The thin cotton sleeve offered absolutely no protection against the boney teeth now digging into the vulnerable flesh of Tabitha's right bicep. Agony instantly bloomed through the entire limb, and a shrill scream of terror burst from her lungs as she shoved at the hot, wet, spongy face of her attacker. Struggling and bucking to pull free only caused the jaws to bite down harder. Every hard breath through her nostrils stung with sharp alcoholic fumes and something in her attacker's constantly drooling mouth further tormented the bite with a chemical burn.
The tearing of clothing and flesh was audible as Tabitha finally yanked free, before shoving the heavy wet body away, stumbled backward, lost her footing and fell on her tailbone. Despite the sharp pain surging up her spine from the impact, she mostly ignored the sensation in favor of clutching the bloody plug torn from her bicep, while scooting back and staring wide-eyed at her attacker.
It stood there before her with a noticeable sway in its posture. It's shape resembled a human's in body and limb, but the hideous appearance was an impossibility of dripping, translucent skin revealing twitching nerves and swollen organs only partially obscured by clear liquid diluted with dark, organic sediment. Hungrily and awkwardly chewing what was bitten out of Tabitha, It lowered it's face to gaze down upon her with a pair of wide milky eyes, and to her growing horror she was able to nauseously witness the mangled pulp of cotton and flesh sliding uncomfortably down the thing's throat as a grotesque lump.
Reaching both soggy hands out towards Tabitha, It slowly opened its jaws until they yawned wide to unnatural proportions, causing the skin to stretch taut over its face, as it unleashed a long, gurgling howl that boiled forth from the submerged depths of it's lungs. Those internal workings began twitching and shuddering with a sort of perverse anticipation, and each awkward step taken caused the murky liquid within to audibly slosh.
An overwhelming terror blotted out every thought until only the instinct of flight remained. Tabitha was up and running in the opposite direction before ever making a conscious decision to flee. She screamed upon suddenly colliding hard into a second, but familiar hot, wet body, whereupon it instantly began grappling against her attempts to escape. Even as Tabitha screamed, clawed and struck at her attacker, she was violently seized by the hair and hood of her sweater, then roughly dragged forward until being forced to brace herself by shoving both hands into its chest, stopping her face only mere inches away from its open mouth.
Instead of trying to bite Tabitha this second thing's grip tightened as it began a series of heavy, vile heaves indicating it was preparing to vomit. Just as she abruptly ducked to pull away, inadvertently tearing some of her hair out and slipping from of the hoodie, a scalding, viscous stream came spewing forth.
Her first attacker, that was approaching to grab Tabitha from behind, was instead sprayed directly in the face, causing it to reel backward with a shrieking howl. As it stumbled about grabbing futilely at its head, its eyes sizzled within its skull. Heedless of the terrible damage it inflicted upon the other creature, the second flung Tabitha's hoodie to the side with a twisted cry of angry, then quickly, but unsteadily staggered after her with a drunken sort of gait.
With her mind in the thorny grips of pain, fear and confusion, Tabitha's thoughts could focus on nothing other than escape. She cried hysterically while running down the street towards the townhouses, clutching the bloody wound, and screaming for help. Daring to glance over her shoulder revealed an escalating nightmare of an increasing number of identical creatures emerging from the surrounding area to join in the chase.
Tabitha just arrived at the street outside the community of townhouses when the path to potential escape suddenly became one to unmistakable doom. The second group of creatures emerged from their hidden places to take part in the hunt. Coming to an abrupt stop, she quickly looked between both crowds moving to intercept her, then around for some other place to run. With no other choice she turned fleeing up the sidewalk, and down a narrow cement path, bordered by grass and ivy on both sides, leading into the commons.
Tabitha resorted to daring an occasional, brief stop at one of the many doors, frantically pounding at them, begging for help, and hoping anyone would offer sanctuary. No such prayer was answered.
Her flight eventually led to a circular grassy area at what may have been the heart of the commons. Though she could no longer see her inhuman pursuers by this point, she could still easily hear them trailing after her with their twisted howls filling the air. Winded, desperate and beginning to feel hopeless, Tabitha anxiously looked about for some place, any place she might be able to hide from the approaching abominations.
Just a little ways ahead down a second cement path similar to the previous one, she spotted a dense cropping of flowery shrubs in front of one of the townhomes. Tabitha sprinted towards them while praying they would be enough to conceal her. Constantly glancing over her shoulder to make sure none of the creatures would see what she was planning, she nearly dove to the ground upon arriving at the intended shrubs.
The branches snagged, scratched, and poked at her but still she forced her way behind them, frantically crawling through the carpet of ivy. Only upon reaching the densest area just beneath the home's front window, did Tabitha dare stop to press her back against the wall and draw her knees up to her chest in an effort to make herself as small as humanly possible.
As the crowd drew ever closer she held her breath in fear the monsters may somehow hear it. It was not long before the immediate area was swarmed by the sounds of shuffling, wet feet, and a swelling chorus of chilling howls. Tabitha could not directly see the path or the creatures. Only their long shadows, cast by the orange embers lighting the eastern sky, occasionally painted the wall above the shrub any time they drew dangerously close to her hiding place.
"Please, god. Please, god. Please, god." She mouthed the words over and over again after shutting her eyes tightly.
The ivy immediately in front of the shrubs shifted noisily causing Tabitha to jump, and clamp her right hand tightly over her mouth in order to keep any sounds of fear from involuntarily escaping. Her left hand unconsciously clutched the locket with her daughters' pictures. The plants shifted again and one continued moving so close she could hear its heavy, wet, breathes much clearer.
Another series of terrible howls were unleashed and Tabitha fought every instinct to bolt from her hiding place. The remaining creatures were suddenly on the move again, moving further and further off somewhere into the community of townhouses to continue their hunt for her.
Fear; heavy, cold and dark, saturated her very soul. It's terrible weight rooted her to that spot. As she began crying her turmoil wracked brain was completely uncertain if the increasing sobs were from the profound relief of not being caught, or if it was the overwhelming horror of facing an unbelievable encounter, or if it was the terrible pain still wringing through her arm. Tabitha's mind tried to rationalize everything she had just witnessed but words ‘monsters' and "demons" kept crushing every explanation her psyche sought a grasp onto reality with.
Tabitha's cramping right hand alerted her to how tightly she had been holding onto the locket, and that piece of jewelry brought the concerns for her daughters back to the foreground. What if the creatures were everywhere? What if there was panic in the streets?
