The first thing Quin noticed was the pain—four sharp pains in her shoulder, stomach, and leg. The world around her was black and blurry, though she could swear her eyes were open. Gradually she became aware of movement. Flying.
“Keep it movin’!” a buffered, watery voice said, like a shouting whisper. Slowly, light and colour began to return to Quin’s vision. She saw metal bars above her—and beyond those, the stout, scruffy bearded face of Hanif. She reached out to touch him, but her fingers would not slip beyond the bars. Hanif looked down at her—he seemed exhausted—then looked straight ahead. More than anything she wanted to sleep. But her body was sore, and she became aware that she was in a shopping cart.
And not only that, someone was with them.
“Quick, around this corner!” the same buffered voice yelled, though this time with more clarity. And with that clarity, Quin could hear the wild screeches and hollers of creatures behind them.
Diluted fear began to grasp her heart, but she was concentrating more on the rattle of the cart and the feeling of flying. She looked down at where the pain was coming from. Her fear became more concentrated when she saw the broken arrow shafts sticking out of her body, and the dark splotches accompanying each one. She remembered Hanif’s face before blacking out, the arrows shooting into her body, and running—but from what she couldn’t remember right now.
“It’s ok, Quin,” Hanif said, “You’ll be ok.” Something behind them cackled, and was followed by a loud burst of gunfire ahead of them.
“Pick up the pace, old man! We’re almost there.” The voice ahead of them shouted. Quin stared at the tall crumbling buildings passing by them, the sun flickering in the spaces between them like a giant lantern. The sun: she remembered it was always burning, always exploding.
The explosion. The fire. The machine.
Quin gasped and shot up, gripped by the sudden, cold fear of memory. The machine in the basement of the storehouse. The machine that grinded and mulched. And the clammy touch of decaying bodies brushing her hair as she slipped in between them, hiding. Men and women hanging on hooks. And the sound—the wet grinding and crunching sound. Buckets—she remembered buckets spilling over with a soupy broth of blood and meat.
And, in the corner, a giant propane tank.
“I burned it,” she said. “I burned it. The machine, the bodies, the storehouse… I burned it.”
Hanif ignored her, his focus forward. In front of her, Quin could see a tall, silver building, with what looked like a long silver slope jutting out of it and reaching towards the parking lot.
“Get her out of the cart!” the voice shouted again. This time, Quin could see who was speaking.
He was much younger than Hanif, with a boxy face with high and smooth cheekbones, and dark blonde hair that tufted out off to the side. He was dressed in combat fatigues—except for the running shoes on his feet—and sported a silver cross on a necklace.
Quin winced as she was lifted out of the cart, but she was too tired to make any sound but a light groan. She saw the man toss something into the cart and kick it back toward the group of screaming Wastrels. She saw the face of one, its neck bloated, and eye missing, revealing a socket with a wriggling appendage, like a tentacle, reaching out toward her.
“Upstairs!” the man shouted. They ducked under a chunk of collapsed ceiling and into a stairwell. There was a loud blast, and for a moment Quin worried she had somehow set another propane tank on fire.
They reached the top of the stairs, and became still and quiet. They snuck into the dark hallway, attuned to the silence around them. They waited. The sound of shattering glass startled Quin, until she saw that the man had dropped it on purpose.
“We’re ok here,” the man said after a moment. They went into one of the nearby rooms and Quin was placed on a flat bed and it was the softest thing she’d ever felt.
“She’s awake,” the man said. Quin turned her tired eyes toward him. “Name’s Zachary Becket, and I’ll be looking out for you two for a while. Hope that’s alright, because you don’t have much of a choice,” Zachary smiled and winked, which made Quin feel uneasy in her stomach—in a good way. “So the old man never gave me a name for you.”
“Quin,” she said, though she had to think about it for a second. “Quin Choi.”
“Well, Quin Choi, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” he said, then looked at Hanif. “What’ll you need?”
“Bandages, antiseptic, a new knife would be nice, needle and thread. Just bring whatever looks useful.”
Zachary left the room, and Hanif collapsed on the chair beside Quin’s bed. His face nearly rested in his open palms, and she could hear him whispering something—a prayer, it seemed. Quin felt her eyelids growing heavy, her mind becoming cloudy, but she didn’t want to sleep yet. Quin could feel the arrows inside of her, and she stared down at the dark, sticky splotches that had spread from the wounds.
“Why…” Quin trailed off. Hanif looked up at her.
