Chapter 1

Nathan Foster sat quietly inside Chicago’s Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows, watching Marie Shaw sleep as sunlight began to lighten the room. It had only been a few hours since he had made his dangerous journey across the darkened city and found her hiding there.

Nathan had barricaded the door behind them and then they had talked for nearly an hour. Marie told him about the chaos that erupted in Chicago after the U.S. president’s announcement about travel restrictions due to the Black Flu, and Nathan shared how he had miraculously made his way from Utah to find her.

Marie had eventually put her head on his shoulder and drifted off into an exhausted slumber. Nathan had only slept for a couple of hours, though. Every creak or shout outside the building had put him on edge. His confrontation with some street thugs just before finding Marie had bothered him. He had shot one of them in the leg, and even though he doubted the gang could ever identify him, he dreaded going back out on the streets.

Now that the sun had risen, Nathan could clearly see Marie’s face for the first time in months. She was still beautiful, but she looked gaunt and pale, compared to the radiant, healthy girl he had last seen in Utah. Her current appearance was likely caused by her lack of food and sunlight for the past week, but she had hinted that her internship had been stressful and demanding, and he suspected that had taken a toll on her as well.

He hated to wake her, but they had agreed to leave the museum as soon as it was daylight. It would likely be the safest time to travel through the city, because all of the troublemakers would hopefully still be asleep after another night of mayhem.

Nathan put his hand on Marie’s shoulder and shook her gently. “Marie, it’s time for us to get going.”

She opened her eyes, sat up, then looked around in a panic before focusing on Nathan’s face. She reached out and touched his cheek.

“Oh, you’re really here,” she said. “It wasn’t a dream.”

Nathan smiled. “Yep, and we’re going to get home somehow.” 

“You look so worn out,” she said. “Did you get any sleep?”

“I dozed off for a couple of hours, but I’m anxious to get out of here.”

“Me too, “Marie said. “I’m starving.”

“The problem is I don’t know Chicago very well,” Nathan said. “As you slept I’ve been praying for a solution, but nothing has come to mind. Any ideas?”

Marie crinkled her brow. “I dreamed we should return to my apartment in the Bloomingdale’s Building. Do you think that’s our answer?”

Nathan was surprised at her response. “Last night you told me that you’d been warned to leave there immediately because your life was in danger.”

“I did get that prompting, but I think that time has passed,” she said. “As terrible as it sounds, I’m sure my co-workers have killed each other by now. Besides, I had a couple of boxes of pork and beans stashed under my bed that I doubt anyone found, even if they ransacked the place.”

“Pork and beans?”

She smiled sheepishly. “I know it’s stupid, but it’s always been my comfort food. So I bought a few cases when I first got here and ate a can every couple of days.”

“I’m hungry enough that it’s got my mouth watering already,” Nathan said. “That sounds good to me.”

They gathered up their meager belongings, and Nathan double-checked the area with his microchip scanner to see if anyone was nearby, but he didn’t detect anyone. They unblocked the doorway and Nathan peered outside across Navy Pier. He could see a few people at the far end of the pier looking across Lake Michigan, so they cautiously slipped out of the museum.

“I don’t think they saw us,” Marie said as she took Nathan’s hand and began a quick trot in the direction of the Bloomingdale’s Building. They had been right—the city was quiet, but there were a lot of disturbing scenes along the way. As they reached Michigan Avenue and looked at the long row of skyscrapers, they could see that most of the buildings had been damaged, and some were simply burned-out metal husks. Even more upsetting were the dozens of bodies along the sidewalk and in the streets. Some looked like they had either jumped from or been thrown out of the buildings that towered above them. 

“This is terrible,” Marie said, shielding her eyes and covering her nose and mouth to help avoid breathing the scent of death that surrounded them. Nathan put his arm around her shoulder.

“I just hope your building didn’t burn down,” he said.

Twenty minutes later they stood outside the Bloomingdale’s Building. The magnificent structure now stood dark and was a bit foreboding, but at least it was intact. They crossed through the building’s main entrance, and Marie looked baffled.

“What’s wrong?” Nathan asked.

She shook her head. “This is crazy. It’s hard to believe it was only a week ago I had to fight my way through a frenzied crowd to even get outside. Where do you think everyone went?”

