Unknown63

~~~

“Ezekiel, I’m confused,” Gina said. “Is your town under a quarantine or not? You keep contradicting yourself.”

“Do I? How odd. Well, of course it is, of course it is. That’s why you need to leave as soon as possible. If I won’t let my people come into contact with the Unclean, then it’s certainly not a good idea for your people to do the same.”

“Unclean?” Gina said with concern. “Are you talking about the dead-heads?”

Ezekiel looked puzzled, and then amused. “Oh, I see. I guess that’s as good a name as any. They are indeed dead—dead to the world and still cursed to roam it. Yes, we’ve done our best to keep the town ‘dead-head’ free… sorry, I just love that… but it’s a lot of hard work rounding them up and locking them in.”

Alarms were blaring inside Gina’s skull. “Ezekiel, just where are you keeping these ‘Unclean’ locked up?”

He laughed at the question. “Why, in the quarantined buildings, of course. I thought I said that already.”

“What the hell are you trying to pull?! I just let my people go out into your quarantined town and you’re just now telling me that it’s infested with the dead? That would’ve been nice to know before I sent my friends out to forage for supplies!” She was on her feet. “Come on Meredith, we have to go.”

Meredith tried to get up, but lacked the strength. “Sorry… Gina. I don’t know what’s come over me.”

Ezekiel was on his feet, waving his arms. “No, no, no! It’s safe! They are of no consequence, I assure you. As long as the locked-up buildings are left alone, these ‘dead-heads’ remain in something like a sleep state. We’ve taken precautions to keep them unaware of us. Most of the original ones, the Unclean closest to our location, are already too weak to move. A good many of them have perished in the old Town Hall. Every door has been marked, ‘Quarantined’ as an extra precaution.”

“He’s right,” Meredith said. “I can’t sense them at all. If they’re dormant, that would explain why.”

“You starve them to death,” Gina said as a chill seized her. “Doesn’t that seem… excessive?”

Ezekiel smiled. “We’ve worked out a system, albeit primitive, to deal with the Unclean which wander into town. It’s not perfect, but it keeps the risk minimal. When they arrive, we allocate a new structure to house them. Presently, we have several structures cleared and fortified on the edge of town. We lead them in a front entrance, exit the rear, and then lock them up. They no longer possess the intelligence to figure out how to get out… so it’s quite safe.”

“So what happens when you run out of buildings? And how do you live in a town full of them? What if just one gets out? I’d never get any sleep knowing that was a possibility.” Meredith said.

“We have a system,” he said. “We check all the buildings twice a day to insure they are locked and quiet. So far, we’ve not had any trouble from the Unclean. It’s as though they understand what’s coming and have quietly submitted to our control. It’s really for the best.”

“You should just kill them,” Gina said, feeling the not-so-nice town of Harpersfield now closing in on her. She wanted to go and retrieve her friends but Meredith was in no condition to move. “A blow to the head would end it. Then you could dispose of the bodies rather than giving up the town one building at a time.” Gina couldn’t wait for the others to return. There was no way she’d spend one more minute than necessary in this zombie prison camp.

“You don’t understand,” Ezekiel said. “We can’t touch them. We cannot risk losing our purity in the eyes of the Enlightened, or they will reject us. When they return, they will dispose of the Unclean and make us whole… like them. The Enlightened will finish cleansing the town and bring Harpersfield back from the dead. When all her souls have returned… we will be at peace!”

Gina and Meredith exchanged a worried glance.

“Just what the hell happened here?” Gina asked. “Who are these ‘Enlightened’? Please start making some sense because you’re starting to sound like Jim Jones.”

“Oh, you would know them if they ever set their gaze upon you. They can look right into your soul and make you tremble. They are powerful beings which were sent here to save us—save us from the madness that’s coming.”

“Ezekiel, where’s the rest of the people from Harpersfield?” Meredith asked. “You make it sound like everyone is coming back, meaning they were here to start with. I can only assume you meant the rest of the town’s population.”

The strange man frowned as he thought back on the day his hometown was purged. “It happened in the night while we slept. In the early days we didn’t understand. I woke up to screams from down the street. Men were yelling and fighting shadows which leapt out of the night. Woman called out their children’s names… it was a sad, sad time.”

“We all remember it, Ezekiel,” Meredith said. “I don’t think we’ll ever forget it. We called it The Change.”

“Yes… yes… well, that was in the beginning. Now, we know better. The Enlightened Ones had been among us all along, rising up at random and shedding their flesh-borne cocoons. We ran in fear, like frightened children, but it was for our own good that they came. They liberated us from the trappings of this sick, sick world and spared a handful of us to keep the fire lit until they could return.”

Gina felt her stomach sink as a horrible realization struck her. “And what did these Enlightened Ones look like?”

Ezekiel’s face lit up. “They had eyes of pure gold! Pure gold! I still remember the one who came for me. It was Mrs. Tafner from three doors down! She possessed it all along but I never knew, never understood what she carried within her. She came at me and tore a piece of flesh from my left thigh. The pain was incredible—wonderful! I didn’t know then, but I’d been chosen and branded with the mark of the Enlightened Ones.”