“Why didn’t you… you know… just leave me? You gotta make it to Mecca. And now we’re stuck in this place. I mean, you barely know me.”
For a moment Hanif was quiet. The furrowed lines on his tall face seemed to have been cut deeper than she remembered.
“You’re under my trust, now,” he said. “And your life is more important to me than getting to Mecca.”
Quin felt tears slip out from underneath her eyes. Zachary came in with a rattling cart of medical tools and other odds and ends.
“Alright, I hope you can make use with what I got, cause it’s all I could find,” Zachary said.
“It’ll work,” Hanif turned to Quin, “You’re going to have to go to sleep again.” He began dousing a rag with the foul smelling chemical.
“Please… I don’t want to sleep again,” Quin protested weakly.
“Trust me,” Hanif said, “you won’t want to be awake for this.”
Hanif held the rag over her mouth. She breathed in deep, and the grey and darkness slowly blotted out Hanif’s face and the world around her.
A single hand reaching out from the pile, begging to be saved.
“We only wanted to eat, sweet pea. That’s all. That machine—that was how we lived.”
The sound, the horrible crunching and mashing.
“And the people? Couldn’t even really call ‘em people to start. Slavers, mercs, preachers, psychos. A bane on the world, they were. So we finally made them useful.”
And a fire. A fire that consumed darkness and thought.
Rain pattered against the glass. For a while, Quin lay in the bed, listening to the soft sound of water tapping the pane. And among the rain, a faint whisper. When she opened her eyes, she saw the hospital room bathed in dark blue night. Her eyes slowly scanned the room. Along the wall were crayon drawings and faded photographs of smiling people tacked onto the wall. There was the taught sound of crinkling clothing, of movement. In the far corner of the room, she saw someone kneeling on the floor—no, two people.
Hanif had his palms open and raised. Zachary had his hands clasped together and held in front of him. The shadows of raindrops dotted the faint light around them. They murmured silent and separate devotions for a moment.
“Care to share a prayer, old man?”
“After what you did to get us here, it’s the least I could do.”
Hanif cleared his throat.
“Praise be to God who does not forget those who remember Him, Who responds to the prayer of those who have hope in Him, Who does not fail those who put their trust in Him, and Who gives us hope when every hope is cut off from us. God, save us from our calamity, and from our misdeeds, and forgive us. Make Quin’s recovery easy and painless, and give her strength.”
“Amen,” they both said at the same time.
They stood up after a moment. Quin closed her eyes and pretended to be asleep.
“I’ll go secure the perimeter, make sure no Wastrels have snuck in,” Zachary said and then left. Hanif returned to the chair beside Quin’s bed. He sat still for a moment as he and Quin locked eyes. Even among his shadowy beard, Quin could see a smile spread.
“Subhanallah,” Hanif said, “a prayer in the rain is always answered.”
Quin smiled back. She wanted to respond with something, but she worried that if she spoke she would realize this was a dream and wake up—or worse, fall asleep forever.
“How are you feeling?” Hanif asked. Quin blinked slowly, and it felt like ages for her to open her mouth to respond.
“Not dead,” she said. Hanif cracked a quiet laugh.
“And thank God for that. I guess I did my job then,” he said. “You’ll probably feel sluggish for a while. Zachary found some anesthetic, and I had to keep you under.”
It took a moment for any of that to make sense to Quin, her attention going back to the rain against the window. “How long?” she finally asked.
“Three days now,” Hanif said. “And we’ll probably be here for a while. I don’t want you to move until you’re healed up.”
“How are we…”
Hanif put a finger to his lips.
“Don’t worry about that now. Just get some sleep.”
Quin made a sound halfway between a plea and a cry.
“Hanif,” she said. “The fire…the fire in Cedar Village. I started it. I…” she fell silent. Hanif leaned forward. “People, Hanif. People were being… grinded up. By a machine. Spinning blades. Sprayed in the fields. Fed to the pigs. So I started the fire. But it… but it spread. And I couldn’t stop it. I didn’t want to hurt anyone. I just wanted that machine gone…” Quin’s view became watery, and she looked away. “Did I do the right thing?”
Hanif was silent for a moment. “Our actions are judged by intention,” he said. “And sometimes what we intend and what actually happens goes out of our control. We’ll probably never know what will happen to that village. But you risked your life to try and make the world just a little bit better. You faced that machine and that fire alone and didn’t back down. And that, Quin, is bravery.”
Hanif stood up from the chair. “You need some rest,” he said. Quin agreed.
