girl-948245_640

~~~

Everything becomes magnified and condensed into one lingering moment at the point of death. Every word, every glance, every nervous twitch holds permanent meaning forever seared into memory as seconds pass like hours and time is excused from keeping record.

They quickly cleared a spot for Ashley near the fire, opposite Stephen who remained protected by deep sleep and spared the next few minutes.

Amanda got some water and gave it to Greg who tried to get his daughter to drink.

Ashley took a sip and then spat it back up mixed with blood. “Daddy, where are you?”

“I’m here,” he said. “I’m always here.” He refused to let go of her hand.

Meredith moved in to help the poor girl who struggled for every breath. She immediately stumbled back as if struck by an unseen force, which did not want an audience. She covered her mouth with her hands and looked to Gina who was working on clearing the pant leg around a wound.

The older woman’s thoughts were easy to read: We’re too late.

“Don’t touch that!” Frank said, pulling Gina’s hands away from the leg which now revealed a deep bite wound that would not congeal.

Amanda backed away. “Holy fuck! She’s… infected!”

“She’s my daughter!” Greg shot her a look that could burn straight through flesh.

“But… it’s dangerous-”

“Just go! Watch the fucking river with Marcus and Charlie!” Gina said.

She was quick to depart.

Ashley coughed up more blood. “Daddy, I’m cold.” She sounded weak.

“I know, honey. Just… hold on.” Greg was trying to be brave for his daughter.

Frank retrieved his blanket from the ground, the one they had wrapped her in last night, and covered her up from the neck down.

Greg gave him a grateful look.

Frank backed away, falling on his ass. He looked like he’d just escaped from hell—he and Greg both.

Gina looked at him. “Where were you?”

Frank didn’t understand.

“The fucking marina… where were you?”

He ignored the question. “We’ve been running hard all night. I found Greg yesterday in the residential district of Fairport Harbor. Mother-fuckers were everywhere… they gave us no quarter. They never got tired, they never gave up… they just kept coming! Greg fought like a cornered tiger. I’ve never seen anything like it…”

Greg was oblivious. He continued to hold his daughter’s hand.

Ashley turned and finally saw her father. She smiled. “Daddy, I found you!”

“Yes, you did sweetheart. Yes, you did.”

Then her eyes became distant and her face relaxed. She became still.

Greg felt the strength leave his daughter’s hand. He closed his eyes and said, “I love you, sweetheart. I love you very much.”

Gina’s heart dropped. No! No fucking way this can be happening!

Frank let out a heavy sigh, letting his muscular arms go limp. “Greg,” he said softly. “We have to move her now. Remember what we talked about.”

Greg looked up through tears. “Okay… but I’m stayin’ with her.”

There was no argument. Frank retrieved his gun, checked the magazine and reinserted it. He pulled the slide back enough to verify that a bullet remained in the chamber.

Greg placed a shaking hand over his daughter’s eyelids and closed them.

Frank pulled the blanket up over her head.

Together they gently wrapped her in the blanket.

“What? Where are you going?” Gina asked. She was in shock.

Meredith placed a hand on her shoulder. “They’re going to make sure, Gina.”

“Make sure of what?”

The older woman wiped tears from her eyes. “They’re going to make sure… something else doesn’t come back.”

~~~

Everyone sat quietly near the fire waiting for Greg and Frank to return from the river.

Gina sat the farthest away, wanting some space to contemplate her own heavy thoughts while maintaining a visual of the two men as Greg carried Ashley’s body toward her final resting place.

They stopped near a rocky portion of the bank, far enough away to appear as two silhouettes crouching down beside the river.

She couldn’t look away.

“I don’t want to appear insensitive,” Charlie began, seizing his moment, “but maybe we should discuss where we go from here before we lose what’s left of the afternoon.” As patiently as he could manage, he added, “I believe it’s time we come up with a new plan.”

“I agree with Charlie,” Amanda was quick to chime in. “This has been a horrible day but we still have a sick man to think about.” She looked toward Charlie, and then quickly turned away. “Everyone’s been doing their own thing since we lost Doug and we’re no closer to getting out of here because of it.”

