Fallen City (The Fallen City Series, Book 1) - Chapter One

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.


Gun.


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?”


Good point.


“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.