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~~~

Evening came early as darkness swallowed up the remains of the beautiful day.

After Charlie’s sudden departure, there remained an unspoken restlessness claiming his vacant spot in the group. When Gina and Frank had returned before sunset without him, Gina had called them together and said, “Without getting into a long discussion about it, I just wanted to let you all know that it seems Charlie has decided to leave us. I discovered earlier that he’d packed his things and left quietly. We believe he’s trying for the Ashtabula group like he wanted. We searched for him a good long while but found nothing. He either didn’t want to be found or he’s long gone.”

No one had said anything.

Gina had concluded, “Now, we’ll be here until the morning, Charlie knows that, so if he wants to come back, he has until then to do so. But for now, we need to keep our heads on straight and get through the night safely.”

She’d worked out a four hour watch schedule: Two person groups; one group on the front porch to watch the road and one group patrolling the back to monitor the vineyard.

Stephen sat beside Amanda on the front porch. They each had a flashlight and their handguns out. The moon provided suitable ambient light as they could observe anything approaching from the front, while remaining hidden in the shadowed alcove of the porch.

Stephen watched as Amanda took a drag off of her cigarette. She’d found a stale pack of menthols earlier. The bright cherry lit them both up momentarily as Stephen got a good look at her.

To Stephen, Amanda appeared more relaxed then she’d been in a days. She sat contently, wrapped in a blanket, staring off into the sky. She still seemed distant, but no longer tense and watching over her shoulder for something horrible to happen.

“Like what you see?” she chided, catching his sideway glances.

“Do you have a spare one of those?” he asked.

“Thought I was the only one here with any vices,” she smiled, handing him a cigarette and a lighter. “I didn’t know you smoked.”

“I don’t,” he said. “Thought I might try one tonight since the ‘bad for your health’ lectures against them seem pretty pointless right now.”

Amanda laughed. “Yeah, now might be the perfect time to try just about anything… since tomorrow’s a crap shoot.”

Stephen lit the lighter and looked at her again.

She smiled, winked, and then blew him a kiss.

Stephen shook his head. “You are impossible,” he said with a smile. He let the lighter go out and turned on his flashlight, keeping the bright beam cupped in his hands. “If you don’t mind me saying, you look… better,” he dared. “You’ve seemed very withdrawn since Painesville.”

After a few moments, Amanda looked over and said, “I’ve had a lot of time to think clearly today for the first time in… I don’t know… forever, I guess.”

“What about?”

“I’m just thinking… thinking about a lot of things. Usually I do whatever it takes to avoid any thinking at all… but not today. Today feels really good, really… clear… like I said.”

Stephen considered this. He was just amazed that Amanda was talking to him at all, and not yelling at him for once. He liked this new, sober side to Amanda. It was refreshing. “I get what you’re saying. I’ve had days like that when everything just falls into place.”

“Exactly! That’s a good way to sum it up, Stephen.”

“So… what brought you back? Are you finally coming out from under the withdrawal?”

She laughed. “Oh, no, that never goes away… not entirely. It’s much fainter now though, easier to deal with. I guess in some strange fucked up way, being on the run without much rest in between to stop and entertain those demons, has become the fastest detox program I know. Been too busy with new monsters to listen to the old ones right now.”

Stephen laughed. “Maybe you can go with that after things get back to normal. You know, hit up all the popular A.A. meetings, stand up and say, ‘Hi, I’m Amanda Howard and I’ve been sober and bite free for fifty days.’”

Amanda laughed hard, and then caught herself. “Shit, Stephen,” she whispered. “You never told me you were funny! I wish I’d seen this side sooner. All you ever did was try to smother me with all that sadness you carry around… no offense.”

“None taken.” Stephen surprised himself. When was the last time I cracked a joke?

“Maybe I’m finally relaxing a little too,” he said.

Amanda smiled. “You know, if this was any other time, I’d suggest we share a bottle of J.D., talk about high school days, then run around butt-ass naked and howl at the moon.”

“God, that would be ghastly,” Stephen said.

Amanda raised her eyebrows.

“Oh, no, I’m not talking about you… I mean… I’ve always been as pale as a ghost. My naked ass would probably blind somebody.”

Amanda laughed. “Stephen… Stephen… we would have had a hoot of a time back in my younger days. I’m sure of it. I’ll leave it up to your imagination to fill in the blanks.”

Stephen swallowed hard. “It doesn’t matter anyway, there’s no booze around here. You’d think a bottle of wine at least… but no. Hell, I looked.”

“Laundry room. Lower cupboard. Behind the bleach. Mr. Daniel’s was hiding.” Amanda winked.

Stephen looked surprised.

“Hey… I didn’t drink it,” she defended. “Old habits are hard to break. It always makes me feel a little better knowing where the damn stuff is… that’s all.”

Stephen smiled. “I believe you. Really, I do. It… it shows.”

“In a good way or a bad way?”

“Very good. I like the new you.”

Amanda smiled and looked out toward the road. “Last time I took a sip was before we hit the tracks… at the house. No one believes it, but it’s true.”

Stephen said nothing.

“I wanted it all the time when we hit those God-awful tracks. It made me one mean bitch… and then everything changed at the junkyard.” She turned to Stephen. “Do you remember that shit Frank pulled… what he made us do to that thing?”

“Yeah… I still have nightmares about it.” Stephen closed his eyes as he remembered himself, Amanda and Charlie covered in blood as they savagely plummeted the yellow-eyed monster into a bloody pulp. “It makes me sick to my stomach realizing that I could do something like that… and that I actually started to enjoy it.”

Amanda’s face mirrored his shame. “That was the day I woke up, Stephen. That was the day I knew the party was fucking over. When I looked into that thing’s eyes and saw how much it despised me and wanted to devour me, all I could think about was my Marie and how something like that looked at her before it tore her to pieces… it must have been awful.”

