“I’m only going to say this one more time, shit-bag. Hand over the meal you stole.” At six-foot-two and 285 pounds of implied threat, former minor league Wickliffe Captains clean-up hitter, Doug McFarlane, was losing his cool. He stood up, towering over the other two men trying to remain invisible and called out the dark-haired man wrapped in a blanket who sat just outside the group to avoid the ongoing discussions.
“Sit down. You’re causing a scene,” the man said, readjusting his blanket and refusing Doug the courtesy of a glance.
Doug began to get louder. “The MRE… give it back to me…now! I wasn’t gone that long and I know you watched me set it down!”
“Maybe you shouldn’t leave things as valuable as food lying around for anyone to pick up. Pretty fucking careless.”
“So you don’t deny it, then… and look at me when I’m talking to you, bitch!”
Frank Carman sighed, looked over at Doug and said, “You need to sit down before you attract attention we don’t need.”
“Doug, perhaps you should take it down a notch. You’re starting to scare some folks nearby and they’ve been scared enough,” Steven Eddington said, attempting to keep the peace.
“Shut up, Professor. This is between me and him so stay out of this.”
Stephen tossed his hands in the air and gave up.
“Let the Alpha brutes kill each other off, I say,” Charlie Ottermeyer whispered sarcastically to Stephen, winning him a smile.
“Alright,” Frank said getting up. “This high school bully bullshit is really starting to bore me.” Frank dropped the blanket revealing his black t-shirt stretched thin over his massive chest and biceps, easily matching Doug pound for pound. “I warned you not to start this so you better be up to finishing it.”
“Oh, I’ll finish it alright!” Doug squared off with Frank, looking down at the slightly shorter man.
Frank held his ground and locked eyes with Doug. “Just keep in mind, asshole, that the rules have all changed now. Mainly, that there are no fucking rules which means there’s no limit on what one man can get away with doing to another. Are you ready to take this to the extreme, Douglas?”
Doug flinched from his resolve momentarily, seeing something disturbing in the other man’s eyes.
Frank caught the hesitation and smiled.
“Are we interrupting something, gentleman?” Meredith asked, approaching with Gina in tow.
Charlie was quick to chime in, “These two are having a heated dispute on which dog gets to eat the other dog first.”
Stephen clarified, “Doug’s MRE is missing. He thinks Frank took it.”
Meredith rolled her eyes. “Frank, Doug, is everything alright? Seems beneath the both of you to sink to this level about a minor misunderstanding, don’t you think?”
“I don’t like thieves,” Doug spat.
“And I don’t like unfounded accusations thrown in my face,” Frank countered.
Gina looked at the two large men on the verge of exchanging blows, then back to Meredith. “Maybe I should go.”
“Nonsense, honey. Everything’s alright here.” She then lifted up her MRE and said, “It was me. I’m the thief.”
All four men and Gina turned to look at her.
“Well… I wouldn’t say that I stole it. Poor choice of words on my part. I thought someone just left it behind and so I took it. I’m guilty of being hungry and foolish. My apologies, Douglas. Here, please take it and I’ll know better to inquire first next time.”
Doug took the MRE, but didn’t know what to say to Meredith. He glanced at Frank who raised his eyebrows and folded his arms in expectation. This just fueled Doug’s anger so he shook his head and stormed off to eat his meal in private.
Frank smiled and turned to retrieve his blanket.
Gina was beside herself. She pulled Meredith aside and said, “You just gave that man your meal.”
She shrugged and said, “Wasn’t that hungry anyhow. Trust me, honey, the meatloaf is depressing.” Then she gave Gina a wink and turned to address Carman. “Mr. Frank, was all that really necessary?”
He wrapped the blanket over his shoulders and started walking off. “Had to find out something,” he finally said.
“Did you find what you were after?” Meredith pushed.
“He doesn’t have what it takes,” he called back.
Meredith waited for more but Frank continued to walk off in silence.
“That a friend of yours?” Gina asked, watching Frank disappear among the crowd. He immediately gave her a bad vibe.
Meredith turned, “Oh, you mean Frank? We… found each other on the road on the way here. He takes a little bit to get used to. Some folks like to get inside your head a bit and see what your made of, but don’t pay him any mind. We’ve all been through a lot and tensions are bound to flare up on occasion.”
