“Why do I have to drive now?”
After a panicked pull over, Lucy was driving the bloated beige sedan as Claire sat in the front passenger seat, her right fist closed tightly.
“I’m trying to see if I can use Tom’s ring; I have to concentrate.”
“But we’re still miles away,” Melanie said from the backseat.
“If I concentrate hard enough, I should be able to get through… okay, I’m in the hospital.”
“I can’t tell who’s who, though… let me try a little harder.”
There was a short pause before the mother shot bolt upright in her chair, shocking Lucy and causing the car to swerve on the highway. Thinking fast, Lucy pulled out of the skid before the oncoming lanes could panic.
“Nice driving, Luce!” Melanie cheered from the back.
“Sorry,” Claire said, gasping for breath. She swallowed heavily and proclaimed:
“I found them.”
“You okay?” Lucy asked as they took a turn.
“Yeah, it’s just… I haven’t felt a punch like that in a while.”
“Yeah, imagine what it’s like being married to that,” Melanie remarked.
Claire and Lucy shared an uncomfortable look up front, but decided not to pursue it further.
“We won’t be able to get much closer,” Claire noted, “I’m sure the cops have the place locked down pretty soon. There! Up there, you can see the lights.”
The car slowed to a stop on a residential street.
“Whoa! That’s good!” Melanie called out as Lucy tried to parallel park.
“How do you park this boat?” Lucy grunted, turning around as far as she could to back in.
“Badly,” Claire shot back, “But Bob doesn’t want a smaller car.”
“Claire… are things all right there, with you two?”
“Are you gonna get a divorce?” Melanie asked.
“There’s still the man I love in there, Melanie. I’m not giving up just yet.”
“Just don’t let him walk all over you.”
They parked and got out of the car, walking the half block to the police barricade, which had naturally attracted a small crowd of ghouls.
“So how do we get in?” Lucy asked.
“Well, Lucy…” Clare turned to her daughter-in-law with a puckish smile that belied her years, “how’s your bubble doing?”
“Good. Melanie, you need to be our diversion. Get the attention of people so we can get close enough to jump the barricade.”
“I’m the diversion?!”
“We can’t have you doing much else, Prego. This is important: once we’re through you need to get back to the car in case we need to make a break for it.”
“I’m not happy I have to stay behind, y’know.”
Lucy had finally had enough as she turned to her sister in law.
“Melanie, can I ask you something? Do you realize what’s going on here? We’re about to head into a situation where we could DIE. Where the guys could DIE. I know you and Claire have had to deal with this before but, frankly, it scares the hell out of me. But I’m still going to do it, and do you know why? Because it’s the right thing to do. As much as I hate to admit it, I’d rather die and see everyone else safe than live out the rest of my life. We have a responsibility here, so quit acting like you’re the last picked for kickball or something!”
“You get used to this after a while, Lucy. The first few times I was like you, but then I had to own up to the reality of the situation and make plans for what happened if Tom didn’t come home. I got the good job, and I worked hard at it, because I knew there might not be anyone looking out for me. You may think I’m being coldhearted, but I’m just being realistic.”
“It’s not ‘realistic’ to divorce yourself from having feelings!” Lucy shot back, “It’s not realistic to just be aloof and out of the way; that’s not what people do! People can only get better if we work together, if we help each other… and yes, people are going to get hurt, but sometimes you have to be willing to get hurt if you want things to get better!”
They both turned to the matriarch, arms akimbo on her middle-aged frame.
“We have a job to do, and we’re all going to do it. Right, Melanie?”
“Good, now get over there and get hysterical. That’ll draw those meathead cops like flies on shit. Lucy, come with me.”
Melanie headed over to the fracas and immediately did well on her word, shouting and working up a few tears about the father of her unborn baby.
“If I didn’t know any better, I’d think she was legit,” Claire noted with a smile, “she shoulda gone to Broadway, eh?”
“I just can’t understand it,” Lucy shook her head, “I mean, here I am, one stiff breeze away from completely falling apart.”
“You get used to it. We all have our ways of dealing with it.”
“What if I don’t want to, Claire?”
