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Before The Darkness (Book 2, Fallen City Series) - Chapters 1, 2, & 3

Updated: Dec 19, 2023

Prologue


Thomas


“We need to get to the end of this hallway,” Sergeant Lee Thomas said. His lungs inhaled the dust of pulverized drywall before coughing it back up.


Sgt. Steve Jordan adjusted his helmet which continuously fell forward on his forehead when he shook his head. “Would you shut the hell up, Play Rank. It’s a freaking death trap down–”


Bullets pounded small black holes into the eggshell white drywall near Thomas’ head as gunfire exploded from the other end of the hall. Thomas dropped down to a crouch to avoid the bullets that peppered above his head, but it was Garcia’s hands that tugged his body armor to the side, getting him out of the way.


Thomas repositioned on one side of the ‘T’ hallway and gave a nod to the shorter female soldier, and Garcia nodded back with a smirk in the corner of her mouth. She grinned as if to say, ‘you owe me.’ Peeking his eyes around the dimly lit corner, he saw the black bands marching towards them. The bullets cut across the wall nearest Thomas’ face when they saw him look.


“They’re pushing forward,” Thomas coughed to Sgt. Jordan on the opposite side of the hall. His squad of seven men were stacked behind him, while Thomas had his six men plus Garcia close to his back. “We’re going to be outflanked.”


Assaulting this building was a new experience for them all. It tested them physically and mentally. Sure, going on daily scavenging raids for food had got them into gunfights. Gangs and lone wolves would attack them from behind when they were desperate enough. Occasionally, one of theirs would be wounded and rarer yet, a soldier would perish, but everyone who attacked their squads always died. They were U.S. Army soldiers and unlike every other joker with a gun in the city, they were trained, disciplined, and, now, battle hardened. But this was different. This wasn’t shooting down the road at someone shooting back. This was close quarter combat. Search and destroy. This was Special Forces kind of mission.


If only we had some Special Forces fighting with us, Thomas thought as he slapped away a chunk of drywall stuck to his sweaty cheek.


“I’m in charge, Play Rank, not you,” Sgt. Jordan said, jabbing his finger towards Thomas. “Keep your mouth shut and stand fast!”


Sgt. Jordan went back to talking with his men. Thomas couldn’t believe it. He stole a glance at Garcia to his side who only shook her head in disbelief. Their assault on this office building had pushed the last of the Lord’s Chosen’s fighters into the corner office on this second floor. The enemy was trapped for a moment, but in the corridor between Thomas and the Lord’s Chosen was another hallway that branched out to the rest of the floor.


Like many office buildings in Chicago, this floor was a maze of cubicles, offices, and hallways. Hallways that the Lord’s Chosen knew better and could outmaneuver an attacking force using. The Army counted on the element of surprise, and it got them this far, but they left that benefit behind on the first floor. The tide of the gunfight was turning, Thomas could feel it.


The enemy was moving forward and if they made it to that hallway, they could surround them.


The sound of a metal baseball bouncing across the floor as it grew nearer until Thomas looked down and saw the familiar shape. Sgt. Jordan’s scream shook Thomas from his frozen stare.


“Grenade!” Jordan shouted. He turned his back to the large dark green egg and covered his face.


Thomas didn’t know what he was doing until he did it. Taking a step forward, he swung his leg and punted the grenade with the side of his foot. The metal object didn’t go far, but it bounced between the walls as it went a few feet back down the corridor. The explosion didn’t demolish the building and there weren’t clouds of flames choking the halls like in the movies.


Thomas tucked back behind cover and felt Garcia’s arm wrap around his ribs from behind just as the jolt of the explosion vibrated through the floor. The grenade’s fuse ignited, and the charge detonated sending metal fragments and shrapnel into the walls, floor, and ceiling with high intensity. The air was thick with dust and drywall particles that had been set loose from the walls.


Coughing, Thomas looked back to Garcia and the rest of his squad, “Are you okay?”

“Good,” someone said.


“We’re good!” his men shouted.


“Fucking shit,” Garcia spat. “Are we done standing here?”


Thomas’ mind was on autopilot when he turned, “Cover me.”


“What?” Garcia asked.


Thomas ran into the corridor with his rifle raised. He heard Sergeant Jordan’s protests full of curse words at his backside, but Thomas was done waiting. His shoulder hit the wall as he snapped the trigger back on his M4 rifle. Luckily, he had it set to single shot or in his excited state of panic he would’ve emptied his magazine on full auto in seconds. Charging forward he jerked the trigger back multiple times and fired into the center of the hallway as he heard bullets thud into the wall beside him.


The fallout of debris and dust in the air from the grenade had created a smoke screen in the hall that obscured any sight picture to aim through.


If I survive this, I’m going to have to remember to pretend that I knew this smoke was here and that I planned this from the beginning.


Pushing through the plume of smoke, figures became clearer as Thomas’ gunfire became more accurate. His rounds pounded into a combatant’s chest and stomach. The man bent over and fell to the ground as his friends retreated into side offices for cover.


Thomas planned to stop at the middle hallway to establish a foothold there before the Lord’s Chosen could, but in his overzealous attack he sprinted past the middle hallway as he left the smoke. Hunkered down, the enemy’s return fire zeroed in on him. Their bullets snapped then hissed as their accuracy increased. Thomas dove into the nearest door to his right, hoping no one saw. He was far too close to the Lord’s Chosen for his own comfort.


