Quin first felt the warmth radiating against her body, then she felt something rough against the back of her head. It took a moment for her to realize she was leaning against a tree.
She opened her eyes. Unfamiliar faces were illuminated orange by the crackling fire in front of her. Behind them she could see trees illuminated orange against the black night. She felt the tight embrace of a bandage—actually a torn sweater fastened by duct tape—around her torso. But with each breath she took she felt the hot, throbbing pain of her wounds. She eyed the people sitting silently around the fire, each one chewing on something. There were three faces she hadn’t seen before, all of them wearing combat fatigues.
Then Quin’s eyes passed by Zachary, and he suddenly looked directly at her. She thought about looking away, but she liked the warm feeling in her stomach, totally unrelated to the campfire.
“Welcome back,” Zachary said, with a smile in the corner of his mouth. “here, Hanif and I split our rations.” He handed her a small tin. The tangy, savoury smell wafted up and tingled Quin’s nose. She looked inside and saw apple chunks, shining with the dark brown grease from the strips of meat laying beside it, topped with some sort of root.
“Where is he?” Quin asked before eating.
“Right behind the tree you’re leaning against, praying.”
“He does that a lot.”
“Five times a day,” Hanif said, making Quin jump, “but since I’m travelling, only three times. Two of them are combined.”
“When was the last time you prayed all five times?”
Hanif sat down beside Quin, and rubbed his scruffy salt and pepper beard.
“Difficult to say. Months, at least. How are you feeling?”
“Like I’ve been shot with arrows and chased by Wastrels. The wounds hurt a lot.”
Hanif pressed the back of his hand to her forehead. She cherished it. “You’re starting to get warm,” he said. “You’re fighting off an infection.”
“I’ll be ok,” Quin said, though the throbbing near her stomach, legs, and collarbone suggested otherwise.
“Quin,” Zachary said, “say hello to my troops.”
“It’s more my troops than his,” said the scowling man, who’s voice held a faded accent and a cheer that seemed to contradict his persistent scowl. “Always been a cocky one. Name’s Farthall, and don’t let this one—” he pointed a meaty finger at Zachary, “convince you it’s pronounced ‘Fart-hall’.”
“Well, that’s how it’s written.”
“Stow it, you cocky twit.”
“Vartika, say hello.” Zachary motioned toward the stern-faced woman who was nearly sitting out of the shadows.
“Hello,” she said, with only a light wave, and a smile that was more a twitch in the corner of her mouth.
“Don’t let her warm exterior fool you. Inside she’s actually frigid ice queen.”
Vartika extended a surprisingly manicured middle finger at Zachary.
“And finally, that shadowy fellow at the end is Botan.”
“If this guy gives you any trouble,” Botan said, his voice as thick and warm as the fire, then cracked his massive knuckles, “I’ll make sure to stain his pretty hair red.”
“He knows my weakness,” Zachary ran his fingers through his hair, and Quin tried to suppress a girlish smile but failed. “And then there’s me. Not much spectacular, apart from everything. Oh, and the fact that I just got you out of a Wastrel-infested city in one piece, which is quite a—”
“Well,” Farthal said, clearing his throat, “since Goldilocks here won’t get to the point, we’re the 23rd Brigade of the Rose Thorns.”
Quin’s heart leapt with excitement. It was now she noticed the small, red patch on each of their shoulders—except Zachary’s. She turned and looked up at Hanif.
“Rose Thorns!” she said. Hanif nodded with a smile.
“Yes, I know,” he pulled something out of the pocket of his backpack and held it up to Quin. It was a small, red patch in the shape of a rose. Quin stared at it, mouth agape.
“You never said you were part of the Rose Thorns.”
“Well, I did,” Hanif said, “but you were unconscious. And I was speaking to him,” he motioned toward Zachary, then flipped the patch toward him. It spun through the air like a disk, and Zachary caught it. “I haven’t been a Thorn—officially— for many years,” Hanif continued to look at Zachary. “But I still carried it with me, subhanallah I figured I might need it again. I promised Ensign Zachary here that if he got us to the hospital and out of the city, I’d pass my patch to him.”
“That’s First Ranger Zachary now, thank you very much,” Zachary beamed. “At first I thought he’d killed a Thorn and took their patch, but he knew the rules, knew the oath, and even knew Sera Rose herself.”
Quin blinked with astonishment.
“That’s certainly news to me,” Farthal said.
“I knew her when she was still in diapers,” Hanif said. “I delivered her.”
“Wait, back up,” Farthall said, “you delivered Sera Rose, the founder of the Rose Thorns, the one who defeated Sanction?”
“See,” Zachary said to Farthall, “I told you he was worth an escort mission.”
“She said a doctor helped her come up with the oath,” Farthall said. That was you?”
“Well, just the first part. And it was a saying of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, so I can’t even take the credit for it.”
“Well, we live by it, so that’s worth something.”
“How is she, these days, anyway?”
