Three minutes before he was stabbed, Hanif checked his compass and then stood to pray. He had searched the dusty broken remnants of the gas station, both inside and out. He checked the washroom, storage room, behind the counter, even inside the mouldy, flooded ice box for good measure. When he deemed it safe, he dropped his backpack, took out his ragged old prayer mat—a doormat with the words “welcome” raised up on it—and lay it on the dusty, refuse-littered floor beneath him. He paused for a moment, tuning into the silence around him. When he was satisfied, he raised his hands up beside his head and said “Allahu Akbar.”
But as he was kneeling from the first set of prostrations, the knife went through his left shoulder blade, and he realized he had forgotten to check the roof.
“Got ‘im!” someone behind him shouted, and tried to push him to the ground. Hanif planted one foot in front of him and sprung backward. He shot his head back, cracking against the attacker’s face. The two of them crashed into a shelf. Hanif pulled his knife out of his pocket, turned, and thrust it into the throat of his attacker—the young man had a surprised look on his gaunt, youthful face. Hanif jerked the knife to the side before pulling it out, ensuring the artery was severed and the man’s death would be quick.
He turned. An empty coffee pot was flying his way. He raised his arm and the pot shattered against it. Fragments of glass burrowed into his arm. A man with a red bandana rushed toward him, a hammer raised in his hand. Arms wrapped around Hanif from behind, holding him in place. Hanif dug the knife into the knee of the person behind him. He cut off the man’s screaming with an elbow to the face.
The hammer swung down. Hanif dove into the man with the red bandana. The hammer pounded against his back—just below where the knife was still lodged. Hanif drove the man backward into the row of glass doors in the beverage section and slammed his head through one of the long panes of glass, impaling his neck on the shards. He twitched and gurgled and then was still.
Hanif breathed. Breathing hurt.
He turned away from the twitching body and walked towards the husky man who was swearing and crawling backwards from him. The man’s khakis had two dark splotches on them: one where Hanif drove his knife in, and another one further up, near the middle.
“Please, man, please oh God, man, don’t kill me,” he pleaded.
Hanif knelt down and grabbed the man’s leg. The man was frozen silent.
“I missed the artery,” Hanif said. “A few more inches over and you would have bled out.”
“So… so I’m gonna be ok then? I’m not gonna die?” the man’s voice wobbled. Hanif saw the man’s hand resting on a piece of glass. Then slowly gripping it.
“Astaghfirullah,” Hanif said. The man paused again.
“What, what’s that mean?”
Hanif thrust the knife into the man’s thick throat.
“God forgive me. I should have killed you quicker.”
Hanif stayed with the man until his wide, fearful eyes rolled up, following his soul as the Angel of Death took it away.
Then he stood up, knife still in his back, and finished his prayers.
Hanif continued down the road from the gas station, along the outskirts of a city whose buildings looked like bony fingers clawing out of the ground. The gas station had no disinfectant or anything to bandage the wound up with, and so the knife remained in his back. He knew better than to pull it out and risk blood loss or infection.
In the distance he saw a large circular building with what looked like a giant hut on top: the letters ASINO somehow remained standing along the archway, though the C had been stolen long ago.
The sun was setting and this was the nearest place Hanif felt he would be safe for the night—and where he could safely remove the knife sticking out of his back. Going into the city was never an option; he knew better than to go into the cities.
Knife in hand, Hanif pushed open the revolving door. His back throbbed and stung as the blade shifted around beneath his muscle. Dirty sunlight spilled in from the humongous bay windows. The furniture in the lobby was torn, broken, burned. Pieces of the ceiling had collapsed long ago, and the floor was slippery with trash and mould. Hanif stood in the silence for a moment, focusing his ears on any creak, squeak or breath that was not his own. After 5 minutes he was satisfied, and Hanif quietly walked behind the receptionist counter and rummaged through the drawers. There were pens, pins, tacs, and a pad of blue sticky notes with the words “Chad – Tues. – Rooftop” written on the top note. Hanif searched through the other drawers and cabinets and only found a dusty microfiber cloth behind an old computer. He grabbed it and then walked out onto the main floor of the casino. It was dark, windowless, and strewn with savaged slot machines, broken chairs, and burned tables. Occasionally there was a skeleton, and some others in more recent stages of decay. Obviously recent—anyone in the Casino when the Cataclysms began would have rushed out immediately. Hanif gripped his knife.
