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~~~

THEN…

Russell sat close to the campfire trying to stay warm. The night was ominous and alive, like a stalking predator waiting to pounce on anything with a heartbeat. He immediately thought of the monsters which had haunted the woods just outside of the Schuler residence. Russell was prepared to strike back at the night like a viper should anything step out of the shadows. He stole quick glances at the three idiots who looked like doctors or scientists, judging by the amount of gadgets they lugged around. They had foolishly made camp in the middle of nowhere and Russell did not understand why they didn’t fathom that their campfire was a beacon for anything lurking in the dark. He was surprised they had lasted this long.

To the others, Russell appeared despondent and afraid as they tried to imagine the unspoken horrors he’d faced to make it this far. None of them knew what to say to console the desperate man as they were still battling their own disbelief and terror at the nightmares which recently came to life and fed upon the living.

“Thank you for sharing your fire,” Russell said, attempting to break the tension. “I was starting to think that I was the only one left out here.”

A robust man wearing a parka, readjusted the frames above his nose for the third time as he struggled to speak.

Russell had quickly deduced that he was the acting spokesman for this small band of fools who had no clue what to do outside of the Emergency Room or whatever lab they crawled out of.

“Like I was telling my colleagues earlier… John… right?”

Russell nodded.

“Well, John,” Mr. Robust continued, “like I was telling them, it’s good to have any help we can get right now because it’s imperative that we reach the power plant. We were part of a military convoy that got attacked on a back road near here. The soldiers fought off the attackers and directed us into woods. They told us to follow the tracks into Percy. Fortunately we still had our gear and equipment in order to set up a modified lab on arrival.”

Eggheads, boss. I fuckin’ knew it.

“Anyway, long story short, John, our survival is critical. We have information vital to understanding the virus that has affected the population. Not that I can discuss the details with you in any way that you can understand… I mean no offense… but what this is, is just not something we can put into layman’s terms. Also, the particulars of this outbreak are of a sensitive nature and considered classified. We would be remiss in our responsibilities if we discussed what we know with the general public. In fact, we could be prosecuted for discussing anything in relation to the outbreak-”

“Give it a rest, Dempsey!” the female of the group interrupted. “Can’t you see that this man’s not interested in what you have to say right now? He’s scared to death. We all are.”

Dempsey readjusted his frames again, feeling flustered. “Sarah, I was only trying to explain to the man why we’re out here, and why it’s imperative that we reach the power plant.”

“And this gentleman, I’m sure, could give a shit right now, Doctor Dempsey,” the third member of the group chimed in. “With all due respect, just leave the man be. You’re just lying to him anyway.”

“I most certainly am not!” Dempsey was indignant. “We do possess the means to cure this thing… and we will!”

The third man turned to Russell. “Please excuse my colleague. Doctor Dempsey is the very winded but unfailing optimist of our little group. Truth is, we’re shooting in the dark. No one knows what this is yet… maybe we never will.”

Russell simply nodded. “It’s alright. I’m just glad to be here and still in one piece.”

Sarah took over. “Thank you once again, Doctor Conner, for reminding us all of your endless supply of sarcasm and pessimism.”

Conner dismissed her with a wave.

Sarah turned to Russell. “Are you warm enough, John? Hungry?”

“Yes… and yes. Thank you.” Russell shifted gears. “So, it sounds like you three know something about what’s happening. I heard a cure mentioned. Do you think that’s possible?”

“Absolutely,” Dempsey quickly chimed in.

“You and your wild theories will probably just make it worse,” Conner added. “We’ve let a bug loose this time that’s bigger than we can contain. And that’s what we’re going to discover in the end.”

“Humbug!” Dempsey said.

“Boys… please… just settle down.” Sarah returned to Russell. “What my colleagues and I are attempting to do is assess the nature of this strain and stop it, if we can. Cure it? Well… we’re going to try.”

“Do you really believe that?” Russell asked.

“We’ve had some promising initial findings,” Sarah said. “That’s why we were being rushed over to the power plant. They wanted us somewhere safe so we could continue our research. Our facility was breached.”

“And now we’re stuck out here with all this equipment, no tech support, no soldiers, and no God damn idea what we’re really doing!” Conner was clearly frustrated. “We’ll probably be dead by dawn when this thing goes airborne.”

“Shut your mouth!” Dempsey was furious. “No one said anything about that! Your fearmongering will get us nowhere!”

Sarah rolled her eyes at Russell as the two men continued arguing. “Excuse me, John. I need to calm them down before they wake the whole forest. We are usually a lot more… professional… than this.”

