As the sun set beyond the city skyline, Theia realized she had been hiding too long. Gently, cautiously, she opened the cabinet door with her right hand, straightening her glasses with her left. Faint afternoon sunlight pierced into the darkness that had concealed her. Through the window ahead, she saw the clouds saturated in a beautiful pink hue, which provided her some much-needed comfort, but it additionally warned her that night was drawing near. It was time to come out; time to flee…
Inhaling deep, she peeked her head out, but remained concealed. The peaceful gleaming light that soothed her shined down on a body that lied inches away. It was as cold as that winter day, and soaking in blood. She never directly looked at it. Finally, she made room only enough to fit through and crawled out, stepping over the body.
Cold rushed over her, seething through her shirt and jeans. Trembling, violently, she told herself, Keep it together. She was engulfed in fear, frozen stiff. No sounds, she discerned. The silence both imparted comfort and amplified the horror. Despite knowing what she would see when she left her hiding place, it failed to prepare her.
She walked with careful, cumbersome steps, but kicked something and nearly fell. She stumbled, catching her balance on the kitchen counter, then saw another body. Somehow, she couldn’t look away. She was as frozen as the corpse at her feet. The man’s eyes were still open.
He’s looking at me! She couldn’t even gasp.
There was no going back; the damage reached its furthest possible extent. She already saw the bodies, and was now forcing herself to see the others. Every face, she recognized. But she maintained her composure, reminding herself that focus was the key to finding an exit.
He was nice to me, Theia thought while passing the body on a couch as she made her way through the living room. That man had brought her to that house months ago, but he never mistreated her, unlike the others. She wished she had at least known his name.
Death everywhere… There was a silver lining to be found in the situation: she finally had her freedom. Now, to get outside…
Every creak forced a pause in her step, as did every whistle in the wind, or any other sound she didn’t cause. For comfort’s sake, she wished to know who else was alive, if anyone. She passed a window that overlooked all of Portland. There was no activity to see in the streets; not on the distant bridges, nor among the neighboring condominiums. None of it made sense. How could everything, everywhere, be so silent? Her mind questioned, and every conceivable outlandish, absurd explanation made more sense than what she was seeing. She considered the supernatural, which, surprisingly made the most sense. That guy in the kitchen… Did he really look at me, even though he was dead? Perhaps some colossal creature was running amok, trampling and eating every human in its path.
No, she thought. It was people.
She recalled the gunfire, the explosions, the shouts, and the cries. Before Theia had taken shelter in the cabinet under the sink, she witnessed a man’s head split open by three men with bats – the first time she had ever seen a dead body, let alone a mutilated one. Memory betrayed her, for the first time in her life. She was reliving the horror and witnessing its aftermath simultaneously. Her heart raced, and she began to shake.
“Hello?” she called, but kept her voice low. I heard something! Remaining calm require every last ounce of strength and will.
Theia lightly stepped toward the base of the stairs, never intending to see what devastation occurred on the two upper floors, but to perhaps hear if anyone was alive up there. Two bodies blown to shreds were sprawled on the steps, blood and bullet holes covered the walls. She looked away, but continued to listen. Nothing.
Before the smell could overwhelm her, she turned around and headed straight for the exit. The area surrounding the front door was covered in three times the bodies as the kitchen and living room, all soaking in a thick layer of dried blood. Panic consumed Theia just then. She ran, stumbling over the bodies. She vomited while opening the door, tripping onto her knees before she could close it. She crawled down the porch steps, onto the lawn.
When it was over, she took a few minutes simply to breathe and relax. After wiping off the small bits of stomach content that got on her hands, she stood. Rather absentmindedly, she checked her hair, feeling some kind of slime in it that made her blonde hair a slight brown in that spot. The sink, she figured. Theia attempted to pull the slime out. Of all that was going wrong, she didn’t want anything to ruin her one precious feature. At least one thing had to stay right.
Theia peered toward the greater city, which was only a few hundred feet away. That prison of a house lied directly outside the skyline. What was there to go on? There was no one around, no one in sight, to help her find her way. Everyone who could have was dead. “Where?” she asked herself. “Where should I go?”
Burnside was directly ahead, at the base of the road leading into that neighborhood. Downtown was the only direction with which she was familiar. So, she chose to run toward the city. Down the lot’s slope, and stepping onto Burnside, she found more bodies. Whatever killed these people, whatever seemingly killed everyone, she had to stay safe from it, and so she ran. Everything will be okay. I just have to find people…
It was strange to see Burnside so devoid of activity. In the past, it was one of the busiest streets in the city. There was nothing. Nothing living, at least, except scavenger birds and insects, and foliage that had already begun consuming the streets and buildings alike. Vehicles of every variety were strewn about, from civilian cars, to carrier trucks, and even a tank. The city was negligibly different from the house, like the aftermath of a massacre but on a much larger scale. It provided no solace.
Theia came across a block with multiple retail establishments. From there, she could still see the condominiums on the hill from which she came. By then, she didn’t fear being found by anyone involved in that slaughter. Running into the first store, she found it was empty, devoid of the living or the dead. The second store, same result, as well as the third and fourth.
I’m the last person on Earth. Everyone left me behind. Eleven and alone, her life ended before it had a fair start.
She remained outside, sitting against the front entrance of the fourth store she had ventured into. The pink hue of the clouds had turned dark, and with that darkness came the predictable rain. “I’m sorry, Dad,” she wept. “I’m sorry, Mom.” Tears ran down her cheeks as fluidly as a stream. She didn’t wipe them away; their company was appreciated. “What did I do? Why did you leave me?” she asked the sky, or the wind, whatever would listen. She hoped her father would hear her voice in the wind. It terrified Theia that she lacked the slightest knowledge of her parents’ whereabouts. Nothing could be done about it though, which she forced herself to accept.