“So, Meredith, who’s the new stray you’ve picked up? She’s certainly much prettier than the last one.” Charlie stood up and stretched, making no effort to hide that he was checking Gina out from the neck down. He stopped abruptly when he noticed the gun strapped to her side and turned away appearing bored with the conversation already.
Gina despised the little bald man immediately. She’d seen his type every Friday night at Herbie’s—small men with big wallets and large egos their pathetic frames could not support.
“Charles, let’s not be rude,” Meredith said politely. “This is Gina. She’s all by herself here and I thought she could use some company. In these troubling times we need to look after one another, don’t you agree?”
Charlie snorted in contempt. “Whatever you say, lady. Just don’t expect me to be Mr. Hospitable when you’ve just added another mouth to feed.”
“I can take care of myself,” Gina said sternly, shooting Charlie a look that made him uncomfortable.
“Charles is an editor for an online magazine,” Meredith jumped in. “What is it called again, Charles?”
“You mean what was it called,” he answered. “Doesn’t matter anymore.”
“Oh, I remember now.” Meredith would not be thwarted. “It’s called Eye on the Watchers. Now doesn’t that just sound intriguing, Gina?”
Yeah, online magazine. Was probably a porn site. Gina cupped a smile. “Interesting.”
Meredith turned toward the other man dressed in khakis and a blood-stained dress shirt completely un-tucked. His shoulder length brown hair and round Lennon-looking glasses made him look much younger from a distance. Up close, he looked much older, perhaps a thousand years old, as he sat before their small fire, hands folded and staring into the flames with a haunted look etched permanently on his face. “And that introspective young man by the fire is Stephen Eddington,” Meredith said. “He’s a teacher.”
Stephen turned and smiled weakly. “Hello, Gina, nice to meet you.”
“Hi, Stephen,” Gina said. She could tell he’d been through hell.
“Come sit, honey.” Meredith motioned to an empty fold-up chair near the fire. “We’ll wait for the others and that will give you time to suffer the meatloaf.”
Gina smiled and sat down next to Stephen.
Meredith sat on her other side and addressed Charlie across the fire, “So, are the others keeping busy?”
Charlie rolled his eyes. “You know it. Mr. Baseball’s got them all on his damn roster, talking about team work and how everyone’s got a part to play… blah, blah, blah. I think the redneck and his daughter are walking the perimeter, looking for a quick way out of here if the shit hits the fan. Meanwhile, myself, Stephen and good, old Frankie were left here to guard our meager supplies while our fearless leader, Doug, went to gather information from some of the guards. Said he knew one of them from his college days or something. Of course, we’ve been sitting here trying to figure out who died and made that guy king in the first place. ”
“Douglas is only trying to help,” Meredith defended. “It’s in his nature to lead so he stepped up when the rest of us weren’t able. Or have you already forgotten how terrified and exhausted we all were when we first got here?” She turned to Gina and finished, “Douglas came over and lit a spark under our behinds when we needed it—reminded us that we didn’t have to be victims of this horrible mess.”
“Sounds like he knows what he’s talking about,” Gina offered.
“Yes… yes… I know that, Meredith. We all know that. But now he’s taking it too far. Bossing us all around like we’re his fucking fan club- ”
“Have you seen Amanda this evening?” Meredith interrupted.
Charlie never appreciated being cut off, but Meredith knew where to push. He let his thoughts drift to Amanda, one of his favorite distractions. “She’s out mingling with the natives and trying to score us some more stuff. She may be a bat-shit crazy, legs-up-in-the-air drunk, but she gets what she wants. She’s managed to keep her supply of booze flowing while using her God-given talents to secure us some camping supplies.”
“Could you show a little more respect,” Stephen interrupted, “and try to remember that she’s a mother that’s just lost her daughter.”
“I meant no disrespect,” Charlie said. “She’s got my vote for most resourceful gal of the year. I can appreciate a woman who can wrap her legs around a man and lasso in a profit.”
“You’re a pig,” Gina said without thinking. If she hadn’t been so tired, she could’ve ignored the little prick.
Charlie laughed. “Well… jump right on in new girl. Okay, I’m game. I tell it like it is, Sister Sensitive. Call me a pig, but I’m just speaking the truth. Mark my words, girls like Amanda, who understand the score in this fucked-up new world will outlast the rest of you broads trying to hold on to your moral high grounds.”
