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~~~

Meredith woke early, rising with the new day that greeted the community in Andover. She wanted to get an early start and brush up on her former skills as a student nurse some several thousand years ago, long before her ‘gift’ became a burden and changed the course of her life.

She crept out of the living quarters that she, Marcus and Stephen still shared above the diner, being mindful not to wake the two men snoozing on the couches or Gina and Tony who occupied the bedroom a few feet away. She hesitated for a moment before Gina’s door and smiled. Now that’s the best thing that’s happened to that poor girl in a long, long while. Her Tony coming back is a blessing. She frowned as she finished her thought. And not a moment too soon. She was heading down a dark path that none of us could follow. Maybe now that Tony’s back, she can do some healing.

She thought about the rest of their good fortune as the larger group that came in with Samantha made it possible for all of them to finally relax and stop running. Maybe now we all get to be something other than just survivors. Maybe we can find a new purpose and help this group become something even bigger than it is now…

Meredith shook her head at the early morning optimism and whispered, “Calm down, old girl. We still have to get through the rest of today first.”

She slipped down the stairs and into the diner to discover that Samantha was nowhere around. That woman is intense. A strong woman and a good replacement for Gina. The thought gave her pause as she hadn’t realized how much she wanted Gina to step down from that role until now. It’s for the best.

Meredith stepped outside and immediately caught the red sky in the east, climbing over the treetops and roofs of the small town, bringing with it, the promise of inspiration… at least, she hoped so. She sat down on the diner steps and soaked it all in.

“It feels damn good to stop and take in some beauty still left in the world,” she thought out loud. Her thoughts shifted to Hannah, her partner and friend. They used to watch the sunrises together every morning just to make sure they started their days the way God had intended. Hannah was good about things like that. Meredith smiled fondly, remembering her lover’s genuine enthusiasm when it came to matters of spirituality and faith.

The two women had met while attending nursing school. They’d started off as study partners and soon became instant friends. When they’d both discovered they shared silent feelings toward each other, they became lovers, moved in together, and fell deeply in love.

Meredith frowned as she thought about what had followed. After she started having ‘episodes’ again after years of no activity, Meredith started having visions of death surrounding strangers she’d met. It had been an overwhelming time for Meredith as she thought it was her responsibility to share what she saw with the people it pertained to. Most were terrified by what Meredith had to say, and she was branded a freak.

Hannah had been her only support when the school caught wind of Meredith’s odd behavior as she started upsetting other students by revealing things about their lives that often came true days later—and it was always bad things, involving the deaths of people they knew.

Her school had asked her to leave, saying that she was causing a disturbance. Meredith had left quietly, giving up on her nursing career and Hannah had quit as well, after causing a scene in defense of her lover. Afterwards, Hannah encouraged Meredith’s gift and helped her try to understand it.

Meredith smiled and let a tear fall as she remembered how encouraging Hannah had been all through that confusing time. Even toward the end, Hannah had been the selfless one…

She forced the thoughts aside and got up to find the community doctor who agreed to go over medical fundamentals with her this morning.

Dr. Cooper was a strange man, about ten years her senior. He had a dry sense of humor about him, catching her off guard with his light-hearted comments toward death in general. They’d met late last night after the meeting when she had gone to check on Frank’s injuries at the jail.

He’d gone there at Sam’s request to make sure Frank didn’t die of his arm injury. Sam wanted first dibs on Frank’s demise and she wasn’t about to lose her prize to an infected gun shot wound.

Meredith had already cleaned and dressed the arm by the time Cooper had shown up. He’d said, “Alright, outside, young lady (she found that humorous), we need to talk.”

She’d stepped outside and the doctor had given her a serious look.

“Did I do something wrong?” she’d asked.

“As punishment for stealing my job away… I’m afraid I’m going to have to shoot you once in the arm just to have a patient to treat. That’s just the way it is now in the zombie world.”

It had taken her a moment, but then she saw the man with silver hair and a cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth crack a smile. “You are Sam’s doctor… right?” she’d asked.

“No… I’m the pizza delivery guy… probably the last one around in all of Lake County, so you better be tipping well.” He’d winked.

