Unknown21

~~~

“Alright, who’s got the aspirin?” Gina asked weakly, holding the back of her head. The morning light stung her eyes as she sat up next to Meredith. Her jeans felt stiff but dry, thanks to last night’s fire. Someone had stripped her wet blouse off during the night. She was now wearing a thin dark brown sweater over a white tank top. She looked toward Marcus suspiciously as he covered the remains of the fire to keep the smoke from giving them away.

“Yes, honey, those are his clothes, but I took care of the rest,” Meredith said with a smile. “No worries, your modesty is still intact.”

Gina found that comical, considering her former occupation. She turned to Marcus. “Thanks for the loaner.”

“Looks better on you, anyway,” he said with a wink.

“I understand you carried my fat ass the whole way. That’s the second time you’ve saved my life.”

Marcus dismissed it with a wave. “You would have done the same for us.”

“Well, thank you all the same. Thank you both.”

Meredith nodded with a smile. “We took the liberty of packing everything up. I figured you would want to move as soon as you were able.”

She immediately thought of her backpack and became alarmed. “My stuff?”

“Here you go,” Meredith said, handing her the pack. “I tried to dry out what I could, but it’s still pretty damp.”

Gina went for the map and found it still protected by the zip-locked bag. Thank you, Doug, for thinking ahead! She started looking toward the river for the big man, who would have been neck-deep in some conversation about their next move with Greg by now, before it struck her like a brick:

Doug is dead.

Her eyes began to water up. She had no time for tears. Gina shook off her emotions and slowly got up to look around. She felt strange, not seeing all those familiar faces. Their group, now reduced to three, distressed her to no end. “We need to get back to the boathouse.”

“We thought you might say that,” Marcus said, grabbing his gear. “This place was starting to creep us out. I don’t think any of us are accustomed to being out in the elements for too long anymore… let alone spending the night out here.”

Meredith nodded. “Gina, there were too many sounds last night, with too much time to imagine what was making them.”

Gina smiled at the dear woman and grabbed her pack. She stopped. “Shit. My gun’s gone isn’t it?”

“You lost it in the river.” Marcus lifted the machete. “We still have this.”

“And this,” Meredith added, pointing to her noggin.

Gina laughed. “Well, I guess with your brains, my good looks, and Marcus’s big knife, we should be more than a match for the undead this morning.”

“That’s the spirit!” Marcus said.

Meredith shook her head and said jokingly, “That man reeks of optimism. If you ask me… that could get us in a lot of trouble.” She winked at Marcus who raised his arms with a guilty-as-charged look.

Gina laughed. “This is insane. Things couldn’t be any worse at the moment and we’re still… laughing?”

“Actually, we’re fairing very well considering,” Marcus said. “Even our worst days now—and I think this qualifies as one of those—is still better than the alternative.”

Gina looked to Meredith and raised her eyebrows. “And how are you feeling, Meredith?”

“Better than a dead man,” she said with a smile. “Shall we go find our friends?”

They started down the river toward the boathouse.

Gina thought back to her conversation with Doug about laughter, shedding silent tears for the former baseball player turned leader of this motley crew. Doug, my friend, you were more right than you ever knew. The day laughter finally takes a dirt nap, we might as well call it quits.

She wept for him because there was no one else who could. Family, friends, and even former acquaintances were starting to feel like obsolete notions from the past.

Doug would’ve argued against that futile line of thinking. Sure he would’ve. He was good like that.

And who will be around to remember any of us in the long, hard days to come? The dead don’t remember the living… not in this place.

Gina allowed that fond memory with Doug to linger a bit longer… for as long as she still had breath.

~~~

Charlie and Amanda had departed the boathouse in the morning, following the river east. The area was surprisingly quiet. Charlie had reasoned that the undead must have moved farther inland overnight, perhaps catching wind of prey elsewhere. After passing the boat graveyard they had seen on their way in, Charlie moved them into the adjacent woods, hoping to pass a house to forage from.

Neither one of them had spoken to each other since the previous evening. Charlie seemed oblivious, once again lost in his own thoughts. He was different now—not like the little Chihuahua which barked all the time and pissed itself whenever trouble came. No, Charlie was definitely a different breed now.