Hanif walked over the garbage and broken machines until he found the bar, a small island in the middle of the wreckage that, somehow, still had a single black stool standing in front of it. All of the alcohol was gone, having been swiped over a century’s worth of looters. Not that Hanif would have drunk anyway, but it would have made for a decent disinfectant. Instead, he checked under the counter and smiled.
“God is Great,” he said, holding up a single packet of salt, the last one he could see in the bar.
Loud footsteps crunched in the darkness. Hanif hid behind the bar and listened. A horrible, barking cry snapped through the air and then stopped. A few seconds later, it began walking again in a broken, uneven pattern. Hanif’s blood ran cold: it was a Wretch.
He peered over the bar: he could see its silhouette as it walked in through the main entrance, the faint light from the lobby behind it. It looked uneven, the left leg bloated and distended, making the rest of the body lean to the right. The top half of the once-human head was missing, leaving only a lower jaw that twitched as it searched.
Hanif weighed his options: escape, and survive the night outside, or…
Hanif picked up a chunk of wood near his feet and threw it off into another corner. The creature let out a dry scream and its shuffled, uneven walk picked up pace. It began to crawl, making a strange groaning noise as it searched.
Hanif snuck out from behind the bar and into a nearby row of slot machines. He leaned his back against one and tested it; it was heavy.
Bismillah, oh God please let this work or give me a good death.
Hanif grabbed the metal leg of a chair that lay beside him and started banging on the slot machine. The knife in his shoulder irritated him, but he knew he didn’t need to do it for long.Immediately the Wretch let out a cry and began to run towards Hanif, barking continuously as it navigated the maze of slot machines.
Hanif could barely see in the darkness, even though his eyes had adjusted to it. The Wretch was at an advantage then. The parasite had eaten away at its host’s head long ago, and now relied on echolocation for guidance.
It came out between a gap in the slot machines, just to Hanif’s right. Hanif had stopped banging on the slot machine just moments prior.
The creature froze. It began to crawl again, making the same groaning noise as earlier. Hanif slowly crept around to the other side of the slot machine.
Silently, Hanif began reciting his statement of faith.
I bear witness that there is only One God and Muhammad is His Messenger.
A can crumpled under his foot.
The Wretch screamed and Hanif threw his weight into the slot machine without a thought. The knife in his back caused pain to scream through his muscles but he ignored it. For a fraction of a second Hanif felt the weight of the slot machine push back, most likely from the weight of the tokens inside.
The creature started to come around the side of the machine.
Hanif gave it one last push and gravity did the rest. The slot machine tipped over with a loud crash accompanied by broken glass and the jingle of tokens.
The angered scream of the Wretch echoed and Hanif braced himself, unsure if his plan had worked. He began reciting his statement of faith out loud.
Amazingly, he was alive.
He looked and saw the Wretch pinned under the wreckage of the slot machine, its twisted arms clawing at the air and the remains of its head flailing wildly.
Hanif breathed out and thanked God.
“Alhamdulilah,” he said, followed by a rush of euphoria.
The Wretch twisted and with a wet crack separated the top half of its torso from its pinned body.
Hanif stumbled back and fell into another slot machine as it began clawing its way towards him. He felt the knife push a little futher in.
The Wretch’s skin was black and oily, marbled with normal patches of pink skin that had not yet been infected. The black parts rippled with the undulations of thousands of tiny cilia, eager to begin digesting their meal. And at the base of the neck, Hanif could see the black mound of flesh that hid the parasite that started this hideous transformation.
Hanif rolled to the side, grabbed the slot machine and tipped it over. It crashed down on the top half of the Wretch, leaving only a twitching arm hanging out the side that failed wildly and then was still.
Hanif collapsed to the ground, his legs shaking. It was only then that he realized there may be more than one. He paused and listened, praying under his breath.
Nothing else moved.
He breathed a sigh of relief, got up and got up and trudged through garbage to the washroom. Once inside he pulled his canteen out of his backpack. He soaked the microfiber cloth then rubbed salt into it. Looking in the mirror, he gingerly rubbed the cloth around the knife, soaking up the blood that was seeping out of the wound.
