Chapter 32-4: Wasteland

Posted: September 25, 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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~~~

Stephen sluggishly woke to a rough hand shaking his shoulder. He felt like someone had been kicking him in his sleep after only being under for about ten minutes. It took him a moment to register the concerned face of the big preacher staring down at him.

“Little brother,” Logan said. “Are you awake?”

Stephen sat up in his cot and rubbed sleep from his eyes while releasing a monstrous yawn. He could tell that it was morning by the number of lit overhead lights. “What… what’s the matter? Did I miss the service?”

“Worse I’m afraid. There’s trouble escalating in the mess hall. Lots of folks are there talking… lots of angry and frightened people who want answers.”

Stephen shook off his disorientation and gave Logan his undivided attention. “What’s happened?”

Logan sighed heavily. “It’s Olivia Browning, the troubled mother you spoke with last night. She… took her own life early this morning. Sally Samson found her body in one of the storerooms.”

“Shit.” Stephen painfully rose to his feet. His legs felt like lead as if he’d run a marathon in his sleep. As he started putting on his shoes, he asked, “You said trouble in the mess hall. I assume you mean Lannister?”

Logan nodded. “Word spread fast about that poor woman. I barely had enough time to get down here before he started getting folks fired up about Olivia’s death. I discreetly moved a couple of my men just outside both entrances into the mess hall. Told them to keep their distance but they’re ready to step in if the situation gets out of hand.”

Stephen shook his head. Carl Lannister, ex-car salesman turned community troublemaker, had a gift for making mountains out of molehills. He had been all too eager to openly stand in opposition of Gina’s leadership after Orosco lit the initial fire before leaving. He’d been using every opportunity since then to poison the community against her. Olivia’s death was now the seventh suicide, the second in the last two weeks. Stephen could just imagine the martyr he’d create out of Olivia just to rally support to his cause. And as unpopular as Gina was these days, it wouldn’t require much.

“We don’t need this,” Stephen said. “This winter’s been hard enough without people like that stirring up emotions.”

“Agreed,” Logan said. “I just can’t understand why she’d do it? I saw you two last night. She looked… optimistic. This doesn’t make sense.”

Stephen gave him an alarming look. “It was suicide… right?” He also couldn’t understand how Olivia’s emotional state could’ve deteriorated so fast since last night.

We need to get out of this grave before everyone starts thinking death is better. He shook at the chilling thought.

“I saw her body, myself.” Logan looked uncomfortable. “Her wrists were cut. The razor blade was still in her hand. It was an awful mess. So much blood. I had to put another man at the storage room door before Lannister’s people stole a good look. If it were up to them, they’d display that poor woman’s body in the mess hall just to incite a riot. John Westinghouse, God bless him, volunteered to clean up the blood. He knew Olivia as well as anyone down here and he hated the thought of anyone seeing her like that.”

Stephen shook his head. “Let’s get over there before things get ugly.”

Logan nodded and followed him toward the mess hall.

Along the way, Stephen was constantly looking toward every corner for Nicole.

Where are you? I could really use your help right now.

Sometimes she would appear in a crisis just to offer him an encouraging glance if nothing else. But Nicole was unusually absent this morning.

He had no idea what he was going to say to all of them. That was Tony’s job. But he was all they had since the others still had not returned yet.

“Logan?”

“Yes, little brother?”

“Could you ask that God of yours for some help? I’d greatly appreciate it.”

Logan laughed nervously. “I haven’t stopped asking Him for that since we all moved down here. We’ve seen some truly dark days, little brother, but I fear we haven’t seen the full breath of that darkness yet.”