She could not finish the third thought. That was too terrible to even contemplate or consider. So the one other priority above her own survival imbued her with strength enough to carefully crawl from the relative safety of the shrubs and risk traveling the streets once more. She had to reach her children no matter what.
Tabitha, bringing her bloody hand back up to clutch at the wound, warily searched about for any signs of the creatures. She could still hear them elsewhere but none was visible. Fortunately, the weak, gold light falling through the trees and in-between individual townhomes lit the area well enough to prevent the shadows from keeping secrets. The overpowering instinct to reach her children finally caused Tabitha to move.
Even as she hurried along, while constantly looking about and straining her ears, there was no real formulated plan outside of escape and getting home. That was all that mattered. She did not care to know about how this was happening. Or why it was happening. Even her very own self-preservation was mostly fueled by the fear of leaving her girls alone. Tabitha knew, without a doubt, and with a growing sense of self-loathing that she failed once last night. She would not allow herself to fail as a mother again.
Exiting onto the sidewalk outside the commons, she looked both ways and to her minuscule relief only empty streets, trees, and parked vehicles were visible. Tabitha turned right and began jogging again. She prayed she could find help. Or at least, discover a familiar landmark that would tell her how close or far she was from home. She suspected she was still in the East Bay but that was of little help.
Tabitha cut across the lawn of the last townhome on the block, turned the corner beneath a large tree, and came to an abrupt stop. Just several yards ahead, next to a ruined, white pick-up truck parked beside the curb, one of the creatures stood there with its back to her while eagerly looking about. She stood completely still for several seconds until absolutely forcing herself to slowly, and very carefully, begin creeping away without taking her eyes off the hideous being.
The shock of her back abruptly coming into contact with someone's chest jolted through Tabitha like lighting, but before she could scream a hand clamped tightly over her mouth and an arm roughly seized her around the waist…
Tabitha screamed hysterically into the hand clamped vice like over her mouth while ceaselessly struggling to break free. The creature staggered about towards the commotion and upon seeing her, its jaws stretched open as it approached with a long, steadily building, inhuman wail.
"Stop your goddamn screaming!" A deep male voice ordered with a sharp whisper while still dragging her backward.
"I'm on it!" A second figure, an older Caucasian man, in a white tactical uniform holstered with all sorts of gear, suddenly charged past both Tabitha and the figure subduing her.
The creature's lunge was met by a swift strike of the soldier's machete across its face, violently staggering it to the left. He was forced to quickly dodge two clumsy but powerful retaliatory swipes from the creature, then as it turned right to follow after him for a third attack, the soldier delivered a devastating strike directly center of the skull with his second weapon, burying the head of the bronze colored hatchet deep. The liquid was barely beginning to gush from the devastating wound when he delivered a hard kick to the creature's chest, simultaneously toppling it backward, and dislodging hatchet.
"This area is infested with Ghouls." The older soldier stated gruffly while sheathing the machete. He was a stout, middle-aged man with dark hair and a closely cropped beard. "Let's make tracks before any more of these freaks realize we are here."
"Hey!" The man still holding Tabitha jerked her hard to get his point across. "I told you to calm the fuck down!" She breathed loudly through her nose, fearfully trying to see her captor over her shoulder.
"Easy there, Tam." The older soldier turned toward them both but continued cautiously searching the area. "She's just scared." He then turned his focus to Tabitha. "We're not here to hurt you, ma'am. But if you keep struggling he will force you into compliance for all our sake. Nod if you understand what I am saying."
Tabitha slowly ceased her struggling while staring at the older soldier. Finally, she nodded her head to show she understood.
"Now, I'm going to instruct my squad mate here to let you loose," The older man explained after shaking the foul smelling liquid from his weapon. "But if you try anything foolish like bolting or screaming we'll be forced to do something unpleasant. You understand?"
Tabitha nodded quickly once more.
"Good." He motioned to Tam.
"You sure about this?" Tam asked.
"Yeah. I think she gets it." The older soldier nodded. "Radio to Thompson, and let her know we are heading back."
The moment Tabitha was released she quickly hurried away from the man holding her before turning around to glare at him while rubbing her jaw. She found a 30ish, fair skinned, Korean-American with short-cropped hair and a shadow of stubble covering his strong jaw. His uniform was similar to the other soldier’s.
“I was just looking for help,” Tabitha explained with a mixture of fear and anger while uneasily glancing between both men.
“Yeah, well that did a shit amount of good for us lady. All your screaming did was piss off the local wildlife.” Tam replied impatiently as he took out his phone to make the call.
“I didn’t know. I was being attacked by those-- those things and I needed help!” Tabitha replied defensively.
“Looks like one got you pretty good.” The older soldier stepped closer to inspect the wound in her arm. “I’ll have something that can take care of that when we reach the truck.”
“What’s happening?” Tabitha asked weakly. “Who are you?”
“I am Sgt. Eriksen, and I promise to answer as much as I can when we reach safety. But we better hurry. As you are no doubt aware, this one I just put down is not alone.” He motioned to the still spasm ridden corpse of the Ghoul as the corrosive liquid poured from its wounds, causing the grass beneath it to sizzle, and die. “And the rest will be just as friendly if they catch us.”
“What in god’s name are these monsters?” Tabitha asked while staring at the creature in revulsion and fear. The biting stench, like a potent cocktail of urine and alcohol, grew so poignant that she covered her nose as she backed away.
“There will be time for all that later. The most important thing for you to know right now is that these mutants will not hesitate to kill us if we are caught by them.” The older soldier motioned for her to follow and she reluctantly began walking with him. Tam took the lead, freeing the sling of his assault rifle from over his shoulder, and keeping the weapon at ready. “What’s your name?”
“Tabitha,” She began cautiously while matching their brisk pace. “, I have two little girls back at home. I have no idea where I am, and I haven’t been able to reach them--”
“Easy, Tabitha.” Eriksen offered sympathetically before making a hand gesture for her to lower the volume of her voice. “I promise we will do everything we can to help you. But for now, I need you to stay alert and ready to run like hell at any moment. Can you do that for me?”
“Yes. Thank you.” Tabitha whispered despite still feeling uneasy. Amongst the confusion and fear she also felt a sense of relief at finding armed help. Though at the back of her mind she could not place ever having seen uniforms like those the soldiers were wearing, and the strange lower face mask currently hanging around their necks furthered her curiosity.
