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~~~

“…and deliver them from those who hate from the shadows.”

“Meredith, have you lost your damn mind?” Dr. Cooper said. “What you’re suggesting is dangerous as hell. No one’s going to hurt you or Megan. This isn’t like you. I never pegged you as the paranoid type.”

Meredith was pacing the clinic hallway nervously. “Did you get it, Coop? Did you get enough?”

Cooper shook his head in disbelief. “Did you hear a single word I said?”

She stopped and gave him a pleading look.

“Yes… yes… I got double the normal dosage. We’ve got enough tranquilizers to keep Megan sedated for a few more hours… in theory, anyway. But this stuff’s not as effective on the dead. They’re not like us anymore. You’ve seen that for yourself every time we’ve had to hook that girl up to an IV and feed her intravenously, wash her, and change her clothes… and all that is risky enough. It’s almost like she can smell us the moment we enter that glass cage, causing whatever madness that’s inside her to fight the effects of the drugs. Frankly, I’m surprised we’ve been able to keep her body functioning this long. If she were… normal… that girl’s body would’ve cannibalized itself by now. After the first couple of weeks of intravenous therapy, I thought she would have starved to death after a couple of months. But then I had to remember that she was dead already, throwing out the old rules while I’ve been shooting in the dark ever since.”

“She’s not dead, Coop… not entirely,” Meredith defended. “We could just as easily say that it’s been a blessing, in an unfortunate way, that her… infection… has actually helped us keep her alive.”

Coop laughed. “I guess you could say that. The benefits of being dead are that it’s much harder to die of natural causes second time around. I’ll have to publish a paper on that one day… when the Sunday comic strips are back in print.”

Meredith paused to stare over at Megan. She was back on her mattress, lying with her back to them and facing the wall. If she were a normal girl, fighting a life-threatening illness, anyone could diagnose that her lethargic actions of sleeping (if that’s what it was) throughout most of her days, followed by fits of restless activity at night, were clear indications of a manic-depressive state. But Megan was not a normal girl any longer. Meredith wrestled with the hard questions each evening: What did Megan feel? Think? Dream? Or, was it none of the above, and only the primitive savage remained, demanding that she ‘feed’? After months of believing and hoping she could reach out and connect with Megan, she’d almost given up. But then last night, Megan wept. And in that single silent moment they exchanged together, Meredith knew that Megan was still alive.

“The dead weep for no one,” she muttered, with a smile.

“What was that?” Coop asked.

But then something dawned on her as she stared at Megan’s back. “She’s been like this for a while now,” she said. “It’s almost like the fight within her is finished… like what happens to a caged lion in the zoo that’s been in captivity for too long.”

Coop waited.

“I know she’s still alive, Coop. I saw real tears rolling down her face last night… it was… remarkable from where I stood… but so deeply sad from the other side of this glass.”

“I wish I’d been here to see it, Meredith. Lord knows, I want to believe that all we’ve done hasn’t been in vain, but what I see is a creature that’s earned my pity at best, seeing her like this now, and remembering what she might have been. But then I remember how it was when we first had to deal with her… how savage and dangerous Megan was… and how terrified she made me feel. And that’s what I have to hold on to, because feeling sorry for the lion in the cage won’t change the fact that the lion would devour me in seconds if I were in that cage with it.”

Meredith turned. “She is dying, isn’t she, Coop? I mean, whether or not Megan’s still inside the monster that carries her… the shell is still fading away, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” he said. “I believe we’ve done all we can to keep it functional… despite so much we don’t know. But ultimately, we know with certainty that the dead… or, at least the dead part of that poor girl, was not designed to function in a cage. It needs to feed on flesh even if Megan’s still in there trying to fight against it.”

Meredith closed her eyes. “So even if we can get that girl to the surface of all that madness… she still needs the madness to survive. That’s a very bitter pill to swallow.”

“You must have known that all along, Meredith. You just didn’t want to face it.” Cooper came over. “I think that if Megan came back and told us she was starving for a Big Mac and fries, and we gave it to her, she’d eat it… but her altered body would reject it.”

“Damn you, Coop. Now I’m sad… and hungry.”

Coop laughed. “Can we put the tranquilizers away now?”

