Mercy reached for Haley’s hand. She gripped it firmly as she stepped up the stairs. She checked once, then twice to be sure Haley’s eyes were tightly shut.
Every time they had come upstairs, even during the cover of dark, Mercy saw the bodies, though in actuality she had already removed them. They were all still there in her mind, but felt too real to discern the difference. Haley had seen them too, for a short time. She hadn’t helped in removing them, but she did see them the day their family died. Mercy prayed she could keep herself together enough to make it out of the house still mentally stable.
The girls had played games to pass time, often games that involved blindfolding. At that moment, it was absolutely vital that Haley not peek, and Mercy hoped her niece understood that. Mercy prepared herself to cover Haley’s eyes if she opened them in the slightest. If she did, she wouldn’t see the end of Mercy’s anger.
Upon reaching the top step, Mercy saw the first body. Initially, for only the first second or two, it was easy to remind herself nothing was there, but the memory was too powerful to resist flashbacks. It would have been wiser to rush through the house to avoid bearing the sights, but she couldn’t somehow. She recognized the pale, decaying face before her as her brother Carlos. Then, just past the kitchen, was the body of her father.
There had been more bodies than just their family. The men of their family had killed a few of the soldiers that came after them, who ultimately joined them on the floor. Civilians they never knew were among the bodies as well, which, by comparison, Mercy felt nothing for.
She checked Haley’s eyes every other second. “I don’t want you to see what happened here,” she explained to her niece.
“I thought you took them out to the back yard.”
Even Mercy forgot that fact already. The bodies may as well have never been moved. “I know, but…” Words escaped her; there wasn’t really a justification for having Haley keep her eyes closed. She could have handled seeing the blood stains and bullet holes if the bodies were now absent…
They had to watch their feet, stepping around the debris that made the floor nearly invisible. Mercy had to step over the bodies she saw. Reality blurred with flashbacks more each passing second. Despite her slow steps, she eventually led them to the front door. At the front door, Mercy saw her mother and … Celia!
She swiftly pulled her niece close to her, lifting Haley into her arms, burying the little face into her chest. Haley ached, “Ow!” Mercy freed one arm to reach forward, flinging the open door the rest of the way, and charged out of the house. When her feet found the end of the driveway, they tripped over something. Real bodies. Mercy never carried out the ones in front of the house. Haley had opened her eyes when they fell, and at that instant, she screamed at the top of her lungs. Mercy swiftly muffled her mouth, then carried her a little further away, onto the desolate road.
Emotions consumed her as she collapsed onto her knees, burying her face into her hands.
“Aunt Mercy?” asked Haley, putting a hand on her shoulder.
“Sniff. Don’t worry, about me. Just, sniff sniff, give me a minute.” She felt Haley’s hand slip away and heard footsteps wander off. When Mercy lifted her head, she saw her niece walking back toward the house. “Don’t look in there!” she screamed as she ran to her and carried her away. This time, she crossed the street, releasing Haley on the sidewalk so angrily she nearly dropped her on her head.
“Jeez! I’m sorry.”
Mercy was far from the end of her pain. She drooled and cringed, feeling like her head was melting as more tears forced themselves from her eyes. Her hands squeezed her head as if to crush it. She lost touch with her conscious mind and senses, existing in a different world; a world of nothing but pain.
Eventually, when her cognizance returned, she saw Haley was fine, sitting directly before her, affectionately watching her with sad eyes. Mercy’s eyes were red, and all the skin around them. Her face was soaked down to her neck. When she looked at Haley, from that moment on, she understood in full that her beloved niece was all that mattered anymore. The last family she had left, and she’d end the world again if it meant saving Haley from becoming another cold shell.
“Sorry,” she said to the little one, her voice frail.
“…It’s okay.” Haley leaned forward and embraced Mercy. The weight pressing on her felt as if it was sinking into her own body. It was another reminder of how close she needed to keep the little one. She’d never let go, were it possible. “We have to leave,” she said. The two let go of each other and stood.
Mercy had to force herself to be strong henceforth. She had to proceed with the task, forgetting her desire to remain there holding Haley forever.
