Aphelion Issue 296, Volume 28
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September 12th

by Lee Gimenez


September 12, 2001

I'm afraid to turn on the TV this morning, but I do it anyway. The horrific images from yesterday are burned into my brain. The planes slamming into the New York towers, the buildings crashing down -- it all feels like a nightmare that won't go away.

"Turn up the volume, Jim," my wife Ann says from the kitchen.

I jab the remote and the anchor's voice blares out. He's from the local NBC station, a middle-aged reporter with perfect hair.

"We've just learned that the FAA is considering canceling airline flights across the country. However, we're getting reports that some in Congress are opposed to the idea, and the President is still not saying anything. The government's paralysis that we saw yesterday continues."

"Damn, what are they waiting for?" I yell at the TV screen.

Ann comes over and gives me a hug. "Calm down, Jim. You'll wake the baby."

"It's insane. We're attacked by terrorists and nobody in Washington is doing anything about it!"

Ann's voice is a nervous whisper. "Should you go to work today? What should we do?"

"I don't know. I'll call the office and see. Stay home with Sarah today; don't go out."

Just then, the TV anchor's voice rises, a panicky edge to it. "We're getting reports of an airliner headed toward Chicago's Sears Tower. We're starting to get some video..."

The screen goes to a view of the city's skyline, the Sears building towering over the other skyscrapers. Suddenly, a large jet slams into the building; a fiery explosion bursts the top half of it.

"Oh, my God....It's happening again," Ann says, as she clutches my hand.

I grit my teeth and clench my fists. "What the hell..." I hiss.

I hug Ann, and suddenly I start crying; I try but can't hold back the tears. I brush them away and bend down to give Ann a kiss. "I've got to go out, get some supplies. Take Sarah and put her in our bedroom; there's no windows there."

"Jim, don't go. I'm afraid."

"We've got to get some stuff, batteries and bottled water..."

"Can't it wait?" she pleads.

"No, this thing is really bad. I don't know what's going to happen next..."

Grabbing my cell phone, I head out of our apartment building. We live in Oak Park, a suburb outside the city. We're two blocks from the shops on Lake Street and I walk there. Cars are speeding through the streets, people rushing about, disoriented looks on their faces. There's a crowd trying to get into the Walgreens's; I pass by it and go in the supermarket next door. I find the batteries but the shelves of bottled water are empty.

"Do you have any more?" I ask the young clerk.

"No, man. Sold out this morning."

"Getting more in?"

"Don't know. Say, you better get what you want fast. I heard the manager's gonna close the store soon. We all wanna get home."

I grab a cart, rush around the store and load it with everything I can think of. Just as I get to the checkout, the lights in the store go out. Several women scream; a few children whimper.

The auxiliary lights go on, sending eerie shadows along the stores' aisles. It's a cloudy day and in the supermarket there's not much light. The store manager is at the front of the registers. "Please, let's not panic," he yells at the crowd in the store.

Several people rush out of the building, leaving their groceries behind. I get in line and wait my turn to pay. It takes a long time, even with pocket calculators to help with the arithmetic. The manager has to take IOUs from a few people who had intended to pay with credit cards.

I leave the store with the bags and head home. The power failure must be pretty big because the stop lights are all blinking red or completely dark. Cars are racing now, people are running. I feel panic in the air.

I call Ann on my cell, but all I get is a fast busy. The cell towers are out? Too much cell phone traffic?

As soon as I get home, I see the power is out here too. The apartment is dark, the TV is dead silent.

"Ann?" I call out.

She comes out of the bedroom, carrying Sarah on one arm. She runs over to me. "Thank God you're back. The power went out and the baby's been crying."

"I'm sorry, hon. I just had to get this stuff. I tried calling but it didn't go through." I pick up the phone in the kitchen. It's dead. "Damn, it's out too."

Ann frowns. "I wanted to call mom, see how she's doing."

"We'll try later; I'm sure they'll have the lines up by then." I caress Ann's face and give Sarah a kiss on the forehead. The baby's sound asleep.

Suddenly, I hear a faint knock at the door. I look out the peephole and see old Mrs. Smithfield, our next door neighbor.

Opening the door, I see she's flustered, her face red. Her withered hands are shaking.

"Jim, my lights are out. I tried calling the police, but my phone's not working."

"It's all out. It's probably from the terrorist attack. Just try to stay calm and stay indoors."

She shuffles back to her apartment and I close the door and lock it.