After gathering herself, she pondered what to do next. Home, she thought. But, how to get there? None of the stores contained any bodies, she recalled, so she rose and walked to the one she had entered first. A clothing store. It was the best option for a place to sleep and stay warm.
Whatever strength she had in her legs was nearly gone. Her body still trembled, and felt weak. All she had endured since escaping weighed on her like shackles. The carpeted floor sufficed for a bed, and she chose to lay between cash register lanes. As Theia listened to the pouring rain outside, she removed her glasses and curled into a ball. For assurance, she reminded herself: I forget everything when I’m asleep, and then closed her eyes to sleep.
Unfortunately, it proved as difficult as finding company. The cold seethed deep into Theia’s skin. For what felt like days, weeks even, she tried to fight it. She would curl up more, or roll around to create friction. At one point she had gotten up to use clothes for a blanket and pillow, a little embarrassed with herself for not doing it sooner. But when she walked to the aisles, her attention shifted to her own attire. Everything was designed for casual times of day, far from anything suitable for winter. She smiled, finding it a little funny that she could take as she pleases without paying. After a while of sifting through the selection, she found the only item that interested her: a plain white long-sleeved shirt. She put it on. Something about it made her happy, though she couldn’t pinpoint the reason. Perhaps it was because the shirt was completely clean. At least it goes good with my blonde hair and my jeans. Still it couldn’t keep her warm, so she put on a plain deep-blue sweater as well.
Theia returned to her sleeping spot, attempting to rest and hoping to dream. For another hour she tossed and turned, until finally giving up. She stood, then dragged herself outside.
Following along Burnside, but this time staying off the road, she encountered a grocery store. The reprieve its sight bestowed made her smile. Upon entering, her heart sank to find that the place was almost completely devoid of food, or really anything else useful. Only empty cans, wrappers, and some cardboard remained. Graffiti plastered nearly every square foot of the floor, walls and ceiling, displaying repulsive writing and symbols. Everything that could break was already broken, from the windows, to the racks, to the registers. She would have to rummage through piles of scraps. I guess I have time, she thought as she began to do just that. Among the garbage was at least one useful item, which brought a smile to her face when she discovered it: a book of matches.
Now, the store was her new home, and those matches were sacred relics. ‘Start a fire,’ her father always told her in those stupid lectures about survival. He had been referring to being lost in the woods, or a desert, but the city was now an environment equally as wild, empty and hostile. Theia searched throughout the store for any large pieces of cardboard, knowing that it burned longer than ordinary white paper.
Among the trash enshrouding the floor, she found a digital watch, which was nearly as much reason for celebration as the matches. The time didn’t matter any, and she saw the backlighting was nearly completely faded; with a battery that low, it wasn’t worth keeping. She did see, however, the date, which displayed: 12/15/12. A shocking discovery. Apparently, a disturbingly vast amount of time had passed while she lived in that house…
To avoid losing track of time again, she got an idea. While continuing her search for fire fuel, she searched for a simple notepad. Rather absentmindedly, she collected piles of cardboard scraps until ultimately finding the item she sought. She promptly recorded the date on the first page. After tucking it into her pocket, she completed her salvaging, gathering as much as her arms could carry.
Before long, Theia successfully created a small fort at the front, by the registers, made of nothing but cardboard, then lit it. The flames were massive, and the smoke even more so. Another reason to be happy, another moment to smile. But she was quickly forced to retreat outside, suffocating from the thick black cloud.
Out in the parking lot, she spotted a small brown and black dog about twenty feet away, eating scraps of some kind. It dipped its head, sniffing the ground, then cautiously approached her. Must not have been good food, she thought. The fire behind her died down nearly as swiftly as it grew. Then, the dog fled. Her moment of happiness was truly just a moment.
Returning inside, she resolved to keep her piles small henceforth. None of the fires lasted long. Upon noticing her entire stockpile of fuel was nearly depleted, she moved outside, starting one final fire immediately past the front doors in the hope the light would signal anyone out there. But, no one’s alive, she thought. It’s pointless.
Everything was ruined, everything was destroyed. The remnant of a former world. The world she once knew, now filthy and infested.
Theia rolled back the bottom of her sweater and examined her white shirt. She saw that it had already accumulated dirt and was blackened some by the smoke. Well, I sure didn’t keep that up for long, she thought. Keeping it clean and bright as possible remained a priority, for stability’s sake, despite having already failed. After adding the last of the flammables to the fire, she collected a handful of her hair. Still clean, she saw. Smells like a campfire, though.
In those early hours of the darkness, she heard people speaking in the distance. It excited her immensely. She ran further out to locate the people and signal them over. But what she discovered was a gang of men, all dressed in black, each carrying at least one rifle in hand. Half carried a spare on their backs. She had regrets already. First, she snuffed the fire by spreading it out – another trick her father taught her – then she bolted back inside.
They saw me, they saw me.
Seeing them approach invoked fear she could physically feel, like touching fire. After she extinguished her only source of light and heat, it seemed the gang hastened toward the store. She knew she only had a moment to hide somewhere. Instinct guided her feet toward the back of the store, hiding among the leftover merchandise in the shipment area. From then, she could only wait…
Now, for a second time, Theia’s comfort was in absolute darkness as she waited to be safe again. She reassured herself thinking, If I can’t see, neither can they. If the thugs were present, she wouldn’t know, because there were no doors or windows left to open or break to enter.
