Nighttime used to be a peaceful time of day. The hustle and bustle that came with the daylight hours would dwindle down as people went home for dinner, to sleep, or to do the tasks they couldn't complete while they were away at work. That is no longer the case.
As I stood on the bridge, looking out over the Hudson River, I could see movement down on the bank. A women's high-pitched scream echoed throughout the silent night. Soon after, two shapes took off running up the bank and into the abandoned streets. One small shape remained on the ground, motionless. I didn't move from where I stood. I was in no danger. At least, not for the time being. Safety wasn't guaranteed during the night.
At night, the crime rate doubled. People who were too scared to show their faces during the day left their homes to ransack nearby stores or homes to get the supplies that they needed. These were the people who didn't want to harm anyone in the first place. They were ex-businessmen, former doctors, what we referred to as the former one-percent. Now? Now, we were all lower-class citizens.
My father was stationed in the Middle East when the first of the government's began to collapse. Before, he wrote letters on a daily basis, even if they were only a sentence or two scribbled in between exchanging fire with the enemy. As the governments began to collapse, his letters dwindled day by day in length and in frequency until they stopped completely. Only the lucky were able to escape before mayhem took over. My father died somewhere in the Middle East. Where and how we will never know.
The United States was one of the last governments to collapse. China was the only country that outlasted us. My sister had been studying in England when their government collapsed one month before ours. She's still over there, most likely dead, because our mother would not let her come home. Our collapse was projected to be even worse than what it was in the United Kingdom. And it was.
Skirmishes turned into riots. Riots turned into gang wars. Gang wars turned into civil wars. It kept going until it was everyone for themselves. Close neighbors turned on one another. Families stayed together to protect one another. It was the homeless and the ones without families who fell first. Quickly, though, everyone began to lose their families.
When the government first collapsed, our small apartment had been packed full of about twenty of our relatives. Over the course of two months, that number dropped to ten. Then, it was just my uncle, my mother, my older brother, my father's best friend, and myself. From twenty to five in a matter of weeks. Most of them died before we truly understood what was happening in the city. Three of them were caught in the middle of a gang fight. One of them died trying to save an old woman who didn't want to be saved.
That was six months ago and there were now four of us. My uncle had lost his life trying to get bandages from an apartment building when it had collapsed. Now, the four of us living together in the basement of an abandoned home after our apartment building had burned down to the ground.
I put my hands on the unsteady railing of the bridge and looked up at the red lights that still, miraculously, shined bright in the otherwise dark night. The government that remained did their best to keep the power on in the important sections of the country. Mainly, they kept the power on wherever they lived so that they had the best that there was while they were still alive in whatever bunker they were tucked away in. The president was supposedly still alive. Supposedly. I guess that there still was an elite population that existed if you really thought about it.
I pushed off the railing and headed towards home. I kept my footsteps light and my eyes peeled as I made my way through the darkened streets. Every so often I would pass a building that had a candle burning or I would pass a stray animal, but other than that the streets I took were pretty empty.
A can kicked out onto the broken sidewalk in front of me. I tensed, my hand gripping the knife that was safely tucked in my coat pocket. A man emerged out of the alley, gun in hand. His eyes skimmed over me as if I were a piece of meat. A smile spread across his face as a laugh left his lips, permeating the air along with the stale smell of liquor. I pulled the knife out of my pocket as he stumbled towards me, that smile still plastered on his face. You never knew what these people were going to do. The drunks and the insane were more lethal than the rest of the population, including the gang members. They were unpredictable.
"'iya, gorgeous," he slurred. I didn't take my eyes off of him or the gun. He reached out his hand and patted me on the head. "'night, 'night." I stared at him, my heart pounding in my chest, as he fumbled with his gun.
He pulled the trigger, pointing at what he believed to be my head, but nothing came out. I didn't move. If I did, it'd be my luck that the gun would unjam and he would actually find his target. Overreacting could cost you your life. I stayed still, gripping the knife tightly in my hand as I watched him fidget with the weapon.
A shot sounded through the night. My blood ran cold as I waited for the pain, the burning sensation that accompanied a bullet wound. Nothing came, though. I opened my eyes, not remembering shutting them, and found Jasper bent over the man, checking his pulse.
"What are you thinking?" I hissed at my brother, shoving him so he fell backwards onto his butt. "Anyone could have heard that shot and could be coming after us!"
Jasper gave me a dirty look before he pried the gun out of the dead man's body and searched him for any other weapons. "No one's coming after someone who has a gun, Galina."
"You don't know that." And he didn't. People would do anything to get their hands on such a limited weapon. Most of the ammunition had been used up during the wars and finding a weapon that still had bullets in it was what it used to be like to hit the lottery.
