Unknown190

~~~

Tony scaled a chain link fence and approached the motel from the rear. He stood before a small in-ground pool, which looked like it had been closed and covered for the winter. He looked up at the dark rear windows of the motel and immediately felt like he was being watched. Again, there was nothing to greet him but that awful silence. He lowered his head and walked around to the front.

“Whoa,” Tony whispered, stopping to get a good look at the rest area.

The motel parking lot connected with the rest area lot, forming a large circle of parking spaces around a large building at the center, which Tony reasoned had to be the main food court. There were several other smaller buildings completing the circle along with the motel, enclosing the rest area. A large gas station stood near the food court. Farther toward the back, where a large group of semis were parked, was the weigh-in station.

What shocked Tony was the abundance of cars which plagued the entire parking area. It was complete chaos. Everyone had parked wherever they could find space; several had pulled up into the grassy areas reserved for dog walkers and the occasional picnic bench. What Tony found most disturbing was that it looked like people had been living out of their vehicles initially, but just like the other cars he’d come across, at some point everyone tried to get away in a hurry.

“Where the hell did everybody go?” he asked the silence.

The place was giving him the creeps. He almost turned around to leave, thinking it unwise to stay where so many had fled, but then Tony remembered that whatever had happened occurred over a week ago. All that remained now where the echoes of a horrific event he’d been spared from—that is, if you could call being tortured in a basement by a madman being ‘spared’.

He wanted to get inside before he saw more mangled bodies or the things which fed on them. Tony moved toward the motel lobby door and found it lying on the ground, creating a dark space where the door once stood. There were several broken windows on the first floor, making the motel less inviting. He stepped just inside the lobby and was assaulted immediately by a stale rotting stench. He covered his mouth and nose, stepping back out of the lobby. It smelled like something had died in there several days ago.

He was about to give up on the motel when he heard a weak voice call out to him from above his head.

“Hey, you… up here.”

Tony jumped at the voice, looked up toward the second floor landing, and saw a haggard looking woman waving a dirty arm through the walkway bars.

“Don’t be afraid. It’s alright,” she said. “It’s… it’s safe up here. You… you better get out of the open before they see you. Not too many of them now, but there are still a few scattered about.”

“You scared the shit out of me. How long have you been watching me up there?” Tony asked.

“Got any food?” The woman eyeballed Tony’s backpack. “I’m really hungry. If you come up here we can talk all you want… I’ll do anything you want if you share some food with me.”

Tony immediately became suspicious. “Are you alone, or should I expect trouble?”

“No trouble, Mister. It’s just me… just me now. My family’s dead… all dead. Everyone else is gone or dead, too. Just me now. Can you help me, Sir?” The woman started to weep uncontrollably and then stopped herself. “Sorry. I must seem… I must seem crazy to you.”

Tony frowned. “No. I don’t think you’re crazy.” Just desperate, is all. He then took a deep breath and said, “Tell you what, I’ll come up to the landing and we’ll talk, okay? I have a little food I picked up on the way that you can have.” Then he showed her the crowbar. “Just please don’t make me regret it, alright?”

The woman nodded, and tried to smile.

Tony felt for her. She reminded him of Lydia and the others—frail, scared, broken. My God, she looks like she’s been through more hell this week than I have.

“I’m going to find the stairs and come up now,” he said.

“All the stairwells are blocked,” she said. “We… we dragged furniture out of the rooms when it all started getting real bad and barricaded ourselves up here.”

“Then how-”

The woman tossed over a rope made of tied together bed sheets. “It will hold. I fastened it to the bed in my room. That’s how we got around when we had to.”

Tony shook his head and grabbed the bed sheet, giving it a tug. It seemed strong enough. It was only a ten-foot climb from the ground to the landing. He could use the rail to pull himself over.

“Stand back a bit, okay. But stay where I can see you. I’m sorry for being suspicious, but I have good reason not to trust people right now.”

The woman nodded and stepped back a few feet. “This okay?”

“That’s fine. I’m coming up.”

~~~

Tony crouched down in front of his pack. The woman sat with her legs crossed, watching him retrieve the food. They studied each other cautiously.

“Ho Hos or Twinkies?” Tony asked with a laugh, holding up the limited options.

The woman smiled again, trying to laugh this time but coughed instead. “Ask me that a week ago and I would’ve told you how bad those things were for you. I’m always telling…” she stopped herself as memories too painful to think about tried to overwhelm her. “I’ll take a Twinkie… if that’s alright?”