“She’s deep south,” Farthal said, “fighting Sanction splinter groups.”
“Well, Hanif,” Farthal said, “it’d be an honour for us to escort you and Quin to Quicksilver. We’ll be there tomorrow. Zachary, as our newest First Ranger, would you do the honours?”
“Be in this world as if you are a stranger,” he began the oath. “In the morning, do not expect to live until night. And at night, do not expect to live until morning. But as long as you live, stand for justice.”
The next morning everyone readied their horses, and sped along the overgrown road for a while, before slowing to a trot. Hanif could feel the silence hanging between him and Quin, broken only by the clopping of the horse’s hooves. He figured he may as well break it.
“How far do you plan on going, Quin?” he asked. At first, Hanif wasn’t sure if Quin heard him.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Then why did you come with me in the first place?”
“Because…” her voice trailed off. “Because you were different. Everyone else, they didn’t know where they were going. They were just… wandering. And then they would wander away and it’d just be me again.” Hanif couldn’t see her face, but he could hear the wobbles in her voice. “But you… you knew where you were going. Like you had a purpose, you know?”
“Yes. I know.”
“And me, well… I’m just a girl, I can’t read, I don’t even know how old I am, and I spent most of my life living in abandoned buildings. But you, you were a Thorn, you taught the founder of the Thorns. You’ve actually done something with your life.”
“We all have our part to play in the meaningfulness of the world, Quin. You’ll find yours—as long as you keep looking for it. You’ll find your push.”
Quin fell into a silence, but he knew it’s because she was brewing more questions.
“How will I know what the push is?”
“You’ll know it because you’ll be afraid to do it,” Hanif said. “But you’ll know you have to.”
The Quicksilver Storage sign was plain, with a blue trim and thick blocky letters announcing its name and “Right 5 km”. In the distance, Hanif could see the compound itself. It was an old storage yard, with rows and rows of white sheds with blue roofs, surrounded by tall barbed wire. As they neared the gate, the Thorns halted. A guard came forward, crossbow in hand. He was a thin yet muscular man with hair so short his scalp could be seen.
“Afternoon,” he said. “What brings the Rose Thorns to Quicksilver?” His voice was that of apprehensive trust.
“Escort,” Zachary said, then pointed a thumb backward at Hanif and Quin. The guard leaned over and peered at them, paused for a moment, then returned. “Take them to registration, talk with Leslie.” The guard motioned to someone in the solitary office building on the other side of the fence. The gate jumped and rattled as it slid open, surprising Hanif.
Electricity, he thought. That could be a good sign.
They walked into the compound. When the gate had closed, Hanif could hear the mixed sounds of life among the rows of sheds. In the far corner, among a cluster of rusted old cars, he could see a group of children kicking something along the frosted gravel ground—a soccer ball. When he turned, a group of people had gathered at a distance to see the commotion. And among the crowd of faces, there was one he could not see, save for her eyes, and his heart leapt: a woman wearing a veil, the slit for her eyes the only window into her being that he could see.
He dismounted the horse and told Quin to wait. He walked up the wooden steps and paused for a moment; on the ground, in front of the door, was a welcome mat—the same welcome mat he’d been praying on for the past several months.
He walked inside. The office was small, and the wall was covered in peeling wallpaper with flowers along the top and bottom. Behind the main counter, a woman with thin grey hair and deep wrinkles across her face greeted him.
“Hello there,” she said. “What brings you to Quicksilver?”
Hanif could see her one hand resting under the desk. He looked down and saw a small hole in the front counter, just large enough to fit an arrow into. It was pointing in a place that encouraged him to answer truthfully.
“There’s a girl with me, she’s hurt. We just need to stay for a while so she can heal. Then we’ll be on our way, I promise.”
The old woman curled her lips inward and squinted at Hanif.
“He has the commendation of the Rose Thorns,” Zachary said, turning ever so slightly so the patch on his shoulder was visible. The woman still seemed skeptical.
“Oh, Leslie,” another woman said, appearing out of the adjacent room, “you can take your finger off the crossbow. If he’s got a commendation, he’s fine.”
“Very well. But we’re only a few weeks away from our first snowstorm. Then we’ll be battening down the hatches through winter. And if that’s the case, it’ll take more than a Rose Thorn commendation to keep you here. We’ve only saved enough food for everyone here now.”
“We should be gone by then, inshallah.”
“Hanif Abdullah Zaid.”
“And the girl?”
“No. I’m her guardian.”
“I’m a doctor.”
“Oh, lovely!” Leslie’s frail voice chippered up. “Our last doctor caught the Peel, had to kick him out before everyone got infected. Ironic, isn’t it? Thought we’d seen the last of that with the Cataclysms, but it just sort of popped up without any say. I’d say that’s more than enough to earn your stay.” Leslie handed the ledger—an old but functional Etch-A-Sketch—to Hanif. “Sign with the knobs. Welcome to Quicksilver.”