Meredith had giggled and cupped her mouth.

“I see you have a little former training,” he’d said. “Since I’m suddenly free of my patient, why don’t you buy me a drink and we’ll talk about putting your skills to good use.”

“I… I know a little,” she’d said. “It’s been years, but I once attended nursing school. Some of the basic first-aid stuff stayed with me, but I’m rusty with the rest.”

“You’re hired!” he’d said. “Now… about that drink?”

Meredith had given the older doctor a teasing look and said, “My Momma raised me right, sir. I don’t let strange men buy me drinks. I don’t even know your name?”

“Call me Cooper… everyone else does,” he’d said. “And you need to work on your attention skills, sweetheart. I said you were buying me a drink. But not to worry, I’m a cheap date… but a lousy dancer.”

Meredith hadn’t laughed that hard in ages. “Well… in that case, let me buy you that drink… Mr. Cooper.”

He’d held out the crook of his arm and she took it. “Now… were the hell is the bar in this place?”

They’d ended up walking the perimeter as Cooper continued to make her laugh with jokes and funny stories he’d heard over the years. They’d talked very little about medical treatment, or of zombies, or of any of the many other current event topics sure to depress a dog (his analogy), but he had promised to show her some stuff this morning.

Meredith smiled, thinking about the strange doctor, and wondered if there might be more going on than Cooper’s need to have a nurse to help him.

“My… oh… my,” she said with a smile. She looked up at the dawn and whispered, “Hannah… I do believe that man has a crush on me. I wish you were here to see the look on his face when I finally have to break the bad news.” Meredith shook her head and whispered, “I do miss you so much.”