With his back pressed against the bathroom wall, Sergeant Lee Thomas heard the spray of cover fire whither to nothing. The bathroom had no light, of course, but that didn’t stop Thomas’ brain from looking for the light switch out of habit. It had been a month and a half since electricity flowed in Chicago.


Forty-five days was all it took for the city to devolve to this…


No sunlight from the windows across the hall reached into the recesses of the single stall bathroom so Thomas could only smell the stale odor of human waste that plagued the small room. He covered his mouth and nose with his left hand to keep from gagging while his right remained poised on the grip of his rifle.


His helmet tapped the back wall as he heard the enemy’s gunfire approach down the hall. There was a brief volley of gunfire from his men on his side of the corridor that was quickly met with the Lord’s Chosen’s shots. Thomas was stuck in the middle of a long hallway with his fellow soldiers on one end and the enemy on the other.


He held his breath and turned so his rifle faced the doorway as the gunfire approached his location. The Lord’s Chosen must’ve had superior stockpiles of ammunition because they continued to lay suppressing fire as they marched down the hall. If they passed the bathroom none the wiser of his presence, Thomas could pick them off from behind one by one. None of their shots were aimed at the bathroom doorway, so perhaps they thought he stopped in the middle hallway.


Don’t come in here, don’t come in here, don’t—


There was a kiss of sunlight in the hallway from a window down the hall. When Thomas saw the enemy’s silhouette button hook inside the tiny restroom, his insides clenched as the two of them tensed at the sight of another. The man tried to center his shotgun on Thomas’ body, but Thomas was already sighted on the man and stitched a line of bloody bullet wounds up the man’s chest.


Thomas had to think fast as the man fell backwards into the hallway. The other black bands would know in an instant he was inside the bathroom and could blindly fire into the drywall, killing Thomas if he didn’t move. With no other option, Thomas stepped over the man’s body and leapt into the hallway. Immediately, he found himself in what his fellow soldiers would call, ‘an elephant of a clusterfuck.’


To his right were three men that were mere inches from being on top of Thomas. He could smell the men’s body odor and rotting breath. There was no time to think he was in the field of fire.


Thomas just acted.


In one fluid motion, he let his single point sling catch his rifle around his neck and grabbed the one of the three attackers. He was too close to try and squeezed the barrel of his gun between the two of them. Instead, snatching the man’s shirt collar, Thomas twisted and fell with the man into the opposing door across the hall. The thin door bowed then broke as the two fell to their sides. It was a janitorial closet with buckets being tipped over and brooms and mop sticks falling on top of them.


The man landed on top of Thomas. He was broad shouldered and felt stronger than Thomas. A man’s strength like Thomas’ father. Like a real adult.


Grabbing a hold of Thomas’ body armor straps, he slammed Thomas into a shelf that caused a sea of half empty bottles and sponges to rain down. Thomas felt like the 19-year-old boy he was in the grip of a giant’s hands.


Automatic gunfire rattled in the halls as the fight continued between the two sides, but all Thomas thought of was this middle-aged man’s hands as they closed around his throat. Oxygen stopped filling his lungs, and Thomas jerked the trigger on his rifle, firing uselessly into the wall as his rifle was pinned sideways between their two bodies.

“Die, you stupid motherfucker!” The man growled through gnashed teeth. His voice came through in spurts between the deafening gunfire.


His vision became blurry as Thomas thumped his hands against the man’s arms and shoulders. Thomas opened his mouth to scream and gasp for air but not a sound came out and not a drop of air came in. Just as he felt his sight edge to darkness, a fleeting thought flashed before his eyes. Blindly slapping at the grip of his pistol on his thigh holster, Thomas drew it out, thumbing the safety. He pressed the muzzle into his attacker’s soft ribs and clenched down on the trigger.


The muffled explosions of gunfire made the man jump and his stranglehold loosen immediately. The rush of air to Thomas’ lungs felt like being reborn as he gasped. Continuing to jerk the trigger back as the man cowered in the corner of the closet, Thomas emptied the magazine into the man’s chest and body.


Reacquiring his vision, Thomas sat up and felt a dizzying headrush as he tried to orient himself. Thomas didn’t realize the shooting had ceased in the hall until Specialist Garcia appeared in the closet doorway. Thomas flagged her with the barrel of his Sig Sauer pistol.


“Whoa whoa, it’s me, sarge,” Garcia said. Thomas recognized Garcia’s familiar accent and the outline of her slender figure, even with the Army chest rig of gear and helmet. “You good in here?”


Thomas lowered his empty gun, cleared his throat, and stood, “Yeah, I’m good. The floor clear?”


Garcia stuck her head out in the hall, looking the way the enemy had come from. “Just about. Jordan and his squad are finishing clearing the last rooms at the end. You sure you’re straight?” Garcia clicked on her small handheld flashlight and shined it on Thomas’ throat as he rubbed it and made a face. “Jesus, Tom, you need a medic.”

From down the hall Sergeant Jordan’s voice along with his men called out, ‘clear,’ declaring the floor and building all clear of hostiles.