“You were… bit?” Meredith asked.

“When did you start coughing up blood, Ezekiel? Was it right away?” Gina asked as she aimed the shotgun at his head.

Meredith gave Gina a puzzled look.

“The blood was part of the purge—part of the purification process,” he said. “But the mark came later. It wasn’t the chunk of flesh torn from my leg that mattered.” Ezekiel reached up and removed his sunglasses, revealing mercury eyes. “This was the mark and the beginning of my journey to join the fold of witnesses—those who remained like myself.

“Meredith, move away from that thing. He’s infected!”

Meredith was in shock. “But… how? How are you still functioning if…” She gazed deep into the strange man with her second sight until she found the truth. She didn’t detect it before because the sickness had overpowered her; the sickness brought on by being in such close proximity to the half-dead man who walked and talked before her. It was buried deep. The slow death was rotting away at the man’s mind, heart… soul. “My, God,” she whispered. “You poor man. How could this be happening?”

“Fuck!” Gina yelled. “I should’ve seen this! I should’ve spotted you right away! But you seemed so… in control.”

Ezekiel chuckled. “You’ve encountered my kind before? Yes! I can tell! You’ve met my brothers somewhere down the road. Tell me, were they like me?”

“They were fucking insane,” Gina said. “Half out of their minds and in agony—rotting from the inside out!”

Ezekiel frowned. “You are mistaken, friend. You both have it wrong. I’ll admit, in the beginning, the purge was quite painful, but in time it passed. We are not rotting away like the Unclean, we’re evolving into beings of gold and light. We are becoming… like THEM!”

Meredith turned to Gina. The look in her face would haunt Gina’s mind forever.

“He’s so cold, Gina. So full of darkness and death… it’s overwhelming…” Meredith collapsed to the ground.

“YOU LIE!” Ezekiel shouted, rising to his feet. He swept his cane at them accusingly. “It is all of you who are dead! Dead like the fools in this town who wouldn’t accept us! Dead like the ones who ran to the chapel to hide from the truth! Dead and devoured by their own ignorance! DEAD! DEAD! DEAD!”

Gina held the shotgun in trembling hands. She wanted to get to Meredith but was afraid to look away from the monster for one second. She’d seen their madness. Ezekiel was capable of anything right now. “Stand down, Ezekiel, or I will blow your fucking head off!”

Ezekiel was breathing heavily, a look of hatred mixed with intense hunger and insanity filled his flushed face. He looked to Gina and Meredith and then flipped the switch. He smiled and said, “My apologies, ladies. I can become overwhelmed with emotion at times. Please, lower the gun, I sincerely mean you no harm.”

“Drop the stick, sit back down, and I’ll think about it,” Gina said.

He lifted his hands and dropped the cane. Ezekiel sat back down, replacing his glasses as if nothing had happened.

Gina lowered the gun and moved to Meredith. She looked dire.

“What can I do?” she asked the older woman.

“I… I need… space… Get me… away… from him.”

She looked at Ezekiel and shouted, “Get out of here! If I see you again, or any of your kind, I won’t hesitate to finish all of you. If you’ve done anything to my friends, I’ll make sure this town burns. Do you understand me?”

The strange grey-eyed man sighed heavily and said, “I can’t speak for the rest of them, but you have my word that I will do everything in my power to get you out safely. This has been my intention all along. The others wanted more, but I wouldn’t let them. They wanted your friends but I refused to let them have you. I told them that there was a better way… yes… yes I did!”

“Then start by getting the fuck back so my friend can breathe!”

Ezekiel found Meredith’s condition curious. “She somehow feels us. What manner of woman is this?”

Gina lifted the shotgun again. “You’re going to feel your face make an immediate departure out the back of your skull if you don’t move… now!”

He lifted his hands defensively. “Look, friend, if I leave now the others will come and do… unspeakable things to you both. There are too many of us for your shotgun, I assure you. You need to let me help you now… while there’s still time.”

Gina was quickly running out of options. “I’m listening.”

Ezekiel got up slowly, stepped back and began to pace. “They continue to forsake the gift they’ve been given, no matter how much I’ve tried to turn them back on course,” he said to no one. “What’s Ezekiel supposed to do? How’s he supposed to make them understand when they give in to the dark cravings which claw at all of us?”

Gina slowly moved behind Meredith and began to drag her away by the shoulders.

“It’s the hunger… oh, that horrible hunger… it drives at us to feed. But we are better than the hunger! We are not unclean vermin incapable of controlling it! What will the Enlightened Ones think of us when they return and find that we are acting no different from the dead? This is unacceptable!”

Gina continued to drag Meredith away while Ezekiel was preoccupied with preaching into the air.

“Feeling… better,” Meredith whispered. “Getting… fainter.”

“What am I to do? They never listen! Nothing I ever do to compromise with the darkness is ever sufficient for them. They just want more! Haven’t I given them projects to keep them preoccupied? Haven’t I restored their sense of pride in the town—their sense of identity? Haven’t I single-handedly helped them hold on to their humanity? But they still succumb!”

