Chapter 32-2: Wasteland

Posted: September 19, 2016 in Apocalypse, books, creative writing, drama, Free Online Novel, free zombie books, Horror, horror fiction, killing zombies, living dead, monsters, mystery, novels, serial novels, Survival, suspense, thriller, Uncategorized, walking dead, zombie books, Zombies
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~~~

After visiting the sentries posted outside the clinic and at the rear of the facility beneath the hatch, the only way in and out of the compound, Stephen headed back toward the opposite side of the underground facility to where the majority of the community lived.

Cubicle City, as it was named, was the gymnasium-sized barracks that were once filled with rows of cots–enough to house a small army. Since taking over the compound, Gina’s community, currently 78 people strong, had moved the cots into small sub-communities all along the perimeter of the large space, using bed sheets and tarps hanging down from ropes to act as privacy barriers, around each cot. What was left of the open space at the center served primarily as a recreation area, meeting hall and a chapel. This was where everyone spent most of their free time when they weren’t eating, training or doing their assigned jobs for the day.

Stephen stood at the entrance of Cubicle City, appreciating the late night calmness of so many sleeping souls beneath minimal overhead lighting. To align their internal clocks to a regular sleeping pattern, Marcus had found a fuse box in a storage room that controlled the lights. In the evenings, lights were reduced in an attempt to mimic nighttime, while also conserving electricity since no one had an idea how long their power would last. It was assumed that the compound ran on powerful generators beneath them. All they knew for sure was that for five months everything continued to work, proving that the facility was built for long-term habitation.

Stephen quietly crossed the center of the community, listening to the sounds of snoring, hushed chatter, and the occasional footfalls echoing across the large space. Most people were asleep by ten o’clock while others took advantage of the quiet to pray, read, or to simply pretend to be alone for a little while. Initially, it was very difficult for many to adjust to living with so many people sharing the same space just on the other side of flimsy sheet barriers, but eventually, most found the presence of other human beings comforting, and much better than the long nights of hiding above ground in the dark and not knowing what monsters would jump out from the neighboring shadows.

Stephen approached the far end of Cubicle City, where he, Gina, Tony, Marcus and Diane shared a small section of isolated cots in the right corner surrounded by sheets. Tony was the first to jokingly call their little portion of the gym the ‘Executive Wing’. The name stuck and they’d been calling it that ever since.

He stopped just before the sheet wall that would lead him to his bed. Stephen heard someone softy weeping from the far left corner of the gym, near the prayer wall.

Stephen frowned with a heavy sigh. He knew who it was. Her name was Olivia Davidson, last known survivor of her family, doomed to continue her wretched existence blaming herself for losing her two children when the initial panic struck the freeway and everyone fled into the nearby woods to escape a horde of yellow-eyed beasts which ambushed the stranded vehicles. It had been night and there had been so many people running through the woods. She had been knocked over in a stampede of fear-driven people, causing her to become separated from her kids who were pushed along in the flood of humanity which rushed past. Olivia had searched desperately for days, while trying to remain just out of reach of the dead. She had never found them.

Stephen continued to listen to the sad woman, wanting only to collapse in his cot for a few brief hours. He understood more than most how powerful the monster of guilt could be and Olivia was being consumed by it daily, unable to accept that it hadn’t been her fault that she lost her children.

Go help her… you know you won’t be able to sleep listening to her tears anyway.

Stephen felt bad for his callous thoughts. He blamed his lack of compassion on exhaustion. After a moment, he turned and walked toward the prayer wall.

A large section of the wall in this remote corner of Cubicle City was covered with photographs, spanning a space six-feet tall and twenty feet across. Stephen was always amazed by the number of pictures people had managed to save while fleeing for their lives. During a time when food, water, and weapons should have been the first things survivors thought to acquire, instead it had been the memories that people valued most.

He quickly glanced at the wall of the missing or presumed dead, feeling the eyes of so many ghosts staring back at him. Stephen seldom visited the wall. It reminded him too much of Claudette and that old wasted life. Shamefully, he did not have one picture of her stuffed into his worthless wallet when Logan first came up with the idea to establish a place that served as part memorial to the deceased and a place to pray for loved ones not accounted for. Stephen could see the value in the prayer wall, but he also appreciated how dangerous it could be. On one hand, it kept a candle of hope lit for those waiting to be reunited with loved ones and provided a little closure for others who had stopped waiting. But it was also a place for people like Olivia, who were slowly killing themselves by allowing their grief to own them, and for that, Stephen despised the idea.