Russell smiled and leaned in. “You seem to be the true brains of this outfit. I’ll trust your judgment.” He finished with a wink.

Sarah let out a weak smile. “Just stay warm, John. We’ll all get to the plant in the morning. I promise.”

Russell watched the woman scientist attempt to break up the dispute.

And there you have it, boss. Even the brainiacs are one short rung away from killen’ each other. It’s gonna be one glorious blood-fest when they all snap and join the cause.

And what cause are you referring to? Russell thought back.

The other one laughed. You really haven’t been payin’ attention, have you, boss? While you’re missin’ out on the endless opportunities to finally indulge… and out in the open… you’re still lookin’ for someone to save.

Nothing’s changed, savage. I answer to the Lady… not to your blood lust. Russell shifted uncomfortably. And I certainly won’t reduce myself to the meaningless brutality of these dead things walking about. Even you, with your base motivations, should understand that every kill should still mean… something.

And they do, boss… they do! To you and me every death is beautiful… and savage. And now the world has revealed its savage side, but you still won’t LET ME LOOSE!!! It’s not fair that you continue to suppress us!

And now you’re acting as childish as these scientists. Speaking about fairness as if that were an actual thing. Russell shook his head. Go to your room and pout, if you must, but I am an instrument of grace… not destruction.

You are a damn fool, boss! Just look around you. The animals are all comin’ out of the cages… and I’m not just talkin’ ‘bout your dead friends. Pretty soon, every dark thought and inclination that these piggies have ever had when they were strokin’ themselves in the dark, all safe and sound in their beds, are gonna come out into the open. When they were pretendin’ to be all civilized by day, but coveted their monstrous thoughts when no one was lookin’, when no one could see them hidin’ in the darkness… that’s what’s comin’ out now, boss.

Russell did not like where this was heading. He had to admit, since the monsters showed up, which hunted the day as well as the night, indiscriminately, there seemed to be no limits and no rules in place to govern Death’s hand any longer. In light of this, Russell did not know his place. Once, he operated under the guise of daylight, pretending to be like everyone else, while he searched out his next mission, planned, and made himself ready to purge another lost soul from this false world. Then, he would come out from the shadows to deliver them. But now, the shadows had engulfed the day… and they were occupied by these self-serving perverse creatures that only hunted to… feed.

You feel it, don’t you, boss? You know I’m right. If nothin’ else, you have ta’ admit, this new world we’ve found ourselves in… is fuckin’ liberating!

Indeed, Russell could not argue against that point. As uncertain as he was about his place in the new world, he was still equally certain that this world was destined to be… and it was glorious! Gone were all the lies and pretention of the previous ways Mankind lived… which was no life at all. Now, they would have to choose between truly living for the first time, or, succumbing to the fear in which they previously served.

Russell stared at the squabbling scientists. Even now, they were oblivious to the dark, only concerned about preserving such obsolete notions as primitive as ‘I am right, you are wrong’. There was no place for foolish pride now.

Perhaps you could remind them of a thing or two, boss. Or at least, test the waters. Let your hair down a little and take a taste. If I’m wrong, you can still go back to your noble quest.

Russell shook his head. You are single-minded and predictable. You think you can tempt me with this line of thinking?

The other one laughed. Can’t fool you, boss. Can’t blame me for tryin’. How about another angle? They spoke of curing this thing. Well… what if they can? I don’t know about those other two fools, but the woman… well, hell… she’s strong. Do you really want them to succeed?

No. He certainly did not.

Just a taste, boss. Besides, their blood would further the cause of this new world. And you and I know that we don’t want to get in the way of that!

No. Russell did not.

Looky over there, boss. Do you see what I see?

Russell turned toward a pile of camping gear. A machete, their only weapon, lay propped up against the gear.

He started calculating.

“…And furthermore, I don’t appreciate your negative commentary when all I’m trying to do is solve this crises, Conner!” Dempsey was red in the face. “Does it bring you some perverse joy to scare people with your doom-and-gloom outlook?”

Conner was equally upset. “Nothing changes with you, does it? Even now, you’ve managed to twist a global epidemic so that it somehow revolves around you, the center of the damn universe! Frankly, it’s that kind of arrogance that probably let the superbug out to begin with!”

“How dare you!”

“Gentlemen, please!” Sarah pleaded. “This is getting us nowhere. What we need right now is to calm down. Lack of sleep is clearly affecting our judgment. Let’s just get to the power plant in one piece before we do the work of this outbreak for it by killing each other.”