Dark days, indeed. Stephen thought.

~~~

They could hear angry overlapping voices from the hall. Above them all, Carl Lannister’s brand of goodwill and a unified community boomed above the noise like gasoline before a fire.

“…and where is our red-headed warmonger now? Out there where the rest of us should be, shrugging off her responsibilities while she prepares for more death and destruction against an enemy that no one has seen since we’ve been down here! Meanwhile, Olivia is dead because she couldn’t take it anymore. She couldn’t stand one more minute living in this prison camp beneath the ground. It’s all bullshit, people!”

Stephen was alarmed by the applause Lannister received. No matter where we go, we’ll never be free of the ‘Charlie Ottermeyers’. When one dies, another simply rises from the ashes to take his place.

Although whether or not the Shadow Dead survived the explosion several months ago was debatable, everyone believed Charlie Ottermeyer and his ‘army’ had been at ground zero when Micolad detonated. There was that consolation, at least.

“…That’s seven suicides already,” Lannister continued. “Seven good people who did not have to die down here! And for what? So Gina can continue to train us for her fictional war that she’s never even here for? What happens if, and I do mean a big fucking ‘if’, her precious Shadow Dead arrive while she has most of the leadership topside running risking missions that we’re not privy to? What if the witch starts conjuring again? What if she finally decides to let her pet zombie loose on us while we sleep?”

He turned to Logan as they reached the mess hall, and thought about Meredith’s safety. With so much attention on the latest commotion, one of the many haters of the ‘Wasteland Witch’, as she was called, might choose to seize an opportunity to get at her or at Megan due to the distraction. “Maybe you should put another couple of guards at the clinic… just in case.”

“I have Bear down there. He’s as strong as an ox and better than three men. Besides… he hasn’t had breakfast yet… and that makes him irritable.” Logan laughed. “No one will be getting to the clinic, little brother, not unless Bear puts them there. No worries.”

Stephen nodded.

Logan approached his man at the mess hall door and exchanged a few quite words with him.

Stephen took advantage of the moment to try to settle his nerves before entering. As much as he hated it, he was the man in charge now. It was his responsibility to diffuse this unfortunate situation as quickly as possible.

He looked around again for Nicole with no success.

I guess I’m truly alone this time, he thought. Man up, Eddington. You’ve been in worse situations than this. What’s Lannister compared to hordes of the dead?

Stephen stepped into a crowded mess hall. Heads turned, displaying angry eyes. Others looked away, feeling guilty for being there.

Lannister, who was standing on one of the long lunchroom style tables, put his hands on his hips and shook his head. He was a tall, lanky man with curly brown hair and glasses. “I’m glad to see that someone from leadership has finally decided to stop by. You do know about the dead woman, yes?”

Stephen deliberately ignored Lannister and addressed everyone else. “Why are you all doing this?” he asked, hoping to shame them to their senses. “Olivia took her own life last night… and this is how you honor her memory? I understand that you’re upset. I am, too. But what you’re doing here… and allowing this man to prey upon your anger… solves nothing.”

Many who were glaring at Stephen a moment before, now began to shuffle their feet.

Lannister would not give up his momentum. “And there it is again… that poor woman dies and somehow we’re the ones at fault. Don’t let this… school teacher… make you lose sight of what’s really happening here!”

“And what is that exactly?” Stephen addressed Lannister with a stern look. “All is see is a man making a fool out of himself while trying to turn this community against itself.”

Lannister’s face wet red. He pointed at Stephen, but addressed everyone else. “You see, people, this is what they do. They try to turn things around and deflect the blame. We’re the ones who are dying down here while they sit on their hands and do nothing. Morale is at an all-time low, we’re slowly losing our minds worrying about our families out there, and we’re forced to stay down here in the dark!”

Some of the community started getting angry again at the mentioning of their families.

Stephen looked into their exhausted faces. He knew most of them by name. They’d all overcome so much to get here and he’d heard their individual horror stories of loss and pain, which mirrored his own struggles since the world went crazy.

There was Lonnie and Claudia Davidson, newlyweds who had met in the small tavern Lonnie owned up in Geneva. They were just celebrating renovations made to their establishment when The Change struck. Managing to secure the bar, Lonnie and Claudia took in other survivors and they’d fought like hell to keep each other alive.

Then there was James Mason, a construction worker, who’d come down from Erie, Pennsylvania for contract work on an office building in Madison when the dead attacked the motel he was staying at. He’d been the only one on his crew who had survived that first hellish night.

