woman-73403_640

~~~

“Greg, hold up a minute,” Amanda said, stopping in front of the only building they had found surrounding the park which wasn’t quarantined.

Greg stopped reluctantly and turned, his anxiousness and irritation painted on his face. He had a bad feeling about the town and wanted to get back on the road as soon as possible. He looked again at the sign swinging over Amanda’s head: Joe’s Tavern. “We have no time for that right now. Meredith needs medication… hell, she needs a damn doctor. Everythin’ ‘round here’s locked up tight with those blasted warnin’ signs to stay out, includin’ the town drug store!”

Amanda scowled at him. “I’m well aware of the situation. Stop treating me like the fucking town drunk and get over here. This might be the only place not quarantined and we need to check it.”

Greg wouldn’t budge. “There’s nothin’ to find in there but trouble for you, so just leave that den of devils alone.”

“You stubborn old fool! There’s more than alcohol in places like this. Stay out here if you want but I’m going inside.” Amanda opened the door and peered into the dark bar.

Greg took a step forward and warned, “Girl, you step in there, you might as well stay in there. We’ve no time for your vices!”

Amanda was too tired to argue. It took all she had to manage the monster of addiction on a regular basis. Now that she was within reach of the poison it desperately craved, she had to dig in deep. She took a deep breath, believing she had it under control. She felt tears of frustration running down her cheeks as she looked into Greg’s harsh eyes, the same eyes she’d seen for years on her ex-husband and dead daughter, and recognized that all-too-familiar disappointment staring back at her. The verdict was always the same: Once a drunk… always a drunk. “Greg… could you please just trust me… just this once?” she asked.

Greg heard the surrender in her voice and softened. Amanda had changed since escaping Fairport Harbor and no one understood what had happened. She was no longer the fire-breathing dragon he’d grown accustomed to traveling with. Amanda was broken. He sighed heavily and said, “Five minutes, girl. You better not be doin’ what it looks like because we’ve already got one problem too many today.”

“Five minutes,” she said with a nod, wiping tears from her eyes. Greg walked up beside her with the rifle raised.

Amanda touched his shoulder and said, “Thank you for trusting me.”

“Let’s get this over with,” Greg huffed, uncomfortable with Amanda’s gratitude.

They entered the tavern, crunching broken glass beneath their feet. A beam of dust-filled light illuminated the bar which was covered in overturned beer bottles. The stench of stale beer struck their nostrils. After a few moments, their eyes adjusted to the gloom. The small lounge was deserted. Eight booths lined the walls, covered in rotting food and flies.

Amanda covered her nose and mouth. She found the bar room scents both repulsive and stimulating. “This place is disgusting,” she managed. “Why didn’t they clean it up?”

“Perhaps they only wanted this town to appear normal,” Greg said suspiciously. “Looks like folks left in a hurry.”

“I’ve seen cleaner bars after a full-out brawl,” she said, heading behind the bartender’s counter. “Watch the kitchen. I don’t want any surprises.”

Greg obliged by aiming the AK toward the small kitchen doorway. “I’m liking this town less and less by the minute. Why are we in here?”

“Just give me a second,” she said, leaning down to check the lower shelves beneath the cash register. “Aha!” Amanda placed a half bottle of aspirin on the bar. “Any self-respecting barkeep will have hangover pills at the ready. Joe is no different. I know that crazy woman probably needs antibiotics, but this will help keep a fever down.”

Greg smiled and said, “I owe you an apology. I thought-”

“Yeah, I know what you thought. In all fairness, I’d be a liar if I told you I wasn’t thinking about sucking down that whiskey behind me, right now… but I won’t… I can’t.”