"He would have found a way to kill you regardless," Jasper informed me as he stood up. He held out a rusty knife to me. Reluctantly, I took it and tucked it into my pocket before I followed him down the streets that would take us home. "Besides, Mom wants you home. We have an unexpected visitor." I looked up at him.
"What kind of visitor?" He was silent, his eyes scanning the street before us. "What kind of visitor, Jasper?"
He shook his head. "One you'll have to see to believe."
I looked at him wearily out of the side of my eye. Jasper wasn't one to keep things from me. Everything that was happening was happening to all of us and not just one. He thought I had a right to know, no matter how bad it was.
Him not telling me what was going on made my stomach churn. I didn't know what it could have been. After seeing the city collapse and everyone turn on one another, I didn't think that there was anything that I hadn't seen yet.
We walked up the cracked steps of the house whose basement we lived in. If someone were to look at the outside of it, they would be able to believe that the house had made it through the fight unscathed. As soon as they entered the entryway, they would see that was clearly not the case. The back half of the house had burned down to the brick that lined the kitchen wall where the stove was. All that remained was that wall, half of the staircase, and the front entryway that also housed the door to the basement.
The house had been saved before everyone had started turning against one another. The only reason it was still somewhat intact was because of the help of neighbors. Now, that's no longer a thing and everything that hadn't burned with the rest of the house had been looted by those same neighbors and gang members.
The smell of smoke still lingered in the air. It wasn't as bad as it had been whenever we had first moved in. I hadn't been able to stay inside for long periods of time. Now, I was fine. Either the smell had disappeared, which wasn't likely since half of the city was still burning, or I was just getting more accustomed to it, which was the more likely option.
I turned away from the carnage and followed Jasper down the wooden stairs to the basement after sliding the security bolt into place. We had fixed it up the basement the best that we could, using pieces of plywood to cover the holes in the walls to at least give some sense of privacy when we were there.
The stairs ended where the living room and kitchen started. The kitchen was comprised of an old camp cook stove, a few pots and pans, some mismatched dishes, and a lot of soup cans. The living room had various lawn chairs strewn around the fireplace, which we were still able to use. There was still a bathroom that wasn't able to be used since there wasn't indoor plumbing, but we still used the bathtub to take baths with the water we carried from the river. There were three bedrooms as well. One for my mom, one for my father's friend, and one for Jasper and myself.
My mom was sitting on one of the lawn chairs, her fingers locked together so tightly her knuckles were turning white. Walt was staring at something tucked back in the corner where a broken washer and dryer sat. I paused on the last step and looked at each of them before looking at Jasper. He looked away, moving to crouch down in front of our mother. I turned away from him while he spoke in a low voice to her.
"What's going on?" I asked cautiously, looking at Walt.
"Come here," he replied, a coldness to his voice that wasn't just from his time in the military. So many things had happened to us since the fall of the government. We had all hardened, some more than others.
Slowly, I moved towards Walt. My feet felt like they were made of concrete. Each step was harder to take as I grew close to him. He took me by the shoulders and turned me to face a shape in the darkness that the candles weren't able to permeate. He turned on the gas lantern and what I saw made my heart stop.
A boy a little older than me, probably twenty or twenty-one, sat on the floor, his hands cuffed around one of the metal support beams. His head was bowed, his dark hair falling down over his eyes. When the light turned on, his head snapped up and I saw the tattoo on his neck. A rose intertwined with thorns. The Silver Roses. They were the most dangerous gang in the city and there was a member handcuffed in our home.
A smirk spread across his face as he took me in just like I was taking him in. A dark t-shirt, black jeans, and boots. A cut on his cheek and one on his arm. I didn't have to ask what he was doing in our home. He was clearly out scouting for supplies or recruiting members.
"He had two knives and a gun on him," Walt said behind me. "He was clearly out to do some damage, but he won't say what, exactly." He glanced at me. "Your brother and myself tried, even threatened to cut off his fingers if he didn't talk. Your brother thinks for some reason that you might be able to get through to him. I don't see how it will do any good. Won't be much of a gang member without his fingers."
I didn't take my eyes off the brown eyes of the boy. The smirk had faded to a straight line, his brows furrowed slightly as he took me in.
"I still don't think that's a good idea," my mother said from the living room. "He can't be trusted."
"We can't very well let him go, either, if he's going to harm someone," Jasper replied softly, a sad look on his face. "We're out of options."
"It's fine," I whispered. "I can do it."
My mother let out a soft cry. "I don't like it."
"Doesn't matter. It's what we have to do," Jasper murmured.
Walt gently laid a hand on my shoulder. "We'll be upstairs. Take all the time you need."
I nodded, but didn't say anything. Their footsteps faded as they went up the stairs, my mother whispering her protests to Jasper as they went. Then, the door shut and I was left alone with the boy.