The door exploded from its hinges, and a platoon of Incendi troopers armed with electroshock batons scrambled through the twisted frame, separating into squads to search the upper and lower floors. The husband and wife who resided in the humble two-story unit were pushed against the wall at the base of the stairs, awaiting judgment. Terror flashed in their eyes as the police ransacked the home, toppling furniture and smashing belongings.
A young officer approached the couple, looking at them with a strange mix of sympathy and loathing. Tall and thin with a chiseled jaw and icy blue eyes, the captain was clad in black like his men and wore a fedora tilted forward on his brow. A gold flame insignia pinned near its peak flickered as the overhead light played upon its polished surface.
“Your daughter. Where is she?” The captain spoke softly, his words laboring under the weight of concern. He stepped past them toward the kitchen, awaiting an answer. One of the squads was finishing its search there, cupboards were open, a pile of shattered dishes on the floor. The captain scanned the place settings on the dining table: two cups, two dishes, a knife and fork each.
“S…she’s out with a f…friend,” the man stammered. “She hasn’t come home yet.” Finding his courage, he added, “Why are you here? What do you want?”
The Incendi captain shook his head in disappointment. He hated to bear witness to such resistance, such denial. It was even worse, knowing a child was involved. He approached the man, whispering as he moved. With an open palm, he struck him square in the chest, hurling him back against the wall. The man crumpled to the floor in agony.
“Stop!” shrieked the woman. She went to her husband and cradled him in her arms. With pleading eyes, she looked up at the officer. “Please. We’ve done nothing wrong.”
The captain turned toward the battered front door. “That’s not what I’ve been told.”
She followed his eyes to her next-door neighbor standing in the shadows beyond the threshold, arms crossed to shield her against the cool night air and the guilt of betrayal.
“Mrs. Tulley?” The words caught in her throat, and she began to sob. “What have you done to us?”
Just then, a voice rang out from the second floor: “Captain Mordred! Here!”
Mordred sneered in disgust at the man and woman huddled together on the floor. “You have no one to blame but yourselves.” He nodded for them to be taken away, before striding up the stairs.
Near the far end of the second-floor hallway, two troopers stood at attention next a rectangular waist-high opening in the wall. Hanging from an enclosed vertical hinge, a false radiator matching the cavity’s dimensions was suspended between them. Calling for a flashlight, the Incendi captain removed his fedora and crouched low, edging his way through the narrow passage.
It opened into a thin windowless room. Particles of dust hung in the air, glowing embers caught in the shaft of light emerging from his hand. Mordred pointed the beam at the floor, and concentric circles of gold marked the worn carpet like a target. Still crouching, he moved slowly, carefully, pausing after each step, studying the floor’s surface, knowing that readers often left traps for Incendi. Seeing no evidence of subterfuge, Mordred straightened and raised the light. He couldn’t believe what he saw.
The walls were covered by shelves filled with books! Halfway down the outer wall was a standing lamp with two high back leather chairs on either side. After careful inspection of the reading light’s mechanism, Mordred switched it on and called to the two men waiting outside. Entering the space, their eyes widened.
“We will perform the Lighting as soon as I’ve examined the contraband,” said Mordred. “CEO Fay will be proud of our work tonight. Praise the Corporation.”
“Praise the Corporation!” repeated the troopers.
The Lighting ceremony was completed exactly as prescribed, the same words, the same rituals, just as Morgan Fay had instructed her first Incendi two and a half decades before. With his lieutenants standing at attention behind him, Mordred reached for a small gold case buckled to the wide leather belt of his uniform. Flipping back its lid, he pulled out a match and struck it against the case’s side. A flame hissed into existence, and he straightened his arm, holding the burning match out in front of him.
“With this flame, I bring light,” he intoned. “With this heat, I cleanse.”
He waited a moment before letting the tiny torch fall on a pile of crumpled pages at his feet. Then, dropping his arm to his side, he pivoted in place and led his men out.