And behind his reflection, someone was there.
“If you move, you’re dead,” she said.
She was short, probably no taller than Hanif’s elbow. Her face had a natural roundness that made it impossible to determine how old she was. It was her eyes and hair that Hanif took note of most. Her eyes were small and slanted, with pupils so dark they appeared black; her hair was similarly black, and she seemed to refuse to let it grow past her jawline, judging by the choppy, unkempt ends.
She was aiming a pistol at him.
“You got about five seconds to tell me what you’re doing here,” she demanded.
Hanif tilted his head towards his handle of the knife.
“Perhaps you noticed the knife sticking out of my back.”
“I noticed.” she said, then stiffened her composure. “What’s the deal with the salt?”
“Disinfectant. Perhaps you can help.”
“Why would I want to help you?”
Hanif huffed and rolled his eyes.
“Look, do what you want. If you shoot me then that’s the end of it, if you let me live I’ll be out of here by the morning. Either way I have a knife sticking out of my back and I really want to get it out.”
The girl was silent.
“Normally I shoot old, grungy bearded men rummaging through my stuff,” she lowered her gun. “But I got the gun here, so I guess I have an advantage.”
“Good,” Hanifsaid. “Do you have any spare towels, cloth, bandages around?”
“I got paper towel.”
“That’ll have to do.”
The girl took a jerky half step away before pausing for a moment.
“My name’s Quin. Quin Choi.”
“Pleasure, Quin. Hanif.”
“Well, Dr. Abdurahman Hanif Zaid if you’re feeling cordial. But Hanif is just fine.”
“Cordial. When you’re being extremely polite and proper. That’s cordial.”
“Right. Cordial.” Quin stepped forward and held out her hand. “Nice to meet you, Hanif.”
Hanif place a hand on his chest.
“Likewise, Quin. You’ll have to forgive me, I don’t touch women I’m not related to.”
Hanif knew the ruling applied mature women, and this girl seemed anything but. However, he felt it would help gain trust between them. Quin shrugged and dropped her hand.
“Well, I guess I don’t have to worry about you raping me, then,” she said, and walked out of the bathroom. She returned a short time later, a roll of yellowy paper towel still in its plastic coating. Hanif was trying to reach the handle of the knife, but it was just out of his reach.
“I’ll need your help,” he said. “You’ll have to pull the knife out as quickly as you can, then press the paper towel against the wound as hard as you can. Soak it in salt water first.”
“I thought I wasn’t allowed to touch you.”
“It’s kind of a necessity. God is merciful when it comes to necessities.”
Quin opened the paper towel, soaked a giant wad of it in salt water, then hopped up on the counter Hanif was sitting on. She gripped the handle.
“Bismillah,” she heard him say under his breath. He breathed deep for a moment. “Go.”
The fire spat and cracked inside the roulette wheel. Hanif kept his back pressed against a pillar as he examined the knife. His shoulder throbbed. Across from him, Quin sat close to the fire, roasting a centisquirrel she had caught. When it had cooked, she twisted it in half and tossed the rear end to Hanif.
“Just being cordial,” she said, breaking off one of the creature’s six legs.
Hanif ate the centisquirrel slowly, and in the corner of his gaze he could see Quin looking at him. She would look away as soon as he looked at her.
“So,” she said, “what’s a scruffy old guy like you doing out of the colonies?”
Hanif scratched his beard, remembering the large swatches of grey he had seen in the bathroom mirror.
“I’m travelling,” he said. “I’m going to Mecca for the Hajj— the Pilgrimage.”
Quin sat up and leaned forward, her thin eyebrows furrowing. The brief silence that followed indicated to Hanif that he should keep speaking. “A Muslim is supposed to make the journey once in a lifetime.” Hanif looked away. “It’s across the ocean, across mountains and deserts. It’s long and dangerous and I probably won’t make it. But I have to at least try to make it to the House of God.” Quin was quiet for a moment, but Hanif knew there were questions bubbling beneath the silence.
“What if it’s not there?” she said.