Mercy finally noticed her surroundings, consciously observing. All around them, it was the same. How could I not see this? she wondered. Over a dozen corpses plastered the roads and yards, most coming from their own house. Then she recalled the event that led to it – the battle that forced them into seclusion in the basement. Everything was filthy, trash was scattered everywhere, and the bodies didn’t help. Scavengers, from birds to rodents to insects, feasted on the greatest meal of their lives. Nature had been swiftly reclaiming the area for months. The roads and sidewalks were barely distinguishable. Haley said nothing, and Mercy could only wonder what impact the sight had on her. She looked at the young girl, who stared back. “This is our world now,” she had to admit.
“I know,” said Haley. She looked petrified.
Mercy emotionally struggled seeing the bodies. Though they weren’t of her family, they were real, and putrefied. Haley avoided looking in their direction completely. Mercy had not consciously realized she was smelling that strong stench when they had left their hiding place. Their world was a table bearing a feast for dozens of scavenging birds and thousands of flies.
We still have each other, she thought but inexplicably could not say. We’re alive. There was, at least, some peace for Mercy to find in that moment. Truly, it was a different world – the smell of the dead, and fear of anyone still alive. Their own people had turned against each other. People have always found excuses to kill each other, she thought. They had become victims of that fact.
Despite their difference in age, Mercy needed Haley as much as Haley needed her.
Mercy looked to the end of the street. “Okay,” she said to a patiently-waiting Haley. “We’ll look for food, then hopefully find somewhere to stay… Somewhere with people.”
She took Haley’s hand again and they began walking west. Mercy conceived a specific destination to go first. There was a market not far from them. Despite the silence and the emptiness, for the time being, they had a certain comfort provided by the neighborhood: familiarity. Ahead of them, there were no bodies to be seen, unlike what they found at their own house. Just look away if we walk by any more, she resolved.
Mercy led them with extreme caution to the end of the street, making a right turn onto 33rd Avenue. “Do you know where we’re going?” asked Haley.
“Shh.” Haley lowered her head, showing that she heeded Mercy’s instruction. “Yes,” she whispered back. “I’m looking for a store. If we don’t find anything there, we’ll go to MLK. There has to be food somewhere over there.”
“MLK the school?”
“No, the street.”
“Well, it’s not a street, it’s a boulevard.”
“Haley!” Mercy hissed. She tried to keep her voice low. “It doesn’t matter.” She kept a tight grip on Haley’s hand.
More than any activity in the streets, she remained alert to what was happening in the houses. People inside them must have been watching… Plotting… She thought of getting shot, or being ambushed by a band of raiders. After a moment, she corrected her line of thinking. No one would waste bullets on two girls. Then she conceded, nobody would waste anything on us, anyway. It was her fear imagining these ways for them to die. She feared death would come to them, but tried to remind herself that the things more likely to befall them were worse than death.
They finally arrived at the New Seasons Market, which was in an identical state as their house. Fewer bodies, though. “Don’t look at them,” Mercy said.
When one chooses to kill, how long before everyone else follows? she thought as they entered.
Aisle after aisle, nothing but empty containers, and a great deal of glass as well. The floor was drenched in what was probably what had been spilled drinks, making their feet stick with every step. Mercy could only hope none of the dried red was blood. If any of it was, she convinced herself it was spilled wine and ignored it. “Don’t touch anything, especially the floor,” she advised her charge.
“Why would I touch the floor? You think I’m just gonna bend down and-”
“Haley… Please don’t.”
Despite the obvious lack of anything to find, Mercy resumed searching anyway. Toward the back of the store, she began to see paper everywhere, rather than garbage. Initially, she believed it to be tattered products, such as blank sheets or paper towels, but after glancing longer than a second, she saw that much of it was old newspaper article fragments of the Oregonian.
“Hmm,” she said.
Mercy knelt down and took a random page. She read for a moment. “CIVIL WAR II?” read the title. Dramatic, she thought.
“Riots, looting, and armed theft on a large scale have left many to wonder if the country is on the brink of a second Civil War. Many speculate the violence as unnecessary, perpetrated by former General Allen Braun, who has unceasingly encouraged American citizens to stand up against what he calls the ‘hoarding upper class and tyrannical government.’ Many officials publicly blame Braun for the military infighting, with almost half the troops of all ranks abandoning their duty and standing with the hostile citizens against those still loyal to the country and the president, including their former comrades.”
“Why present it as speculation?” said Mercy.
“What?” asked Haley, who had been peeking her head into the reach-in coolers in search of at least one beverage left behind.
