Unknown254

~~~

Shortly after first light, they decided to double up on three quads, Donovan riding solo on a fourth with the bulk of their camping gear. They siphoned fuel out of the remaining four-wheelers to get them from Chardon to Kirtland using the vast network of woodland trails that kept them away from populated areas.

They reached the outskirts of Kirtland by nine in the morning, and could get no closer using the ATV trails that began to wind north and away from their destination.

They stopped and dismounted, grateful to stretch their legs but feeling vulnerable for the first time since leaving the campsite. The surrounding forest was too quiet as if a thousand eyes were suddenly upon them. They hadn’t seen a single soul along the trails which was very unusual for a Saturday morning since fall weekends were a popular time of year for riders and hikers in these parts. The unspoken explanation hung silently in their collective thoughts: People were too busy trying to stay alive this morning, with no time for their normal recreational activities.

Jonathan, who knew the trail system better than most, said, “We have about another mile before we reach the property. Unfortunately, we’ll have to cut across the woods on foot to get there.” He looked off in the direction of the ATV trail. “This will make a good back-up position if the safe house doesn’t work out. We can always just keep taking the trails farther north if we need to… until we run out of fuel, anyway.”

None of the teens objected. They were too tired or too scared and simply wanted someone to point them to some place safe.

Donovan was already a few feet into the woods, scouting out the best route through the dense forest ahead of them. “The back side of the property should border the other side of a creek if my memory serves correct.”

“That’s what I remember,” Jonathan confirmed. “It’s been a long time since you showed me where it was, but my brother and I grew up exploring these woods.”

“The only barn I remember near here is the old McKinnley place,” Lucas added. “But that’s been abandoned for years. Only thing left was the barn… and that was years ago. I’d be surprised if that old thing’s still standing. If that’s your safe house, then it’s not a very good one.”

Donovan turned and smiled. “That’s exactly what you’re supposed to think. It wouldn’t be much of a safe house if it looked inviting from a distance.”

“We always thought the place was haunted,” Jonathan said, sharing a nostalgic smile with his brother. “I guess we’ll finally find out if the are ghosts still hanging out in there.”

“After what we saw last night, are you really worried about fucking ghosts?” Violet said stepping up. “We’re all packed and ready,” she reported.

Jonathan nodded. He turned to Donovan who was already walking deeper into the forest. “I guess he’s ready,” he said to the others with a laugh. “Okay, watch the woods and each other… and stay as quiet as possible. We need to be like ghosts ourselves.”

They all followed after Donovan.

~~~

Megan couldn’t keep her eyes off the plume of black smoke that rose over the treetops on the other side of the field. It was the first sign of anything other than empty forest and troubled faces that indicated that civilization still existed. Unfortunately, the plume felt more like an omen and tangible evidence that what had happened to them in the woods was also happening all over.

They all stood just outside the wood line at the ancient fence that stood between them and the McKinnley property on the other side. They could see the old barn at the center of the field, standing in waist-high tall grass, appearing as though it had sat there undisturbed for a thousand years.

“Maybe we should find another safe house,” Dwayne suggested, staring at the smoke. “Whatever happened over there is awfully close by.”

Jonathan shook his head. “No, we can’t stay hidden in the woods forever. We need supplies. The barn seems unaffected at the moment. That fire could mean anything.”

“Yeah, maybe some silly bitch left something burning on the stove before she rushed off to get slaughtered with everyone else on the freeway,” Violet joked.

Her words struck a chord with all of them. Yes, if the dead had struck congested areas, that’s where many would’ve tried to get away to. They had discussed a variety of possible outbreak scenarios while training together and they all had agreed that the most dangerous places to be at the onset of an attack is where panicked crowds would gather in herds, and essentially, lead themselves to the slaughter.

“If anything, we could get the supplies from the barn and take off,” Simon offered. “Won’t hurt to investigate while we’re here… if we’re careful.”

“Agreed. Sound advice, recruit,” Jonathan said. He turned to Donovan who was scanning the land, and asked, “Any objections?”