She was kneeling beside the wall closest to the pictures of her two children. In an attempt to pray she found herself crying into her hands while slowly rocking back and forth. Olivia frequented the wall more than most and often carried her grief around long after departing the wall. There were others like her, those who carried the wall around with them wherever they went. After a while, most people avoided them because they were constant reminders of their own loss. Some, like Stephen, Tony and Logan, tried again and again to console these grief-stricken members of the group. But some could not be brought back from that dark place no matter what they all tried to do to help.

“Olivia?” Stephen said. “How are you?”

The despondent woman slowly raised her head. “Hello, Stephen. You should be sleeping.” Olivia tried to wipe the tears from her face.

“So should you,” Stephen said with a smile, kneeling down beside her. He looked at the pictures of her children. “Ben and Cassie, right?”

Olivia looked back at the pictures. “Yes… those were my babies.”

“Those are your babies,” Stephen corrected. “You know they might still be out there. Maybe they found a way to get back to their father?”

Olivia shook her head. “There were so many… it was so dark… Cassie’s smart as a whip. If we’d been at our grocery store or at the school… some place she knew… Cassie could’ve got Ben home. But not from where we were. There were so many people running… it was so dark in those woods. No one knew where we were. We just… ran.”

Stephen nodded. “Tony has an interesting theory about the re-animated. You know, the weak ones with the dark eyes that were brought back from death?”

Olivia gave him a strange disinterested look. “Yeah… what of it?”

“He’s spent a lot of time talking with everyone over the last few months and comparing notes. In most cases, when those monsters weren’t chasing us, when they were just roaming around like ghosts, he found one thing in common with all the stories.”

Olivia waited.

“He said that they all showed signs of remembering things. Tony doesn’t believe that means they’re alive or anything, he just thinks that some of their memories might still be buried in their reanimated brains or something. It appeared as if they weren’t just wandering aimlessly, but more toward places they remembered. Once I even saw a woman-zombie who looked like she was window shopping. It was damn strange. The boys that I was with said that every time they tried to capture her, the woman would get loose and find herself back in front of that store window… like she was there before.”

“What’s it matter. They still want to eat us. That’s all they want to do.”

Stephen continued. “I think it’s more instinctual on some basic level in their deteriorated brains. Just like how animals that get lost can sometimes still find their way home, even when they’re miles away, maybe the dead are the same. And if animals and the dead can do that, with their limited brain activity… why not your children? Maybe, no matter where they were, they were able to instinctively find their way back home or to some other place they remember.”

Olivia’s eyes went wide with horror. “So you’re saying that if my husband’s already dead and my children are still alive, that they might find a way to get home… but so would my dead husband?”

That did not work as I’d hoped, Stephen thought. He shook his head and laughed nervously. “It’s just a stupid theory. Tony doesn’t swear by it. My point is, children are resilient,” he deflected. “I’m sure they found somewhere to hide, and who knows, maybe they found other survivors that took them in.”

“I’m their mother. I’m supposed to protect them. And I left them all alone in those woods…” Olivia started crying again. “I told them lies their whole lives. I told them monsters weren’t real at bedtime. I told them I’d always protect them and be there for them as I tucked them in and kissed them goodnight.” She looked at Stephen from behind two deep pools of sadness. “And where was I then? Where was I when the monsters came? Where was their mother who lied about the monsters and said she’d always keep them safe?”

Stephen turned away from Olivia’s haunted eyes. Reflected in them, he’d seen Claudette, alone at the house, waiting all night for him to get home after he’d fucked one of his students and hid in shame at the school when the world went insane. He imagined her waiting by the phone that never rang as the television showed scene after scene of violence and death when the monsters came with no warning. He could see Claudette’s terrified face as she might have had to hide in darkest corner of their house as neighbors turned on neighbors… and still, no word from the man who pretended to love her. The man who abandoned her when she needed him most.