Both men huffed at their female colleague, neither one appreciating being scolded like children. But in the end, reason finally won and they settled down.

“Now, let’s keep it together and work out a watch rotation for the evening. God only knows what’s out there in the dark and we need to stay vigilant.” Sarah let out a deep breath and smiled at them. “Okay?”

Both men, now feeling foolish for their outburst, simply nodded and started looking for anything to occupy themselves for a few minutes.

Sarah turned toward Russell. He was still sitting by the fire, pretending not to overhear their foolishness. She walked over and knelt down beside him. “Sorry about that. Emotions are running high right now.”

“Perfectly understandable,” Russell said.

Sarah was exhausted. “Can I get you anything? We’re going to set a watch tonight and-”

“Sarah,” Russell interrupted. “Do you really believe there’s a cure?”

The woman hesitated before answering and then her weary face lit up with sincere optimism. “Yes, John, I believe if given enough time, we can beat this thing. It may not look it right now, but we are probably the best qualified people in Northeast Ohio to understand this… virus. Once we get it up under a microscope and study it further, we’ll figure out how to stop it. You can count on it.”

Russell bowed his head, closed his eyes, and let out a deep sigh.

“Are you alright, John?”

“I need you to do something for me.”

“Sure. If I can. What is it?”

Russell looked into her eyes. “I need you to run, Sarah.”

“Excuse me?”

He retrieved the machete from behind his back and placed her reflection within the blade.

Sarah looked at the weapon with concern. “John, what… what are you doing with that?”

He stood up suddenly, causing Sarah to fall backwards into the dirt. He quickly assessed the other two, who were presently distracted by their own futile thoughts. Russell looked down at the shocked woman. “If you really believe that you can save your obsolete world, Sarah, then fight for it.”

She looked back. “Dempsey! Conner! We have a little problem here!”

Both men stopped and stared at the strange man holding the machete. Russell no longer resembled the broken soul who shared their fire a few moments before. Both men looked at each other, unsure of how to proceed next.

Russell said to Sarah, “Because I believe you may have some steel left in you, Sarah, I will come for you last. I offer you one last chance, on this side of life, to do something you’ve never had to do before.”

Sarah was terrified. She lifted her hands defensively. “Whatever you say, John. Just please calm down and put that away… please!”

Russell lifted the blade. “One more chance, Sarah. Will you take it?”

“One more chance for what?”

Russell smiled. “To learn what it means to be alive.”

“But-”

“Run.”

“John, wait a minute-”

“RUN!!!”

Sarah screamed as the maniac with the machete stormed past her.

Conner stepped forward to confront the man. He raised his arm. “Hold on! What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

Russell was quick. The man’s outstretched arm fell to the ground.

Conner simply stared at it, unable to process what just happened. He looked at the blood flowing from where his arm used to be and started to scream.

Russell pushed the man to the ground and started stabbing him in the chest… five… seven… eleven times… The maniac’s face was covered in the sarcastic scientist’s blood.

“Dear God! What have you… what have you done?” Dempsey’s face went pale. He turned to run and stumbled over gear.

Sarah somehow managed to get up and force her lethargic legs to move. The killer’s attention was focused on Dempsey now.

Sarah, I will come for you last.

She turned and fled into the night, unable to scream because she struggled to breathe. She could hear her heart race in her ears, the dead leaves crunching beneath her panic-driven feet, the unseen low branches snapping across her face as she sprinted blindly through the dark. Something snagged a piece of her hair and ripped it out. Something else tried to trip her as she stumbled, just managing to stay on her feet as her momentum pushed her forward.

Dempsey’s tortured screams chased behind her as he tried to plead for his life… and then begged for a merciful death. After the maniac was done indulging in the kill, she knew he would be coming after her.

Sarah pushed harder than she’d ever pushed in her life. She felt like her lungs were about to burst as blood dripped down her face and into her eyes from several gashes on her forehead… and still… she ran…

Suddenly, the sky opened up. She’d cleared the trees and started slipping on what felt like a low hill of rocks as she was propelled upward. She reached the top and her left foot struck steel. Sarah lost control and fell forward on the train tracks, lacerating both her hands trying to brace for the impact. She cried out when she felt her right wrist snap.

Get up! Get Up! GET UP!!!

She somehow wobbled to her feet. Her knees were shredded by the rocks in between the ties. Sarah foolishly looked back and saw her death approaching, illuminated by the moonlight which betrayed her position.