Donovan yawned and said, “Don’t look at me. It’s your call.”

Jonathan gave him a puzzled look and then decided, “Let’s get to the barn. If everything checks out, we can plan our next move after. We’ll use the grass to our advantage. Stay low and stay quiet.”

The recruits nodded.

Jonathan looked to Lucas and Megan who seemed unsure of what was happening, and said, “Stay toward the middle of the pack, little brother… and try not to slow us down.”

Lucas shot him a dirty look.

Megan grabbed his hand and squeezed.

He turned to her and she gave him a look that said: Now is not the time for you and your brother to start your shit.

Lucas sighed and nodded.

“Alright, if everyone’s clear on how this needs to happen… let’s make it happen.” Jonathan jumped the fence and took the lead.

The others climbed the old fence and moved single-file through the tall grass. Donovan took up the rear. He had his bow out, arrow notched, as he watched for any sudden movements in the grass. Jonathan had his hunting knife out and the recruits all followed suit.

Jonathan and Violet were the first to exit the tall grass twenty feet from the old barn doors covered with chipped red paint on rust.

Violet pointed toward the dirt before the door. “Someone’s been here recently” she whispered.

Jonathan held them up.

The dirt around the front of the barn was covered in various shoe and foot prints.

“There was a shit load of people here recently,” Dwayne remarked, earning him several looks.

“Not people,” Donovan said, stepping up and investigating the tracks. “At least, not the people you remember.” He seemed genuinely surprised by the find.

“Has the safe house been compromised?” Jonathan asked. “I assume those came from a herd.”

“A herd?” Lucas asked. “A herd of what?”

Violet rolled her eyes. “Fucking zombies… what else?”

Lucas frowned at her.

Megan shook her head. “Those could just be… regular people. There’s nothing to indicate- ”

“You can tell by the patterns,” Jonathan said, cutting her off. He was kneeling down next to a pair of sneaker tracks. “See how this one looks like someone was dragging their foot behind them?” he asked, pointing toward the tracks. “The pattern is erratic and unevenly spaced. A normal person’s stride wouldn’t look like that. This was either a zombie or one incredibly drunk son-of-a-bitch.”

Megan rolled her eyes. “Stop making shit up. Why does it have to be zombies? Maybe someone was hurt and tried to- ”

“He’s right,” Donovan cut in. He followed the tracks to the corner of the barn and stopped. “The dead were here recently. The tracks continue to run along this side as well. Only thing I can figure is that they must have been pursuing prey. There’s no other reason the barn would be of any interest to them.”

“Doors look secure,” Lucas added. He started to reach for the handle. “Maybe there’s people hiding inside.”

Donovan held up his hand. “Wait!” he cautioned.

Lucas retracted his hand as if the handle was a viper.

“We should check around the barn first,” Donovan said. “There’s probably enough clues lying about to tell us all we need to know before we open that door.”

They followed Donovan around the side of the barn while he continued to examine the tracks.

Violet brushed past Lucas and shot, “Fucking amateur.”

Lucas turned to Megan and said, “I’m starting to really not like her.”

Donovan stopped a third of the way along the side and pointed toward an abundance of bent reeds in the grass. “That’s the way they came in,” he said. “By the looks of it, there were a lot of them coming from that direction.”

They could all see the path through the tall grass leading back toward the area of the woods where the smoke plume originated.

“Okay, so the silly bitch left the stove on and then ran for the old ass barn,” Violet whispered.

Donovan led them toward the rear of the barn and stopped.

“Now that’s interesting,” he said, looking up toward a severed rope that hung from an old pulley system that exited the loft. He pointed toward a dark patch of dirt directly beneath. “Something bad happened here.”

Jonathan stepped forward and found more prints than he could count surrounding the dark patch. He knelt down and said, “Looks like blood.”

“Your eyes do not deceive you,” Donovan said.

Megan looked away. “This is too much,” she told Lucas. “I feel like I’m trapped in some crazy ass horror movie.”

The recruits all stepped up and joined Jonathan.