Amanda followed after, staring often at the back of Charlie’s balding head and imagining how good it would feel to place a knife there. The taste of warm Coke did very little to remove the aftertaste of humiliation inflicted on her and she wrestled all morning with dark thoughts of slitting Charlie’s throat in his sleep. In the end, her fear of the undead outweighed the need to avenge her pride. Amanda was resourceful, if nothing else, and she decided that she could endure Charlie long enough to get somewhere safe. After that, he could rot and burn. She’d been in other despicable positions in her life, doing all manner of lowly acts to maintain her easy access to alcohol. Now, the new addiction was survival… and she would do whatever it took to stay safe.

Charlie stopped abruptly, noticing something near the river, and knelt down. “Shit!”

Amanda dropped down, her heart rate doubling. “What is it? Zombies?”

“No… much worse. It’s Gina.”

Amanda never knew that the red-headed bitch’s name could ever sound so comforting. “They’re still alive!” she said, standing up. She saw them. Gina, Meredith, Marcus… Thank-fucking-God!

“What are you doing?” Charlie asked. “Get down before they see you.”

She ignored him and started toward the river.

“Wait!” Charlie hissed.

Amanda turned. “Are you for real? They’re looking for us, asshole! What are we waiting for?”

“We have an arrangement… remember? You do what I say.”

“Fuck you!”

Charlie stood up. “Fuck you, bitch! Take a good look at them before you forget yourself! I see three walking zombie steaks wandering the river. Where’s the others? I’ll tell you. They’re already dead!”

Amanda stopped.

“Ask yourself, now that Captain Baseball’s gone and struck out, who do you think has the strength left to lead this pathetic group?”

Amanda looked at him and frowned.

“That’s right, bitch! I’m that guy now—should’ve been that guy all along! You’ve seen what I can do. What do you think’s going to happen when the monsters come back? You already saw what happened to them at the marina… they scattered like fucking ants! So who do you think’s going to save the day?”

She sighed. “You are.”

“Fucking-A-Right! Now get your silly ass back here and sit the fuck down… now!”

Amanda sat down.

“Now, that’s a good little bitch.”

She wanted to gouge his eyes out.

Charlie considered the implications of finding what was left of the group as a cocky smile crossed his lips. “Yeah… you know what… this could be very interesting. Why the hell not? You’re starting to bore the shit out of me, anyway. I’m dying to see their faces when they realize how wrong they’ve been about me… especially that loud-mouthed cunt. I’ll get a chance to put her back in her proper place… yes-sir-re.”

Amanda could clearly see his desire for Gina in those savage eyes. She’d seen the same thing last night. “Can we go to them now?”

Charlie studied her face for a moment. “Our arrangement still stands, sweetheart. You so much as think about fucking with me, I’ll leave you for those undead dogs to gnaw on. Understand?”

She nodded.

“Not a word about the boathouse… about any of it. I mean it. If they start asking questions they shouldn’t be asking, then I’ll know you betrayed me. You know what happens then, don’t you?”

Amanda swallowed hard and nodded.

Charlie smiled. “Now, put on your happy face and do your best to be your normal bitchy self. I don’t want them thinking something’s wrong.”

“Is something wrong, Charlie?”

Charlie laughed. “Of course not. All’s right in the world and ‘Charlie’s got a brand new bag’. It’s going to feel damn good to finally get some respect from all of you mother-fuckers. Just one more question before we head down. Who’s the leader of this group?”

Amanda closed her eyes. “You are.”

“Good answer.”

They left the woods to meet the others at the river.

~~~

Shallow breathing… Numbness… Cold sweat… Burning up inside… Blurry vision… Staggering into the trees… Driven by need… Driven by an all-consuming need…

Stephen was lost in time; yesterday, tomorrow—didn’t matter. He kept moving the weights at the bottom of his legs. Time had become Hell’s bitch as the flames burned indifferently ahead and behind the damned.

Time’s only purpose: to prolong the present forever.

I’m dead. This is what it feels like to die… and keep going. Dead. The fever got me. I turned in transit. Zombies couldn’t catch me. So the fever handed me to them. The irony… oh, the fucking irony!

Dead…

~~~

It had taken Stephen an hour to finally shake the relentless undead hunters when he’d reached a point in the river that was narrow enough to attempt crossing without being swept away by the strong current. There was a large tree which had fallen across the river, spanning half its width. He had given no thought, in his feverish frame of mind, to what going back in the cold water would mean. He had only seen the tree, which looked much closer from the bank, and reasoned that he could swim to it by crossing the river ahead of it and using the current to help push him toward it. From there, he could use the tree to pull himself the rest of the way across.