“What would you suggest we do, Amanda?” Meredith asked.

Gina was oblivious to the conversation. She watched as the bigger silhouette stepped to the side, with his handgun drawn but lowered, allowing the other to grieve for his daughter for the last time.

“I think we should… decide… on who should lead us from now on,” Amanda said. “You know, pick someone strong enough to make the hard decisions… like Doug did for us.”

Charlie nodded in agreement, wanting to appear submissive and not eager.

“I agree,” Marcus said. “As the newest member of this group, I’ve been feeling very uncomfortable acting on my own without knowing what everyone else is thinking about. A new leader would put us back in focus.”

“Great point, Marcus,” Charlie added. “Yes, someone who’s strong enough to bring us all back together and prepare us for the challenges that lie ahead; someone with a new vision… a new plan of attack.”

Gina continued to watch the two men. Her heart reached out for Greg as she watched him extend his arm toward Frank.

Frank hesitated, said something to Greg, and then finally relented, reluctantly handing Greg his knife.

Oh, God! He’s going to do it himself!

“It all sounds perfectly reasonable to me,” Meredith said, losing interest. She turned toward Gina. “Honey, are you alright?”

Gina was crying. She watched as Frank turned away just as Greg appeared to thrust the knife into Ashley’s head, destroying the brain.

It was over.

~~~

They decided to bury Ashley beside the river, covering her body with large stones and erecting a drift-wood cross.

They stood for a few minutes in respectful silence, no one feeling adequate to express appropriate words.

Greg was too grief stricken and exhausted. He could barely stand as Meredith and Frank held him up.

After an eternity of silence, they started back toward the campfire, leaving Gina alone. She chose to sit beside the girl for a little longer.

She ran her hands through her long tangled mane and rubbed the sides of her head. She felt like screaming or tearing her hair out. When does this end? How much more suffering does it take? God? Are you even still there?

She took a deep breath and noticed the water cascading down a small ledge in the river. It was hypnotic, soothing—tranquil. “I’m sorry, Ashley. Sorry this had to happen to you,” she whispered to the stones. “Perhaps it’s better this way. This is no place for children anymore…” She wiped fresh tears from her eyes. “This is a good spot to rest, Ashley. I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to know you better. Thanks for making me laugh when I first met you.”

“You’re right, this is a good spot,” Greg said, surprising her from behind. He sat in the dirt next to Gina. He had a faraway look in his bloodshot eyes. “She would have really liked this place. Reminds me of times we used to go fishin’ together, back when she was still just my little girl.”

Gina put an arm around his shoulder and squeezed. “Are you going to be… okay?” She closed her eyes and silently scolded herself for such a fucking pointless question.

Greg looked at her and tried to smile. He broke down instead.

Gina held him for a long time.

~~~

Frank came over to relieve Gina and sit with Greg for a while. As she got up to leave, he told her, “Oh, by the way, congratulations on winning the election.”

She shot him a disdainful look and stormed off.

By the time she got to the campfire, there was a heated discussion going on about the future of their group and Gina was at the center of the discussion.

“I’m not following that bitch anywhere!” Amanda said. “Just because she batted those pretty little eyes at Doug and made him laugh a few times, that doesn’t make her fit to lead us!”

The conversation ceased abruptly when Gina stepped up. She ignored what she just heard and asked, “How’s Stephen?”

Meredith smiled. “He woke up briefly and asked for water. I think he’s going to make it.”

“Finally! Some good news.” Gina silently thanked God.

“We need to leave,” Charlie said sourly. “Not that you seem to be in any hurry to make that happen, but it is going to be dark soon.”

Gina looked confused.

Marcus jumped in. “We decided that you would make the best replacement for Doug. Well… most of us agreed. Meredith, Frank and I think it’s a sound idea. Stephen also agreed, which makes that the majority even without Greg’s input.” He saw her face change and added, “Of course, that’s assuming that you’re okay with it.”

They all looked at her with either contempt or relief.