Meredith felt foolish. “I guess I was reading too much into what Logan said to me last night. But I could’ve sworn he was trying to warn me… I don’t know. Maybe I was just concerned because he doesn’t just visit like that. The man’s got a lot on his plate, trying to keep up the morale down here. After that poor girl killed herself, and then all that noise with Lannister… maybe he just wanted to check in.”

“Well… I don’t know much about those ex-Nazi-turned-preacher types, but it seems very unlikely that anyone would want to harm you or Megan while there’s a service going on. I think everyone is feeling a little on edge at the moment, including that strange fellow.”

“You’re right,” she said. “Most of the community sits in on those services. We all need hope any way we can get it.” She looked again at Megan.

“Well, speaking of hope,” Coop said. “I’ll head down to the cafeteria and whip us up some of that sludge they call coffee, and we can shoot-the-shit for a while.”

Meredith raised her eyebrows at him and snorted. “Did you just say ‘shoot-the-shit’?”

“Yeah… I’m classy like that,” he said with a smile. “Bet you can’t wait to hear more of that kind of talk when we ever get to that date you promised me.”

“Just because I promised you dinner, that doesn’t make it a date, Coop. But bless your heart… you do keep trying.”

“I’ll wear you out eventually,” he said with a wink, turning for the door. “Perhaps when I get back we can talk all about ‘me’ until you find yourself wanting a man in your life for the first time.”

“Oh… you will try,” she said with a laugh.

“Persistence is half the battle on the road to persuasion,” he said, opening the clinic door. “And I’m a very persuasive-”

Meredith stopped. “Coop?”

Cooper stood in the doorway for a moment, staring up and down the hall. He stepped back in and closed the clinic door, locking it behind him. He turned around and gave her a serious look.

“What is it?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” he started, looking deeply puzzled. “How long have I been visiting you here?”

Meredith found the question strange. “I see you every day, Coop… since the beginning.”

“Yep… that’s what I figured,” he said, scratching his head nervously. “And in all that time have I ever once come down here and told you that there wasn’t any guards standing in the hallway, looking bored out of their minds?”

Meredith frowned. “No… you’ve never told me that. Coop… where are the guards?”

Cooper moved toward the small table where he’d placed the case with the tranquiller gun and extra doses. He opened it, and started prepping the gun.

“Coop, you’re scaring me a little,” Meredith said, staring at the locked clinic door. “Those men were specifically assigned to watch the clinic, twenty-four hours a day, by Gina, to make sure Megan never got loose and out among the community. If she did… my God, it would be disastrous.”

He nodded. “That’s what I understood as well. Logan’s men, right?”

Meredith looked grave. “Yes… among other things, Logan is in charge of security.”

Coop nodded again, placing the loaded tranquiller gun on the table. “And you said you thought he came down to give you a warning last night?”

“Originally… yes.”

He turned. “Do you trust him?”

“Coop… those men aren’t just there to keep Megan from getting loose. They’re there to keep me and Megan safe from anyone getting in. There’s a few who don’t find living with a witch and her zombie very desirable.”

Cooper frowned. “That’s what I thought, too.” He looked nervously at the door. “Why don’t you fill me in on what your paranoid plan was once we sedated Megan… assuming you had a plan beyond that.”

“Coop, I’m scared.”

Cooper tried to reassuring her with a smile. “Looks like we’ll have to postpone that date again.”

Meredith let out a nervous laugh and then cupped her mouth with both hands. She looked at Megan, and then at the dusty folded-up wheelchair sitting in the corner.

