Unknown231

~~~

“Are you alone?” Gina asked, aiming the shotgun at the strange man’s chest.

“Well… in a manner of speaking, we’re all alone now—alone and just trying to find our place in this sad… sad… world.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“But of course I did!” Ezekiel said with an odd laugh. “Every question has many, many answers.”

“Great… a fucking lunatic,” Frank whispered in her ear.

“Look, my friends… I’m just a harmless old man. There’s no need for guns and hostilities. I took a chance approaching you like this because, I said, ‘You know what, Ezekiel, they look like good folks, good folks who have had a hard road’. So I came down here straight-away to introduce myself. I don’t want strangers thinking the good people of Harpersfield aren’t hospitable, no-sir-re.” He laughed again.

Gina lowered the shotgun, signaling the others to ease up. “Okay, Ezekiel, is that better?”

“Yes… yes, thank you kindly.” He lowered his hands, stabbed the ground with his cane, and then leaned into it. “It’s been a while since we’ve had visitors—hell, you all are the first people we’ve seen since… well, since life lost its familiar flavor. ”

“‘We’?” Frank asked.

“All in good time, my friend. What brings you fine folks to our little town?”

“Just passing through,” Gina said. “We don’t want any trouble… but as you can see, we’re prepared for trouble all the same.”

“I see indeed,” Ezekiel said, stroking his beard and studying their weapons. “May I be so bold as to ask what your intentions are? Will you be staying long?”

“Why?” Charlie snapped. “Is that going to be a problem?”

Gina shot him a stern look and then said to Ezekiel, “We were planning on staying the night and leaving early in the morning. Nothing more. As you’ve observed, we’ve been on the road a while and your town is the first place we’ve been that seems secure.”

“Oh, yes. It’s secure… Safe… safe… safe… as you said.” Ezekiel looked like he was about to break out into song-and-dance at any moment.

“Did you cut the grass, Ezekiel?” Greg asked.

He seemed surprised and delighted by the question. “Yes! I’m glad you noticed! You see, I’m the mayor of Harpersfield, but I’m also the grounds keeper. I take great pride in tending to our park. First impressions meant everything before, and that much still hasn’t changed. Harpersfield retains her previous glory… even if her crown has yet to return.” He stared up at the banner.

“Are you referring to the… excuse me… the Enlightened Ones?” Meredith asked with a cough.

Gina turned to the older woman, noticing Meredith making a painful face and gripping her stomach. “You don’t look okay.”

She shook her off with a strained smile. “I’m fine, Gina.”

Ezekiel was stunned by the older woman’s question. “You know of them?” he asked. “Have you seen them?” He seemed anxious.

Meredith shook her head. “Sorry. I was referring to your ‘Welcome Home’ banner.”

He nodded with a sigh. “Well of course you haven’t seen them. Silly me. Sometimes my yearning gets the better of me. Everyone here knows that the Enlightened Ones are waiting for the right time to reappear… and then they’ll be coming home to make us one community again…” He trailed off, staring far away in thought.

“This is all very touching… really,” Charlie said. “But can we cut to the chase. What do you want, Ezekiel?”

“What my impatient friend is trying to say,” Gina cut in, “is that we’ve had our share of troubles and trust is not a luxury we can afford these days. The world’s not like before, although I see your lovely town and think that it’s not all gone… and maybe not all bad either.”

“Indeed,” Ezekiel said. “I can assure you, I’ve no hidden agenda. My concern is for the welfare of the town and that’s all. Watching a group of strangers marching through brandishing guns is a little unnerving wouldn’t you say?”

Gina couldn’t argue. She looked past Ezekiel toward the chapel. “All we want are some supplies for the road and a good night’s sleep. If it’s alright with you, Mayor, we wanted to crash in the chapel tonight. We’ll be out of your hair by the morning.”

Ezekiel’s face shifted slightly after hearing the chapel mentioned. “Well, you’re all free to stay the night, of course, but you might be better off pushing on through to Austinburg. There’s not a lot of accommodations here at the moment. I don’t want to appear un-hospitable, but strange things happen here in the evenings which I’m not at liberty to discuss; customs that aren’t odd for the townsfolk of Harpersfield, but that might seem unusual to outsiders. Either way, I must insist that the chapel be left undisturbed—the chapel, school and any of the buildings that have been locked up. But by all means, feel free to explore the rest of the town and take whatever you need. If you hurry, you might be able to reach Austinburg before nightfall.”

Gina didn’t press the matter. “Thank you, Ezekiel. We certainly don’t want to impose. We’ll take your offer, check out the town for supplies, and be on our way.”

Ezekiel smiled. “Well, that sounds wonderful, and by all means… stay as long as you wish. There’s room in Harpersfield for all of you. Perhaps we could find you a house on the edge of town.”

Gina and the others shared confused glances.

“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must get back to pressing matters. Being the mayor leaves me busy… busy… busy…”

“Actually,” Gina said, raising the shotgun. “I would really appreciate it if you would just remain here with me while my friends explore your fine town.” She looked to Meredith. Whatever was ailing the older woman was getting worse. “I’m dying to hear all about what you’ve been doing here while the rest of the world went to shit and how you’ve managed to avoid the dead for so long,” Gina finished.

