Tiara Days Since Blackout: 02
“…This is a recorded message and will repeat now… Standby… Standby… This is an emergency broadcast by the Army National Guard outpost Chicago. Standby for important information regarding—” Tiara turned the volume down on the small portable radio until the power clicked off. She stuffed it into her backpack and saw the trail of dust that was kicked into the air by the commotion.
“Momma! Momma, it’s getting bad outside!” Brie shouted from the living room. Her head was pressed between the corner of the window and the back of the worn gray couch that was flipped up on its side, leaning against the window. “The fire’s spreading.”
“Brie, get away from the window!” Tiara yelled at her little sister as she stomped from the hallway to the kitchen. “Momma, we got to go. The three of us need to leave and just go while we still can.”
Tiara and Brie’s mother sat on her stool in the corner of the kitchen, fanning herself with a folded, two-week-old newspaper. The front page read in bold letters, “Outbreak in Miami.” The stool was a place of habit for Wendy Williams to sit when the summer came around and scooped up the Chicago humidity from Lake Michigan. Wendy could sit on her stool in front of the open window above the sink for hours while reading her books, just letting her box fan blow warm air on her. It did more than the struggling AC unit in the living room window.
“What’s the radio saying?” Wendy huffed. Even though it had been over two days since the power had gone out to the city, Wendy still sat there, sweating through the neck of her baggy t-shirt.
“It’s still the same recording. It hasn’t changed in two days, ma,” Tiara said. She was at her wits end. It felt like since her brother, Alex, left yesterday morning, Tiara had been keeping it together for her little sister and mother. Brie was still half child and was fuming over stupid things, like not being able to use her cell phone and missing her favorite TV show. Tiara swore if there was anything that would break her, it would be listening to her brat of a sister throw one more tantrum over not being able to go see her boyfriend in over a week.
“If they’re saying not to go out, we can’t go out, Tiara, that’s the truth of it.” Wendy shook her head. “You see it out there. How crazy people are. Any minute now the police are going to be coming through here with their tanks and riot masks, and I’m not having my two babies outside for that.”
“Momma!” Brie yelled and before either of them could turn to yell at her, staccato gunfire popped in all directions from outside their apartment. Tiara and Wendy both knew the drill and ducked low to the linoleum floor. Wendy took an extra minute to get off her stool with bad knees that cracked at every move. When the shooting paused, Tiara opened her eyes and saw one of their empty plastic cups that had sat on the kitchen countertop between her and her mother now rolling back and forth on the floor. A perfectly round hole a little bigger than a pencil width ran straight through the middle of the cup.
“Brie?” Wendy shouted in a panic. Her upper body clamored for the living room faster than her legs could keep up, and Tiara watched her mother almost fall over running for her youngest.
“I’m okay, I’m okay,” Brie repeated to herself as she stood.
Over the past week gunfire had become an almost hourly occurrence, but even before then, Brie and Tiara were no stranger to gunshots. When you grew up in the bricks of Chicago, gunfire became a way of life. Or as Tiara’s mother told her when she was young, “It’s just another thing you have to dodge if you want to make it out of here, young lady.”
Wendy cupped her daughter’s face, quickly looking her over from head to toe. When she was satisfied her child wasn’t hurt, she pulled her away from the window, and with her palm, she smacked her butt hard, twice. “I told you to stay away from that window!”
“Ow! Ma!” Brie whined and scurried off to her bedroom to cry. Tiara pushed behind her mother to look out the window where Brie had just been.
“What? Do you want a spanking too?” Wendy threatened. Tiara was nineteen years old, and it had been well over five years since she had done something that deserved a spanking. But she wouldn’t put it past her mother to try.
“Momma, look—they’re kicking in doors now. It’s not even dark yet and this is happening. The police ain’t coming. No one is coming. It’s like five p.m. right now, what you think is gonna happen tonight?” Tiara plead her case. She felt tears boiling over behind her eyelids, threatening to overflow. She did her best to swallow them and keep them inside.
If I cry then I’m just a child whining to my mother. I have to be an adult now. She has to see me as an adult if she’s going to listen.