The fire crept across the floor, devouring paper and carpet, gaining momentum as it spread. A thick, black smoke filled the room, rolling over itself like a storm cloud, ravenous flames growling hungrily as they climbed. A moment later, there was another sound: a deep, drum-like thudding, barely audible above the burning tempest. A lower section of the shelf separated from the wall, and a row of hard covers slapped the floor. More books cascaded to the carpet, and a groping hand emerged.
The girl coughed violently, retching as she labored to breath amid the thickening blanket of smoke. She squeezed out from behind the book case, reaching back to pull a duffel bag from the cavity, pushing aside the dish, cup, and utensils her father had cast into the void in the rush to hide her. The bag held provisions, preparations made for a day they prayed would never come.
Making sure her vidlink was in her pocket, she lifted the hood of her sweatshirt and with eyes clenched shut, crawled across the floor, dragging the duffel bag. Scalding heat seared her throat as she gasped for air, her face and hands feeling like they were on fire. Gulping a mouthful of acrid smoke, an intense wave of nausea washed over the girl, and she fell against the wall of books. She was helpless now, certain she was going to die.
As the firestorm raged, her mind floated away from the horror. She was a young child again, sitting on her father’s lap, following his finger as it traced words on the page. She giggled and squirmed with excitement as the story unfolded, peeking ahead, eager to find out how the tale would end. Her mother leaned toward her from the adjacent chair, her smiling face awash in the light of the reading lamp. This is our secret, Arti. You can’t tell anyone. She could hear herself answer, I promise.
When the story was done, she reached across with her tiny hand and closed the book’s cover. She smiled up at her parents expectantly, waiting to say the ritual words together.
And they lived happily ever after.
From somewhere in the cloud of her delirium, Arti Penderhagen heard the books on the shelves call to her, drawing her back to the present. Words echoed from their pages, guiding her hand along their bindings, showing her the way out.
Arti’s memory of her escape from the burning home was as cloudy as the smoke that stung her eyes and filled her lungs. She wasn’t sure what happened in those last desperate moments, incapacitated as she was by the raging inferno. The fact that she thought she heard the books speak to her was an indication of just how impaired her judgment had been. She wondered what she would have done if they had summoned her toward the flames. Would I have followed? Would I be dead?
She didn’t want to think about it. All that mattered was that she made it out of the burning library, finding her way to the window at the end of the upstairs hall. Propping it open with a piece of wood that was resting on the sill, an inrush of fresh air poured over her, and she coughed violently, throwing back her hood, taking several deep breaths. Once her head was clear, she threw the duffel bag out and scrambled over the sill, hanging precariously by her fingertips until she found the courage to let herself drop to the lawn below. The height was greater than expected; she struck the ground hard and rolled onto her side. Looking toward the front of the house to make sure no one was watching, she scrambled to retrieve the bag and crossed the backyard to a rickety cedar fence barely visible in the darkness. Momentarily snagged by a protruding wire as she straddled the barrier, she pulled herself free and melted into the night.
Arti alternated between a fast walk and a jog, all the while wrestling with the awkward weight of the duffel bag and bouts of convulsive coughing. She threaded her way along a series of dark, deserted backstreets, avoiding the main thoroughfares still likely to have pedestrians and traffic, putting as much distance as she could between herself and the flames that devoured a life she could never return to. After walking for over an hour through a suburban maze of homes and apartment buildings, Arti found a narrow alley between two rows of townhouses where she could rest and examine the contents of the duffel bag.
Loosening the rope around the mouth of the canvas sack, Arti peered inside. It was too dark to see what was there, so she plunged her hand in and felt around. As luck would have it, the first thing she touched was a thin, metal flashlight. When she pulled it out and switched it on, she was surprised to see how black her hands were, guessing the rest of her probably looked the same. She shook soot from her hair and brushed away ash and grit still clinging to the baggy hooded sweatshirt draped over her thin frame. Stifling a cough, she examined her torn pants, gingerly touching a lacerated knee, the product of her battle with the fence. She coughed again, the heaviness in her chest and a wave of nausea reminding her that the minor wound was the least of her worries.