Indistinct voices, impossible to discern. They didn’t seem to be conversing with each other. Ultimately, it was their footsteps which gave them away, particularly when one accidentally kicked something. Though a wall safely separated her from the main area, she stayed attentive, peering around, checking for flashlights.
What if they won’t give up? I’ll be stuck here the whole night. Or longer…
Hiding for hours wasn’t an appealing option, but it had been tested with success.
Theia decided to do some pondering while she waited, since time certainly allowed it. Questions for herself, mostly. Her primary thought was, Why am I hiding? Her father had always wanted her to ask questions, but emphatically reminded her to trust her instincts in dire situations. Impulse and instinct were for emergencies, because thinking ‘would only slow her down.’ She hadn’t questioned why she feared these men searching for her, but since she was now, she was beginning to consider coming out to meet them, merely for the chance they meant her no harm. Despite this, a more important thought countered the question repeating in her mind: Why are they looking for me? Theia only remained, laying down, preparing to sleep.
“HEY!” one screamed. “Get out here!”
It caught her by surprise, causing her to gasp loudly. No! Did they hear me? Fear consumed her, igniting a searing heat that spread throughout her body. But the cold continued to sting her skin. Everything was wrong , first with the world, and now her own body. She kept as silent as she could, petrified, with her palms pressed against her mouth.
“We’ll be gentle, we swear. You’ll learn to like it.”
After another minute, as the group grew more impatient, another said, “’the fuck are ya, little bitch? Come on!”
Learn to like what? Nobody likes being hurt. Why do they want to hurt me? A dozen more questions followed. The cold was catching up to her, overpowering her pounding heart and adrenaline rush, stiffening her muscles and causing her to shiver. Maybe if I talk to them…
“Fuck you, bitch,” one said. Theia heard them throw trash and slam the shelves, followed by stomping that faded into the distance. They were finally gone.
She felt terrible, the cold notwithstanding. What did I do? Her better judgment knew she shouldn’t have taken offense to their words, but their words stung regardless. Remaining there was best, she knew, because the night was young and that gang was the first sign of living people she had seen. Are there only those kinds of people now? she thought.
Curling into a ball, she folded the ends of her sweater over her hands, then tucked her arms up to her chest. She was alone. Truly alone. She wanted to cry, but her eyes already stung. Only her parents were on her mind at that moment. “Sorry I thought you abandoned me, Dad,” she said to herself. “I know you love me. I hope you’re still alive. I wish I knew where you were.”
Theia began to hear fighting in the streets, nothing more than a scuffle. Then, people shouted at each other or were screaming in pain. She was safe there, in the darkness again. She imagined her father sitting beside her, with one arm wrapped around her so that she could feel his presence and be reminded throughout the night that he was there. “Goodnight, Dad,” she whispered. He said the same, she imagined. Reluctantly, she brought herself to say, “Goodnight, Mom.” Then, she closed her eyes, hoping to live long enough to wake again.
The horrors of the night were forgotten by the next morning. She felt rejuvenated, more fit to handle her circumstances, more alert …, more alive.
Silence covered the city, again. It seemed almost backwards to her: Everyone’s awake at night, and asleep in the day. Anyone still alive, at least. Foolishly, she regretted hiding from that gang, because she might have gotten some answers about what was happening, or had happened.
With great hesitation, Theia snuck out of the freight room. They could still be in here, she realized once she was already in an aisle. To test this, she breathed in deep and held it as long as she could. With the extra silence that allotted, still, there was nothing to hear, and that was enough to give her a little more relaxation in her step.
Like the overall silence, and the desolation, the cold was ever present. It sure likes to remind me it’s there, she thought.
Back to square one.
Theia dreaded repeating the same course of action as yesterday. How do I avoid that? Resenting the notion of having another day of senseless cardboard burning, she decided to figure out ways to keep the fire going on its own. I need to learn how to do this right. Wood came to mind first, but she had no idea where to find any. There were some trees around, but none that had fallen over or had low branches. People must have already made use of the trees they could chop down. Most were stumps now.
Giving up couldn’t be an option, but it appealed more than risking her safety in the street again. I was lucky I didn’t get attacked when I was walking around yesterday. That gang could be close, waiting for me to come out.
She had nothing anymore. No one. Not even a toy to play with or a diary to confide in. Everything was gone. Everyone had vanished, and no one bothered to say goodbye. She questioned herself. She questioned her father again. Did he not want me anymore? Maybe I wouldn’t be here if he did. Suddenly, giving up was the least painful and least terrifying idea she had. Mom never wanted me. Did she make Dad hate me too? Dad always said he loved me, but… he’s gone… Theia stood by the windows, looking out at the ruins. The bodies had not moved, nor the fallen equipment. Maybe those people gave up too.
Sluggishly, Theia walked out of the store and leaned against the building. For a minute, she stared at the silent nothingness surrounding her before she slumped down the wall, with no intention to ever move again. She clenched her sweater, locking her hands in a tight grasp to the one thing she had left in the world. Her precious hair soaked in a puddle. No matter. Why should I try? she thought. Everything is gone.
Moments later, Theia’s eyes lit up. A group of young boys were walking in the distance, coming from the plaza she had first visited. They appeared to be approximately her age, and they walked with confidence, even laughing sometimes, like they weren’t afraid of anything. They must have known some things. Obviously, they knew how to survive. And they were happy, somehow. Strength returned to her body as she rose up.
Not everything’s gone, she joyfully thought as she ran toward the boys.
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.”
What have I done?