It had been a constant struggle over the weeks not to break down in tears. Since the outbreak of the virus, every major city had devolved into looting and violence. Few worse than Chicago. Scenes from movies of lawless chaos became a reality. There was no warning when the power was cut to the city yesterday.
Tiara woke up early to find the TV didn’t work, nor did the lights. Her phone still had a charge, but it didn’t matter, because she hadn’t had a signal in over a week. It was like the government had left the city entirely. No one on her block knew power was out to the entire city until nighttime when they saw that even the skyscrapers didn’t have lights.
Wendy shook her head as she stared at the wall. Her palm clasped her forehead as if feeling for a fever. “I don’t know… I just don’t know… What about Alex? What if your brother comes home and we’re gone?”
Tiara had already thought of this. Grabbing her backpack, she unzipped it and pulled some loose sheets of paper and duct tape from inside. “We’ll leave him a note of where we’re going and tape it to a wall or something—somewhere we know he’ll look.”
Glass shattered outside. It sounded like the window of a car, or maybe the window of an apartment. The roar of yelling and panicked screams just outside their door mixed with the laughter and shouts of men.
Wendy looked more broken than Tiara had ever seen. Her mother was a strong woman. The strongest woman she knew. The kind of woman to raise three kids on her own, while working full time and refusing to complain once. The type of woman who pushed Tiara to get a 3.9 GPA in high school after a failing semester in middle school, to apply for jobs she normally would be too afraid to go after. And when she would get hired, to never settle for the position she had, to constantly put in for promotions and training.
Tiara couldn’t recall ever seeing her mother cry, but it was now, when she was so close to leaving behind her only son to save her two daughters, that Wendy began to falter. Her lower lip trembled despite biting into it. Wendy squinted her eyes and took deep breaths, but finally gave her daughter a short nod.
“Okay.” Wendy’s voice was full of emotion.
“Okay, we’ll go.” Tiara nodded. “We’ll go. Okay? We’ll go to my school. To my campus.”
Tiara reached out and touched her mother’s arm, giving her a nod. “It’ll be okay… he’s going to be okay,” she reassured her mother.
It was a foreign feeling to Tiara. To be the one consoling her mother. To have her mom agreeing to her plans. It felt as though she were leaving behind her childhood at that moment and passing into adulthood.
A loud thud on the door reverberated throughout the walls. Then another. Brie ran out of her room and latched on to her mother’s side as they backed away from the front door. There was a third kick to the door that bowed the bottom out from the force.
“Go away!” Brie screamed, sharing the panic they all were feeling inside. Tiara took hold of her little sister as Wendy pulled Brie off of her side.
“Ah, come on, girl. Open up!” one man shouted through the door.
Another laughed. “Let me see that coochie!”
The glass window shattered behind the overturned couch. Tiara could hear the plastic curtain shuffling from side to side before being ripped away. The couch shook and toppled to the side. It was like the city was closing in on them. The screams, the laughter, the sound of fighting. It crawled inside their home.
Tiara pulled Brie back into the kitchen when she saw the man’s leg push through the window. Tiara’s mother dove to the ground—a sight that worried Tiara since her mother had such a fragile body. Wendy released a small yelp as her knees hit the ground but was already tearing her large purse out from the cubby under the living room table.
“Mom! Leave it! Leave your purse!” Tiara screamed as she struggled to move the refrigerator that had been unplugged and pushed in front of the back door. She had it halfway out when the man made it inside. He was tall and skinny. His shirtless chest was scraped and bleeding from a previous fight.
“Gimme that!” He snapped at Wendy who still fumbled with her purse. A second man fell through the window. This one was short and stocky with a red shirt stretched over his belly. The tall man reached for Wendy but then suddenly recoiled. “Oh shit! Shoot her—shoot her!” he said, scrambling over and falling behind the tilted couch.
“What? Mom!” Tiara ran toward her.
“Momma!” Brie cried. Tiara saw her mother from behind as she raised to her knees. The man with the red shirt turned sideways as he pointed the silver pistol in his hand at Wendy and pulled the trigger.
