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~~~

The Grand River, like a long reptilian predator, turned and twisted away from Painesville, heading northeast toward the small town of Harpersfield, a small, unremarkable dot marked on Gina’s map. They had been fortunate to have Archie’s ugly fishing boat. It had carried them five miles up the river before dying of thirst, but it was enough to get them away from the city and into the less populated areas dominated by farmlands, orchards, and the occasional Waffle House. For two merciful days, they had not been on the run from the undead. Their real struggle had been with each other as emotions were mixed in regards to the events surrounding the ammo shop. They all needed a respite from the relentless, hungry dead, but they also needed a break from each other.

At noon on their third day along the river, they came upon an old, red painted covered bridge which crossed the river into Harpersfield. The sky had opened up, letting the sun loose to play and promising a warmer afternoon and a chance to thaw out their bones from the last two chilly evenings.

They decided to leave the bank of the river and chance the town while they had daylight on their side. Once near the entrance to the long bridge, everyone stopped, feeling less eager to cross considering what it might mean if the dead were to appear and cut them off while half-way to the other side.

“Anyone remember the story about the geek who went looking for the headless Joe who rode a demon horse?” Frank asked, staring into the dark mouth of the covered bridge. “That didn’t turn out very well for him.”

“I was just thinking about that story,” Stephen said with a laugh.

Gina smiled and said, “Compared to what we’ve seen, I think a headless horseman is preferable.” She turned and sized up her ruthless gang of zombie killers, noticing that they all resembled the dead more than the living.

We are in rough shape, she thought.

To pass the time over the last few days, Gina began instructing the inexperienced members of her group on the basic fundamentals of firearms. She taught them how to grip their weapons, line up their sights and aim, how to stand when firing, breathing techniques, and trigger control. She also ran them through dry-fire drills since firing live rounds was out of the question until they had gained some space between themselves and the dead. After a couple of days she felt confident that they could at least point and shoot without harming themselves.

Well… at least everybody’s armed and familiar with them now. She took some comfort in the thought.

“Okay… remember… no shooting unless it’s absolutely necessary. We’ll just take a peek at the town. If everything’s cool, we might be sleeping with a roof over our heads tonight. The dead can’t be everywhere… yet.”

When they were half-way through the two-hundred-foot tunnel bridge, Gina began to sweat, feeling completely vulnerable to attack from both ends as ancient wooden beams creaked beneath her feet.

“Still clear back here,” Frank said as he lingered at that rear, obviously sharing in her distress.

“Same up here,” she called back, refusing to lower the shotgun until they were safely across with some wiggle room. “Greg?” she whispered.

“Yep, still right beside you.”

“We need a code word or phrase. Something you can just throw out at me the next time you see me volunteering us to do something really stupid like this.”

“Alright.”

“Got any suggestions?”

“Yep.”

“Well… what is it?”

“How’s about ‘This is a really stupid idea’?”

Gina snorted nervously. “That works. It has a nice ring to it. Thank you.”

“Whoa!” Greg said, stepping out of the tunnel. He stopped abruptly, looking down the narrow road which ran toward the left. “Well ain’t that a son-of-a-bitch.”

Gina stepped out into the light and stopped. “What… the… hell?”

They all stared up at the fifteen-foot tall black bear carved entirely from wood, which was posed playing a banjo with a Cheshire Cat grin and squinty eyes. On the bear’s chest was a sign:

WELCOME TO HARPERSFIELD,
HOME OF THE ‘MUSIC ALONG THE RIVER’ FESTIVAL.
COME JOIN US FOR OUR TWO DAY JAMBOREE.
OCTOBER 16 AND 17.

“Very nice,” Frank said, pointing toward the wooden base which held up the statue. Someone had spray painted in red, the words: BEWARE THE BEAR. HE’LL EAT YOUR CHILDREN.

“Okay,” Amanda said, “if we’re all done gawking at the creepy bear, could we please keep moving. It’s too damn quiet around here.”

“Yeah, I feel it to,” Greg said. “Reminds me of the marina when we were being watched.”

