Everything would be over at midnight. The parties were winding down, the shops were empty, the people who just couldn’t wait were lying in the gutters. There had been a pervasive miasma of alcohol, sweat, and vomit all over downtown for the last week, and Richie was reminded of that when a stray breeze blew across Peachtree Street and almost straight into his sinuses. Like with everything else that had happened that day, a little voice in his head piped up and said “That’s the last time you’ll ever smell that.” Like with everything else that had happened, he ignored it.
He could hear drunks in the street, occasional sirens, a random sound of maybe a cat rummaging through the garbage. Pets had taken over the city; people who knew they didn’t have more than a few days left on the planet apparently didn’t care about making sure Rover or Boxy or Colonel Kittypants was comfortable. That still offended him a little, but he had other things on his mind.
The front doors of the Central Fulton County Library had long since been shattered, probably during the early days of the riots before everyone realised there was nothing anyone could do about it and everyone… and everyone was damn near a literal description… shifted into drunk orgy mode. Richie had walked past three couples, a triple, and some permutation he’d never seen out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting, just in the last block. He’d been invited and propositioned in more ways than he could count. And if he was being perfectly honest with himself, he might have considered it a couple of days ago. But now, he only had an hour left, and he knew exactly whom he wanted to spend it with.
The third floor, general collections, was mostly untouched. Some of the computers had been ripped out, but by the time the looters got to the library, everyone had figured out that they couldn’t take anything with them to Heaven, Hell, or Detroit, wherever they wound up. He angled his flashlight off to the right, but not too far. Regardless of what was going on, he didn’t want to step on anything like broken glass or a book that someone had knocked off a shelf. Especially not the latter.
The card catalog had of course been moved to the cloud and was therefore completely useless, but that didn’t matter. He’d long since memorized the number that he was looking for. 821.17. And even before he learned that everything was going to blow up, he would have been able to find this shelf in the dark. Faced with a half hour left on the planet, there was only one thing that he wanted to do. And he had nothing else on his mind until he turned the corner and pointed his flashlight right into a woman’s face.
She was sitting crosslegged, across from the shelf he needed to go to, and had a camper’s flashlight strapped to her forehead. To her credit, once she blinked a few times, she adjusted to the new lighting and looked back down at her book. She kept at least part of an eye on him, though, something he did when he was reading in public and was worried someone might start talking to him. He really didn’t want to interrupt her reading, but he didn’t think there was anything else he could say in this situation.
“I’m Richie,” he said.
He slid over to the 820s and ran his light along the spines.
“I didn’t think anyone else would be doing this. It just seemed like too good an idea.”
“There’s no better one.”
“What are you reading?”
He turned around, careful not to point the light directly in her face. “Me, too. At least, that’s what I came here for.”
“Good choice,” she said.
“I’m looking for the original, though. The Middle English version.”
“They only have one copy,” she said, and held up her thick brown tome.
He walked across the aisle and crouched down next to her. Something crashed outside but neither of them jumped. Things had been crashing for weeks, and it it was ‘the big crash’ neither of them would have time to think about it, anyway.
“And no, you can’t read it when I’m done, either,” she said, and smiled at him.
“I’ve always liked the original,” he said. “It was a little tricky when I first tried to read it. Okay, a lot tricky. But…”
“…it’s part of English heritage. It’s like reading the DNA of our language.”
He looked at her, amazed. “Exactly. And what better way to spend the last hours of the English language than reading the first hours?”
She looked up at him. She was smiling, but there was something else in her eyes as well.
“Which one were you going to read?”
“‘The Pardoner’s Tale,’ probably. It was a toss-up between that and the Prologue. You?”
“‘The Miller’s Tale.'”
“That one? That’s nothing but a long medieval fart joke.”
“Oh, kiss my nether eye, okay? I like it.”
“Well, maybe I can just read one of the translations, then.” He was almost standing up again when he heard the most horrifying, godawful ripping noise. Then she handed him the first half of the book.
“I can’t believe you did that,” he said. “You… ripped a book?”
“I’ll buy them a new one tomorrow,” she said. “Anyway, this kind of literature was meant to be shared.”
He stretched out one hand and gingerly took the book fragment. She did have a point. And there were many worse things one could do at the end of the world.
He sat down next to her and leaned against the shelf. Without saying anything, she leaned against his shoulder so her camper’s light was pointing at their book. After he set the flashlight down, he took her hand and settled back and waited for the end of the end.