“What’s stopping you?”

Amanda frowned, staring toward her feet. “I’m not ready to throw in the towel yet. I have some unresolved business to attend to first. After that… well, maybe I’ll have something else to aim my anger at.”

“Anger is keepin’ you from the bottle?”

She stared into Greg’s eyes with the old fire. “Anger is the only thing keeping me alive, Greg.”

“And when the anger fails to keep you… what then?”

She shot him a wicked smile. “That’s when I tell you to walk on out of here and I lock the door behind you.”

Greg laughed and then stopped abruptly.

Amanda gave him a surprised look.

“Sorry. I’m not tryin’ to make light of your pain. It’s just that I understand exactly what you felt when you said those words.”

She thought about this for a moment, and then remembered Ashley. “I guess you do, don’t you.”

Greg ran a hand through his grey hair and said, “You know, it’s not your fault that your daughter is gone. I couldn’t carry that load for a minute when I lost Ash. But you… it took a lot of guts to bear your loss all by yourself, even if it wasn’t yours to carry alone.”

Amanda shifted uncomfortably.

“All I’m sayin’ is that you can let it go… let her go… they’ll understand. Best we can do is honor them with what we choose to do now. Lord only knows when our time is up—probably sooner than later considerin’ the odds—but we can’t afford to hang on to them. It’s too painful. Maybe when the world slows down and the dead find somethin’ else to gnaw on… maybe then we can hold ‘em close, remember them, and scream out to the heavens until there are no more tears to shed.”

Amanda’s eyes watered up. She wiped them away, unwilling to lower her guard. “I’m sorry for your loss, Greg, I really am. But I can’t let Marie go. I don’t deserve one moment of fucking peace. I was a horrible mother long before I left her to die in that school because I was too shit-faced drunk to pick her up before it all went down.”

Greg shook his head. “You couldn’t have known. If you had, you would’ve been there.”

“That’s just it, I don’t know if I would’ve done anything differently. If you had told me that the dead were coming, my first thought would’ve been the bottle. It was always my first thought… ‘I’ was always my first thought… my daughter always came second.”

Greg said nothing.

“I was… I am… a miserable wreck of a person. Took the end of the world and a dead daughter to finally see it.” She couldn’t hold back the tears any longer. “Marie was a beautiful, intelligent, gifted girl and instead of basking in her sunlight… I did all I could to snuff it out. I hated her for it because she had everything and I had nothing! How fucked-up is that?”

Greg, understanding that he’d just opened Pandora’s Box, let Amanda continue.

“She was so popular at school, everyone loved her. The boys were lining up to get her attention and asking her to all the dances… and I hated it! I used to belittle her at home—call her a slut and accuse her of sleeping around. I’d tell her, ‘the only reason those boys like you is because of your big breasts. They just want to get into your pants and use you’. I’d say all kinds of awful things like that until she started wishing she wasn’t a girl. What kind of mother demeans her child like that? I used to humiliate her in front of her friends because they’d laugh at me behind my back—and rightly so. I was the pathetic one, trying to dress like my teenage daughter and be the cool one in their eyes. And then I did the unspeakable; the one thing she could never forgive me for. After I scared her father away—the only other man in her life that mattered—I went after Tommy Jones, the one boy she cared about. Tommy was always stealing sideways glances at me. I knew he found me attractive. Hell, I was the one who wore the slutty clothes when her boyfriends were around. But Tommy, I knew he wanted me. That’s what I told myself when I did it. I actually convinced myself that I was protecting Marie from that no-good dog. He came over to pick up Marie, but she was still at work. I flirted with him a bit because I’d been drinking and the next thing I knew I was undressing him. Marie came home and found us fucking on the kitchen floor. That’s the kind of mother I was and that’s why I deserve to suffer now…” Amanda stopped, realizing she’d said far too much. “Oh, God, I can’t believe I just told you all of this. You must think I’m evil.”