“I’ll be okay, I think,” Thomas said after letting a cough escape.


“That was some real Rambo shit back there—charging up the hall like you did.” Garcia said with no amusement in her voice.


“Hoorah, Sarge,” Private Daniels, who was another one of Thomas’ men, grunted as he walked by.


“That’s some master chief shit there,” another man joked.


Sergeant Jordan was the last to pass by and the only one of the men that didn’t give Sergeant Thomas a shout of approval. Jordan’s eyes looked as though he was ready to attack at any moment. His thick neck and gaunt shoulders contrasted starkly with Sergeant Thomas’ skinny frame that made him appear more like a child than a man.

“If only I could fight like Rambo,” Thomas mumbled as his eyes held Jordan’s gaze the entire time he walked by. Garcia shined her flashlight on the man Thomas had fought. He appeared to be in his 30s with a five o’clock shadow and a piece of black cloth tied around his upper arm.


Taking a deep breath and letting out a long sigh as he stared at the man he had killed, Thomas allowed himself to let go of the tension and relax for a moment until the next gunfight would inevitably come.


Just like letting go of the wire…


Lee Thomas had a normal teenage life until April twentieth. He stayed glued to his TV and news updates on his phone, same as everyone else in the country–the entire world, really. In the week follow 4/20, adults older than him kept saying that, ‘This is going to be your 9/11. You’ll never forget where you were today…’


It was true, he still remembered where he sat on his couch beside his mother and where his father stood with his work boots still on in the living room. It was strange how much could change in a few short months. Thomas’ nineteen years on this earth had been spent tending to his father’s farm in southern Indiana and rough housing with friends around the barn.


There was a time when he was fifteen years old, Thomas and a small group of friends, who were a hodgepodge of teenagers from the three nearest farms that bordered Thomas’ father’s farm, would each swipe a six pack of warm beer from their barn fridges. On the edges of Thomas’ farm a few miles away from the house, they had set up a card table that only had legs on one side and on the other it stayed up with duct tape and thin tree stumps. When his father finally caught him and his friends out there, he sounded disappointed in his son. Not because he was sneaking off with his friends to drink stolen beer instead of doing schoolwork. His father was more disappointed at the half assed job Thomas has done in repairing the card table. That was his way, though.


“You ain’t got no follow through in you, Lee,” his father would always say. “Just enough–that’s what people are gonna remember you as. The Thomas that only did just enough. ‘cause you always do just enough to get by. There’s never nothing special about being just enough.”


All the other boys would typically drink three beers, but Thomas could usually polish off a six pack by himself all the while his father’s taunt sounding off in his ear.

Just enough Thomas.


It was then when the proper amount of alcohol had been consumed that the games began. They would drive the four wheelers over to the cattle fields and Thomas would dare Steve–a pudgy, freckled face kid who lived across the street, to grab ahold of the electric fence. The other boys would join in teasing the kid until he felt sufficiently pressured to electrocute himself simply for the cows and other’s entertainment.


Of course, once it started the dare went around the circle until everyone had a turn. The last time Thomas—or any of them, for that matter, played this game, Thomas was the final one to grab the wire. They had to touch the dirt with one hand in order to ground themselves, but this time Thomas chose to take off his rubber soled work boots instead. When you grabbed the wire there was a flexed tenseness that happened when the jolt of electricity shot through your body. A flash of rigidness like you had never felt before.


Occasionally, one of the boys would ‘lock’ on the wire as the current of electricity wouldn’t allow them to let go. As if a predator had successfully lured its prey into a trap and refused to let its meal get away. When this happened, Thomas had a half broken two by four chunk of wood that he or his friends would scramble for in the long grass to knock the boy’s hand free. Sometimes the cows would gather at a safe distance to watch, curious to see what the commotion was so close to their fence. But the last time Thomas gripped the wire he knew there was something wrong right away.


His chewed fingernails dug into his palm and the fence refused to release him. Realizing he was locked-in Steve found the tool of choice and began beating his forearms with the plank of wood, but Thomas’ hands refused to release from the fence. The electric wire had trapped its prey and Thomas could feel the vibrations in his bones. His teeth clenched and knees locked out. It felt as though all his joints were seared in place never to move again. The pain flooded his body as every muscle flexed and the seconds piled on top of another. The pain was so visceral and yet Thomas’ jaw was locked shut, not allowing him to scream, but to only hum a moan. When he heard his friends’ voices change to panicked, high pitched, screams that was when Thomas knew.

This is how I die…


It was Steve who ended up pushing everyone aside and, with a running start, the short, heavy set teenager leapt in the air and tackled Thomas from the fence, rolling him into the tall weeds along the road. Thomas recalled the long, endless time he spent locked on the fence and the searing, intense pain in his bones. He remembered laying in the dirt gasping for air as he felt his own urine run down his leg. That was what combat was like. Clearing rooms, taking gunfire, returning gunfire…killing… It was like being locked on that electric fence for minutes on end. Hours. And not being able to scream.


After clearing the structure, the two sergeants and their men left the office building and allowed the civilian support staff to enter and begin gathering supplies. There would be a caché of ammo, medical supplies, but most importantly, food, that would need to be transported back to base. That’s what the civilian attachment to their raiding team was there for.