The rapid pops of gunfire locked Tiara’s legs in place. She stood frozen as she watched her mother fall to her side, the bullets filling her. Tiara fell with her mother. The world slipped away as her tears framed the sight of her mother’s blood-soaked body. The screams and noises of destruction around her fell away. Even the touch of her mother’s clammy skin felt numb to her. Like Tiara was closed to the world. She shook Wendy’s body, but there was no tension in her arms. Her mother had left her. Her mother was taken from her.
The world slid back into focus when Brie’s hands closed around Tiara’s arm and pulled her to the ground. It was a violent, scraping feeling as her sister’s fingernail took skin with it. Glass shattering. More laughter outside.
How can people be laughing at a time like—
“Tiara!” Brie screeched. Brie was dragged into the hallway toward her bedroom. One man held her kicking ankles, and the red shirt man pulled her by her braids.
Tiara’s eyes gave one last look to her mother who didn’t move. What little light pushed through the windows shined on a glinting piece of metal in her mother’s hand. It was still half-inside her purse, but Tiara could clearly see the butt of the silver revolver. She pulled it out of her mother’s hand.
She never would forget feeling her mother’s lifeless hand fall from her grip with the pull of gravity and drop to her body’s side.
“Wai—stop!” Tiara’s mouth moved faster than her thoughts. She pointed the pistol at the men halfway down the hallway. Without aiming, she squeezed the long trigger of the revolver. The gun nearly popped out of her hand when it finally fired. The explosion from the barrel briefly lit up the hallway. The man in the red shirt dropped her sister, and Tiara fired again and again before he fell. The tall man ran for the bedroom. Brie was left on the ground covering her head as if it were a tornado drill in school.
Tiara ran past her sister and chased the tall man into the bedroom. She did not know what she was doing but just did it. The tall man was half-outside Brie’s broken window, his leg and shoulder only left inside when Tiara screamed madness at him. She saw his wide-eyed face as she ran up to him with her pistol pointed at his forehead and pulled the trigger. The gun blast sprayed his blood across the windowsill and left his body hanging limp, half-in the apartment and half-outside.
The room grew quiet once again. All that remained was a rattle from the gun as her hand trembled. Tiara took deep ragged breaths. She was alone in the room. She was alone…
“Tiara! Tiara!” Brie screamed desperately from the hallway. “Tiara, don't be gone! Please!”
Tiara's eyes came awake, and she ran back into the hallway. She collapsed where Brie laid on the living room floor, beside their mother’s body. She hugged her little sister from behind like she had never done before. Brie bellowed deep cries as she squeezed Tiara’s arm and shoulder so tightly her hand tingled with numbness.
Their mother was gone.
Crackling glass rained to the concrete, and Tiara looked back at the broken window. Another man popped his head inside, inspecting the insides of their apartment. She had dropped the revolver to the gray carpet beside them, and she quickly clawed at it to pick it up. The man saw the weapon before she even had it pointed at him and fled.
“We have to go.” Tiara cupped her little sister’s chin and brought her broken teary eyes to hers. “Brie, we have to go, okay?”
Brie made a noise that Tiara couldn’t understand, but she nodded and that was enough.
“Get your backpack. Go. Go.” Tiara helped Brie to her feet and watched her run to her room. She didn’t think to warn her about the dead man in her windowsill until it was too late, and she heard Brie scream in her bedroom. “It’s okay, it’s okay! Just get your backpack.” There was a fire nearby. Tiara could smell the smoke coming in the window.
Tiara grabbed her school bag that was already half-full of essentials: battery-operated radio, hand sanitizer, change of clothes, and two boxes of tampons. She set the bag on the kitchen counter and put the revolver next to it. She took several deep breaths to clear her head and wiped at her runny nose.
She went over to the man in the hallway with the red shirt and saw his silver handgun lying on the floor next to his leg. She picked it up but paused over his body.
He might have more stuff on him—in his pockets.
She thought about this for several seconds but decided against touching his body. Too many bad things happen in the movies when you did that… thinking that they’re dead when they aren’t. It was stupid logic to base decisions on the movies, but that was all she had.
Tiara had never seen a dead body before. She had never even been to a funeral. The dead man’s pistol was bulky and cumbersome in Tiara’s hand. She unzipped a front pocket of her dark purple backpack, replaced the pencils and papers inside with the gun, and zipped it back up. There was more gunfire outside, but strangely it didn’t startle her this time.