Zachary walked with Hanif through the compound, who was guiding the horse Quin was slouched over on. There were rows and rows of white sheds, each with blue roofs and blue shutter doors. Crude windows were cut into the walls and doors of the units, blocked off by plastic wrap and insulation when necessary. A few people kept their units open, and Hanif could see inside. Everyone was fortunate enough to have a mattress, or at the very least a nice cluster of couch cushions. Some were even decked out with a small lounge chair and a bookshelf, or a lantern if they were really decadent. In one of the larger sheds, a man sat behind a card table, with piles and piles of junk behind him, a crudely painted “Trade” sign above him. Children played noisily on a plastic playground set.
At the far edge of the compound was a small plot of land with rows of tall, green plants—corn— and a shed nearby where Hanif could hear the squawking of several chickens.
“Here’s your new home,” Zachary said, handing him the keys to Unit E11. “And Quin, you’ll be just a few rows down. Ok with you?”
Quin nodded. Hanif unlocked the padlock and lifted the door up. The inside was thick slabs of grey concrete, with a single couch cushion, a cot, and a coffee table for amenities. Hanif dropped his backpack, and they proceeded to Quin’s storage unit, just a few units away. Hers was similarly furnished as Hanif’s. Zachary helped her off the horse, and she lay on the cot to rest.
“Now this you’ll appreciate,” Zachary said. He walked with Hanif to a single, solitary RV, its wheels missing but its exterior surprisingly intact. He read the sign above the entrance. “Quicksilver Faith Sanctuary” was carved eloquently into a wooden sign, with an eight-sided star, a cross, and a crescent moon carved beneath.
“Subhanallah,” he said.
“Translate,” Zachary said.
“Glory be to God,” Hanif said, still looking up at the sign. He looked up at the sun; it was just past noon. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to pray.”
“Take your time, old man,” Zachary grinned. “And I’m afraid this is where we part.”
Hanif nodded solemnly, then held out his hand. Zachary clasped it, yanked Hanif toward him, and embraced him. “I’ll say goodbye to the girl. Take care of her, Hanif.”
The two men stepped back, and shook each other’s hands before releasing.
“I will,” Hanif said, then felt something solid in his hands—his wedding ring.
“You can have it back; it wasn’t even worth everything you put me through,” Zachary grinned.
“May God reward you, Zachary.”
Zachary slapped the patch on his shoulder.
“He already has!” He slapped Hanif’s shoulder. “If you ever come back this way, tell me how Mecca was.”
“I will. It’s unlikely, but we already met once before.” Zachary nodded and turned. Hanif watched him walk towards the long row of storage units. Hanif turned to the RV.
He took off his worn, leather boots and stepped inside. His feet nearly sunk into the beige carpet, and it felt like he was walking in Heaven. The interior was empty, save for the dinette (minus seat covers) and the counters. Hanif opened the overhead cabinets above the sink, and found Torahs, Bibles, and Qur’ans lined from left to right in order of revelation. He eagerly grasped the dark green book, its sturdy spine inlaid with golden Arabic. At the end of the RV, behind a set of curtains, was another empty room. But where once stood a master bed, instead there were two prayer carpets, side-by-side.
Tears became lost in Hanif’s beard. He set the Qur’an down beside the light blue prayer mat. He opened his compass and faced Mecca.
He fell to his knees and touched his face upon the carpet. For the first time in a long time, Hanif prayed in peace and tears.
Not long after she woke up, Quin threw up just outside her storage unit. The swelling and stinging in her wounds was becoming worse. She tried to stand up afterward, but doing so still hurt. Her vomit was tinged red.
She heard the gravel crunch rapidly behind her as Hanif came running from his shed, just a few units down. Blood began pumping loudly in her ears, and her head began to ache. She felt a gentle hand on her back.
“Quin,” Hanif said, “Quin, can you hear me?”
She nodded, afraid to speak in case she throw up again. She felt herself being tilted back, resting comfortably against Hanif’s shoulder. His hand was cool against her forehead.
This is it, Quin thought, staring up at the sky, greying over with clouds. This is how I die. Hanif checked the wound below her collarbone. She didn’t need to look at it; she knew it was bad. The others were probably worse.
“Astaghfirullah,” he said. “Come, we need to get you fixed up.” He lifted her up, and she felt motion and movement, but she continued looking up at the sky. She heard and felt Hanif’s but paying attention to sounds was becoming tiresome. Then Hanif stopped, and Quin heard something that caught her attention.
“Salam Alainkum,” a voice—a woman’s voice—said.
“Walainkum Salam,” Hanif said. Quin turned away from the sky and saw a figure standing in front of her. She could only see the woman’s eyes—the rest was covered by the black gown.
“What do you need?” Her voice was stern, almost a contradiction to her soft brown eyes.
“Is there a clinic or something similar here?”
“Yes, follow me and I’ll take you there, inshallah. My name is Fatima.”
“Quin,” Quin groaned, weakly lifting her hand in a wave.