Thomas overheard Daniels and Shephard a few yards behind him rehashing the gunfight. Their excitement and laughter made it sound as though they were recalling a video game match. Comparing their kill count and assessing point value. Thomas looked at the faded scar that striped his palm for all those years ago. Opening and closing his fist, he almost thought it hurt.


“Sergeant Thomas,” Captain Sears called him over to the parking lot corner where he and the civilians had staged between two abandoned SUVs.


“Sir,” Thomas approached, saluting the captain.


“At ease,” the captain waved him down. “Word is, you led the charge up there, son. Kept the enemy from flanking. That true?” Captain Sears asked. Thomas glanced to his side and realized Specialist Garcia was walking back to post. She was the one the captain chose for an after action report. It was just reaching mid-afternoon and the heat from the humid Chicago day made a layer of sweat form on Captain Sear’s forehead.

Thomas didn’t know how to answer without sounding arrogant or foolhardy. “I… tried to just do my part, sir.”


The captain gave an approving nod at his answer and tapped him on the shoulder. “That’s all we can ask of each other nowadays.”


Captain Sears was in his late 20s and had a gaunt jaw and a crooked nose. At six foot two, he towered over Thomas who barely pushed five foot nine and was always the skinny kid with those puppy dog brown eyes. It was a constant struggle in this new world he lived in. Every task he was assigned he felt underqualified for. Looking at other men and women they appeared older, professional, more confident. The men had black beards and hard eyes. The women all seemed fiercer and taller than him. Perhaps it was because he was only a nineteen-year-old boy being asked to do things expected of men and women twice his age. Or maybe Thomas wasn’t used to completing tasks and only did just enough.


“Let’s get these civilians moving,” the captain said. “I want to be back to base before dark. We don’t want to be outside the wire in downtown Chicago after dark.”

“Yes, sir,” Thomas said. “I’ll tell them to start brassing up.”


“No, not today,” the captain said. “We collect live rounds, but all our spent casing, leave them where they lie.”


Thomas gave a peculiar look to the captain but knew better than to question him.


Just follow orders.


The civilians filled every backpack, cart, and container they brought with them with all the supplies at the conquered outpost. Under the guard of Sergeant Thomas’ squad in the front of the group and Sergeant Jordan’s team in the back, Captain Sears escorted the civilians the two miles back to home base.


Chapter One

Elliot


Elliot slowly placed a can of tuna on the conference room table as he tried to appear casual. As if putting their food on display were completely normal. He felt like a child pulling all of his toys from his chest whenever his parents had company over to show them off. All he was missing was a kiss on the cheek and his mom’s patronizing rub on the back of his head for being a good boy. He had grown to hate those kisses. They were always wet and left him worried they had left lipstick marks on his face before going into school.


He regretted thinking of her now. He couldn’t stop himself from imagining her face. She was probably only a skull by now. Her skull laid beside Elliot’s father’s skull where he had left them on the living room floor of their house. Left to rot for eternity, until they became ash. The pain of that thought struck a part of his gut that had been hardened. A month and a half ago, Elliot would have doubled over in tears from that pain.

But that Elliot was gone.


Reaching back inside his backpack, Elliot’s hands went to work on their real task, loading a rifle magazine with bronze-colored bullets from a box on the bottom of a bag. He wasn’t sure if the ammunition was meant for the rifle he was loading, but the long, thin bullets fit into the magazine, so he figured it was right. He had never loaded a weapon before, except in video games where all he had to do was hit the button with the square on it.


Kat was to Elliot’s left doing the same with her pistol clips. She would struggle to load two or three of her stubby bullets then slowly set another can of food on their growing pile of food.

It was Rasha’s idea to disguise their effort to reload by showing off their food. Rasha had become their unofficial whisperer in the short time they had known her. The girl in the background who gave pointers and recommendations.


“A group this size has to be struggling with food supplies,” Rasha had whispered as they began opening their bags. “Give them something to look at while you’re reloading. Show them we have something they want.”


“Something they want to steal,” Kat added as she eyed the groups of people who walked by the conference room window and lingered, staring.


“If they just wanted to take our stuff, they didn’t have to help us. Could’ve watched us die. Could’ve even killed us out there,” said Elliot trying to convince himself more than anyone else of their safety.


“They still might,” Kat surmised. “Didn’t seem like those soldiers were on the same page as these guys.”


“That’s why we need the ammo,” Elliot said.


Elliot struggled but couldn’t put another round into the clip in his hand and carefully set it down on top of the full clip at the base of the nearly empty bag. He took the last can of peas in the bag and placed it on the table with the other food. There was a mound of thirty-seven cans stacked into a lumpy pyramid on the center of the table.


Derek stared at the cans from under droopy eyelids. He groaned incoherently to himself as he continued to sweat despite the even temperature of the room. He hadn’t moved much over the last hour since he had been dumped in that chair.


Not long after Tiara had locked them in the conference room, the big guy, Rockwall, and a skinny woman with severe facial features and a permanent grimace on her lips came in. She wore purple medical gloves and eyed them. Unimpressed, she went over to Derek and got to work, touching his wrist for a pulse, checking his eyes, and searching for injuries.