Ezekiel frowned. “I see. Is this more of that ‘trust’ problem you were telling me about?”

Gina smiled. “Something like that. I just want a little assurance that my friends won’t face any surprises from your ‘people’ while they are out. Having the mayor of Harpersfield wait right here with us makes me feel a little… safer.”

Ezekiel smiled. “I guess I can clear my schedule for the remainder of the day.” He sat down at one of the picnic tables. “Will this be alright? My legs aren’t what they used to be.”

“That’s great, thank you.” Gina signaled to the others. “If you’ll excuse me a moment, Ezekiel, I’d like to talk to my people.”

“Of course.”

She pulled the others aside and out of ear-shot. “Meredith, I want you to stay here with me and get some rest. You’re not looking too hot. Greg, see if you can find the drug store and get some medicine. I’ll gather what info I can from this guy. Everyone watch out for ambushes. Greg, Frank, you both keep the big guns out to remind the rest of the mayor’s lurkers to think twice.”

They nodded, holding up the automatic weapons proudly.

Gina looked to Charlie. “Okay, we’ll do it your way.” She addressed them all, “We’ll break up in pairs. I want a more experienced gun in each group. Frank, you go with Charlie and check out the town hall. Marcus, you and Stephen go find the main street and see what’s up ahead of us. Greg and Amanda, you two check out the shops surrounding the park.”

“You seem a bit anxious,” Frank remarked. “Are we really leaving?”

“You bet your ass we’re leaving,” she said. “Something’s very wrong here. One minute Ezekiel’s telling us to stay, the next, he’s hinting we should go. Find whatever supplies you can, but your main priority is to assess their numbers if we can find out where they’re hiding, and find alternate routes out of here and places to hide if need be.”

“Why don’t we just take the bridge and head back to the river?” Stephen asked. “No harm, no foul. We’ll just leave and be done with it.”

Marcus answered the question. “If Ezekiel and his friends intend us harm, they’ll be expecting that move. He’s already got a sniper in the tree watching the bridge. All he has to do is wait for us to get back in the tunnel, and then mow us all down. There’s no cover in there and we’ll take a bullet to the back before we clear the other side.”

“He’s right,” Gina said. “We play naïve for now and keep it civil. Check out the town and prepare to do something they don’t expect. Options are what I need from all of you. Got it?”

They all nodded.

“We’ll all meet back here in an hour and decide what to do.”

“Do you really expect trouble?” Stephen asked.

“I don’t know, Stephen,” Gina said. “He’s definitely hiding something.”

“Agreed,” Frank said.

She continued, looking up at the late afternoon sky, “Ezekiel’s warning seemed more like a veiled threat, to me. I don’t want to be here after sunset to find out what he meant by ‘strange customs’.”

“That’s if letting us leave was ever an option to begin with,” Frank added.

Gina didn’t need to add anything to the comment.

“Watch your ass,” Greg advised, staring at the strange man. “He seems more capable than he appears to be.”

Gina looked at Ezekiel who sat patiently at the table with his unnerving smile plastered under his glasses. “I can handle him. Just watch out for his friends. Remember, one hour… and no fucking gunfire unless they start firing first. Last thing we need is another horde strolling into town.”

With reluctance, the others split up and departed.

Gina watched them go. She wondered if this would be the time one of her decisions would get them killed.

Meredith coughed and said, “Don’t worry. They’ll be alright, honey. We’ve faced far worse in the last few days.”

Gina turned toward the older woman.

Meredith started toward her and then stopped as another coughing fit seized her. She reached out and leaned up against a tree. “I guess it had to happen sometime,” she said with a smile. “With so much to deal with on a daily basis, we still can’t escape the common cold.”

“Just take it easy,” Gina said, helping her to the closest table. “I don’t want to carry you out of here just because we’re fresh out of chicken noodle soup.”

Ezekiel watched with an unreadable expression on his face. He glanced over at the chapel and then back to Meredith. “How long has she been sick?” he asked.

“We’ve spent the last few nights out in the cold,” Gina said. “This was bound to happen sooner or later.”

“My apologies,” Ezekiel said. “Town pharmacy’s been quarantined. Lots of places are still locked up tight because of the Sickness. So far, we’ve been able to clean up Harpersfield a little at a time, mainly the yards around the buildings, but I couldn’t risk letting the few of us who remained to re-enter places where good folks died. We don’t know how this thing spreads yet. I’m sure you understand.”

“So how much of the town is under this ‘quarantine’?” Meredith asked.

“Didn’t I say?” Ezekiel asked. “Well, at present, I’d estimate that a good ninety percent of the town is locked up until further notice.”

Gina looked frustrated. “So what is still open, or did I just waste time sending my friends out to search your lovely, quarantined town?”

Ezekiel looked puzzled. “Quarantine, you say? Who said anything about a quarantine? Why, Harpersfield is a great place to live, free of diseases of any kind… I assure you.”

Gina and Meredith exchanged a worried glance.

~~~

Next Episode 20-3

Previous Episode 20-1

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 20-2: 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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