“This article was talking about what might happen if the people kept fighting. It was already happening though. Stupid.” She threw the paper down. “Everyone wanted to blame Braun, when they should have blamed the rich and the government.” Haley said nothing, though she was attentive. “Never mind. Sorry for venting.”
“I wish I could understand,” admitted Haley.
“Me too. I don’t think anyone does. I mean, it wasn’t just one guy’s fault. So many things were going wrong, and most people just got sick of it…” She caught herself starting to rant again, then stopped. She changed the subject: “We should go. There’s nothing left here.”
“What if we look in the back?”
“I’m sure a thousand people already searched every square inch of the store, Haley. There’s nothing here. We can’t waste time. It’s going to be dark before long.”
They returned to 33rd, but Mercy turned back to the direction they came from. There was complete silence between them. Mercy unceasingly thought about the article, and the bits she caught from other parts of it. When the two reached Alberta Avenue, Mercy turned right and they started following that road through more neighborhood.
An abandoned truck shortly ahead of them was tipped on its side, with the head and torso of a body sticking out, pinned between it and the dirt. A hole was blown in his left temple. Mercy pulled Haley from the sidewalk onto the asphalt. Haley tried to stare longer, but Mercy inhibited her.
Questions flooded her mind, all encompassing how that could have happened and why no one saved that man. She continued to lead them forward. “Guns make it easy,” she said to herself.
“What?” Haley asked.
“Guns make it easy to kill. You just pull a trigger. You don’t even have to watch them die. You can just walk away.”
“Why did they shoot that guy?”
“Because he was going to die anyway.”
“That makes it okay?” Haley seemed genuinely interested to know where this line was drawn. But Mercy refused to answer. “What made everybody like this?”
“Everyone has that side to them… Everyone.”
They resumed walking for some time until Haley blurted aggressively, “Why aren’t we looking for another house?”
“We will, but we need to get food first.”
“There was food in our house!”
“Yes, we were lucky. But that was just luck, Haley.” Dad’s fanaticism, actually, she kept to herself.
“But shouldn’t we find a place to stay first? Isn’t that more important?”
Mercy had to admit the child had a solid point, but she stuck by her line of thinking. “What if there’s nothing to eat in the next house? We’d risk leaving our shelter to find food, and by the time we came back to it, it could be taken, or we might not even make it back at all. Finding food buys us time.”
“We’ll find a different house. We don’t have to stay in one place all the time.”
“We can’t risk always looking for another safe haven. We need to stay wherever we can, for as long as we can. But first, we need to find food.” Haley nodded, allowing Mercy to proceed again. They did not hold hands that time. Mercy led, and Haley simply followed.
They spoke little to each other in the hours until the sun set, and night settled in. Even with their last meals having been not very long ago, their energy was emptying and hunger came over them. We should have found something by now, Mercy thought, but there was nothing. Maybe all the food’s in the houses, she admitted. But if it’s all in the houses, then it would all be guarded. I guess that means any house open for the taking wouldn’t have any food. Mercy gave up attempting to find an easy means to circumvent their dire situation.
Mercy led them to a less commercialized part of the boulevard, into a small park with a single bench. She buried her face as she took a seat. Haley remained standing. After a minute or two, she heard Haley get excited.
“Look, Aunt Mercy!”
Lifting her head, she saw a family of deer, peacefully eating from the abundance of plant life in the park, namely the tall grass she was seated near. Haley stared at them with adoration and fascination. Mercy observed the animals as well, and Haley with them. Cute thing, she thought of her niece, smiling, as she watched Haley step very slowly toward the deer. Though they turned their heads, perking up their ears, it didn’t seem that they minded. Haley abruptly stopped.
“I should prob’ly leave them alone,” she said. Mercy nodded. With great reluctance, Haley turned around and added, “I don’t think we’re gonna find anything out here,” her niece said honestly.
“I think you’re right. I hope you’re not, though.” Mercy put her arm around Haley after she sat next to her. “It’s been months. Whatever was left to find is already taken. Any healthy food would have spoiled by now, too. We should live in the wild, so we could pick berries and hunt. The city’s a death trap when nothing’s being imported.”
“People could be growing food in their back yards,” said Haley reassuringly. “We should do that. You know, find seeds for different plants and stuff. Live off whatever we can grow.”