Russell, covered in blood, cleared the trees and looked up at her with a smile.

She could see that he was holding the bloody machete in one hand… and Dempsey’s head in the other.

Sarah turned and fell down the other side of the tracks. Her head struck the ground… hard. She started to lose consciousness. She could hear him ascending the rock pile. Sarah got up again and ran. She was moving upward… upward… and then the ground gave way beneath her feet as she fell down the steep cliff… tumbling… tumbling… her left leg broke as she collided with a tree… and kept tumbling… until she reached the bottom of the valley, landing on a jagged piece of a dead tree that went clear through her left thigh. She cried out once and then passed out from the pain.

Russell stood at the edge of the cliff, looking down into the dark abyss. He waited, listening for the woman to cry out. She never did.

Convinced the woman had perished from the fall, he went back to their camp. Russell retrieved a towel from Dempsey’s personal items and discovered the man’s wallet. He sat down next to the fire, wiped the blood from his face with the towel and then examined the contents of the wallet. Other than the man’s driver’s license and a couple hundred dollars, the arrogant scientist’s wallet contained a single photo of himself embracing another man in a very intimate way.

Russell read the man’s name on the license and laughed. “Well… well… Marcus Dempsey, it would seem that we share at least one thing in common. We both have our dark secrets.”

He threw the wallet over his shoulder, along with the bloody towel. Russell picked up Dempsey’s head, tossed it into the flames, and then watched it burn…

~~~

NOW…

“…So I ate with those scientists and we decided to travel together at first light.” Russell was finishing his fabricated story. “We followed the tracks north until arriving at the plant.” Russell paused to collect himself, forcing his eyes to water up.

Alysa leaned in with a strip of gauze and gently wiped the wetness from his face.

“Thank you,” he said. Russell took a deep breath and finished. “If it wasn’t for those three kind souls, especially Sarah, I don’t think I would’ve made it.”

Bravo, boss. Tears were a nice touch. You almost had me convinced.

Alysa’s face was unreadable. She leaned back in her chair. “And your friends… these scientists… where are they now?”

Russell frowned. “You already know the answer to that.”

“They’re dead.” Alysa seemed strangely satisfied by the declaration.

“Not necessarily.” Russell would not let her have it. “I never saw them again when we arrived at the plant. They had a cure to find and I had to discover… myself. They gave me their camping gear and they were escorted into the main facility. I remained outside at the refugee camp. The place was eventually attacked by those… yellow-eyed things… but I managed to escape. It’s possible they did, too.”

Alysa laughed. “You don’t believe that.”

Russell smiled. “No… I don’t. But maybe you needed to hear it.”

Alysa studied the man’s face. “You think I’ve given up hope, don’t you? That I hide away from the world… maybe even ‘the fight’ by choosing to remain here in relative safety?”

Russell let the questions hang. You’re not worth my words on the matter, he thought.

Alysa turned away and shook her head. “And yet, you’re the one lying in this bed, broken. While people like me are still here to clean up the mess. You would be dead, too, if not for me… if I hadn’t made the choices I made that placed me here.”

“And I’m grateful.” Russell spat the words out and looked away.

Alysa got up and started pacing.

Watch it, boss. We still need this sheltered bitch… at least until a weapon becomes available. After that… well… we’ll decorate this cabin with a fresh shade of cowardly red.

Yes. We will.

“My things,” Russell attempted to switch gears, “I assume you have them?”

“I’ve encountered those yellow-eyed demons before arriving here. They’re vicious. How did you escape the plant?” Alysa had put her large cloak back on and moved toward a window. She seemed to be examining the darkness. Whether it was outside or her own haunted memories within, Russell couldn’t tell.

“I refused to be alone. I knew that was a death sentence.”

Alysa turned and glared at him.

The other one was laughing. My… oh… my, boss. You certainly know how to get their attention. I prefer your more brutal approach, of course.

“I met other people at the camp,” Russell explained. “It took people to get me there… and more people to help me escape when the plant was overrun.”

“And what happened to them? Are they dead now, too?”

She’s just a regular fuckin’ fountain of cheer, isn’t she, boss? After you gut this pig, she’ll probably have the nerve to interrupt the final thrust of your blade and say, ‘See, I told you!’

“I was feeling down after I reached the refugee camp. There was so much pain and uncertainty there. Everyone was constantly staring over their shoulders as if the Devil was chasing them. I started to feel like I was better off outside. And then I met her…”

~~~

Next Episode 37-3

Previous Episode

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 37-2: 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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