Gina wanted to crawl into a hole and die. “I… I need a little time to catch my breath,” she said. “It’s been a hell of a day… I’m going to check on Greg again.”

Charlie rolled his eyes and then whispered something to Amanda.

Gina turned and walked off before they could say anything else. She was visibly trembling by the time she was half-way back to Greg. She found a spot between two large rocks and sat down, out of sight, on the verge of throwing up.

Why are they looking to me now? Are they stupid or just fucking desperate?

She needed to calm down and think straight. No matter what, they still needed to move and she was the one with any semblance of a plan… or Doug’s plan, at least.

Looking for something to tell them, Gina retrieved Doug’s map from the zip-locked bag and noticed a folded piece of notebook paper that she’d missed the first time. She pulled the paper from the bag, unfolded it, and saw her name written across the top. At the bottom of the letter was Doug’s name.

“Son-of-a-bitch,” she said. “When did you have time to do this?”

She looked around to make sure her privacy was still intact and then began reading the letter from the dead man:

Gina,

If you’re reading this… well, then I’m dead. But worse than that, it means I’ve failed these people and there’s probably a few others who are dead on account of my actions. That’s on me. I can only hope that you weren’t one of them or else I’ve wasted some ink here.

Been writing this damn thing ever since we left the house in the woods. It would seem that dreaming of my own death has turned me into the babbling writer now. Anyway, I’ve been keeping this to myself and working on it while you all thought I was only stewing over my map. I guess I wanted to leave something behind… you know… just in case some dreams did come true. Also, I feel that we are alike in a lot of ways, at least the ways that matter, so I’m writing this for you.

Remember that conversation about why some of us were spared while so many others changed? Truth is, I’ve thought about that ever since arriving at the power plant our first night. I remember looking around at all those people who made it to the plant and thinking how damn lucky we were. Not only because we didn’t get eaten alive on the way, but the fact that we even had a chance to run at all. I’ll never understand how the powers-to-be decided which of us gets another chance at living, but I do believe that it matters what we do with that chance. We can choose to believe that we’re the unlucky ones and that we would be better off pointing a gun to our own heads and pulling the trigger. We can call ourselves the cursed ones, just bidding our time until something finally makes us a meal, or we can rise to the occasion and… I don’t know… perhaps make up for the lousy way we ran our lives when we still had control of them.

I guess what I’m getting at is this: Call it God, or karma, or any damn thing you want, but perhaps we’re being called into account—now, more than ever—for the shitty ways we’ve been treating each other since… well, since forever. We’ve come a long way to be so damn smart and sophisticated and fucking indifferent toward each other, living in our own private worlds and hoping nobody invades our space along the way. But here we are now, at the end of all the bullshit. None of that old crap stands up any longer, but we still remain… what’s left of us. Why am I here when so many are not? I’m here to finally help my brother, my sister, and anyone else who’s struggling to survive this selfish world which infected me long before the new outbreak came along. I have a second chance to finally give a shit, because that old indifferent way of living didn’t save anyone in the end. No one profited from holding back their concern and pursuing selfish ends. No one.

I encourage you to examine this for yourself and decide where you want to finish in this fucking apocalypse. Thinking about how all this started and where it finally ends will just keep you awake at night, crying in the dark with no one to come in, turn on the lights, and tell you it was all just a bad dream. No, the boogeyman’s real and the lights aren’t coming back on. So that leaves nothing but how we choose to survive for however long we’re allowed to. How will we say we lived in the next few moments if death comes swiftly and devours us in our sleep? Did we die well, doing all we could to change… to care? Or did we die screaming in the dark… alone… because we tried to shut that door of indifference on each other again?

Things are probably going to get a lot worse from here. Quite frankly, the island idea was probably going to buy us a little time to hide but something tells me that whatever’s happening isn’t something anyone can hide from for too long. In the end, it all comes down to doing what we can together, and if we get slaughtered anyway, at least we tried to fucking care for one another… just this once.

