soul-746560_960_720

~~~

THEN…

The middle-aged viper with long brown hair had a body that was more lethal than any hunting knife Russell had ever owned. Women like this, who had been mastering the minds of the weak since the beginning of time, could slit the throat of man’s entire domestic illusion–the blood of fidelity and integrity oozing out from the fatal wound–until only a dead dog remained. Yes, Russell had once frequented the dens of these destroyers of marriages and self-respect, had once hunted them down in their local watering holes and nightclubs believing he was answering the call. But he had discovered that they, like himself, were agents by Death’s design used to weed out the tarnished souls who could not help but fall victim to a depraved world in need of salvation… his salvation.

The woman danced, flirted, and manipulated until she received whatever she desired, offering a temporal fantasy in return; each man giving in to sexual gratification, trading in all they once claimed valuable for a few minutes of pleasure.

In light of recent events, Russell admired this woman’s ability to remain oblivious to Death’s march across Northeast Ohio, which had forced all these useless sheep to pen themselves in behind a cage called ‘Safety’. The National Guard had made promises they could not keep behind the fences of the Percy Power Plant. Death was coming for all these fools… and she always kept her promises.

Russell sat toward the back of the large community camp fire, observing the seductress work her magic on several men who offered up bottles of spirits and camping supplies in exchange for the further degradation of their souls.

You wanna tap that fine piece, don’t cha’, boss? the other one chimed in. Rip her up the middle while she’s got those fine ass legs wrapped around ya’? They never see it comin’… never see their own death stormin’ in when they think they be the ones doin’ the killin’.

“Be silent, dog,” Russell whispered. “We don’t deal with their kind any more. You know this.”

You used ta’ enjoy it, boss. You used ta’ love stealin’ all that power back and watchin’ them realize it when the fear glazed over their eyes.

Russell refused to gratify that with a response. Most times, when ignored long enough, the other one would return to that primitive cave buried deep within the savage part of his dark mind.

But not tonight.

You ‘ain’t seein’ the big picture yet, boss. You still tryin’ to play by the old rules that had us workin’ in the shadows of a civilized world. Take a good look around. Civilized just got devoured by the shadows… and all these piggies are fair game now. There’s nothin’ stopping ya’ from indulging in the blood bath anymore. It’s open season on anyone, anywhere, any damn time!

“Be still.”

It’s time to come the fuck out of the shadows, boss. This brand new world’s ripe for the takin’. Anything is possible now.

Russell could not argue against the point. Since the dead had come, no one cared any longer about tracking down his kind in order to maintain the lie that the day remained safe. There were other monsters to contend with now.

Just look at her, boss. She’s hidin’ from the same damn thing they’re all hidin’ from. She may be wrappin’ those fine legs around the masses, laughin’ and drinkin’ and fuckin’ like she’s still got control, but inside she’s afraid… afraid of the night that’s come to rip all the power she ever had away. There is no more control! There’s only Death…

“Yes… there’s only Death.” Russell found that thought exhilarating… liberating.

Fuckin’ intoxicating, boss! Can’t ya’ feel it yet?

The seductress with long brown pulled herself away from the advances of the latest dog with a teasing laugh. She stumbled toward the community fire and emptied the remains of a bottle of bourbon down her throat. She stared at the empty bottle as if it had spoken the worst news imaginable and then she looked up. Her eyes met Russell’s stare.

Ya’ see it, boss? Do ya’ see it now?

Russell did. The woman was terrified… but she continued to fight back. Perhaps this one was different? Perhaps she could still be saved?

The woman flashed him an inviting smile.

Russell smiled back and waved her over.

That’s the way, boss. You have yourself some fun with that hot little fuck-machine and then… we get really nasty! And you won’t even have to clean up the mess when you’re done ‘cause the maid’s on a permanent vacation and no one’s gonna be around to check out the bloodwork, anyhow.

The woman sat down next to Russell, deliberately moving in close. “Hey stranger,” she said. “You keep staring at me like we know each other from somewhere.”

“Was I?” Russell smiled.

The woman laughed. “It’s kind of hard not to notice with those intense eyes of yours. You should work on being less obvious.”

“My apologies. I guess I was being obvious. You’ll have to forgive me, but since the shit hit the fan, you are by far the best thing I’ve seen since arriving here.”

“I see subtle isn’t your thing,” she teased. “I’ll take that as a compliment… a bit creepy… but I’m not picky these days.”

Russell laughed. “All I meant was that it’s refreshing to find someone who isn’t letting everything steal their spirit away. You seem to be having a good time in a place where so many people look like they’re just waiting to die. I find your attitude… encouraging.”

“I know… right?” the woman said. “I’ve been saying the same thing since I got here. I mean, yeah, it’s terrible what’s going on, but we’re here now, safe and sound. Everything will eventually work out. In the meantime, what’s the harm in having some fun. Know what I mean?”

Russell nodded. “I know exactly what you mean. My name’s… Marcus Dempsey.” He held out his hand.

The woman looked at the outstretched hand, amused by his strange gesture. She took it, laughed, and said, “Amanda… Amanda Howard.”

“It’s wonderful to meet you, Amanda Howard.”

She looked into his eyes, trying to read the strange man’s intent, and was surprised that she couldn’t. She shifted gears. “Well… Marcus…” She lifted up the empty bottle. “It seems like the party around here is getting stale. I’d love to stick around and talk to you, but I should get back to my people.” She sighed heavily. “And they’re about as much fun as surgery.”

Russell laughed and then mocked disappointment. “That’s really too bad.”

Amanda gave him an amused look. “How so?”

“Well… I have this tent just around the corner and-”

She feigned surprise and lightly elbowed him. “Wow! Again, subtle is not your thing is it?”

Russell lifted his hands. “All I meant was that I happen to have a bottle of vodka… and I’m not a fan of drinking alone. We could continue ‘talking’ over a shot or two… unless you wanted to get back to that surgery?”

Amanda laughed. “Hell… no!” She studied the strange man again. “Well, as long as we’re just talking, I guess I could join you. Would be a shame to drink that bottle all by yourself.”

“Yes it would.”

“Just to let you know,” she cautioned. “I’m not that kind of girl, so don’t get any ideas, alright?”

Russell shook his head. “Just your company is all I require. No funny stuff… I promise.”

She gave the man one last cautious look and then stood up. “Alright, Marcus, let’s move this party to your place.”

“Sounds like a great idea.” Russell led the way back to his tent.

Here… piggy… piggy… piggy… the other one mocked.