“Shit!” Tam whispered suddenly before looking back over his shoulder. “Down!”
Before Tabitha could spot the cause of alarm the sergeant grabbed hold of her left wrist, ducked low, and swiftly followed behind Tam until they all huddled together behind the front end of a ruined green car nearest to them.
“Are these fuckers having some sort of meet & greet?” Tam mumbled irritably as he continued watching the Ghouls up the street.
“Looks like your new friends haven’t given up on searching for you,” Eriksen said to Tabitha as he released her arm and edged closer to the side of the car for a better look.
“I count 17.” Tam raised his weapon to get a better look through its scoop. “And that's not including the ones further ahead.”
“Oh god…” Tabitha whispered after huddling back against the bumper of the car. The increasing knots in her stomach were heavy and making it difficult to keep her head above the icy panic threatening to drown her.
“Thompson is barely a block away. I say we call and have her swoop over. I think we could hold them off until she gets here.” Tam suggested before leaning from back around his side of the vehicle.
“Yeah, I considered that game plan.” Eriksen admitted thoughtfully and turned back to his squad mate. “But she’s not driving an armored carrier, and we haven’t the foggiest to how many Ghouls are in the immediate area. There's the ugly possibility they mob the truck. Or even if we managed to plow through the crowd there could still be hell to pay if that stuff inside of them, eats its way under the hood, or through the tires.”
“Well, unless you are about to risk strolling on over there to ask them to be cool just this one time, and let us pass, I think we need a plan,” Tam remarked.
“The sound of an engine will just serve as an announcement for them to all go completely apeshit.” Eriksen scanned their surroundings for an alternate route. “I rather they stay listless and shuffling. With a little sneaking and a bit of luck, I am thinking we could easily cut through these houses and reach Thompson without ever drawing attention to ourselves.”
“I would be inclined to agree if you meant just the two of us.” Tam motioned to Tabitha with clear uncertainty. “But what about the orphan? Look at her. She’s already shaking like a goddamn leaf.”
“Considering she managed to give these bunch of freaks the slip with only a single bite to show for her troubles, I think she can keep up.” Eriksen first looked across the street but seemed to think better of it and instead turned his attention towards the commons they were closest to. “What do you say, Tabitha? You with us?”
“I can do it,” Tabitha whispered after a particularly difficult swallow.
“That’s what I like to hear. You got spirit.” Eriksen nodded. “Stay down, keep close, and move when you’re told. I know this is all frightening and difficult but we will get through it.”
“How you want to go about this?” Tam asked.
“When I give the signal I want you both to quietly haul ass over there.” He pointed across sidewalk and grass towards the entrance of a community carport partially enclosed by a tall, brown wooden fence. “Once you make sure you are in the clear, give me the sign and I will follow.”
“No problem.” Tam nodded and readied himself.
Tabitha prepared to move with the second soldier despite feeling almost dizzy with the mixture of so many intense emotions. Eriksen dared to break cover first with careful steps while remaining low to the ground with his gun aimed towards their potential threats. When he was certain it was safe he gave a silent signal.
With the thoughts of reaching her daughters as quickly as possible, she found the needed courage to stand, and rush with Tam until they both reached the agreed upon spot. Although the entrance was wide enough for vehicles, the rest of communal parking area was closed off from the street. To the left and right were covered parking spaces just a few steps outside the back fence of each individual townhouse.
Coming to a stop at the immediate right of the soldier, Tabitha leaned her back against the fence while gripping the wound. It was only then did she realize she had been holding her breath the entire time. Tam, after a sensory sweep of the area, returned to his place near the entrance, where he watched the idle mob of creatures for a short while before giving the signal for his squad mate to join them. Eriksen arrived promptly and began searching the area for the best path to continue their exit.
“A little further up are two paths leading back into the commons. And while we are on the topic I also want to go on record saying I don’t like this much sergeant.” Tam said with growing trepidation. “These places could be crawling with Ghouls, and unlike the streets, there are a lot of blind spots, and places to get trapped if we happened to be swarmed.”
“Noted. If we die horribly I promise to take full responsibility.” Eriksen replied as he continued actively searching the area. “It’s this or risking a full on fight. I doubt either of us have enough ammo for that.”
“When is there ever enough bullets for these fuckers? You put down one, and there is always three others just around the corner.” Tam admitted grimly. “But if you believe we can stealth our way out of here, I’m with you.”
“Not like we have a choice.” Eriksen reminded him.
“Shit.” Tam complained irritably and ran a hand through his hair in frustration. “Remind me not to ever go out on patrol with either of you assholes again. We are not even equipped for picking up strays.”
“Be that as it may, it is no excuse to forgo the code of ‘Noblesses Oblige’.” Eriksen seemed to stand taller with his reminder.
“Oh, well a thousand pardons, my liege.” Tam rolled his eyes derisively while rising from where he was crouched. “Does that code also have any recommendations on how we can also avoid getting our shit royally busted while having good intentions?”
Eriksen went to reply but paused as his grip tightened on his hatchet and he pulled his sidearm. Before Tabitha could ask what was wrong both soldiers hustled her from the fence and across three empty parking spaces then ducked against the passenger side of a badly damaged, blue minivan. From the direction leading into the community, the sounds of several pairs of wet, bare feet slowly drew closer.
“They-- they found us!” Tabitha whispered fearfully as she prepared to run.
“No!” Eriksen whispered sharply and grabbed her arm as a precaution against the panic he could see brewing within. “Keep it together. They would be running straight at us if they knew we were here.”
“Do we take them?” Tam asked as he quickly glanced between his squad mate and the direction of the approaching footsteps.
“Negative. That is the last resort. Follow my lead. We will try and let them pass.” Eriksen ordered quietly.
Tabitha fought an epic struggle not to give into the growing dread urging her to take her chances at fleeing for her life. She first saw the long, partially distorted shadows of the Ghouls stretching into view across the blacktop, just before the sounds of sloshing liquid and an alcoholic stench wafted across the air. When the approaching abominations were dangerously close, Eriksen motioned for them to slowly creep to the rear of the minivan.
Keeping her between them, both soldiers carefully watched from their perspective side of the vehicle. Closing her eyes, Tabitha remained as still as possible, even trying to quiet her breathing in fear that anything, anything at all, would instantly give them away. Knowing what those abominations were capable of made it painfully easy to imagine what they would do to her. The mental images of having her flesh bitten and melted from her bones were nearly too much to handle.