“That wouldn’t do us a whole lot of good now. Trees and plants take weeks … months to grow. We already talked about this, didn’t we?”
“Not really. Come to think of it, we said that would be too risky, because we’d-”
“Have to be outside,” they said simultaneously.
“Don’t forget there’s risk of our food being stolen in the middle of the night,” said Mercy. “We’d have to sleep upstairs, or outside for that matter. I don’t know, Haley. We’re taking a risk now, aren’t we? Wandering around, out here … in the open…”
Mercy glanced every direction, as did Haley, keeping a sharp eye on objects that could conceal a person, such as trees, posts or vehicles. Then she thought about the houses within her view, determining which ones appeared the most promising. Unfortunately they all displayed signs of break-in. Few appeared to have been deserted for a great length of time, likely meaning there was nothing of value left inside.
“I bet every house in the country has been invaded by now,” said Haley, her patience wearing thin. “There’s no right answer. We have to just pick one.”
Mercy sighed, rising to her feet laboriously. “I hate to admit it, but you’re right. I just… I don’t want to risk going without food. I don’t want to risk choosing a house that’s already taken. If I get you killed, I’ll never forgive myself.”
“Hey! Remember that night when you scared off that one guy that broke in?” Haley was probably trying to sound reassuring, but to Mercy she came across as satisfied with the outcome of the event. “You just shot at them and screamed. That’s all you had to do. They ran away.”
“So what if I scared them off with a gun?” Mercy’s tone was almost scornful. “Your dad had a gun, your uncle Carlos, and even Grandma had a gun. What happened to them?” Mercy awaited a response, though Haley knew all too well what the answer was.
“I’m sorry, Aunt Mercy. I didn’t mean to sound like this is a game. I know it’s not.”
Mercy breathed in deep. “I know you’re taking it seriously. It’s hard, that’s all. I don’t know what I’m feeling right now. I feel … angry. I’m afraid, I’m paranoid…”
“It’s okay, I-”
“Let’s just go. It’s already dark. Before long I won’t be able to see you.”
“Oh. I barely noticed,” said Haley.
Fortunately, as the sun vanished beyond the horizon, the moon grew brighter. No clouds to obscure it, or to bring rain. They had at least some means of watching their surroundings. As they began to walk, Mercy scanned every direction, certain that someone was waiting to ambush them. The darkness grew rapidly, shortening her vision more every minute, like the night wished to blind her.
During the past two months, every night the darkness was suffocating. Not one street lamp was lit, nor any lamps or candles from within other houses. Mercy quickly learned how terrified of the night Haley was. The first two weeks were the worst. Though Mercy was with her through it all, holding her hand, reassuring that she was right beside her, Haley continued to tremble, claiming to see things that weren’t there, and hearing sounds with no source. Sound of any kind, from trees rustling in the wind or from faint, random creaks from the house, only amplified her fear. After two months, she was more adjusted to the darkness, but not significantly. Eventually, spiders, which once terrified her, didn’t faze her whatsoever, which was at least a slight improvement. Mercy thought she handled her own fear well, never trembling and always prepared to face any threat.
Mercy extracted her flashlight, gesturing Haley to do likewise as she lead them further into the neighborhood. “We’ll go to the first house that looks intact,” she whispered to her. Rattling from up ahead startled them both. It sounded similar to a chain. Maybe it was. Regardless what was causing the sound, Mercy picked up the pace, but did not run. It was too late to turn back. The rattling continued, its volume ever growing. Apart from that, faint wind, and distant miscellaneous sounds from all over the city, it was as silent as a cemetery. Any sound, even a snapping twig, seemed abnormally loud and was reason for alarm.
She saw a brown house on their side of the street. “That one,” she called, gripping Haley’s wrist and pulling her up to the home.
Mercy rested her hand upon Haley’s head as she leaned up, peering through what appeared to be the living room window. She felt Haley’s head jerk to the side. “I saw something out there! Someone’s following us.” She struggled keeping her voice a whisper.
Mercy nearly checked for herself, but thought, it doesn’t matter. She ran to the front door. “It’s locked,” she said, racing back to Haley.
“Of course it is!” sassed Haley. Mercy took her niece’s hand again, running the opposite way around the house. She looked for an opening to enter through. Haley cried a second time. “Someone’s following us!”