~~~

The sex had been… overwhelming. Russell had never been with a woman who tried as hard as Amanda to suppress the darkness which raged within. Once the damaged woman began sucking down the vodka, she gave in to her primitive side, releasing her raw and unmanageable emotions into every thrust, every moan, forging the pain of memories, which tormented her like a thousand demons, until her flesh became a pliable weapon of pleasure to combat those memories. Amanda had attacked him with her insatiable need to forget, forcing Russell to oblige by penetrating her in various positions until the manic woman finally climaxed and collapsed from exhaustion; the sexual presence which possessed her–now exorcized.

It took all Russell had not to give in to the savage who demanded blood as he fought against the urge to reach into his pack and retrieve his hunting knife. Amanda had reduced him to an animal the moment she had wrapped her legs around him, demanding Russell to commit to her bestiality. Her idea of pleasure sickened him… but aroused the other one.

After she was done using him, Amanda had retrieved the bottle and spewed her horrible past all over him: Her dead daughter, dead marriage, dead self-respect… dead soul.

Russell had lost the desire to carry out the act of salvation. The other one had coerced him into believing that Amanda was ready, but the truth was evident: Amanda was beyond saving.

When the woman finally passed out, Russell dressed and stormed out into the night, leaving the nylon tomb behind, but needing to vent his frustration on something… living.

He walked away from the tent community, being mindful to avoid the notice of the patrols, until finding a vacant space dominated by late-night shadows. He could smell them now, all of them. The camp refugees all reeked of fear like carcasses left out for days in the hot sun, filling the void left behind by the vultures which now circled this world and… like himself… were looking for something fresh to kill…

…to save.

Russell felt nauseated and uncertain.

“Where do I belong in this disease-inflicted world where fear has already destroyed my purpose?” he asked the night.

The night had no response.

Should’ve gutted the slut, boss.

Of course. He always had something to add.

You ain’t Mr. Scary anymore, boss. These pathetic piggies can’t stop wettin’ themselves thinkin’ ‘bout those nasty fuckers with a hunger for flesh. They’ve put you and your brand of terror out of business.

“Shut up.”

Just sayin’ what you already know, boss. There’s nothin’ left to save. They’re all fucked now.