Adam could not look away from the body. Its warm blood continued to drain from the neck. Adam dropped the glass shard from his hands, having cut himself in the moment. The blood spread toward his feet, but he could not even step away.
A masked man had broken in somehow through the window. Once inside, he charged at the boss with intent to kill. In a panic, Scarlet swiftly reached for her gun in the desk. Adam’s body reacted before his mind knew the situation, seizing the boss’ glass of water, breaking it on the desk, and then impaling the assassin’s neck with the largest shard. After that, Adam was completely frozen, collecting his thoughts. Scarlet on the other hand, was singing his praises, but there was no one home to hear it.
The others in the room discussed how one man could scale the building and come so close to Scarlet without detection. They were on the second floor, in a building protected by snipers on the roof, and plenty of guards surrounding the perimeter. The building, once an elementary-middle school, was only a street-crossing away from the houses in the neighborhood. Scaling it was a possible feat; it was bypassing the guards which should have made it impossible. Regardless of how this happened, the other men present commented on how Adam already look unfamiliar. One laughed, “I bet your hair would be standing straight up, if you had any.”
“Not bad, boy,” said Scarlet. She displayed no sign of disconcert or shock, nor grief over the life that had just left this world.
Emilio ‘The Sicilian’ entered the room, followed by three of his men. He was a veteran member of the clan, serving Scarlet Lancaster since she attained power, and was known for his bald head and inability to smile. He waited silently as the boss spoke again to Adam.
“Didn’t think you had it in you.” Her subordinates promptly moved to carry the body away while one dealt with the mess it left behind. Adam, still shaken, unconsciously started undoing the top buttons of his shirt, then redoing them.
“How the hell did he get so close to me?”
“Not sure, ma’am,” Emilio answered.
Adam saw the spilled water on the desk, then absentmindedly rushed to find a towel to clean it with. Scarlet watched him while responding to Emilio: “Never heard that before. You’re always sure, unless you fuck up.” She glared at the others present, enforcers and bodyguards alike. “How did no one see him?” she screamed.
“He might have taken a house,” said Emilio. “Or he hid in one, camping out until the right moment to strike. We found tools outside from where he climbed up.”
Adam could still see the body there – now the second life he had taken. There was no growing accustomed to being a killer. Never any justification. Murder and guilt; that was the price of his commitment to the clan, and the drive to become a valued member. Or, just a member. No doubt, he would get his wish now. He would become one of them. Finally, the family he always wanted. He earned it. But part of him died with the man whose life he ended. At minimum, he had earned the respect of the other members, even the veterans.
Scarlet commanded him to clean the blood, which reminded him of his place, whether he made his bones or not. He was a butler, a steward, a secretary, a lowly servant, and nothing more. In a shrill, satisfied voice, the boss asked him, “You want to be part of my family, don’t you?”
Don’t abandon hope just yet, he told himself.
Adam finally mustered enough attentiveness to turn and face her. Merely seeing the drooping skin in her cheeks and neck made him feel nauseous. “Yes, ma’am. Absolutely.”
Upon completing his task, Scarlet extended a palm, pointing him to the chair before her desk. “My apologies for not remembering this, but… How long have you been with us?”
“Only a few months.” She’ll want a precise answer, thought Adam. As he sat in the chair, he corrected himself. “Uh… Four months, I think.”
“Emilio took you in, didn’t he?”
“You were laying in the middle of the street, like roadkill.”
Adam wasn’t sure if Scarlet meant that as a statement or question. “I was in my car, ma’am, not on the road. I was… Uh…” Damn it, she doesn’t care for useless details!
“What were you doing? Why were you out there, waiting to die like that?”
His eyes found the others present, all watching him like they were in an interrogation room. He hoped Emilio, a far more confident man than himself, would speak on his behalf. The questions made him abhorrently nervous, causing him to sweat. “I…” His words escaped him. “My father.”
“What about him?” Emilio interjected.
“I attacked my father, because he killed my mother with a ten-pound dumbbell. It killed her instantly.” How can I say this in a tough-guy way? he thought heavily for a second or two. “So, I crushed his skull with the same object like it was nothing.”
“Like it was nothing?” asked Scarlet, not fazed by his loss in the slightest. “You didn’t regret it or feel shame?”
“Well… There were… There were about twelve of us total. My parents… Um… One of my aunts… The rest were just friends of ours. Hiding for so long, we kind of had a lot of drama going on. You know how it is… You know, backstabbing and gossip. I was just tired of it.” He looked at the others again. “So, when my drunk piece-of-shit father killed my mother…” At that moment, Adam realized, I didn’t answer her question…
“You wanted a better family? A family that would have your back.”
He nodded. “You could say that.”
“Would you do it again?”
“Do what?” Is she asking if I’d kill my own father again? How sick!
“Would you take a life for me, of course?”
“Well, I just did, didn’t I?” he nervously laughed. The others chuckled as well. “Uh…, yes, ma’am.” He viciously scratched his thigh.
Scarlet laughed. My hesitation is amusing, apparently, he figured. “Well, young man,” she began. “Give it time and you might have a new family to call your own. I’m sure you don’t want to just wait on me forever. I’ll give you a glimpse of what my people do around here. And … as for now, I have some records to examine. Bring me everything I have on the Solomon family.”
False promises, and then back in his place, like always. His moment of glory quickly extinguished. It was hardly as phenomenal as he dreamed. Only guilt, without a silver lining. Could a reward diminish his shame, anyway? He wondered.