Hanif looked at her. He hoped that the fear was not apparent on his face. She continued. “What if what happened here happened there? You know, the Cataclysms and stuff. What if—” and she paused at this, “what if there is no House of God anymore?”
Hanif stared at the warm flame. He had asked himself this very same question. Every day the devil whispered it into his ears.
It’s too hard.
And he replayed that fear in his mind, traversing across water, rock and sand, and climbing the last hill only to see a pile of rubble in its place. And every day he fought it off.
“It’s there,” he said. “It has to be.”
“How can you be sure?”
“You’re full of questions, aren’t you?”
“Maybe you’re full of answers.”
He sighed, then composed himself.
“On the west coast is a man who has, supposedly, been across the ocean. When I met him, he said the old countries were recovering faster than us–especially the ones that didn’t rely so much on the technology we lost. He said he a small caravan traveling towards the desert, all of them singing a similar chant. I knew then that it had to be pilgrims on Hajj. He said he was returning there in five years, and not coming back. He offered me a place on his boat to get there.
“Besides. God will preserve His House, if He wills. I just have to do what I can to get there.”
Quin was silent, either satisfied with the answer or bottling her fermenting questions for the time. Judging by the way she stared intensely at nothing, Hanif imagined it was the latter.
“Now it’s my turn,” Hanif said. “What’s a girl like you doing out here?”
“Surviving. However I can. Which brings us to our current predicament.” Hanif was unaware that there was any predicament whatsoever.
“What do you mean?”
“Predicament. Conundrum. Problem.”
“I know what ‘predicament’ means.”
The girl gleaned a sharp smile.
“Just being cordial. Anyway. You killed my guard dog.”
“What, the Wretch?”
“Yep. And now I’m just a poor little girl all alone in the wilderness. As far as I’m concerned, you owe me.” Quin slapped her knee, startling Hanif, “So. I think I’ll come with you until we come across a suitable place for me to stay. Got a problem with that?”
And Hanif finally found a question he couldn’t answer.
The next morning they left.
To Hanif’s surprise, Quin remained quiet as they walked along the broken, overgrown highway. They spent the day walking beside brown fields, where the only vegetation was weeds and dead grass. The sun did little to warm them; fall was coming, and the leaves on the trees were becoming as red and orange as the rust on the cars they passed by. Though the sun was obscured by the cold grey clouds, Hanif knew it was around noon, and so they stopped to eat. They ate dried fruit and dried meat on the side of the road, and when they finished Hanif pulled out his mat and checked his compass.
“Can you keep an eye out?” he asked.
“I’ll keep your back safe,” Quin said smugly, and the sarcasm made Hanif roll his eyes. “Get it? Cause you got stabbed in the back yesterday?”
“Hard to forget.”
And though he remained concentrated in prayer, going through the motions of reciting, bowing, and prostrating, he was subtly aware of the inquisitive looks coming from the girl who was supposed to be his lookout. When he finished, he slung his backpack around his good shoulder, said “Let’s go,” and continued walking before she could ask any questions.
Before the sun had set, they found two vehicles on the side of the road. The first car was a small two-door sedan. There were three corpses—more like skin-draped skeletons—lined up side-by-side, a hole in each of their foreheads. In front of the sedan was a black Humvee, its only occupant a corpse in camouflage with a chisel lodged in its skull. Hanif let Quin take the Humvee, figuring it was safer.
And when night came, the dark prowlers scratched along the side of the vehicles, their teeth clicking with anticipation. Hanif prayed, feeling the heavy stare of cavernous eyes, and hearing the sound of claws pawing at the doors. Within an hour they had left, apparently not wanting to spend the effort on a meal they may never get to.
For the next couple days, Hanif tried to keep ahead of Quin, only glancing back occasionally to see if she was behind him, or if someone was following behind her. Yet the silence that had blessed their first day of travel together did not last long, as Quin soon began talking. Most of it was idle, small anecdotes from her life that she must have been collecting for a long time, judging by how many there were.
In the nights when they couldn’t find shelter, Hanif kept a fire going which not only kept them warm, but kept the dark prowlers at bay, their eyes pained by any bright source of light.