“There was Janet Schuler. She could still see me… she could still understand-”

She didn’t see you, boss, the other one said. She was already dead to fear when ya’ brought her out of those woods. Should’ve bled her in the van.

“Bullshit. She could still see me! Janet tasted salvation-”

The other one laughed.

“You’re no different from the Dead! You’re a mindless dog that only knows slaughter! Who are you to tell me anything?”

I’m you’re last fucking chance, boss. Let me loose on this world and I’ll show them what ‘terrifying’ looks like. I’ll make ‘em all remember what real fear is when they’re wearin’ their insides to stay warm at night. I’ll make ‘em scream and scream just like those three you met on the way in…

BE SILENT!

The other one was still.

Russell dropped to his knees and stared into the night. “My Lady… what would you have me do now? I see that you have moved your hand across this pathetic world and removed the blindfold of lies from their eyes. They now know that nothing they believed in was real… was safe. They now know they are hunted by fear… and yet… they succumb to it. They lie down and wait for it! What would you have me do? How can I save them… how can I prepare them for your embrace when they worship the fear and wait for it to claim them?”

Still no answer.

He closed his eyes. Since the deliverance of Janet Schuler, he had killed three more people. Their deaths felt bland and meaningless… savage. Was that all there was now? Was he supposed to join the ranks of the oblivious dead which fed upon the living indiscriminately and with no other reason to exist? Was he destined to become a beast driven by the same base calling of blood as his sole purpose?

“No,” he whispered. “There must be more.”

Russell stared down at his right hand and noticed the hunting knife for the first time. He’d acquired it from Sarah’s stolen supplies and kept it as a reminder of the woman’s struggle to get away from him, to survive. He regretted not reaching the woman in time to capture that look of freedom in her eyes before rescuing her from this life. But was he just fooling himself into believing he was anything other than a mundane killer now? Sarah’s untimely fall off the cliff seemed to leave the question hanging unanswered forever. If only he could’ve seen her eyes… and then he’d tried to find it in Amanda’s eyes… and found nothing.

Russell was gripping the knife so tightly that his hand shook. He opened his hand and let the knife fall to the ground. Russell stared at it. He could feel it taunting him to turn its single sharp tooth to crimson…

…and feed.

The other one laughed inside his head.

~~~

In the morning, Russell had made a decision to leave the Percy Power Plant in the hope of finding clarity out in the ‘free’ world where Death made her presence felt among those who still valued their lives… wherever they were. He wanted… no… he absolutely needed to feel his heart race, preferring to stay just out of the Lady’s reach, where one could truly ‘feel’ alive inches away from being devoured, as opposed to rotting away in this cesspool of fear. He had decided to take Amanda with him, believing that his judgment of her as a lost cause might have been premature since the stench of fear dominated everyone in the camp. Maybe out there, he could help her find something genuine.

You’re being foolish, boss. Nothin’ can bring these piggies back. They’re all fodder now. Just another food source, like chickens with their fuckin’ heads removed that still hop around not realizing they’re dead yet.

“We’ll see,” Russell had said, feeling much lighter knowing that he was evacuating this death camp.

The bitch won’t wake up, boss. Fear’s got her all spread-eagle on the buffet table of this new world, while she just waits there for the hordes to gang-rape her ass before finishin’ the feast. She won’t come with you… but that doesn’t mean we can’t slice and dice her up before we head out.

Russell had wasted no more time addressing the animal.

~~~

They dressed in the morning-after-silence as Russell listened to the camp’s activity just on the other side of his tent flap. He stole occasional glances at Amanda as she continued to eyeball the remains of his vodka.

The whore’s got it bad, boss. I bet she’d let you cut out her tongue for another bottle. We could always hope anyway.

Russell ignored him. He rushed to get his clothes on before Amanda wanted more sex.

“Rushing back to your wife on the other side of camp?” she teased.

“You got it. She doesn’t mind me seeing other women as long as I check in on occasion. Sometimes she wants to… how do I put this… participate? She has a thing for big-breasted woman.” Russell continued to play off of Amanda’s adventurous sexual practices. He’d hoped the joke would lighten the mood.

Amanda looked at the vodka again. She forced a laugh, then got up and punched him in the shoulder. “It’s a good thing you’re full of shit. If you had a wife, I’d have your nuts in my hand right now and I’d take them to her myself!”

“My, you’re a feisty one. No hidden wives in my pocket.”

No… but we would love to stick our hidden machete right in your-

“You know, this is going to sound crazy, and I know we’ve only just met, but this apocalypse is one of the best things that’s ever happened to me.” Russell went fishing.