Tony moved a little closer and then stopped as the woman started to tense up. “I’ll leave them both for you.” He placed the pastries on the landing near her feet. “If you’re gonna eat this junk, you might as well go all out,” he finished with a smile.

The woman coughed again. “Excuse me.”

She was in bad shape. It was hard to tell through a week’s worth of filthy living conditions, but she looked to be in her late thirties, early forties. She wore dirty jeans and a beat up sweater—the kind one might expect to receive as a Christmas gift. Judging by her shoulder-length hair, a pair of modest looking earrings, and her overall demeanor, Tony thought she might have been a soccer mom last week. Now she was just alive.

The woman grabbed the Twinkie and barely got the package opened before she devoured the yellowish sponge cake in two big bites. She was already working on the second one.

“I have some water, too.” He placed a bottle near her feet.

The woman looked at Tony, making him realize that he was staring too long. He pretended to look through his pack.

She was crying again. “I’m a pitiful mess. I’m… I’m acting like an animal and I never realized it until I saw it mirrored in your eyes. I used to have manners… really I did. Here you are giving me food and water and I haven’t even said thank you or even introduced myself.”

“I didn’t mean to upset you. Believe me, I understand how you feel and you’re not an animal. I haven’t been myself in a while either. It has been a rough week. I’m Tony.”

“Nice to meet you, Tony… and thank you for being kind to me. My name’s Heather. You’re the first… normal person I’ve seen in five days.”

“Are you talking about… them?”

“No… I mean, yes, they’re bad… but I’m talking about the other survivors I’ve seen. They’re really bad, too.”

“How do you mean?”

“I was almost to the point where I wasn’t going to talk to anyone—almost didn’t call out to you—but I knew somehow that you were my last chance.”

“Last chance?”

She looked at him gravely. “I was all prepared to die before you came along. Just lie down in my bed and never wake up again. I’d seen too much—lost too much. It wasn’t the monsters which made me want to give up, it was the monsters which started coming out in the people around me that made me want to end it all. Not that I would… kill myself. No, simply not waking up is not the same as killing yourself, it’s just… choosing not to live anymore.”

“I’m sorry about your family,” Tony said. “You have my condolences.”

“Did I mention that? I guess I did… It’s hard to keep it all straight in my head right now… and thank you.”

“I guess it got really bad out here.” Tony stared off into the chaos of empty cars.

“There were twenty-five of us up here, keeping those things away. We blocked the stairs and hid in our rooms and did a lot of waiting… waiting for the screams to stop. My God, Tony, it was awful. I’ll never forget all those people screaming.”

“When did it get quiet around here?”

“About five days ago. That’s when the monsters had their fill of us and moved elsewhere. They took the dead with them, just dragged them off like a bunch of packed lunches and took them to wherever they went. Sounded like they went west down the freeway.”

“And is that when folks started to leave?”

“Yes. Everyone was worried about their loved ones back home. They knew they couldn’t drive but they had to try to get to them. Bless their hearts, they packed what they could and started walking. I would’ve too, but my family was already dead.” Heather drifted off.

“You said things got worse after that?”

“Yes. A few stayed, a few more came. I was a real train wreck, as you can imagine. Anyway, there was this nice lady who stayed with me. She kept me alive when all I could do was grieve. She’d fetch me food from the vending machine and made me eat. Glenda was her name. I’d be dead already if she hadn’t stayed with me those first few days.”

“Where’s Glenda now? Did she go off to find her family?”

Heather looked coldly past Tony and said, “Down there, in Room 52. That’s where she was murdered. I was the one who found her when no one had the balls to tell me. They all acted like they didn’t know, but they knew. They just let it happen, which makes them as guilty as the ones who did it. That poor woman did nothing but try to help and some bastards came along and raped her, beat her, stabbed her and left her to die, choking in her own blood.”

“I’m so sorry that happened.” Tony was at a loss.

“Like I said, you were the first normal person I’ve seen in five days. Whatever was decent in those people perished when Glenda died. I was glad when they all left. I think their guilt drove them all away eventually. No one would even help me move Glenda’s body. They were too afraid to go downstairs and help me bury her. I couldn’t do it myself so I cleaned her up as best I could, using water from the back of the toilet. I put her clothes back on and tucked her into bed. Then I closed the door, pretended she was asleep, and put one of those Do Not Disturb signs on the knob… and I just left her there.” Heather wiped fresh tears from her eyes.

Tony had no words.

“I hope they rot out there, Tony. I really do.”

“You don’t mean that.”