She wiped a tear from her eye and walked on down the street to find Dr. Cooper. She felt surprising light this morning for the first time in weeks. She was still managing to keep the dead locked out of her mind, suppressing the curse and trying to forget everything about being a medium. For the first time in a long time, Meredith could simply be a woman again and do ordinary things like everyone else. She found this prospect exhilarating.

~~~

Later that morning, Marcus offered to assist Sam’s people assigned to search the nearby buildings for supplies and any dead stragglers that might be trapped inside. Most of the closest buildings bordering the perimeter had been searched the previous evening but Sam wanted them searched again, with a fresh and well-rested crew. The last thing she needed was a zombie to come strolling outside right in the middle of their camp because someone had been too tired to catch it the first time around. They were put into two-person groups and each group was assigned a portion of the block.

“That woman is one relentless overlord, and a bit too anal for my liking… but she gets the job done so folks like me can continue to stay fat, dumb and happy. Know what I mean, new guy?” A robust man in a soiled t-shirt, wearing a white cowboy hat that was far too big for his head, let out an obnoxious sounding laugh that assaulted Marcus’s ears.

Marcus politely smiled at the loud man and then pointed toward a small brick building. “That’s the Post Office,” he said. “It’s next on the list.”

“Don’t bother, new guy,” the fat man said. He was starting to sweat from the little bit of walking they’d done so far. “No need to check places that won’t offer anything useful. Unless, of course, you want to snoop around and read a bunch of dead folks’ mail.” He leaned in and whispered, “I bet it’s no longer a Federal crime anymore… know what I mean, new guy?” The man laughed again.

Marcus rolled his eyes and silently wondered if finding yourself that amusing could be made into a Federal crime. “We should still make sure it’s clear. Your boss included in on the list.”

“Yeah… yeah… yeah. But if I we find a dead postal worker in there, it’s going to be hard to tell if he’s a zombie or just the mail man gone nuts!” This time the fat man laughed so hard that he grabbed the back of Marcus’s shoulder to support himself. “Damn… that was some funny shit!”

Marcus was suddenly feeling… postal. At the first opportunity he was going to seek a new search partner. “After you,” he said, stepping aside to let the fat man lead. This is your show… I’m just here to help.”

The fat man continued to pollute the air with an endless supply of words as Marcus followed him up the Post Office front steps and through the glass double-door.

“Joe,” he whispered from behind the fat man, “now might be a good time to save the chatter.” He pointed in to the dark office.

“Oh… right… of course. Thanks, new guy,” Joe whispered. The fat man ducked down, gaining no concealment by doing so. He lifted the baseball bat he was carrying and looked back. “There’s nothing to worry about. I can take out any zombies we might find with this. I was state champion on my college baseball team back in- ”

“Joe… the Post Office? Please?”

Joe laughed again and nodded, “Right… right… just keep it cool, new guy, and follow my lead. I’ve done this a hundred times… nothing to worry about… just try not to get in my way, okay?”

Marcus looked at his machete and then back at Joe. If I told his people he had a serious accident and fell head first on my machete…

“Okay, Joe… I got it.” Marcus followed the fat man with the absurd cowboy hat deeper into the dark Post Office.

Joe’s nervousness came out through his perspiration as he continuously wiped sweat off his brow and jumped at every sound.

The interior of the Post Office was littered with mail, overturned desks and chairs, and the smell of something long dead lingered in the air.

“Looks clear,” Joe said. “We should turn around… I forgot to bring a flashlight.”

Marcus clicked his on and handed it to the fat man.

“Right… right,” Joe said as he reluctantly turned around and headed for a door towards the rear of the office area. He held his bat up in shaky hands and Marcus prudently stepped back to avoid being accidently struck in the face by the state champion’s fear-driven swing should he see a mail room mouse or the like.

Joe reached for the door knob and then hesitated, drawing in deep breaths.

“Is everything alright, Joe?” Marcus whispered.

“Yeah… yeah… just need a minute… to prepare myself… you know… just in case…”

Marcus frowned and then stepped up beside Joe. “Why don’t you let me check this one. I need the practice anyway.”

Joe gave Marcus a grateful look and said, “Okay. But… be careful. You never know what’s lurking around in these tight, dark spots.”

Marcus grabbed the knob, turned it, and gently pushed it ajar. He reached for his machete and pushed the door all the way open while Joe held the flashlight up over his shoulder.

“Dear God!” Joe said, nearly dropping the light.

Marcus quickly took the flashlight from Joe as the fat man turned to his left and vomited on yesterday’s mail.

He shined the light into the back room, at the dead man who hung up against the wall with his arms outstretched and secured by what looked like long tent spikes jammed into his hands. The front of the man’s coveralls were soaked in blood that spilled from a large slit across his neck. His eyes were open, his face frozen with the last look of terror before he was bled out as his head leaned to the right.

“That’s… that’s Phillip Hampton,” Joe said, trying to recover. “He was out with us on patrol last night. He finished his shift and turned in… so we thought.” He stepped in beside Marcus and forced himself to look at the grim scene.

Marcus lifted the light to a spot just over Phillip’s head. Someone had scrawled a message in blood, just beneath a three pronged symbol with an eye on top. The message read:

YOU KILL US. WE KILL YOU. BLOOD FOR BLOOD.

“What the hell is this?” Joe asked. He was visibly shaken.

Marcus frowned at the symbol and let out a heavy sigh. “It appears the people who were here before your group pulled into town… have returned.”

“Sam needs to know about this right away. My God! What kind of animals would do something like that to poor Phillip? And how the hell did they slip past us?!”

Marcus shook his head. “That’s a good question, Joe.”

~~~

Stephen spent the first few hours of day number two in the Andover camp trying to find a way to save his friend from being executed. All his hopes rested on helping the good-natured Orosco convince the majority of his camp that Frank Carman was a rehabilitated man. Apparently, the apocalypse had done for Frank what the penal system failed to do, and it was Stephen’s job to prove that this former drug smuggler/murderer was no longer the same man.

As of yet… he had no fucking idea how he was going to do that.

After Orosco departed to make arrangements for the so-called trial, Stephen wandered into the small park to clear his head. He ended up stopping near Greg and Amanda’s graves and sat down in the grass.

He scanned the area to see if anyone was around. Other than a pair of Sam’s men that briefly glanced his way on their patrol through the park, Stephen found himself alone.

He looked at the empty grave that was dug for Amanda and thought, No loved ones to mourn your passing and no body to mourn over. What a sad way to die.

