raven-73179_640

~~~

He woke to the cawing of a raven from just outside his hiding spot. Stephen remained rolled up in a ball as he noticed the late morning light peeking in from under the overturned rowboat. He tried to stretch out but felt sluggish, weak… spent. Every muscle in his body ached. He felt the cool morning air on his semi-damp clothes immediately. Stephen began to shake uncontrollably, understanding that this was his body’s way of fighting the cold.

He wanted to move and find a nice hot fire to jump into, but he was afraid to crawl out into the light. What if they were still out there, just waiting for him to appear?

Stephen had spent last night beneath the rowboat, trying to stay warm and trying not to scream as he watched the feet of the undead pass his location several times.

Falling into the river yesterday had started Stephen’s marathon of survival. He’d been looking at Gina one moment and then the surge came and knocked them both off their feet, sending them underwater and beneath the boardwalk. The water was ice cold. He’d nearly drowned before finally escaping the grip of the powerful storm surge and surfacing on the opposite side of the Grand River, gasping for air. Stephen had managed to keep his numb arms and legs moving long enough to reach the shore. He’d crawled beneath a large pine tree to get out of the wind and rain and get his body core temperature up. He’d removed his shirt and socks, wringing them out as much as possible, and then he’d searched his wet pack for extra clothes but found only Nicole’s soaked diary.

No. No. No! He’d frantically examined the damp ink-smeared pages. More than half the diary was ruined and unreadable. He’d placed the damaged book back in his pack.

Stephen wept at the incredible loss of Nicole’s words, feeling like he’d killed her all over again; death by drowning. He’d received immense comfort from the diary and now… it was gone. Everything was gone.

He’d dressed and managed to keep moving, getting his blood circulating again and attempted to find some real shelter. After getting a good look at his surroundings, it had been clear that he wouldn’t be able to get across the wide river. The boardwalk on the other side was visible and infested with the undead. He’d thought he saw Greg and Ashley running north and away from the boardwalk, but there was nothing he could’ve done.

Five minutes later, they had found him. The undead had come down from both sides of the river and Stephen was trapped between the bank and the new horde. They had pursued him relentlessly, cutting him off at every turn. Stephen had wandered into a wooded area and managed to scale a tree as he had momentarily avoided them long enough to catch his breath while twenty of them passed directly below like a pack of wild animals.

Stephen had continued playing cat and mouse, barely avoiding discovery each time, until finally emerging from the woods and finding a small private beach with an old rowboat washed up among the debris. It wasn’t sea-worthy, but it had saved his life.

Just before the horde invaded the beach from the surrounding woods, Stephen had tipped the rowboat over and crawled beneath it.

They never discovered him.

After giving in to exhaustion and the cold, Stephen had fallen into a deep, dark, feverish sleep.

The late morning light reminded him that he was still alive. Stephen forced himself to crawl out from under the boat to take a look around. The wind still threatened but the rain had finally stopped.

The beach was quiet.

He lifted his face up toward the partial sun trying to break free of the broken clouds, and soaked in the little bit of warmth it afforded. The deep sleep had helped restore some of his strength, although the fever persisted as he walked twenty feet toward the water’s edge and began to sweat. He began to feel light-headed and quickly sat in the sand.

This is pointless. I can’t even walk out of here… wherever ‘here’ is.

Stephen had no idea how far up river he’d traveled, losing all sense of time while trying to flee from the undead. He remembered Gina telling Greg to head for the boathouse, and if that didn’t work out, to keep taking the river east. By now, if any of the others made it out alive, they could be well ahead of him, or still back at the boathouse.

He sat dejectedly in the sand, throwing his arms over his shaking knees. He noticed the river was getting narrower. Well, at least that much was decided. He’d have to keep heading east until the river was crossable. The thought of going one step further… alone… seemed impossible.

Talk about being up shit creek without a paddle.

The thought made Stephen laugh out loud. It was a strange sound to his ears. How long had it been since he could laugh about anything? Probably long before this nightmare began.

The beach became shrouded in shadow. Stephen looked up and watched the sun disappear again.

Well, of course. He shook his head, smiled and declared to the sky, “You win, God. I’m beat. I have nothing left to lose and nothing to gain by trying… I’m done.”

There was no response from the sky. The beach remained silent.

Stephen laughed again and said, “I wouldn’t know what to say either… it’s alright… I’m just going to sit here awhile… and let this fever have at me.” He felt his mood turn dark as the tears started falling. “I’m truly sorry, for what it’s worth… I’m sorry about killing Nicole… I’m sorry about not being home when my wife needed me… I’m sorry for the worthless, hollow life I’ve lived for so damn long…” Once the breach in his emotions was made, it all started pouring out of him. His anguish came from a well running deep and his tears turned into sobs as he rolled over in the sand, wishing he could just die, right in that moment, but settled for burying his face in his arms. “I can’t carry this anymore,” he whispered. “It’s too much… the guilt is just too damn much.”

