagine what it was like to live here, in the before. What did they all eat? The ground was all stone; nowhere to grow tomatoes. You can’t eat just eggs—Mikey had asked once before on his own account and been roundly shot down. And besides, what would the hens eat? Maybe Ronnie would know.
Mikey wasn’t the only one who revered his brother. Ronnie was the oldest of the group, and the only one born in the before. Probably too little to remember much, but he was the expert anyway. The grownups just wouldn’t talk about it.
“Psst. Hey, kid!”
Mikey spun around. Ronnie and his friends were gone, but from the shadows within one of the buildings, out of the rain, was a man. Mikey had never seen anyone from outside the settlement before, though he’d supposed they were out there. “Who are you?” he asked.
The man licked his lips and asked, “Where’s your friends?” He stepped a little closer, and Mikey saw a jagged scar across his face. He was missing an eye. Mikey’s heart began to pound.
“Real close,” he squeaked, and then took off running. “Ronnie!” he called, and he heard footfalls behind him. More than one set. “Ronnie!”