“This will work, Gina,” Meredith said. “I just need a couple of minutes to calm the storm within me.”

“I’ll buy you those minutes,” Gina promised as she left Meredith leaning up behind a large oak tree, fifty feet away from the raving madman. She took a breath and then approached Ezekiel.

He turned toward her and continued, “Even after I initiated the sacrifices and told them that the Enlightened Ones would allow a period of grace to feed once an evening, they still disobeyed! After I had to lie in their Name, they still became savages! Tell me, what I am supposed to do?”

Sacrifice.

“What did you do, Ezekiel?” Gina held the shotgun at the ready.

He softened at her tone. “Please understand… I didn’t want to. They forced my hand. I couldn’t get the others to leave either. They refused to vacate the school. Too afraid or too damn stubborn to leave—didn’t matter. The others were content for a while. I’d let them have one. Then they’d go away and come back the next night. But those foolish people would not leave!”

“Bastard!” Gina hissed. “Those were your friends and family—your neighbors! How could you?”

“I tried to slow it down! They would’ve slaughtered them all the first night if not for me! But they thought they could protect the school and that help would come. They were all like you… they just…wouldn’t… LEAVE!”

Gina looked over at the chapel. “How many? How many did you slaughter? Have you no fucking conscience left? Or do you just obey the monster crawling beneath your skin?”

Ezekiel surprised her by breaking down into tears. “Forty-two,” he finally confessed. “Men, women… children.”

The only thing that stopped her from pulling the trigger was the thought of waking every single dead-head in town while her friends were still out there.

“You know what you are?” she spat. “You’re worse than the Unclean. More monstrous than those mindless drones which don’t know any better but to feed. You, and your kind, know what you’re doing is evil… but you feed anyway. You make me sick!”

Ezekiel said nothing.

“You all had only one choice you could make before you fed on your first victims, but you were all too spineless to make it. You should’ve hung nooses off that fucking bridge and jumped off! Now there’s all that blood on your hands and I know you will rot in hell for what you’ve done!”

He looked at Gina, looked past her, and then fell to his knees, covering his face with his hands and shaking his head. “It’s not too late for you and the rest of your friends to get out,” he said through tears. The sacrifice will preoccupy them for a while. It was what they would settle on. It was the price to guarantee your safety and a chance for me to uphold my promise.”

“What the fuck are you…” she trailed off as Ezekiel’s words hit home, the horrific revelation arriving much too late. Gina turned around to find Meredith.

The older woman was gone.

“You still have time to get the others,” the half-dead man said. “I know my people will try to trap them if they can, but they will answer to the bell. It’s the call of sacrifice, and they will come to pay tribute to the Enlightened. That’s when you and your friends can slip away.”

Gina looked past the vacant spot she’d left Meredith and found the only place they could have taken her so quickly. The church stood deceptively still and peaceful at the top of a small hill. She noticed the large church bell at the base of a large spire.

“It’s too late for her. You can’t save them all. There has to be a sacrifice. I did what I could for the others. Take the main road out toward Austinburg. It’s the quickest way out of town and you won’t be pursued outside of Harpersfield. They know it’s unclean country out there.”

She couldn’t look away from the church. “You devils took my friend in there to… feed?” Gina felt something snap within.

“It’s the only way. Go now. Find your friends and… just… go!”

She turned to the monster who looked genuinely distraught as it was torn between participation with the town and trying to help the outsiders.

“What happens when they ring the bell?” Gina asked, all emotion draining from her body.

Ezekiel’s shoulders drooped. “It will ring six times to summon the chosen. Twice more for the sacrifice.”

“And then?”

He looked at her miserably and said, “Then… they will… partake.”

She moved toward the church.

“It’s too late,” he said. “She’s already dead.”

Gina could feel her throat tighten but refused to shed a tear. She fell to her knees instead. She suddenly thought of Tony. Twice now she’d lost someone she loved to…

Sacrifice.

After a few moments, she placed the shotgun on the ground and retrieved an item from her pack. She got up and walked over to the pathetic man and spat in his face. “Damn you for doing this and damn you for making me choose!” she hissed.

“We all have our horrible choices to make,” Ezekiel said in tears.

“Yes we do.” She raised a hunting knife in both hands. He’s not a man anymore. Just another monster! She let out a strangled scream and stabbed the half-dead man in the forehead.

Ezekiel fell limp to the ground.

Like an omen of her own damnation, the church bell rang out six times.

The rest of the grey-eyed demons would be coming now.

She looked toward the church.

What if he lied? What if she’s still alive?

She thought of her friends, all of them oblivious to what was happening. She needed to warn them. If Ezekiel was telling the truth, Meredith was already gone but she still had a chance to save the others and get out of town.

But what if he lied?

Gina had another horrible choice to make.

~~~

Next Episode 20-6

Previous Episode 20-4

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 20-5: 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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