In the morning they continued, and in the far, flat distance they could see the beginnings of a city. They spent the rest of the day walking along the highway. The highway signs and fixtures had either fallen or been stolen long ago, leaving just bare road and concrete and useless shells of vehicles. Hanif could only see the road leading towards the city–a place he did not want to be near. He was about to consider going back and finding another way around when Quin spoke up.
“Look,” Quin said, pointing ahead of them. “There’s a sign over there.”
Hanif couldn’t see it until they came closer, and was surprised that she was able to notice the grey wooden sign among the panorama of dirt, rust and concrete. He wasn’t surprised that she couldn’t read it, though.
“Cedar Village,” he said to her, reading the words in thick black paint.
“Sounds nice enough.”
“As long as it keeps us away from the city, that’s all that matters.”
They followed the arrow on the sign, turning off the main highway and into a rough, rural road. They continued walking toward a long cluster of sour pines, like two dull green walls on either side of the road. The closer they got, the more pungent the smell became, until it tingled their noses. A tall, white sign stood on the side of the road.
“Ok, so I know that top part says ‘Cedar Village’,” Quin said. “But what’s that below it?”
Hanif paused, reading the message on the sign.
“Renounce and rejoice,” he said. Hanif began to feel uneasy.
As they neared the gap between the wall of sour pines, Hanif saw first one, then two, then three men stand in front of the small gate built into the road.
“How many shots you have in your pistol?” Hanif asked as they walked.
“Uh, I think two. Maybe three. Actually, it might be one.”
Hanif rolled his eyes. It was no use turning back now; if these were bandits, they could easily catch up to them. They continued walking.
As they neared, one of the men came out to greet them.
“Greetings, stranger!” the man said with a grin.
“Greetings,” Hanif said back, somewhat set at ease by the simple fact that the man hadn’t tried to kill them yet. The man was middle-aged, wearing a wide-brimmed hat, a blue checkered shirt, and dusty jeans that looked as though they had been dug up in a field.
“Name’s Dizzy, pleasure to meet you,” he held out his hand and Hanif shook it.
“Hanif? Interesting name. And who’s this little sweet pea with you?” Dizzy leaned forward and held out his hand.
“Quin,” she said, eyes locked in a staredown. Dizzy’s hand hovered for a moment, then retracted.
“Well, Hanif and Quin, it’s a pleasure meeting you. What brings two mismatched vagabonds such as yourselves out to our little village?”
“Just passing through,” Hanif said. “Need a place to stay for the night.”
“Of course! Come, you two must be tired.” Dizzy began walking with them back towards the gate. Hanif felt a slight tug on the sleeve of his jacket as Quin grasped it.
Dizzy motioned towards the two other men at the gate. “Jones, Ford, meet our new guests, Hanif and Quin.”
The two men waved, gave a light ‘hello’ as they walked through the gate. “Now, if you don’t mind, we have to do a quick search of your belongings. Just to make sure you’re not sneaking anything unwelcome into town. You understand, of course.”
“Of course,” Hanif slid his backpack off and set it on the ground. Quin did the same. Their packs and pockets were searched. Quin’s gun caused some suspicion, but they let it pass so long as it stayed in her backpack. When they pulled the welcome mat out of Hanif’s backpack, he said to them, “It’s the only thing I have from home.”
The village was large, with houses of various states of repair and disrepair enclosing a square inner road. Behind the houses were rows of sour pines, creating a faded green wall around the village. Houses were crammed close together, and appeared to be pre-Cataclysm even though they were patched up haphazardly. In the middle of the village was a large field, where harvesters were pulling potatoes out of the ground using long rods with a spade and garden claw at the end.
“The spade digs into the ground, they pull the handle and the claw grabs the potato,” Dizzy said, noticing Hanif’s fascination with it. “Ingenious device by the hands of man.”
“Mahshallah,” Hanif said quietly, on instinct.
God has willed it.
His skin went cold, remembering the sign he had seen on the way into the village.
Renounce and rejoice, Hanif thought.
Thankfully, Dizzy misheard his praise.
“Mash a lot? Yeah, that’s the way most of us eat them here. You’re more than welcome to have some.”
“Good,” Hanif said, “it’s been a while since we’ve had anything except centisquirrel.”