Tiara grabbed the two remaining MRE packets the National Guard had handed out in the projects last week and stuffed them in the large pocket of her pack, along with a half dozen plastic water bottles that were left in the case they had. Her hand rested on the handle of the revolver.
“Brie, come on.” She watched a tremble run through her fingers, just as it ran through her voice.
It was all she could do not to look at her mother’s already graying skin. Not to think about how her mother would never hug her again. How she would never hear her voice again. Hear her laugh again.
Stop it, stop it! You’re working yourself into this.
Tiara saw the piece of paper she had placed on the counter earlier and uncapped the pen beside it. She wrote, “Alex! Brie and I went to my campus City of Chicago Technical University 2162 Skylight Boulevard. Go to the cafeteria. Find us there! Love, T.”
Alex was Tiara’s rock in life. He wasn’t always around. A grown man ten years her senior, he had his own life and often followed the beat of his own drum. But when she did need him, he was always there. When he realized the power was out and he could no longer check on his girlfriend, Alex went to get her. She lived over ten miles away. Tiara had protested but he was prepared for the argument.
“We barely got food and water. Who knows how long this blackout goes?” Alex had said yesterday morning. “I’ll stop at that FEMA center up on Jefferson. Bring back supplies.”
“The power will be on tonight—tomorrow for sure,” Tiara had said. She wanted to tackle him to the ground if he tried to go but knew she wouldn’t stand a chance. At five foot two, she was a toothpick compared to her muscle-bound brother. He was at least a foot taller and double her weight.
“We don’t know that though,” Alex countered.
“Fine, I’ll go with you. At least to the Jefferson center.”
“Uh-uh, brainiac,” Alex said, tucking Tiara under his arm and making sure others couldn’t hear. “You need to stay here and keep an eye on them. You know how the bricks are. Things can get outta control. I need you to be the man of the house while I’m gone.”
Tiara had laughed and punched him in the chest as she thought he was joking, but Alex did not laugh.
“I’m serious, aight?” Alex eyed her.
Tiara nodded. “Aight, just come back fast, okay?”
Alex had smiled before he left. “It’ll be nothing. I’ll be right back.”
Brie timidly walked into the living room, quickly scooting past the man’s body in the hallway. Brie too couldn’t help but look at their mother. She stared at her feet like she was wishing for them to move. For this all to be a dream and for her to wake.
Tiara walked to their mother’s body and, using the clip on the pen, attached the note to their mother’s shirt. She then grabbed her mother’s purse. Sniffling as she combed through its contents, she found her thick wallet. As always, every nook, seam, and zippered pocket was exploding with crinkled coupons for the month to use at the grocery store.
Tiara brushed those aside and pulled free a laminated pocket. Not many people kept pictures in their wallets anymore, not when they had smartphones. But her mother never trusted technology. She never liked hard drives or clouds. “They can break at any moment, then it’s all gone,” she would say.
Tiara cracked the smallest of smiles down at the packet of family photos, then handed it to her sister. “Keep them safe, okay?” Brie frowned but nodded in agreement. She stared at the pictures while Tiara heaved her bulging backpack and carefully picked up the revolver. “Let’s go.”
The streets were madness. Once outside of the projects, she could see entire blocks were on fire. Whole apartment buildings, five stories tall, had flames reaching even higher. Cars littered the streets. Some also ablaze, but most were wrecked or blocked in by hundreds of other cars. There were no police. No fire trucks. Thousands of people looted stores and drank in the streets. Those who still had a charged phone videoed and laughed at the chaos of it all. It was as if a block party had merged with a riot.
It was daylight still, but the sun was beginning to fall in the sky. Brie stayed close to Tiara. She held her hand stiffly as they speed-walked through it all. Oddly enough, while they went through the massive crowds of people, she felt the safest. Pushing through the groups of laughing girls and boys who were drunk and dancing, she didn’t feel threatened; it almost felt like being back in high school.
Once they had reached the outskirts near Jefferson Street, where the number of people was halved, things changed.