Simon pointed out the obvious. “Something was hanging up there; something heavy enough to snap the line.”

“A body,” Dwayne added.

Donovan laughed. “Very good, recruits. Now, if you can tell us ‘why’, we’ll know what to expect in the barn.”

The recruits stared at him, dumbfounded.

Jonathan continued to stare up at the loft. “There’s no one inside,” he finally said.

“Now how the hell could you know that?” Lucas challenged.

Jonathan turned and smiled at him. “It’s simple, little brother, when you start learning how to think like a survivor.”

Lucas felt the sting of his words.

“Bravo,” Donovan said, folding his arms. “Explain the rest.”

He pointed toward the loft. “Whoever was hiding out here was smart enough to make it to the loft. Higher ground makes sense if you’re outnumbered. It’s clear the barn was surrounded. Someone, or a group of people, got desperate to escape and tied someone to the rope to lure the dead to this spot.”

“Not a group,” Donovan corrected. “We would’ve seen that standing out in the prints. Probably three or four, tops.”

Jonathan nodded. “Anyway, while the zombies went for the carrot, the others got away.”

“But the barn door is still closed,” Violet said. “It wouldn’t make sense that they would take the time to close it behind them.”

Jonathan smiled. “Piece-of-shit barn like this… there’s bound to be another way out. Some rotted out hole we haven’t found yet. That would be my guess.”

Dwayne was already looking around the final side of the barn. “Son-of-a-bitch! He’s right! There’s a hole over here big enough to crawl through.”

“And there you have it,” Donovan said, moving them along. “Well done.”

“I hate to interrupt your fucking Scooby Doo moment,” Megan said, “but isn’t anyone curious as to why someone would hang another human being on a rope to begin with? Who the hell does something like that?”

Jonathan sighed and the recruits shot her a dirty look.

“It’s a valid question.” Lucas tried to defend her.

Before any of them could protest, Donovan added, “He’s right. Not only is Megan’s question valid, it’s also the big question that moves beyond this whole nasty affair and into tomorrow… whatever that might mean.” He moved over toward Lucas and Megan and crouched down. “I’ll try to explain: We teach our recruits about how to survive in many different situations. It is not heroic, glamorous, or something you boast about to your friends on a Friday night to earn their applause at your courage in the face of death. Survival—real survival—is down-right ugly. It is that necessary ‘act’ one must do to make it to the next day… and the next… and the next one after that… Survival is not for the weak of heart, or those wishing to maintain the moral high ground. Survival is about doing what must be done to stay alive… and only those with the firm conviction to do so at any cost, will survive.” He looked up at the loft and then back to Megan, “You asked who would hang another human being on a rope, and I will tell you that whoever it was… is… a survivor.” He got up and walked toward the others. “Any time you’re ready, Jonathan.”

“Right,” he said. “Let’s get inside, people.”

They started toward the front of the barn.

Megan was disturbed. She couldn’t shake Donovan’s cold words.

“Are you alright?” Lucas asked.

She let the others get far enough ahead and then whispered, “I don’t know what your brother’s gotten himself mixed up with here, but that guy gives me the creeps.”

“You mean the guy that saved your life in the woods?”

“Didn’t you hear what he said about all that survival crap? About how morals have nothing to do with it?”

“I think you’re reading more into it than he intended,” Lucas said. “I’ll admit, the man’s a bit intense, but right now… I’m glad he’s around with that bow of his.”

“You just keep on believing that when we’re surrounded by zombies and these guys need a ‘carrot’ of their own to buy them a way out.”

“What are you going on about?”

“It’s all about survival, remember? Who do you suppose the weakest fucking links are in this little group?”

Lucas caught the point. “My brother would never let anything like that happen. I don’t care how much you dislike him, he’s not like that.”