Adam swiftly paced to one of several bookshelves; he knew which one. The boss had spoken of that name before: Solomon. The unfamiliarity had him assume it was a smaller family in the area, or somewhere outside the city limits. He tried to recall the names of the four strongest underworld families of the Portland area. Scarlet, boss of the Lancasters… Then, the Marsdens, the Verbecks, and… The final name slipped his mind. The fourth family isn’t the Solomons. Well, it might be… Who are the Solomons if not the fourth family? He recounted the three names in his mind again. Finally, the name returned to him when he noticed someone approaching. A tall, sturdy man entered the room, wearing his usual black leather coat that extended past his knees. The Krohns…
Ethan Krohn – Scarlet’s favorite pet. Adam saw him as an enviable example of what it means to command respect. His face was a bit boyish, which seemed unusual for someone with such notoriety. Despite that, his face was in a constant solemn state; utterly intimidating. He would have been a handsome man had he chosen a different lifestyle. He carried a heavy build, far more than anyone who served Scarlet, like a human tank, but still maintained a slim figure that allowed him to be swift and agile. He had seen Ethan deal with Scarlet’s enemies before. The man was built to kill.
Not once had Adam seen Ethan without that coat, or the serrated hunting knife concealed at his hip. He was now wearing black Kevlar gloves and steel-toed boots, which could only mean he was preparing to leave on a mission. No gun, though. As far as he knew, Ethan never carried a gun.
But even stranger was that Ethan wasn’t even a member of the clan. Not officially. The boss trusted him completely, though. Ethan had been with them since before Adam arrived. Why he resided with a different clan than his own, Adam never figured out. He couldn’t even guess. All four of the stronger, larger clans in the city were headed by women, widely called the Matriarchs, among some other, less flattering titles. A civil war erupted between them only a few months previous. Whatever caused the war, Adam thought… If Ethan can live with Scarlet, it must mean their clans are on good terms.
Adam respected Ethan the most, above all others under Scarlet’s command. He admired Ethan primarily for his fighting ability. Adam always had flimsy arms, since birth. He had studied martial arts at some point in life, but was never serious enough to excel at it. Protecting the boss was Ethan’s primary job, and he was the best at his occupation. Scarlet was too careful to allow non-members in her presence to be armed, except him. Ethan had somehow made himself an exception, which only made Adam admire the man more.
“Where have you been?” scorned Scarlet at the Krohn.
“The roof,” he replied. “Someone outside had a message for you.” Ethan’s disregard for conversation always amused Adam.
“Is it necessary?” the boss asked. “I just sat down.” Because you nearly got shot, thought Adam.
“No need to stand; your guys told her to get lost. She reported suspicious activity, though.”
“Who is? And what does ‘suspicious’ mean?”
Emilio spoke up. Adam had nearly forgotten he was there. Apart from never smiling, the man rarely made a sound. He stood like a statue. “I heard of that too,” said the Sicilian. “Someone’s causing trouble a few blocks down. They’re gaining a sizeable following, growing larger every day. Seems serious.”
“Who’s reporting this to us?” asked the boss.
“Don’t know about Ethan, but I heard it from some douche bag who lives on his turf,” answered Emilio. “Never caught his name.”
Scarlet sighed. She slumped her weight back in her chair, burying her face into her palm. “Well,” she said after a pause, “if you think it’s important… Bring him to me.” Both Ethan and Emilio turned to leave, but Scarlet stopped them, adding, “Emilio, you stay. Ethan, you take Adam.” She pulled her gun and set it on the desk. It took a moment before Adam realized it was meant for him.
Ethan left without waiting. Adam had forgotten about the file on the Solomons right there in his hands. He flopped the folder on Scarlet’s desk, almost in a panic, swept up the gun, then ran to follow Ethan before he was out of sight. He remained further than arm’s reach from Ethan, feeling both unsafe and unworthy to stand so close to the man.
As they proceeded to the south end of the first floor, Adam was reminded of the man he had killed. It was the smell; the hallway was easier to breathe in. He had already adjusted to the smell of decanting blood from a warm corpse. No one cared, he thought. That’s almost inhuman. He began to justify it: The man was attempting to commit murder…
Ethan opened the door which lead into the playground area behind the building. A couple dozen feet to their left was the baseball field. Straight ahead lay the neighborhood, their destination. Ethan stopped and turned toward the watchers on the roof. “Who’s available?” he asked, gaining their immediate attention.
Adam couldn’t help but think that at that moment, any one of them could shoot him. Their rifles made them as frightening as bears, though most of them had weak stature. They could shoot Ethan too, he thought. Ethan commanded more fear and respect, inexplicably. His presence invoked more fear than all the roof guards combined. They feared him, despite the fact he didn’t even carry a gun.
“How many do you need?” asked a sentry.
“Five.” Ethan’s reply sounded like an apathetic guess.
“All right,” said the guard, who waved a signal to the others up there. “Coming down.”
Ethan idly waited, staring far off into the distance. The way he stood, Adam could have mistaken him to be a machine. When the five had joined them at ground level, Ethan turned and walked toward the neighborhood.
“What are we doing?” asked one.
Quick to answer, Adam said, “Someone’s trying to compete with Scarlet’s power. We’re gonna find him.” He felt more confident already, having rushed to reply to feel more valuable to the group.
“We deliver him, preferably alive,” Ethan said, sounding annoyed.