“I think we need to get you both out of here,” Coop finished.

~~~

Stephen sat before the control console, trying to appear undistracted by the attractive brown-haired woman pacing behind him. He’d promised Nicole that he’d leave what she called ‘The Big Book of Boredom’ behind today so they could spend some uninterrupted time together. But now, he was wishing he’d brought the journal.

“Why are we still waiting around?” Nicole finally stopped, put her arms to her hips, and stared expectantly at the back of Stephen’s head.

Stephen stopped pretending to monitor the radio static and spun around in his chair. He tried to hide his bemusement as the dead woman pouted at him. “You’re very cute when you’re irritated. What’s the problem?”

Nicole ran her hands through her wavy long hair and sighed. “Sorry… you’re right. I’ve been a bit edgy all day. I guess I’m just tired of being stuck down here, staring at these same boring-ass walls, and having to go away every time another annoying person needs something from you.”

“It’s the burden of command… I guess. Until Gina gets back, everyone turns to me for answers I don’t have.” Stephen rubbed his eyes and yawned. Is this how Gina feels all the time? I swear, the more I sleep the worse I feel.

Nicole laughed. “See… the boredom is killing you, too. Why can’t we just turn things over to the preacher and be done with this place?”

Stephen frowned with a heavy sigh. This was getting old. All Nicole talked about now was leaving. “It must be nice,” he said.

“What’s that?”

“Being dead and not having to worry about anything or anyone. You act as though I can just shake off my responsibilities and do what I want, when I want.” He hadn’t meant to come off so cross. I’m way too tired for this.

Nicole folded her arms and shot him a dirty look. “Wow… that was very ‘asshole’ of you. Thanks… thanks for reminding me that I’m not really here anymore… I guess that means I don’t feel anything either.”

“I’m sorry, Nicole. That came out harsh.” Stephen tried again. “What I meant was that I can’t just-”

“I know what you meant,” she bit back. “And… I do worry… I worry about us!”

Stephen nodded. “I know you do… and so do I. But we need to be patient. After the others get back, we can discuss what to do from there.”

“We have discussed it. We’re leaving… remember?”

Stephen felt backed into a corner. He hadn’t told Nicole about staying, and making good on his promise to the community to have an election… and possibly running.

Nicole turned away and started pacing again, sparing him from answering. “Doesn’t matter,” she said. “Whether they come back or never come back, things are about to change for the worse around here. If you loved me, you would pack your shit right now and get us out of here.”

“What are you talking about?”

It was Nicole’s turn to look cornered. She shook her head. “Never mind what I said, I’m just… annoyed.”

“No,” Stephen pressed, “you said ‘things are about to change for the worse around here’. What did you mean by that?”

She faced him. “Can’t you feel it, Stephen? Everyone is on edge and just looking for any reason to blow. Hell… I feel that way, too. The longer Gina and Tony are absent… well… let’s just say, when the cat’s away, the mice will play.”

“Have you heard or seen something I should know about?” He’d come a long way with his relationship with the dead woman, often forgetting she was an apparition until she abruptly disappeared when others came around. Truth was, Stephen had no idea where Nicole went or what she really did when she wasn’t with him. Of course, the obvious answer was that she hid in his own mind… but Stephen wondered.

Nicole finally responded. “All I’m saying is that if you bothered to lift your head out of that damn book every once in a while, you might sense that there’s something… off… about this place right now.”

“Is that why you’re really on edge?”

She nodded. “Please, Stephen… we should just leave… while we still can.”

Stephen gave her a hard look causing her to avert her eyes.

Before he could continue, they both jumped to the sound of voices breaking over the radio static:

“Stephen… are you there? It’s Tony. We’re about to clear the western woods. Should be there in thirty minutes. Gina’s injured, so let Doc Cooper know… Is anyone copying my traffic?”

The line returned to static.

Stephen gave Nicole a wide-eyed look. “They’re back!”

She flashed him a quick smile and then began nervously biting her imaginary thumb nail.

“Shit! What am I doing?” he said, rushing over to the radio. “I was so shocked to hear from them that I forgot to answer up.”

“Stephen,” Nicole’s voiced sounded strange.

He turned, just as she backed up against a shadowed wall. She was staring at the hallway door which led toward the mess hall.

“What’s the matter with-”

“It’s too late,” she whispered. “I tried to warn you.”

He could hear the approach of several people coming toward the control room from the mess hall.