No one laughed. Every person out on the street moved with a purpose, without lingering. They ran from this building to that, carrying whatever they could, regardless if it were theirs. Brie sensed the danger in the air. She clutched her sister’s arm tighter.
“T…” she whimpered.
“It’s okay, just keep moving,” Tiara said. Her campus was about a nine-mile drive from home, but on foot, they could cut that distance in half by cutting through alleys and subdivisions. Tiara worked on campus as well as attending school there. She knew the campus well and spent more time there than she did elsewhere. She thought it would be a safe place to wait for Alex and figure out where to go from there.
The last slivers of sunlight had disappeared behind the buildings that surrounded them. The gray haze of night slipped between the cracks, darkening the rest of the world. The streets where Tiara and Brie ran were painfully quiet. The kind of silence that made Tiara whip around when she heard the scraping of sneakers running across cement. Brie startled and let out a yelp when the echo of a voice laughing reached them.
The sound of partying had died away fifteen minutes ago, but the distant pops of gunfire echoed around the city. “This way,” Tiara panted. She pulled her little sister down an alleyway.
A scream pierced the air and ignited Brie’s imagination. “T-tiara?” Brie asked. “Do you think the zoo lions are here?”
Tiara’s first instinct was to laugh at her sister, but then she considered it. Fuck, I didn’t even think about that.
“No, B, they’re all at the zoo, remember? The police arrested all of those crazy people.”
One of the last news reports they saw on TV before it went out was of animal rights fanatics who broke into the Lincoln Park Zoo and released a lioness and other animals. The people were quickly arrested by police and the animals recaptured.
“But-but what if the police let them go when the power went out,” Brie protested. “Wouldn’t they go right back to the zoo and do it again?”
“No, the police don’t just let people out of jail.”
Tiara’s eyes were unable to stop flicking up at the building tops. Like a spider she knew was on her somewhere, she had a constant image of lions hunting her from above. They were almost through the alley behind Quicken Market, when a man dove at them from behind the dumpster. He had a snaggle tooth and the wrinkled skin of an old man, but that didn’t keep him from reaching for Brie’s chest. Brie screamed and jetted behind Tiara. The old man had a knife in his hand and growled a few words at them. Something about dying.
Tiara backed away with Brie until their backpacks hit the brick wall of the stop-and-go store. Her shaking hand pointed the revolver at the man’s chest, “Stay back! Get the fuck back!” Tiara spat. But when the old man swiped the knife at Tiara’s face, she closed her eyes and snapped the trigger back, feeling the now familiar recoil when it fired.
“Ehh-ugh! You-you fucking bitch!” The old man howled, clutching his chest as he stumbled backward. Still on his feet, he tried to run away, but Tiara didn’t stay to see. She pulled on Brie who had become stiff and silent, and they sprinted down the alley. Tiara heard the man fall, taking a trash can with him before they made it to the other side.
I’ve killed today. The thought terrified Tiara.
At the end of the alley, Tiara nearly smacked into a man jogging with his family down the sidewalk. The tenseness of the moment was sharp. The man was older, maybe in his forties, with a tattoo on his neck. He instantly saw the gun in Tiara’s hand, and his hand went to his hip. Squaring his body to hers he walked sideways for several feet watching her as they passed, before the young woman he was with grabbed his shoulder. “Rob… Rob, come on, let’s go,” she said to him. It wasn’t until he turned around did Tiara see the young boy—maybe four years old—who sat in the red Radio Flyer cart the man pulled behind him. The boy smiled goofily and waved like today was the best day of his life. Tiara was surprised when Brie waved back.
“Come on, we’re not far,” Tiara said.
They avoided alleys and stayed on surface streets from then on. They were only a half mile from the college when gunfire scattered the handful of people still on the road in all directions. Brie and Tiara ducked between abandoned pick-up trucks in the middle of the road.
“Is it gangs?” Brie whispered.
“I don’t know,” Tiara admitted.
The gunfire moved closer and got louder, but the way it echoed off the building walls made it impossible to tell which direction it came from. The gunfire was different than Tiara had ever heard. Instead of a series of pops and loud bangs, it was a vibration of explosions.
