She can’t scream. She must be screaming inside her head, but her throat’s too tight for sound. Her body’s heavy, her limbs weighed down like she’s been drugged.
Later, she’ll discover it had merely been fear rendering her unable to move or yell. They’ll find claw marks in the oak floor, where she’d been digging in with her fingernails, attempting to drag her frozen body across the floor—and toward the scene, not away from it.
Anyone who knows her won’t be surprised.
But right now, she’s trapped, watching the extreme happenings not more than ten feet from her. She blinks hard, tells herself she’s dreaming even though she’s painfully aware of how real all of it is.
They’ve always known it would come to this, even after taking steps for years to prevent it. All of those preparations are proven useless tonight.
His screams hurt her ears, but she wouldn’t cover them even if she could. She has to be strong any way she can.
It’s a genuine horror show. No movie could ever get this right—the blood spatter, the unmistakable metallic scent, the anguished cries…they’re beyond human.
Everyone becomes a beast when they die. Everyone begs. She knows that now. And she will never, ever forget what she’s borne witness to. It’s irrevocable, and it’s more than a memory.
It’s a nightmare she might never wake from.
But she’s not the one being hurt and she tries to yell, “Stop,” tries to say something, anything that might make it all end, but nothing comes out but a too-soft whimper. It’s followed by a dying man’s tortured screams.
There’s a burst of fire that incites a new terror in her. It’s her turn. She scrabbles on the floor, exhausting herself with the effort. She hears soft laughter and sees that she’s in the same exact spot, that she hasn’t moved even an inch. The blood that began to seep toward her stops, the controlled fire burning away the flesh and bone and finally his screams have stopped.
But it’s not over. Her head throbs, her tongue hangs uselessly and her throat burns from the smoke and her choking tears so that she can barely breathe.
The sound of a siren’s burst breaking through her terror is the only thing that stops her from being the next victim, but she won’t know that until hours later when she’s conscious. She’ll wake in the hospital, screaming out loud this time, and she’ll see familiar faces.
She’ll know it wasn’t a dream or a nightmare. She’ll remember that his limbs were sawed off and he lived through it. That he was still technically alive when the fire began to burn him.
She’ll want to ask, “Did he feel it?” but won’t. Because she knows the answer and doesn’t want to hear them lie. They would do it out of kindness, but there’s no room for that here. She’s been taught that there’s a time and a place for everything, but the rules have changed.
She realizes there was never any room for rules in the first place.
16 years later
Colombia, South America
Master Sergeant Teige Junos lay belly down in the thick grass, camouflaged from predators. As the hours passed, his breathing had slowed and he’d stopped sweating. How much longer he could remain unmoving in the blazing temperatures was a testament to his training.
But this wasn’t training, and he wasn’t alone.
Next to him, his CO, Sergeant Major Greg MacDonald, lay in the same position. They’d been there for over twenty-four hours, staring through the murky waves of heat, when the sudden roar of enemy gunfire slammed through the still air overhead. Without a word between them, both began a commando crawl that was more like a swim through the wet jungle floor’s humidity.
They finally found shelter about half a mile away, a ditch that afforded them some respite from the unexpected blasts. They dug in, not returning fire in hopes that not drawing attention to themselves would make the conflict end sooner.
Hunched down, covered in sweat, Teige watched the explosions erupting in the sky like blazes of glory. The scent of gunfire mingled with the unmistakable smell of blood and death, the air vibrating with the disturbance.
The recon that began peacefully had caught him and Mac in the middle of two warring factions in the outskirts of Bogota. Definitely a wrong place, wrong time situation.
“Maybe they’ll all just kill each other,” Mac murmured.
Teige hoped they’d be that lucky, even as he kept his M16 at the ready. He and Mac could take on a big group alone, if necessary, but being Delta Force was about being smart. You risked when you were forced to risk. And this wasn’t their fight.
Hours before, during the monotony of the recon, Mac broke their silence to tell Teige he was retiring. That his wife was tired after twenty years of secrets and lies.
“Big step, Mac.”
“It won’t be easy leaving all this,” he’d said with only the barest trace of sarcasm and a genuine smile. “But she hung around this long—I owe her.”
Teige had smiled too, because that was pretty much why he never got too involved in relationships. At least that’s what he told himself.
As of now, there was no one even remotely special at home. He’d ended things with Diane for the hundredth time because it was never going to work. They both knew it but were drawn to each other like magnets. Or bad pennies.
“You’ll find her,” Mac had said in response to Teige’s silence.
“I’m old enough not to worry about it,” Teige had told Mac honestly. He could stay in Delta Force in several different capacities for twenty more years, if he got lucky.
If he remained lucky.
“You don’t have to—it’ll happen. One day, she’s going to show up and you’re just gonna know. That’s how it happens for guys like us—it’s like lightning. None of this ‘she might be the one’ shit. You see her, and you’re going to want to go caveman and throw her over your shoulder and that’s the end of that shit.”
Teige had tried to imagine Mac’s wife responding to that and he’d laughed.
“Keep laughing, boy. You know I’m always right.” Mac was always right. It was why Teige listened when Mac urged, “Curl up,” as a long bout of gunfire rang out overhead.
A few shells landed in the hole with them, one close enough to burn the hell out of his ear, and he kept his head down. It seemed like forever and then there was a sudden quiet, which was a more deadly sound than the shooting.
His ears rang and he fought the urge to peer out. When he finally did, he’d expected to see a lot of dead men left to rot.
He looked over at Mac, murmured, “Shit, that was close.”
Mac didn’t answer. The bullet had gone clean through the front of his skull, a lucky shot that had nothing at all to do with skill.
After two more hours of quiet, Teige was still stunned as he dragged himself up and hoisted Mac’s body over his shoulder. He walked over the bodies and out of the jungle toward the waiting helo five klicks away, even as daylight turned to dusk. And amazingly enough, he didn’t run across any soldiers.
Lucky, the doc had told him.
Teige had been lucky before, had watched someone he loved slowly kill himself for years before finally dying. Teige had been lucky not to have been there the night it happened, but his sister had been. It was pure luck that she’d survived.
One of these days, all that luck was going to kill him.