Click here if you haven't read Part II...
Samir turned from the twitching body, the left half of his face blackened and his hair singed off. "Yusuf!?" he smiled - or grimaced.
Yusuf bounded up from his hiding place. "You whore! You cunt! This is your fault!" he spat, his hands reaching out to snatch Samir by his torn and burned collar.
"Hey! No, I - Get off!" Samir protested, pushing against Yusuf with scared and scabby hands.
"You set me up!" Yusuf shouted, smacking Samir about the head roughly. "It didn't work! The fucking vest didn't work!"
"Calm down! I didn't know - How could I know!?" Samir protested. He tried back-peddling, putting some distance between himself and Yusuf.
Yusuf, his legs so weakened from so much walking without any rest – and still that unnatural withering sensation in his muscles - collapsed forward, knocking Samir over the falafel cart.
"Ow! I think I split my head!"
"Serves you right!"
"C'mon," Samir grumbled as he tried to right himself. "Why would I do such a thing? You were all cranked up to martyr yourself - who was I to stop you?"
"So then why didn't it work!?" Yusuf demanded, now taking all of his energy just to remain indignant.
"I'm not a fucking Paki!" Samir spat. "How should I know how these things work?"
"You said you got help from Hamas!"
"Yeah, they gave me some money."
Yusuf glared at him. "They gave you money? They paid you to blow me up!? Why didn't I hear about any money!?"
Slithering behind the cart, Samir continued to protest, "Hey, hey - I said I'd take care of Farzana, didn't I? Isn't that what you would want it to go towards anyway?"
Of course, but Yusuf couldn't admit that. Not now. He'd spent all that time stewing in his cell, cursing Samir, and he wasn't about to give that all up over a little thing like the truth!
But his knees ached. And his back ached. And that falafel smelled so good...
As the both munched away at the falafel - which had a bland and unsatisfying flavor, more so than expected from a street vendor - Samir asked, "So, peace?"
"For now," Yusuf said, spitting about crumbs.
After some more time of quiet munching, Samir asked, "I don't suppose you had any plans on where to go? Things aren't entirely safe around here." He kicked at the fat man, "This one chased me around for half an hour, shouting something about 'Anything goes! There's no Jesus so anything goes!'" Samir laughed a little, the kind without much humor. "I think he was just mad I caught him trying to screw a dead dog."
Yusuf couldn't help it - he laughed! A high pitched cackle at all the madness he'd been witness to in such a short amount of time. All the madness he'd endured before the sky blackened, handing the Jew bastards the traitorous Samir, only to find him alive and mostly well here at the end of the world.
Samir didn't quite know what to make of the outburst. He tried chuckling along in a timid way...
His body so tired from all its ordeals, Yusuf soon found himself hacking and sputtering. "Damn," he muttered. "Damn damn damn... Do you know how to get back to Gaza from here?"
Samir eyed him wearily. "Why?"
"To see Frazana, you great arse!" Yusuf snarled - which brought on another burst of laughter, now mostly wheezing. "To see Frazana and my mother and make sure they're alright!"
"Okay, okay," Samir said in as placating a voice he could manage. "Yes, we'll go check on Frazana. Make sure she's alright."
"And my mother!"
"And your mother. Right."
Now that a plan had been settled on, they could make the next step...
"...And how the hell are we going back to Gaza?" Samir asked. "I don't know if you've noticed, but the buses don't seem to be running anymore. Nothing is."
Before Yusuf could muster a retort, both young men heard the steady creak of old wheels not too far off. Staggering through the ruin - the tasteless falafel having done little to re-energize them - they came across several people, men and women, hauling a wrecked station wagon like some huge mule cart. Several more crowded in what had once been the wagon's long cab, some asleep and others gently sobbing.
"Shalom!" called Samir, just in case they were Jews. "Where are you going?"
A few turned their heads but didn't respond. An old, haggard man at the front called back, "South. Always south."
Samir turned to Yusuf, "Close enough."
The two climbed over a few more broken vehicles and bodies and joined the little caravan.
"We take turns pulling and sleeping," the old man said without bothering to look at them. "You can get some rest first, then it's your turn."
Yusuf didn't need any more prompting. He crawled into the pile of other refugees and quickly lost consciousness...
* * *
A swift slap to the back of the head awoke Yusuf from an utterly dreamless sleep not much later. "Your turn to pull," said some soggy-looking European - maybe a Brit? "C'mon!" he groaned, grabbing at Yusuf and pulling him off the makeshift cart. "Emshee! Emshee!"