They crouched low, pinching their ears shut. When the shooting arrived at the intersection the gunfire was chewing cars to crumbled pieces and flattening tires. A group of five ran around the corner, but before they could hide, they started to drop as the bullets ripped open their bodies. Tiara clapped her hands over Brie’s ears as the gunshots were deafening.
When the shooting stopped, Tiara peered over the hood of the truck and saw that four of those who ran were lying motionless on the pavement. The one who remained moving barely crawled toward the bodies of the others.
“Goddamn, boy. That SAW did them dirty!” a man shouted. “Brute, see his legs come off?”
“If that don’t earn me a killstreak, I don’t know what will.”
“Brute, you a sick fuck, you know that?”
“What? Come on now. I know you’re impressed,” Brute said. There were four of them. They were younger and wore army uniforms, but Tiara couldn’t stop from staring at how big the guns in their arms were. They dwarfed even the big machine guns she’d seen some of the idiot gangbangers show off in the projects.
“What the fuck, man, that one is still alive. Come on, finish this. Don’t make ’em suffer. This is fucked up, man. I’m not okay with this shit.”
“Chill the fuck out, Sam. Stop being such a goddamn pussy,” Brute said as he stepped to the man who was still crawling. Brute had the largest gun of all of them. The middle of the gun was nearly as thick as his chest was wide. He raised the gun to the man and let loose two loud chugs. The explosion cracked through the intersection and stopped the man forever. “See? I done stopped him movin’.” Brute laughed.
“Come on, let’s get the fuck out of here,” one of the other men said. Slowly they wandered down the road, away from Tiara and Brie who remained hunched between the trucks for another few minutes to be safe. Tiara didn’t want to believe those were soldiers. She told herself that they stole soldier’s uniforms and weapons.
If they are soldiers, then who can we trust? Cops? Firefighters?
“We’ll go this way, it's okay,” Tiara reassured her sister who appeared to have all but shut down. She clutched Tiara’s hand in her sweaty palm against her chest and rocked methodically to an internal beat forward and back. “Brie, are you okay?”
Tiara thought Brie may have nodded, though she couldn’t be sure. Standing up, Brie followed Tiara’s lead. They had to take the long way around to avoid the soldiers. They walked in silence between the cars for several minutes then cut across a road to follow the Lake Michigan waterfront the rest of the way.
It was another thirty minutes before the smell of fresh water was replaced with the faintest smell of fired grills and grease; Tiara knew she was getting close. She had worked at City of Chicago Technical University for nearly two years now, almost as long as she had attended the school. Tiara’s mother instilled the grit in her to put in for an IT internship as a freshman majoring in computer science. The internship quickly became a well-paying job for a college student.
Tiara loved spending time with her coworkers. She was blessed, she knew, that most of those she worked with were also her best friends. But she was also blessed because her work was beside this mom-and-pop restaurant. Tucked away behind the campus, the restaurant was hidden from the city. Mainly only those who attended the college knew of its existence, and that had pleased her. Eating there was one of her daily rituals and she didn’t want the entire city knowing about her favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurant.
They passed the restaurant that was cloaked in darkness and approached the large brick school from the rear parking lot—the employee entrance. By now it was pitch black outside. The campus would usually be a warmly lit place with strategically placed street lanterns along the sidewalk around the building. In the darkness, huddled in the back of the parking lot, all she could see was a mass of people by the entrance. Twenty-five, maybe thirty people. They argued and jostled about. Some walked in circles and paced in frustration.
Tiara didn’t want to walk into a group of people right now. She didn’t want to be around anyone besides her sister right now. So they remained hidden behind a concrete barrier on the edge of the parking lot. They stayed there for twenty minutes in silence until one of the group’s discussions became an argument and Tiara recognized a calming voice.
“I think I know them—one of them at least,” Tiara whispered. The more she listened the more she thought she could pick out familiar voices. After hearing enough to convince her that it was mostly employees outside the business, she stood up and started walking with Brie for the door. They were about three-quarters of the way there when the hushed murmurs went silent, and people stared at them. She kept her hand with the small revolver stuffed in the front pocket of her jeans but left a tight grip on the handle.