Megan had no response. She couldn’t stop picturing herself hanging on the end of some rope… all in the necessary name of ‘survival’.

~~~

The barn door was unlocked. It groaned on rusted hinges as if the old structure was uttering its last dying wish to be left undisturbed after the assault by the dead.

They entered the gloomy barn, checking every corner and obstruction for movement. Morning light spilled in through cracks along the walls, revealing dust phantoms forever doomed to remain in this decrepit place until it finally collapsed. Four stalls lined the right side of the barn. To the left, an open area led toward the loft near the back. There was a fold-down ladder that still looked functional.

“And this is the best your group could come up with for a ‘safe house’?” Megan asked sarcastically. “I wouldn’t want to spend one night up in that loft. It looks like it’s about to come crashing down any minute.”

Jonathan ignored her and started searching the walls, beams, and floorboards.

“What are you looking for, Jon?” Lucas asked, stepping up to join him.

They walked down the stalls until reaching the last one. Jonathan was too intent on finding whatever he was looking for to pay the others any mind. He opened the last stall gate and stopped, noticing something etched on to one of the old support beams. “Found it!” he said excitedly.

The others moved in around him as Jonathan pointed to the infamous symbol from the flyer that was carved into the beam.

“Well look at that,” Dwayne said with a smile. “I guess this is the place.”

Violet stepped into the stall and began pacing the small area. “Looks like whatever was here was cleared out. There’s nothing in here but old horse shit and straw. She stepped on a loose floorboard in one of the back corners of the stall that creaked loudly beneath her. Her eyes went wide. “No way! Come on… help me.” She got down on her knees as Dwayne and Simon joined her. They all began clearing away the old straw and dust until they saw what looked like a small rectangular door built into the floor. “There’s a compartment under here,” she said.

“All you needed was a great big ‘X’ spray-painted on the floor and this would be just like Treasure Island,” Lucas chided.

“They had an ‘X’, we have a symbol,” Jonathan said with a smile.

They found a small handle and Violet pulled up on it with Dwayne’s help until the door swung up and over, revealing a dark space beneath.

Jonathan retrieved a flashlight and stepped toward the hole. He shined his light, discovering a crawl space about four feet down that looked like it ran beneath the barn. His light hit several dusty bags. “Son-of-a-bitch! It’s all still here!”

They pulled up four large bags with zippers and brought them out into the open area.

“Would you like to do the honors, Don- ” Jonathan stopped himself when he realized Donovan was missing. “Shit! Did anyone see him leave?” he asked, trying not to let his panic become evident to the recruits.

“Relax,” came a deep voice from above. “I wanted to make sure the loft was clear.”

They all looked up toward the loft at the hooded man who sat with his legs dangling over the edge.

“Damn, he’s quiet,” Simon remarked.

“He’s one of the best,” Jonathan said with a smile, shaking his head for allowing himself to become completely distracted by the treasure hunt.

“There’s blood up here,” Donovan said. “Hard to tell what happened, but I’m guessing the bait was already injured when they got secured the loft. It probably made their decision for them.”

Megan frowned and squeezed Lucas’s hand.

“Should we come up there?” Jonathan asked.

“Don’t bother.” Donovan was already elsewhere in thought. “Go ahead and inventory the provisions. I want to check out the view from up here.” He was already on the move, disappearing further into the loft.

Jonathan turned toward the others who looked like children waiting for permission to open Christmas presents. Even Lucas was caught up in the moment, excited by their find. He laughed and said, “Go ahead.”

Each of them took a bag, except Megan, who stood back with her arms folded. She kept staring nervously toward the barn door.

Dwayne unzipped his bag. “MRE’s!” he announced. “There’s enough meals in this bag for a week or more.”