Stephen closed his eyes and fought back. No! I will not let that in again! Never! Whatever happened to Claudette was not my fault. What happened to Nicole was not my fault. What happened to the fucking world and everyone in it was NOT MY FAULT!!!

Stephen looked back into the sad woman’s eyes. “You know where I was when The Change happened? I’d fallen asleep in my classroom at the school where I used to work when I should’ve been home. My wife… my wife was all alone at the house and I wasn’t there to protect her or comfort her… and I burned with guilt because of it. I eventually made it home and she… Claudette… was simply gone. No note. No body. Nothing. To this day I don’t know if she’s alive or dead. But what I do know is that if I ever hope to find her again, some day, somehow, then it starts right here with knowing that whatever happened… was not my fault. If I can’t accept that, then I’m no good to her anyway. No good to anyone.”

Olivia shifted uncomfortably. She nodded and wiped fresh tears from her eyes. “I understand, Stephen. And you’re right. It’s just hard to get out from under it, knowing that my children needed me and I wasn’t there. I mean, I’m sorry for what happened to you, but you weren’t there. You were separated from your wife and I’m sure she understands that you tried like hell to get back to her. But I was right there… and I still lost them. What does that say about me?”

Stephen smiled. “It says that none of us could’ve done a damn thing whether we were with our families or not. It says that we tried our best to do what we could, but in the end, the storm of the dead came without warning and we barely managed to survive ourselves. And that’s the real kick in the pants, that’s the real curse: surviving. Everyone who died at the beginning were the lucky ones. They were spared from all the grief, all the pain, all the uncertainty… all the guilt. But we have to deal with all that shit and keep on getting up each morning and pretend that living like this, with so many unanswered questions, somehow matters.”

“Does it matter, Stephen?” Olivia looked away. “Sometimes I think I would rather be dead.”

“You bet your ass it matters,” Stephen said. “Every breath we are allowed to continue having is a blessing, and brings us one step closer to finding the ones we love.”

“Do you really believe you’ll find her, Stephen? I mean… after all this time… can you really risk hoping for that?”

Stephen shook his head and raised his hands. “Honestly, Olivia, everything we do now is a risk. This long-ass winter is finally over. Don’t be fooled for a minute and believe that we won’t be at risk again the moment we stick our heads out from that shelter door to see what’s up there. We have our own people out there right now, who I care deeply for, and that we may never see again. Believing that the people I care about are still alive, that your children are still alive, that Gina and the others will make it back, is one of the few risks that keep me going. And if we don’t get our answers right away, we will find answers for some, as we discover others like Claudette, Ben, and Cassie, hiding out there. And that’s what you and I, and everyone else down here who has lost people, have to keep on doing to justify this fucking life called ‘survival’. We have to find them all. But we can’t do a thing for anyone until we rescue ourselves first.”

Olivia looked puzzled. “What does that mean?”

Stephen smiled. “This… all of this… is not my fault. It’s not your fault. We did what we could do in the face of any storm… and that’s it. You didn’t lose your children. I didn’t fail my wife. But now that the storm has passed, we have to find them and take back what that storm took from all of us… including our self-respect.”

Olivia nodded. “You’re right. Feeling sorry for myself won’t find my children.” She looked at the pictures of Ben and Cassie and then she started looking at the rest of the pictures. She covered her mouth with her hands and said, “I’m a damn blind fool. I mean… just look at them all. And here I am acting like I’m the only one.”

Stephen glanced at the prayer wall of photos. “They are why we’re still here, Olivia. We have to find as many as we can. We need to believe in that… and die for that belief, if necessary.”

Olivia nodded. “Yes… we will find them, Stephen. Just as you said, ‘all of them’.”

Stephen gently touched her shoulder until he had her complete attention. “You and I know what we can’t change. If we could go back and be there for the ones we feel we failed, it wouldn’t have mattered. We’d probably be dead. But what we can do is stop wasting time believing in that liar, Guilt, which would have us drown to death in our pain before we can do some real good here.”

Olivia smiled. To Stephen, her smile was like the sun coming up over a dark, turbulent sea. “Thank you, Stephen. Thanks for not giving up on me. Your words make me feel… alive again. You’ve given one sad mother some hope.” She reached out and touched his hand.

Stephen laughed. “Does this mean we can go to sleep now?”