It's 8 pm now and I push the battery powered radio away. I've been working on it all day, trying to get it to work. I put new batteries in it and took it apart, but I still can't get it to work. I thought about going out to buy another one, but I keep hearing police and fire sirens every few minutes. The power and the phones are still out.

It's dark outside now and from our 4th story apartment balcony I see fires and smoke in the distance. Ann went to bed an hour ago. Frustrated and afraid, I go lay down and try to sleep.

September 13, 2001

I'm startled awake by the radio blaring from the living room. I must have fixed it. Ann and Sarah are still asleep, so I slip quietly out of bed. Bright sunlight hits me as I go in the living room; it must be 8 or 9 am already. I flip on the lights and pick up the phone. Both still dead. But at least we have a radio now. I adjust the dial, until I get a news station. There's a lot of static in the background, but I can still hear the announcer.

"...the death toll from the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, the Sears Tower in Chicago and Los Angeles International Airport," he says, "is still not known; it's estimated to be in the tens of thousands. In Washington, several senators are calling for the enactment of martial law, while others are opposed, citing civil liberties issues. The President issued a statement this morning, saying they are reviewing the legal issues involved with the terrorist attacks. It's expected the White House will call for legal prosecution of the attackers, once found." The announcer stopped abruptly, and then started talking again, very fast. "And this just in, we have a report from CNN that a huge explosion has occurred in Atlanta. Eyewitness accounts say that a large mushroom cloud is rising from the downtown area. The blast from the explosion shattered windows as far away as ten miles from the city. As we get more information, we'll get it out..." The signal broke off suddenly, loud static replacing the announcer's voice.

Ann came into the living room, a worried look on her face. "What's going on? What was on the radio?"

I stare at her. Her normally beautiful face now seems tired and haggard. Should I tell her everything? I don't want to frighten her more, but she has to know. "There's been more terrorist attacks. LA Airport and downtown Atlanta were bombed also."

"Oh my God, Jim! What's going to happen to us?"

I get up and embrace her. "It's going to be okay," I lie. "We'll be fine. We just need to stay calm and try to sort this out."

I close my eyes and say a silent prayer.

September 20, 2001

Ann and I sit in the kitchen table while I fiddle with the radio. All I've gotten for the last day is static. I look out the apartment windows and see explosions, fires and smoke from around the city. The acrid smell from the smoke drifts in our open windows. Police sirens are constant, and we heard shooting last night from the building next door. Yesterday we saw a National Guard truck roll by our street, but they didn't stop. We barricaded our front door, afraid that looters or gangs may break in. The power and phones are still out; my cell phone is dead. We had filled up our bathtub with water days ago, but that's the last water we have; the faucets ran dry today. Luckily, we still have some food and batteries for flashlights.

September 21, 2001

I'm startled awake by loud pounding on our front door. It's the middle of the night and it's pitch black in the apartment. I grab the baseball bat by our bed and a flashlight and go to the door.

"Open the door!" a man's voice barks.

"What do you want?" I say, trying to sound tough.

"Open it, dammit, or we'll break it down..." The loud pounding continues, rattling the hinges loose.

"We don't want any trouble, but I've got a gun," I lie. My heart is pounding as I clutch the baseball bat.

I hear the muffled voices of several men, then feet plodding away from our door.

Ann's still in the bedroom; she and Sarah are both crying.

I hear the men beating on Mrs. Smithfield's door; suddenly, I hear a loud crack. Her door must have splintered. Then a woman's scream and the loud roar from several gun shots.

I try to remember if Mr. Smithfield had a gun in the house. He never talked about hunting, so... Still gripping the bat, I slump to the floor by our door and wait for the night to be over.

September 22, 2001

"We can't stay here anymore," I tell Ann.

"Where can we go? It's too dangerous out there..." she says, her voice quivering.

"We can't stay, we're not safe here...and we're running out of food and water."

"I don't want to go; we've got to keep Sarah safe..."

"Ann, don't you see? We almost got killed last night...we've got to get out of the city, go to the countryside...maybe things are better there..."

"No, Jim," she pleads.

"We'll go to your mother's farm in Wisconsin."

"How do we get there? We don't have a car and I'm sure the trains and buses aren't running now."

I had always commuted to work by train, so not having a car was never a problem for us before. We used to borrow Mrs. Smithfield's car when we needed one; she'd even let us keep a set of keys "for emergencies".

I think this situation qualifies, Mrs. S.

"We'll take Mrs. Smithfield's car...sorry to say, she won't need it anymore..."