Upon opening her eyes, Tabitha's breath caught in her lungs and she unconsciously pressed her back painfully against the rear of the vehicle. Directly ahead, behind the partially opened fence leading to one of the home’s patio, she caught the first signs of sluggish movement. As a female Ghoul began emerging from the entrance, it's milky eyes locked directly on Eriksen an instant before its swaying form began to heave in preparation to vomit forth the corrosive liquid.
Tabitha looked between the unaware sergeant and predator preparing its attack. No amount of questioning or introspection would ever reveal where or how she found the fortitude to lunge forward with as much force as she could possibly gather, and tackle him to the ground moments before that scorching stream sprayed forth all over the right rear of the minivan, causing portions of the already shattered window to begin melting, and paint to sizzle. The commotion caused those Ghouls at the entrance of the parking lot to turn about, and upon spotting Tabitha, Eriksen, and Tam, their collective howls filled the air as they charged.
“Shit has officially gone south!” Tam called back to Eriksen as he opened fire on the approaching group.
Quickly rolling onto his back, the sergeant took aim with the large pistol before firing three consecutive shots into the female’s skull as she went to exit the gate, causing her to instead collapse, bounce off the fence, and tumble to the ground onto her side.
“Yeah. Yeah, it's really starting to look that way.” Eriksen announced after hurrying to his feet and joining in on their defense.
Tabitha managed to quickly scoot away from the gathering liquid as it dribbled from the vehicle and began pooling near her. The right bottom of her skirt frayed with a multitude of small holes due to the spatter. The growing number of inhuman howls mixed with the constant gunfire to perform a violent duet that inspired fear and confusion.
Before scrambling back to her feet, she briefly watched both soldiers firing their weapons into the oncoming creatures. Rounds tore into their twisted bodies, causing each to stagger, and holes to spray their corrosive fluids onto the blacktop. But these wounds were brief, constantly mending, and failing to completely end the collective advance.
“You think I should reach out to Thompson now?” Tam yelled back over the gunfire as he fired into the face of a large male that had fallen to his knees.
“She already knows to follow the gunfire in any worst-case scenario!” Eriksen replied after sending a single round through an approaching Ghoul’s skull. As the last one within the car port crumpled to the ground dead, he began quickly looking about as more howls were drawing closer from various directions about the neighborhood. “New objective. We run like hell towards her position and just try and cut as many down as possible along the way.”
“You got it.” Tam switched out the clip from his gun.
The three hurried back towards the sidewalk, and upon arriving they witnessed several groups of Ghouls approaching from different directions. Despite the creatures shared, clumsy gait, their strides were also surprisingly fast, causing them to rapidly close the distance.
“Mother of God--” Tabitha constantly looked about in growing panic. “They’re coming from everywhere!”
“Stay close, Tabitha! And only concern yourself with running!” Tam ordered before taking the lead.
“Keep moving! Thompson is close!” Eriksen motioned for her to move between both soldiers before they began fleeing down the street together.
The Ghouls gave chase as others emerged from various parts of the community to join the pursuit. Both men fired only on those who managed to either draw dangerously close or directly blocked their path. While passing a ruined gray car, one of the creatures lunged out to suddenly snatch a hold of Tam by the left arm, before sinking its teeth into his shoulder. As he screamed in pain, and as the two struggled, they fell, causing Tam to drop his weapon.
“Tam!” Eriksen went to help but was forced to instead turn his attention and weapon upon the multiple Ghouls simultaneously closing in from different directions even as the larger throng continued their approach from the rear.
“Get this sonofabitch off me, sergeant!” Tam yelled as the creature’s fists continuously pounded at him with terrible strength and its jaws bit into his left forearm.
“Damnit!” Eriksen said angrily as he momentarily had just enough time to line his sights with the Ghoul’s head as Tam shoved it upwards, but he wisely reconsidered before being forced back to covering the three of them the best he could. “They're almost on us! I can’t get a clear shot with it right on top of you!”
Some are petrified by abject horror. Others have an instinctual motivation to do whatever it takes to survive. Tabitha looked between both soldiers fighting for survival. In the darkest places of her heart, those areas most men and women are afraid to ever examine, or even admit exist, she was greatly tempted to take her chances abandoning them. To run away while a majority of the gathering nightmares attention were diverted to the soldiers.
It was not solely altruism that caused Tabitha to dare run over to Tam and risk kicking the disgusting thing across the right side of the head as hard as she could. The motivation was something desperate, selfish and frightened that sat heavy in her chest, and lit her mind aflame. It was a maddening tangle screaming to survive, to escape, to live long enough to reach her daughters, and something else too painful to understand.
She was stumbling back away from the fight just when Tam gained the upper hand over the distracted Ghoul, caught it about the throat and chin, then snapped its neck with a violent twist. Snatching the fallen weapon up from the ground, he swiftly rejoined the battle, turning left in time to blow a hole through the forehead of a Ghoul lunging towards him, partially destroyed the heads of two others not too far behind the first, then spun right to ruin the left knee of a fourth rushing towards Tabitha, causing it to involuntarily kneel an instant before he finished it off with a burst to the face.
“Here she comes!” Eriksen loudly announced after swiftly decapitating one with his hatchet, and turning his sidearm on a second, then third.
The gray SUV fishtailed from around the corner, partially jumped the curb to avoid a large throng of the creatures, and crashed through a fence before swerving to the street. All the Ghouls suddenly went into a silent pause as their eyes turned towards the approaching vehicle. Then each began to violently frenzy.
“What’s happening?” Tabitha spun about in confusion while looking from creature to creature as the liquid within them visibly boiled, and light began pouring from their eyes like diseased headlights.
“Tabitha, get behind us!” Eriksen ordered before motioning to Tam as he raced over to the nearby body of a particularly large male killed by a number of rounds to the head.
“What?” Tam followed his lead despite being puzzled. It was not until the sergeant began hoisting the corpse off the ground did he come to understand, and helped him hold up their new meat shield.
“Careful the head is leaking!” Eriksen called to Tam as both men turned towards the first Ghouls that began projectile vomiting the corrosive streams at them. The skin of their improvised shield was naturally resistant to the acidic liquid, and while they kept it propped in front of them with one arm, they fired into the crowd with the other.
“Now you see why I wanted to avoid this!” Eriksen yelled over all the howling and gunfire.