Olivia laughed at the tired look on his face. “Help me up first. I’m afraid I might slip and fall in this damn puddle of tears I’ve spilled all over the place.”

Stephen helped her to her feet.

“Goodnight, Stephen. You, too, are a blessing. I’m sure that wherever your wife is, she would be proud of you for the good you’re doing for all of us. And I imagine she wouldn’t be surprised.” She winked and then walked away.

Stephen felt choked up as she watched Olivia depart. He wiped a single tear away from his face with the back of his hand. You see that, Eddington? Maybe there’s some hope for you yet.

“Well, that was the Lord’s hand at work in you, little brother… damn near made me cry like a babe, you did. Praise God!”

Stephen turned in surprise to the sound of Logan’s heartfelt words as the big man approached, seemingly out of nowhere, and stepped right in front of him. The preacher wore his usual black tank top, which displayed his muscular tattooed arms. Logan was not a tall man but he was stocky and built like a tank. He always wore his long black hair in a ponytail which made him look like a retired rock star, especially since his far-receded hair line on the top of his head made him mostly bald and revealed his age. He also wore a bushy black beard, which he never let run down further than his neckline.

Stephen scolded himself for staring, but he never failed to observe this Godly man’s hate-branded arms. The big black swastika on his left shoulder always stood out.

Before Stephen could respond, Logan flashed him a beaming smile, pointed a finger at him, and then let out an infectious laugh that made Stephen want to laugh right back. Then the big man reached out and grabbed his shoulders, pulled him in, and embraced him in what only could be described as a ‘real’ bear hug.

When Logan released him, he said enthusiastically, “Well done, little brother. That was better than any sermon I could’ve offered. Straight from the heart and the gut. You helped sister Olivia more than you’ll ever know. Praise God!” The big man started laughing again.

Stephen smiled and shook his head. “Logan, you have to be the most upbeat survivor I know… and do you ever get tired?”

Logan just laughed and answered, “While the rest of you are eating canned beans and peaches… Lord have mercy… I’ve been taking in the good stuff, a regular smorgasbord, a feast fit for a king. ”

Stephen raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Have you a secret stash of peanut butter I don’t know about?”

“No, little brother, no secrets.” He held out his hand to reveal a pocket-sized Bible which he appeared to retrieve from the spirit world.

Stephen nodded in understanding. “Ahh, I get it. You’ve been feasting on the word of God.”

“There’s no better sustenance for the soul, my friend. This is what keeps me well fed no matter what the circumstances.”

“Where do you keep that thing?” Stephen asked, looking at Logan’s waist. “Do you have a holster you draw it from? I didn’t even see you carrying it.”

Logan laughed. “If you are implying that I’m God’s gunslinger, then I’m guilty as charged.”

Stephen shook his head and laughed. “It’s getting late. I’d love to stay up and chat but my pillow is starting to think I’m mad at it.”

“I understand completely. Goodnight, little brother.” Logan patted him on the shoulder and started to walk off. Then he stopped and asked, “You coming to the service tomorrow?”

Stephen had almost escaped. He closed his eyes and sighed. So much for sleeping in. He turned back and nodded. “Sure, I’ll try to make it.”

“Good! Good! I’ll see you there. God’s got some powerful words to get us through the coming days.” Logan turned again.

Stephen watched him go and suddenly thought of Claudette again. “Hey, Logan!”

The preacher turned back and started over. “Is there something else, Stephen?”

“I was just wondering… and forgive me if this sounds offensive-”

“Just come out with it, my friend. I’ve got some thicker skin than most, especially around the back of my neck.” He laughed.

“It’s just that… well… I’ve had some questions. I guess what I’m getting at is that I’m wondering if you are ordained, and if so… well… do you ever take confession?”

Logan gave Stephen a mock stern look and said, “Have you been hiding a secret stash of peanut butter?”

Stephen laughed. “No… don’t get me wrong… I’m not asking for me…”

“Relax, little brother. To answer your question, no, I’m not officially ordained or licensed. I’m not a reverend, a pastor or a priest. In fact, I’ve never once called myself anything but a servant of God. The preacher bit came later. Some folks find it easier calling me that and I got tired of correcting them.”

“So you don’t take confession then?”