“Hello, Quin. Both of you, come with me,” Fatima said. She walked between the rows of storage units to a large unit at the far end, with the words “Clinic” painted over top of it. She unlocked the shutter door and lifted it up. Inside were three cots, a trolley, a bloodstained coffee table, a filing cabinet, desk, and some boxes of books. A dome of foggy glass had been bolted onto the roof, producing a rudimentary skylight.
Hanif lay Quin down on one of the cots. He opened up a nearby filing cabinet and began sorting through the motley collection of medical tools (or their equivalents) that had been scavenged over the years. Thankfully, he still had his knife.
“Quin,” he said, pulling out an old, yellowy piece of plastic tubing. “I’m going to have to open your wounds to drain them. You may want to be asleep for that.”
Quin shook her head.
“I’m tired of being asleep,” she said.
“Very well. I’ll do what I can to make it painless. Fatima, can you help her put this on,” Hanif pulled out a small, button-up gown from the cabinet. “I’ll go and get some water.”
“I will,” she said, taking the gown. He stepped outside, and Fatima closed the shutter. “We haven’t been properly introduced,” she said. “My name is Fatima Salman.”
“Quin Choi,” Quin lifted her arm up and held it out to Fatima. Fatima took it, and Quin felt the warmth radiating from her hands. Fatima lifted the veil from her face, revealing a face that was almost radiant white, marred only by two lines at the corner of her mouth that deepened as she smiled, and light wrinkles under her eyes. Her hair was an earthly brown, almost matching her oval eyes, with only a few streaks of silver.
“It’s a pleasure meeting you, Quin,” Fatima said. Quin wondered if Fatima knew how beautiful she was.
“Same. Though, for you, I mean,” Quin replied awkwardly. Fatima helped her change into the robe. Quin stared down at the yellowy bandages wrapped around her abdomen.
“You’ll be fine,” Fatima said. “It may not be a hospital,” she motioned to the storage room around them, “but we’ve saved a lot of lives in here.”
“I just came from a hospital,” Quin said, “trust me, this is better.” Fatima laughed. Hanif knocked twice on the other side of the shutter. She put the veil back over her face and then lifted the shutter up. Hanif came in with his backpack and a bowl of pungent water, a smell Quin immediately recognized as vinegar.
“Are you ready, Quin?” Hanif asked. She nodded. Fatima knelt beside her and held her hand. Hanif cleaned the knife.
“Bismillah,” he said, and Fatima repeated it.
After draining, cleaning, and re-bandaging the wounds, Hanif stood outside the shed. Quin had only let slip a few moans and winces, and now she was resting on the cot with Fatima beside her. Nearby, Hanif could see through the fence surrounding the compound, and the long, open plain. He could see the road heading east, the road he longed to walk.
Mecca, he thought, and wondered how far away he must be from it. He felt it pulling at him, like gravity. His feet were sore, but desired the ache of walking. He looked back at Quin. Fatima was talking to her, but her eyes were half closed; she looked at Hanif and smiled, her eyes the only thanks he needed.
There’s a reason for everything, he thought as he smiled back. It would be weeks before she was fully healed, and he would have to clean and drain the wounds to prevent an abscess from forming, and stop the infection from spreading.
He felt the cold wind blowing against his face. A frozen, delicate tingle touched his face; snow.
He knew he was going to be here for a while.
Quicksilver was blanketed in snow only a few days after Hanif and Quin arrived. The gates were locked, and only hunters could leave the compound.
Hanif began praying five times a day instead of three, knowing that this would be home throughout the winter. And every day, after prayer, he would visit Quin and make sure she was feeling well. He saw other girls that were Quin’s age around the compound, and at first they paid her no attention. But as the days became weeks, occasionally he would see hear girlish giggles on the other side of the shutter, and would wait for them to leave before checking up on her. But the girl that visited her most was Fatima.
Fatima, as he had learned, had come to Quicksilver five years ago with her son, a teenager named Marwan. She had come from the deserts of the Deep South, where her husband had been killed by Slavers. She had escaped with her son, though her daughter had long been taken from her.
“I can only hope she is dead,” Fatima said.
The second week he was there, Hanif was setting and wrapping the broken wrist of a man named Vince when he noticed a small line of people waiting outside the clinic. The next few patients had easy-fixes: a gouge that needed to be stitched, a case of frostbite, and what appeared to be an onset of flu.
“Need some help?” Fatima asked.
“That would be appreciated. Jazakallah khair.”
Fatima took care of the smaller issues—often fixed with a stitch or bandage—while Hanif would look after the larger problems: cysts and infections and broken bones.
On Fridays he would close up the clinic for an hour and go with Fatima and Marwan to the RV and share a quick spiritual reminder, followed by prayers. Though the world outside demanded his expertise, he was deliberate when he delivered his speech, and slow and smooth in his prayers and motions; for the first time in a long time, he could ignore the world and turn his full attention to God.