“That is crazy.” She reached for the bottle and took a sip.

“I don’t mean to sound selfish and horrible, considering everyone who’s died, but if none of this had happened I would never have met you.”

“Well, isn’t that some romantic shit.” She rolled her eyes and finished off the bottle.

Try somethin’ else, boss. This crazy bitch ain’t the Valentine’s Day type. Just give her somethin’ to suck on and she’ll eat razor blades out of your hand.

Russell began to pack his gear. “In any case, I’m not trying to get all lovey-dovey on you. I just wanted to say I had a great time last night and I like you, Amanda. I hope we’ll get a chance to know each other better when all this blows over.”

“Finally, someone who isn’t looking all gloom and doom right now! You should talk to the losers I came in with. You would think the world was ending and that we should be searching for razor blades after listening to them.”

Now that’s funny, boss. She must have heard me talking about razor blades. Maybe I possess the power of suggestion. Let’s try it: Hey, crazy bitch… lay down and slit your own throat!

“They fear the worst. That’s natural,” Russell said. “Fear keeps us in cages. I try not to focus on it and look for the positive slant instead.”

“Which is?” Amanda asked.

He kissed her.

“Good answer.”

Smooth, boss.

Russell pulled away and stood by the tent exit. “It’s beautiful out there today. People are using the good weather to help them forget.”

“Well sure they are. Anything’s better than dwelling on… what’s been lost.”

Russell smiled. “They’re trying to forget how afraid they are. You can almost smell their fear. I bet those predators out there can smell it, too.”

“Let’s not bring them up.”

Russell paused to gain her complete attention. He finally said, “Once you lose everything and survive it, there’s really nothing left to fear.”

Amanda said nothing. She nodded politely instead.

“I lost my family, my loved ones, long before this outbreak,” he continued. “I had to face that in order to survive. Once you face the emptiness, Amanda, as I was forced to do at an early age, fear loses its power. And from there, a whole new world rises up from the broken one. Everything becomes fresh again; new choices, opportunities… freedom. Know what I mean?”

“No, I don’t know what you mean,” she said. “When you lose a child it’s like the whole world just becomes a lie and nothing feels the same again. You talk about emptiness, well, that’s the place where my soul used to be and it fucking died with my daughter. There’s no way to face that kind of loss.”

He nodded. “I’m sorry, Amanda. I know your life has been hard. First, losing your husband and then your reputation… and now your daughter-”

“You don’t know shit about me!”

Careful, boss. Watch where you’re cutting… and how deep, the other one teased.

Russell looked confused. “You told me quite a bit last night. In fact, after we had sex, I didn’t think you would ever stop talking. You even broke down into tears.”

“That was just the alcohol talking,” she defended. “It tends to get me into trouble in more ways than one. Whatever I told you last night about my life… well, you just forget you heard it!”

“Fair enough. I thought sharing a little in return would put you at ease. Either way, we both now have a tremendous opportunity to break free of our prisons of fear. That’s why I’m leaving tomorrow… and I want you to come with me.”

“To go where? Out there among your fucking predators!? Why on earth would we leave now? It’s unsafe.”

I told ‘ya she wouldn’t come, boss. The only comin’ she’s interested in-

“But I thought you didn’t subscribe to the doom and gloom theories?” he said.

“I don’t… I mean… I believe law and order will eventually be restored—it’s just a matter of time. But we’re safe here until it is. There’s nothing out there but death!”

“And there’s nothing within these fences but fear—fear kept under control by a few flimsy barricades and the presence of some guards with guns. Out there is providence. Out there is a new beginning. Out there anyone can wipe the slate clean and start again; be anything they want, have anything—sky’s the limit, Amanda.”

Now we’re talkin’, boss. Let’s leave this skank and get out there and kill something!

“Why are you trying to sell me on the idea of suicide? You make it sound like it’s a choice between fear and death, and you would say choose death.”

Russell looked excited. Could there be hope for this one? If Amanda could already see the choices, might he be able to help her choose correctly, to choose Death and fight the fear? There was a chance he could save her out there. He could help her rise to her true potential and find herself, and then, at the moment she mastered her fears… when she was ready to look the Lady in the eye with confidence… he would introduce her to Death. “Now you’re starting to see it! Out there, Death is nipping at your heels on a daily basis, reminding you that you’re still alive. But in here, Fear is slowly eating away your one true chance to be free. It’s too much like the old days in here.”