“Are you shitting me?!” Tam demanded in disbelief as he fired into a small group trying to approach from the right. “You really want to gloat right now?”
The SUV slammed through three of the Ghouls before swiftly pulling up behind the struggling group with a screech of its tires. Parts of the vehicle's paint was slowly melting away, and a rear window shattered as the liquid ate through it.
“Get in!” Thompson, a Caucasian woman with short brunette hair, yelled from behind the wheel.
Not in need of an invitation, Tabitha hurried over, yanked the rear passenger door open and jumped inside. Both soldiers dropped the sizzling, slowly dissolving corpse and followed suit. The vehicle was peeling off even before the door was shut, and though Thompson avoided the denser parts of the approaching crowd, she clipped and outright struck a few stragglers.
“Tam!” Tabitha screamed as she pointed towards the still open door where a female Ghoul clung to the frame, trying to reach in despite being dragged.
“Fuck off!” Tam swiftly took aim, firing a burst into the female's face, sending her tumbling to he asphalt. With a brief chuckle, he partially leaned out the vehicle to watch, then closed the door. As the vehicle sped along, and the Ghouls vanished further and further into the distance, there was a collective sigh of relief.
“Those things nearly killed us...” Tabitha shakily announced the obvious as she looked between the three soldiers.
“You did pretty good back there, new meat.” Tam congratulated Tabitha with a small grin. “Thanks for the assist. It was pretty ballsy of you to give that mutant some sweet chin music.”
“That was a close one, boys.” Thompson laughed nervously before turning right to begin passing through a neighborhood of smaller, older homes.
“And then some,” Tam mumbled as he began inspecting some of the wounds he received during the fight.
“I told you I heard a scream.” Thompson beamed proudly over her shoulder.
“Good looking out. We found her just in the nick of time.” Eriksen explained to the driver before he leaned forward and opened a compartment on the rear of the front passenger seat and retrieved a small white case.
“How is all this happening? What were those things? ” Tabitha asked him again desperately.
“Let me see that arm.” Eriksen turned to his right to face her. Waiting until she carefully held the limb out for him, he gently inspected the wound then opened the case, taking out a clear tube filled with a light blue liquid. “A counselor back at HQ will be able to fill you in far better than me. However, I can give you the abridged version.”
“What is that?” Tabitha quickly pulled her arm back while watching him suspiciously.
“Whoa. Easy.” Eriksen patiently urged and held the tube up to offer a better view of it. “This is just a medication called salubrious. It will numb the pain and facilitate accelerated healing.” After a brief stalemate, she offered her arm to him again and only then did he make any further movements. “Now, as I was saying, those monsters back there are literally all over the place. It’s our duty to find survivors, like as you, and help them reach safety.”
“But where did they come from?” Tabitha asked incredulously.
“Lady, that’s a question we've all been dying to know,” Tam remarked after taking a similar tube of medication from a pouch on his uniform.
“I wish I could tell you.” Eriksen shook his head.
“But I can tell you--” Tam flinched as he poured a small portion of the same liquid upon the wound in his forearm. “, what you just saw back there is only one type of nightmare.”
“Dear god. You mean there are more of those-- those things? ” Tabitha asked in disbelief.
“Yeah.” Tam nodded. “And each one is different, and unique...like special snowflakes from hell.”
“Its sort of a miracle that you survived all that,” Eriksen admitted grimly. “Unfortunately, especially as of late, we come across what is left of survivors who have run into those monsters before they found help.”
“Can you at least still help me reach my daughters?” Tabitha pleaded hopefully as she closely watched him unscrew the top of the tube then pour just a little of the liquid directly onto the wound. She winced at the unnaturally cold sensation but relaxed as the terrible pain was instantly numbed.
Tabitha caught the brief look exchanged between Eriksen and Thompson through the rear view. It seemed both sorrowful and sympathetic but was gone just as quickly. He silently removed some bandages from the kit then carefully began dressing her wound. Looking to Tam, at the furthest rear seat, she found him focusing far too hard on his gear.
“What?” Tabitha asked with increasing dread. “What aren’t you telling me?”
“Nothing. It’s nothing.” Eriksen sighed heavily then clipped the bandage in place before sitting back.
“Will you help me or not?” Tabitha asked once more with increasing frustration. “If not, I understand, and I am not asking any of you to risk your lives. But I am going to find my daughters with or without help. Can you at least maybe drop me off closer to my--”
“There is no need for that.” Eriksen began carefully. “Just hear me out on this. We are going to take you to an escort that will get you somewhere safe.” He held up his hand before she could interrupt him. “However, in the meantime, if you write down your address and the name of your kids, I promise you I will put someone on it immediately.”
“Do you promise?” Tabitha asked eagerly.
“Yes.” Eriksen nodded.
“No, I want to hear you say it.” Tabitha pressed.
“I promise.” Eriksen offered firmly. “I am certain they are far safer than all of us.”
“Thank you.” Tabitha smiled tearfully. “I sincerely appreciated it. I just need to find them.”
As SUV sped along the surrounding landscape changed. The buildings grew larger and less personal. Security bars and metal doors increasingly graced more windows and entrances. Grocery stores became liquor stores. Electronic boutiques became Pawn Shops. Townhouses and Homes became large Apartments and Motels. The gloom of shade created by the shadows of so many buildings was only sparsely broken up by the various, and occasional streams of light managing to sneak in between structures. Tabitha grew increasingly nervous with the unfamiliar surroundings but did not voice or display this. Sometimes it is best to hold one’s cards close to their chest.
“We’re coming up on 2nd LT. Bustamante’s position now, Sergeant.” Thompson announced over her shoulder with barely concealed animosity. Just ahead was a small, brick structure surrounded by a tall chain-link fence and several white moving tracks, with orange & blue decals. Out front of the building stood four soldiers near a white armored truck.
“This should be good,” Tam muttered beneath his breath.
“Respect the rank,” Eriksen instructed Tam as their vehicle began pulling to a stop.
“Who are they?” Tabitha asked nervously when Eriksen pulled the door open and climbed out, followed by Tam and Thompson.
“Not to worry. They are on our side. These soldiers, and the 2nd Lt. will serve as your escort to base.” Eriksen held his hand out, waiting until she accepted, then helping her climb out.
“Sgt. Eriksen.” Bustamante, a haughty, smoothed face Latino man stepped ahead of the other soldiers that had been waiting for him. His uniform was a slightly different variation accompanied by a black trench coat with some sort of winged insignia on the right shoulder. Possessing fine features, olive skin, and perfectly combed black hair, Tabitha would have described him as “pretty” if anyone had asked.