“So when are you and Hanif gonna hook up?” Quin said bluntly. She sat on her bed, cross-legged, a mischievous smirk across her face as Fatima became flustered. Her wounds had almost fully healed, but she was still careful when she moved—less so when she spoke.
“Hanif? I’m… well, isn’t he—”
“Oh, don’t deny it. I mean, what if you two are the last Muslims left on earth?”
Fatima patted Quin’s foot.
“Don’t be silly.”
“I’m just sayin’. What are the odds of another eligible bachelor strolling through Quicksilver?”
“Aren’t you and him just here until spring?”
“Well, that was the plan,” Quin rocked on her bed. “But… maybe he’ll stay—we’ll stay—if he has a good reason to.”
Fatima was quiet for a moment, and Quin searched her face for emotion.
“Where were you two going, anyway? Neither of you have ever said.”
“Mecca. We’re going to Mecca.”
Quin could practically see the light fade from Fatima’s face.
“Why? What is it?”
“Nothing, it’s ok.”
“I’ve heard… I’ve heard that it’s gone.”
Quin felt her heart sink.
“How could it…”
“I don’t know for sure,” Fatima looked away, the trouble clear in her large brown eyes. “That’s just what I’ve heard people say. I know I’ll never be able to find out myself… and I’m not sure if I want to know.”
“Why wouldn’t you want to know?”
“Sometimes hope is better than knowing, Quin.”
“But…” Quin fidgeted with her fingers. “I need to know. Don’t you?”
“When I was in a Slaver camp… I wondered why God let those men do those things to me… to my daughter…my son,” she looked away as she spoke. “And my son and I ran. We found Quicksilver, a little miracle in the dust, and I knew—I knew—that this is where I was meant to be. This is where God put me. I’ll never know what happened to my daughter, and I don’t want to. But my son and I are safe here. Here we have our faith and our community. And that alone is reason to believe.”
Fatima stood up and drew the veil over her face. “I have to go help at the clinic. We can keep talking later, Quin.”
Quin nodded as Fatima left. When the shutter to her unit was closed, Quin sat, feeling the need to both run away and stay where she was tearing her up from inside.
Quin would sit in on Sunday sermons and on Friday prayers, listening intently. Many of the topics they spoke about overlapped: the importance of honesty, doing good, and trust in God (and after having spent hours alone in a Wastrel den, Quin figured she had that one down; the other two she needed to work on). But afterward, she would grab a few books out of the cabinet in the hopes that, somehow, she would be able to read them. But she never could; they were all just symbols on a page.
Once, after Friday prayers, Hanif was teaching Fatima’s son, Marwan, to write in Arabic. Quin sat at the dinette table and had her three books laid on front of her; one of them was written with blocky, angular symbols; another was written with flowing lines and dots; the last one was written with familiar letters but in patterns she had never recognized before. She stared at the symbols in the books waiting, hoping to latch onto miraculous understanding.
“You have a Torah, a Qur’an, and a Bible,” someone said, surprising her. “Written in Hebrew, Arabic, and Latin.”
Quin looked up and saw Marwan standing at the corner of the table. He was tall and thin, with skin darker than Fatima’s but lighter than Hanif’s. “Can you read them?”
Quin slammed one of the books close, and stood up from the table.
“No,” she said, keeping her face down.
“Why were you reading them then?”
Quin clenched her teeth.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Look, it’s ok. There are English ones up there, too.”
Quin clenched her fists.
“Just leave me alone!”
She was about to leave when she saw Hanif and Fatima standing in front of the door. Her tense posture melted into embarrassment.
“What’s this all about?” Fatima asked.
“I don’t know,” Marwan said. “I was just asking her some questions.”
“Shut up,” Quin muttered and looked away, folding her arms.
“I can look after the clinic,” Fatima said.
“Alright. I won’t be long,” Hanif said. Fatima nodded and motioned for Marwan to come with her. When they left, Hanif walked over, closed the rest of Quin’s books and put them in the cabinet. He sat down, and motioned for Quin to sit across from him.
She sat down beside him, and folded her hands in front of her on the table.
“Now, breathe deep, calm down, and tell me what’s troubling you,” Hanif said. Quin did as she was told.
“I just… I want to know. And I thought that…” Quin fidgeted with her fingers. “Never mind. It’s stupid.”
“You thought that just by opening a holy book you’d become a miracle.”
Quin hung her head for a moment, and Hanif continued. “You thought you’d suddenly be able to read and understand them, correct?”
Quin nodded again. Hanif let the silence hang between them for a moment.
“Remember what I told you in the hospital?”
“God helps those who help themselves. I know. I just… I want to know. I want to know why I’m here—why we’re here, in Quicksilver. I want to know, you know, what my push is.”
“Well, if you want to read, you should start by learning English first,” Hanif said. “Go see Elizabeth Naslund. She runs a small school here for the kids.”