Toward the back of the house was a small window leading into the basement. Mercy stopped there, working out a way to pry it open, receiving some help from Haley, but both their efforts were futile. Mercy sprinted to the back yard, wasting no time informing Haley what she was thinking. When a shed came in view, she ran for it. Then another sight caught her attention, halting her abruptly. The sliding glass door to the back of the house was open; even the screen.
Haley caught up to her shortly after. For a brief moment, Mercy forgot about the danger, because of the chance there was a new threat waiting for them inside. It’s not broken, Mercy observed. Nobody broke in… She saw her niece walk closer to the house, while she remained stationary.
None of it made sense, but she understood she had no choice. Mercy was not backing down, and she could not leave her niece alone just to learn what was inside. They slowly stepped through the sliding glass door into complete darkness.
“Hello?” Mercy faintly called. There was no answer, nor sound of any kind. She moved slowly, as lightly as she could, but discovered the floor was hardwood. It creaked like an old attic, striking fear in her with every step. Silence was crucial, but her heart seemed to beat ten times louder. Her breathing had not slowed at all since they came inside. She kept her mouth open, taking as slow of breaths as she could. She reached an arm back toward Haley, who this time, pushed it away. “Haley!”
“I’m not a child!”
The girls pulled out their flashlights once seeing there was no activity in the house, or at least on that floor. Now, at slightly more ease to think straight, they noticed a powerful stench, present since they entered the home. How did I not notice that before? thought Mercy. Something’s rotting. Haley kept her light pointed low, touching the floor at all times. Shifting her lights to the left, Mercy saw a foot, causing her to gasp, and her heart to skip a beat. She kept her light fixed on the foot, her hand frozen in the air. Someone was already present in the room; there was no doubt about it. At least it’s attached to something, she thought, considering all they had seen that day. Then, she quickly learned that the person within arm’s reach was not standing there, but was seated, and dead.
She aimed her light upward, directly onto the body, though it terrified her. She was correct. It was the body of an old man, his head tilted back with his eyes and mouth open, a double-barrel shotgun in his cold, left hand. Haley froze, staring just past the body.
“Don’t take your light off him,” demanded Mercy.
Haley obeyed, though asked, “Why?”
“I’m not going to walk through a dark house, with a dead body, without being able to see where it is.”
“I can’t keep the light on him forever. And I don’t exactly want to look at it, either.”
“Neither do I. Just…” Mercy shone her light forward, spotting the kitchen up ahead, and the front door a ways to the left of it. “Let’s try to find the basement.” Mercy headed for the kitchen, gripping Haley’s wrist, only to have it smacked away.
“What if there’s other bodies here? What happened here?” cried the younger one.
“I don’t have any idea,” answered Mercy as they started scouting the entire house for the way into the basement. “If you see any more bodies, don’t look at them.”
“Why the hell would I stare at corpses?”
Mercy didn’t respond.
They finally found the door to the basement, located by the stairs to the second floor. Mercy opened it, illuminating the steps leading to the underground, then phasing it onto Haley.
“What?” she asked as Mercy looked at her. “Get that out of my eyes!”
“I’m not shining it at your eyes.”
“It’s close enough!”
Mercy took lead in walking below, one slow step at a time. Haley followed close behind before Mercy could take her wrist again. The wooden risers creaked more than the floor.
“Anybody down here?” Mercy called.
There was no reply. No flashlights or candles were lit, no voices were speaking. Best of all, no strange rattling sound. Mercy stopped on the last couple of steps. She turned her flashlight off abruptly. Haley raised hers, but Mercy took it from her and shut it off as well.
“What’s wrong? Did you see something?”
“Yeah… Go back upstairs!” Mercy raised her voice to her regular volume, which was may as well have been shouting. “Go!”
Haley swiftly ran back up. She made it to the top, but tripped onto her hands, stumbling into the hallway. Mercy was directly behind her and closed the door quickly. She was shaking violently, panting laboriously as if having been chased by a ghost. Mercy explained nothing, only sliding down to the floor and waiting to catch her breath.
“Aunt Mercy?” asked Haley. “What happened?”
“We can’t possibly stay here,” Mercy replied faintly, and Haley looked at her with shock. “Sorry, I just need a minute…” She lowered her head, covering her face with her arms.
Haley inched across the floor, sitting up next to her. She rested her head on Mercy’s shoulder.
