Pain. Ga-gunk. Loud vibrations echoed across Quince’s eardrums. Ga-gunk. Everything touched him at once, through all of his senses. Rodents scurried about, squeaking in fear of the stalking hawk overhead. The silent predator had his gaze fixed on Quince as well—an unfamiliar, unwanted visitor in the hawk’s territory.
Quince pushed his own unease toward the hawk and prayed to be left alone. On some leve, he supposed the hawk understoodf. It flapped away from its perch and soared through the treetops. The whoosh from its wings rang out at Quince, another thunderous tone amongst the thousands of tiny voices that refused to obey his pleas for silence.
His head pounded. It was a persistent, nonsensical ringing that reminded him of the collected voices housed in a mall during Christmas rush. It filled his head and made it hard to focus.
Quince felt around with his hands. Moist vegetation stuck to his palms. The tap, tap, tap of droplets landing on a nearby leaf continued to reverberate. Quince moaned, and brought his hands to his ears, but the pressure only forced the sound of his own heart to fill his head.
He moved his head around and realized he still had his eyes shut tight. Why, then, was everything so bright? Quince lifted one lid in a tight squint and tried to make sense of his surroundings. “Aaagh!” He shut his eye as a sharp burn pierced it.
Someone whispered, “Shhh,” in what was clearly meant to be a soothing tone, but it made Quince cringe.
“Who’s there?” He felt someone raise his head and rest it on a soft surface. It wasn’t a pillow, but it felt better on his skull than the hard ground.
“Lani,” the voice said. Quince felt her shift beneath him. “Try not to move. Your ears are bleeding.”
Alarmed, Quince prodded his ear again. Spots of dried blood crumpled at his fingertips. A warm, sticky liquid trickled over his fingers. He brought his hand to his mouth. The bitter, rusty smell confirmed what Lani had said: blood. Panic rose in his throat. How did it happen? “Do you remember anything?” Quince clutched at Lani’a arm.
“Not much,” she said. “A bright light, maybe.”
“Not so loud.”
Lani stroked a finger over his forehead. His heart beat faster. “What’s going on?” She seemed unaffected by all the sounds and rich smells.
Why was it only his senses kicked into overdrive? “I can’t open my eyes.” He felt her gasp as much as he heard it.
“What do you mean you can’t open them?” Her voice was hard. Ga-gunk. Scared.
“Whisper!” He felt her cringe beneath his head. He softened his voice. “Please.”
She nodded. He didn’t know how he knew, but she nodded. “Why can’t you open them?”
“Hurts,” he said. “Too bright.” He wished he could explain it, but short words and phrases were all he could muster. “Can you see?”
Though she spoke with sympathy, Quince disliked her blunt reply.
He managed to focus a little more. He could distinguish two sounds above the others. They sounded similar. Heartbeats—his and Lani’s—both beating fast, unleashing the fear they tried to hold back. “Where are we?”
“A forest.” Lani swallowed. “Nothing familiar, though.”
“A forest?” There weren’t any forests near the park. Thin patches of trees scattered throughout, perhaps, but nothing dense. Quince sat up, which made him dizzy. He pressed a palm against his temple. “We were in a cavern,” he said.”
“I know.” Lani eased him back to her lap. “It’s disappeared.”
“What do you mean ‘disappeared’?” He turned toward her voice, but didn’t dare open his eyes again. “It collapsed around us, Lani. There should be rubble everywhere.”
The inside of his nose burned. With each breath, a dozen new smells crawled inside. Sweat, dirt, pine, grime. He tried to inhale through his mouth instead, but that made things worse. Whatever irritated his nose also stung his tongue. Pain hacked at his teeth as if he’d bitten into a frozen spoonful of ice cream. Quince grabbed his chest, hoping to numb the burn in his lungs.
Focus through the pain!
Quince clenched his teeth. “What?”
“I didn’t… say anything.”
“I just heard—.” Quince cut himself off. He’d thought he’d sensed someone nearby, watching. Quince mentally shook his head. Probably just another senseless sound among the ones already deafening him. Even if it wasn’t, he didn’t want to further alarm Lani.
Lani shifted her weight and helped Quince lean back into her chest. “Try and relax.” She rested her chin on his shoulder and supported his neck with her head.
He took in the faint trace of her perfume, which felt as fresh as morning to him.
“How did we get here?”
It felt like the cave-in happened just before he woke up in the forest, but Quince suddenly knew better. That was weeks ago, after an evening in an empty park. Empty except for Quince.
And the dog.