“She already started,” Quin rebuked, “I can’t just jump in. Plus the other girls would just make fun of me. I mean, what good am I? I can’t read, I can’t write. How am I supposed to do anything with my life if I can’t even do those?”
Quin rested her head in her small hands.
“The man I admire most is Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him,” Hanif said. “He was God’s Messenger, he taught us how to perform our religion, how to be good people. And he couldn’t read or write either.”
Quin paused for a moment, then looked up at Hanif, the shining trails of stray tears on her cheek. She gave him a look that seemed to ask Really?
“And the girl I admire most also can’t read or write. But she’ll learn.”
Quin sniffled, and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. “And she’ll also learn proper hygiene as well,” Hanif said. Quin laughed, and did it again anyway.
“Fatima likes you,” Quin said. “Like, a lot.”
Quin could see it: she and Hanif, Fatima and Marwan, all living in the same place, together, no veils, no barriers between them. A family. A dream.
“I can’t,” Hanif said. She looked up at him; his aged face lost the tautness of cheer, and was clouded by lines of sorrow that he tried to suppress.
“Why?” Quin pleaded, though she already knew the answer.
“Because,” he breathed in deep. “I have to make it to Mecca.”
For the first time, Quin felt her heart drop at the name.
“But we’re here. We’re safe here. We can… we can be a family here. You can marry Fatima and I can—we can have a family.”
“It is safe here,” Hanif said. “Which is exactly why you’re staying. But when spring comes, I’ll have to leave.”
Quin looked away from him and stared down at the fists her hands had curled up in, squeezing tight as though to stop the tears from flowing.
“You’ll come back, though, right?”
“No, Quin. When I get there… If it’s still there… I plan to stay there until I die.”
Quin slammed her fist on the table, for the first time startling Hanif.
“But why?” her voice began to raise, “What good is that gonna do? There are people here who love you, Hanif. Why would you leave them? The world out there is shit—”
“Calm down, Quin.”
“Why? You’re not making sense! You’re the only person who ever gave a damn about me, and now you’re leaving me!”
“It’s not just for me, Quin,” Hanif said, almost coming close to a shout. She felt the blood drain from her at his words and she was left speechless. He seemed to be contemplating if he should keep talking. “I had a wife, once. And a boy.” He fidgeted with the ring around his finger. “They died because of me. Because of mistakes I made. They both wanted to do the pilgrimage,” now Hanif looked down at his hands. “They wanted to go so bad. I was supposed to protect them, and I’m all that’s left. When I’ve finished Hajj for myself, I’m going to do it for them. And for my brother. My sisters. My parents and grandparents and everyone I knew who never made it.”
Quin was struck silent.
“But I…” Quin started. “I can’t do this on my own. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.”
She wiped away the tears in her eyes before she would let them fall again.
“Are you alive, Quin?”
“What kind of question is that? Of course I’m alive.”
“Then you can do this. Whatever happens to us, we can handle it. Otherwise it wouldn’t happen. God doesn’t charge a soul with what it cannot bear. But you’ll have to bear it without me.”
Hanif stood up from the table.
“Why can’t you stay?” Quin asked one last time. Hanif paused before leaving the RV.
“Just like you, Quin: I need to know.”
When the snow melted, a few months later, Quin still had learned the alphabet and simple words, and Hanif had finished writing everything he knew about saving lives. Leslie, the old lady in the office, died of pneumonia, and so her record was shaken from the Etch-a-Sketch. Her assistant, Madeline, took her position, and offered Quin a job as an assistant.
“I can’t spell all that good yet,” Quin said.
“Don’t matter,” Madeline said. “They don’t last long anyway.”
It was only her first day of work when Hanif came in. She stood behind the desk with Madeline. He was dressed in his thick jacket, and he had his backpack on.
“Quin,” he said.
“Hanif,” she responded.
“We’ll miss you, Dr. Hanif,” Madeline said. “My son says thanks for saving his hearing.”
“Thank you, Madeline. The clinic’s in good hands. Everything I know I’ve passed on to Fatima.”
There was a pause as Quin and Hanif met glances.
“Quin. You’ll be fine. You’ll find—”
“Thanks. Keys, please.”
Hanif’s lips seemed to retract and scrunch. Quin locked her stare, but wanted badly to look away. Hanif handed over the key with a nod.
She walked into the back room and pulled Hanif’s Etch-a-Sketch record off the wall. Her throat hurt and her eyes stung as she read it.
Abdullah Hanif Zaidi
Dependent: Quin Choi
Arrived: October 24, 153 PC
Other: Former Rose Thorn
She ruthlessly shook it until it was erased. As she stared at the blank screen, she felt a similar blankness in her mind. Reality struck her: Hanif was leaving. He was either going to die in Mecca or die on the way to Mecca. She would never see him again.
When she stepped back into the office, Hanif was gone.
“Real shame, that,” Madeline said. “Would have been nice to have him around longer.”
