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~~~

Hell is not a place decorated with fire and brimstone, where one is greeted by a funny, red-colored beast with pointy ears and a long tail. Hell is where the traumatic memories of youth come out into the open, like a morbid museum of moments put on display exclusively for you. It’s where the theme of your step-by-step demise is highlighted by a bright-red neon sign that hangs over the entrance to the pit and screams:

WELCOME TO YOUR HIDDEN PAIN.
WE’VE KEPT A ROOM WAITING FOR YOU…

He is moving forward through the scenes of his youth, and not by choice.

Scene one, through the eyes of repressed childhood: He is still a boy, although not for much longer. The ten-year-old comes home early from school. He is sick, and not for the first time since his mother started poisoning his food in small dosages two months ago.

The school nurse had called his house, but the phone bill hasn’t been paid and was now disconnected. He knows this, but lets the nurse call anyway. The boy makes up a lie, says he’s feeling better and wants to go back to class.

The nurse hates her job, and is just glad to have the kid out of her hair.

He is excused to go back to class, but leaves school instead, believing he can make the walk home before vomiting again.

The boy is now standing in the street in front of his small, run-down ranch home. The grass hasn’t been cut for weeks and the weeds have now grown tall enough to hide the front porch and the rolled up newspapers that have rotted there. The house was once white, but is now gray with neglect. Most of his neighbors’ homes show similar traits, but the boy knows that the difference between their homes and his is that life still resides within them.

He is oblivious to the house, to the neighbors, to the hot, oppressive May sun which makes his clothes stick to his skin, adding to his discomfort. The pain feels like a knife sticking in his stomach and continues to pang.

The boy is only focused on the sound of his father’s chainsaw coming from the garage.

He’s moving again, but not by choice. He’s looking in through one of the small garage windows, the one not completely covered by black trash bags. He sees the back of a man he knows is not his father. It’s the other man—the one his mother makes the ugly sounds with in her bedroom late at night when his father is away.

The boy is not supposed to know about the other man. His mother never talks about him, or those late night visits. He always knows better than to ask because his mother gets mean when the boy asks questions about things he’s not supposed to know about. The marks on his flesh are reminders of that fact.

The boy watches as the other man is using his father’s chainsaw. He can’t see what he’s working on because the other man’s back is blocking his view.

But he does see the blood… lots and lots of blood.

He wants to turn away, but is drawn, not by the normal curiosity of a young boy, but by the crimson pool on the cement slab between the man’s legs.

It is when the other man picks up the severed forearm that the boy no longer wants to look. That is when he no longer wants to be alive. As the other man places the arm into a trash bag, it’s the class ring on the hand of the severed limb that the boy will always remember.

It is his father’s ring.

He steps back from the garage window. His legs fail beneath him and he falls to the ground.

He is still looking up at that window when someone completely pulls back the trash bag and stares down at him.

It is his mother.

Russell tries to get up but he has difficulty breathing. The shock is setting in.

His father’s dead. His father’s dead. Ding, dong, his father’s dead…

Russell doesn’t know whether to cry of laugh. Instead, he smiles.

He can hear the footsteps approaching.

It is the man.

“Get up, you little fucking spy!” the man yells. He grabs Russell by the back of his shirt and drags him toward the side door… the side door into the garage.

The man is covered in blood, but Russell doesn’t think about that. He is headed toward the garage, but he doesn’t think about that, either.

Out of breath, the man says, “Why didn’t you just… die? You can’t even do that right! Now she’s gonna be pissed off all damn day!”

Russell doesn’t know how to answer a question like that.

He knows that his mother will beat him… for spying.

He can already feel the new lashes across his back from the belt buckle. His mother will beat him with the belt until he passes out again. Maybe this time she won’t stop until he’s dead.

Young Russell can only hope.

He is in the garage. It’s dark.

His mother is there, stuffing garbage bags with pieces of his father. She stops and gives him a hateful look. “Why are you not in school?”

The question would be ridiculous anywhere else… but not here. Russell says nothing.

His crazy mother looks like she’s about to get up and start beating him with whatever piece of his father she’s holding. Russell can’t tell which piece it is.

