For three long months they were confined, isolated, and afraid. It was only the two of them: Mercy, and her niece Haley. Mercy was 24, Haley was half that. Fortunately, they remained sane, and in robust health. Lately their food supply was short and keeping weight started to become a losing battle.
They maintained a close friendship as well. Haley was compliant and patient, for which Mercy was thankful. They had been close since Haley’s birth. On that day, Mercy had shortened her name from ‘Mercedes,’ simply to make it more similar to her niece’s. The young girl she was at the time was thrilled to finally get a niece, since she had always wanted a little sister.
Now, they were all that remained of their family, and from the sounds of the outside each night, the only ones anywhere who were still sane. Every night, people emerged from their hiding places to infest the streets with their filth – raiding, vandalism, rape. When they became alone, Mercy couldn’t have felt more ill-equipped for such responsibility, watching over Haley. She felt she was no more prepared for these conditions as her young niece.
Any effort, any guess, was always better than none. Mercy strictly forbade leaving the basement for any reason apart from collecting rain water or dealing with inevitable bodily functions. Even then, she only permitted it during cover of darkness, when they weren’t visible from afar and couldn’t be heard above the cacophony that came with the night. At such times, she always made sure to prevent Haley from walking near the corpse pile. For the first few weeks, every time she stepped out, Mercy removed one more body from the house, and it broke her heart all over again.
Boredom alone nearly drove them insane; some days, they were convinced it had. One can only occupy themselves with board games, card games, reading, and conversation for so long before becoming desensitized. Mercy also forbade discussing certain topics, including memories with their family, or how much longer they could survive down there. Mercy did create and strictly enforce a rather unorthodox rule, though: staying clean and smelling good at all times, and wearing make up every other day or so. It was the best available option for feeling normal, like the world hadn’t fallen apart. But denial had very limited effectiveness. By the end of three months, their customs were forgotten, because they no longer worked.
Time was running out. Three months was too long. Juan, who was Mercy’s father and Haley’s grandfather, had stockpiled the basement with non-perishables long before the Collapse. He swore it was a whole year’s supply, for the whole family, but he apparently vastly overestimated. It ultimately didn’t matter, because of what happened one night…
“Shh!” Mercy firmly raised her hand at Haley. The little one didn’t seem to hear what she heard and continued to talk. It required a second hush, but Haley finally silenced herself.
“What’s up? Did you hear someone?”
“Quiet…” Mercy hissed. For a moment longer, she carefully listened. Then, she was certain. Footsteps… Someone’s inside. Without hesitation, she clasped her hand over Haley’s mouth then pulled her toward the back of the basement, in the furthermost corner, the opposite side of the room from the stairs. “I’ll be right back, okay?” she whispered. Haley nodded. As Mercy tiptoed to where they had been sitting before, she could hear the footsteps above growing louder. Judging from how the intruder moved, he wasn’t attempting to stay silent. Reaching her mattress, she lifted it and took the revolver hidden there, then snuffed the two lit candles before guessing her steps back to the corner. “Don’t move, even if you see him,” she instructed, seating herself directly behind Haley, holding her tight. “If he sees us, I’ll be ready.”
Then, they waited.
Mercy glimpsed the beam of a flashlight coming from upstairs, shortly before hearing footsteps slowly descending the steps. Haley cringed and exhaled through her nose with each creak from the wood. Something dragged behind the intruder. It sounded like fabric. A bag to carry everything, she determined. Mercy held Haley tighter as the intruder reached the end of the steps, joining them there in the basement.
Hearing her nose whistling as she breathed, Mercy opened her mouth and started taking smaller breaths. She rested her chin on Haley’s head then wrapped her legs around the rest of Haley’s body. Being engulfed seemed to ease Haley’s panic. “I’ll protect you,” she whispered.
As the light seemed to hover over every inch of the basement, Mercy pondered what she would do in the event they were seen. She needed a plan. She slowly raised her gun-wielding hand, aiming ahead. Never had she fired a gun before; not at a range, and especially not at a person. When the time comes, I can’t think about it.