Quin stared down, and could see the ghostly remnants of Hanif’s record. She scrawled own record at the top:
Quin Abigail Choi
Arrived: October 24, 153 PC
But in the background, she could still see the faint lines of the word Dependent.
Quin was in the record room, taking an inventory of the hunters’ catches, and which seeds were going to be planted this year. But her mind was focused on her last conversation with Hanif, only two days ago. She worried the ridges of Hanif’s key with her thumb. She barely heard the gate outside squeal open, and the murmur of Madeline welcoming the new tenet.
Something jolted Quin, like an icicle stabbing into the base of her spine, freezing her from the waist up.
Her heart was nearly bursting in her chest.
“Quin! Can you bring me a key?”
Her vision blurred. She threw the key out the doorway.
“Hey!” Madeline said. “That was rude.”
“Yes, Quin. No need to be rude.”
The window, Quin thought. She slid the window at the back of the room open, the panic in her veins making no effort to be discreet. She dropped out of the window onto the gravel, and ran. She ran to the one place she knew he wouldn’t follow her.
She flew inside the RV and locked the door. She curled inside the cabinet beneath the sink and waited. And waited. And waited. And still her heart would not stop pounding. Her mind was exploding with thoughts–What do I do? How is he alive? What does he want?
The lock snapped as the door was shoved open. Heavy boots fell on the carpet. A thick sour smell filled the room. Quin dared not breath.
The cabinet flung open and a giant hand dragged Quin out by the hair. She tried to scream, but a thick clothe was covered over her mouth. A voice shushed her as noxious fumes began to overpower her, and in a horrifying moment of recognition she recognized the smell: it was the same chemical from Hanif’s backpack.
And the last thing she saw before succumbing to the darkness was a twisted smile.
The first thing Quin noticed was the smell of rotting wood and the sound of grunts and squeals nearby. She opened her eyes. A few rays of orange light sliced through the walls around her.
When she attempted to rub her eyes, her hands wouldn’t budge—they were tied together behind the chair she was sitting on. She looked down and saw was wearing a blue dress and white stockings.
Beside her a voice whispered her name.
She turned and gasped. Hanif’s face was swollen and gashed, his nose broken and his lip split open. He was trying to say something, but the words wouldn’t leave his mouth. His beard was maroon with dried blood.
“Don’t talk,” Quin said, and Hanif complied.
She looked down. His left foot was missing, leaving only a bloody, wrapped up stump, and his right leg from the kneecap down was smashed and bent in the wrong direction.
“How do you like the dress, sweetpea? It belonged to my daughter, Harley.”
Quin stared forward. In the slices of light, she could see him standing, hands behind his back. Behind him, a small fog rose from the grunting and snorting pigs. He walked forward slowly.
“You remember Harley, right? You remember Cedar Village? You burned my life down. That fire… it didn’t stop for three days. It burned everything. And those who survived all wandered away. But me—I stayed. My wife my sons, and daughters, they stayed with me. They kept me warm. Kept me fed.” Dizzy stopped a few steps away from Quin. She could see wrinkled, pink skin on the side of his face, along with a marble-white eye and only a hole in the side of his head for an ear. His light brown hair was missing along the side of his head, replaced with angry red skin. And still he smiled. “And I promised them I would find the one that took our home from us.” Dizzy set something down on the floor and placed a gnarled hand on Quin’s leg. She tried to kick it, but her legs were tied to the chair as well. “What luck finding Hanif, all by his lonesome, heading east right after the snow melted. And what luck finding you, only a few days later. And now he—” Dizzy motioned towards Hanif, “is a cripple who is about to be fed to the pigs. And you are about to be burned alive.”
Quin saw what it was that Dizzy had set down: a blowtorch. He picked it up. In the darkness there were a few sparks of light from his friction lighter, and then there was a long, flickering flame like a tongue.
“I’m gonna burn you, sweetpea. It’s going to hurt. But I won’t kill you, I promise. I’ll take care of you. But I’m gonna burn you so you never forget it.”
“Just kill me instead.”
“I should, shouldn’t I? But I don’t blame you. You’re so young,” he stroked her hair, “You don’t know better.” He looked over at Hanif. “I wouldn’t want you to miss our first dinner of Hanif-fed pork chops, would I? But first,” he lifted the blowtorch up, and turned the knob on the side until the flame was blue and screaming. “Start from the top, work my way down.”
Quin clenched her teeth and tensed her body. A blue dagger of rising heat came closer to her face. She strained against the ropes, uselessly. “That dress looks good on you,” Dizzy said, his voice quivering.
There was a broken, agonized roar as Hanif smashed into Dizzy. The flame seared into the side of Quin’s face and dragged through her ear and the back of her neck. She screamed briefly, then looked up—the blowtorch was on the floor. Dizzy was cursing, swearing, while Hanif, still tied to the chair except his stump of a leg, was on top of him. Quin tipped herself over, and writhed around so that the blowtorch was behind her. The flame stabbed the palm of her hand, and she moved her hands until the flame began cutting through the rope. Dizzy was giving Hanif a flurry of blows to the face. Nearby, the pigs squealed in excitement.