Stephen pulled the pack off his back and retrieved Nicole’s diary. He looked around once more to make sure no one was watching him, and then turned his gaze upward toward the trees. “I keep reading this thing, hoping that it somehow reestablishes our connection… or something… but then I remember that I made you up in my head, from this damn book of cursed words.” He laughed at himself. “You’d think a grown man could accept his own temporary insanity, assuming I’m sane now, and not rely on made up talismans to summon the dead. Pretty foolish of me, don’t you think, Nicole?”

He didn’t expect an answer. Stephen looked back at Amanda’s grave. “And what about you, Amanda? Anything to add? I don’t mean to be cold, but your life was as shallow as your death—as empty as the whiskey bottle we finished off in your honor.” He waited, half-expecting the ghost of the dead alcoholic to rise from the dirt in a fit of rage—the woman who was as haunted by her own guilt as he. The difference between them: Amanda had cheated. She found a way to escape the guilt of her life by performing one heroic and selfless act to save him and for her dead daughter’s sake. And now, she got to enjoy the freedom her death provided. “No… nothing? Well, okay then. How about this one: I murdered your daughter the night you found me—stabbed her right in the eye and then stole her diary. I never had a chance to tell you that when you were too busy sacrificing your life for my pathetic existence. So how about it, Amanda? Why don’t you come back from that place where the dead don’t stay dead and ghosts roam free to torment the living and put an end to this? I don’t deserve to still be here!”

He tossed the diary at Amanda’s grave in frustration.

Stephen shook his head. “I can’t believe I’m sitting here trying desperately to communicate with a dead girl and her mother. It seems that I’d rather be hallucinating than actually getting well. That is, if you call this fucking numbness quicksand I’m slowly sinking in getting well.”

He got up and started pacing. “Where the hell are you, Nicole? I thought we were supposed to be together. I thought you were supposed to be as real as our fucking love allowed? Well… where the hell are you when I need you the most?”

Stephen was losing it. He focused on the trial instead. “I have a chance to save Frank… it’s a small chance… but who knows. Maybe I can reason with these people and get them to call Sam off this vengeance kick she’s on. Maybe I’ll fail. I’d love to talk to Gina about it but she’s got enough on her plate. Meredith’s off playing community nurse and Marcus… well… he’s just Marcus.” He looked up toward the trees and continued. “I would really love to speak with you, Nicole. There’s so much that needs to be resolved between us. So much I can’t handle by myself right now… Do you even care anymore? Was I just a means to an end and now that your mother’s dead, there’s no reason for you to stick around? Did you even see what Amanda did for us at the end… how she saved my life because she knew how much I mattered to you?” He threw his hands in the air. “Whatever! Maybe this is the hell that I truly deserve!”

The patrol was heading back in his direction.

Stephen picked up the diary, sat back down and waited for them to pass again.

“Nicole,” he whispered. “I’ve been stalling. The trial gave me something to focus on other than you, your mother, or the fucking guilt monster that laughs behind my back. I need you to come out from wherever you’re hiding and just… talk to me again.” He nearly cried over the awful truth: He would rather give in to the insanity of a dead girl he’d brought back to life in his disturbed mind, than deal with the alternative of knowing that he was now completely alone.

“I’m leaving this place… when the trial is done,” he told her. “When Frank’s been cleared of his old crimes, I’ll have just enough strength left to finish all this. One way or the other… I’m not living like this any longer.”

He opened the diary and turned to the last page that was half full of Nicole’s final words among the living. He pulled out a pen from his pack and picked a place several lines down, and stared writing:

My name is Stephen Eddington, former history teacher, lousy husband and murderer of Marie Nicole Howard. In summary: The world is infested by the dead now. The living that remain are counting off the days until the darkness has finished us off—the crumbs of that old life. After stabbing Nicole to death and playing my part in this cosmic joke of traveling with her abusive mother, who died saving my life, I have become the last ghost, the last phantom in this sick drama that’s about to close. Hopefully I can do one good thing before I take the coward’s way out and take my place in hell among the condemned… Nicole, I loved you, because you found a way to make me see it… even in death, you have managed to come back, strike the deepest blow, and tear apart this worthless heart that is cursed to keep beating… Bravo. You made a believer out of me just in time to turn me into the greatest fool of all: A man in love with a dead girl who has now been robbed of even that fantasy. You’ve won. Death by broken heart. I will be joining you and your mother very shortly… End of Story.