Shining the light into the bag, she inspected the rest of her supplies. There were a few cans of food, a small jug of water, a knife in a plastic sheath, a blanket, a lighter, and a red Corporation credit chip worth fifty flash. She saw something else: a letter.
Propping the flashlight on her leg, Arti unfolded the paper slowly, noting the rough edge that ran down one side. She guessed it was from one of the books in the library. In the ever-shrinking world of print, scribes were forced to cannibalize the blank pages found at the front and back of manuscripts; there were simply no other sources of paper available to them. Pens were even rarer, as was the ink they used. This was one of the few examples of pen writing Arti had ever seen.
She knew that her mother and father had learned the skill when they were very young, in the final years before the practice was abolished in schools, but she could count on one hand how many times she had seen them do it. The characters on the page appeared to have been applied in hesitant and uneven strokes, but the words they formed were legible. Arti wondered which of her parents’ hands had crafted the message.
If you are reading this, it means the library has been found, and the Incendi have taken us. We know how frightened you must be, but try to be strong, and remember everything we told you.
The Incendi will be hunting you now. Get to Isle as fast as you can. Stick to the plan, and trust no one.
Be safe. We love you.
Mom and Dad
Arti’s parents had always warned her that such a day could come, making her rehearse the escape plan from the time she was old enough to understand their instructions. The secret library, if found, would be a deception in itself. They were correct in thinking the police would not search behind its shelves, but they didn’t expect the collection of books to be burned immediately upon discovery. Had they known this, they would never have put their daughter at such risk. Normal Incendi procedure involved cordoning off homes where contraband had been found to allow for Network coverage and a full Corporate investigation. That usually took days, more than enough time for their daughter to slip away unseen. Arti could only imagine the horror her parents must have felt knowing the house was being burned with her inside.
Tears welled in her eyes making the words a watery blur on the page. After a few minutes and another coughing fit, she stood and gulped some water from the jug, then returned it to the duffel bag. Switching off the flashlight, she pocketed it along with the letter.
“Stick to the plan,” she whispered, pulling the hood over her head, “and trust no one.”
Arti had hoped to arrive at the West Bridge before midnight, but nearly two hours into the trek her pace had slowed considerably. She had never been to this part of the city before, and she lost her way more than once in the labyrinth of backstreets and boulevards crisscrossing its southern reaches. Precious time had been lost, and she knew that every minute that passed increased the likelihood of capture.
Listening through a tiny speaker plugged into her ear, Arti feigned interest in the ads scrolling across the vidlink’s screen. The latest Corporation lottery was worth ten million flash, the sound of cheering accompanied an explosion of colored pixels. Barry Briton, star of the highest rated linkshow, Eyes on the Prize, pointed at the viewer and shouted, “You could be next!”
The lottery ad faded away, and another took its place. This one featured a beautiful young woman with long auburn hair and skin like porcelain. Her green eyes sparkled above a toothy smile as the newest line of Fay Industries products—vidlinks, eyecams, and spylids—danced around her. “A picture is worth a thousand words,” she said, pulling one of the devices magically from the air, turning its tiny screen toward the viewer. “Show, don’t tell. You are the Corporation.”
Another blaze of light filled the screen, introducing a “newsflash”. It was no coincidence that it shared the same name as the Corporation’s currency, since the announcements almost always featured rewards given for turning in readers and, on rare occasions, the even more dangerous and elusive scribes.
A line of troopers stood at attention in front of a burning home. A crowd of people bathed in the light of the fire cheered. A child with his back to the camera extended an arm to a tall Incendi officer. The captain in his fedora smiled as he shook the boy’s hand. The words Ten thousand flash echoed in Arti’s ear.