“Not in the official capacity, Stephen, and that’s usually the job of a priest, but I’ve been known to listen to folks tell me their problems when they needed someone to unload on. Is something troubling you?”

“Would anything someone… confides in you be kept confidential?”

“You have my word as a God-fearing man, Stephen. Anything you tell me will stay between us… and God, of course.”

“Of course.” Stephen looked down at his feet. What the hell are you doing, Eddington? You are well past all this. There isn’t any need to burden this man with your old bullshit just to clear your conscience. Right?

Stephen looked up over Logan’s right shoulder. Nicole was leaning up against the prayer wall with her arms crossed and staring right back at him. Her eyes were full of concern, since she also believed that they had moved past this point, and that she was now his antidote against the poison of guilt which had infected him for so long.

“Stephen?” Logan urged gently.

Stephen looked at him and smiled. “I’m being foolish. Don’t mind me. This is just the tired talking.”

Logan’s face became serious. “Little brother, if you’re holding on to something, something from the past that’s still calling out to you, no matter how hard you try to suppress it, than you should let it speak and be free of it.”

Stephen opened his mouth to speak, and then turned to look at Nicole.

She was gone.

“Maybe another time, Logan. It’s really not that big a deal… anymore.”

Logan did not look convinced. He put his big hands on Stephen’s shoulders and turned him so that they were clearly looking eye to eye. “Just one question for you, Stephen,” he whispered. “And please… keep your eyes on me until you’ve answered, alright?”

Stephen was amused by the big man’s sudden seriousness. “Alright.”

Logan let out a deep sigh and asked, “Is there someone standing behind me, little brother? Someone or something that only you can see, perhaps?”

He knows! The alarms were going off in Stephen’s head. How could he possibly know about Nicole?

“No, Logan. There’s no one there,” Stephen quickly laughed to relieve the tension. “Is there supposed to be some… ghost with us or something?”

Logan studied his face. “Are you sure, little brother? Because it seems like you wish to tell me something, but you have the look of a man who thought he was alone until only a few moments ago.”

“No… that’s not it,” Stephen defended. He was starting to sweat.

“So there’s nothing over by the prayer wall? You keep looking over there.”

Stephen shook his head and laughed. “No… it’s nothing… well… it’s the wall itself. The pictures got me thinking about my wife, Claudette.” Which was true. “Sometimes, when I’m especially tired, I think she’s here with me… and then I forget… I forget that’s she’s gone and all the pain starts to come back.”

Logan eased up. “I’m sorry for your loss, Stephen.” He released him and backed up. “Of course, I should’ve remembered the pictures. It’s just that for a moment… well… never mind, little brother.”

Stephen smiled. “What is it? Do you see dead people or something?” he joked.

Logan flashed him a surprised look, and then quickly recovered with laughter. “I guess we’re both a bit tired tonight, Stephen. What was it you wanted to talk with me about?”

Stephen raised his arms and said. “It was nothing that can’t wait. I’ll talk to you about it some other time, alright?”

“Sure thing. I’m always available. Just come find me.”

“Thanks.” Stephen quickly turned away and retreated to his cubicle before the preacher asked anything else… or worse… Nicole reappeared.

When he was safely in bed, Stephen let out a moan which clearly expressed the gratitude of his weary muscles, and he felt himself drift away.

You are a damn fool sometimes, Eddington, he scolded himself. What were you thinking? Were you just going to tell him everything and confess to God, like that would make it all go away? You don’t get a clean slate… ever! But he knew that was the old guilt talking. Besides, you put Nicole at risk tonight. What if Logan knows there’s something wrong with you, what if he’s seen you talking to Nicole in the control room, or one of his men saw you and reported back to him? What if he was just trying to trick you into revealing her… and confessing your insanity?

The bricks above his eyes began to fall.

Besides, there’s no way he could know she was there. If he did, that would mean-

“Just shut up, Eddington.” Stephen gave up the fight, let his eyes close, and was out almost immediately.

~~~

Next Episode 32-3

Previous Episode 32-1

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 32-2: Wasteland” Copyright © 2016 Scott Scherr. All Rights Reserved.

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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Comments
  1. nashmcgowan says:

    Poor Steve. He just can’t get over his guilt.

    Like

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