Yusuf tumbled to the dry ground, the man who awoke him hurriedly taking the vacated spot. His legs felt like melting butter, his head like wet cotton, but the others still pulling the cart soon put him to work.
Even with four - no, five! - pulling, the cart still creaked away slowly. Yusuf felt more tired and sick with every step but continued, eying his new companions wearily. Jews? Palestinians? In the darkness, such distinctions were hard to determine...
"So where are you and you friend going?" asked the woman - really? a woman? - to his left.
"Hwha?" Yusuf wheezed out as he pushed.
"You two," she waved back and forth between Yusuf and a snoring lump on the cart. "Where are you going?"
"Um..." Could she be a Jew? Did it really matter? "Gaza?"
"Oh, we've got a few others going there," she said, unfazed. "I have some family in Damascus. I don't know if I'll make it that far of course."
"Of course," Yusuf agreed reflexively.
"And what do you mean by that!?" the woman demanded, halting suddenly.
The others pulling the cart stumbled and the jolt caused a few muffled cries of annoyance from the cart.
"Keep moving, dammit!"
"It's not my turn yet!"
"What's all this, then?" demanded an older gentleman, definitely white, at the head of the cart.
"Nothing, nothing," Yusuf and the woman both mumbled, quickly pulling up their share of the load and the whole caravan grinding on...
"What did you mean by that?" the old woman whispered.
"Nothing... I don't know," Yusuf admitted. "But Gaza... Farzana... Mom... and the Anpu... with the sun..." he wheezed out.
"Is that your friend?" she asked. "Anpu?"
"Hah!" Yusuf squawked - and caught himself, terrified at his own ravaged voice. "No. Oh no, no." Waving behind him at the cart, "That's Samir!"
He caught himself - no, don't give her so many details! An Arab name, two Arab names and travelling to Gaza was just too suspicious - if she were a Jew. Yusuf cursed the darkness, cursed his own laziness brought on by such exhaustion. But no, that wouldn't do as an excuse, not even now...
"Your friend," she said, "this Samir... He doesn't seem... That is, he doesn't strike me as, well..." And she nodded back to the cart.
"He's alright," Yusuf replied without much conviction. "He helped me with... a project of mine. Though he didn't do a very good job."
"At least he meant well?"
Yusuf turned back for a moment, eyeing Samir's blissfully sleeping form. "Of course," he said. "He meant well..."
The woman continued to chat with him for some time, "- sister’s wedding and I'm sure they have their own lives and all but to not even call or email for so long -" but Yusuf only nodded politely. Samir meant well... Meant to help Yusuf? Meant to save Yusuf? Meant to get Yusuf out of the way so Samir could go after Farzana?
Hell, did it really matter anymore? God only knew how many Jews might be accompanying them and it amounted to so much nothing. All around, the world receded into shade...
In due time - or much later - one of the men at the head of the team signaled for a stop. The cart creaked to a halt on the dry, cracked earth as everyone shuffled to a standstill.
"Are... Are we... done..." Yusuf tried to wheeze out. He could swear his toes had worn right through the soles of his shoes and were collecting grit.
"No," one of them said. "Far, far from it. But time to switch."
Yusuf smiled in spite of his exhaustion. At least he'd get to lay back down! At least -
"Where do you think you're going!?" the man at the lead demanded as Yusuf had just turned to climb back into the cart. "You're still new!" he barked, stalking back to the cart to rouse his own replacement. "You can give plenty more miles."
Yusuf could only stare open-mouthed as the new team cycled into place. All except him... And the old woman.
"We'll have our turn soon enough," she muttered, barely mustering the effort to sound convincing.
Yusuf stared at Samir - still sleeping soundly...
* * *
Yusuf knew the truth of suffering right down to his bleeding feet as the cart rolled within sight of Gaza City - he thought. Far off in the distant rose the crooked skeleton of some city and if not Gaza than close enough for Yusuf. Would anyone really care if he renamed it?
A few passengers sloughed off the cart, carrying only themselves on unsteady legs towards the desolate urban jungle. It took a well placed boot to knock Samir off and into a foul-smelling puddle. "No gusta!" he blubbered incoherently before getting his bearings. Seeing Yusuf - and the city in the distance - he asked, "Are we there already?"