The plan had almost failed as soon as he stepped waist deep into the river and the current knocked him over, completely submerging him in the cold water. He struggled to keep his wits as his body wanted to shut down and betray him.

He had thought of Nicole waiting for him on the other side of the river. Stephen knew that she wasn’t really there, but he couldn’t shake the possibility of actually seeing her on that beach. He didn’t want to let it go. So he’d pushed a bit more and forced his failing limbs to span the distance, reaching out just in time to catch a branch hanging off the end of the tree before the river sent him barreling past it.

By the time he’d reached the opposite bank, twenty-five pairs of hungry eyes glared at him. They had reached the river and continued to pursue, stepping into the water and getting swept downstream by the strong current. Zombies made terrible swimmers.

Stephen had escaped death by digestion, only to further the fever along as he’d emerged from the water, shivering uncontrollably, and fell to his knees.

“Get up, Stephen.”

She was there. She wasn’t there. It didn’t matter anymore.

He’d turned his head toward the voice and saw her lovely face. She was close enough to reach out and touch her dress, but he refused to do so, understanding that if he did, his hand would pass through the illusion and confirm his plunge into insanity.

“I’m… si… sick… Nic… Nicole,” he’d said. The meaning was twofold. “I’ve… got… nothing… left.”

Nicole had smiled and said, “You have more steel than you know, my love. Get up and keep fighting. You’re almost there now.”

“I… I… can’t.”

“You will,” Nicole had corrected. “You’ll get up and fight, Stephen, because I know you won’t leave me again—leave me here alone in this cold, dark place.”

Stephen shook his head and swore profusely at his broken body, forcing it to go beyond its frail limits.

He’d managed to stand and start moving west, toward the boathouse, forgetting the possibility that his friends might be heading the other direction by now.

He’d lost sight of Nicole, assuming she’d gone on ahead to find the others.

~~~

Stephen continued to roam the woods, keeping the sound of the river to his left, and fought with each painful step to postpone the end, for Nicole’s sake. Stopping now would only hasten his death march.

He stopped abruptly, failing to register the figure who stood before him, and the long blade pressed against his neck.

“Holy shit! Stephen… is that you?”

Words are foreign to the dead; void of meaning, they become lifeless sounds. Comprehension is reserved for the living, and with it, words transform into something beautiful: the end of alone.

“I thought you were… one of them.” Marcus lowered the machete from Stephen’s neck.

And then, words which spill forth in response prove that death has not yet succeeded.

“Have you seen… have you… Nicole… she went ahead to find…”

Marcus was at a loss for words, catching the feverish young man as he collapsed into his arms.

~~~

Gina glanced up into the partly cloudy afternoon sky, catching a glimpse of the sun as it continued its transit down river toward the lake. At least the sun would escape the coast, she thought bitterly. She placed another bundle of branches into the fire pit, trying to keep Stephen as warm as possible. He looked a little better, but the verdict on whether he would survive the fever was still pending. They gave him water and whatever little bit of food they had left, and managed to scrounge up some dry clothes to layer him in. But without proper medical attention, no one knew if he would make it through the day.

To make matters worse, they were putting themselves at risk the longer they stayed stationary.

Gina hated sitting still. It gave her mind too much time to wander away to locations that were grim and dark. She’d avoided everyone’s stares so far, as each of them wondered silently what their next move would be. Doug was gone, the plan had failed, and their group had already suffered too many losses.

Since finding Charlie and Amanda that morning, they had given up any remaining hope that anyone else had made it. It was unanimously agreed upon that the marina was now a lost cause, so they headed back east up the river, looking for place to lay low and collect themselves. They made it half a mile beyond the train trestle camp site before Marcus found Stephen, half-dead from fever and dehydration. Not knowing what else to do, they had returned to the overpass camp to watch over Stephen while each of them dealt with their own concerns separately.

An hour ago, Marcus had decided to scout the nearby woods to the east, to see if he could find a more adequate shelter and maybe some supplies. Surprisingly, Charlie had volunteered to go with him. Meredith and Amanda had decided to patrol the river while Gina cared for Stephen.