“Tons of camping supplies in this one,” Simon said, opening his bag. “Candles, flashlights, batteries, an emergency radio…” He stopped and pulled out what looked like a pager. “That’s a bit old school.”

“Be careful with that,” Jonathan advised. “That might be our only connection to Headquarters.”

“Bottled water… lots of it,” Lucas said, a little disappointed that his bag wasn’t full of gold coins.

“Oh… baby…” Violet said, reaching into the largest and heaviest bag. She pulled out a crossbow. “Now we’re in fucking business!”

“Wonderful,” Megan said disapprovingly. “Just be careful with that.”

Violet shot her a look and said, “Don’t worry your pretty little head off, we’ve had plenty of weapons training.”

Megan simply rolled her eyes.

She put the crossbow aside and smiled as she checked out the rest of the bag. “Two crossbows, handguns, rifles, a machete, knives… and lots of mother-fucking ammo!”

“Not bad,” Jonathan said. “I’d say the safe house was definitely worth the trip, don’t you?” The question was intended for Megan who was now lost in thought, staring at the strange symbol etched into the beam.

“Megan, are you alright?” Jonathan asked. “We are safe here for now. I wouldn’t worry so much- ”

“What’s it mean?” she interrupted. “Your group apparently has resources and the means to get around, but so far, I haven’t heard any of you call your… organization… by any name. There’s only this symbol that keeps popping up. So what does it mean?”

“Mother,” Jonathan said.

“Excuse me?” Megan unconsciously put her hand on her belly.

He smiled. “It means ‘Mother’.”

“So the name of your group is… Mother? That’s an odd name for- ”

“That’s what the symbol means,” Jonathan clarified. “Well… one meaning at least.”

“Okay, but what does it mean to you?

Before Jonathan could answer, Donovan came down the ladder and approached. “Well, I see we’re all happy campers again,” he said. “Armed is always better than unarmed, even when the odds are still stacked against you.”

“What’s the word?” Jonathan asked. “Are we staying put or should we plan to move the supplies elsewhere?”

“There’s an old road just on the other side of the field, in the area of that black smoke. I only noticed it after I saw the vehicle.”

“Is someone out there?”

Donovan shook his head. “I didn’t see any movement. There are willow trees obstructing the view. Sun’s reflecting off of one of the tail lights. That’s all I could make out from here. Anyway, that’s all I’ve got… make the call.”

Jonathan nodded and turned to the others. “I hate to crash the party, but the area isn’t secure yet. We need to check this out and solve the rest of the mystery. Then, we decide whether to stay or go.”

Violet slammed the magazine into a .45 and racked the slide. “Then what are we waiting for?”

Jonathan smiled. “Same as before, people, we stay low and we stay quiet. Best case scenario: Whatever happened over there is old news and the threat has cleared the area.”

“And the worst case scenario?” Megan asked.

“Maybe we should leave your kid brother and Barbie behind while we take care of this,” Violet suggested.

“Oh, just shut the hell up, already,” Lucas said, pushing her aside and grabbing another handgun out of the bag. He loaded the 9mm with ease. “Look at that,” he mocked, “and I didn’t even need to go to zombie school to figure that out.”

“Well played, little brother,” Jonathan said. He looked to Violet who was trying to burn a hole into Lucas’s head with her eyes. “Calm down, girl. My brother and I have been playing with guns all our lives. I think you just found out that you can only push a Rhodes brother so far.”

Donovan reached down between them and grabbed the pager from the bag. He then slung his bow across his back and headed for the barn door.

“Okay, everyone grab some weapons and put the bags back where we found them,” Jonathan said. “Five minutes, and we roll out.”

Megan walked up to Lucas and kissed him on the cheek. “My hero.”

“Bitch had it coming,” he whispered and then added with a smile, “‘Barbie’… that was kind of funny.”

She gave him a mean face, pinched him in the thigh, and said, “It’s Hell-On-Wheels… and don’t you forget it.”