Dizzy laughed. “Well, we have that too.” They continued the tour around the road until they reached Dizzy’s house. It was the largest house by far, looking like two houses fused together forming a mansion of metal, rust and wood. “Give me a moment,” Dizzy said before he ran inside. When he was gone, Quin tugged once on Hanif’s sleeve.
“We should get out of here. Seriously, like, now. Something about this place… something doesn’t sit right,” she whispered harshly.
“I know,” Hanif replied in a raspier voice. “But right now we don’t have a choice. Just act cordial.”
Dizzy came running down the path from his house.
“Came just in time. Maybelline is just about to set the table. Come on in, don’t be shy.”
Once inside they saw it really was a fusion of two homes. The large living room seemed to disappear on the right side into boards and rods and chunks of sheet metal, which created a bridge across a chasm of dirt into a second, completely different living room. The rooms were lit by a series of lanterns, with a tube running from each one to the next.
“Propane,” Dizzy said. “One of the gas stations nearby still had a silo left. Apparently, when the Cataclysms happened, everyone went for the gasoline. Every house has ‘em. Genius, I say.”
Hanif nodded, impressed.
They walked into the kitchen and saw a scene straight out of a time before the Cataclysms. A chandelier hung over a mahogany wooden table, set with plates and cutlery and cups. A pot of mashed potatoes, a plate of fried mushrooms, biscuits and a jug of milk sat on the table. Two young boys and an older girl were seated, dressed in worn but fashionable clothes.
“Coco, Harley, and Levi say hello to our guests: Hanif and Quin.”
The children all responded at the same time.
“Well, hello you two,” said Maybelline. She was a woman with long, braided brown hair and a skirt so short Hanif had to almost look above her to prevent himself from staring at her legs. She came to the table with a plate of thick, dark steaks that smelled both salty and savoury. “Pleased you could join us.”
“Thank you for having us,” Hanif said, and a thick chunk of meat was slapped down on his plate. He stared at it apprehensively.
“What, do you think it’s people?” Dizzy blurted a laugh. “It’s pork, my friend. Fresh from the barn. I’ll show you after dinner.”
“Thank you,” Hanif nodded, “but I prefer to eat only what I kill.”
“Ah, a true wildsman. Been a while since I seen one of those. Well, I respect your choice, my friend. Levi, trade your potatoes with Hanif.”
The youngest boy, sporting red hair and freckles, quietly swapped his mashed potatoes onto Hanif’s plate in exchange for the meat. Quin, meanwhile, stared apprehensively at the dark meat, but dug into it once the smell had tantalized her long enough.
“Everyone, who gave us this home?” Dizzy asked.
“Man,” the children and Maybelline replied in unison.
“Who gave us this food?”
“Who made the soil arable again?”
“Who do we thank?”
“Renounce and rejoice,” Dizzy said, and his family echoed him.
“Bismillah,” Hanif whispered to himself.
Hanif managed to make small talk throughout the meal. He learned that there was a river cutting through the fields a few kilometers ahead, and the only way to cross it was to take the bridge near the city—or one of the bridges inside the city, but that wasn’t an option.
“So which is it: Slavers or Wastrels?” Hanif asked.
“Wouldn’t know,” Dizzy said. “I rarely leave the village. Hear some explosions up there every now and then, but that’s it. Caught a Wastrel in the barn once, tearin’ up the pigs, but I took care of it.”
When they finished dinner, Dizzy lead Hanif upstairs; Quin followed.
“Here’s where you’ll be sleeping tonight, friend,” Dizzy opened the door to a small guest bedroom with pastel blue walls, a mattress, a pillow, and some faded paintings of ships and mountains. “There’s water in the basin in the bathroom. Sweet pea can share Harley’s room. Come, you must be tired,” Dizzy said, “I’ll show you where it is. Say goodnight to your friend.”
Quin motioned Hanif toward her and he leaned forward.
“Wake me up early so we can get out of here.”
“I’ll be up just before sunrise.”
“You better be.”
Quin reluctantly left the room. Hanif watched her walk down the stairs, and disappear out of sight.
Hanif kept himself awake until the late part of the night, when he was sure everyone had fallen asleep. He prayed slowly, though the floorboards still creaked beneath him when he moved. When he was done, he turned his palms upward.
