She stepped over the debris, intently searching for anything that might be of use. These ruins had been hard hit by the last NERS blast, the electromagnetic beam clearing Growlers and destroying most organic material. It had been almost untouched since it cooled.
Bad for the previous tenants, good for us.
Happy faces stared out of grimy picture glass, but she didn't look at them. She'd learned it was easier to never acknowledge the photos. Snapshots and portraits of how wonderful everything had been before was worse than any mangled corpse. Blood and trauma were the new paradigm.
The previous family had tried to outrun the Growlers. Their belongings were tossed thoughtlessly around, anything non-essential left behind. She didn't see any ash, so it was possible they'd made it out before the Growlers or NERS got them.
She nudged at the piles of clothes, damning them for not having anything immediately useful. Tee shirts and half-melted polyester were of little use to her. She had some leeway as the newest picker, but that didn't mean she could always come up empty-handed. A leather jacket would be good. Sewing needles even better. A first aid kit would be a big score.
Even though the electromagnetic resonances had cooled only a few days ago, claimers had already moved in. The big bulk of goods were gone; canned food and medical supplies left in the open were scooped up and taken to the markets. Claimers were speedy, in and out, so they missed anything that wasn't obvious.
Pickers came next, taking more time to sort through the wreckage of the old world. They never went in close to the heat, so never found food, but the markets were dependent on the smaller items they found. Pickers might not find food very often, but they did a sight better than the scavengers. Pickers were never desperate like the scavvers.
She pushed open a door into what had been a girl's bedroom. She ignored the posters of pop stars with their charred edges, the trophies, and the other signs of old life. She needed to find something to make it worth sorting through the whole room, and sooty paper wasn't going to help. Best not to see the remembrances that were eerily similar to her old life.
At least, she tried not to.
Evening light came through the shattered window, brighter than it had even been in the before. Growlers have at least put an end to the smog. The pinks and yellows of the room took on a dream-like quality, as if it had never been baked by a NERS beam. Dust motes danced, and there was a tranquility to the disarray that gave her pause.
Clothes and toys were everywhere. A chair lay on its side in the corner. The big mirror at the vanity had been cracked, but snapshots and keepsakes remained at the edges. It wasn't anything she hadn't seen a dozen times before while picking.
Yet she'd never seen something unbroken and beautiful before.
On the middle shelf of a pale yellow bookcase was a glass rose. It was perfectly shaped, gleaming in an evening sunbeam, each petal brightly detailed. The red of the petals was deep and rich, the green petals almost alive.
All around the rose was destruction; pieces of other knick knacks, soot, dust built up in the corners. There were even gouges in the drywall, a sure sign that Growlers had been through.
So how did the rose remain? She picked it up, awed by its delicate structure, and how very little it actually weighed. The slightest rap against something would have shattered it into a million pieces. The heat of the NERS should have at least warped it, done something to mar the worthless figurine.
A jagged piece of glass tempered by the electromagnetic resonances might have at least been turned into a shiv, or maybe a cooking utensil. The world was too harsh a place, too bent on survival, for anyone to have time for frivolity. If it couldn't be used, it didn't have a place.
But she couldn't turn away from it. She couldn't smash it, or put it back, or do anything but wonder at it as light played through its leaves. Holding it near the window, it seemed to glow in its heart, like it was a living thing.
Tears filled her eyes as she suddenly mourned the lost world. Survival had been everyone's way of dealing with the grief, with the pain of what had been destroyed. Trudge forward, never look at the remains, never think of the past. Keep moving, keep living, and never remember that it used to be better.
How many decades would pass before mankind could make beauty for beauty's sake again?