“Where are we?” said Mercy, tears beginning to force themselves out of her eyes. “What happened to the world? This isn’t happening. This can’t be happening…”
Haley squeezed her aunt tightly. “I won’t ask about what you saw.” Several minutes passed, with Mercy slowly regaining composure. It seemed necessary to have said nothing for a while. Haley reluctantly asked, “We’re going to have to stay the night here, aren’t we?” finally breaking the silence.
“I’m sorry for getting mad at you earlier.”
Haley feebly shook her head. “I don’t know. Kinda everything, I guess. Since all this started, you never told me what was happening. Then, I got mad at you for not… Well…”
“Shooting the thieves?”
Haley nodded. “Yeah. I’m just sorry for being so difficult.”
“It’s all right,” said Mercy, stroking Haley’s hair. Nobody likes being left in the dark. These times, the world we live in now… it’s just as confusing for me too.” Mercy thought back on that fraction of an article she read. “Doesn’t seem anybody knows what’s going on. All we can do is adapt.”
“Adapt?” the little one asked.
“Yeah. Meaning, change ourselves so that we can survive.”
“I know.” She elaborated, “I just mean, how do we adapt? Why do we have to? We shouldn’t have to. Everyone steals from each other. Everyone kills each other. We shouldn’t have to do that.” She was starting to get worked up, so Mercy rubbed a hand on her back. “I want to make a place where people can live, where they don’t have to do bad things. Where they’ll be safe.”
“A shelter? That is a good idea. Maybe we’ll find a couple of those out here.”
“I miss…” Haley seemed to choke.
Mercy looked intently at her. “It’s okay, Haley. Speak your mind.”
Haley adjusted her head a little, but kept it snuggled against her aunt’s shoulder. “I miss my mom. I miss everyone. I wish I saw them one more time.”
Mercy was proud that little Haley was able to keep from crying. There was no doubt she was fighting the urge. She had instructed Haley to remain strong during their days isolated in the basement, forbidding her from speaking of their deceased family or from asking about what was happening in the world around them. Mercy thought it was for the better. Neither of them could dwell on the negative, or they would be swallowed by it, never to emerge again, even when things finally improved. Haley behaved like she resented her for it.
“What about your dad?” she asked her niece.
“Your dad. Do you miss him, too?”
Haley was silent for a while. “I don’t know. I guess.”
Mercy was certain Haley knew the reason that question was asked. He had lived with them during their days in the house when the country was falling apart, before the basement. His name was Simon, and from what she heard, he did not treat Haley or her mother any better in that house than in their own. He nearly got kicked out on several occasions. Had the man physically harmed his wife or daughter, he would have been. Dad would have kicked his ass, she thought. The man’s problem was disrespect for his family, and he was unfair to Haley, demanding she have near-perfect grades in school and punishing her severely if she didn’t. He even forbade her from ever speaking Spanish. Mercy hated him for that reason alone; for he had married into a different ethnicity than his own, and he inexplicably loathed it. He only married Celia because he knocked her up, Mercy was certain.
The more she thought about that one part of their dysfunctional family, the angrier she became, and had to force herself to shut out the thoughts. She feared she might have offended Haley with her earlier question, but it seemed Haley was already asleep, drifting into her dreams while still resting her head on Mercy’s shoulder. It seemed better that way. Darkness covered the city and until light would return, it was best not to move. Falling quickly into a deep sleep was never a struggle for Haley, especially as a small child. As an infant she was appreciated for easily going to sleep, though, like her loud crying, it alarmed her parents for a baby to seem to be able to pass out at will.
Mercy adjusted her back against the wall, flattening her legs onto the floor so Haley could sleep on her lap. Then she leaned her head back, not minding the sitting position, and went to sleep as well.
At the sound of a slight commotion, Mercy woke. How much time had passed was uncertain, for it could have been hours or a few minutes. She was sure though, that she heard someone speaking. Her first instinct was to alarm Haley, but she waited to be sure. A solid minute went by that she listened, completely motionless and taking slow, quiet breaths. It felt like hours.
Then she heard a creak from the back door, followed by several more.
“Haley!” she said, shaking Haley’s shoulder. “Wake up!” It took a moment, but Haley finally opened her eyes. “We have to hide.”