Her hands broke free. She grabbed the blowtorch and dug the flame into the rope around her leg. It snapped free, and she started on the other one. It came free just as a shaky, sweaty hand clamped down over her mouth, and another grabbed the blowtorch. She was dragged onto the grainy, dusty floor. The blowtorch was ripped from her hands and she was flipped onto her stomach.
Quin thrashed, kicking wildly and trying to flip herself over. Dizzy knelt on her legs, pinning them to the floor, and pressed her head into the ground. He held the blowtorch up near her face and leaned forward, nearly pressing his face against hers.
“This will take a while,” he said. “It takes a while for sweetpeas to spoil.” He kissed the line of burnt flesh that dragged down her face.
In the blue light of the blowtorch, Quin saw a small pinprick of light on the floor. She shot her hand forward, searing her arm, and grabbed it—a nail—and thrust it behind her. Dizzy shrieked and reeled back. Quin unpinned herself from beneath him, grabbed the blowtorch, and shoved it into his chest. Both of them screaming wildly, Quin pushed Dizzy onto the floor, his shirt and chest hair and skin being consumed by a spreading flame. He grabbed the back of Quin’s head and tried to pull her into his growing inferno. His milky white eye stared at her, and the other had been obliterated by the nail sticking out of it. As she resisted, her hand slipped and the blowtorch dragged up into his throat. She slipped out of his grasp, and the blowtorch slid down, lighting his hair on fire.
Quin rolled away as the wild, shrieking mass of flame rolled and kicked wildly. The smell of roasting hair and skin made Quin want to throw up. The pigs, however, were driven into a frenzy, nearly climbing over each other to reach their cooking meal.
She stepped back, and watched Dizzy scream and burn until the only sound he made was the crinkling and popping of roasting fat.
She looked at Hanif; he hadn’t moved.
“Hanif,” she said weakly, and then said again. She nearly collapsed beside him. She could hear any breaths from him nor see the rise and fall of his chest. She pushed lightly on his shoulder. “Come on, Hanif,” tears began to sting her eyes. “Come on.” She leaned in, placing her ear beside his mouth.
Except a faint whisper of air.
Quin drew back; Hanif was alive.
She gazed around the darkness of the barn and spotted a wheelbarrow in the corner. She rolled it over and, as gently as she could, lifted Hanif into it. She opened up the barn door and stared out at the expanse of brown prairie in front of her, bathed in the orange of the early sunrise. She didn’t know where she was.
She grabbed Hanif’s backpack and pulled the compass out of the front pocket. She remembered which way he would face when praying, which direction he was walking in. She knew where she was going. She grabbed the wheelbarrow and rushed out the door, just as the first of the pigs managed to climb over the top of the pen.
The burns on Quin’s face, hand, and leg were bandaged quickly. Not that she cared: in front of her, laying on the cot in the Quicksilver clinic, Hanif was on the verge of death.
“He’s alive,” Fatima said, “I don’t know how, but he is.”
Quin stared quietly at Hanif.
“Subhannallah,” she said, the one Arabic word she knew aptly filling in the quiet.
“Yes. Subhanallah,” Fatima replied.
For days Hanif barely moved, and whenever Quin left she feared that she would miss his last moments. She and Fatima kept constant watch over him, with Marwan doing what he could to help out. The bones in his broken leg were set and his leg was set in a cast, and the stump where his foot used to be was cleaned and bandaged almost daily.
For the next month, Quin was restless. She couldn’t concentrate in the office or at school. Her mind was always going back to Hanif.
“He wakes up every now and then,” Fatima said. “But he knows better than to try and move.”
“When do you think he’ll be able to walk?”
“Many months. And even then, he won’t be able to walk properly,” she sighed and sat down beside Quin. Quin knew the unspoken truth between them, but she found the courage to say it. “He won’t be going to Mecca, will he?”
Fatima shook her head, and even through the veil Quin could see she was crying. And she thought she saw Hanif tense up, ever so slightly.
“I’ll stay here tonight,” Quin said. “In case he wakes up.”
Fatima embraced her.
“Goodnight, Quin.” Fatima said.
Quin waited, staring at the dark outline of Hanif, barely illuminated in the lantern light.
The compass clicked open and shut in her hands. Her heart wavered; whenever she looked at Hanif, she knew what she had to do. But when she looked at or thought about anything else, she trembled.
Hanif was broken. And yet she knew that once he recovered, he would continue his long walk anyway. He would hobble and limp toward Mecca if he had to.
The compass clicked open and shut in her hands. Hanif muttered something; she tried to make sense of it, as though it was some final message of encouragement to her. But it was just noise.
“God,” she said quietly. “What do I do?”
But as she stared at the compass, she already knew.
She packed her bag.
She erased her record from the office.
And in the morning she was gone.