I know you don’t want to hear this, but it’s on you now. Take whoever’s left and lead them somewhere safe. And when you find such a place, love one another for as long as you can. Without that, we’re no different from these beasts who are hunting us. We’ll eventually just destroy ourselves and they’ll come along and pick at our bones with a perfected indifference, which we were striving to achieve in the old world. Isn’t the irony beautiful? The dead have become the accelerated end result to all those years we put in slowly poisoning our compassion and nurturing the numbness we’ve shown each other daily. So I guess another relevant question is: Are we already just like the dead, walking around and waiting to feast on our fellow man for the sake of ‘surviving’? Is there still time to undo all that dead thinking? I sure hope so… I sure hope so.

I suspect that all eyes are on you, right now. They probably think you have it all together, that you have an answer to keep them moving forward just one more day; that you can manufacture hope from thin air and make it walk on fucking water when what you really have is a ton of fears and doubts trying to eat you up on the inside and make you second guess everything. Well, even when you don’t know what to do next, you just keep acting like you do—that’s the secret—and you keep them safe. That’s how it really works, you know. Being the leader sucks. It means convincing them to follow you, even when you’re at odds with your own decisions. It means having the answer when there isn’t an answer because you care, and that will have to be enough until some fucking answer finally decides to arrive late as hell.

You don’t have to believe in yourself right now, Gina. Just know in your heart that if you care about these people, then you will do right by them… eventually. The alternative is far worse than anything you could screw up. Trust me. As Greg might say—and don’t get him started—watch out for the wolves in sheep’s clothing, watch out for those false prophets, so to speak. This new hostile world’s going to be fertile ground for those fucking weeds with crowns!

Lastly, man up and trust in your instincts. You have what it takes to do this job far better than I ever did. Even if you don’t believe in you… I believe in you. It takes a real good leader to stand up and throw the bullshit flag in someone’s face, like you’ve done to me, and rightly so. I’ve made some terrible calls and have spent sleepless nights paying for them… as will you. But you keep your chin up¸ keep fighting, and keep that compassion lit so you don’t lose your way in the fucking dark.

Good luck, Gina. Should you die an untimely death… well, I’ll be here waiting for you to tell me what a bossy prick I was… even now. We can talk about the good old days, tell some stupid jokes, and then share a knowing look at the end of it all that we did our damn best to make that ‘why’ count for something… and dared to care in a world quickly growing cold.

-Doug

Gina was in tears by the time she finished, wishing she could see Doug just once more to thank him for the well-timed words. He had pulled no punches and gave it to her straight. But he’d also shown his heart behind the words and for the first time, she could see the man behind the stone… the stone of necessity.

She folded the letter back up and placed it her pocket. She brushed the tears from her eyes. “Get it together now, girl. Pity party is over. It’s time to start acting like you want to live tomorrow.” She stepped out from between the rocks and saw Frank approaching.

“I thought I saw you,” he said. “Did you get lost?”

What an oddly appropriate question.

Yes, for a little while I did, she thought. But not anymore. She had already decided on her first course of action. “Give me your gun.”

“What? No!” Frank was beside himself.

“Give me your gun. I lost mine in the river trying to protect these people.”

“Well, you should’ve been more careful.”

“I’m a far better shot than you. If we have only one gun, it should be with me.”

“Get your own fucking gun!”

“I am. I want yours!”

“Tough shit! My gun stays with me.”

“And that’s why you’re my biggest problem right now,” Gina said, squaring off with Frank. “You’re all about protecting your own interests. When the shit hit the fan, you were ready to leave us on the dock!”

Frank sighed. “In case you haven’t noticed, I’m still here.”

“A little too fucking late!” Gina was losing it. “Look back at those rocks! Take a good fucking look! I blame you for that little girl’s death! If you’d come with us, we might have pushed through the horde and kept our group together. But you threw us to the wolves to save your own fucking ass!”

Frank looked like he was about to explode. “You have no idea what you’re talking about,” he hissed. “Not a clue.” He pulled out the gun and tossed it at her feet. “Only have half a clip left, anyway. It’s fucking useless after that.” He turned to leave.