“Goodnight,” Quin said.
“Goodnight,” Hanif said, then stepped outside the room and into the hallway. She could hear him speaking with Zachary.
“How is she?” Zachary asked.
“She’s doing well, thank God. If she’d been just a little taller, the arrows would have punctured her lung, vital organs, and femoral artery. They missed by nearly a hair.”
“Funny how God works sometimes, isn’t it?”
Quin fell asleep to the gentle patting of rain on the window.
Someone stands in the middle of the field, a field surrounded by fire. He stares up at the sky, pointing a finger, spewing curses into the heavens.
Quin comes closer, and he turns to look at her.
“You,” the fire reflects in his eyes. He storms toward her. Quin turns to run, but she doesn’t budge. She dares not look down, but she feels the hands, emerged from the dirt, that hold her in place. He shifts toward her. A fiery grin. A burning hand on her face.
“Join my children, sweetpea.”
Three days later, Quin was woken up by a tap on her shoulder.
“Ready for a trip to the underworld?” Zachary asked with a smirk across his face and his rifle in his hands.
“Morgue tunnels,” Hanif said. “That’s how we’re getting out of here.”
Zachary had a map laid out on a nearby table. He pulled it over to Quin’s bed.
“This place was once a small settlement,” Zachary said. “They dug tunnels beneath the hospital throughout the city for supply runs. So we go down to the morgue tunnels, and into the autopsy room” he tapped a small box on the map, where red scribbles had been drawn and connected to a tunnel, “and then we come up right by the bridge. We gotta move, though. Wastrels are starting find ways inside. One of them climbed up to the second floor and snuck in.”
Quin raised herself up, wincing slightly. The biting pain in her abdomen reminded her that, just three days ago, there’d been arrows stuck in her.
“Stay between me and Zachary,” Hanif said. “We’ll move as fast as you can move.”
“But, please, try and move fast.” Zachary said. He winked again, and Quin tried to scrunch her smile away. “I’ll check the hallway, then we make our way down.” Zachary left and walked into the hallway.
“Who is this guy, anyway?” Quin finally asked.
“Zachary Becket, a mercenary. Met him just outside the city while you were out. Paid him in medical supplies and my wedding ring.”
Quin looked away, ashamed.
“I’m not. Ready to go?”
Quin nodded. She slowly lifted herself up and off the bed. Her first step on the floor sent a cold shock up her bare feet. The turquoise hospital gown she’d been wearing for the past three days fell down near to her feet.
“It only came in large,” Hanif said as he held out her backpack. “Your jacket and shirt are in your bag. You may want to take your gun out, too.”
“It doesn’t actually work,” Quin grabbed the bag and slung it over her good shoulder. “It’s rusted and jammed inside.”
“How long have you been holding people up with a broken gun?” Hanif quipped.
“Two years now. Fooled you, didn’t it?”
They walked into the hallway and followed Zachary to an elevator shaft he had wrenched open. Quin heard screeching coming from the stairwell nearby.
“Hop on my back, I’ll lower us down,” Zachary said. He removed is backpack and handed it to Quin. Her arm shot her with pain when she tried to lift it, so Hanif helped put the backpack on her. Quin stared at Hanif apprehensively.
“Hey, he’s younger and doesn’t have a knife wound in his back,” Hanif said. “I’d ask him to carry me down if I could.”
Quin cracked a smile. “I’ll go first,” Hanif said. “That way if I fall I won’t take you out with me.”
They climbed down the shaft slowly, pausing when they heard Wastrels scratching and screeching like crows on the other side of the door. Quin kept her arms wrapped around Zachary, but kept looking down at the faint figure of Hanif climbing down the shaft. She began to see the outline of a large box—the elevator with the roof collapsed in and walls bent and twisted. They climbed down into the elevator, the debris crunching beneath their feet. Quin slid off Zachary’s back; Hanif helped her take the backpack off.
The crackling screeches of the Wastrels above them echoed through the shaft. Zachary pulled something out of his backpack. There was a painful flash of light, followed by darkness, then another flash. A small pillar of fire in Zachary’s hand flickered orange light around them. Quin looked down and could see the hollow sockets of a skull peeling out from beneath the debris.
“Onward,” Zachary said. She walked between Zachary and Hanif down the hallway, every clink or crunch beneath her feet making her tense up. They turned around several corners before coming to a large set of double doors, though one had broken off its hinge and leaned against the other.
“The tunnels should be in there,” Zachary said. “Come on.”