Daylight waned. If Adam had kept track of time like he had in life before the Collapse, he would guess it was 5 o’clock. For his sake, he prayed the light would last them the mission. Who would care if I die out here? he thought. His life was of little importance to anyone. The others knew the area well, and were seasoned in nocturnal conflicts, whereas he had no experience. Even at the school, when night fell, he was cautious of Scarlet’s soldiers and bodyguards. Sharing quarters did not imply friendship. Scarlet was the sole woman in the clan, and nobody would attempt to take advantage of the boss. With all that fat and her old age, who would want to? He, however, was small and had never been in a fistfight. If the guys wanted some fun, or felt inclined to assert their alpha male status, he couldn’t defend himself. When he slept, he slept as lightly as possible, but out there, being fully alert provided him little comfort. He half-expected to be shot for being a potential liability.
Ethan led them three streets down. Rather than following the road, they passed through yards. The others held their weapons high. Adam had no firearm. He was reminded of Ethan’s lack of one as well. Does Ethan even own a gun? he wondered. Adam observed Ethan more than his surroundings, even adjusting his posture to walk like him.
They stopped at the third street. Ethan inexplicably knew where to bring them; but Adam didn’t dare question how. Shattered bottles covered the road, side to side, end to end. Hollow bullet shells were dispersed among them. The houses all bore evidence of raids. No one in sight, though. “I recognize this,” said one among them. “The glass keeps cars out. It used to be meant for cops, though. What are the bullets for?”
“Warning,” said Ethan.
“Or, they mean something happened here, like a battle,” said another clansman.
“Quiet, all of you,” Ethan ordered. “We’ll find the woman near here.”
Adam, trying to keep up with Ethan, asked, “Did the woman say anything else, like what part of –”
“Quiet!” Ethan’s scorn silenced Adam utterly. “We’re splitting up. Find her.”
How am I gonna know when I found her? Adam prayed someone would ask that for him. But, everyone was already proceeding in different directions. I’m the only guy that didn’t see this woman. Maybe if I just ask… No, they won’t bother.
He went on his way as well, knowing this will get over with if he moves faster. Never had he wished for a gun more than this moment. You’ll be fine, you’ll be fine, he told himself.
After he passed through a yard and onto the next street, he saw a face in the house directly ahead, peering out from a window, its attention fixed on him. It was the face of a child. A little boy. Adam’s eyes met the boy’s, which scared it away. Orders are orders. He hesitated. Ethan’s orders had nothing to do with finding children, but Adam couldn’t resist the compulsion to check on the boy. It was the least he could do. After checking his surroundings, he adjusted his hair and clothes to be more presentable, then walked toward the house with his hands up.
He knocked once, then a few seconds later, again. For several minutes, there was no answer. Nearly leaving, he heard activity inside, and stayed his feet. A gentle voice came from the other side. “Who is it?”
Adam wanted to answer, but failed to think of something to say. Gently, he knocked again. After hearing a chain lock being placed the front door slowly opened. A woman, with a hunched back and wheezy breathing, stood before him, pointing a shotgun at his head. Three young ones, with fear covering their faces, watched from a few feet back.
“I won’t hurt you,” said Adam calmly, though shaking.
The woman seemed to struggle standing. She was leaning her shoulder on the door post. “What do you want?” Her arms couldn’t hold the weapon steady. She must have been half-starved; her children were like skeletons.
“I just need information. My name’s Adam.” Words escaped him for a moment. The woman’s frailty started to affect him. “Where’s their father?”
She gasped, turning frantically toward her kids. “Go downstairs! I told you not to let him see you!”
“You don’t need to be alarmed, miss. I won’t hurt you. Is the father here?”
“Why? You think I can’t defend myself or my kids because I’m a woman?”
“No, miss. I ask because you don’t look healthy. I’m concerned, is all.” He looked down the barrel of the 12-gauge. “To be completely honest, I’m also concerned for myself.”
The woman lowered her weapon. “I’m sorry.” She opened the door, gesturing him permission to enter. He politely stepped inside. “Joann,” she greeted, extending a hand to shake. Adam gently shook it. “We’ve been here since everything went to hell… Are you a cop? Or, a former cop?” She closed the door tightly and locked the knob and bolt.
“Never was, I’m afraid.”
She stumbled toward the living room, dropping onto the couch. “Then, why are you here? Who are you?” Adam heard the scratch in her throat with every word she spoke, pitying her.
His attire was more friendly and comfortable than his colleagues’, at least. It was fortunate they weren’t present. The last thing he could bring himself to do, though, was admit who he belonged to, but he didn’t want to lie either. His fingers started readjusting the buttons on his shirt again, almost on their own. ‘I belong to the mob,’ he imagined himself saying. He wanted to appear as if he were there to protect her family. Ethan did not venture out there to protect the woman who reported to the clan; if anything, he intended to use her as bait. She might be that woman, he thought. “Miss, has anything … happened lately?”
Adam didn’t respond. Too many thoughts rushed through his mind, until he had ultimately lost track of the present and froze.
“You always do that?”
Adam realized he was exercising his compulsive habit, and stopped at once. “Sorry.” He shook his head, piecing together how to speak of the matter. “I meant … to any of you.”
“We’ve been robbed. A couple times, actually. I was… Well, they never saw my kids. My husband tried to stop them, but…”
“I understand,” he said before she finished. “The people who break in… Is it always same people?” She nodded slowly, staring at the floor. “I… I heard there’s a gang causing trouble around here. Were you the lady that reported this to us?”
“Did I what, to who?”
Clearly not, then. “Never mind. I was mistaken.” He leaned forward as he spoke more candidly. “Well, my, uh, boss, wants this gang dealt with.”
The mother looked up at him. “So, you belong to your own gang? I should have known. You look clean for being in a gang. You belong to that woman who took over the school, don’t you? I don’t want to tell you anything if it’s going to start some kind of war. My family has nowhere else to hide.”