Abagail Smith, an attractive bank teller from Mentor, had managed to survive an attack on the Interstate by hiding in her trunk for two days living on warm bottled water and a pack of Slim Jims.

Maurice Taylor, married for twenty-five years, had barely escaped his own home when his wife and teenage son turned and tried to kill him. He had another teenage daughter who had been spending the night at a friend’s house. He’d never found her and spent many restless nights since then wondering if he ever did, if his daughter would try to kill him, too.

The list went on and on…

And despite everything, against the odds, they had all found each other, and together they’d survived the long grueling winter and had even managed not to kill each other. Yes, they had their problems, and Gina’s leadership was far from perfect, but they were blessed to have this. Stephen cringed at the alternative.

By now Logan had stepped in behind Stephen while the guards continued to monitor the situation from just outside the doorways.

“I don’t know about all of you,” Lannister continued, “but I can’t live like this anymore. My wife… my son… are out there. Maybe they’re already dead.” Lannister paused for dramatic effect. This drew them all in as Lannister knew exactly which buttons to push.

Stephen wouldn’t put it past this vile man to make up a family so he could play the sympathy card. He wisely let Lannister finish, not wanting to appear callous.

“Maybe they’re all dead. If the flesh eaters didn’t get them, the cold most certainly did… but I still need to know. We all still need to know!”

This was met with fervent approval from everyone.

Lannister took a deep breath and continued in a softer tone. “Olivia, Jamie, Justin, Heidi, Barbara, Felicia, Stewart… they all had families… they all needed to know that they hadn’t failed them. But they couldn’t live with it anymore. They couldn’t hide down here with safety, food, water, heat… while knowing that their families were suffering out there. So they took their own lives.”

Stephen watched angry faces turn despondent. Many started to weep, the dams holding back their own emotional turmoil breached by Lannister’s well-chosen words. Stephen needed to end this. Now. For once, he was glad Gina wasn’t here. She lacked the grace to deal with such emotions, and in this delicate situation, she would’ve used the threat of force to cause this crowd to disperse… or else.

And that would’ve been disastrous.

“They took their own lives… and it was all… their… fault!” Lannister had manipulated them perfectly as he stood there, pointing at Stephen. “We came here willingly. Voluntarily… or so we thought. But under the unspoken threat of violence, which Gina made sure of by placing all her armed soldiers everywhere for us to clearly see, we’ve had no choice at all. We are told to ‘stay’ like good obedient dogs. We are told to ‘wait’ because safety is not assured here, although other than Gina and her elite leadership team, who has ever seen an actual Shadow Dead? I haven’t… have you?”

They were all getting angry again.

Stephen stared up at Lannister who was quickly putting him into a corner. Yes, they’d all addressed the need to go topside and look for lost loved ones. It was Tony and Stephen, themselves, who were the community’s greatest allies in that regard. But they all agreed with Gina that they had to survive the winter first, then, carefully explore what remained afterwards. For all they knew, the dead were waiting for them just beyond the Wasteland. But after, looking for families was essential if they wanted to rebuild and ever escape the phantoms which threatened to tear them apart within. But this man… this loathsome man… didn’t care about any of these things. He wanted to take charge and destroy them all in the process.

Stephen despised what smug men like Lannister represented. He’d followed them throughout history, taught about them in the classroom. Strong, charismatic men and women who came to power by inciting emotion rather than appealing to reason. Violence was always the end result. And after all they’d been through to survive this very dark corner of history, perhaps the end of history, as far a Man was concerned, he’d been damned if he sat back and let another ‘false prophet’ lead them down this road.

“Go on, then!” Stephen raised his voice. He stepped up onto the table and gave Lannister a challenging stare. “Keep fucking fanning these flames and see what happens, you arrogant prick!”

Lannister was shocked into silence. He smirked at Stephen as if to say, Oh, I so hope you fight back and prove my point.

Stephen addressed them all. “How many times are we going to do this? Even now, at the brink of our species going extinct, are we to continue following this sort of madness until we’ve killed each other? From abortion clinics to race riots; from gay rights to ‘fuck the police’, and on… and on… and on! Shall we make signs with loud, bold, hateful words painted across them right before we beat each other to death with them? When does this finally fucking end?”

He had their attention, including Lannister.