“I’ll bet they stripped the stores and restaurants bare within a couple of days, so they’ve moved on to find food somewhere else. I’ll bet the suburbs are a madhouse right now. People are probably getting very hungry and desperate.”

Marie shuddered and took his hand. She led him to the far corner of the building where the staircase was located. 

“I really wish the elevator was working,” Marie said. “But now there’s only one way up.”

“What floor is your apartment on?” Nathan asked.

“The 26th,” she said.

Nathan’s eyes widened. “At least it isn’t at the top. Do you think you can make it?”

Marie’s strength was already ebbing. Her initial surge of adrenaline from being out on the city streets had worn off, and her pace had slowed considerably.

“I can do it,” she said. “I can taste those pork and beans already.”

She made a valiant effort, but by the 10th floor she could hardly lift her foot to the next stair. Nathan finally just scooped her into his arms and carried her upward.

After taking several breaks to rest, they finally staggered out of the stairwell onto the 26th floor. Marie slipped from Nathan’s arms and motioned toward her apartment. The door was open, and they could see into the front room. The couch had been flipped over and the TV was gone. 

As they walked carefully into the apartment they could see the kitchen was in disarray, but Marie’s bedroom looked okay.

“Check under the bed,” she told him. Nathan crouched down and saw a couple of cardboard boxes still hidden away.

“I think we’re in business,” he said as he pulled the boxes into the middle of the bedroom floor.

Marie gave a squeal of delight and pulled a can opener from a kitchen drawer. She opened a can, and basically drank half of it within five seconds.

“Hey, how about sharing?” he asked.

“Open one for yourself,” she said before putting the can to her mouth again. 

Nathan smiled and grabbed another can. Soon he was feasting as well. Their faces were covered with sauce, but they didn’t care.

“Oh, it’s so good,” Marie said as she sat on the edge of the bed and rubbed her stomach.

Nathan nodded as he finished off his can. “I’m just grateful your secret craving wasn’t prunes.”

She glanced at him and her eyes widened. “Wow, you’re quite a sight with those beans in your beard.”

Nathan rubbed his face and felt his whiskers. He hadn’t shaved since leaving Utah, but it hadn’t really crossed his mind that he was growing a beard. He stood up and walked to the bathroom, where he stared into the mirror.

“That’s a scary sight,” he said as Marie joined him. He brushed the beans away and instinctively turned on the bathroom faucet, but no water came out.

“It’s easy to forget how quickly things have changed,” he said. “It’s like the whole world has turned upside down.”

He went to the toilet and took the lid off the tank. “We’re in luck,” he said. “There are a couple of gallons of water in there. We’ll scoop it into another container. Just don’t flush it or we’ll lose it.”

Marie looked surprised. “You’re gonna drink that?”

“If we run out of bottled water,” he said. “It should still be fairly sanitary. I’ll have to be pretty desperate to drink what’s in the bowl itself, though.”

 Marie’s eyes suddenly welled up with tears. “I’m so sorry, Nathan. This is all my fault.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know what I’m talking about. We’re trapped here because of my own foolishness. I honestly thought it was impossible for your ‘doomsday scenario’ to take place this summer. When you and Dad would talk about it, I just laughed inside. My whole focus was on graduating in December and getting a great job, but that seems so meaningless now.”

Nathan looked away. He had vowed not to mention why they were trapped in Chicago. He was ready to just move forward. “It’s okay, Marie. Don’t beat yourself up about it.”

She wiped her eyes then looked at him pleadingly. “I do want you to know this experience has changed me.”

“What has? The internship?”

“Yes, but also the past few days hiding in the museum, expecting to die. I’ve done more praying in the past week than I have the past few years. My priorities are straightened out. I hope you can forgive me for how I’ve acted.”

“Certainly,” Nathan said. “I see your point of view. You were on the brink of a successful career. I wish it had worked out.”

She nodded, unsure how to respond. 

“One other thing,” he said hesitantly. “I enjoyed hugging and kissing you when we reunited last night, but I need to let you know I’ve been set apart again as a missionary, and so for now, I need to act like one.”

“I completely understand,” Marie said. Then she mischievously added, “Just keep that filthy beard. That will keep me away.”