Chapter 1 – Crimson Snow, Hard Frost
No, that's not the beginning of a simple love-story between a rosy cheeked girl and a snowflake-dappled boy; it's simply an observation; one made countless times at the beginning of all this, now never mentioned, because it's a given. In fact, the lack of snow would be most concerning; it always snows in Gotham these days. Although, when your days are numbered, it's no surprise that there's a frozen atmosphere to the city.
The things I thought I knew for certain in the first few days, weeks, are no longer certain to me. I thought my parents were still alive; and although they are still breathing, my mother barely moves. She simply huddles by her bedroom window, watching the slowly falling snowflakes. My Dad moves all right; but only when to change one bottle of whisky for another. If there is no whisky left, I am to go out and get some. If I don't go out and get some, I pay the price.
Another thing I thought I knew for certain: we are going to die. That is the only thing that is still certain. The only constant we people of Gotham – those of us who are left that is, and haven't already been killed, committed suicide, or exiled – have left to cling to. The fact that one day, this will all be over. I don't know when it is. If we were told, I either don't remember, or never had the date engraved onto my mind at all. I would ask, but nobody wants to be reminded. Even if it is the only sense of continuity we have, we won't want to know when it is coming. One day we will simply be. And then we will no longer be. That is the end of it. We won't even be aware of the blackness. Or the fallout. Or the ashes. But I don't care. I am looking forward to simply no longer being. We all are, as much as we dread it.
It's been five and a half weeks since Bane took over Gotham, isolated us from the world outside. I've been counting; a little talleychart beneath a loose floorboard in the kitchen. At first, people muttered whisperings of hope in my ear. Of him. That he was coming to save us. Gleeful, relieved hugs, spreading like wildfire. But as the days passed, and the frigid loneliness spread, the warmth dwindled. Slowly at first. Flickering uncertainly like a candle. Until one day, it just went out. I think that was the day the snow started falling. The day my Mother went away. The day my Dad reached for the first bottle of whiskey. Those snowflakes. A reminder to all of us that we were alone. Even Bane didn't say that. He didn't have to. It's what we were all thinking. Slowly, people crept out of their houses. Out of the unspoken lines that keep our society functioning well. Weapons began to appear in broad daylight. Screams of pistols shattering the atmosphere. The first few days were hell. Sitting shivering in darkness, too afraid to turn on a light in case it attracted the wrong sort of attention. I wasn't the only one. Once every few hours, I would press my face up against the icy glass of the windowpane. If I looked hard enough at the neighbours' houses, also engraved in blackness, I could just make out the glistening eyes of the now fearful people I once used to know, staring back at me. Our façades likely to be identical if our gazes matched. Lips most probably pressed together to stop them from trembling, as if even that would make noise. Once, I heard somebody fumble with the catch on the front door, far away on the other side of the house. The noise echoed through the empty rooms. It would have been a blessing if whoever that was had broken in, I sometimes think to myself. Ended it quickly. Instead of waiting to die. The catch held fast, though, and he gave up. I lay on the floor and sobbed for the whole night, trying desperately to keep the noises locked away. It didn't work. It didn't change anything.
Things slowly began to change. We heard whisperings that in the far East of the town, individuals were starting to claim what they lovingly dubbed as 'districts'. Being deep in the West, I didn't think much of it. Yet the craze began to grow steadily like the plague. It was all over the news bulletins on televison. Bane encouraged it; 'the people of Gotham were finally taking a stand', he said, lovingly, into the camera. I stared hard at the cold, dark eyes of a man who had ended everything. Was I angry at him? No, I realised. No I wasn't. In times of darkness, there is only opportunity. Bane's eyes held all of that.
I suppose I have an identity. Five and a half weeks ago I had a name, but it's irrelevant. Most people just call me Acres after Gotham Acres, my district. I'm eighteen years old; it was my birthday two days ago. I can't think of anything else that matters in context. I tried writing my story down once. A diary would be helpful I suppose. Something they'll dig out of the ashes one day when they're sent to look for the survivors they won't find. Then they'll know what we endured. What we relished in, more likely. I have power here. I'm happy – as happy as one can be in hell on Earth. And that's all I need. It doesn't matter, anyway.
Of course, there was dispute as to who should run the district. Nobody in their right minds would want an eighteen year old girl to – at least, I didn't think so, anyway. There was one man who I thought was guaranteed to win; Giles, his name was. Thirty eight years old. Balding, greying, yet able to grow a beard. I don't know if that's relevant, but he didn't look trustworthy. He got into a fight down an alleyway one night. Exiled. Never seen again. And so they gave the chance to me. I'm pretty sure I didn't look like I could be trusted, with my weird muddled-up coloured eyes or my dark hair colour and my impish-features but I didn't really care. Being the leader of a district gave me a sense of purpose. Like I could achieve something in the final few moments while I was alive. Like maybe I could feel like I was living for once. And so it started.