“So you find nothing wrong with a woman degrading herself with a man as long as there’s profit to be had, is that it? Sounds like prostitution to me.” Gina was losing her appetite as well as her temper.
“Exactly! It’s not the world’s oldest profession without reason. Women have been using their flesh to get what they want for centuries. Only difference now is there’s no time for all the fucking wine-and-dine foreplay anymore.”
“Okay, how about we just change the subject,” Stephen suggested. “So… Gina, where are you- ”
“So what about you?” Gina fired back at Charlie. She was beyond backing down. “Are you going to suck someone’s dick for your next meal if it comes to that? Or is that form of acceptable survival behavior gender specific?”
“What… I never… ”
“Gina,” Meredith tried to break in.
“No, hold on a damn minute. You sure have a lot to say when it comes to what a woman should allow herself to do—hell, your unending praise for slutty women is appalling—but when I suggest that a man be willing to do the same, you’re suddenly tongue-tied for words!”
Charlie was turning red in the face. He wasn’t used to being challenged so strongly, especially by a woman. “I’m not disagreeing with you… of course… if a man… you know… if it came to that for the sake of survival… but it’s just not a realistic scenario.”
“Realistic scenario? Are you kidding me?” Somewhere in the back of Gina’s mind, the small voice of reason was telling her to quit, but she couldn’t. Wouldn’t. Not after being gang raped as an introduction into this ‘fucked-up new world’. “What do you weigh, a buck eighty—ninety? You’re a cute, robust, little guy, I’m sure there’s some hulk of a man sitting right out there in this camp who’d love to make you his bitch, especially if you came crawling to his tent starving for food and would be willing to satisfy all his perverse sexual needs to get it.”
“This is ridiculous! You’re taking this conversation way out of context!”
“Yeah, and once that big boy gets a taste of you…why, he may want to share with his friends. Next thing you know, you’ve got a line out back waiting for a piece of that fine, tight ass. You’ll be rubbed raw from all that profitable penetration, but they’ll take real good care of you, give you things¬—anything you want as long as you keep putting out.”
“Meredith… please do something?”
Meredith reached for Gina’s shoulder and then thought better of it. She gave Charlie a ‘you started this’ look instead.
“But even after all that fun service you’re providing, they’ll grow tired of you, Charles, and toss you out like a sack of trash because after all that fucking, they’ll forget you’re ever a human being anymore. Because in this sick world, all you need is any available hole worth filling and there will always be some beast out there willing to fill it. So go ahead, promoter of piggish behavior, go squeal for your next hand-out and see how smug you feel then when you can’t sit down for days without being reminded that your privates have been beaten up like a piñata at a birthday party!”
“I’ve had enough of this abuse!” Charlie got up, looked to Meredith and Stephen for support and got none. He then pointed at Gina and said, “I don’t know where you found this trash-talking woman, Meredith, but you can send her on her way. She is nothing but trouble!”
Gina wanted to get up, bite his finger off and stuff it in his eye.
Charlie stormed off, nearly stumbling over a fold-up chair. He turned and kicked it across the asphalt.
“Well, I’m glad to see we’re all getting along so famously,” Meredith said, trying to hide her amusement by getting up and collecting the victimized chair.
“I guess I could’ve handled that differently,” Gina confessed as the anger subsided. “I’m sorry guys, I’ve been on edge… maybe I should just go.”
“Charlie had that coming,” Stephen said. “He’s a rude and obnoxious man who doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut. You did just fine… for a woman.”
Gina’s head whipped toward Stephen just in time to catch the smirk on his face. She laughed at the joke.
“Now that’s better,” Meredith said. “Maybe when everyone gets back all those pent-up frustrations will be out in the open and we can relax with one another for a spell.”
“Meredith, you are a remarkable woman,” Stephen said, shaking his head.
“Tell me something I haven’t heard before, honey,” she said with a wink.
Stephen smiled and then excused himself. “I guess that’s my cue, ladies. It’s getting late and Amanda will drink herself into a ditch by dawn if I don’t keep an eye on her.”
“Want some help?” Gina offered.
Stephen turned, running his fingers through his hair. “Thanks, but that won’t be necessary. There’s no need for all us to go wandering around in the dark. I’ll be fine. Nice meeting you, Gina. I hope you’re still here when we get back.”