Adam couldn’t deny her assessment or her fears. “We don’t want to make a mess. It’s this gang’s leader we want. We’re not going to kill him, just take him. If there’s going to be any kind of war, it will be on our turf, not your neighborhood.”
“I’m not interested. Please leave.” She cringed, forcing her legs to straighten as she tried to stand. Adam helped her. “No! Don’t! Just leave.” She limped her way back to the front door.
Adam pondered a moment, observing how she walked. He winced when he ascertained what was wrong with her. “Joann…” he said, keeping calm. “They’re not just stealing from you…?” It was bold, but he had to speak his mind. “They’re hurting you, aren’t they? You let them so they won’t hurt your kids…”
The woman stopped before opening the door, though her hand remained on the knob. Her pause confirmed Adam’s fear. Adam’s heart sank. “Wait here,” he said, wasting no time to take action. “I’m going to find you some help. We can stop this.”
“No!” Joann waved her hands, but lost her balance and fell onto him. “I can’t.” She flailed as she tried to find the right footing. “If they find out…”
He straightened her balance but kept his hands on her shoulders. “We’ll catch them before that happens. That’s why I’m here. This needs to stop. This gang is victimizing the whole neighborhood. I’ll do what I can to stop it. I promise.” He helped her to the wall for her to lean against, then hastily left through the front door.
It had taken nearly a half hour before he was able to meet up with the others. Ethan was not with them, but they said he would be back soon. They were gathered outside a house, smoking fresh salvaged cigarettes on the front porch. The others had met up with each other after failing to find anything, even leads. By that point they assumed the report wasn’t entirely true – an exaggerated story from a paranoid woman.
“So, you think you found our guy?” one of them asked.
Adam had to feign certainty, but he couldn’t have been more unsure of himself. His right hand found its way to the lowest button on his shirt. “Either him, or people under him.” He looked down the street, noticing the daylight was almost completely gone. It was nearly time to use flashlights. “Why isn’t Ethan with you?”
“He insists the report was tangible, so he’s still out there somewhere looking for our guy. He should know better. This wouldn’t be our first false report. Oh well, fuck it. At least it didn’t come from our own guy this time.” The man puffed and as he exhaled the smoke, he complained, “There’s nothing in this damn neighborhood.”
Adam kept his eyes on the street. “There’s plenty of people alive here. Everyone’s just hiding in their basements and attics. I think the report was true.”
“Yes. And once night falls, this neighborhood will become a lot more active. We’ll definitely find our guy then.”
Right before he finished speaking, Adam noticed Ethan approach, empty-handed and completely intact. The man’s posture and ease of step almost caused Adam to think Ethan had gone for a stroll. When Ethan came up the steps to the porch, he told them, “I found her.” Adam was surprised. A good tracker too? I see why Scarlet likes him.
But Adam remembered Joann. “I found someone too,” he interjected. “She could lead us to -”
“No,” said Ethan, looking away.
“She has kids. She’s attacked every night. If we just wait at her house…”
“No! We have a reliable lead.”
“You don’t understand. Please, I-” Ethan kneed him in the stomach then threw him down the steps. His breathing became labored, but he refrained from crying out.
“Let’s go,” said Ethan. The others tossed their half-smoked cigarettes away and followed.
Adam forced himself to stand. He frisked his pants for his gun then limped toward the others. A revelation came to him. Ethan isn’t even human. How could I have ever wanted to be like him? Respect, admiration… It had all vanished. Ethan was nothing Adam wanted to be. The reality of his situation came at him full-force. There was nothing worth having in such a group. It was no family. I should just stick with being Scarlet’s bitch, nothing else. No… I shouldn’t stay at all.
The group stealthily advanced on the target house. It was smaller than the others surrounding it, and still in somewhat fine condition. Ethan had Adam and the other five positioned at the side yards, where they would wait for the right moment to enter. What kind of plan is this? thought Adam. We’re waiting for this woman to be assaulted first? He nearly chose to confront Ethan, who was crouched directly ahead of him, hand firmly gripping his sheathed knife. Adam slowly came to his senses the more time went by. If these are the men hurting Joann, at least she’ll be safe after tonight. I can only hope… “I’m sorry I never came back, Joann. I hope this helps you.”
The voices of more than one man sounded. Adam counted two, but was unsure. They were entering the house, conversing and bantering as if they were about to compete in a sport. Adam could feel his blood boiling. Within moments he had grown to disdain his comrades, but right then he thought, At least I can help put these rapists away.
Ethan advanced when they could hear the woman inside struggling, signaling the others to do the same. Ethan acted first, and he was swift, jumping through a window already broken, while Adam and the others worked together to kick down the door. When they got inside, Adam ran ahead of the others toward the source of the noises – the basement. He was determined, as if the woman were calling for him. Once he and the others made below, Ethan had forced the two assailants off the woman, leaving them writhing in pain on the floor. What did he do to them… and in such a short time? For only a moment, Adam was reminded of why he had always respected Ethan.
The group pinned the rapists to the floor as Ethan proceeded to ask them one question: “Who are you?” His voice lacked emotion. Neither of them answered, so he repeated his question. Again, no response.
Ethan’s men beat the assailants, with their fists and the butts of their guns, until one snapped. “Wesley! My name’s Wesley!”
“All right then,” said Ethan, kneeling down to his victim’s level to speak face-to-face. “Who calls the shots on this turf, Wesley?”
“He does! Aaaaah!” A foot was pressing his face into the floor. The man seemed to mean his colleague.
“What’s his name?” asked Ethan, looking at the other.