Once they were close enough to make out faces, people started to recognize her. “Tiara?” a woman said and quickly hugged her. “I thought you… I’m so glad you’re here!” It was Stephanie. She was an administrative assistant who worked with Tiara. She had three younger boys with her. Her brothers.
“What’s going on? What’s happening?” Tiara asked.
“I don’t know. We thought we could get in with our swipe keys, but the doors aren’t opening. It’s like the locks won’t unlock,” Stephanie said, dumbfounded. It appeared she hadn’t figured out the magnetic key locks were electronic, and the swipe card wouldn’t work without power.
Tiara nodded and walked on. She saw her best friend near the employee door; Jimenez was an older man in his early forties. His teenage son at his side looked to be about the same age as Brie.
The second Jimenez saw Tiara, he ran up to her and scooped her up in a large hug. It took everything Tiara had not to break down and start to cry in his arms at that moment. Jimenez’s main position was maintenance and janitorial for the school. Having grown up without a father, Tiara could easily tell anyone he would be the closest she ever had to a dad.
“I was so worried about you and your family,” Jimenez said, tapping Brie on the shoulder. “I wanted to call you so bad, but couldn’t, you know? Where’s your mother and brother?”
Tiara simply shook her head, and Jimenez bowed his head for a moment.
“I’m so sorry.” Jimenez spoke softly. A man walked up behind Tiara startling her. She nearly drew her pistol out, then she saw his chest full of gear. “Oh sorry, sir,” Jimenez gestured to Tiara. “This is Specialist Trent with the National Guard,” Jimenez introduced. “He came here to help.”
“I didn’t mean to listen in, but… I’m sorry for your loss ma’am,” Trent said. Tiara’s eyes bounced from the various grenades on his thickly armored chest to the gun he had slung on his shoulder.
“Thank you,” she said.
“My team is cooling down right now, but Jimenez and I were trying to figure out the best way to get in here,” Specialist Trent continued. “We don’t want to break the door or window if we don’t have to, but we got to get inside. It’s not safe out here at night.”
“T, do you have your key set? Do they let you take them home? They make me lock them in the office before I go home,” Jimenez said.
“Yeah, I have my keys.” Tiara fished them from her back pocket. As she did, she saw Specialist Trent staring at her. At first, she thought he was checking her out, but when she looked down, she saw where he stared: the butt of her revolver stuck out of her pocket. Neither one of them said anything about it once he looked away.
After several failed attempts with wrong keys, Tiara used the right one and heard the latch fall out of place. When she opened the door, there was a quiet celebration from the group behind her as they filed inside.
“Good deal,” Specialist Trent said before disappearing into the crowd. Jimenez and Brie stayed by Tiara’s side while the rest entered. Each of them gave Tiara an appreciative nod and smile as they did.
“It doesn’t look like any of the night shift is here,” Jimenez said.
“No,” Tiara agreed. “Campus has been shut down for a week and a half now.”
“What do we do now? Do you think the army has a plan or a place to take us?” asked Jimenez.
Tiara shrugged then shook her head. “I honestly don’t know, but if the army’s trying to hide in a college with us, I doubt they have much of a plan.”
Jimenez nodded. “I think we’re going to have to figure some things out pretty fast, you know? Like with food and water and where to use the bathroom.” Tiara nodded. She knew he was right, but she didn’t want to think about it. Someone else would figure it out.
“Thanks, again, we owe you one,” Specialist Trent said with a warm smile.
“No problem,” Tiara said as he walked inside. His team came up behind him.
“This is Sergeant Snyder,” Specialist Trent introduced. “Our team leader, Private Donald, and Specialist Breaute—but we all just call him Brute. And you can just call me Sam, I’m fine with that.” Specialist Trent laughed.
“Brute?” Tiara’s breath caught in her throat.
“So this is the lucky woman you found?” Brute announced with a wide toothy grin as he strutted inside with the rest of them.
Tiara froze when everything began to connect. The voices of Sam and Brute sounded so familiar. Their military fatigues. And the massive machine gun that Brute waddled in with.
“I could get used to this place,” Brute mused as he looked around. Jimenez guided Tiara and Brie inside then latched the door behind them.
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