Haley started to struggle, but only minimally. She was trying to speak, so Mercy lifted her muffling hand for a moment. “He’s taking the food,” said Haley, less as a warning and more as a demand to take action. We should –”
Mercy clenched her teeth. “No!” After observing for a moment, she whispered, “He has a weapon.” Haley reacted again, as if being more incentivized now, but Mercy pressed her palm against Haley’s mouth more forcefully than before.
The girls found themselves waiting in the tense silence for only a few minutes. They heard their boxes and cans shuffling around in the intruder’s bag; the audible indication that they were about to starve. “You can help me now. There’s no one down here,” someone said.
What? Screamed Mercy in her mind, almost gasping aloud. Two of them?
“I smell candles. Someone’s definitely down here,” said a second voice.
“It doesn’t matter. They’re hidin’ like a bunch’a pussies. Load up so we can get the fuck outta here.” Mercy heard them rushing. Only a moment or two later, they were gone.
Now safe, Haley removed Mercy’s hand angrily and stood. “I swear to God, if they took everything…”
Mercy relaxed her gun hand. Then she reached into her back pocket to extract a book of matches. After lighting one, she used its light to locate the candles again. Instead of lighting two, she lit all five.
“Oh my god! They did! They did fucking take our food! All of it!”
“Haley! Watch your mouth.” Picking up a flashlight on the floor beside her, Mercy slowly rose. The devastation was plain as day. Their shelves, their hidden stashes … all empty. Her troubled voice uttered, “They found all of it. All our food…”
“Why didn’t you shoot them?” Haley had never sounded so enraged.
“Shoot them? For what? They were just looking for food. I can’t kill them for that, Haley.”
“But now we’re going to die, Mercedes! There’s nothing left! Why didn’t you hide some in the back? Why didn’t you just get up –”
“We’re not going to die.” It defeated her some to say that. Even she didn’t believe it. She couldn’t admit to her only remaining family that their situation was dire. Above all, she forced herself to remain strong, feigning courage so well she nearly fooled herself. She could control her emotions for now, though. “We just have to look for more. We’d have to do this eventually anyway.”
Haley stormed angrily around the basement, flailing her arms, throwing whatever she touched. Mercy could see a deafening scream trying to force itself out. “I’m tired,” she growled, “being stuck in this fucking basement. I’m sick of this fucking cold … eating all this fucking canned food. Oh right! Now we don’t even have THAT anymore.”
“Keep your voice down!” demanded Mercy, firmly grasping Haley by the arm. “They might have missed a few spots, okay? We might still have food somewhere.”
“What’s it fucking matter? It’s not like we’re gonna last much longer anyway. We’ll die before another week.”
Mercy lowered her head a moment. “Not here, we won’t. But we won’t survive this at all if we’re enemies. Okay? Stay with me now.”
Haley turned away, finally jerking her arm free. “You didn’t do anything. You just let them take everything.”
“If I confronted them, I would have left you vulnerable. They would have killed me, then done something horrible to you. People don’t just … come into houses expecting people to just … hand them food. They expect a fight. Were you ready for that, Haley? Huh?”
Haley backed down, but continued pacing around the basement, avoiding eye contact. Mercy saw shame in her face. A minute later, she stopped. “I’m sorry, Aunt Mercy.”
“It’s alright,” she replied to a turned back.
Mercy put a comforting hand on Haley’s shoulder. After a moment, Haley darted to the opposite end of the basement, close to where they had hidden. “I just remembered!” she exclaimed, lifting up a can of beef soup. “I threw this away.”
Mercy chuckled. “Yes, I remember. You said you’d rather die than eat that stuff.” Haley went for the can opener they kept on their small table, but Mercy stopped her. “You should wait, love. Eat that in the morning. You should probably start getting some sleep too.”
“But it’s not even late.”
“We have to flee tomorrow,” said Mercy, seeing Haley quiver at the words. “You know what that means, don’t you?” Haley answered with a slow nod. “You’ll need as much energy as you can get. So, try to get some sleep and eat that last can before we leave in the morning.”
As if hearing nothing, Haley asked, “What if people come back tonight?”