“Fucking wonderful,” Charlie said with a sigh. He started walking up the road. “For once, I’d like to go somewhere without being scared shitless by things that want to eat my face off. And if it’s not that, then we’re always jumping at half-a-million things we don’t see.”

“Charlie, hold on!” Gina hissed.

He waved a dismissive hand back at her. “I’ll go check out the town while you pussies stand there wetting your panties. Don’t worry, I’ll let you know if I come across any fucking lions and tigers up ahead.”

“He’s a real class act,” Stephen said, shaking his head.

Gina took a deep breath. “Okay, if we are being watched, just play it cool. Let them see your guns and try to look unconcerned. Maybe they’re just scared survivors wondering what we’re up to. If they see we mean business, they’ll just leave us alone.

Marcus stepped up next to her and whispered, “Off to the right, just inside the wood line. Look up at the thickest tree in the bunch and follow it up toward the ‘V’ where the branches separate.”

Gina tried to act casual as she glanced toward the woods. She found the tree and saw what looked like a rifle barrel sticking out at the center of the ‘V’ aimed in their direction.

“Shit,” she said.

“Should we leave?” Greg asked. “I’ll get Charlie.”

“No, hold on. We show fear now and we’ll encourage them to act. Meredith?”

Meredith gave her a strange look as if she just smelled something that didn’t agree with her. “Nothing, Gina. They seem faint and farther off.”

“Are you okay?”

“Yes, honey,” Meredith said. “I’m just not feeling well today.”

“Alright then, we head into town. Let’s catch up to that idiot before he gets us into trouble.”

Marcus glanced briefly up toward the tree. The rifle barrel was gone.

When they caught up to Charlie, they had reached the edge of a large community park at the center of town. The road looped around in both directions, forming a neat oval enclosing the park and exiting at an intersection on the far side. A small chapel stood off to the right. Several old red-brick buildings stood off to the left hosting a variety of local businesses. Directly ahead, near the intersection, was another older building with a clock tower. It looked like the public hall.

They moved into the open area of the park where a series of bike trails and pedestrian walkways weaved in and around a small playground, a basketball court, and a commemorative flower garden with a large beautiful white-washed gazebo standing at its center.

Toward the back-end of the park was a large grassy area where at least forty picnic tables were set up, each brandishing a red and white checkered tablecloth and balloons which hung limp from ribbons that dangled to the ground. Just behind the picnic area was a large platform raised up beneath a large canopy. On the stage were a variety of musical instruments. There were two large speakers attached to two large poles on both sides of the stage.

What captured their attention right away was the large banner which hung over the picnic area. Written in bold-red were the words:

WELCOME HOME
ENLIGHTENED ONES
IT’S GOOD TO HAVE YOU BACK!

“That’s funny,” Charlie said, studying the sign, “I don’t recall ever visiting this shit-hole town before. In any case, I know that’s not meant for me since ‘Enlightened Ones’ is plural.” The joke was lost on the others.

“What a lovely little place,” Stephen said. “To think I’ve lived my whole life in Northeast Ohio and never knew this town existed. I should’ve got out more.”

Frank laughed, giving Stephen a disbelieving look. “You’re kidding me, right? Did you not notice that there’s something definitely wrong here?”

“You mean, like how there’s no bodies, burned-out buildings and trash lining the streets?” Amanda asked.

“Or the fact that there’s no banged-up cars, broken windows, or signs of looting anywhere?” Meredith added.

Greg couldn’t stop looking at the park grounds. “While the rest of us have been running for our lives… someone’s been mowin’ the grass and waterin’ flowers. Can you believe that?”

“Where are the fucking people?” Gina asked, scanning dark windows for movement. “Why are they hiding from us? It’s obvious there’s a group maintaining this place and they seem… civilized.”

“I want to know how the dead missed this place?” Frank said, scratching his head. “You don’t set up picnic tables and mow grass in the middle of the apocalypse. So what gives here?”

