Smokey air fills my lungs as I follow the red stones to an old rusty door. I knew that the underground market would appear well hidden, but this feels wrong. The cold air bites at my nose and distracts me from the task at hand. Remembering the password, I feel along the rusted, flaky door for the corner of the peep slide. My nail breaks as I slide the squeaky metal cover to my right and meet eyes with the woman on the other side. She looks intimidating, but I hold my composure and gently whisper the password. The massive locks squeak and groan as she turns each one, opening her small shop to an untrusted stranger. A deep wail utters from the ancient hinges as the blast-proof door opens just enough to fit my skinny frame into the entryway. The woman appears shorter than I imagined, but the sharp points of her winged eyeliner send chills down my spine. Any luxury goods are hard to come by nowadays, but to afford makeup must mean that this woman makes a fortune off of her little shop. Her frame looks plump, and her bright complexion and quick movements give the impression that she eats well. I cannot help but scoff at this fact; I have not eaten in two days.
She grabs my wrist and leads me down a dark hallway with leaky ceilings. Pools of water dot our path, but the woman does not seem to notice as she simply hops over each pond, barely acknowledging their existence. We turn a corner and I see the first vibrant colors that I have seen in seventeen years. Cotton t-shirts in bright hues of blue, green, and white line the iron structure of the market. Every support beam exhibits a new pattern of red, flaked paint, just as the door to the market, but the condition of the shop does not reflect on its contents. Shelves of vibrant manufactured goods stretch for hundreds of feet through this lengthy bunker. Well-kempt people shopping among the various aisles remind me of the good days, days when we were well fed, days when we could fill our bellies and still afford more. My eye catches a neon sign with bright red text. Barely remembering written English, I silently sound out the phrase “Fresh Berries”. I do not remember the last time I ate a fruit, much less a fresh one. Turning around, I cannot help but drool over the fresh milk and cheese in the industrial refrigerators that line the left wall of the bunker, or the canned goods on endless shelves that contain all sorts of delicious meals. The clinking together of the coins in my pocket snaps me back into reality. I remember why I entered this mysterious shop.
I wander one aisle forward and grab a jar of jam, some dry pasta, and a couple loaves of bread. The silver coins in my pocket remind me of the currency of the old days, when money was paper and coins were of little value. Seven jangling pieces of silver could buy me two years worth of bread, but I will settle for two months. Intently observing me, the woman hands me a wicker basket to carry my goods. On looking inside I find a letter addressed to me. The name Gonzalo Hernandez, printed in fresh ink on the upper left-hand corner, catches my eye. I have not seen my name written in eleven years, the last time the post delivered to my small bunker. The pristine white envelope contains six gold pieces and a four-carat diamond. A note next to the pristine riches reads “Meet me in Los Angeles in two weeks. I have more surprises.” I instantly realize who sent this, and it sends adrenaline pulsing through my veins. I pay for my goods and thank the woman for letting me in. Racing down the musty corridor, I escape into the hazy daylight and hide my food under my ragged coat. I know just what the author of the letter indented for me to buy.
The closest horse barn with a willing seller resides six miles north, so I scarf down my bread as I wander down the dilapidated road. The gold piece should suffice for a horse and saddle, but the painful journey to the far western city will take more than the two weeks my cousin allotted.