Stephen reactively placed his hand on his gun holster, then released it, feeling foolish.

The mess hall door opened and in walked Carl Lannister accompanied by five of Logan’s leather-clad men. They were all armed, including Carl who wore a holstered handgun. Carl smiled at Stephen like the devil. “Well, hello, Mr. Eddington!”

“What do you want, Lannister?” Stephen said. “And may I ask why you’re storming into the control room with what looks like your own little militia?”

The big biker-looking men ignored the history teacher and spread out around the large room.

Lannister walked directly toward Stephen and held out his hand. “First things first.” The little man looked at Stephen’s handgun. “I’ll be needing that… please.”

Stephen placed his hand back on top of his holster. “How dare you come in here, armed to the teeth, and make demands!”

Lannister’s smiled faltered slightly as he let his arm hang loose. “Really, Stephen? Are we going to do this? Just hand it over.”

The other five men stopped and gave Stephen a challenging look.

“Just cooperate with them,” Nicole said, standing beside him. Stephen was surprised she was still here. “They don’t care about you… it’s Gina they want. Give Lannister the gun and do whatever he asks.”

Stephen turned and gave her an accusing look.

Nicole looked away. “Don’t get in the middle of this… please… I don’t want to see you get hurt.”

Stephen turned back to Lannister. He slowly retrieved his handgun and handed it to him.

Lannister took it. “Now that’s better. Thank you, Stephen.”

One of the men, a tall, bearded man, came over and whispered, “I’ve called all the boys off of watch, except for the two at the hatch and one at the armory. Whoever isn’t here is standing by outside Cubicle City.”

“Thank you, Sabastian.” Lannister turned back to Stephen and held his arms out wide. “Come on now, Eddington. You had to know we weren’t going to put up with Gina’s shit forever? This was a long time coming.”

“After all she’s done for you… all of you… this is how you repay her? For what? Just to be the man in charge?” Stephen shook his head. “You don’t want that job… it’s not easy. Gina’s far from perfect, but she’s bled to get us here!”

Lannister smiled. “You know… I believe you… about the job being hard part. In fact, that’s why I want you to take charge.”

“Excuse me?”

“I’m not an ambitious man,” Lannister lied. “I just want what the community wants. They’ve just been too beat down by that red-headed dictator to stand up for themselves. Today, we give them back their voice. Gina’s out. You’re up, my friend. Now… I’m know you meant well with the election proposal and all. But let’s be serious. You and I know that Gina would never allow it. So what do you say?”

Stephen was speechless. He wanted to strangle this traitor by the throat… and yet, he hadn’t expected Lannister to hand the keys to the kingdom over to him.

“You see?” Nicole whispered in his ear. “Even Lannister knows he can’t take this place without you. The community loves you, Stephen. This prick would be a fool to think that they wouldn’t come after him next.”

Stephen closed his eyes. What the hell is happening? This is wrong! I shouldn’t think twice about Lannister’s offer.

Nicole could see the doubt in his face. “Just tell him you’ll do it,” she pressed. “Gina’s going down with or without your cooperation… at least this way, you get to keep the peace and maintain control. If your fight back… people are going to die, Stephen.”

“What do you say, Eddington?” Lannister asked. “Are you with us or not? The clock is ticking.”

Just then, the radio static cleared. Tony’s voice came over much louder than before:

“Stephen, we’ll be there in ten minutes. Is everything alright? Please respond.”

Lannister’s men gave each other confused looks and then turned to Lannister. He sighed and let his shoulders drop. “Who the hell was supposed to be monitoring the radio traffic?” He raised his voice when no one had an answer. “Unbelievable, people!” He then kicked over a chair. “She had to pick right now to come back?”

“What do you want to do?” Sabastian asked.

Lannister stared at the radio console. “We’re out of options,” he finally said, turning to address his men. “We’ll have to gun her group down outside… when they get close. We can’t afford to let her back in… not now… not when we’re so close.”

Stephen’s heart skipped a beat. Do something!

“There’s no other way, Stephen. I’m sorry,” Nicole said.

He was repulsed by her indifferent words. The look he flashed her spoke volumes, causing Nicole to flinch as if struck. He turned back toward Lannister. “I wouldn’t do that,” he said, causing everyone to stop.

“Stephen, I’m sorry, but she’s forcing my hand,” Lannister said. “I can’t have her coming down here now. She’ll ruin everything… and then execute us for this little uprising.”