“God, protect me and protect Quin. Help me find a safe place for her, and help me to reach Mecca. Guide my steps, forgive me of my sins, and protect me from the whisperings of the Devil. And so long as life is better for me, let me live; and when death becomes better for me, let me die. Ameen.”
He slept briefly, after succumbing to tiredness. Upon waking, he saw the darkness of the sky beginning to turn orange with the sunrise. He washed up in the basin, prayed quickly, and then turned to leave.
Dizzy was standing in the doorway, arms crossed. The two men were silent. Hanif was unsure where his knife was.
Dizzy sighed heavily.
“So,” he said, then paused. “What was that all about?”
“What was what?”
“All that bowing and begging and what have you.”
“Prayer,” Hanif said carefully.
“I knew there was something about you,” Dizzy said. “Couldn’t tell what it was, but I knew there was something different about you. Even more when I heard the floorboards creaking last night, and just this morn. What’s your name?”
“I already told you. It’s Hanif.”
“No. Your full name.”
“Abdullah Hanif Zaid.”
“Right. Abdullah. Hanif. Zaid. Not even close to anything I’d ever heard. What’s it mean?”
“Servant of God. True believer. One who grows.”
“Beautiful. But pitiful.” Hanif resisted the urge to slip a hand into his pocket to check for his knife. “You’ve been out there, in the Wasteland. How can you call yourself a servant of God, if the God you serve nearly wiped us off the face of the planet?”
“Look, I’m not here to preach,” Hanif said. “We just needed a place to stay. We’ll be leaving now.”
“No. No, you’ll be leaving now. Sweet pea can stay with us. She’s safe here. It’s better for her. She doesn’t need you infecting her mind any more than you have. We’ll take care of her, I promise. Just like we did with Levi and Coco.”
“I think that should be for her to decide.”
Dizzy sighed and pressed the tips of his fingers together, forming a tent in front of his face.
“Look, I like you. You’re a well enough guy on your own. But we can’t have you spreading your prayers and ideas around like an infection. We’ve gotten along fine around here without God… the world has gotten along fine without God. Here we have the power to bring back mankind from the brink with our own hands. Out here we give life and cause death as we see fit. We don’t need God.”
A heavy silence fell on them.
“Alright, then: who brings the sun up from the east?” Hanif knew he was wading in deep, but he figured it was too late to back out now. “Bring it up from the west, you and your hands.”
Dizzy gritted his teeth then scoffed. “You know, it’s strange: most of you religious types have some sort of book or symbol or talisman to spread your fraud with. But you, you managed to slip right past us. So where’s your book? Which one is it, the Torah? Bible? Koran?”
“All of them,” Hanif said, then tapped the side of his head. “In here.”
Dizzy sighed. He grabbed a metal baseball bat that Hanif hadn’t seen until now.
“Looks like we’ll have to bash it out of you, then.”
When he swung, Hanif ducked and the bat collided into the wall, knocking down a painting of a ship. Hanif checked his coat pocket—empty.
“Can’t have you sowing your poison on the world!”
The bat swung again and Hanif stepped back. He drove his hand into his other coat pocket—also empty.
“Got enough problems out here without religion adding to it!”
Dizzy kicked him in the chest and he fell back against a wall. Dizzy lifted the bat over his head. Right pant pocket—something metal. Hanif pulled out his knife and rolled away. The bat cracked against the floorboard. The knife plunged into Dizzy’s foot. He shouted, dropped the bat, and fell to the floor. Hanif leapt on top of Dizzy, grabbed his arm, and stabbed the knife into his wrist. He stifled the scream with a knee over Dizzy’s mouth.
“Listen, if I pull that knife out, you’ll have about 30 minutes to bandage it up before you bleed out. If I drag it down your forearm first, that time will be cut in half, and so will your chances of stopping the bleeding. Let me and the girl go, and I’ll give you 30 minutes.”
Dizzy made a muffled swearing sound. Hanif gripped the handle.
“Dizzy!” Maybelline shouted from downstairs. “Are you done? The girl is gone!”
“Tell her to go look for her,” Hanif ordered, then lifted the knee from Dizzy’s mouth. Dizzy paused for a moment, his mouth quivering.