Yusuf repressed a powerful urge to smack his friend... "I think... We are..." he wheezed.
"Huh," Samir said to himself. Then, trotting merrily down the hill, called back over his shoulder to Yusuf, "Come on! Don't dawdle now!"
Falling into a sloppy, staggering run, Yusuf could just barely wheeze out, "Kill... You..."
Samir didn't seem to notice.
They came stumbling and dragging themselves into the ruins they'd once called home - broken buildings arching wretchedly into the blackened sky. As they came within the city limits, they saw what they'd expected to be rubble strewn all about was really bodies. Thousands upon thousands of dead, graying bodies.
"Goddamn," Samir muttered as they crunched through the grave jungle. "Goddamn, goddamn, goddamn! How the - the fuck are we going to find anyone in this!?"
Yusuf continued his forward stagger, ignoring the stiff and twisted limbs beneath his feet. Farzana and Mother had to still be here. Had to be safe. Had to be...
Samir continued to protest, "This is fucked, Yusuf!" He stepped as gingerly as he could, wincing at every dry snap of dead flesh, trying to keep up with his shambling friend.
Dead buildings arched up on all sides, the ground shifted and cracked beneath every step, and Samir protested more frantically, but still Yusuf pressed forward. Farzana... Mother... The only reason he'd come so far, hauling all those...
Samir, a much less athletic young man than his friend, stumbled to a wheezing stop. "Fine!" he called at Yusuf's receding form. "Fine, just run off to whatever's left of... Whatever's left!" Damned Yusuf, he was taking this all too seriously. Samir regretted following him even one step into this godless wreckage.
Why'd he ever agree to this? Why hadn't he just bashed in Yusuf's head with a rock back in Tel Aviv? Why didn't that asshole on the bus kill him properly!? Why -
"Hello?" a voice - a very female voice - called from one of the rotting buildings. "Uh, a salaam alekum?"
Samir pivoted, perking up as he saw a very pretty - in a Lonely Planet sort of way - and very white girl come struggling out of the rubble of what may have once been a hotel.
"Um... I'm sorry, do you speak English?" she asked guiltily.
"Yes... Yes! English, Francais, whatever you like!" Samir replied. He all but tripped over himself, rushing through the litter of bodies to introduce himself. "I'm Samir!"
The girl seemed a little put off by this... "Uh, Marie." She offered him a clammy hand. "I’d almost given up trying to find anyone alive out here." She waved around, as if all the death was somehow easy to overlook.
"Oh, uh, yeah," Samir agreed awkwardly, disliking the thought of so much death around him while he tried to play this pretty girl. "Yeah, it's pretty bad. Say, you wouldn't happen to, that is -"
A horrible wail rattled through the ravaged buildings, chilling them both right through to the bone.
"What the fuck was that!?" Samir shrieked. Dead bodies were one thing but djinn...
The girl, Marie, seemed far less perturbed. "They must be in trouble." She scrambled off, over the tangled corpses. "I think it's this way! C'mon!"
"What!?" Samir couldn't move for a second but soon found his strength as Marie's lithe body vanished back into the ruin. "Hey, wait! Don't you know this is how people get murdered in horror movies!?"
The stiff, dead limbs twisting up from the ground almost dragged Samir down several times as he lumbered after Marie. She didn't have any difficulty, flitting over the dead like some water spider. Still, he managed to keep her well within sight until they came crashing into a bombed out house - a house Samir found very familiar...
In the midst of the collapsed walls sat the source of the wailing. Yusuf howled in misery as he clutched at the grayish-blue bodies of his sister and mother, the former clutching a note. His cries were so great no one could make out the laughter coming from the still standing doorframe.
Out of the shadows stepped the tallest, darkest man either Samir or Marie had ever seen. He loomed over Yusuf, his humorless grin displaying shiny teeth that looked something like a hungry wild animal.
Yusuf didn't look up, just continued to weep loudly over his dead family. The note clutched in Farzana's hand read very simply, "Well that's that," in Arabic and the scrawled English lyrics to some old song about helpful pills.
Anpu, looming over the distraught Yusuf, placed one massive hand on the young man shoulders and said in unaccented English, "I told you there was nothing for you here, friend."
Yusuf continued to sob, though softly, as if surrendering finally to Anpu.
Feeling awkward, Marie cleared her throat. "Um... Excuse me? I'm just, uh..."