“I suppose I don’t. But that’s what led me to dying. I just didn’t see the point to living after my family was gone and if living meant watching people do what they did to Glenda… for no reason other than they could… then I was done.”

Tony took a deep breath and said, “I was held prisoner, chained up in a basement, when all this shit happened. I had no idea what was going on until yesterday when I escaped.”

“You poor man. This must be hell for you right now.”

“I was with a woman named Lydia. She was drugged and tortured continuously and she kept telling me about what was happening out here because she saw it all before she was taken. I didn’t believe her. She wanted to die, like you do. But it’s because she chose to fight in the end that I’m still breathing right now. She wanted to die but she fought for me. She’s a hero, like your friend Glenda. And that’s what keeps me going. There has to be more people out there like them. We just have to hold on and follow their lead. Even when all we want to do is give up, we need to keep fighting for each other. That’s why you need to keep waking up, Heather. That’s the only ‘why’ we may have left for a very long time.”

Heather smiled at Tony and said, “I’m glad I called out to you today. You saved me, Tony. You’re a hero, too.”

Tony looked embarrassed. “I didn’t do anything special. Hell, I almost got eaten in a mini-mart earlier today.”

“Yes, but you climbed up those knotted blankets and fed a crazy woman your last Twinkie… even if that shit’s bad for you.”

Tony laughed.

“Seriously, the fact that you’re trying to talk me down from the ledge, when all we have each day is a new ledge to face, well, that means something to me. You could’ve left me here after you fed me, treated me like some stray dog which you felt sorry for, and then went on your way. But you stayed and talked to me like I was still a human being. You fed me something more than what you had in your bag. You fed me hope.”

Tony smiled. “You should leave this place. Come with me and we’ll find more survivors… the good kind.”

Heather’s face shifted. “I can’t, Tony. My family’s here. I won’t leave them.”

“But… they’ve moved on. You’re not doing anything wrong by leaving this place. You keep them in your heart and take them with you. They’d want you to survive.”

Heather smiled. “That’s not what I meant, Tony. I can’t leave them here like this. I need to bury them because that’s what you’re supposed to do. And I mean to stay until it’s done.”

“But you said, those things took the bodies…”

“Not all of them.”

Tony felt ill. “Where are they?”

“Alvin, my husband… and my two girls, Cassie and Julie… are still in the car. It all happened so fast. I was barely outside the vehicle when we were attacked. I ran until I made it here and I just… left them there. I’ve been here ever since trying to work up the nerve to go and do what needs to be done… I’m still waiting for the right time.”

“That’s too hard to do by yourself. Let me help you,” Tony said. “Let me help you bury your loved ones so we can leave this place.”

“You’d do that for me?”

Tony smiled. “You know I would. I’m your hero, remember?”

“That’s right… you are.”

Tony noticed the sky growing darker. “We’re starting to lose the light. Is this place still safe?”

“Yes. Yes. You can stay in my room tonight. There’s two beds. It’s cleaner than most and I know where there’s still some fresh sheets. It will be nice to have company again.”

Tony sighed looking out at all the vehicles. “Do you remember where you parked your car?”

“Absolutely. I stare at it from this landing several times a day and pray for them.” She pointed to the back of a blue mini-van parked up on the grass, partially concealed beneath a weeping willow. “When we pulled in, there was nowhere to park. It was Alvin who suggested going up under the willow tree. He thought if we stayed quiet enough, those things might not even see us there.”

“That’s not too far away.” Tony knew that getting to them was not the problem. Burying them was the real issue. Then the idea struck. “How would you feel about burying them right under that willow tree?”

Heather looked pleased. “Could we? I mean… is it safe enough?”

“I think we could. There’s probably a shovel in this building somewhere. Maybe there’s a storage shack back by the pool. I could go dig the graves, place them in and cover them with a sheet so you don’t have to… remember them like that. Then you could say goodbye and we’ll bury them together.”

“Glenda too, Tony?”

He gave her a thoughtful look. “Yes, we’ll bury your friend there, too.”

Heather smiled. “I think she’d like that. I just don’t know if this is a good time… I mean, I’ve been waiting for the right time to do this.”

“You’ve put this off long enough. I know it will be hard for you, but it will give you some peace and then you’ll be able to move on. I’ll go at dawn, dig the graves, and then come back for you when I have them all ready.”

Heather seemed lost in thought. Finally she said, “Thank you, Tony.”

“Now, how about that room? I haven’t slept in a bed in over a week.”

~~~

Next Episode 17-3

Previous Episode 17-1

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 17-2: Dark Territory” 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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