“Dizzy?” Maybelline called.
“Find the girl! Put her in the storage house!”
Hanif waited for the sounds of footsteps downstairs to stop. He pulled the knife out quickly.
“Thank you for the hospitality,” Hanif said, grabbing the baseball bat and his backpack. “Peace be with you.”
“Your God is d—,” Dizzy was cut off from his final quip by a well-timed kick across the mouth.
Hanif nearly flew downstairs, shouting Quin’s name only once, then staying silent and listening for a response. Nothing. He left out the backdoor, checking if both directions were clear.
Outside, he could hear a clamor of voices in the distance, and could smell smoke in the air. As he peeked around the corner, he saw across the field a bright fireball burning where a house used to be.
Quin, he thought to himself. He dashed across the open field towards the flaming building. As he neared the building, he heard Quin scream to his left. He stopped and turned.
“Hanif!” She screamed again. “Get back! It’s going to—”
The explosion finished the sentence for her, and knocked Hanif off his feet. He landed in the soft, tilled soil of the potato field, his ears ringing. As he sat up, he felt his finger rub against something bumpy, scratchy.
He picked it up: it was a tooth. And beneath his other hand small slivers of bone.
And all around him tiny white flecks peeking among the dirt.
“Who made the land arable again?”
The ringing in his ears was replaced by Quin screaming again. He scrambled to his feet and ran toward her. She began running ahead of him, through the wall of sour pines. He tried not to imagine the mob that was most likely following him: he only ran.
What did you find in there, Quin? What did you do?
He rushed through the dense branches and odor of the sour pines and emerged on a dusty road. Ahead of him, Quin was still running. He rushed to catch up to her.
“Quin!” He shouted, but she kept running. Her body made a violent jerking motion, then she fell to the ground.
Hanif ran faster.
There were four arrows protruding from her body, shot from a trap on the side of the road, rigged to a tripwire she had crossed. She was staring down at the arrows sticking out of her body.
“Hanif!” she cried. “HANIF!”
He skidded to a stop beside her and fell to his knees.
“Hanif, there’s—there’s—frickin’ arrows!” Quin tried to steady her voice. There was one below her collarbone, two in her stomach, and one in her thigh.
Hanif took a moment to gather himself, forcing himself to detach from the girl crying in front of him, gripping his pant leg. “It hurts—What do I do?” she said. “What do I do?!”
Hanif looked behind him: there were no figures running towards them. Yet.
“I need you to breathe slowly.”
“It hurts—it hurts so much.”
“I know, but you need to calm yourself down.”
“Calm myself down?! I was just shot with four f—”
“That’s not calm.”
Quin was silent. She steadied her breathing, but could not steady her tears. Hanif checked his backpack: salt water and paper towel wouldn’t fix this. He knew what to do, but he didn’t know if he could do it.
He began to hear an angry roar of people behind him. And ahead of him he could see the city.
“I can’t fix this. Not here. I have to get you to a hospital.”
“A hospital? Where—where are we going to find a hospital? That’s—”
“I know. In the city.”
Quin swore, then coughed. Hanif pulled out a small bottle and a wad of paper towel.
“I’m going to have to put you to sleep.”
Quin’s eyes became wide and wild with fear. “No! No, Hanif, don’t put me to sleep!” she said, trying to crawl away.
“Quin, look at me,” he said sternly. She froze. “If I don’t you’ll die on the way there. You’re going into shock as it is. If you’re asleep it’ll slow the bleeding and keep you stable.”
She stared at Hanif, who was already reaching into his backpack.
“Just—just promise me I’ll wake up.”
“Trust me, Quin, you’ll wake up,” Hanif said, soaking the paper towel in the bottle of chemicals.
“Hanif, promise me—swear to me that I’ll wake up.”
“I swear to God, I’ll do whatever I can and wake you up.”
“Coming from you,” she said, “that actually means something.”
Hanif placed the soaked paper towel over her mouth and told her to breathe deep. Her hand shot up and grasped his, and she gripped it tightly until it her eyes closed and her hand fell limp beside her.
Hanif breathed deep. He snapped the shafts of the arrows off, then picked up Quin’s limp body, and began running towards the city.