The camera panned across the home’s burning façade, and Arti immediately recognized it through the flames. That’s my house!
The crowd cheered again, and the boy turned to face the camera, smiling. When Arti saw who it was, her heart skipped a beat.
Arti had never told her neighbor about the library; that secret was too dangerous to share with anyone. But betrayal feeds on smaller morsels, crumbs of fear and suspicion—food that Robb Tulley apparently had an appetite for. Arti tried to remember what she might have said or done to give him reason to suspect her family had books. Nothing came to mind, but it was clear by what she was watching on the vidlink that he had reported them. Robb had been the closest thing to a friend Arti ever had, and now she feared that her trust in him was responsible for destroying her family.
The crowd cheered again, and the newsflash ended with a picture of Arti’s face filling the link screen. The voiceover boomed: “REWARD!” Everyone, everywhere, was looking at Arti’s image right now; she recognized it as her grade nine school picture taken less than a month before. Straight blonde hair hung to her shoulders, framing a face devoid of expression. The portrait lingered for an eternity before finally fading into another ad.
Rounding a corner past a low-rise apartment complex, Arti breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of the bridge, lamp posts sticking up like quills from its arching back. But her celebration at seeing the glowing path to freedom was cut short when she noticed two black Destrier sedans parked up the street. If it had not been for the light cast from the bridge, Arti wouldn’t have noticed them.
With their high, curved fenders and wide running boards, the vehicles had “Incendi” written all over them. It was impossible to tell if there was anyone in the cars; even in daylight, the thick tinted glass would have shielded the occupants from prying eyes. Arti knew that turning back now would be pointless; they would easily run her down. All she could do was pretend to be passing by the bridge, then make a run for it.
Continuing along the street, Arti stared down at her vidlink, trying to look casual, just another person on her way to work the night shift. Keep moving, she told herself. Don’t look up.
The bridge was approaching on her left, getting closer with each step. Almost there. Her heart was racing, and her breaths came in short gasps. Without lifting her head, she glanced up at the cars only a few hundred feet away.
Arti stuffed the vidlink into her pocket and sprinted toward the bridge, the sudden acceleration throwing back her hood. The Destriers’ engines rumbled to life, their tires screeching on the asphalt as they raced after her. Cradling the duffel bag, she ran as fast as she could up the bridge’s gentle incline, but the span was deceptively long; there was no way she’d make it across before the cars caught up. Then Arti heard the vehicles squeal to a stop behind her. Still running, she looked back, wondering why they had ended the chase. When she faced forward again, she had her answer.
A tall figure stood at the apex of the bridge. Arti stopped suddenly, her feet skidding across its slippery steel surface.
The man approached Arti, hands raised in a gesture of calm. Passing through an island of light cast down from one of the bridge lamps, the flame insignia on the man’s fedora shimmered, and his face was revealed. Arti recognized him immediately, the angular jaw, the piercing eyes. It was the Incendi captain in the newsflash, the one who had given Robb Tulley his reward.
“There’s no reason to run away,” said the man. It was the same hard, sharp voice she’d heard from behind the bookshelf of her family’s library. He was only thirty feet from Arti and edging closer.
“Your parents are safe. They’re getting the help they need. I’ll take you to them,” he added, extending his arm to her.
“It’s not your fault, Arti.” Hearing the Incendi speak her name sent a chill up her spine. He knew who she was. He knew everything.
Arti backed away from the man, and he stopped moving toward her. “Please,” he begged. “I just want to talk to you.”
Arti heard car doors slamming behind her. Four troopers, big men carrying electroshock batons, were standing beside their vehicles. They didn’t look like they just wanted to talk.
The Incendi captain spoke again, but this time the words that came from his mouth were of a language she didn’t recognize, possessing a lyrical quality, a strange intonation and rhythm. In a blur of movement, he closed the gap between them, driving his index finger into Arti’s chest. The focused strike sent her tumbling backward onto the bridge platform. She landed hard on the steel surface, and the duffel bag flew from her arms.