~~~

They exited the field and stepped on to a narrow dirt road, staying mindful of the quiet forest that sat behind another fence that bordered the road directly across from them. They could smell the smoke coming from that direction.

“I see it,” Simon said, pointing toward a maroon colored Chevy van, partially obscured by the swaying limbs of an enormous willow tree.

As they got closer, they observed that the van was turned sideways blocking half the road. The front end was smashed in after a direct impact with the willow tree.

Donovan was studying the ground. “Lots of prints here. A large group of the dead marched through this area. I imagine the driver was overrun and panicked.”

They stepped cautiously beneath the boughs of the willow and around the back of the van toward the driver side. They noticed immediately that the windows of the van were all smashed in.

“Careful, everyone,” Jonathan whispered as he approached the driver side door with his knife drawn. The window was smashed in like the others and there was blood all over the cracked windshield and steering console. He could see no one inside. Jonathan reached for the handle and opened the door, revealing the bloody and severed remains of a man’s torso and legs still sitting behind the wheel. Jonathan covered his mouth to block out the stench and turned away to keep himself from vomiting.

“Oh, God… something ripped him in half,” Violet said, feeling nauseous herself.

Megan grabbed hold of Lucas and said, “I don’t want to look at this.”

Lucas looked apologetically at the others and walked Megan around the back of the vehicle.

Jonathan turned back toward the corpse and coughed. “That was downright awful.”

“Watch it, Jonathan!” Dwayne called.

He had just enough time to move out of the way as the torso tipped toward the door, spilling out bloody intestines that looked like snakes escaping the man’s body. The guts struck the dirt with a sickening ‘plop’ sound.

Dwayne threw up all over his shoes. “That was… that was wrong,” he managed to get out.

“I think we’ve seen enough,” Jonathan said, backing the others away from the van. “Nothing in there is worth salvaging… not after that.”

“Over here,” Donovan said. He was following a blood trail away from the van toward the fence. “I think I know where the other half went,” he said with a wicked smile, pointing to what looked like dark-colored Jell-O with chunks covering the bottom beam of the fence. “Something dragged our friend under here.” He looked up and finished, “And toward the source of the smoke.”

Jonathan was staring at the stained beam. He shook the image from his head and told the others, “Let’s go. The sooner we finish investigating, the sooner we can get back.”

They were all eager to get as far away from the van as possible as they climbed the old fence and stepped into the forest.

After five minutes, everyone was immediately on edge, waiting for zombies to jump out from behind every tree. After another ten minutes of painstakingly slow progress and trying not to make a sound, they spotted the source of the black smoke.

They stepped into a large yard and saw the remains of a large Victorian style house that had burned to the ground. It was still smoldering from somewhere within the destruction.

Donovan led them toward a small pond where a fountain lay tipped over next to an angelic statue that was missing its head. Surrounding the pond was a beautiful flower garden.

As they got closer, Donovan lifted his hand, telling them all to stop. He then pointed toward a woman who was as still as a statue and easy to overlook. She was sitting on her knees with her back turned toward them. The woman, with long blond hair, wearing a ripped up black shirt, no pants and no shoes, appeared to be staring into the garden. Even from this distance, the woman looked like she’d been outside a while as leaves seemed woven into her tangled mane and torn shirt. It looked like something was wrapped around her chest, just beneath the armpits.

Jonathan looked over at Donovan and mouthed, “Is… she… dead?”

Donovan pointed to the ground, showing him that the blood trail led straight toward the woman.

“Hey… hey, lady… are you alright?” Lucas shouted earning him several reproachful looks.

The woman stirred from her stone-like state, slowly rose to her feet like a drunk, and turned toward the sound… toward Lucas and Megan.

“Oh, dear God,” Megan whispered. “She’s not… human!”

The pale-faced woman with dark, sunken eyes and blood dripping down from her mouth and chin, raised two ghostly limbs and placed her bloody hands along the sides of her head. She let out a soul-piercing scream that made even Donovan back up a step.

Megan almost pitied the poor creature until it tore into her flesh with its savage eyes.

~~~

Next Episode (23-5):
https://freezombienovel.wordpress.com/2014/09/28/chapter-23-5-recruits/

Previous Episode (23-3):
https://freezombienovel.wordpress.com/2014/09/23/chapter-23-3-recruits/

~~~

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________________________________________________
“Chapter 23-4: Recruits” 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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Comments
  1. Artcp says:

    Hey Scott, typos:

    – “Your eyes do no deceive you,” Donovan said.
    do not deceive

    – “I think you’re reading more into it then he intended,” –
    than he intended

    ;D

    Like

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