Instead, she manages to calm down. “Well… explain yourself!”

“Let’s just kill the brat and be done with it,” the man says.

“Shut up!” she snaps. “I’ll take care of this!” She turns back to Russell. “Your wicked father is dead. I killed him. Mommy killed him. Now… what do you say to that?”

Russell is still in shock. He doesn’t say anything.

His mother shakes her head. “Ungrateful little shit!” she screams. “I never get a ‘thank you’ for anything I do around here! You’re just like him. JUST LIKE HIM!”

Russell looks at his dead father and says, “Thank you.”

She nods. “Well… that’s better. Now, go to your room and wait. You’ll be lucky if you can still walk by dinner.”

Russell says nothing. Russell feels… nothing. He starts to head toward his room, being mindful to step over the remaining pieces of his father…

~~~

…Russell opened his eyes. He was staring up at a ceiling illuminated by the flickering light of a fire crackling somewhere off to his left. He was lying in a bed. Russell tried to move his arms; they felt like they weighed a thousand pounds each. His whole body ached as he tried to move anything… and then he remembered the fall.

It’s about damn time you showed up, boss.

Russell shook his head slowly at the nagging return of his vocal curse. His head throbbed like a sonofabitch. He was able to lift it enough to notice that his right leg had been splinted. He felt the bandage wrapped around his head although he couldn’t move his arms to touch it.

Shit.

He could smell food now. Russell managed to turn his head to the left and toward a large fireplace in what appeared to be a large one-room cabin.

A shadowy figure dressed in a robe was stirring a large pot that was placed in the fire pit. The stranger pulled down the hood, revealing a head that looked much too small for the large robe.

It’s a woman, Russell thought.

She leaned in toward the fire to take a sip from a ladle.

Now you’ve done it, boss. You’ve managed to get yourself caught by Broom fuckin’ Hilda and she’s got a hankering for dumb-ass soup. How does it feel to be someone’s missin’ ingredient? You better check to see if you’re nuts are intact, ‘cause I suspect they’re already in the stew.

“Shut up,” Russell said.

The sound of his voice caused the woman to drop the ladle back in the pot. She turned and looked at him.

Shit, boss. If she starts cackling… I’ll never be able to stop fuckin’ laughing.

The woman put her hood back up and then rushed to a nearby sofa to retrieve an item. She approached him, her shadow moving before her making the woman look far more menacing.

Russell tried to move his arms again. No dice.

If you know any clever incantations with mediocre rhymes that will make her head explode, now would be a good time, Harry Potter.

You’re not helping, he thought back as Russell desperately tried to will his body to move. Nothing.

The witch was almost to him. She stopped near a small table and lit a lantern.

You could always show her your wand, boss… well… assuming it’s not already in the soup.

“Stop right there,” he meant to shout, but it came out hoarse.

The witch stopped. She was holding the lantern in one hand and a first-aid kit in the other.

“It’s alright,” the witch said in a calm, melodic voice. “I’m not going to hurt you.” She slowly approached a nightstand near the bed and put the lantern down. “I just need to check your wounds, in case you hurt yourself trying to move.” She removed her hood again and placed the first-aid kit down near the lantern. She then lifted her hands and asked, “May I?”

Russell got a better look at her in the lantern light. Nothing hideous; no wart-infested nose or long scraggly white hair, just an attractive young woman with brown eyes and long brown hair tied back into an elaborate braid. Her skin was dark, not tan, but neither black nor white. She was either Hispanic or the mix-breed product of different parents. If he had to guess, Russell placed her in her early twenties.

“Who are you?” he asked.

The woman flashed him a smile that would disarm most, but he was far from lowering his guard.

“My name’s Alysa. I need you to trust me. I’m a friend. I would love to answer all of your questions, but none of it will matter if you’re bleeding internally. Please… let me look at you first.”

Russell reluctantly nodded.

“Okay.” Alysa took off the large robe for easier access to her patient. She was less intimidating now that the heavy-looking outer garment was removed. She was a short, petite woman who wore a white cotton shirt and jeans. Alysa crossed her arms up against her chest and shivered. “Damn. No matter how hot I get that fire I can never shake off the cold. I hate winter.” She leaned in over Russell and began assessing his wounds.