Mercy was apprehensive. “There won’t be anything left to take.” Except one of us, she thought. Or both. “If anyone comes for you, I … I won’t hesitate next time.” Haley smiled, but it was unconvincing. She doesn’t trust me, Mercy painfully admitted to herself. I don’t know what to do… Only twenty-four, short and weak… Haley needs someone older, wiser, more experienced, braver, and stronger…
Early the following morning, when Haley sipped the last of her meal, she lowered her hands, but held onto the bowl. Mercy looked at her with concern and empathy. She understands what’s next, Mercy thought. Months of hiding, confined, growing filthier each day, hearing the world around them fall apart, and now things are only going to get worse. “You okay?” she asked the little one.
“I’m fine.” The reply carried a brokenness.
For a time, they sat in silence. Mercy pondered what they would be facing out there. She wanted answers, she wanted to things have improved. Parts of her mind told her that this was not going to change for a long time. Years, even. The most terrifying prospect of them all.
She recalled the previous time someone broke into the house, only it had been the Army, not desperate civilians. Troops came, questioning everyone about their potential involvement in ‘the Uprising,’ as they referred to it. Despite being greatly outgunned, her radical father, her brother Carlos, and her sister Celia, Haley’s mother, threatened the soldiers to leave. An inevitable battle ensued, one which destroyed the house, and their family. Much of the neighborhood had rallied to their cause, as if waiting for it. They had poured in, armed to the teeth, standing with her family. That was when her mother ordered she hide Haley in the basement. A day she couldn’t possibly forget, despite her best efforts to do so. Was last night the same? she asked herself. Was it failure to allow the intrusion, or would it have been failure to fight them?
Certainly, the streets would be no different, residential or city. They would be seen before being able to hide, and most likely not attacked for food. A different kind of food, she thought. Their lives and mental stability were fragile enough already.
Can I really use this thing? she asked herself a thousand times as she glanced at the gun. Ending one life to save another… A life still ends… Helplessness became her as she then realized, Everyone’s looking out for their loved ones just as much as I am. What makes Haley’s life more precious than anyone else’s?
“We have to go,” she instructed Haley, expelling all second-thoughts from her mind.
“Now?” asked the little one. She had laid down again, but kept her eyes open.
“Yes. Now.” Mercy rose and paced around, gathering all items she thought necessary. Before she knew it, she had a full backpack, and most of what she had packed was either not important or completely useless. Items loaded up included her old cell phone, blank sheets of paper, a hammer, and hand sanitizer.
“You okay?” asked Haley.
“Yeah. Just … not sure what to take.” Her mind froze, even as she looked at essentials like the gun, matches, the flashlight, etc. – everything was blank.
“Can’t we wait?” asked Haley.
“Uh… No. N-no. We have to leave now, while we still have the energy. While there’s light.” Haley’s voice somehow broke Mercy’s trance, and she was able to move again.
Haley threw her covers off, then folded her arms and legs where she sat. “I’m not ready to leave!”
Patiently and calmly, Mercy turned to her niece. “When will you be ready? Love, I’m not even ready. Who is? I didn’t ask for this. Sometimes we do what we have to. Okay?”
A moment longer, and Haley finally acknowledged the truth. She first went to her clothes, piled sloppily a foot away against the wall. She layered up with two shirts: a plain blue one, then another, which was black with a broken heart graphic. Her favorite, thought Mercy. It reminded her of the boy Haley was in a ‘relationship’ with for all of four days. According to Celia, he never so much as visited the house. But Haley must miss him anyway. I bet she expects to see him out there. This made her smile. At least Haley’s holding on to something.
Ultimately, the two prepared by dressing in many layers and kept their packs mostly empty so they had space to collect food. Mercy kept the gun in her back pants pocket – the best readily-available place to conceal it and pull it from. Looking at each other intently, they stood at the base of the stairs, hearts pounding. Mercy knelt, embracing the little one with all her passion. “Do what I say, okay?” she commanded. “Exactly when I say it!”
Haley nodded reluctantly.
“If I say run, you run away, even if I can’t follow. If I tell you to close your eyes, you keep them shut until I say otherwise.”
“I know, Aunt Mercy.” She was trembling.
“Good. I need you to do that right now, until we’re outside.”
“Close your eyes.”