“Well then, you shouldn’t have married a Graf boy, because I’ll tell you this… men in this family aren’t happy unless their fighting something, and if it isn’t some maniac with a bomb strapped to his chest it’ll be the next best thing: their boss, their local representative, the cop who gave ’em a ticket… if they couldn’t fight, they’d up and die… and that’s why we love ’em.”
“Even though they’re fuckin’ nuts?”
Lucy had never said that word before, but it was a night for new experiences.
“Damn right. Now come on, let’s go rescue those idiots.”
Lucy held her mother in law around the waist, closed her eyes, and tried to get that rush again.
The bubble formed perfectly, and the two of them pushed off in the vacuum to launch over the barricade, over the fences, and land inside the parking lot.
“That went surprisingly well!” Lucy remarked as the bubble rolled to a halt outside the front door.
“Hey now,” Claire turned to her, “who’s to say it’s not surprising? You got a good head on your shoulders, Lucy. Don’t let anyone make you feel any different.”
As the child of Pennsylvania Quakers, Lucy wasn’t used to such encouragement. She felt a nervous smile creep across her lips, even though her limbs were trembling.
“Thanks. So, what now?”
“Let me try something.”
Claire threw out her hands at the front hospital doors and, despite the powerful emergency locks, the doors buckled and fell open.
“Ha!” Claire tossed her silver hair triumphantly, “Mama’s still got it where it counts. Now, keep close to me, Lucy, and get that shield ready. I don’t want to distract myself too much scanning the hospital for the boys; I’m trying, but I can’t pinpoint them.”
“Try seeing if anyone is thinking about me. Use my name. It’s not one you hear much anymore.”
Claire closed her eyes for a moment as Lucy threw up a shield.
“Got ’em,” her eyes shot back open, “that way.”
The two headed off cautiously down the hallway, rings at the ready. The occasional emergency light flickered and barely lit the hallways. Here and there, they came across someone in a bed, sustained on emergency power, and as they got closer to the location they noticed more and more evidence that Dan had been using his super speed to scan the hallways.
“Don’t go there, Lucy, not yet. Keep thinking about what’s ahead.”
There was a sudden gust of wind in the sterile environment, and Lucy shielded them both from a rain of medical charts and sample cups. They didn’t have time to wonder about the contents of the cups as Dan stood in front of them, bewildered in the half light. He’d taken the precaution of putting a surgical mask over his face and a bandana on his head.
“This place isn’t safe, ladies, I’ve been telling everybody to pick a room… Mom?!”
“How many times did I tell you not to run in the halls, son? Now come here…”
She grabbed him by his collar and brought him down to his knees, which made it possible for her to look the tall man in the eye.
“What are you idiots doing here without your rings? Tell me or I’ll find out myself!”
She brandished Tom’s ring in front of his face, and Dan took time out from laughing at his mother’s antics to reply.
“Oh, hey! That must be what I felt a few minutes ago… but that means she probably felt it, too, and in her state…”
“She?” Lucy asked, “do you mean Gina?”
“…yeah,” Dan replied finally.
“Where’s Ben and Tom?”
“Down the hall a bit. We… I’ll explain later. Let’s go.”
A few moments later, they were all met. Tom had gotten back into bed and was looking pale. Lucy and Ben rushed at each other, embracing.
“God, Luce… I’m so sorry.”
“I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
“I feel terrible that–”
“Ben! Just… drop it for now, okay? You’ll owe me later. For now, here’s your ring.”
Ben felt complete again as the titanium slid on his finger.
“Did it work for you?”
“Yes, it did… but I don’t want it, ever again.”
“I’m sorry, Luce…”
“I want this.”
She grabbed him by his shaggy mane and nearly bent him over backwards with a massive kiss. Once it was over, Ben, now upright again, was without words for a while.
“Jesus, Tom,” Claire remarked, “what did you do to yourself?”
“It was an accident,” Tom lied, “We’ll talk about it later.”
I’ve heard that already, Lucy thought to herself.
Yeah, there’s an echo in here, came Claire’s voice in her head. Lucy jumped a little, but Claire gave her a wink and continued.