“Karl. It’s Karl!”
Karl became livid. “Fuck you!” he screamed at Wesley. “I’ll fucking kill you!”
Ethan sighed. He gestured his men to take both hostages away. Karl continued to struggle though Wesley had wisely surrendered. Adam felt more useless than ever, standing there, failing to help much. It seemed everyone forgot the woman, who was curled up in a corner, quivering.
Karl nearly broke free of his suppressors, but Ethan drove his fist into Karl’s abdomen, projecting saliva and mucus from his mouth, crippling him with pain. The men carried their hostages up from the basement.
Adam stepped toward the frightened woman slowly, wanting to provide comforting words, but he heard Ethan shout, “ADAM!” Even then, he was reluctant, but ultimately forced himself to leave her. He hoped she had family or friends to fall back on when they left.
The group walked through the neighborhood cautiously. Others had emerged from their houses, watching them. Adam made sure he kept close to his group, in case those watching them decided to strike.
Ethan walked ahead of them, his eyes forward. Adam saw that Karl was directly behind Ethan, likely imagining getting the jump on him. Halfway across the field, the ground and roof guards shined their lights on Ethan, then lowered their weapons. As they reentered the school, Ethan led his men to where the clan kept prisoners – a room devoid of anything but walls and air. With no prisoners currently occupying it, Ethan said the room would be used for questioning. He turned to Adam. “Inform Scarlet.”
Adam understood, and obeyed. When he reached the boss’ office, he felt better inside somehow. It seemed to have been due to leaving Ethan’s presence. He informed Scarlet of their hostage, and though she was hardly in the mood, in time she waddled to the first floor. Aside from Karl, Ethan was the sole occupant of the room, who established a small table at the center with two chairs. Ethan put Karl in one chair, and Scarlet sat in the opposite. Adam assumed he should leave, but Ethan said, “Stay. Stand between them.” Ethan walked to the far end of the room as Adam slowly brought himself to stand at the table, strongly resisting the urge to touch his shirt.
“Who do you belong to?” Scarlet asked the prisoner.
“I belong to Karl Garret. No one else.” His tone made it clear that he either didn’t know who he was among, or was too stupid to care.
“Who belongs to you, then?”
“Would you like a list? We might be here a while.”
Adam glanced at Karl. “Answer her,” he said, but his voice was pathetically soft. He was only trying to be of use.
Why does Ethan even want me in here? lingered in his mind.
“I reckon I control Prescott and Mason, from Grand Avenue to Ninth, and all the people in between. More on the way.”
Eight blocks, Adam figured.
“What’s that come down to?” Scarlet asked Ethan. “Eight blocks? Nine? It doesn’t matter, because that’s nine too many. You’re in my back yard, Karl. I’m uncomfortable with that.”
“Taking me wasn’t a good idea … ma’am. My men will come for me, and they won’t hesitate. They’ll do whatever it takes to get me back.”
Scarlet stood, smiling confidently. “You have neither the numbers, the supplies, nor the experience to fight me.”
“Don’t you see, woman? The world needs people like me now; and people like you. We keep the troops off everyone’s back. We keep the people free from oppression. Are you going to kill me because I … what, didn’t pick a better place to settle? The troops won’t risk overrunning anyone’s turf, because it would reignite the war. Admit it: you need me. I’ll be an ally, not one of your … underlings. Besides, you don’t know what I’ve got.”
“I don’t need to. And with you here, it seems your men lack a leader. I have you, now I have them.” She took one step closer to Karl, glaring into his eyes.
“Your men,” he began, “will be lacking a leader too!” Karl sprung up, pulling a knife that had been concealed under his shirt. Adam threw his body at Karl, knocking him off balance, the only way he knew to inhibit him. Ethan reacted more swiftly in the split second Adam provided, drawing his knife, coming from the opposite side of the table, and pinning Karl’s hand to it with the weapon. Karl screamed. His hand could not move at all despite his efforts, which only caused more blood to drain.
Scarlet looked surprised, but not shaken. “Guards!” Her voice could have carried across the city. She waited for the door to open. Two of her men entered the room. “My guest needs a lesson in etiquette.” They freed Karl’s hand, then carried him out.
“How dare you gamble on my life!” the boss shrieked at Ethan. “You thought he could protect me?” Adam’s muscles tensed and he began to sweat profusely. His fingers, having found their way back to the buttons, locked in place.
“No, I wanted to see if he could. Karl had no chance.”
Adam wanted to step back, but kept his ground, shaking in terror.
“You won’t do it again.”
“You think I can’t protect you from idiots, now?”
“Out! Both of you. I’ll deal with you later, Adam.” They obeyed.
Adam, drenched in nervous sweat, was relieved to be excused from Scarlet’s presence, though he was likely far from safe. What is the punishment for failure? He knew the answer, but he hoped for something less severe.
“One more thing, Ethan,” the boss called out. “Your friend. Bring him to me.”
Ethan has friends? thought Adam. Oh, him…
“Yes, Ethan. Shane!”
“He’s doing his job, out scavenging to feed your fat ass.”
“Don’t fucking disrespect me, Ethan! I don’t care if you’re Phoebe’s kid.” She calmed enough to explain, “Shane has been neglecting his duties. Find him and bring him to me.”
If there was any more to the conversation, Adam did not hear it. He was long gone, walking through the halls to the second floor, retreating to the room he shared with other low-class members of the clan. There, where he slept at night, he was still the lowest one of the bunch, and he still needed to watch his back, but at least it was somewhere to be a little safer. He found himself in the most dangerous position of his life.
How do I get out of here?