“What can I possibly say to you after everything we’ve endured that’s going to make you feel better? What can I say to justify or bring meaning after Olivia’s meaningless death? I’m not qualified to offer such words. They would be just as meaningless. But what I won’t do is stand here and watch you all turn into animals–monsters, like the ones outside–as the anger turns to hatred, the hatred turns to violence, and the violence turns into more meaningless death! You are all better than this!

You’re not happy with the leadership. Fine! You’ve every right to voice that. Are we perfect? Hell… no! Do Gina and the rest of us, who are trying to make impossible decisions when faced with what once were impossible problems, make mistakes? Absolutely. But we are here… now… and we’re still alive. Many of you owe your lives to her, as I do, as this man speaking so boldly and trying to incite you does, as well. But Lannister is right.”

Lannister looked surprised.

Stephen continued. “We’ve kept you safe down here… but we have not kept you sound. We’ve prepared you to fight an enemy that we hope never comes, while disabling you to fight for your families. It’s maddening not to know where they are. I understand that. Gina understands that. We’ve failed you because we had no idea that the waiting was as much an enemy as the dead… and we did not prepare you. For that, I’m truly sorry. But consider this: Could you have survived the winter? Would dying from exposure while waiting for them in vacant homes have helped them? Because if they are alive, then you know as well as I do that they would’ve had to keep moving, as we did, to survive.”

This was met by understanding nods and murmurs.

“And if you found your loved ones at home, dead or alive, what then? Would you join Olivia and the others and take your own lives when you found their corpses or had to watch them freeze to death? More meaningless waste.

You’ve done far more than waiting here. You’ve helped establish a home for them to come back to, when we are able to finally search for them. Because what’s the fucking point of finding them just to lose them again to the dead, the elements, or God knows what else is out there? And if some of our loved ones are dead, not all of them will be, so you live for them. And that fucking matters! It has to!

And now winter is finally over and Gina is risking her life again, trying to make sure we can leave this place safely… or what’s the point of leaving? How will you help any of them if the dead get you as soon as you exit the Wasteland?

And that’s how we answer the question: ‘Why am I still here and not out looking for my family?’ We answer that one difficult question, together, by saying we are building them a safe home to come back to, or why bother searching for them at all.”

Many were calming down and nodding their heads.

“But this shit… right here… has to stop now! If we destroy each other because we can’t come to terms with our differences, than we’ve not only failed each other and our families, but whatever’s left of our race, as well.”

Lannister came over with a defeated look on his face. But he still wouldn’t quit. “I’m sure many of us believe you mean those words, Stephen,” he said, trying to save face. “But you know that it’s more than just about establishing a home and finding our loved ones. You speak of owning mistakes, and that’s admirable, but Gina has made quite a few that have caused people to leave. Other mistakes she’s made have created too much doubt and suspicion that won’t simply go away without a reckoning. What good is a home if the house remains divided?”

Oh… he’s good, Stephen thought.

And before he realized he was saying the words, Stephen said, “That’s why when Gina gets back, and after we’ve established that it’s safe to go topside again, I will be the first to address the notion of a public election for leadership to be set at a later date when all other pressing issues have been dealt with. That way, instead of losing people, like when Orosco left, everyone will get a voice in what happens from now on.”

This was met with shock and wonder. Even Lannister raised his eyebrows in surprise.

Stephen looked to Logan and found a huge smile on his face. He clapped him playfully on the back with a laugh and whispered in his ear, “Well done, little brother. It appears I’m not the only preacher down here.”

Suddenly, with no warning, everyone in the mess hall started to applaud. Even Lannister bitterly joined in, clearly understanding that he’d lost this round.

Stephen climbed down from the table and wanted to hide. But they met him with hand-shakes and nods of approval.

When the shock lifted, Stephen thought, I did it! I beat that smug son-of-a-bitch!

He glanced toward the back of the mess hall and found Nicole leaning up against the wall, smiling and applauding. She looked absolutely radiant in his favorite sundress.

We did it, Nicole. We won! his eyes clearly expressed to her.

I know, my love. You were wonderful! her eyes answered.

~~~

Next Episode 32-5

Previous Episode 32-3

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 32-4: 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. Gylion says:

    The Charlie Ottenmeyers never die out indeed. A shame isn’t it? XD

    Like

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