Anpu looked up at the young woman, his lips turning up in a cunning grin. "But at least you brought some more with you this time. That's good, we'll need all we can get."
Samir stepped back, feeling jumpy. "Hey, I'm not working with him! Not anymore! Besides, you've got no proof!"
Anpu grinned at Samir as well, more amused than anything at this boy's unabashed self-interest. Marie just looked confused.
"You still think that matters?" Anpu asked the nervous Samir. "That's just so... quaint."
Samir didn't run but still didn't appear to be calmed by Anpu's dismissively sanguine demeanor. Marie, still confused, asked in an unsure voice, "Um, excuse me? Mister..."
"Mister Ampoo," she repeated, believing her pronunciation to be exact. "I just met this, er, these gentlemen and I don't quite - that is, whatever previous connection -"
"It doesn't matter," Anpu said firmly, striding forward to take Marie's hand in both of his for a firm, generous greeting. "What does matter, is you are here," looking pointedly at Samir, "You are here," and without turning back to the still weeping Yusuf, "And he is here. Three times more likely, now. Ma'at smiles on us."
Now Samir was confused. "Matt? Who's Matt?"
"Um, Mister Ampoo?" Marie asked tentatively. "I don't quite understand what you mean by more likely. More likely to what?"
"To fix this," Anpu replied matter-of-factly. "We have far to go, but now we have some little hope..."
He trailed off as he noticed the cries coming from Yusuf had gradually turned into snores. The others noticed it too - if only because this new sound was so much softer.
"Well... In due course," Anpu said, his smile finally fading.
* * *
Yusuf awoke with a start, still clutching his dead family. He immediately set about wailing in anguish again - which quickly awakened both Samir and Marie who'd themselves fallen asleep while waiting for Yusuf.
"Right," Anpu's voice boomed over the fresh howls of grief. "Now we can be off."
No longer in such an amicable mood, Anpu lifted Yusuf up from the dusty floor with one mighty hand and steered him roughly out the door. Yusuf quickly lost his footing, falling face-first into a collection of rictus faces. Had he been more awake and aware of his surroundings, he would've started screaming and never stopped.
Marie, groggy and still confused, rushed forward to help Yusuf back to his feet. Or she tried - even Yusuf's skinny frame proved too heavy for her. "A little help, please?" she called over her shoulder.
Samir stared dumbly for a moment before realizing she meant him. He hurried over, awkwardly lifting Yusuf with inordinate support from Marie. "Hey, you - Oof! - lift with your knees. Your knees!"
"What do you think I'm trying to do!?" Marie snapped back.
Anpu's large hand reached out again, steadying the struggling trio. The bemused smirk had returned to his face. "All ready now? Very good, very good..."
He directed them back out of the city - a different way than how Yusuf and Samir had arrived, arching south and west. Always west. The three marched dutifully - or just fearfully - under the hard eyes of Anpu, each finding that little extra reserve of strength to push on.
"I'd say we should stop for the night," Samir cracked, "but then we'd never get anywhere.
Marie wouldn't even smile at that. Yusuf, still reeling from all the shocks life had recently thrown his way could only respond, "Hurrr..."
When they grew too tired, Anpu allowed them to rest - but only briefly. Only a few snatches of sleep, or so it felt. When they grew hungry, he produced a rough bread from his backpack. Anpu never slept or ate himself, something any one of them would've remarked upon in more normal times.
"How much further?" one would ask him.
"Not much further..." was all the answer he would give.
Even without the Sun to reckon things, Samir suspected this would be much much further. Maybe not even halfway yet. Damn Yusuf for getting him into this and damn this Mary girl for keeping him here with her tight pants! Fucking western harlot, that's what she was...
Marie for her part dutifully tromped along with these two and this Mister Ampoo. They were the only people she'd come across since her iPhone went out - along with the sky. She felt, though would hate to admit it, nervous at the prospect of Palestinians being the ultimate victors in the conflict. That Samir seemed to have an unhealthy fixation on her...
The sky gone out, Yusuf thought as he dumbly trudged along. The sky gone out and no God to fix it. He should've been horrified at the prospect but instead he felt a great relief. If there's no God to fix the sky then there's certainly no God demanding he blow himself up. But then no God meant nothing for Farzana and Mother, nothing for anyone...