I don't know what the date is. I don't really care anymore. All I know is that it is snowing – that is simply an observation, nothing more. I spend most of my days wandering round the streets of Gotham Acres. I don't dare stray beyond the boundaries of my district. It's not the done thing anymore – each zone has internalised itself. A city within a city. People within a people. I've learned some fighting skills – I'm not good, but I'm average, and that's all I need. Enough to stop people stealing and enough to make peace. Enough to snap someone's neck if I need to. I'm better with my tongue to be honest. And my mischievous looks make me pretty good with reasoning with the men. It's not something I'm proud of. But it has to be done, and therefore it's a sacrifice I'll make. A sacrifice for the people of Gotham. Who would have thought.
So it was snowing. A hard frost still remained underfoot, although it was slowly melting. Proof time was ticking. I bet by the time it had melted completely Bane would have melted it for Mother Nature, singed it away with ashes and toxic waste. A dense grey cloud loomed moodily overhead. The building windows were vacant, like the empty eyes I stared into back at home. A lot of people were dead. That was also nothing but an observation. I kicked a piece of frozen stone out of the way; it rattled along the street, echoes bouncing almost eerily between the buildings. It was four thirty two in the morning.
I reached a crossroads in the street. Looked left and right. Every single street I came to looked identical. Some pedantic old fool had even gone around and smashed the same windows – third on the right from where I was standing; twelfth on the left, too. I sighed, allowing my breath to condense, filter out in front of me like some kind of ghostly haze. Was I lonely? It was hard to tell. It wasn't exactly like I'd have friends out here, in this terrible place, so I supposed not. Was I happy? Yes, I decided. If you can't be happy in the here and now, then you'll waste your life, and more than ever, I'd come to appreciate stuff like that. Trying to paint a fresh smile on my face I walked on. The moment my foot came in contact with the ground, it happened. It was enough to send shivers scurrying through my skin like spooked horses.
The wailing expanded through the streets, ricochetting off the sides of the vacant buildings. I froze, as frigid as the snowflakes around me, cocking my head like a horse hearing a hunting cry. Where was it coming from? I revolved in circles, unable to retrieve the direction of the source thanks to the refraction of sound. Strange liquid fire began to filter into my head, grasping possessively at my temples. I could feel my breath beginning to catch in my throat. No, I mustn't panic. I mustn't. Trying my hardest to steady myself, I closed my eyes. Focused. In. Out. In. Out. To the right. I didn't waste any time; bolted in that direction, legs working, arms pumping.
I followed the sound for the next thirty seconds, skidding round corners and shooting down alleyways. There was one terrifying moment when I came to a dead end at the end of one street, but I pulled myself over the fence, onwards. The wailing grew ever so slightly louder with every moment that thrummed by, fuelled by the same adrenaline that coarsed through my veins, burning like wildfire. Finally I turned a corner and it was no longer a strange distorted echo, but a real sound. From behind the bin. I fingered the knife in the belt of my leggings. Looked around me. Found a small hunk of metal pipe lying discarded on a trash heap a few feet away. Gripped it tightly in one sweaty hand. Took a few steps forward. The source of the sound seemed to be hiding behind the nearby skip. Feeling the adrenaline peak, I took a few quick steps round the side. Prepared myself. Instead what I saw sent the metal rod clattering to the floor.
"Please don't hurt me!" A young boy screeched at the top of his voice, fresh tears spurting down his features. I crouched next to him, making hurried shh-ing noises. His cries quietened into sobs. I looked uselessly at him. He must have only been about ten years old, the ash-blonde hair paled slightly by the presence of snowflakes cut neatly into that typical young-boy look. Having only had an older brother, who had moved away a long time ago, I didn't really know how to deal with a kid. I touched his shoulder instead. He relaxed slightly.
"What's your name?" I whispered to him. He swallowed hard.
"L-Loftus," he said, voice trembling slightly.
"Right. My name is Acres-" I began, but just as I mentioned my name another cry escaped the boy. He shunted himself so far away from me, against the wall, that his head knocked hard back against it. The sound was like a gunshot. Startled the both of us.
"A-A-Are you going to kill me?" he said, after a few moments of unsettled silence. I frowned.
"Of course not," I said, "why on earth would I do that?"
"That's what all the other district leaders tried to do. They chased me and my parents through the streets. Wanted our blood. Crimson on the snow," his voice quietened. The dread began to filter into my bones before my brain had fully realised the inevitable.
"And where are your parents now?" I said faintly.
With one trembling finger, Loftus gestured around the corner. I turned slowly. Took a few steps forward. Of course, I saw the signs long before I saw the bodies. Crimson on the snow. I stood there for a few moments, drinking in the nightmarish scene before me. Then I bent over and half-vomited, half screamed, salt and terror and bile all mingling with each other to taint the hard frost beneath my feet. Oh Gotham.