“Are you sure they’ll be all right?” Lucy wondered after the boys hadn’t returned.
“I trust Tom won’t do anything stupid,” Melanie replied, looking down a little glumly at her chamomile tea, “besides, it’s nice to have those guys out of our hair for five minutes, isn’t it?”
“I suppose so.”
“You two are lucky,” Clare said with a sigh, refilling Lucy’s wine glass, “when you’re on the farm, you gotta get used to being with that person twenty-four-seven, and I mean all the time. Especially with us, sometimes there wasn’t any help, and it was just me, Bob, and the cows… and sometimes the cows were better company.”
The two daughters-in-law replied at once, leading to an awkward jumble.
“I couldn’t deal with having Tom around that much!”
“I really wouldn’t mind being with Ben more.”
They stopped in the pall that fell afterward and exchanged looks. Lucy seemed embarrassed, while Melanie seems almost scandalized. She took the opportunity in the silence to plead her case.
“It’s like, we can’t be women like we used to be. I mean, look at me. I don’t think it’s wrong for me to say that I’m successful, and I like being successful… so should I feel bad just because I’m not a housewife for my man?”
“Of course not, Melanie,” Clare refilled her own wine, “but that doesn’t mean everyone wants that sort of life. I never thought I’d go from burning bras to running after heifers, so I’m all over the board on this. Lucy…”
Clare smiled at her youngest daughter-in law.
“Why don’t you tell us what you think?”
“I wish I didn’t have to work as much as I do,” the wine seemed to be loosening Lucy’s tongue, “honestly, all I’d ever want to do is be at home, raise kids… I know it sounds silly, but I grew up in the city, and we never really had a garden. I’ve always wanted to know how you can things… y’know, like pickles and beans and stuff.”
Melanie tried to hide her bemusement in her teacup.
“I know! I know it’s stupid,” Lucy shrunk down in her chair, “but it makes me feel like I’m helping people when I bring in cookies to work, or when I make Ben his favorite dinner… he’s been under so much stress lately, I’m just trying to keep him happy…”
“That’s not your job, you know.”
Melanie set down her cup and fixed a gaze on her sister-in-law. Lucy found herself firing back.
“I was always taught that marriage is a partnership.”
“Partnership only goes so far. There are things Tom knows I won’t do for him and he’s accepted it.”
“I’m sorry…” Lucy said finally, “but that’s terrible.”
This time, the silence was outright hostile. Lucy took another swig of wine and continued.
“There comes a time when you have to go outside your comfort zone, do things you wouldn’t want to do, or promised yourself you wouldn’t do, because you care for that person. Do you think I like that Ben spends his evenings out running around with Dan? Of course not, but I know if he didn’t…”
“And when does that stop becoming your problem?” Melanie fired back.
“Never! Because that’s what love is! It’s not just a contract or an agreement, it’s not just a situation where you look at what you can get out of it!”
“You’re so naïve.”
“You know what?” Lucy slammed down her second glass of wine, already emptied, which was about 150% more than she has in a typical sitting, “I’d rather be naïve. So what if we’re poor. So what if we don’t have a big, fancy house. I’d rather still believe in the good in people.”
“Oh, for… can we just stop talking about this, please? For the first time in weeks I’ve got some time to myself! Do we really have to talk about the men when they’re not even here?”
“I don’t suppose we have to,” Lucy cracked a wicked smile, “I could ask you about the ethics charges my boss is filing against your boss.”
Melanie again made faces into her tea, while Clare sighed and tried to diffuse the situation.
“Come on, Mel,” Lucy prodded, “I’d love to hear what the company has been circulating around to justify intimidation of workers and retaliatory firing of anyone who even breathes the word ‘union,’ to say nothing of the wage theft charges–”
“I think it’s about time for Jeopardy,” she muttered, turning on a small, flatscreen television that was built under a kitchen cabinet. Almost immediately, the room was bathed in desperate sounding music and blood red graphics as a man with a receding hairline tried his best to sound sincere.
“…has been reported at Bryn Mawr Hospital. Reports coming from cell phones of people trapped inside the hospital say a lone woman calling herself ‘Madame Carnage’ has sealed the building and disabled all of the emergency exits, and plans to start killing. According to eyewitness accounts she is calling out Nevermind and the Blue Traveller, former costumed heroes who have yet to report to the scene, along with a third unnamed man who is said to be their brother. Nevermind and the Blue Traveller, you may remember, were noted for their illegally heroic deeds in the mid to late 90s–”
Claire turned off the television with a jolt. All three of them stared at each other for a moment, and then there was a flurry of action: coats came on, shoes were hastily forced into, and most of the second bottle of wine was left, uncorked, on the kitchen table.
“Damn fools,” Claire hissed, “probably snuck off and thought we wouldn’t notice!”
She walked briskly over to the stairs and shouted up.
There was no answer. She shouted again.
“We’re going out! There’s pot pies in the freezer!”
Again, no answer. Claire took this as usual and ushered them out the door.
On their way out to the door, Lucy seemed concerned.