Ann's face is contorted with fear. "Well, if you think it's best..."

We pack up as much of our stuff as we can, cramming our suitcases with clothing, food and supplies. I don't know when we'll be back.

We walk down to the building's underground parking, taking the stairs one nerve-wracking flight at a time. If there is someone waiting in ambush, I plan to do what I can to give Ann time to get away... but we see no one, and hear only raucous laughter and breaking glass muffled by distance and closed doors. In the garage, there's litter and trash everywhere, and the stench of garbage and urine is overpowering. Many of the newer cars in the parking garage have been broken into, but Mrs. Smithfield's old clunker, a '75 Impala, looks untouched. We pack up the car and head out to the street.

On the roads, there's not much traffic, but we see cars deserted along the way. The stoplights aren't working; the power outage seems to be everywhere. Cars are driving fast, ignoring the stop signs; slowing down could bring trouble. The people we see on the sidewalks are running; groups of dangerous looking men gather on the corners. Many of the stores are shuttered, even gas stations. Fires rage from several of the buildings we pass; smoke covers much of the sky. Police cars and fire trucks race by us, sirens blaring. It doesn't look like a suburb of Chicago -- it looks like a scene from a bad movie you wished would end. I clutch the steering wheel tightly, praying. As I drive north, Ann keeps her eyes closed as she rocks Sarah in her arms.

As soon as we get on the interstate, I see a roadblock. National Guard trucks are blocking the road, a checkpoint ahead. A long line of cars is in front of us, waiting to go through the barricades.

An hour later, we make it to the checkpoint, manned by soldiers with M-16s. An Army officer approaches our car.

"We're under martial law. What are you doing on this highway?" he asks, with one hand on the gun at his hip.

"We're going to a relative's house in Wisconsin."

He looks into the car and sees my wife and the baby. He seems to relax a bit. "Give me your driver's license."

I hand it to him and he looks it over. "Please get out of the car. We need to check it for bombs."

We get out and the soldiers search the car, opening the trunk and suitcases.

When they finish, the officer hands me back my license. "I'm sorry about all this. But the terrorist attacks have changed everything. We don't know who to trust anymore."

"I understand," I reply. "Any news on when the electricity is coming back on?"

He grimaces. "The terrorists blew up a lot of electric power stations across the country. Most of the major cities are still dark. The power companies are working on it, but who knows."

"Can we go now?"

"Sure. Just stay on the major roads as much as possible. The National Guard and the police are stretched pretty thin; it's not too safe on the side roads. There's a lot of looting going on right now."

I thank him and we drive on, going north on the interstate. We look back and see Chicago in the distance, plumes of smoke hovering over the city.

September 30, 2001

The sunlight streams into the room, waking me instantly. I look around, confused, until I remember: I'm at the farmhouse, Ann's mother's place. We've been here a week, and it still feels like a dream, a nightmare. The bed is empty; Ann and Sarah must be downstairs.

I walk down to the kitchen and see them there.

"Where's your mother?" I ask.

Ann frowns. "She's still in bed and won't get up. She's depressed about everything; the terrorist attacks, daddy dying last year, the farm..."

"It's been rough on her," I sigh. "Rough on all of us..."

"Jim, we've got to help her..."

"Sure, of course..."

"The farm workers left and they may not be back."

I stare at her and then look out the kitchen window. The rows of tall corn stretch for miles. "You think we should stay here and work the fields?"

Ann nods. "She needs us. And we're safe here."

Twenty-something miles from the nearest town. About seventy to Milwaukee. Not safe, but safer than we were.

I look out the window again. The sunlight is bright and the cloudless sky is a pure blue. It looks very peaceful here. "Maybe you're right." I walk over to her and hold her close. "Life will be different, but we have each other."


© 2009 Lee Gimenez

Bio: Lee Gimenez is a science fiction writer and a member of SFWA. His stories have been published in the following magazines: Nature; Cosmos; Afterburn SF; Bewildering Stories; Fifth Dimension; Concept Sci Fi; Escape Velocity; AlienSkin; Morpheus Tales; The Cynic; Abandoned Towers; Calliope; Arcane Twilight; Antipodean SF; New Voices in Fiction; Expressions; Skive Quarterly; Skiveflash; Green Wave; and, of course, Aphelion (most recently The Neighbors, April, 2009). Several of his stories are also available on Amazon.com. For additional information about Mr. Gimenez, please visit his website, Lee Gimenez.

E-mail: Lee Gimenez

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