“Sir, this is the survivor we radioed ahead about,” Eriksen announced after both he and his squad mates saluted. “Here name is Tabitha--”
“That is all fine and well,” Bustamante only acknowledged Tabitha with a mere glance before turning his full attention back to the sergeant. “However, I am concerned that you are becoming increasingly…’confused’ to what your duties are.”
“My record speaks for itself, Lieutenant.” Eriksen expression remained unreadable as he stepped forward. “I am fully aware of my duties as a soldier of the Retinue, and that is why I am bringing this survivor to be safely escorted to our--”
“I assigned you, and the rest of your squad to patrol. Not babysitting, or stray round up.” Bustamante stated more firmly causing Tabitha to shift uncomfortably while looking between both figures. “I expect my orders to be followed to the letter, Sgt. Eriksen.”
“With all due respect, sir,” Eriksen began evenly. “Your orders were maintained until duty dictated a change of course. The code--”
“Do not speak to me of that ridiculous nonsense!” Bustamante demanded with a growing undercurrent of anger and stepped closer to the sergeant. “I gave a strict order that you choose to disobey in pursuit of some silly fairy tale. I should have you brought up on charges for dereliction of duty.”
“If you feel that way I respectfully recommend you write a report detailing exactly what it is you find questionable about my conduct, sir,” Eriksen replied calmly. “However, if Lord Azazel has come to recognize and accept the Noblesse Oblige as a conduct worthy of being officially implemented in our code of conduct, then I am willing to wager that the actions of my squad mates, and I, will be vindicated regardless of your ‘disapproval’ of such, sir.”
“You tread a very dangerous line with me, sergeant,” Bustamante replied in a low voice as his eyes narrowed.
“I request that Tabitha is safely escorted to base.” Eriksen ignored his threat as he motioned to her. “I will stop by to check on her once my patrol has ended.”
“Is that a threat?” Bustamante asked swiftly and looked the sergeant over.
“Not at all, sir,” Eriksen replied stoned face. “I believe you will treat her, and anyone else you are escorting back to HQ with the utmost care and respect.”
Two of the soldiers waiting behind the lieutenant opened the rear doors of the armored truck to reveal six other civilians sitting in the back. This eased her mistrusts and fears only slightly. As if to further coax her along, the sergeant walked with Tabitha to the rear of the vehicle.
“You will be fine,” Eriksen said in a far gentler tone used when speaking to the officer. “And I promise to do as we discussed.”
“Thank you.” Tabitha accepted his hand and climbed into the back of the truck. “Please, I am begging you, please do not forget.”
“I will not.” Eriksen stepped away from the back of the vehicle. “I will also stop by to check on you later. You have demonstrated a lot of courage. Hell, you even somehow managed to get a compliment out of Tam. That is why I am confident you can get through this.”
“If you are done with your pep talk, Sgt Eriksen, we will be moving out immediately” Bustamante announced impatiently before briskly turning on his heels and walking towards the passenger side of the vehicle.
“Yes, sir.” Eriksen saluted before waving to Tabitha as one soldier climbed in back then two others closed the doors.
“That fucking guy,” Tam said with disgust as the armored truck started with a heavy rumble of its engine, and began pulling off into the city. “He wouldn’t last an hour doing what we do.”
“Probably not.” Eriksen agreed while watching the vehicle carrying Tabitha drive off a while longer. He then turned walking back towards the SUV with both squad mates.
“He’s a dick. But I’m sure she’ll be alright. Who knows, if she has as much guts as it seems, maybe she'll even end up on our squad,” Tam offered more seriously. “Oh, also, on the contrary of my bitching back there, you did good sergeant.”
“Thanks, Tam.” Eriksen smiled a little.
“You are starting to warm up to the code? Wow. Maybe you aren’t a total asshat, Tammy boy.” Thompson smirked as they reached the vehicle and she pulled open the driver side door.
“Whoa. Let’s not go saying shit we can’t take back.” Tam called back to her amusement before he climbed in back.
“Though, I have to say, sergeant, seemed a little fucked up to get that lady’s hopes up like that,” Thompson explained after getting behind the wheel and starting the engine.
“What are you referring to?” Eriksen inquired with some confusion from the passenger seat.
“You know? That whole deal about her daughters and searching for them.” Thompson reminded him.
Eriksen was quiet for a while as he stared out at the city through the passenger window. “Maybe you got a point.” The sergeant finally acknowledged. “I wanted to tell her…but after she mentioned her kids, I felt it best she talk to one of the councilors instead. That would have been too big a blow.”
“Were you getting sweet on her?” Thompson smirked over at him.
“No.” Eriksen shook his head. “I only decided to let her have the small measure of comfort ignorance has to offer for just a little longer. God knows she will face no end of harsh truths soon enough.”
“Very true.” Thompson nodded.
“Anyway, call ahead and tell the rest of the squad we are on our way back,” Eriksen instructed.
“Just another day in the office.” Tam remarked with a morose sort of humor that caused the others to laugh a little.
The dark, gun metal gray interior was lit by a series of small blue lights running across the ceiling, and two metal benches for passengers lined both sides of the haul. While unconsciously toying with the pendant around her neck, Tabitha occasionally stole glances at the silent Retinue soldier standing near the truck’s door. Unlike the others his uniform was black and he wore his steel mask, causing the intricately detailed, skeletal grimace to encompass the lower half of his face. He held a sub-machine gun, with a large handgun holstered at his side, and a bronze colored dagger, similar to the one Eriksen fought with, sheathed on the left side of his chest.
“Don’t bother with asking the tin man there any questions.” A sudden female voice startled Tabitha, and turned her attention towards an early 40ish Puerto Rican woman dressed smartly in a black, short sleeved, silk blouse, slacks, and a pair of dress boots, with a red scarf around her neck. Her dark hair was cut in a pageboy style, and a scowl of irritation narrowed her large, dark eyes, and pressed her full lips together in a thin pensive line. “He is not exactly talkative, or forthcoming with any news.”
“I sort of figured. He doesn’t look the chatty type.” Tabitha replied quietly.
“Carlotta Juarez.” The woman offered with her hand.
“Tabitha Yaeger.” Tabitha replied with the accepted handshake.
“So, it would appear we are in it pretty deep.” Carlotta began as she sat back once more.