The officer raised a hand, signaling his men. “Take her.”
Arti rolled onto her side, unable to rise. The blow had knocked the wind out of her, and she gasped for air. As the troopers trudged up the bridge to collect her, she forced down her panic and looked for a way to escape. The only option was to roll into the canal; the edge was near. But a voice from below the bridge platform offered a better plan.
“This way,” it hissed. A grate lifted not three feet from where Arti was lying. From the narrow opening, a hand emerged, pulling the duffel bag down. “Hurry!”
Though still reeling from the blow, Arti managed to crawl across the bridge deck and squeeze through the gap. A shout rang out from above: “Stop her!”
Light filtered down through the latticework of the bridge’s steel platform, illuminating the substructure of beams and girders in a checkerboard pattern. Through the flickering ribbons of light, Arti could see the back of the stranger who had come to her aid. The boy was smaller than her, and thin, wearing a wedge-shaped cap and dark clothes that blended with his dark skin; it was hard for Arti not to lose him in the shadows. He moved like a cat, scampering across the narrow framework of bridge supports with amazing agility, holding the bulky duffel bag in front of him as he ran. In contrast, Arti was slow and awkward, picking her way clumsily behind, feet sliding through mounds of powdery pigeon droppings.
“Stay with me,” ordered the boy. Throwing Arti’s duffel bag over his shoulder, he jumped to a ladder attached to a thick vertical column. Arti could hear the splashing sound of water below and wondered where he could be leading her. Are we going to swim for it?
The noise of the churning current grew louder as Arti descended. She could smell the water now, a wet sliminess filling her nostrils. The farther below the bridge deck she climbed, the darker it got. She was surprised and relieved when she saw the figure of the boy standing below her at water level, balancing on what appeared to be some kind of raft. Arti stepped from the last wrung of the ladder onto the craft, a mishmash of wooden planks and timber pieces bound together with wire and rope. It shifted under her weight, and water splashed over its edges. For a moment, Arti was sure it was going to sink.
A yell from above echoed through the steel skeleton of the bridge; the troopers were almost to the ladder. The boy untied a frayed rope holding the raft to the foot of the bridge and pushed off. The craft jerked as it was grabbed by the flow, slowly picking up speed, leaving the bridge—and the troopers—behind. They could only watch as Arti and the boy drifted away into the night. High above them at the bridge rail, Arti could see the tall Incendi captain’s dark silhouette.
The raft came to rest against the half-submerged frame of a dock jutting out from a small boathouse leaning precariously over the island’s rocky shore. Tying the raft off, the boy jumped free of the waterlogged platform and without looking back, called tersely to Arti, “Come on.”
Arti lifted the soaked duffel bag and followed, noting that those were the first words the boy had uttered since their narrow escape from the bridge. The rusted hinges of the boathouse door groaned as the boy forced his way inside. He reached into a cupboard and pulled out a candle and matches; a moment later, the small room was alight. It was the first opportunity Arti had to get a good look at her rescuer, and it was then that she realized he was a she.
“I thought you were—”
The girl cut her off, “I don’t care what you thought.” Below her wedge-shaped cap and close-cropped curly black hair, she had a delicate caramel face with large hazel eyes topped with long lashes—an appearance that contrasted sharply with the way she moved and talked. She wore layers of clothing, the cuffs of her shirt sleeves and pant legs frayed and dirty, a pair of boots with the toes torn out completing the ensemble. The girl crossed her arms and scrutinized the dripping duffel bag.
“Let’s see what you got. Dump it.” The girl’s speech had a hard edge to it, her words crammed together as if syllables were expensive.
Arti hesitated, unsure of the girl’s motives. “Why?” she asked. “I…I can pay you for helping me.”
The girl sighed, as if Arti was stating the obvious. “I’ll get to that.” She nodded at the bag. “Now dump it.”