Safety… the oldest illusion and an ancient poison still infecting so many in this new world, he thought.

Amanda was getting livid. “You sound like you don’t want things back to normal. That’s fucked-up. You know what, enough with all this philosophical tree-hugging crap. We were having a good time here, and now you’re about to ruin it with all your deep-thinking bullshit! If you just wanted to get rid of me you didn’t have to go to all this trouble. You know damn well I can’t go with you ‘out there’ so you’re trying to scare me off—make me think you’re nuts so I’ll just leave!”

Oh, what a shame, boss. Even I was gettin’ excited for a minute. All that glorious blood at the moment of departure… there’s nothing like it when you’ve prepped them for the journey.

Indeed, Russell thought. He tried hard not to let his disappointment show.

“Please come with me, Amanda,” he said. “We both need to do this.”

“You don’t know what I need!”

The shadow of a man appeared at the tent entrance. “Amanda, it’s Stephen. May I please talk to you? It’s urgent.”

She rolled her eyes at Russell and threw her hands in the air. “Now what?”

“Amanda, are you decent? May I come in?”

“Sure. Come on in,” she called out.

Stephen entered dripping with sweat. He noticed Russell in a corner collecting some things and simply nodded in his direction.

Russell ignored him.

Not this annoying fucker again. Can we kill this one, boss?

Stephen spoke with labored breaths. “Doug wants us all back at the camp site. We’re trying to get everything packed up as quickly and as quietly as possible.”

“What the hell are you talking about, Stephen? Start making some sense!” Amanda was alarmed.

“We have to go. Right now! There’s no time for me to explain.”

“Well, you better make some fucking time! Besides, I’m with Marcus now.”

Russell raised his eyes in surprise and she quickly shot him a dirty look.

“Just go back and tell that stupid steroid-pumping freak that I’m off the damn team!” she said.

“You never fucking listen, you self-important bitch!” Stephen broke in. “Stop trying to be the queen-shit bound and determined to ruin my life and listen to me for once!”

Woah, boss. What just happened?

Russell was just as surprised. For a moment he considered stepping in on Amanda’s behalf to play the role of overprotective boyfriend, but chose to watch this scene play out instead.

Amanda was shocked into silence.

Stephen looked confused, and then calmed down and finished, “Sorry… Amanda. I don’t know what came over me.”

Amanda raised her eyebrows, still stunned by the outburst. “Just say what you came to say.”

“It’s Meredith. She lost it… had some sort of episode. She’s convinced they’re coming. Hell, we all believe her. Besides, the camp’s turning on us. They tried to kill her a little while ago.”

“Kill Meredith? Why would they do that? Who’s coming?”

Stephen was shaking his head. “Them… those things… Meredith said they’re coming! Doug said we’re leaving now. He doesn’t care if you come or not. I had to almost beg him to wait long enough for me to get you.”

Russell was listening intently.

“Did they breach the fence? What do you mean, ‘leaving’?” Amanda was beside herself.

“Something about abandoned railroad tracks… doesn’t matter… we have to get back.”

You hear that, boss? They know about the tracks.

Russell tried real hard to hide his amusement as well as his excitement, sensing that the Lady had just presented him with an incredible opportunity.

Amanda looked to Russell. She swore she saw the hint of a smile crack the surface of his concerned face.

Stephen was already half-way outside the tent. “Are you coming or not? I can’t wait.”

“It wouldn’t hurt to hear what they have to say,” Russell offered.

“Fuck me,” she said, putting her shoes on. She addressed Russell without looking at him, “Are you coming or should I expect your tent to be moved by the time I get back?”

Stephen gave the stranger a puzzled look, neither seconding nor protesting the invite.

“I’ll grab my things,” was all he said.

Finally, boss! We’re gettin’ the hell out of here! Maybe we can kill a few of these piggies on the way.

Russell could sense that the Lady was coming. He didn’t know how or when, but death was about to invade this prison of fear. And for that, he was excited. Nothing gave him more pleasure than knowing that the dead would slaughter every living thing in this camp, giving these fear-infested souls a fitting end. None of them were worthy to taste his salvation. And only darkness waited for those who served their own fears.

I hope you all choke on your poison of Safety, Russell thought, right before the dead rip your throats out with their teeth…

~~~

Next Episode 37-4

Previous Episode 37-2

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 37-3: 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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