Greg said, “I think I need the drink now.”

Amanda let out a nervous laugh.

He hesitated, and then added, “Do you love your daughter?”

“Of course I do! I said I was a bad mother. That doesn’t mean I didn’t love her.”

“Then you can’t be evil… right?”

She had no response.

“It’s not my place to judge you, Amanda. The world’s moved on and the past, no matter how awful it was, or how beautiful it was, or how indifferent or unfulfilled it was—none of it matters. It’s all part of another time which almost feels like a dream, or a nightmare—just something we wake from when we’re alone in the dark—that seems like echoes from someone else’s life. We face horrible things today, but if we’re payin’ attention, I still believe there’s some beauty to be found, and if not that…well, we still have each other to remind us that we weren’t once like this, roaming the world and half-dead ourselves. We carry our demons along for the ride, but that doesn’t mean we have to feed ‘em. There is still hope to be had, hope which has always been there waitin’ for us to grab on to, both in our old lives, and whatever this life turns out to be.”

“Please don’t tell me you’re talking about God,” she spat. “He’s just another man with a fucking agenda, full of promises which produce happy thoughts until he bends you over and gets his piece of ass. Then, he throws you to the wolves and acts like he doesn’t know you.”

Greg genuinely felt sad for her. “Is that what happened to you? Is that what made you this way?”

Amanda refused to answer.

“Let me pray with you,” Greg said.

“Fuck that.”

“Is all your pride still worth a damn? What have you got to lose? Sounds like you’ve lost everythin’ else.”

“Nice. Thanks for that.”

“I believe He’s still with us. Might not feel that way, but we never were very good at seeing the big picture. In my experience, we never see His hand until lookin’ back in retrospect.”

“Do you honestly believe there’s a God, after everything that’s happened?”

Greg thought about the question. “I’ve read of strange things in his Good Book. Never much believed any of those stories until now. Moses and a bunch of plagues come to mind. I imagine that old boy or one of his followers asked the same question long ago. Didn’t stop God from coming then… why would it be different now?”

“You’re either the dumbest son-of-a-bitch still left standing-”

“Or I’m right as rain,” Greg said with a smile. “You gonna bet against me, girl?”

She shook her head. “There’s no arguing with crazy. Tell you what, if we survive the night and get out of this fucked-up town, I’ll think about it.”

“I’ll be prayin’ for you anyhow. I think you’re worth it, even if you don’t. I think He thinks so, too.”

Amanda smiled. “Well… that’s the nicest thing anyone’s said to me in a long, long time… even if it’s total bullshit.”

“You’re right about one thing,” Greg said. “When you mentioned his agenda… you better believe it. God has a plan brewing right in the middle of this mess and I believe we all play a part in it.”

“Well, if you’re wrong, we’ll be dead anyway, so it won’t matter.”

“If I’m wrong,” Greg said, “then I’ll find us a cozy bar in the afterlife, lock us both in and we’ll drink ‘till we don’t know our up from our down. Agreed?”

“Agreed.”

Just then several figures ran across the front window casting shadows on the back wall of Joe’s Tavern.

“Fuck! What now?” Amanda pulled out her handgun and ducked down.

Greg moved in beside her and whispered, “Looks like the town folk got sick of hidin’.”

“Greg,” she whispered.

“Yes.”

“Is it too late to pray?”