Gina picked up the gun and aimed it at Frank. “Get back here! We’re not done yet! You’re partly responsible for putting me in charge, so now you’re going to fucking listen.”

Frank stopped. “I’m listening. You better have something worth hearing now that you’re pointing that gun at me, or it’s going to get dangerous very quickly.”

“You don’t get to walk away anymore!” she said. “Doug may have tolerated it because he saw you as an asset, but I don’t see it that way. You’re either part of this group or you can just keep walking. Either way, I intend to shoot the next mother-fucker in the back of the head that betrays us. Is that worth hearing? Please tell me that it isn’t because I can’t think of a better sound right now worth hearing!”

Frank turned and measured the woman with his gun. “You’re angry now. That’s good. You want to blame me for that little girl’s death? Fine! If it keeps your anger alive long enough to counteract the poison of guilt that’s trying to make you weak, then blame away! The truth is much simpler than any of you want to admit. Here’s a revelation: Shit happens! There’s no reason for it, no comfort in it, no closure… it just happens. End of fucking story! And we move on.”

Gina lowered the gun. She’d come close to pulling the trigger. What was she becoming?

“Oh, and one more thing, while we’re clearing the air…” He reached into his pocket, pulled out a piece of metal, and tossed it near her feet. “Nothing is what it appears to be. Nothing. I took that off the boat key before the horde took over the marina. The air horn I rigged up brought them over faster than flies on shit.” He turned away. “I’ll keep an eye on Greg while you do whatever it is you leaders do. That man’s got more steel than the both of us combined.”

Gina picked up the piece of metal. It was a key ring. The same symbol, which was spray-painted on the storage hangar doors at the marina, was etched into the metal plate. A soul-penetrating eye held up on a three-pronged stand stared defiantly back at her.

Just great, something else to figure out. Gina placed the key ring in her pocket.

~~~

After Stephen assured her that he was well enough to travel, Gina gathered everyone up with whatever meager supplies remained and she told them about Doug’s backup plan as they huddled around Ashley’s grave to say goodbye one last time.

She received looks from the dubious to the downright disdainful. But no one uttered an objection. They were all spent and anything was better at the moment than standing still waiting to end up like the little girl buried beneath stones.

After filling them in on Doug’s cabin in the mountains, she said, “I’m not making any promises that we’ll ever make it there. It’s a long trek to the mountains and we’ll need supplies from wherever we can get them. God only knows what stands between here and there… We’ll have to head inland and risk the cities if we want even a chance at pulling this off.”

More silence.

“That’s why I’m adding an additional stop along the way to increase our chances of finding a safe haven. You all remember the transmission we received on the radio in the boathouse. Well, the address of the Ashtabula group coincides with Doug’s route toward the mountains… at least, for a little while. We will have to take a slight detour north… but I think it’s worth trying for. And if that’s a dead-end… we’ve still got the mountain plan.”

She fought back her emotions as best she could, staring into their hopeless faces. “Yes, our spirits are damn near broken and we’ve been pushed to our limits… and beyond. We’ve lost people we care about. I don’t have adequate words which will make you feel better about it. I know I don’t. But we still managed to find each other again, even after everything went bad. That has to count for something. I believe that if we can come together and bury all the old bullshit, right here and now, then we’ll find a way to survive each day until we reach the mountains or until something better comes along. But we have to do it… together.” She looked at Frank and finished, “We fail any other way. That much I can promise you.”

With that she gave them a weak smile and turned toward the river, heading east. Just take each step, one at a time, girl, until your legs stop shaking and your heart calms down. Maybe you’ll get used to it. Maybe you never will. Either way, it’s time to take back what we can of our lives… or die trying.

They departed Ashley’s grave in silence, wondering how many more crosses they would need to erect in the days ahead as the dead no longer haunted the living… but preyed upon them.

And as for the rest—these future ghosts of a dying world—they continued to press on one breath at a time, desperately trying to validate a myth once known as ‘Alive’.

~~~

End of Book One:  Southbound Nightmares

~~~

Next Episode 16-1

Previous Episode 15-4

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 15-5: 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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