Russell could smell her: Coconut oil.

Doesn’t this pretty little thing make you yearn for some tropical island, boss? Bet you’d love to lie her down in the sand and get all… native.

He ignored him. Russell was more curious about the glimmer of gold coming from her nostrils. It was some kind of small nose piercing with two balled pieces forming a disconnected ring centered at the base of her nose.

“It’s called a septum,” she said, noticing his gaze.

“Excuse me?” Russell watched her pull down his bed sheet to finish examining him. He was wearing only his boxers.

“I know… I know… there’s nothing practical about cosmetic accessorizing these days… but I’ve grown attached to it,” she clarified. Satisfied that Russell was alright, she quickly pulled his sheet back up. “I think you’ll live. Although, after finding all those old scars on your back, I think you’ve been through much worse than this.”

Russell ignored the baited comment.

She stepped back and started rubbing her hands nervously. “I’m sorry I couldn’t do more for the leg. I set the bone as best I could. As long as you stay off it for a little while, I think you’ll be able to walk on it again.”

“Thank you.” Russell was at a loss. His throat was beginning to hurt. “Water?”

Alysa shook her head. “Of course. What was I thinking?” She left briefly and then returned with a bottle of water. She then helped him raise his head and placed the bottle to his mouth.

Russell inhaled it.

How long? he wondered. How long have I been here?

“Where are we?” he asked.

Alysa put the water bottle down on the nightstand and then sat in a fold-up chair Russell hadn’t noticed before. “I found you at the base of a large pine tree down by the river. As near as I could tell, judging from the broken branches, it looked like you fell off the cliff just above the river. I think the tree broke your fall… as well as your leg. You also had a nasty bump on your head. The fall must have knocked you right out. You’re damn lucky to be alive. You would’ve had to jump out from the cliff to reach that pine tree on the other side of the river. Slipping off the cliff would’ve killed you, so that leaves me wondering, why the hell would you jump? Do you have some kind of death wish?”

I can fuckin’ fly, bitch. What’s it to you? the other one mocked.

“You’re very perceptive… Alysa. Yes… I did jump off, but not because I wanted to die. What was chasing me reduced my options in a hurry.”

Alysa nodded. “Was it the red-eyed hounds? That’s what I call them. I know they’re not animals… not really… but it helps me sleep better if I think of them as animals. I found you at dawn and those things only come out in the dark.”

“Yes,” Russell said. “Your… hounds…were very persistent. They seemed to disagree with my desire to survive the night.”

Alysa laughed. “You have a name?”

“You mean you didn’t check my clothes for a wallet when you undressed me?” Russell smiled.

Alysa relaxed. “Busted. I did look… but you weren’t carrying much. Most people are still lugging around their wallets or purses. The money, the credit cards, the laminated memberships to the gym… all of that is next to useless now, but the pictures have become gold.” She looked down with a somber expression and finished, “For most of us, that’s all we have left are the memories.”

“Marcus… My name’s Marcus.”

Alysa’s face softened. “Well, it’s nice to meet you, Marcus. I don’t get too many visitors these days. In fact, you’re the first.”

“What about the monsters? They must know you’re here.”

Alysa shrugged off the question. “You hungry yet? The one thing I have in abundance is canned foods. Chicken noodle soup is on the menu this evening.”

“I could eat.

Alysa rose and said, “I’ll fetch you a cup and get you fed. Then we can talk a bit more.” She moved toward the pot near the fireplace before Russell could ask anything else.

Russell tried to move his arms again. He managed to lift them slightly, but it required incredible effort. What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I move? He started to suspect that his wounds were far more serious then Alysa was letting on. Is she trying to protect me from the truth?

Truth is pretty fucking subjective, wouldn’t ‘ya agree, boss? I noticed that you’re still clinging to that fuckin’ name, for example. Sometimes I think you’ve been wearin’ that damn mask for so long that you’ve forgotten which side you’re on. You know… the side where ‘ya ‘aint still suppressing all those deep, dark tendencies.

“I’m on my side, savage,” Russell whispered.

And when that nice young piggy comes back with her soup are ‘ya gonna explain to her how wonderful her blood would make you feel, smeared across your chest?