“Thanks, Stephen.” Gina left it at that. When he was out of ear shot, Gina sat back down next to Meredith and asked, “Seems like a nice guy. So what’s their story? Is he and Amanda together?”
“It’s not like that, honey,” Meredith said. “Mr. Eddington taught at the school where Miss Howard’s—Amanda’s—daughter attended. It was some big, fancy boarding school. Stephen was at the school when The Change occurred.”
“The Change?” Gina asked.
“Yes, that’s what folks have been calling it around here. It came in like the wind and struck people at random. No one knows how some caught it and others didn’t. There were no early warning signs like flu symptoms—folks just started changing into those monsters. It all started happening early Saturday morning.” Meredith paused, caught in the flood of her own horrific memories. “Excuse me, honey. It’s all still fresh like a nightmare that wakes up with you. I lost my beloved Hannah, that morning.”
“I’m so sorry. Your daughter?”
Meredith wiped a tear from her eye. “Hannah was my soul mate… my lover. I watched her transform into one of those things right in front of me.”
Gina was at a loss for words.
Meredith quickly collected herself. “Anyway, poor Stephen saw Amanda’s daughter die in the massacre. Children turned on children…how awful. I can’t imagine what that must have been like. He barely made it out alive when Amanda showed up looking to fetch her daughter and found Stephen instead.”
“And then to have to tell the mother the bad news,” Gina finished. “That sucks.”
“Yes, a tragedy all the way around. I suspect Stephen feels responsible for what happened at the school, being the only one to make it out when so many perished. He didn’t say so, but you can see it in his eyes. He’s been watching over Amanda ever since. Feels like he owes it to the daughter to care for her mother, maybe.”
“But he has to know that there’s nothing he could’ve done. He’s lucky to still be alive,” Gina said.
“You and I can see that on the outside of the situation, honey. But Stephen was there and needs time to process all those horrors he’d experienced. Eventually, healing will come, and he’ll come around to understanding that he didn’t…
…kill that girl.”
Stephen Eddington headed south from their campsite and away from the center of the nomadic remains of civilians scattered across the converted parking lot. Survivors used whatever makeshift shelters were available from what they could retrieve from the area or from their abandoned vehicles lined up along Center and Parmly Road, the two streets that converged at the heavily guarded front entrance into the power plant. From hastily erected tents to tarps spread across polls, modified camp sites were established around small fire rings made up and contained primarily of old tires that were transported from an onsite auto garage or that were stripped directly off vehicles. Timber was provided by whatever lumber was available to burn from the plant’s three massive warehouses, cut up and distributed among the survivors. The warehouses themselves were now being used as sleeping barracks for the National Guard and a place to keep whatever weaponry and vehicles they had under guard and at the ready.
Most of the survivors had congregated toward the center of the lot, closest to the meal tents, wanting quick access to food, water, and medical supplies. Also, most feared being too close to the fence line where heavily wooded areas hid much from view on three sides of the perimeter.
Further out toward the fences, the small fires were spread out offering more privacy and space but at the cost of being more vulnerable to an attack should there be a breach in the perimeter. The darkest section of the lot was in between the centralized fires and the spotlights at the fence line. There were more foot patrols the further out Stephen walked as he occasionally nodded to guardsman in passing or fellow wandering survivors out to combat claustrophobia and stretch their legs. Out here he could be alone with his heavy thoughts without being disturbed while observing the fence line from a safe distance.
Stephen had a general idea where Amanda had wandered off to. Out closer to the fences, one larger group banded together in a sort-of tent community of twenty to thirty like-minded survivors who were fortunate enough to have escaped with more supplies than most. More supplies meant more alcohol. More alcohol meant Amanda would be nearby. She’d resorted to this group when her own stash had run dry. The community group also felt more secure due to their larger numbers and since there had been no new sightings of the monsters that forced them all here, they also were the most relaxed and complacent group. He knew that Amanda was attracted to wherever the party was at, and this group was the closest she would get to forgetting everything.