“Dan, have you found any casualties?”
“Nothing yet… thank God.”
“Why do you think she’s here?”
“I’d assume a score. Max-Atom’s pills will mess you up something fierce.”
“And you three just happened to…”
“Someone up there hates us,” Ben offered.
“Dan, do you know where Gina is?” Tom asked. Dan, obviously uncomfortable, shook his head.
“Nothing yet. Mom, could you find her?”
“I’ll try. Tom, do you want your ring back?”
“Not in this state. I’m of no use.”
“Oh, horseshit. Stop brooding. Now…”
She closed her eyes and her fist again for a few moments, then re-opened.
“Downstairs. Looks like the morgue. I’m getting a mind full of chaos.”
“A morgue, great,” Ben rolled his eyes, “shall we, Dan?”
“Whoa, whoa, hold on!” Claire’s voice cut through, “She knows I can find her, she is NOT HAPPY… her mind’s focusing, she’s looking to escape!”
And that was all that was said before Dan was gone in a gust so big it took Lucy and Ben both to keep Tom’s hospital bed from falling over.
“Dammit, Dan! Luce, I gotta go.”
“I know. You just get back to me, all right?”
Ben gave her a little kiss and a smile.
He formed a bubble and pushed off from a nearby wall, rolling down the hallway at a decent speed. Lucy and Claire turned their attention back to Tom, who was looking pale.
“Tom, what’s wrong?”
“Tom, say something!”
Claire dug out the medical chart that had been blown across the room and found the name of the doctor. She scanned the hospital for it, but it came up surprisingly blank. When she attempted to find a name tag, she found a pool of blood. Dan was wrong; there had been casualties.
She moved down the list to the admitting nurse, where she found a mind.
This is going to sound really weird, but I can read your thoughts, miss.
“Doesn’t sound all that weird tonight,” the sarcastic tone of the short blonde nurse came back, “It’s a fuckin’ freak convention in here.”
My son was admitted for abdominal pain. Can you get him any medication, please?
“How do I know you’re not the crazy bitch who just killed Dr. Bond for pills?!”
Did she seem like the polite type?
“Good point. I’ll be up in a second. Nothing more I can do for Dr. Bond down here…”
“No problem, crazy-voice-in-my-head. I just hope there’s actually someone there when I get there.”
Elsewhere, in the bowels of the hospital, Dan had found Gina. By continuing to tax Max-Atom’s power pills, her brain had begun to deteriorate even more, making her powers more potent, but also more erratic. Confused after being denied access to secure drug storage and having a moment of lucidity where she regretted killing the doctor, she found herself cornered in the morgue by her husband.
“SHUT UP!” she shrieked in reply, “I’m not Gina! I am Madame Carnage, and I am here to make blood rain from the sky!”
“Gina, stop!” Dan stepped forward, tearing the mask off his face, “Gina, you’re not well. Please, let me help you…”
“Oh, that’s what it’s always been, hasn’t it?” her voice ladled on sarcasm, “I always needed help from you. I’m so sorry I couldn’t pass the mustard with your wonderful family, I’m sorry I–”
“Actually,” a voice rang out in the partial darkness, “I believe the phrase you’re looking for is either ‘cut the mustard’ or ‘pass muster,’ but I suppose it can be forgiven, given the circumstances.
“Smug prick!” Gina hurled a table into the darkness, and was rewarded when the faint light of green bent the table around Ben’s proximity.
“Dan, get her!”
“Ben, just… stay back, ok?”
“Dan! Don’t make me–”
In a blur, Dan had whipped over and removed Ben’s ring at super speed.
“Gina, please… we don’t want to hurt you. We need to get you out of here, we need to get you somewhere where… we can find out what’s wrong, where we can make you better.”
“I DON’T WANT TO BE BETTER!” she screamed back, “I ALREADY AM BETTER THAN YOU!”
She launched herself at Dan who, without his armor, had to do his best to dodge her attacks.
“STOP TRYING TO FIX ME!” she bellowed “I AM STRONGER, FASTER, MORE POWERFUL… I AM PERFECTION!”