Russell ignored this. For the moment, just like when he leapt from the cliff, his options were limited. He needed to get up from this bed.

Alysa returned with a cup of soup and a spoon. “I’ll have to feed you until you regain your strength. You’re running a bit of a fever and it’s left you weak. Normally, I think your body would be doing better by now but we’re all a bit malnourished and fatigued these days. Doesn’t take much now to shut us down.”

“How long have I been here?”

“Three days.” She moved in close and began to spoon feed him.

Marcus took a bite. “And how did you end up out here… wherever here is?”

Alysa paused and laughed. “I’ve been hiding here for so long. Didn’t even realize just how long until you asked. I found this place before the first serious snow hit. Been here ever since.”

Russell took another bite. “And you’ve been alone this whole time?”

“Since I found the cabin… yes. But I was with other people when it all started. They’re all gone now.”

“I’m sorry.”

Alysa finished feeding him and put the cup down. “Better?”

“Yes, thank you. Much better.” He started to fish before the woman got up again. “So, Alysa, how did you manage by yourself out here all winter without the dead finding you? In my experience, no one who stays in one place for too long makes it.”

She paused and considered the question. “I’ve just been very careful… very patient. Hell, probably very lucky, too. I only go out during the day, and not for very long. At night, I keep this place locked up real tight. There’s nothing but woods around here so I’ve come to believe this location is fairly hidden from the rest of the world.”

“And those… hounds?”

“They leave me alone. I don’t know exactly why. But they’ve never bothered me here.” She laughed again. “Once I speculated that they thought this old place was haunted and that I was some ghost who lurked the woods. Maybe that was enough to scare them away. I don’t know. That’s assuming those creatures can still remember things. Maybe they think I’m dead, too. Sometimes it feels that way… you know? When you’re by yourself long enough, you start to have all kinds of strange thoughts…” She trailed off, staring into some remote space that only the long-term effects of loneliness and prolonged isolation could create.

She’s a few cards short of the full deck, boss. Your kind of people.

Russell searched the woman’s sad eyes for the truth he always found there. He was left puzzled. Russell could not read this woman… at all. Those two deep portals into her soul were dark and vacant… unreachable.

Maybe she is dead, boss. She’s been alone for too long.

Perhaps, but Russell suspected there was more to it. He was intrigued. “When I am able to walk, maybe you should come with me. I’m part of a larger group.”

Alysa came back. She looked at him and said, “I was part of a group once, too. They thought they were safer in numbers. It made them… complacent. Got them all killed. After that… well… after that, I decided that being alone was easier. You only have to look out for yourself.”

“And you’ve been out here hiding from the world ever since,” Russell stated.

She looked offended but tried to play it off. “I wouldn’t call it ‘hiding’. I just came to the understanding early on that living in this world now required sacrifices. Watching people die all around you after getting invested in relationships was too painful… too distracting. When you’re alone, you only have to be concerned with your own mistakes… and if I make them… then the consequences are mine alone. There’s no guilt. No pain. And if I die out of my own stupidity… well… I’ve come to accept that. There’s nothing more that can happen to you once you’ve nothing left to fear… except death, of course.”

Russell was deeply disturbed by the strange woman’s words which, in part, echoed his own beliefs. But somehow, instead of embracing life… she had decided to be a hoarder of living, hidden away on the edges of the world. She had perverted his doctrine of facing fears and turned it into a lonely, pathetic existence… which was no existence at all. Alysa had willingly chosen to live as an exile from the living because it was easier, safer… cowardly. Russell took great offence to this ‘ghost’ of a woman before him. He started to understand why he couldn’t read her–there was nothing left to read. She was essentially dead already, under the guise of ‘living’.