Stephen closed the diary and placed it on the dirt that was Amanda’s grave. He reached into his pack to retrieve the lighter he’d found at the jail. Stephen lit one corner of the weathered book. Once it got burning, he simply watched it wither into black ash, as he envied the rising smoke of dead words released at last.

“Goodbye,” was all he had left to say as he continued to watch the book burn.

“Finally,” the voice of the young woman said from the nearby park bench.

Stephen turned and smiled. He never imagined he could feel such relief brought on by his own madness.

Nicole smiled back at him and said, “I was waiting for you to rid yourself of the rest, my love. That book, that awful, awful book, had to go. It reeks of the memories of my dead mother, your shallow existence from before, and my naïve ramblings… it all had to go before we could finally begin.”

Stephen simply stared at the dead girl, who sat before him dressed in ripped and blood stained clothes, a large knife sticking out of her eye. For him, she was a horrifically tragic, and yet, beautiful sight to behold.

“Do you see me now, Stephen? Do you really see me?”

“Ye…Yes.”

“Are you still afraid?”

“No.”

“And can you still love me… even now… like this? Can you see me beyond all that guilt?”

Stephen felt no hesitation. “Yes. Just please… don’t leave.”

The pale dead woman smiled back at him and said, “I never left you, my love.” The corpse of the dead girl
got up and said, “Now, see me with all of your heart, and walk away from the rest of this… disgusting guilt. That’s the only way I can stay. Do you understand?”

Stephen nodded. He was already in tears. “Yes. I understand… now.”

Nicole held out her hand and finished, “It’s over Stephen. Everything that was dead before, everything that stood in our way… is gone. Do you believe it now?”

“Yes.”

“Then get over here and don’t look back… leave the rest of it behind… in that empty grave.”

Stephen slowly got to his feet and approached the imaginary corpse.

“Take my hand,” she said. “If you can do that without asking yourself ‘how’ or ‘why’ any longer… than our love will do something you could never imagine. If you can embrace this, without question, we will never be apart again.”

Stephen looked at the pale blood-smeared limb and did not question.