Anpu drove his three young charges onward, ever more forcefully. The world was dead but apparently they were still on a schedule. Had there been enough light to see, they would have understood his haste - with every kilometer travelled, Anpu grew rapidly older, his skin becoming dry and taught and wrinkled. He could feel his life slipping away much as the life of the whole world slowly ebbed into oblivion. But if only he could reach it in time, maybe one of them...
Somewhere in one blasted wasteland much like any other they crossed, they came across another plane that had simply fallen from the sky. But this one had survivors! Milling about the wreckage were maybe a dozen people, all in various stages of destitution and hysterics.
"Holy fuck! People!" Samir shouted as he rushed forward.
Marie followed close behind, hoping to maybe find some Europeans or - she grudgingly admitted to herself - even Americans. Yusuf, remembering his brief encounters with other survivors, remained behind with Anpu.
Not that Samir's enthusiasm lasted very long. As he drew closer and closer to these other survivors he saw they... Well, "survived" was about all they managed to do. Their clothes were graying and coming apart at the seams. Their eyes stared straight ahead, cold and blank. Their smell - and that was the most unnerving thing of all, no smell at all! It reminded Samir of the reptile house at the zoo.
An emaciated man grabbed Samir by the shoulder. Yelping at the touch of the boney hand, Samir swung wide and wild, dropping the poor old man with one clumsy punch.
No one else seemed to care. Or even notice. They continued to mill about, listless and crushingly sad. Just beneath the soft shuffle of their feet in the sand, Samir thought he heard a faint whisper - "...kansaskansasksansas..."
Kansas? Really? That's what these dry-looking zombies were searching for out in all this blasted emptiness? Anpu - who'd been nowhere near moments before - appeared beside him, "Leave them," he said.
Yusuf and Marie were already trudging forward. Samir was about to join them when he saw something poking out of the sand. Leaning down to examine, he found a matchbox.
"Better bring that along," Anpu said without looking.
"Why?" Samir sneered. "Do you smoke?"
Not rising to the bait, Anpu replied, "Might come in useful..."
And so they continued. Over more and more cracked and dying earth they marched, stopping less and less to rest or eat some of the hard bread Anpu never ran out of.
"This is all your fault," Samir muttered off and on to Yusuf. "All your fault... 'Cause you couldn't fucking explode. 'Cause you couldn't just be gone so Farzana and I -"
Samir stopped himself but it was too late. Yusuf, his eyes clear with the purpose he'd been lacking so long, glared back with a fury to re-light the sky. All the tension and suspicion boiled over as he tackled Samir to the ground, hammering wildly with his weakened fists.
It proved enough. Samir soon stopped struggling. Then soon stopped breathing. Marie stared on in horror, Anpu at her side offering neither comfort nor comment.
Standing over Samir's quickly battered form, Yusuf wheezed out, "Had - hhff - it coming!" God, did he ever feel old. He staggered off in the direction Anpu had been leading them, Marie followed reluctantly behind. Anpu lingered for a moment, just long enough to collect the matches he'd advised Samir to pocket...
They didn't stop to eat. They didn't stop to sleep. They just trudged on through that graying hellscape, Anpu now bringing up the rear as he visibly aged with each step. Finally, after what felt to be a lifetime of travel, they appeared before the Sphinx.
"Hello, Old Man!" Anpu said playfully to the great structure, his voice croaking with advanced age. Turning to his remaining followers, "I cannot enter. You must proceed alone from here."
"But what's in there?" asked Marie.
Yusuf and Marie approached the door. It eased open with little pressure, revealing a dark stone hallway. A few tentative steps in and they both found themselves groping for the hand of the other. It proved small comfort as they marched forward in the utter blackness.
"You don't suppose we'll - Ow!" Yusuf ran into a wall.
Marie ran her hand over the structure hidden in the darkness. "It's a dead end," she said, unbelieving.
Together, still holding hands, they trudged out to face Anpu but he was nowhere to be seen. His pack lay abandoned on the ground, not too far from a dead dog they hadn't seen when they arrived.
As the darkness closed in around them, Marie fished the matchbook out of Anpu's pack. "Worth a shot," she said.
Yusuf slumped to the ground next to her as she drew a match, struck it against the box - nothing. She drew another, struck it - still nothing.
"Third time's a charm?" Yusuf said for encouragement as Marie struck one more -
And it blazed to life, brighter than either of them could ever remember seeing before in their lives. They drew close around the little, blinding match. Cradling it with their hands to protect it from any stray breeze, savoring this last light in the world...