The woman told the room they could call her Nurse Murkle. She spent a minute feeling his forehead, then removed the red cloth over his shoulder wound and, looking at it, made a face. Elliot furrowed his brow when she didn’t even remove or lift his shirt to look at the wound.


“He’s got an infection,” Nurse Murkle finally said. “He’s dehydrated and malnourished, as well.”


Elliot had to stop himself from saying, “You cracked the case, Watson.” Elliot could only guess how long the fellow teenage boy had been trapped in the parked car surrounded by lions. Hours perhaps. His mind flashed back to the terrifying scene of a pride of lions lunging at the backs of men in orchestrated violence. Feeling a shudder traverse his spine, his thoughts went back to the guttural growls the animals made as they chased men down and pounced on them.


“Do you guys have any medicine for him? Antibiotics?” Kat asked as politely as Elliot had heard her sound. “He was shot, right? That’s what he needs.”


Nurse Murkle looked down upon Kat as if to say, “Yeah, but not for you.”


Elliot looked to Rockwall who remained by the door with a shotgun loosely held in his hands. The weapon looked like a twig in his grip. Elliot considered himself a good judge of character, and just from the small time he spent with Rockwall, he thought he was one of the good ones despite his menacing appearance. But the look Rockwall returned to Murkle didn’t give him hope. Without another word Nurse Murkle left the room. Rockwall gave them another look as if apologizing for their upcoming fate before leaving.


“Jesus Christ,” Kat looked at Elliot. “What the fuck was that look? Did you see the look she gave me?”


“I honestly think most of that is just her normal face,” said Elliot.


While they cleaned and organized their bags, they took turns refilling Derek’s cup with water and tried to encourage him to drink. They even opened one of their cans of tuna—which in hindsight was probably not the best selection—and tried to get Derek to eat. When he refused completely, the can was divided up between them. Even though Elliot and Kat had been with Rasha for little more than a day, Elliot felt more of a bond between the three of them than he had felt with anyone other than his family. It was like surviving the gun fight had brought a trust among the three of them.


Eric…


The sudden moment of self-reflection brought with it the memory of the child and his body still left outside. He immediately glanced at Kat as if she might be thinking of the boy too. The focused snarl on her face spoke volumes as she thumbed the last two rounds into the magazine.


With all of their bags emptied except for the ammo and guns, Elliot slowly slid his rifle on the ground over to his backpack where he worked. People walked by the window, and their eyes seemed more interested in the towers of food than in Elliot loading a magazine into the rifle.


He heard Kat do it as well. They shared a knowing look as they held their loaded weapons. They both knew if it came to using these weapons, they’d likely die. They were outnumbered and trapped in a room with only one entrance.


“They’re coming,” Rasha whispered. Her eyes peered through the corner of the window to the hallway.


Elliot looked up and saw the row of armed soldiers with their guns approaching. Behind them were a dozen more people without guns. People who seemed to be trying to catch a glimpse.


Here we go.

Chapter Two

Tiara


Tiara walked to the far end of the cafeteria where the dwindling sunlight barely reached. Her hands trembled and she heard her heart thumping in her ears. It was like a war drum from some ancient civilization. The sound reverberated and filled her head as she thought about the men she had shot.


Pop!


The staccato of muted gunshots pushed through the walls as the soldiers were still outside clearing the perimeter of any remaining Lord’s Chosen.


Pop!


“Oh my god, Tiara. Are you okay?” Sabrina asked. She touched Tiara’s arm as she spoke, making her jump and retreat into the corner. Tiara’s hand moved to her pistol she had tucked in her waistband and immediately stopped herself, realizing her mind wasn’t right. Sabrina was no threat. She was more like the college’s mother. [2] Sabrina had apologetic eyes that were fit for a grandmother and not the middle-aged woman she was.


“Yeah, um, I’m–” Tiara started. She shook her head trying to clear the web of violent images and twisted thoughts that clogged her mind.


“Did you see the lions? Good lord… and that boy!” Sabrina persisted. Her excitement was apparent in her busy eyes. “Was that the same boy in the car that was attacked by the lions? We thought he was dead, right?”


“I-I don’t, um,” Tiara shook her head.


Tiara’s mind unpacked the events that happened outside. She remembered the details of gathering the four teenagers and running back to the college, but then her mind paused on the small child’s lifeless body that was laid by the bullet riddled car. She never saw the bullet wound. Everything moved too quickly, but she saw the blood. There was so much blood for such a small body.


Pop!


Her eyes jumped to the back door across the cafeteria. Curious people kept opening it to look outside and watch what was happening, but the gunfire cracked louder when it was open. It sounded real. It sounded like she was being shot at, again.


Rodger was pacing with his cronies gathered behind him when his eyes caught a glimpse of Tiara. Like a heat seeking missile, he changed trajectories and stormed over to Tiara’s corner.


“Hey, what do you think you’re doing!?” Rodger boomed. “The sergeant told you to stay, told us all to wait and you think you know better?”


The few inches that Rodger had on Tiara seemed to grow as he backed her against the wall. Rodger pushed his thick rimmed glasses up on his nose with his middle finger and then jabbed his pointer finger into the bone of her chest as he continued.