Without question, Haley followed Mercy’s lead, who pulled her up and led them to the nearest place to hide. They crawled to the kitchen table, careful not to shift the chairs. Mercy could still see nothing. She felt the arms of Haley wrap around her tightly.
The creaking of the floor grew louder as they drew nearer. There’s more than one, she thought. Maybe more than two. Whoever was inside, they were careful to be quiet, at least for the time being.
The intruders eventually entered the kitchen, their flashlights shining everywhere except at foot level.
The girls remained perfectly still, taking the slowest possible breaths and holding each other close. In the glow of the sweeping flashlights, Mercy could make out three pairs of legs. She listened intently, stricken with fear.
“I know they’re in here,” said a man with a strong, deep voice, sounding like the leader of the group.
“It’s pretty dark out, man. You sure?”
“I’m fucking sure.”
“How can you be sure? You were sure about the other three houses.”
Mercy saw the leader step up to his doubting henchman. “They’re here! I know it. Now, search every fucking inch of this place until you find them. When you find them, bring them to me.”
“Two girls, you said, right?” said the questioning man.
“Yeah, two. Maybe three.”
“We’re wasting time when we could be finding food. I don’t like to fuck on an empty stomach. We haven’t eaten in two days!”
“Yeah, but when was the last time you had a good fuckin’? Weeks? We’ll keep ’em with us, then we won’t have to go huntin’ for pussy again.”
“Fine,” said the questioning member, relenting his disagreement. “We checked everything including the basement, right?”
“Yeah, I did,” said a third man in the group. Mercy internally noted how many different voices she heard, confirming what little she could see. “Bunch of bodies cut open down there.”
“Fuckin’ cannibals were here?”
“I doubt it. Looked like someone came and took their stuff, then made sure they weren’t followed out.”
“Come on, look again,” demanded the boss. “I don’t wanna be here all night.”
They spread out, covering different areas of the house. Someone stayed behind again, seeming to be the same one as before from what Mercy could tell. The one with the torn coat. He looked about the kitchen through all the places one could hide. First, the pantry, then under the sink. When he saw nothing in those places, all that remained of the obvious spots was the table… Mercy relinquished Haley, taking the gun from her pocket, switching off the safety. Haley started to tremble.
Stopping, then lowering to his knees, the man shone his flashlight under the table, only to be greeted by Mercy pointing her pistol at his head. “Don’t. Do. Anything,” she did not hesitate to say. The warning was effective, because the man did as she commanded. “Get back, let us go, and I won’t shoot you.”
The man obeyed, crawling back slowly, but he started to chuckle. “Have you ever shot a gun before? Your arm’s too bent, and the way you’re pointing that thing, the bullet would go right past my head.”
Mercy scooted around Haley to get up from the table first. She kept her sights on the young man as Haley stepped out too. “I have three bullets left. I know how to shoot. I’ve killed people with this.”
“You wanna find out?”
Haley started stepping toward the back door. “Let’s go, Mercy!” she whispered fervently. “We have a chance now.”
Mercy hesitated, her hand shaking and her eyes tearing up from fear. He only needed to shout, call to his friends, or be shot by her, and the others would know. She dared not try just walking away. She weighed the options in her mind, thinking quickly. She wouldn’t attempt to knock him unconscious, knowing he would be much faster and overpower her first.
He made a move. Mercy’s impulse took charge and with the butt of her pistol she struck him hard in the nose. He grunted loudly. Haley appeared unexpectedly to Mercy’s left. She punched Mercy’s side, then took the pistol from her and shot the man twice. Mercy gasped. The man screamed from pain and rage, falling to the ground and dropping his flashlight. Loud, rapid stomps sounded from all over the house. As she saw the man reach for his weapon, the rolling flashlight shone on his face, which looked like that of a decayed corpse.
Mercy wasted no time. She took Haley by the wrist and rushed at full speed toward the back door. The man fired three rounds directly at Haley, who collapsed onto her face, shrieking in agony.
“NO!” screamed Mercy.
“Ah! No, God! Please, God! Help, Mercy! Help me! I can’t move!”
Mercy lifted Haley and ran into the back yard, fleeing around the house and to the street from where they came in before. Her strength already began to give out, despite her panic. The darkness made it nearly impossible to see ahead. She heard the men not far behind.
