Emma drew out the tension the same way she drew smoke from the hand-rolled cigarette: excruciatingly slow. Finally, she extinguished the cigarette; squashed in a ceramic ashtray, it faded away from existing ember by ember. And when the final ember had disappeared, like a light blinking off, Emma finally spoke. Chuck gasped at the sound of her voice, as if coming up for air after a deep dive.
"Qanat," she said. "I wish there were an easy way to explain it."
"You’re familiar with the Manichean view of the universe, right? Two sides, one light, one dark, one good, one evil?"
"That’s about all I know."
"That’s all you need to know about it," Emma said. She got up and went over to the window and drew the curtain. "The point is, Qanat is the dark side to Tanaq. Both were ancient Mesopotamian deities. They were twins—the first instance of Siamese twins in recorded history. They were powerless, until they were separated by a Mesopotamian hero seeking fortune and glory. Left to thrive on their own, their powers grew. Qanat a force for pestilence, plague, famine, war, and all things dark."
"I get it," Chuck said. "All four horsemen rolled into one."
"You could think of it like that."
"Which makes Tanaq, what? All the big archangels rolled into one?"
"If that makes you feel better. It doesn’t matter what names you use. The idea is that there have always been two forces: one good, one evil. And this evil force has somehow wound its way into these writing prompts. Why, and to what end, I’m not sure yet."
"Why does everything have to be so black and white?" Chuck asked. "Whatever happened to shades of gray? Surely people can be both good and bad?"
"But one always ends up on top in the end. There’s no moral equilibrium. Eventually, you either become a servant of Qanat or a soldier for Tanaq."
Chuck picked up the assignments and rifled through them. It was everywhere, the name.
Read it backwards, however, and you got another name.
"We need to track down the students who wrote this," Emma said. She got up and peered out from behind the curtain. A slim shaft of light shot through onto the kitchen table.
"Those are lot of students, Emma."
"We’ll start alphabetically."
Chuck paused. He really wanted a scotch. A tall glass, filled all the way to the brim. How many fingers was that?
"This Qanat/Tanaq business. It can’t physically hurt us, right? It’s just a story. It’s all in people’s minds, right?"
But before Emma could answer, there was a knock on the door. Not just a single knock. Many knocks—the sound of several fists pounding against wood in unison. Emma went into the kitchen, came back with a large chopping knife, and went to open the door. She opened it, knife brandished, then froze.
"You," she said to the shapes in the hallway shadows.