Stephen walked up to one of the parking lot light poles and rested his back against the cold metal. Partially obscured by shadows, he could observe the tent community from a distance and wait for Amanda to depart. He stared up at the lifeless light and smiled at the irony provided by the power plant. None of the existing parking lot lights were in use due to the large amount of power it required to keep them lit. The plant was running at minimal power, providing infrequent intervals of electricity outward towards the neighboring city power grids while the plant itself was running mostly on back-up generators since the grid that provided electricity back to Percy was down, leaving all of Percy, Madison and Geneva in the dark. There was an effort in progress to reconfigure the output to another grid, and then back to Percy, but the difficulty was maintaining grids off site in locations that weren’t secure and many grids were located in the heart of bigger towns and cities where attacks had been more severe.
Stephen glanced over at the congested area of camp fires, surrounded by dark tents of various shapes, sizes and colors and wondered if places like these were the best they could hope for now.
His thoughts drifted to home—what used to be home—and wondered if his wife, Claudette, had managed to make it to a place of safety like Percy or if she’d been slaughtered in an attempt to flee the madness.
When he and Amanda had fled the school, they’d barely managed to make it to his house. They’d discovered Claudette’s car was missing. No messages were left behind, she was just… gone. They’d laid low in the darkness overnight, each of them dealing with their own fears and grief in silence, until the beasts suddenly went quiet the next morning. They’d caught a broadcast from an emergency radio, Stephen now carried in his small backpack, of survivors heading to the plant. They’d packed some clothes, some food and water (Amanda had raided his liquor cabinet), and they’d departed for Percy using back roads until arriving at the massive convoy of abandoned vehicles that stretched for a mile from the plant entrance.
He thought of the house, how unaffected and tidy it had managed to remain while all hell broke loose around them. It was as though Claudette had simply stepped out to the store and he had expected her to arrive back at any moment. In the end, Claudette had never returned, perhaps never would. Just like their marriage had felt that last year, the house he’d left behind that morning remained well maintained on the surface, but just beneath—dark and empty. He’d never even left her a note. He thought he should, but couldn’t find words that didn’t feel like fake concern betrayed by his guilty conscience. And now, he loathed himself for getting away unscathed due to an apparent apocalypse which buried not only his sinful actions, but the people he needed to own up to for forgiveness; his wife, his peers, Nicole… all gone.
If Claudette had turned into one of those things, like the children at the school, he prayed that she would find him one day and devour him and his guilt whole. That was what he deserved.
Adulterer turned murderer turned… survivor?
No. If this was the beginning of something far worse on the horizon for all those branded ‘survivors’, then he wanted to stay alive just long enough to fill his cup with the full extent of the horrors to come. Nothing less would be fitting for the damned.
And then, of course, there was Amanda. The irony did not escape him. She was now his constant reminder of his actions as well as the only person that could give him absolution. But ultimately, Amanda betrayed his own cowardice and need to save his own skin. He could not confess to the murder of Amanda’s daughter. He almost did, sitting alone in his dark and empty house, listening to the screams that haunted the night as monsters fed on the living right outside his door. When he’d thought for sure that they were going to die in that house, he almost came clean. But then the silence came, and with it, the dawn. He’d wept instead at his own lack of courage to do what was right, wallowing in his own guilt… and his last chance for redemption.
“I’m sorry Claudette,” he whispered to the night. “Sorry for everything.”
He sighed deeply then opened his small pack and retrieved the diary. He knew he should have left it behind rather than risking exposure. But to rid himself of Nicole’s words seemed wrong. Destroying the book felt like an attempt at concealing his crimes. He couldn’t do it.
I’m sorry, Nicole, he thought, not feeling strong enough to speak her name out loud; the admission would add insult to injury on the odd chance his wife was indeed dead… but still listening.
He opened the diary at random to an older entry and immediately found a sentence scribbled in bold:
I HATE MY MOTHER. SHE RUINED MY LIFE.
He quickly closed the book as if afraid he’d just let loose a witch’s curse. Then he opened it to the first page and began reading the dead girl’s diary.
I’m sorry, Nicole, he thought once more.
Stephen began his self-appointed penance. He vowed to discover who this young girl truly was, since all she would ever become was stolen by the knife he had inserted into her eye.
Perhaps he might find something in Nicole’s words to fill the long and awful silences that remained.
Perhaps the dead could forgive.
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“Chapter 10-3: The Plant” Copyright © 2014 Scott Scherr. From the Novel “Don’t Feed The Dark” Copyright © 2014 Scott Scherr.
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission by the author.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.