Her mind flashed back to the windows of the car exploding into pieces across her face as bullets thudded the aluminum siding. The sound of bullets snapping across the pavement. The tearing of flesh from a Lord’s Chosen soldier as they ripped into him.


Pop! Pop!


“You’re going to get us all killed, and I am not having it!” Rodger shouted. Tiara’s hand found the grip of the pistol in her waistband.


“Rodger…” Sabrina whispered.


Tiara’s eyes rolled back to the black ceiling. Her breaths were shallow and felt as though her windpipe was closing. The image of Alan’s bald head turning to glare at Tiara burned into her thoughts.


Pop!


“Hey, I’m talking to you!” Rodger jabbed his finger into Tiara’s chest and the world moved in a blur.


“Get off me! Get–get [3] away!” Tiara shoved Rodger’s shoulder hard and drew her pistol from her waistband. Sabrina and Rodger coward when she leveled the gun in their direction. Waving it back and forth, Tiara snapped, “I said get away from me!”


Rodger tripped over his own feet as he backtracked and nearly fell. The room went silent as dozens of eyes watched and waited to see what would happen. It wasn’t until her gun was in her hand did Tiara feel the rush of air fill her lungs. The darkness that overtook the edges of her vision receded a bit more with every gulp of oxygen and she found the pistol growing heavy in her hand.


“T!” Brie cried as she ran from the opposite side of the room with Jimenez beside her. Brie pushed past Rodger and came to a halt beside Tiara. “T…”


With a final long exhale, Tiara dropped the handgun to her side and felt the weight of exhaustion plaguing her entire body. Brie ran into Tiara’s chest, her arms wrapping tightly around her back as Brie buried her face against her older sister. Jimenez walked to their side and Tiara handed him the pistol, wanting to get it away from her.


“It’s okay,” Jimenez said softly. “It’s okay.”


“Fucking psycho…” Rodger said as he was guided away by his groupies.


Brie pulled away from her sister to shout at Rodger, “Screw you!”


“Just wait until the soldiers hear about this!” Rodger’s voice was distant as he hid amongst the crowd.


“I’m–I’m[4] sorry, I don’t know what happened,” Tiara cupped her hand to her forehead and felt her clammy palm and the cold sweat on her brow.


Jimenez checked the pistol to see if it was loaded, then clicked the safety on before putting it in his back waistband. “It’s okay,” he repeated. “It’s a normal reaction. You should see Rockwall. The big man is just sitting in the bedroom with his back against the wall.”


Tiara took a deep breath and felt her heart finally begin to slow. “You don’t look too bothered by it all.”


Jimenez’s comforting smile flattened as he considered his answer before speaking. “Well, I’m an old man. My hard times were some time ago.”


“You’re not old old,” Brie said, shoving Jimenez’s belly.


Jimenez gripped his belly as if he was in pain and stumbled backwards a few steps forcing a look of pain, “Oh, you broke me…”


Brie giggled and even Tiara felt a touch of levity inside her. Jimenez had always been like a father to Tiara over the years she worked and attended the City of Chicago Technical University. The middle-aged man with graying salt and pepper hair had a calming sense about his presence. Perhaps it was the slow and thoughtful way he spoke, rather than most people nowadays who stuttered and rushed to get the first and last word in. Instead, Jimenez was a skinny unimposing man who preferred simply to listen to others speak more often than not.


Brie continued to jab her palm at his stomach until Jimenez smiled and patted her on the shoulder signaling the end of the game. It was strange the effect Brie and Jimenez’s presence had on Tiara. The violent images that haunted her mind evaporated as Brie’s giggle slowed her thoughts. Tiara felt a sudden pang of guilt and warmth of fortune that she still had the two people whom she cared for and who cared about her. Looking over the sea of survivors who have accumulated at her former place of work and school over the past month and a half, she saw loners who had lost all their family and clung to others beside them out of survival rather than love. Afterall, that was all that mattered anymore. Survival.


“We should talk about the newcomers,” Jimenez said.


Tiara looked at the nearest hallway.


I forgot about them completely. What is going on with me? Tiara thought, looking down at her hands like she could find an answer written on her palms. I need to remember to talk to Jimenez privately later about how he stays so calm. I can’t let this panic attack, or whatever, happen again.


“Are they still in there?” Tiara asked.


“Yeah,” Brie answered with excitement. Like she was happy to contribute to an adult conversation. She was fourteen years old, but ever since their mother was killed, she seemed to be regressing in maturity. Like she had realized adulthood wasn’t all that she thought it was back when cellphones, instant messaging, and selfies ruled her life. “They’re in there organizing their bags or something.”


“Tiara, everyone’s talking about them. Not many like that they’re here, I don’t think,” Jimenez said.


“They’re kids. Teenagers. That girl, Rasha, looks twelve. She survived all this time since the Lord’s Chosen attacked the restaurant and people just want to kick her out?” Tiara’s eyebrows angled as she looked about the distant crowd, searching for the one who thought this.


“I don’t know what they want,” Jimenez responded. “But I can hear them whispering when I was putting my rifle away. They’re scared. The four of them are outsiders and they have guns.”