He reached out and took Nicole’s hand.

~~~

“Who else knows about this?” Sam studied the dead man on the wall with her flashlight.

“Well… uh… Sam… we found Phillip… like this… and I told the new guy that we needed to see you straight away,” Joe stammered. He was a sweaty mess.

“Who else, Joe?” Sam repeated. “I know you can’t keep that mouth of yours shut for more than a few minutes. This is serious shit so you better tell me the truth right now.”

“He’s telling the truth,” Marcus stepped in. “We came straight to the diner from here.”

Sam glanced at Marcus and then shined the light in Joe’s face. “But you’re not telling me the whole truth, are you, Joe? Was this building checked last night on the first sweep?”

Joe ran a nervous hand through his hair.

“You stupid son-of-a-bitch,” she mumbled under her breath, shaking her head and returning to the corpse. “So someone was hiding out in here… right under our fucking noses… because you couldn’t do the one thing you were supposed to do last night.”

“Well… Sam… let me explain… I didn’t think the Post Office- ”

“Shut up. That wasn’t a question.” Sam continued to examine the body. “This couldn’t have happened too long ago. Judging by how long the blood’s been congealing, I’d say that the fucker who did this, did it just before dawn, probably when you were turning over patrol duties.”

“That was my assessment, as well,” Marcus added. “The message seems the more important detail… as well as the ‘signature’, aka, that symbol we’re all familiar with.”

“You’re one of Gina’s go-to guys, right?” Sam asked, still studying the body.

Marcus smiled. “I’ve never thought of myself like that… but, yes, I suppose I am these days.”

“Then you’ll be reporting this back to her, correct?”

When Marcus hesitated, Sam turned her flashlight on him. “You are planning on telling her about this, aren’t you?”

“Honestly… Sam… it hadn’t crossed my mind,” he said. “It’s clear to me that you’re in charge of this camp, and, well, Gina’s been a bit distracted as of late.”

“But you answer to her, Marcus. And this ‘message’ was clearly targeted toward your group and the mess that we inherited when we let you all stay. I don’t understand why you’re still here.”

“Again, this seemed like a matter for the proper authorities to handle. You being a police officer makes this your problem whether we brought it on you or not. Was I wrong to come to you?”

Sam laughed. “Seems like everyone wants me to be the cop… when it’s convenient. Well, Marcus, you are correct. This is a police matter now… a police investigation. Since you and that dumb-ass standing next to you were the first on the scene, you are my primary suspects.”

“Sam… you don’t think that we… that we could’ve done something like this?!” Joe couldn’t stop sweating.

“Calm down, Joe. I was just starting a point that I would appreciate you letting me finish.”

Joe shut his trap.

Sam stood up and told them both, “Since you are both directly involved with my investigation, until I release you otherwise, you will do exactly what I tell you. Am I making myself perfectly fucking clear?”

They both nodded.

Sam looked back at Phillip’s body and put a hand over her mouth. She looked up at the three-pronged symbol and said, “Truth is, due to that ‘signature’ you mentioned, Marcus, I think it’s clear who’s fucking with us. Maybe it’s those three kids your group let get away, or maybe they went back to the wilderness preserve, reported everything, and then they got some nastier people then them to come back and do this. Either way, we have to assume they know we’re all here.” She started to pace. “If that crazy bastard, Micom, knows that myself, Tony and Orosco made it out of his death camp, then that makes us all to blame for this mess.”

“Then why leave the message at all?” Marcus asked. “Why not just attack us in force? Why would they tip their hand and let us know they’re here?”

Sam gave him a grave face. “Because, Marcus, if Micom wants us dead, we’re going to be dead and it’s not going to be clean. He’s going to make us all suffer in ways you can’t even imagine.”

“That sounds… unpleasant.”

Sam nodded. “Yeah.” And then a horrible possibility struck her. “Here’s what you two are going to do. You both will stay here, hidden, and keep everyone out of this building. If this is an isolated incident, I want my crime scene preserved and I want to keep everyone else from freaking the fuck out. I need everyone’s head clear so we can get our shit together this afternoon. Also, in the event the attacker returns, which I find unlikely, you’ll both be here to deal with it.”

Joe looked like he was about to protest.

“Not a word, Joe. This is your mess. You will stay here. Am I clear?”

“I understand,” Marcus said. “This will also keep the two of us from blabbing… am I right?”

“You’re quick, Marcus. Yes, since you are still my primary suspects, we’ll call this ‘house arrest’ until I let you both off this detail. If you would prefer, I could put you both in cells next to that asshole, Carman?”

“No… Sam… we’ll stay here,” Joe said.

“Okay,” she said. “Once I leave here, we’ll pretend we haven’t discovered our dead friend yet and I’ll get people moving and packed so we can be out of here long before nightfall.”

Marcus gave her a puzzled look. “Do you expect an attack?”

Sam laughed nervously and said, “Best case scenario: This is the work of your three friends that wanted a little hit-and-run payback so that they could save face in front of Micom and not go back looking like complete fools after what Gina did to them.”

“And the worst case?” Marcus asked.

Sam looked pale. “Worst case scenario, Marcus, is that once the sun goes down… if we’re still here… the fucking Shadow Dead will strike this town and kill every single one of us before we’ve got time to fucking scream.”

~~~

Next Episode (25-7):
https://freezombienovel.wordpress.com/2014/11/10/chapter-25-7-reunions-and-departures/

Previous Episode (25-5):
https://freezombienovel.wordpress.com/2014/11/04/chapter-25-5-reunions-and-departures/

~~~

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________________________________________________
“Chapter 25-6: Reunions and Departures” 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. Anonymous says:

    As always great chapter excellent writing.

    Like

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