If Doug were here he’d not let everyone do whatever the hell they pleased! Now we’re down to three women with no weapons guarding a very sick man with no recourse but to leave him here if the undead find us. She shuddered at the thought of Stephen being devoured in his sleep.

Gina took the opportunity to retrieve Doug’s map from her pack, hoping to get a better idea of where they could go. She hadn’t told anyone about Doug’s backup plan, since she wasn’t sold on the idea.

She opened the map, immediately spotting the red highlighted line which Doug had marked. It followed the Grand River east then north, winding toward the other side of Northeast Ohio where it eventually departed the river and followed a highway twenty miles from the Pennsylvania border. She could already imagine how many days, if not weeks, it would take for them to get just that far. Where the map ended, Doug had drawn an arrow pointing east and the words: Enter Allegheny National Forest. Head North. Bob and Roberta’s cabin on Stone Mountain just outside state park.

Doug had told her more than the map conveyed. He’d said his Uncle Bob owned a secluded cabin on a mountain where he and his relatives gathered once a year for a week of hunting and fishing. He’d told her that the cabin was always maintained and well stocked because his uncle believed the government would collapse one day and Uncle Bob would always have his hideaway to escape to when it did.

Turns out old Uncle Bob knew what he was talking about. Well… sort of.

Doug had told her more, but mainly that the cabin would be a safe place to wait out the winter. Hopefully by then, someone would get things under control… but if not, Doug had said that they could hold out there a lot longer and learn to live off the land if need be, or make brief excursions into the small town at the base of the mountain to gather supplies.

Gina let out a deep sigh and began folding the map up. She couldn’t imagine making it to the next town, let alone the Pennsylvania border… not without Doug to make it happen. And now, with both Frank and Greg gone to God-knows-where, only the weakest of them remained.

“No Doug, no guns, no food, a little water… no fucking plan.” Gina felt overwhelmed. She looked over at Stephen who continued to sleep like the dead. She began to weep, feeling the overload of stress, exhaustion and long suppressed emotions merging into a storm of despair which could no longer be held back. “And now we have a man so sick that we can’t even keep fucking moving. Can this shit get any worse?”

In her heart, she already knew the answer to that question.

“Gina!” Meredith called, coming up from the river.

Gina was up on her feet. She instinctively reached for her gun which wasn’t there. No, not now. God… please… not now! She looked at Stephen and said, “Wake up! Please, wake up!”

Meredith was out of breath when she reached the camp. “We heard something moving in the woods to the west.” The older woman frowned. “I’m sorry, Gina. It’s my fault.”

“What is it?”

“I think they saw me before I could take cover because they started moving toward the river.”

“Where’s Amanda?”

Meredith looked horrified. “She went to… relieve herself. Oh, Gina, I didn’t even think about it. I just freaked out and ran back here.”

Gina went into panic mode. She was torn between staying with Stephen and going down to the river to look for Amanda. “Fuck! How far away did she go, Meredith?”

Meredith started to cry. “She went into those woods!”

Gina rushed over to Stephen and placed her arms beneath his armpits. She looked desperately at Meredith. “Come on! Help me!”

Meredith went to grab his feet. They didn’t get very far. Both women were more exhausted than they knew and Stephen was 170 pounds of dead weight.

“Gina?” Meredith’s face said it all.

“We’re not leaving him here… not like this.”

“But, Gina… we can barely move him. What are we-”

“I don’t know, Meredith!” She was weeping tears of frustration. “I don’t fucking know!”

“Hey, come down here!” Amanda said from below.

They let go of Stephen.

“It’s Greg and Frank,” Amanda said.

Gina let out a nervous laugh and fell to one knee.

Meredith smiled, sharing in her relief.

Gina turned and saw something else in Amanda’s face. And then it struck her like a dagger:

Ashley. She didn’t say Ashley.

Amanda’s face looked grave. “It looked like Greg was… carrying someone.”

~~~

Next Episode 15-5

Previous Episode 15-3

~~~

If you’re enjoying Don’t Feed The Dark so far, please consider voting for it on Top Web Fiction and Top Site List by clicking the links below. This will help increase its visibility and draw in more potential readers. No registration is required. Thanks for your support and for reading :)

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 15-4: 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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