The day after the apocalypse, I read.
I find a bookshop, one of the only buildings that hasn't been destroyed by the blast. The door is locked, but the front window has a hole in it , and my shirt-wrapped fingers manage to break away enough of the splinters to create some sort of entrance. For the first time in my life, I am thankful for being small.
My hands are bleeding when I get inside. My shoulder is too - there's a sliver of glass buried in it too deep to dig out - and the gashes on my chest have opened up again, but there isn't much I can do about those. I don't want to bleed on the books, that's all.
I don't have any bandages, so I cut up the rest of my sleeves and wrap my fingers in the fabric: not perfect, but it will stop the worst of the staining. Then, I hunt.
It isn't a targeted pursuit - I'm after anything that's unburned, unbroken, and with all the pages intact - but somehow a pattern starts to emerge in the pile I make under the kneehole of the desk (animal instinct, I think, to look for a cave). Fantasy, mainly: Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, The Hobbit, twenty or so other books on other worlds by writers I've only ever heard of.
They last me two days.
I go hunting again, after that, and bring back an armful of classics and science fiction. It takes me longer to gather them - it hurts to bend down, and my shoulder is stiff and hot to the touch - but they don't last long enough, even when they've been re-read until the spines crack and the pages slither into the blood and ashes on the floor.
I count time on the inside of my cave, tallying it in fingertip-smears at eye-level on the wood opposite where I sit. First days, then (when the light dims to a uniform greyness), hours. I lose my balance on a foraging expedition and fall against one of the shelves, smashing the glass face of my watch into a million tiny fragments. When the hands fall off, I start to measure time in books.
And, when the words blur and the chapters merge into each other, I begin to measure it in heartbeats, tapped out between pages, thudding in my ears (a bass-beat backing to my ramblings), pounding in the blood that leaked from my shoulder and my side.
My arm is all-but-useless now, the fingers curled and cold against my chest. I move the hand to rest on the pages, using it as a bookmark.
My chest burns when I breathe. I want to stop - I try to, several times - but instinct overrides my efforts, and the gasps hurt more than the shallow inhale-exhale that laces with my heartbeat and gives me just enough oxygen to keep from passing out.
I talk, when I have enough air. To myself, at first - poems, quotes, snatches of song. Then, as the lines between the worlds blur, to the characters in the words I read. I ask them what they think of each other - are they friends, enemies, indifferent? I ask them to tell me about themselves, or their worlds, and listen as they describe a million places I have only caught the faintest glimpses of. They become my companions, keeping me tethered to this reality even as they wax lyrical about their own.
Sometimes, I hate them for it.
Time begins to slow down,chopped into ever-decreasing increments of pages and paragraphs. I lose my place more often, and find myself reading the same lines over and over, sounding out the words in a vain attempt to forge new links in a chain that crumbles to pieces beneath my stone-dead fingers. Even the letters themselves give me pause now and then, their shapes suddenly alien in my mouth, and the light slips off the paper, leaving me sitting in ever-increasing darkness.
I am running out of books.