Now, now, boss. Take it easy. Truth fuckin’ hurts. Maybe this little piggy bothers you so much because she’s where you’re headed. I’ve been tryin’ to tell ‘ya all along. You need to let yourself loose on this damaged world made ripe for the takin’ and join me in the bloodbath. You will never be like this sad bitch if you give in to the primal need to rip them all to pieces. They’re all just dumb fuckin’ cattle now… hell, they always were… and they’re only purpose is to line up for the slaughter. The dead know this already. You’re just too fucked-up to see it… and enjoy it while it lasts.

BE SILENT! Russell fired back.

The other one said no more.

“Sorry,” Alysa said. “I didn’t mean to unload my baggage on you. Enough about me. There’s really nothing more to tell anyway.”

“That’s okay,” Russell said. “You’ve probably needed someone–anyone–to talk to for a long time now.”

Alysa looked away. She didn’t know how to take that comment. “So what about you?” she asked.

To Russell the question sounded accusatory.

She lightened up and smiled. “I mean, how did you end up out in these woods by yourself? And where are your people? Are they all dead?”

Russell sensed that she would love for him to say ‘yes’ to validate her existence. He would do no such thing… even if they were.

“We were traveling together and got caught out after dark. Your red-eyed beasts found us and I decided to lead them away so the others could get back safely. I didn’t anticipate cliff diving… and that’s how I ended up here.”

“So you’re some kind of hero.” Alysa’s tone was flat. She was clearly unimpressed by his selfless act.

“As are you,” Russell reminded her. “You could’ve left me out there to die… but you didn’t.”

Touche, boss! Suck on that one you self-servin’ misanthrope!

Alysa was quiet for a moment. She had not considered her own actions until now. “Like I told you, Marcus, the mistakes I make are mine alone. The risks I take and the pain I’m willing to bear are also of my own choosing.”

Ouch, boss. You must have struck a nerve.

She smiled again and said, “Maybe by saving you, I betray my own weakness: the need to still reach out to others. That is hardly heroic. Simply necessary.”

It was Russell’s turn to tread cautiously.

She shifted gears. “So now that you’re here, why don’t you tell me your story?”

“Excuse me?”

“If I’m going to share my cabin with another human being, at least until you’re able to leave, then I need to know more about you. Start from the beginning and tell me what you’ve been doing since the outbreak.”

Russell sighed. “That is a long story, I’m afraid.”

She pointed toward his leg and said, “Looks like we’ve got some time to kill.”

And I’m going to kill you before I leave this fucking hell-hole, Russell thought. You are a blemish to all I believe, not worthy to stand in the Lady’s presence with your cowardice.

Easy, boss. Easy now… The other one was enjoying himself.

And I will bring back the fear you dismiss so easily and make you very fucking afraid before I send you into the darkness, Russell finished.

Now we’re talking, boss! You bring that appetite and I’ll bring the cutlery to this fuckin’ pig roast.

Russell smiled at the repulsive woman. “Where would you like me to begin?”

Alysa got comfortable. “How about the beginning? Where were you when it all started?”

“I was with a… friend,” Russell began, going back and remembering his flight with Janet Schuler on the night he murdered her. “We were on the run from the dead. My friend, Janet, she perished before dawn, leaving me all alone.”

That was a beautiful moment, boss.

Yes. It certainly was.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Alysa added.

Russell sensed that she meant it. He paused long enough to appear remorseful, and then continued. “After Janet died, I tried to get to my vehicle. Everything was chaotic by then. I caught someone trying to steal my van. Turned out to be a blessing in disguise because the dead swarmed the vehicle and killed the thief. From there, I ran, hid, and continued to move from to place… whatever it took to survive.”

Alysa nodded. “Yes, we all share the same page when it came to survival that first few days. Please, go on.”

Russell would have to fabricate his history by using partial truths… and leaving out the grisly bits. “I heard a radio broadcast directing survivors to seek shelter at the Percy Power Plant. I eventually made it into the woods south of Percy, found an old, abandoned railroad track, and then met three kind people who were camped out near the tracks. I was very exhausted by then, confused, afraid, and completely lost. But they welcomed me into their camp and told me they were also headed to the power plant…”

~~~

Next Episode 37-2

Previous Episode 36-7

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 37-1: Through the Eyes of a Devil” 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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