“You won’t be able to stop them. They’re strong fighters… all of them,” Stephen said. “Even if only one survives… he or she will come back and expose what you did.”

Lannister nodded and smiled. “Of course, under normal circumstance, I’d agree with you. But we have the advantage. Dwight and Hagar are with me. They’ve already been instructed to take Gina out at their earliest opportunity… which apparently hasn’t happened yet. Doesn’t matter, when our boys at the hatch start firing, Dwight and Hagar will seize the moment.”

Shit! You have to stop this! Stephen was getting desperate.

Lannister spoke swiftly to them, waving his arms, and giving instructions.

Nicole simply sat back, staring at Stephen.

As a couple of men were about to depart to join the hatch guards, Stephen stood up. “Wait! I have another option–one that won’t result in anyone getting killed!”

Lannister held up his hand, halting the departing men. “I’m listening,” he said.

“I… I can get them to surrender peacefully with no killing.”

Nicole gave him a surprised look.

Lannister also looked surprised, but skeptical. “And how will you do that?”

Stephen frowned and swallowed hard. “First, the fact that no one’s answered up on the radio yet will automatically look suspicious to Gina. We have a protocol in place, and so far, we aren’t following it. You’ll be lucky if they proceed toward the hatch at all.”

Lannister looked doubtful. “‘Protocol’, you say. Sounds like horseshit to me.”

Stephen pushed. “They’re expecting me to answer up. Let me talk them in over the radio and put them at ease. Once inside they’ll start hanging up weapons near the hatch… that’s protocol, too. I’ll meet them myself and lead them into the hallway. From there, your men can easily take them into custody. They won’t be armed and no one needs to get hurt.”

“You would do this?” Lannister asked. “To your friends?”

Stephen’s face turned to stone. “Like you said, I’m the new leader now. Sometimes leaders have to make hard choices. After Gina understands the situation, she’ll have no choice but to stand down and yield to my authority.”

Lannister raised an eyebrow and laughed. “I guess you’ve made your decision.”

“I have. I’ll be your leader… but I won’t have my first action as leader be associated with gunning down members of our community. No killing.”

Lannister considered this. Finally he said, “Okay, Eddington, we’ll do it your way. But I will have them shot if they resist… are we clear?”

Stephen let out a heavy sigh, refusing to look at the dead woman no one else could see. Finally he said, “Yes. We’re clear.”

Lannister gave him one last look and then retrieved his hand-held radio. He made sure his radio was still on a secure channel and then hit the transmit button. “Alpha Team… it’s a go. Seize control of C.C. as planned.”

Cubicle City! Stephen thought. This prick’s going to hit us while most of the community is in one place! “I said no killing, Lannister!”

Lannister laughed and held up his hand. “Calm down. This is the way it has to be. Logan will surrender peacefully when he realizes it’s all over. Taking Cubicle City is just a formality, really. No one will get hurt. We’re just helping the preacher keep his hands clean and choosing a side for him. He’s had his doubts, too, you know. Why do you think so many of Logan’s men are here now? Do you really think that he wasn’t initially approached by his own people the moment I presented this… opportunity? He’s in charge of Gina’s security force, and yet, here we are… while he’s conveniently holding a service, effectively distracting most of the community, and allowing us the freedom to do what needs done.”

Stephen had no response. Logan, too? I can’t believe it!

Lannister turned to Sabastian and said, “Go now. Finish it.”

Sabastian nodded and departed in the direction of the clinic.

Lannister walked over to Stephen, changed the radio channel to match the control console, and handed it to him. “Let’s do this, Eddington. But I’m warning you… play this straight, or there will be a lot of unnecessary blood spilled down here today. I can control what happens here if you, Logan and I are all on the same page… but if Gina gets involved… well… we’re willing to do this the hard way if it means removing that sadistic bitch from ruling our lives any longer. Are you still with us?”

Stephen turned to find Nicole.

She was still there, encouraging him with a nod to count himself among Gina’s betrayers.

I’m all alone now, he thought bitterly, wishing he’d never been left in charge… especially today.

Stephen sighed, nodded at Lannister, and took the hand-held radio.

~~~

Next Episode 36-4

Previous Episode 36-2

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 36-3: Uprising” Copyright © 2017 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Four: Phantoms. 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. John benedict says:

    Pretty good stuff Scott!

    Like

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