Tiara looked at the faces of the men and women who huddled in their small cliques. She imagined them discussing how their already rationed meals would be divided further if they stayed. How these kids could be serial killers or thieves. Being young didn’t mean much anymore. Hunger was enough to turn anyone into a criminal. Starvation made people violent. Perhaps Tiara was blinded by the Lord’s Chosen. She just assumed any enemy of theirs was her friend.


The backdoor of the college swung open and slammed into the wall. The door handle might’ve smashed a hole into the drywall going past the doorstop. Sergeant Snyder’s silhouette filled the doorway as he scanned the faces closest to him.


“Where is she?” his voice boomed. “Where the fuck is she?”


Tiara grabbed Brie’s arm and pulled her little sister back into the corner behind her. Sergeant Snyder walked through the crowd with his three soldiers at his back. The group parted for them, afraid to be in the path of Snyder’s wrath.


“Let me speak,” Jimenez said, gently grabbing Tiara’s wrist to get her attention.


Sergeant Snyder was huffing shallow breaths like he was a tea kettle close to blowing, “I said, where the–”


“Here. We’re over here,” Jimenez waved his hand. Sergeant Snyder stomped towards the group of them with fast, heavy[6] steps. He looked as though he was going to toss his rifle to the side so he could kill them both with his hands.


“Do you speak English, pablo? How about you, bitch?” Snyder growled. “I fucking gave you a direct order to not go out–”


Jimenez interrupted, extending his palms in a calming fashion towards the sergeant before he reached Tiara. “Hold on, sir. Let’s talk–”


Snyder smacked Jimenez’s hands down violently and Tiara felt fire explode in her chest, burn her throat, and vent through her lips as she lunged forward.


“Hey! Don’t you fucking touch him!” she screamed, swiping at Snyder’s face. Now it was Tiara that Jimenez was trying to calm and restrain. Sergeant Snyder’s men maneuvered to his side to get a better look at Tiara. Her rage seemed to amuse them, Brute especially.


“Whoo-hoo! She’s gone native, just look at that!” Brute hooted, smacking Donald’s arm.

“Yeah, for real,” Donald added.


Brie followed her big sister’s example and pushed forward yelling, “Shut up, you rednecks!”


“Come on, Sarge. You seen the kill streak I was on out there. Lemme add one more,” Brute licked at his wet lips. He adjusted the rifle in his hands and acted as though he was about to level it with Tiara, though, she wasn’t sure he was joking and pulled Brie behind her, again. Sam, the square jawed soldier, stood silent just watching the situation unfold. His eyes studying the situation and his rifle in hand and ready to act.


“Fuck you!” Tiara shouted over Jimenez’s shoulder.


Sergeant Snyder looked behind him and saw the entire college gathered behind him, watching the scene unfold as if it was a movie. Their dull lives rooted in survival for the last two months finally had something new to gossip about.


“Enough,” Snyder said.


“Fuck me?” Brute grabbed a hold of the crotch of his pants with his left hand. “Come on, girl. I’ll make it–”


“Enough!” Sergeant Snyder yelled, silencing his man. He turned to Jimenez and extended his hand. “Give me the gun.”


Jimenez hesitated but then handed the silver handgun over to the sergeant. Stuffing the pistol in his back waistband, Snyder eyed Tiara up and down. Tiara realized then that she had a second pistol, a small black revolver still stuffed in her front pocket. She could see in Snyder’s eyes that he saw it, too.


“Gun,” Snyder repeated, eyeing Tiara.


“It’s my gun,” Tiara said, but in her head, she thought, that’s my mom’s gun.

“You can hand it over, or we can take it,” Snyder said.


Sam moved to her side. His long rifle aimed down at her feet. Tiara’s defiant side wanted to make them take it from her, but then she saw the other watching this tense standoff. People who she was already on the outs with. People who might be mad at her already for rescuing kids and bringing them there. Tiara removed the revolver from her pocket and saw Sam tense with his rifle nearly aiming directly at her. The moment of worry and fear she sensed in the soldier was one that she enjoyed. But eventually, she slapped the revolver down into the sergeant’s outstretched palm.


The four soldiers visibly relaxed and let their weapons dangle from their straps around their necks. Sergeant Snyder turned to the crowd that seemed to have inched closer to the conflict over the past minutes and waved them away.


“Alright, guys. Break it up, come on, we’ve got work to do,” the sergeant instructed. “Everyone get back to chores, watchers on guard duty keep your eyes peeled. We’ll talk about what’s going on tonight at dinner.”


Slowly, the crowd went back to their corners and duties in different directions. Most of them had nothing to do, but still followed the crowd to the other end of the cafeteria. When Snyder finally turned back to Tiara and Jimenez the darkness in his eyes conveyed the hate he truly kept inside.


“Now you listen, both of you,” Snyder spoke quietly but with intensity. “This ends now. For over a month now, I’ve dealt with you two back talking and not listening to what we say. We’ve allowed you to keep this utopian fantasy that everyone has a voice and the world is going to be nice to us just because you believe it bullshit. Not anymore. This is not a democracy. I’m in charge. And my men are in charge.”


Tiara shook her head, “You really think that’s going to fly? You think I’m the only one who has a problem with the shit you guys do? The way you act? Try and tell that to all the others and there will be a fucking revolt. You watch.”


“I will,” Snyder smirked. “Don’t you see what you just did?”