They walked inside. In the flickering orange light bounced off the glossy white tiled walls. Quin could hear the blood pounding first in her heart, then in her ears. She clenched Zachary’s backpack tightly. Looking around, she saw three metal tables against the wall, and what looked like a large metal cabinet with open doors.
On one of the tables was a skeleton, draped in a thin turquoise gown—the same gown she was wearing. A small tag was tied around its bony toe, with a number written on it. As they walked near the cabinets, she saw two more draped skeletons inside.
Is this how people used to die? Quin thought to herself.
But she noticed something else on the bones: small grooves and rough patches. Bite marks. The bones had been chewed.
All three of them froze.
Quin resisted the urge to bury her face in Zachary’s backpack. She looked behind her. Hanif was staring at something ahead of them. His eyes flickered down to hers, and he touched a finger to his lips. Quin peered out from behind Zachary. Ahead of them was a wall—or part of a wall. The corner had been demolished and opened up into a large black tunnel. And something was walking out of it.
It was thin and emaciated, its legs no more than sticks, with a distended belly and hands with long, curling fingernails. It made a sniffing sound, though it didn’t have a nose, and seemed to be searching around the room, though it didn’t have eyes. The lips had been chewed off long ago, and it clacked its exposed teeth together, biting at nothing. It made three giggling sounds—hm-hm-HEE—and then made a cawing noise and clicked its teeth together. It hunched over, revealing bony spines that were protruding from beneath the skin. It dragged its fingernails on the floor ahead of it, navigating around the tables and strewn medical equipment as it scraped along the floor.
Zachary slowly pulled a large hunting knife from the sheath around his leg. The blade nicked the metal clasp. The creature snapped its head in their direction and froze. It’s dark, empty sockets were staring at Quin. It took a step forward. Zachary lowered his lighter to Quin, who held it and kept the flame going. The thing cocked its head and clicked its exposed teeth again.
Zachary lunged forward and drove the knife into its neck. It made a hiccupping sound—then began to scream. The blade drove repeatedly into its neck, but it’s low, groaning screech didn’t stop. It began clawing and kicking wildly. Zachary tossed it to the floor and stepped on its head, the crunch punctuating the end of the screams.
For a moment they were silent, then behind them they heard more screams. Zachary grabbed Quin’s arm, and Quin reached behind and grabbed Hanif’s arm, and they dashed into the tunnel. Quin had dropped the lighter when Zachary grabbed her, and now they were running in the dark.
The path was winding, broken and twisted. They crossed over bridges made of wooden pallets, and makeshift gates that had long since fallen apart. All around them was just silence and darkness.
Then something screaming crashed into them. Quin felt Zachary’s grip break free, and her hand slipped from Hanif’s arm. And when she expected to hit a wall, she instead felt herself plummeting into the abyss. She tumbled twice and then felt the weightlessness of free fall.
“Quin!” a distant voice shouted.
When she hit her head, she couldn’t even tell that she had blacked out.
“You burned me, sweet pea. You burned me and my family, my home. And now in the darkness you’ll burn, in flames so dark you can’t see them, where the only thing to comfort you is the thought of light.”
“Quin. Get up. Don’t stop moving. You’ll get out of here, God willing. You’ll see light again.”
It took a moment for Quin to realize her eyes were open. She felt the oppressive stare of darkness on her.
Her whole body throbbed in pain, concentrated on the four areas where the arrows had been. She felt something wet on the side of her head. Then she remembered where she was. She pieced it together: the hospital had once been a refuge. Perhaps even a small colony lived there. They dug tunnels beneath the city to transport supplies—hence the cans her fingers rubbed over. But then, in the darkness, they found a Wastrel den.
Or they had become Wastrels themselves.
Quin remained still, listening for footsteps, for whispers, anything. She wanted to shout Hanif’s name out, but knew better. She wanted to see his furrowed, bearded face again, and ask him all the questions of the world, the universe, and God that she had locked inside of herself for years until she was exhausted. She wanted to see Zachary, and feel that joyful feeling in her stomach when he winked at her. She wanted to feel sunlight again.
But Quin was alone in the darkness. No, not alone—something was humming nearby. It hummed a broken, three note tune. Then began hacking and coughing. It hummed again. Something else off to the side—no, beside her, unzipped her backpack and began rifling through it. She could smell it, a sour, damp, yellowy smell.
Quin tried to remember Hanif’s prayer.
Praise be to God Who…
Praise be to God Who… what was it?!