“Yeah. It is really looking that way.” Tabitha smiled a little. “Do know anything about what’s happening?”
“This may come as somewhat of a disappointment, but I was literally just about to ask you the exact same question.” Carlotta shook her head with a disappointed sigh.
“Awesome. That is exactly what we need. One more person who doesn’t know anything about what's happening.” The young Caucasian woman to Carlotta’s left suddenly chimed in. She wore a noticeable amount of dark eye shadow and red lipstick, with her black hair pulled back from her face. Dressed in a fitting brown tee with a pink heart at the center, blue jeans, and pink sneakers, she reminded Tabitha of some of the local university students she frequently saw during her commute.
“That sudden white noise coming from my left is called Mona.” Carlotta joked with a polite smile.
“Whatever.” Mona took the comment in stride and went back to messing with her phone. “It’s not like I’m talking out of my ass. She doesn’t have any answers.”
“So you have some sort of news about what’s going on?” Tabitha asked flatly.
“Uh, no.” Mona replied matter-of-factually as she momentarily lowered her phone to look at Tabitha. “Why else would we be hoping you knew something?”
“So, it’s completely fine that you know absolutely jack and shit, but not anyone else?” Tabitha asked with feigned curiosity.
“Chill out.” Mona replied irritably and returned to her phone.
“You getting any responses to your texts yet?” The heavyset, Caucasian man on Mona’s right asked as he leaned in much closer. He wore a red and white hockey jersey, black cargo shorts that fell mid-shin, and a pair if flip-flops. His dark brown hair was long and wild but brushed from his round face.
“No.” Mona frowned sharply and leaned away. “Scoot the fuck over, you perv.”
“And that lady killer’s name is Seth.” Carlotta motioned towards him with a slight gesture of her head. “I recommend you not make his acquaintance.”
“Aw, you do me wrong, Mamacita.” Seth laughed and sat back against the wall again. “Don’t go being all jealous. Just ask and I’ll gladly be your Papi.”
“Wow. Totally racist, sleazy, and creepy. That has to be some sort of record.” Mona grumbled with disgust after scooting a little closer to Carlotta.
“No need to be offended on my account.” Carlotta chuckled as she looked over at the girl. “Besides, getting mad at an ignoramus for being ignorant is like being upset at a fire for being hot.”
“Damn.” Mona busted out laughing. “Hella funny. I got to remember that one.”
“Go back to getting fatter and shut the fuck already. Nobody got time for your bullshit.” The slender, African-American man abruptly called to Seth from where he occupied the same bench as Tabitha on the far right. His wavy hair was cut short and there was a platinum & diamond earring in his right ear. His clothing denoted a rather expensive lifestyle of designer labels that aimed to cater to the ‘urban’ crowd. His light blue shirt was streaked by a white stripe across the middle of his chest and sleeves, his baggy jeans were graced by an elaborate graphic on the upper right, plus his matching sneakers were spotless.
“Ouch.” Carlotta laughed a little. “Calm down, Andre. We are all annoyed and sort of pissed but let’s try and keep it civil if only not to downgrade the status of this crappy situation to crappier.”
“I thought we were becoming homies, Andre.” Seth replied with an exaggerated sad face. “But then you go saying mean things.”
“Anyway,” Andre turned towards Tabitha. “Did these muthafuckas force you to pull over to offer their ‘help’? Because that’s how it went down with me and Marcus.” He motioned to the Caucasian man sitting opposite of himself. He was a big and tall figure dressed in a gray blazer, white dress shirt and a pair of blue jeans accompanied by dark work boots. The stubble of a few days covered his jaw, and his partially graying hair was cut high & tight. He had the permanent tan and weathered features of a man who spent a great portion of his life working outside.
“They forced you to pull over?” Tabitha asked in surprise.
“Yeah. With little to no explanation as to why.” Marcus frowned and leaned forward to rest his arms atop his legs as he began talking to her. “We were cruising around trying to figure out where everyone up-and-went when these boys suddenly came speeding up behind us. They damn near chased us down. Ben’s story is exactly the same.” He motioned to the man sitting on the floor as if to keep his distance from everyone.
“I don’t trust these-- these people, or soldiers-- or whatever they are claiming to be. I didn’t ask for or want their help. They have no right to do this.” Ben’s conspiratorial whisper could not conceal the tremble of his voice. He was a small wiry man in an unbuttoned, gray dress shirt, brown slacks, and a pair of matching, highly polished loafers. His brown hair was neatly trimmed, and dark, turtle-shell framed glasses sat firmly on his skinny face.
“So, did they serve you the same bullshit story?” Carlotta asked Tabitha with annoyed disbelief.
“What do you mean? What story?” Tabitha asked curiously.
“Oh. Maybe they didn’t know if you would buy it or not.” Carlotta looked over towards the soldier. “There was this whole spiel about trying to protect us from monsters, and--”
“It’s not a lie!” Tabitha quickly interjected as she looked amongst them. “Didn’t you see them?”
“What? Are you saying it is true?” Carlotta shot her a look that was at once inquisitive and disbelieving.
“The monsters-- if that’s what they are calling those things-- I saw them!” Tabitha slightly squirmed as she realized everyone in the truck, besides the soldier, was focused solely on her. “I don’t know what is happening, or even how the hell it’s happening, but I know they are telling the truth about that.”
“Ohmigod.” Mona said as she placed a hand over her mouth. “Omigod. Are you for real?”
“Wait. Wait.” Andre replied skeptically with a shake of his head. “Are you trying to tell me there is really some sort of horror movie type shit going down out there?”
“Well-- I guess-- I mean you can call it that.” Tabitha rubbed the back of her neck nervously. “I know it’s hard to believe--”
“This bitch is crazy!” Seth burst out laughing in disbelief. “I must have walked around for a couple hours this morning, and I never once saw anything like that.”
“No offense, Red,” Carlotta began apologetically to Tabitha. “, but if I start believing there are any so-called 'monsters' out there, I am going to also start believing this guy,” She motioned to Seth. “, would ever spend more than 15 minutes walking anywhere, ever.”
“Screw you.” Tabitha stared daggers at Seth. “I’m not some sort of delusional druggie or junkie who just imagined it all. I know what the fuck I saw, alright?”
“Whoa! Whoa!” Seth held up his hands. “Who said some shit about drugs? I only said you were probably out of your ever-loving skull.”