Not knowing what else to do, Arti obliged, tipping the bag slowly so its contents spilled onto the sagging wooden floor. The girl scanned the supplies, making quick calculations in her head.
“Fifty flash, not bad. The lighter I can use, the knife and blanket will be easy to sell.” She lifted the jug. “And the water’s a bonus.”
“But I’m not—“
“What else have you got?” She looked Arti up and down. “Pockets.”
“Empty your pockets!”
Even though she was a head taller than the girl, Arti didn’t put up a fight. Maybe it was all she’d been through this night that stifled her resistance and made her comply. She reached into her pocket and offered her flashlight and vidlink to the girl, careful to keep the letter from her parents concealed.
When the girl saw the vidlink, she was utterly appalled. “You idiot!” She grabbed it from Arti, wrenched open the door and ran outside. Arti followed, looking on helplessly as the girl tossed the device as far out into the water as she could. It bobbed for a second on the surface then disappeared into the murky depths of the canal.
“What did you do that for?” protested Arti. “Are you crazy or something?” She followed the girl back inside the boathouse, waiting for an explanation.
The girl tilted back her cap and glared up at Arti, eyes narrowed, words dripping with sarcasm, “You have no idea how dumb you are. Why do you think the Flames were waiting at the bridge for you?”
It took a moment for Arti to understand. My vidlink. They were tracking me.
“I…I didn’t know they could do that,” Arti confessed, trying to wrap her head around it. The admission was yet more proof of how ill prepared she was to survive on her own.
“Why are the Flames after you?” asked the girl.
Arti was reluctant to answer, but the girl had saved her and deserved the truth. “We had books and…the Incendi found them.”
The girl’s eyes widened. “You’re a reader?”
Arti nodded, extending her hand feebly. “My name’s Arti, Arti Penderhagen.”
The girl ignored the gesture, searching Arti’s face for something that would confirm her extraordinary claim of literacy. Not finding it, she replied coolly, “I’m Gal.”
“Okay…um…I really appreciate you helping me…Gal. But I need my stuff.” Arti nodded at the contents of the duffel bag on the floor, “It’s all I have.” She cautiously leaned over and picked up the flash chip, holding it out to the girl. “Like I said, I’ll pay you.”
The offer of money seemed to appease Gal. “Yeah, you will,” she said matter-of-factly. “I stuck my neck out, and you owe me—big time.”
“How much do you want?” asked Arti meekly. “I mean, what do you think is fair?”
Gal laughed. “You ain’t gonna last long in this town, dealin’ like that. You’re lucky you made it this far. I coulda took your stuff back at the bridge and left you for the Flames.”
The girl was right, and Arti knew it. She was an easy mark for anyone who wanted to take advantage of her. But there was something about Gal that told Arti she was not one of those people, that she was the exception to her parents’ rule.
“But you didn’t,” Arti said, with a disarming smile.
Gal started pacing back and forth in frustration, the weak floorboards of the boathouse creaking under each light step. “Maybe I’m the idiot,” she said. She looked at Arti with a mix of contempt and sympathy. “You got no idea how hard it is to live in this rat hole of a town. It ain’t nothin’ like Main. You got everything you need over there—made for good scroungin’ too. But now I can’t even cross the bridge, thanks to you.”
“You can have the money,” said Arti. “I just need somewhere to stay until I figure things out. Until I can go back.”
“Go back? Are you nuts? You can’t go back. The Flames will be watchin’ the bridges. Go anywhere near them, you’re dead meat.” Gal looked at Arti like she had two heads. “Why would you even think it?”
“The Incendi have my parents. I…I have to....”
“What? Save them?” Gal shook her head. “You’re crazy if you try.”
The wounded look on Arti’s face made Gal regret her words, and she puffed out a breath in frustration. “I’ll take the fifty flash and fence it for Isle coin. Should be able to get twenty bucks for it to buy some food. The rest of your stuff we split down the middle—keep, trade, or sell. I’ll help you for a bit, but I ain’t makin’ no promises. That’s the deal. Take it or leave it.”