Up ahead the street was illuminated, and the light was gradually coming toward them. It was provided by the moon, but only in specific areas of the road. The clouds were drifting. The light only endured for seconds, but it was enough for Mercy to see an abandoned vehicle up ahead with a dead body in its driver’s seat. Darkness returned as the clouds passed below the moon again. Mercy had to guess the precise direction of the truck.
“They’re…” Haley cried, clenching her hands and grinding her teeth. “They’re close!”
“I’ll get us out of here,” Mercy assured. “Stay strong. Stay strong.”
Mercy made it to the truck despite the returning darkness. She opened the driver’s side, making an immediate check for the keys, which she found still in the ignition. After sitting Haley on the concrete, she forced the body out, then she lifted Haley up once more, placing her on the far side. A miracle,she thought. She climbed in and turned the ignition. The engine failed to start.
Haley struggled to breathe. Despite this, she faced the oncoming gang through the back window. Her breathing grew more laborious every second. “H-Hurry,” she breathed.
Finally, after several attempts, the engine started. The old truck was a manual, but Mercy fortunately knew how to operate it. She pressed the clutch, shifted into first gear, and smoothly pressed on the gas.
There was still hope Haley would survive this.
Mercy caught a glimpse of Haley smiling once they started moving. But, just as they started to move, and their spirits restored, the men pulled out their guns, one of them an automatic rifle, and started loading the truck full of lead. The back window sprayed glass in every direction with each bullet that pierced it.
The spraying glass distorted Mercy’s driving briefly as shards scraped her body everywhere. The windshield got hit as well. It was difficult to keep straight on the road. The back left tire was shot, briefly forcing the truck to sway hard to the left and tilt. Haley was thrown to the side, releasing a cry of pain.
Mercy drove recklessly with no concept of time, only until it seemed they were long out of sight of their pursuers. Haley breathed laboriously through her nose, every breath less audible than the one before. Mercy abruptly stopped the truck when she saw faint lights in the near distance. She kicked the door open, ran to the other side, and pulled Haley out. Blood was all over the seats. Haley’s eyes were heavy.
“Keep your eyes open, Haley. Keep them open. Don’t stop looking at me.” She gently rested Haley’s legs on the street while holding her head up with her thigh. “Blink once for yes and twice for no. Can you still breathe?”
Haley blinked once, though slowly.
Mercy shook violently. What to do next was absolutely unclear. She turned to where she saw the faint lights. “Help me lift you.” She used all her strength to lift the little one, who helped at least some.
Mercy carried Haley toward a nearby church. Though the building had no exterior illumination, Mercy could see candlelight coming through the windows. It took a minute, but they reached the building without interruption. Others in this area, wherever it was, could be a threat, but in Mercy’s mind, the greatest threat was Haley’s wounds.
“We need help!” she screamed as she pounded on the church doors. “They shot my niece! She’s dying!”
She pounded the doors at full force, hitting them until she had no strength left in her arm. Each second may as well have been an eternity, for Haley might have only had mere seconds left. She kept her eyes on Haley, thankful every moment that the girl still breathed. She wept bitterly as she kept staring at her, the blood continuing to leak onto the steps. Finally, the doors opened behind her, but she failed to even notice.
“Who needs help?” someone said.
Mercy turned, seeing four men standing at the entrance. “Yes, my niece! Please…”
Two of them took Haley and carried her inside. Mercy followed close behind. They rested Haley’s body on a table in the sanctuary. They had to ask her to remove her hands, which were now indistinguishable from the rest of her neck due to the blood. Haley was fading, and from Mercy’s eyes, it seemed she was accepting her fate.
Haley’s hands trembled, slowing inching toward Mercy. Mercy held her right hand, feeling the fingers start to tighten but losing strength. Haley turned her head very slowly to the left, seeing the young men attempt to bandage her wounds.
She stopped struggling. She gazed into Mercy’s eyes, which were as red as the hand she held. She was … smiling, faintly.
“I love you, Haley. I love you!” Mercy wrapped her hands around the girl’s head, kissing her cheek, keeping her lips firmly planted on the skin. Then, Haley’s breathing seemed to stop. When Mercy stepped back, she saw the men in the room had as well, already starting to put their supplies away. She released a scream of agony and terror. Her heart broken, her strength gone, her world darkened forever…
Haley’s eyes had closed, never to open again.
Click here for Chapter 5