“Did I also imagine one of them biting me?” Tabitha moved her arm forward to display the bondage partially spotted by blood.
“Wow. Okay. This is definitely new information I will need to digest and consider.” Carlotta said quietly after running a hand through her hair. “Are you absolutely certain? What did they look like?”
“They looked like people...but not really.” Tabitha struggled with her explanation as she unconsciously rubbed the wound. “They just looked all wrong. Their skin was see-through and slimy, like a jellyfish, and they were all dripping with some sort chemical that burned. They tried biting us anytime they were close enough.”
“They tried biting you? You mean like zombies?” Marcus chimed in with a tone as equally puzzled as his face.
“Well, maybe-- I guess?” Tabitha agreed with noticeable reluctance.
“This is all so crazy.” Ben uttered fearfully and hugged his legs closer to himself. “This is just-- no. No, no this isn’t happening. Sometimes people see things when they are stressed or frightened...but this can’t be real.”
“Ohmigod! Wait!” Mona pressed herself closer to the wall away from Tabitha. “You said you were bitten by one of those things?”
“Yes. I said that exact thing barely 5 seconds ago.” Tabitha replied impatiently while watching the girl’s strange reaction. “Why?”
“Um, what the hell?” Carlotta asked as she turned towards Mona.
“Dude! I’ve seen enough movies to know what that shit means!” Mona pointed fearfully at Tabitha’s wound. “If she was bitten then she is totally infected!”
“Are you high?” Carlotta asked after a particularly long sigh of irritation.
“Aren’t attorneys supposed to be all super smart and shit?!” Mona demanded with increasing fear as she looked at Carlotta. “Think about it! She just said they looked like zombies, and one bit her!”
“I am not infected with anything.” Tabitha's voice hardened and her face partially reddened with her anger.
“Well--” Andre rubbed the back of his head and subtly inched away just a little. “You did sort of say they were zombies. And when someone is bitten by one...”
“Oh my god!” Tabitha threw her hands up in frustration. “I didn’t say they were fucking zombies.”
“But you did say they looked and acted like zombies.” Marcus added suspiciously as he eyed her wound.
“No! No, I did not!” Tabitha quickly turned to challenge him. “You said that!”
“Oh man-- Oh man. This is all so crazy.” Ben ran both hands through his hair.
“Do you feel sick? Like a fever? Or anything like that since you were bitten?” Andre asked curiously.
“Is stupid contagious back here?” Carlotta raised her voice above the growing clamor of the truck. “People, for the love of a god, can you all just settle down for a second.” When there were only silence and eyes as a response she continued. “We are all confused, irritable and, admit it or not, frightened. Despite not having answers let’s not entertain flights of fancy. This is a real problem, in the real world, and we will find real solutions.”
“But what if they really were zombies?” Mona demanded emotionally as she looked from face to face. “It seems totally crazy to consider. But it’s also batshit crazy that everything was totally fine last night but now mostly everywhere is empty, but that happened. What makes this anymore crazy?”
“Now that you are done packing your bags for stupidville,” The soldier finally spoke up with obvious amusement that did nothing at all to conceal his contempt as he looked over at Mona. “Zombies do not exist, you little moron. The ‘monsters’ this woman mentioned are indeed real,” He then glanced about the truck to address the others. “, however, they are not what any of you think, especially groups of extras in ridiculous movies. Now, I am going to ask politely, but only once, that you all settle down.”
“Fuck you, faggot!” Seth bellowed as he angrily sprang from his place on the bench. “I know my goddamn rights! If you knew all about this bullshit, why didn't you say anything earlier? What the fuck is your problem?”
“Yo, where is this base you all keep talking about? What happens when we get there?” Andre added suspiciously.
“I have been authorized to put a bullet through the knee of any of you strays that even think about getting hostile.” The soldier released the safety on the sub-machine and took aim at Seth’s left leg. “And you are beginning to come across as sort of unfriendly to me.” Carlotta and Mona quickly scrambled out of the way, followed by Ben, Marcus, and Andre.
“Whoa! Whoa! It’s cool! I’m not coming any closer. Just lower the piece!” Seth stood frozen in place but held his hands up as he and the soldier watched one another.
“He’s cooperating, tin man.” Carlotta carefully interjected from where she stood to Tabitha’s left. “There is no need to go ending anyone’s adventuring career. I apologize if it got a little loud back here, but everyone is just upset and talking stupid. No one here is a threat to you.”
“I advise you to talk some sense into Mr. Jokey Jokes.” The soldier firmly instructed Carlotta then looked between everyone else. “Now, all of you, return to your seats and keep your voices down. If one of you cause me to point this gun again I can promise you that individual is limping out of this truck when we reach our destination.”
“See, everyone is cooperating, and even better, you do not have to have to risk the heavy conscience of a man who just shot someone.” Carlotta half-joked nervously as she cautiously moved to take her seat. The soldier snorted in disdain at the mere suggestion.
“What the hell is wrong with you, dude?” Mona whispered harshly to Seth as she put her phone away with trembling hands. “He could have totally blown you away.”
“I didn’t know you cared.” Seth’s grinned with a brief laugh that could not completely conceal his remaining fear.
“As if.” Mona frowned in revulsion. “I just don’t want to be in the way.”
“Let’s say you go the rest of this drive not aggravating any more heavily armed individuals.” Carlotta sternly advised after crossing her legs at the ankles and folding her arms.
“Or at least, warn us so we can get out of the way.” Tabitha added angrily while still watching the soldier.
“This isn’t right-- they aren’t giving us a fucking lift. We-- we didn’t ask for their help. This is an abduction! That is what this is! This is an abduction and unlawful imprisonment!” Ben said desperately to no one in particular from his place on the floor. “This isn’t right-- they can’t do this!”
“Right or wrong, the fact that they are the ones with the guns serves as a hell of a counter argument to anything we have to say on the matter.” Tabitha turned towards the frightened man. “Just try and keep calm. Maybe we can start making some sense of this once we get to wherever they are taking us.”
A resounding crash was followed by the sudden swerving of the vehicle. Panic screams filled the interior as everyone was jostled by the constant weaving. Tabitha bounced roughly off the wall behind her then tumbled to the floor. Someone landed atop her, knocking the air from her lungs, and before she could try and grab a hold of something to stop from tumbling about, a second crash catapulted everyone forward.
The side of Tabitha’s head collided into the unyielding metal of the haul, causing lights to explode through her skull, and then sudden darkness…