by zaelyna (© 2011)
Pain. Ga-gunk. Loud vibrations echoed across Quince’s eardrums. Everything touched him at once, through all of his senses. Rodents scurried, squeaking about in fear of the hawk that stalked them from above. The silent predator had his gaze fixed on Quince — for he was 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 level, he supposed the hawk understood. It flapped away from its branchy perch and soared through the tree tops. The whoosh from its wings rang out at Quince. Another thunderous tone amonst the thousand tiny voices that refused his pleas for peace.
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 realised he still had his eyes shut. But why was everything so bright? Quince lifted one lid in a tight squint and tried to make sense of his surroundings. “Aaagh!” He forced his eyes shut again as a sharp burn pierced them.
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.
Quince felt her shift beside him.
“Try not to move. Your ears are bleeding.”
Alarmed, Quince prodded his ear. Spots of dried blood crumpled at his touch. A warm, sticky liquid trickled over his fingertips. He brought his hand to his mouth. The bitter, rusty smell confirmed what Lani had said: blood.
Panic rose up his throat. How did it happen?
“Do you remember anything?” Quince clutched Lani’s arm.
“Not much,” she said. “A bright light, maybe.”
“Not so loud.”
Lani stroked a finger over his forehead. “What’s going on?” She seemed unaffected by all the sounds and rich smells. Why was it only his senses being 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 jump beneath him. He softened his voice. “Please.”
She nodded. He didn’t know how he knew that, but she nodded. “Why can’t you open your eyes?”
“Hurts,” he said. “Too bright.” He wished he could explain it, but short words and phrase were all he could muster the energy to say. “Can you see?”
Quince cringed at her blunt reply, though she spoke with sympathy.
He managed to focus more. He could distinguish two sounds above the others. They sounded similar. Heart beats! His and Lani’s, both beating fast, unleashing the fear they tried to quench.
“Where are we?”
“A forest.” Lani gulped. “Nothing familiar, though.”
“A forest?” There weren’t any forests near the park. A thin patch of trees scattered throughout, perhaps, but nothing dense. Quince sat up. The force made him dizzy. He pressed a palm against his temple. “We were in a cave,” Quince 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. Something.”
Lani shook her head. “Nothing.”
The inside of Quince’s 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 the pain worse. Whatever irritated his nose also stung his tongue. Pain hacked at his teeth like it did after a foolish bite 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 said there’s nothing here.”
“No, shh! I just heard –.” Quince cut himself off. Probably another sound among the ones already deafening him. Which meant someone else must be nearby. Watching.
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 knew better. That was weeks ago, after an evening in an empty park. Empty, except for Quince.
And the dog.