“Why was he sleeping upstairs, anyway? Is he okay?”
“It’s a long story,” Claire shot back darkly, “and we don’t have time, let’s go.”
They both turned to see Melanie looking in shock and horror at her own dining room table, where Ben and Tom’s rings sat, discarded.
“Holy shit,” Melanie hissed.
“Why on Earth…” Lucy walked over to examine them, “why would they… Claire?”
“I have no damned idea,” Claire shook her silver head, “but they’ll sure need them where we’re going. Grab ’em and let’s go.”
Melanie again halted proceedings.
“They said the hospital was closed, didn’t they? On the news? What if we have to use the rings to get in?”
Claire pursed her lips and nodded.
“Good idea. I’ll take Tom’s. Lucy, take Ben’s.”
“How come I don’t get one?”
“Aren’t you pregnant?!”
“Yeah…” Melanie muttered. The three of them headed out and piled into a beige sedan belonging to the matriarch. As they got on their way, Lucy abruptly turned to Claire.
“How did you know I could use Ben’s ring?”
“Ben’s ring,” Lucy continued, “it’s not a super-ring-thingy… it’s hooked up to a transmitter. How did you know…?”
“How did I know he convinced you to get one? Because my baby boy is a worrywart, and I know he probably planned for something like this.”
“At the very least,” Claire focused on the road and felt a shade drawn over her shoulders, “I know he would have wanted you to be protected if he ever got killed.”
“It always amazes me… no,” Lucy shook her head and found herself smiling despite it all, “no, it confuses me all to hell… how he can be so cynical like that one minute, and the next he’s, well…”
“Naïve?” Melanie offered from the back seat.
“Yeah, that…” Lucy shrunk back down in her chair. Claire felt her shade lift a little as she tried to change the subject.
“You know how to use that thing?” she asked, pointing to the ring that usually sat on Ben’s corpulent hand, and now almost fit on Lucy’s thumb.
“I was told it takes concentration, hard thought; the harder the thought, the harder the shell. Ben said, well…”
“Well, what?” Melanie asked from the backseat.
“Well, he said he usually thinks of two things to get it going: how much he loves me, or…”
Claire could see Lucy’s cheeks turning red, and Melanie leaned forward as much as she could to get a look.
“Or what?” Melanie grinned.
“Or the last time we had sex.”
They all shared a small chuckle, but inside each of their minds was the worry of what lay before them. Meanwhile, inside the hospital, the men were planning the situation.
“Well, by now the news is probably all over this, which mean our wives…” he glanced at Dan, “know about what’s going on. If I know Mom…”
“She ran out the door with Melanie and Lucy in tow,” Dan said with a smirk.
“I just hope Lucy found my ring. She can use it, if she has to.”
“But I thought the ring…” Dan’s voice trailed off as he put it together.
“Little brother, you’re kinda fucked up.”
“Don’t remind me.”
“Well, that’s all well and good for now,” Tom grunted from his bed, “but we have a maniac to find.”
He hopped down from the bed in the partial darkness and winced a little. Dan went to help him up, and Ben was afraid to touch him. He threw Dan’s arm off with a snarl and stood up straight, obviously fighting the pain.
“Let’s each take a hallway. Ask the people if they’ve seen her. They’ll figure out soon enough we’re the ones she’s looking for, so if they’ve seen her, they’ll want to give you up. Once you’re sure the floor is clean, go up to the next one.”
“Um, I don’t want to interrupt, but…”
Tom threw a glare at his youngest brother, but Ben swallowed his fear and continued.
“Dan’s still got his run. Super speed, right?”
“Fast enough, yeah. It won’t be pretty, though… physics.”
There was a pregnant, uncomfortable pause as they waited for Tom to give the order, in name only.
“Do it. Just don’t be seen.”
Clutching his fist tight, Dan sped off, sending papers, clipboards, and other medical equipment scattering through the hall. Ben turned back to his oldest brother.
“You should probably get back on the bed…”
“Not while she’s still around,” he shot back, “I can’t defend myself lying down.”
“Tom, I can…” his voice trailed off. He could feel the unpleasantness radiating off his older brother. They sat there for a moment in silence, before Ben felt a familiar sort of prickling feeling going up his spine. He glanced over at Tom, whose expression was not one of familiarity.
“Did you just feel something?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Ben agreed, “it felt like…”
“Is that what it feels like when I scan someone?” Tom asked.
“I’ll have to fix that. Too obvious.”
“Tom, does this mean the ladies are here?”
“It means their close, probably. Depending on who’s using the ring. Mel or your wife might be able to activate it a low-level sweep close to the hospital. If Mom was using it… she designed the ring, she knows how it works, and she might be able to pinpoint our location with a deeper search–”
Another wave went through both of their minds, but this one was more akin to a two-by-four upside the head. When it passed, Ben and Tom heard the faint moaning of hospital patients who had experienced it as well. They looked at each other and spoke in unison.
“Are you sure they’ll be all right?” Lucy wondered after the boys hadn’t returned.