The humming, hacking and coughing came closer.
Praise be to God Who saves… no, that’s not it.
Beside her, the rustle of her backpack abruptly stopped.
God. Help me.
In front of her, the humming would break into staccato-like hacks and then continue humming.
God, help me.
Beside her, a low, unintelligible mumbling.
God help me.
Inside her, Hanif’s voice spoke:
God helps those who help themselves.
Quin clenched her fists. There was only one way: forward.
She breathed in deep.
In one movement she snatched her backpack and she ran.
Her hands shoved something clammy and freezing down in front of her. She bashed against a wall, turned, and kept running. Behind her she heard barking.
She ran in the darkness, her hand trailing along the rocky wall. She imagined hands in the darkness reaching out behind her, and that forced her to keep running. She passed through a wooden gateway, then stopped. She reached out, grabbed the door, and slammed it shut. On the other side, something screaming threw its weight against the door, but she was able to hold it shut. She fumbled in the darkness for the latch, found it, and slid it into the door. Fingernails clawed madly on the other side.
She ran, running her hand along the wall, turning when it turned. And as she turned a corner she could see a pillar of light streaming down from a above. Ahead of her—and beside her—she heard the cawing howls of the Wastrels. She ran towards the pillar of light—it was a sewer grate. She climbed up the rough, rusted rungs bolted into the wall of concrete. She pushed against the grate.
But it was too heavy.
“No!” she strained and struggled, and the grate was budging but her muscles were bursting, and below her the wild calls of the creatures in the dark were coming nearer. “No! Oh God, no!” She pushed again and again, her groans turning into screams. “Don’t let me die in here!”
A melted, drooping face stared up at her from the darkness.
“Help!” she screamed. A gnarled hand pawed at her boots, and she kicked wildly. “Someone help!”
The hole in her shoulder seared with pain as she shoved with all her might against the grate.
Suddenly it became light, and it was pulled away from her. Someone grabbed her by the arm and pulled her up out of the sewer. She rolled away from the open hole, just in time to see Zachary tossing something down it and Hanif shoving the grate on top of a set of twisted fingers, breaking them off. The scream was interrupted by a sharp, ear splitting blast that vibrated the ground beneath their feet.
And in the brief moment that followed, her ears ringing, Quin stared up at the sky, blue and white with clouds, with the sunlight sparkling through the leaves of a single green tree obscuring her vision, and she breathed in the deep cold air and was grateful to be alive.
And it was now that she noticed something wet pressing against her abdomen. She looked down and saw the bright blue teal of the hospital gown had turned a dark splotchy blue. Now she could feel it: the stitches had broken and the wounds had opened up. It felt like she had been shot with arrows all over again. Hanif was at her side immediately. Quin could see on his old, dust-worn face that he was relieved to see her, but was alarmed by the wounds.
“Allahu akbar,” Hanif said, “I thought—we thought we’d lost you.”
Quin smiled, and for a moment forgot about the pain. She kept her breathing steady. Hanif opened his bag and pulled out the paper towel and the bottle of chemicals. Quin placed a hand on his arm and shook her head.
“I’ll be ok,” she said. At first Hanif froze, then he nodded and returned the paper towel and bottle to his backpack. “God,” Quin said. “God was with me, down there.”
Hanif smiled. “Wama yaruju feeha wahuwa maakum ayna ma koontum. And He is with you wherever you may be. You’ll have to tell me all about it once we get out of here.”
Zachary whistled loudly, and Quin heard the trotting of hooves.
“Here comes the cavalry,” Zachary said. “Come on, let’s go.”
Hanif tied his jacket around Quin’s waist, pulling tight against the wounds. He picked her up, and she could see four horses walking toward them, one without a rider. The two others wore the same outfit as Zachary. Behind them was the bridge that led across the river, and out of the city.
She was lifted onto the horse with Hanif. As they sped across the bridge and through the remains of the city, she leaned back, resting against him. Old buildings passed them by, and occasionally there was the squawk of Wastrels, but soon they had slowed to a trot, and were surrounded by open fields again.
“We keep moving,” one of the men dressed like Zachary said. “We should reach Quicksilver in a day or two. How’s the girl?”
Quin extended her arm with her thumb pointing firmly upward.
Hanif began to pray while they rode on, moving only his head while he held the reins. Quin dozed off listening to his deep earthy voice sing his praises in a language she could not understand, but could entirely feel.
“Wama yaruju feeha wahuwa maakum ayna ma koontum.”