“Alright,” said Arti. “It’s a deal.”
Gal took a step toward Arti, with her finger raised. “And if you make things hard for me,” she said, poking her, “the deal’s off. Got it?”
Arti nodded, caressing her shoulder, “Got it.”
Gal gathered Arti’s supplies and stuffed them into the duffel bag. She extinguished the candle and returned it to its place in the cupboard, leading Arti out of the boathouse and up from the canal’s rocky shore toward a narrow road running alongside the waterway.
“Where are we going?” asked Arti.
“My place,” answered Gal, without turning. “Now be quiet.”
They crossed the road next the canal and began weaving their way through a series of connecting alleys. Navigating through the pitch-blackness, Gal never slowed, only changing course once when they encountered a handful of people in a small courtyard crowded around a fire burning in a barrel. She grabbed Arti by her sleeve and pulled her through a hole in a high mesh fence to avoid the encounter.
Arti stumbled blindly in Gal’s wake until they arrived at a long single-story building that spanned most of a block. Gal led Arti through a large open window concealed behind a copse of evergreens, the soles of their shoes crunching on fragments of glass strewn across a polished marble floor. Safely concealed inside the building, Gal produced the flashlight from the duffel bag and shone it ahead of them. A wide hall led past a room that had once been encased in glass, a high counter with a doorway dividing the space.
“This was a school, back in the day,” explained Gal, stepping past the counter.
They walked through another hall leading out the rear of the first room, rounding a corner past a pile of legless plastic chairs until they were facing a wide steel door covered in dents, beneath a drop ceiling. Deep gouges on the door’s jamb hinted at many unsuccessful attempts to jar it open, and a long silver handle with a bend in it protruded from its right side just above waist height. Handing the flashlight to Arti, Gal removed her cap and pulled a thick twine necklace over her head; a shiny silver key dangled from its end. She inserted the key in the handle’s scarred lock and turned it, at the same time pulling down on the curved lever. A hollow “click” could be heard, and the heavy door swung open with an eerie squeal.
“This is it,” declared Gal proudly. “Home.”
A few steps from the door, Gal reached for a lamp sitting on a table and pressed a button on its metal base, igniting it. There was a whispering sound and a sweet metallic odor as the fuel burned, filling the space with a soft white glow.
It was a large room, one side covered in a series of open metal cabinets with nothing on them but a few stacks of blank paper and cardboard file folders. The other half of the room was empty, save for a small table and chair against the wall, and a narrow bench with a grimy blanket and pillow at one end. Wedged between the tines of a large ventilation grill above the bench was a glossy advertisement featuring a man, woman, girl, and boy—laughing together. The happy family’s clothing and hair styles looked old fashioned, and Arti guessed the ad was from a long time ago when they used print for such things.
“Just somethin’ I found,” said Gal, referring to the picture. “Couldn’t get nothin’ for it.” She shrugged, “So I stuck it up there to block the draft.”
After checking that the door was pulled tight and locked, Gal added Arti’s supplies to a pile of canned food stacked next the table. She chose one and, lifting an opener from a nail on the wall, removed its lid.
“Hungry?” she asked, offering it to Arti.
Arti nodded and took the seat next the table. “Thanks,” she said, wondering how she should go about eating from the can.
“Watch your lips, the edge is sharp,” Gal warned. “I need to get another spoon. Well, two, I guess, now that you’re here. Traded my last one for lamp oil.” Gal lifted the back of her shirt and pulled a knife from a leather sheath clipped to her belt, setting it on the table. She plopped down on the bench and wedged the pillow between her back and the wall.
Arti pretended not to notice the weapon, commenting on the food instead. “It’s good,” she lied, slurping down the contents of the can, a slimy mix of what might have been chicken and noodles. But she was hungry, and it was better than nothing.