“Well,” Stephen said, “I don’t disagree that something strange is going on. But you have to admit, it’s wonderful to find a place like this—somewhere that hasn’t been completely ruined by the dead. It’s… encouraging.”

“It’s a ruse,” Marcus said, showing his displeasure at the town. “A clever slice of nostalgia served up on a broken plate from yesterday. One bite of this dish will lull us into complacency. If we’re not careful, this place will get us killed faster than the horde we faced in Painesville.”

“Point taken, Marcus,” Gina said. “Everyone stay sharp. The world’s changed along with everybody in it. We may have more than dead-heads to worry about today. I say we head for the chapel and get some rest. Maybe they’ll decide to come out and-”

“Am I missing something here?” Charlie interrupted. “This is the first place we’ve encountered which hasn’t been plundered or destroyed yet and you want to… what… go to church and pray?”

Gina frowned. “Charlie, we don’t know what’s happening here. Something’s definitely ‘off’ about this place.”

“Seems okay to me,” Charlie pushed. “I don’t see the point in hiding out when supplies are running low and we have a whole town that doesn’t appear to be picked clean yet. We should split up, gather what we can before sunset, and then meet back here.”

Gina sighed. “That’s too risky. Reducing our numbers will only make it easier for them to-”

“You said, ‘them’. Hell… how do we know there isn’t just one guy out there?” Charlie asked. “You want to talk numbers? Okay, let’s talk numbers. I’ll wager that whoever’s responsible for maintaining this town has a smaller group than we do. If they had the numbers, they would’ve come out by now and confronted us. Maybe they have a few guns. So do we. If they’re smart, the last thing ‘they’ want is a showdown in their quaint little town. The sound of all those rounds going off would bring the dead running. I say we split up to cover more ground. Maybe we flush them out in the process. Maybe they crawl farther into their holes—either way, we’re running out of daylight and we still need supplies.”

Gina was getting upset. “The last thing we need is to rush off half-cocked into a trap of some kind. We should wait.”

“Wait for what?” Charlie would not yield. “Wait for the trap to come to us when night hits, allowing the townsfolk to surround us in the chapel? I thought you wanted to show them we meant business. How does hiding in the church accomplish this?”

Gina clenched her fists. “Look, all I’m saying is that we wait long enough to-”

“Wait. Yeah, that’s been your trademark move ever since we left Fairport Harbor. Play it safe and hope for the best. We would have found the damn Ashtabula survivors by now if you hadn’t had us hiding out for days outside of Painesville.”

“‘Play it safe’? Are you fucking kidding me?” Gina raised her voice. “Is ‘playing it safe’ what you think I was doing when we waited for you at the ammo shop while you brought the fucking dead right to our door step!?”

Charlie’s faced turned red. “You would have left me there if the others hadn’t stepped in! That had nothing-”

“Come on! Now’s not the time for this bullshit,” Frank said. “Save the boxing match for later.” He turned to Gina. “Make the call.”

Gina took a deep breath. “We wait at the church. See if it’s secure for the night and then plan our next move… wisely.”

“Bah!” Charlie said, waving a hand in her direction. “Another waste of time.”

“What’s wrong with ‘safe’?” Meredith chimed in. “I like ‘safe’.”

“You want to be safe… well… you’ve come to the right place, my friends,” said a gruff voice from behind the platform.

Everyone jumped back and lifted their weapons toward a tall, lanky man in a long beige trench coat. He wore a large straw hat hanging low on his forehead making him look a bit like a scarecrow. His face held a well-trimmed, short, black beard just beneath a pair of tinted Lennon-style round sunglasses.

The strange man stepped out of the shadows with a slight limp, holding his hands out submissively, a cane in his left hand. “Peace, my brothers and sisters. I mean you no harm.” The man smiled, reminding them of the big wooden bear with the Cheshire Cat grin. “Name’s Ezekiel, Ezekiel Smith. Welcome to Harpersfield, friends.”

~~~

Next Episode 20-2

Previous Episode 19-4

~~~

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 20-1: Welcome Home” 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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