From somewhere close, he could hear the moans again, just beneath the wind. They must have heard him on the beach, or perhaps it was his monstrous tormentor of guilt who summoned them to resume his punishment.
Either way, the dead were coming back.

Stephen didn’t care. He was finished. No more running. No more hiding. Death had never sounded so inviting… so liberating. He would lie there and receive his punishment one bloody bite mark at a time. Let them have this worthless shell! As long as they consume the guilt, with the rest, then let them have it all!

He could hear them getting closer. He almost envied them. The dead had more dedication, more conviction to stay reanimated and feed, then he had to remain alive. Well, let them have their prize.

Stephen thought of the diary. He’d carried her words all this way, hoping to find some small fraction of redemption, and what he’d discovered instead was a young woman who was full of life and he’d been feeding off that vitality ever since. Nicole believed in him, despite the fact that he believed in nothing.

“Thank you, Nicole. Thank you for carrying me all this way.” He felt surprisingly warm within. There was still room in that haunted darkness of Stephen’s soul which could still feel something genuine. For once, the guilt had no influence over his heart or his inability to be open and honest. He was incapable of returning the young woman’s love for a thousand superficial reasons in the old world full of pretension. But the real reason beneath all the bullshit was that Stephen believed himself incapable of real love. His whole life had been an act. He’d learned how to emulate it and offer up a mediocre copy of the real deal—but to really love someone meant that he had to receive it himself and let it consume him entirely. This was what the dead woman gave to him. This was what remained, echoing off the pages of a ruined book, penetrating the hollow places within him. And now, there was no denying what he felt for Nicole. She’d shown him not only what it meant to be loved, but how good it felt to give it back unconditionally.

“I love you, Nicole,” he said confidently, the words releasing him from his prison at last.

The undead exited the woods and began sniffing at the air.

Stephen closed his eyes and sat beside that warm fire within. He wanted it to end… just like this… just like this.

“Stephen, you have to come with me now.”

He’d heard her thoughts in his head frequently and assumed it was the diary’s influence on his imagination and in his dreams. Her lovely voice sounded so clear now… just as he imagined it.

“STEPHEN!”

He turned around and saw a young woman standing above him. She looked radiant, like an angel. Her long brown hair flowed down her bare shoulders in the wind. Her sky-blue strapless dress made her look like a goddess… the woman was beautiful… the woman was…

Nicole!

“If you love me, Stephen, please… get up and come with me.” Nicole held her hand out toward him.

“What?” Stephen was backing away from the apparition. “What?! No!”

It was the fever. He was hallucinating. But she seemed so… real?

Nicole frowned and said, “Please don’t do this to me again. I can’t let you lie here as those savages take you from me… not after all I’ve done… not after how far I’ve come to get you back!”

They had found him. The dead started toward him on legs which were too slow to keep up with their intense hunger.

“You’re not real,” he said. “I’m… I’m making this happen somehow.”

“Yes… yes… you’re right,” Nicole said. “But that’s hardly important right now. Stephen! They’ve found you! GET UP!”

Stephen closed his eyes. “I’ve lost my mind. I’m insane… that’s what this is.”

Nicole looked past him at the shambling corpses who were closing the distance. She sat down beside him. “Look at me!”

Stephen opened his eyes.

“Alive, dead, in your head… doesn’t matter right now, my love. What matters is that you come with me… now… or I’m going to stay right here and let those things get me, too.”

“No! You can’t be here! I can’t watch you die again!”

She smiled and said, “Ditto.”

Stephen went blank before that radiant smile.

“We’re out of time. Either I die here with you, or you choose to live another day… with me. We’re doing this together, one way or the other.”

Nicole was so alive in that moment… it was infectious. Whether she was dead, or a manifestation of his insanity or part of a feverish dream, he couldn’t let those things reach her. Absolutely not!

Stephen got up and turned toward the first zombie. He grabbed a piece of driftwood near his feet, lifted it over his head and brought it down with surprising force on the creature’s head until its skull cracked.

The monster fell to the sand.

The rest were coming.

He turned back to find Nicole. She was gone.

She could hear her in his head: It’s time to live, my love. Time to live.

Stephen turned toward the east and forced his legs forward. For a moment, he resembled the dead who were reaching out for him, and then he started running.

It’s time to live, my love.

He ran until he cleared the beach and never looked back. He reached the woods and slowed down, but he refused to stop, fearing his throbbing legs would betray him once he did. His body ached, his head felt like lead, he struggled for every breath… but he kept pushing.

He followed the river east, looking for a place to cross over.

Nicole was dead. He knew this.

But Nicole was also here. Crazy or not, Stephen chose to embrace the insanity… and live.

~~~

Next Episode 15-4

Previous Episode 15-2

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 15-3: Lost” Copyright © 2014, 2015 Scott Scherr. From the Novel “Don’t Feed The Dark, Book One: Southbound Nightmares”.

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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