~~~

Stephen paced around the bench, hoping Marcus would hurry back. He kept looking toward the houses in the neighborhood expecting every door to go flying open as Harpersfield’s angry residents came storming toward the school to protest their trespass. After his imagination settled, he began to feel silly. “Marcus has it all wrong,” he thought out loud. “This place is heaven compared to where we’ve been and none of the others know how to process it. That’s all.”

He sat down on the bench, placed the handgun on his lap, and welcomed a cool autumn breeze as he tried not to think about the ruined school, the wreckage of his old life, or the relentless dead. Instead, he let his mind wander to what this town was like before the end. He could imagine himself walking through the park without a care in the world, greeting everyone by name, and they him. Harpersfield had a charming out-of-time quality about it which called out to him. There were no fast food joints and mega-retail store chains marring the character of this sleepy little town. In a place like this, community mattered more than commerce and Stephen longed for such a quiet, simple existence.

“I love it, too, Stephen. You can just feel a place like this making all the senses come alive at once.”

Stephen looked up and followed the voice to the bench directly across from him.

“I was hoping you’d come,” he told her.

Nicole smiled generously at the comment. She looked more radiant than he’d ever seen her. She wore a long blue and white flowered sundress which hugged her every curve just right—not too revealing at the neck line, but just enough to allow the imagination to appreciate a chance to wonder. Her long brown hair was elegantly braided into one single ponytail which hung casually over her right shoulder. She wore a long brimmed hat high atop her head which matched her dress perfectly. He was reminded of Scarlett from Gone with the Wind, one of his favorite novels.

“This place suits you,” he told her. “You look lovely today.”

“Why thank you, kind sir,” she teased with a wink. “How have you been, my love?”

“You know more than anyone. Since I can’t seem to stop whatever this is from happening, I guess that means I’m in real trouble.”

“Does seeing me bother you that much?” she asked.

“No… no… it’s not that. God, I wish you were really sitting there. It’s just… well… madness.”

“It’s been said that love is like madness.” She smiled. “Perhaps our love is so strong that nothing can sever the bond between us. Maybe I’m not a figment of your imagination. Maybe I simply come when you summon me in your heart. Have you ever thought of that?”

“It would be so wonderful if I could believe that.”

“Give it a try sometime, my love. Believing is all that’s required.”

“I wish it were that easy.”

“Let me put it another way,” she said. “People love God but they’ve never even seen him. They can feel him speaking to their hearts and minds… but the rest is an act of faith. No one calls them crazy.”

“But I see you and hear you when no one else can. What does that say about me?”

She smiled again. “It says that you love me. I don’t care if anyone else sees us, Stephen. Why should you, especially when forced every day to believe what was once called impossible. When dead people are chasing you in the so-called real world, do you deny their existence? Is it such a stretch to believe that one dead girl would choose to love you from another world instead?”

Stephen laughed. “I don’t know if it’s really you thinking and expressing that or if it’s my own twisted reasoning manifesting through you.”

Nicole looked hurt. “Well, I guess you won’t mind if I just leave then since you insist on killing me all over again.”

The knife struck deep and he deserved it.

“I’m sorry. Whether you’re in my head or not, I shouldn’t treat you that way. I guess your reaction is just my mind’s way of owning up to the guilt.”

“You’re still doing it.” She tossed her hands in the air. “How about you just pretend I’m real so we can have an enjoyable conversation that isn’t all about you.”

“Fair enough.” He wanted to address a touchy matter. “When I last saw you, in the backseat of the Lincoln, you really scared the hell out of me. I… I’ve never seen you that way before.”

Nicole frowned. “That was her fault. She makes me very… angry. I’m sorry if I frightened you and I’ll try not to let it happen again.”

Stephen changed the subject, fearing that any further discussion about Amanda might trigger another… bad reaction. “If I could go back and change things, I think I’d start in a place like this.”

She smiled. “Would you take me with you?”

“Absolutely.”

“What about your wife and your job?”

“You mean the woman who never loved me and the job that became me? For you… for this… I’d walk away from all of it.”

“I believe you really mean that, my love. It’s so good to see you like this at last. I always knew you could be free.”

“It’s because of you… your words… that I was able to believe it myself.” He wacked his forehead and said, “Your words… of course! I’m so sorry, Nicole. I lost your diary. It must have happened when I was sick.”

“That’s alright. You carry them inside now. The diary was just to help you get back to me. That’s why I prompted you to take it with you on that day.”

“You mean the day I stabbed you.”

“It was an accident,” she said. “I wish you could see that, but I know the guilt won’t let you.”

Stephen stared at his shoes. “Knocking you over rounding a corner is an accident. I stabbed you in the eye. That’s murder.”

Nicole shook her head. “Here I am telling you that it’s okay, and you still won’t accept it. I could tell you I forgive you a thousand times and that would never be enough. And don’t tell me… I know… I know… I’m really not here and this is just your mind’s way of trying to get yourself off the hook. But the guilt won’t allow it.”

Stephen shrugged his shoulders sadly.

“Well I guess there’s only one thing to do,” she said. “We have to face the monster which has caused us all this grief. That’s the only way we’ll ever be free.”

“What do you mean, ‘monster’?”