“No,” he said simply, and caught her hand, taking a moment to glance at the finger she’d earlier self-amputated. The wound looked like it had not healed properly, and was infected. She swung her other arm at him, but he caught that, too, neatly putting a firm amount of pressure on either of her feet with his own to lock her in place. She thrashed around and bit at him, trying to use her head as a weapon, but he kept her just out of reach.
“STOP! Stop! Just… just let me be strong… I’m strong… I’m…”
Her head hung low, with matted brown hair hanging in clumps. When she raised her head again, she was Gina once more, her eyes soft and flighty, her lip trembling.
“Dan? It hurts so much… please give me something to help the pain… I’m scared, Dan…please…”
“Gina, it will be all right.”
He leaned in and kissed her trembling lips, but recoiled quickly. He tasted blood, and he knew it wasn’t hers. This rejection saw Gina fade from her eyes and, with surprising strength, she broke free of Dan’s grip.
“YOU RUINED IT!!!”
Her scream was powerful enough to shatter all of the nearby windows and glass panels. With that, she scampered through a broken window, heedless of the broken glass, and was gone into the night. Ben ran over to check on his brother.
“You all right?”
“I’ll be fine. Probably bruised a rib, though… damn.”
“She’s gone, Dan.”
“I know! I just…”
“It’s OK. Let’s just…”
The thought of everything that had happened that night swam through his head. Ben panicked.
“Let’s just get out of here.”
The two made their way back to Tom’s room, where the short blonde nurse was just finishing giving him some medication.
“That oughtta help you sleep tonight. Give it a few days, nothing strenuous, you should be fine. As soon as you can get home, get some rest… I think I can say that for all of us.”
Ben appeared in the doorway, supporting Dan.
“She’s gone… for now,” Ben offered weakly.
“Aw, hell!” the nurse swore, “did that bitch get to you, too?”
“Only a little,” Ben said quickly, “he’ll be all right.”
“Aw, are you sure? I wouldn’t mind giving him a spongebath or two.”
Despite it all, Dan actually blushed a little bit.
“Damn, you’re cute,” she replied, “you sure you don’t need anything?”
“I had worse when I played football.”
“Okay, champ. Well,” she turned to the family, “this has been a crazy damn night, and if I ever see any of you again it’ll probably be too soon. Me, I’m probably going to drown my brain in a bottle or two of Redd’s and pretend like this never happened. I suggest you all do the same.”
She walked off to take care of other patients. Tom was already looking better, and he asked for his ring back.
“No one tell Mel we’re supposed to go home and drink, she’ll feel left out,” he attempted a bit of humor, “I suppose she’s waiting for us back home?”
“Um, no…” Claire replied, “she was our diversion to get into the hospital. She’s waiting in the car over on Dayton.”
“She’s out there?!” Tom’s face was instantly a mask of horror, “And Gina’s out there, too?!”
“Well, yeah, but–”
Ben didn’t get a chance to finish his sentence, and they were all suddenly back in Tom’s living room, miles away. Ben, Lucy, Claire, Dan, Tom, and Melanie, all standing between the sofa and television, like nothing had happened.
“What the hell?!” Melanie shouted, surprised to be suddenly standing.
“Jesus Christ, Tom…” even Dan was flabbergasted, “since when could you do THAT?”
“Since right now,” Tom winced, pale and sweating. Dan and Ben were supporting him, now, without their even knowing it.
“But hey!” Claire interjected, “what happened to my…?”
She glanced out the window to see the beige Impala in the driveway, where it had been before.
“It’s all done. We’re safe. I even wiped the hospital records and the nurse’s memory.”
There was a bit of a gasp from Dan, but he nodded slightly and accepted it.
“We’ll have to put all our strength into finding out where Gina will strike… again…”
and it was then, finally, that the combination of pain of overexertion caused him to pass out. As they laid him down on the couch, Claire suggested the ladies help her make coffee and tea. Seizing the opportunity, but not before checking to make sure Tom really was out for the count, Dan turned and imparted darkly to Ben:
“I’ve never seen him do something like that, ever. I didn’t even know he could. I… I just don’t know what’s going on anymore.”