Stephen shifted uncomfortably.

“Anyway,” she said wiping the corners of her eyes, “that’s when I was done with the bottle. When we… lost our fucking minds and destroyed that thing, all I could think about was all that blood everywhere; on my hands, on my clothes, on my face, beneath my feet… everywhere. I started to enjoy it, just like you said. I felt empowered and strangely… satisfied. I told myself later it was payback, but it felt like I’d briefly turned into one of those fucking things. Know what I mean?”

Stephen simply nodded.

“When I was scrubbing that blood off my hands, I thought, ‘This is what it felt like when they slayed my girl… God, I must have vomited every time I pictured that blood all over my hands. Just knowing Marie died like that… and I felt it… enjoyed it…” She left the thought unfinished. “Like I said, that was when I knew I was done with the bottle, even when I wanted to drown those bloody thoughts out of my brain every night, I still fought off those fucking demons.”

“Good for you, Amanda.” Stephen could say nothing else. He wanted that bottle behind the bleach more than he would ever admit. He desperately needed to change the subject. “What do you think happened to Charlie?”

Amanda’s face immediately turned to stone. “I hope he’s dead,” she said coldly.

Stephen was unprepared for the strong response. He decided to push further. “Did… something happen between you two?”

Amanda turned to him and said, “He’s one of the real monsters, Stephen. Charlie makes those dead things look tame by comparison.”

“That’s harsh. Did you two have a falling out? It was apparent you both were… together… for a little while along the river.”

Amanda was about to speak, then remained still. “Doesn’t matter now… he’s gone. Good riddance. Could we stop talking about it, Stephen… please? Some things are better left alone.”

“Okay. We can let it go,” Stephen said gently.

Amanda wrapped her arms around her shoulders, feeling a sudden chill talking about Charlie. She quickly changed the subject. “Are you going to smoke that thing or just look at it?” she asked, referring to the unlit cigarette in Stephen’s hand.

Stephen smiled and confessed, “I never wanted one… they smell like shit. I just needed an icebreaker.”

Amanda laughed.

“I do, however, need to visit the men’s room for a minute,” he said. “Want to step inside with me for a moment?”

“What for? You need me to hold it for you?” Amanda chided. “Go on and take care of your business. I’ll be alright for a few minutes.”

“But we need to stay together. Gina said- ”

“Don’t you dare ruin our night with your ‘Gina said’ bullshit! I’ve just started liking you, and I like that red-headed bitch a whole hell-of-a-lot less. I’m a big girl, and I’m armed. Go pee, for Christ’s sake.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Stephen said with a mock salute.

As he reached for the front door, Amanda said, “Stephen, thanks for believing me.”

Stephen smiled. “No problem. We’re all we have now. I’d like to think that means something.”

“Maybe so,” Amanda said. “Just for the record, I know I took out a lot of my frustrations on you and it wasn’t right. I treated you like shit. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry, and I’m trying to… change.”

“You have changed, Amanda,” Stephen said. “We all have.”

He stepped into the dark house with his flashlight aimed low. He made it to the small bathroom near the garage, stepped inside and closed the door.

Maybe I’ve changed too, he thought. Maybe there’s still a chance to make things right and I’ll be able to tell her everything. Amanda will understand… eventually. Maybe even… forgive me? For the first time since this nightmare began, Stephen felt a shred of hope.

He turned toward the mirror and froze as his flashlight beam revealed Nicole’s refection staring back at him through the glass. She was a bloody apparition with a knife sticking out of her eye.

“No!” Stephen pleaded, stepping back against the wall and shaking the image from his mind. “You’re not real! This is all me!”

He opened his eyes and watched the murdered girl write words on the glass in thick blood:

DON’T LISTEN TO HER POISON. SHE’S A LIAR!

Stephen turned off the flashlight, believing the darkness would hide him from his own madness.

Please, God, no more! I can’t take this anymore!

He lifted the flashlight in his shaking hand and turned it back on.

The bloody one-eyed girl was standing directly in front of him, arms outstretched, hideous. “Stephen,” it moaned. “Why are you killing me all over again? You know she’s responsible! You know it’s all because of her! It’s always HEEERRRR!”

Stephen turned off the flashlight and fell to the floor, covering his ears. “Please… stop… please!” He felt an incredible weight coming down from the ceiling, crushing him in the darkness and destroying his sanity.

“Don’t… let… her… come… between us… my love,” Nicole whispered in the dark. “She wants… to hurt you… she wants… to hurt… US!”

And then it was over.

Stephen felt the crushing weight lift. The heaviness was gone. He reached for the doorknob, opened the door and crawled out of the bathroom. He kept the flashlight off, unwilling to trust the light ever again, as he slowly got to his feet.

He needed air. He needed to get outside. He needed to see Amanda and have her verify that he was still real, still there, and not in some hellish realm where the dead played games and tormented the living.

Stephen made it to the front porch and stopped. Something was wrong. “Amanda?”

There was a freshly lit menthol cigarette lying on the ground beside Amanda’s firearm. Her blanket was lying on the steps. Further out, into the front yard, Amanda’s lit flashlight lay aiming downward, illuminating a large patch of tall grass stained with what looked like fresh blood.

Amanda was gone.

~~~

Next Episode (21-6):
https://freezombienovel.wordpress.com/2014/08/15/chapter-21-6-goodbye-charlie/

Previous Episode (21-4):
https://freezombienovel.wordpress.com/2014/08/08/chapter-21-4-goodbye-charlie/

~~~

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________________________________________________
“Chapter 21-5: Goodbye Charlie” 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.

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