“We saved a fucking group of teenagers!” Tiara snapped. Pissed that she had to defend herself so many times. “Why can’t you see–”


“Why can’t you see how fucking stupid you are?” Snyder growled. “We’ve now wasted our ammo, risked our lives, and all so we could save four more damn mouths to feed. We don’t know who they are, they could have hundreds more with them. So now we’re probably going to have to just kill them in order to be safe.”


“Wait,” Tiara said with panic ridden eyes.


“What?” Jimenez held up a hand.


“Worst of all,” Snyder continued, looking over his shoulder to make sure no one else could hear him. As if the public found out this next information it would be chaos. “Your stunt just exposed us to the Lord’s Chosen. They know we’re here now. Or did you forget the fucked up demonstration they put on with your Muslim friends at the restaurant?”


Tiara digested this information because she never considered it before. She thought maybe they killed them all. Maybe there would be no one to send the information back to the rest of the LC of their presence. But Tiara was almost positive Alan had escaped. His bald head limping away was one of the last images she saw before retreating inside.


“You remember the screams those women made out by that gyro place,” Sam added. “When the Lord’s Chosen impaled them with spears while they were still alive and left them to bleed out and die? Maybe that’ll be you in a few days now. All because you had to save them.”


Tiara didn’t respond to their statements. She wasn’t going to concede to them. “We can’t just kill them because we don’t know who they are,” she said.


Snyder nodded to his men to walk over to a nearby corner to speak, then turned to Tiara. “We will decide what happens now.”


The four soldiers walked to the opposite corner of the cafeteria that was completely shrouded in darkness and spoke in a small huddle. The skylights in the ceiling revealed gray clouds that were nearly black as the sun had already set and the final reaches of sunlight were disappearing.


“You can’t let them kill them, T,” Brie begged as she came from behind Tiara. “Rasha didn’t do nothin.”


“I’m not going to let them,” Tiara whispered, looking up at Jimenez. “They’re out of control.”


Jimenez looked around the room and pursed his lips as he thought. Finally, he looked down to Brie, “Hey, Brie. Can you go check in with Rockwall. He was pretty upset, and I think he could use someone to be with him right now.”


Brie lowered her eyebrows, “No, I want to be here with you and–”


“B…” Tiara said, sternly. “Come on.”


Brie released an exasperated sigh before storming off towards their hallway. It wasn’t until Brie was out of sight that Jimenez put his hand on Tiara’s shoulder and guided her deeper into their corner.


“Tiara, we need to be careful now,” he whispered. “Most people here already agree with Rodger that the soldiers are in charge–they don’t care if it’s a dictatorship. They’re just scared. They want someone in control.”


“We can’t just let them be in charge,” Tiara replied. “The moment we concede into a dictatorship they could do whatever they want. Take whatever they want. Kill whoever they want. They already are taking our guns.”


Jimenez sighed looking down at the ground and glancing back at the soldiers who still spoke with another. “I’m not saying you’re wrong,” Jimenez continued. “I’m saying its already happened… What do you think would happen if Snyder[7] killed you, me, and Brie tonight?”


Tiara opened her mouth to speak but closed it just as quickly. She could imagine the anger, disgust, and fearful whispers overtaking the populace during dinner. Most wouldn’t care as long as it wasn’t them who lost their lives. That was how most people were nowadays. People kept to themselves and took care of themselves. Other people’s problems were for other people. Rodger was one of those people. He would get up in front of the others and the whispering would die down. He’d talk of how dangerous Tiara and Jimenez were, and maybe make up a lie about how they were stealing food or grabbed a weapon and the soldiers killed them in self defense. Eventually, Rodger would talk so long, that the people would stop caring about Rodger’s words or Tiara’s life, they’d only hear the rumble of their empty bellies and want the chatter to end so they could eat.


Then, Tiara imagined Brie’s tearful eyes looking over at Tiara as Brute pointed his rifle down at her forehead. Tiara shook her head to remove the image from her mind.

“I was trying to tell you before Snyder came in,” Jimenez said. “Somethings have changed in the college. Between watching Rasha’s restaurant get massacred and now this… People are scared, Tiara. Real scared. We have to tread carefully, now. We don’t have a lot of friends.”


Tiara could only nod. The stomach acid that boiled in her empty belly splashed sizzling liquid on the back of her throat. They turned to the soldiers who seemed to stir as if their meeting was concluding. They turned and started towards them when Tiara had a thought rise to the surface of her mind.


Leaning close to Jimenez, Tiara whispered, “Remember Alan, from the custodial staff?”

Jimenez nodded, “Of course. The troublemaker.”


“I saw him. He’s one of the Lord’s Chosen who escaped,” Tiara’s eyes met Jimenez who wore a worried look on his face.


“Do not let the soldiers–or anyone–know that we know him,” Jimenez said.

Tiara nodded and Snyder stopped in front of them.


“We'll interrogate the people you brought in,” Snyder said. “Once we have all the information that we need, we’ll either take their food and supplies and they can be on their way, or we’ll kill them. It all depends on them.”


Tiara felt Jimenez’s hand grab her wrist gently.


Tread carefully, she thought.


“Okay,” Tiara said. “We’ll come with you.”


 

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