Nicole looked around and said, “We could still have all this if you want it bad enough.”

Stephen frowned. “I’m not that delusional. Places like this are all gone now.”

“You’re not hearing me, Stephen. We could create a place like this together, over time. But it’s only possible if you let go of all the guilt.”

“I don’t know how that’s possible,” he said. “I don’t know how I’ll ever make up for what I’ve done.”

“Forgive yourself, Stephen. Forgive yourself and then we can go after the real monster together.”

“What monster?”

Nicole stopped abruptly and looked toward the road.

Stephen turned and saw a pale-skinned teenager with long black hair and sunglasses much too big for her face standing twenty feet away. “Shit! Where the hell did you come from?” He got up too quickly, dropping the handgun on the ground. He fumbled to pick it up and backed away, not entirely convinced that the strange girl was even real.

“Who were you talking to?” the girl asked, staring over at the empty bench. “Are you not well? Have you come to be healed by the Holy Enlightened?”

Stephen finally managed to get a good grip on the gun and aimed it half-heartedly toward the girl. “Stay back! I don’t want any trouble.”

The girl looked at him and cocked her head. “Why are you here?”

“Excuse me?”

“In this place…” the girl said. “Why are you in this place? No one is allowed near the tabernacle.”

Stephen was flustered. “Tabernacle? Are you talking about the school? Look… I know we were told to stay away from here, but we needed medicine for my friend-”

“Ezekiel told us to leave you alone,” she interrupted. “He said that you were all for the sacrifice. But now I find you at the tabernacle. This is forbidden. None of us can enter the tabernacle until called.”

“So this is some kind of holy place for your people then?” Stephen calmed down. “We meant no offense. We were not aware-”

“Ezekiel told you to stay away from the school. We heard him say it when we watched you from the park.”

Now that’s downright creepy, he thought. “Look. I’m just waiting for my friend to come back and then we’ll never bother you or your… tabernacle… again.”

“You have not violated all that is sacred,” she said, “but your friend has desecrated our holiest place. He must be purged immediately.”

Stephen swallowed hard. Purged? I don’t like the sound of that. Think fast, Eddington. This isn’t going to end well.

“Yes… yes… it’s just like you said,” he stammered. “I’ve come to be healed. I… I see dead people and I need to be cured. I was just talking to one of them a moment ago.”

The girl paused. Her silence only made her more terrifying. “I don’t believe you,” she finally said. “Ezekiel would’ve have told us about this. You are a liar. Liars are unclean. You are unclean.” The creepy girl reached behind her back and pulled out a large kitchen knife which was tucked in the back of her jeans.

“Now wait a damn minute!” Stephen said, holding a hand out in front. “Enough is enough! I don’t know what craziness you all subscribe to, but you just keep it to yourself. When my friend gets back, we’re leaving. If you’ve watched us then you know we mean business.” He tried to sound convincing and added, “Push us, and we’ll kill every damn one of you!”

The girl paused again, holding the knife out like a psychopath doll. She quickly turned, causing Stephen to jump back, and placed two fingers in her mouth and whistled… loud.

Several doors opened from parked vehicles along the street and in the driveways closest to the school. Ezekiel’s people were finally coming out of hiding.

Fuck me! Reinforcements!

While the creepy girl still had her back turned, Stephen slowly backed away until he reached the school entrance. He turned toward the door just as she turned back.

“Stop!” she yelled. “You can’t go in there! It’s forbidden!”

You’re committed now, Eddington. Move your ass!

Stephen bolted for the door, refusing to look behind him. He entered a long dark hallway full of debris and silently prayed he wouldn’t trip over anything as he sprinted down the corridor. He was immediately reminded of his first night when the world turned upside down.

He thought he saw light down a hallway ahead. Believing it to be Marcus, he ran toward the light, nearly falling on his face as he tripped over a trash can.

He heard movement from behind.

“Marcus!” he shouted. “Marcus, run!”

~~~

Next Episode 20-5

Previous Episode 20-3

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 20-4: 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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