forest-552868_960_720

~~~

“Stephen, Amanda, over here!” Charlie was headed toward them. He was almost running by the time he reached the trio. He wiped his sweaty head with his forearm. “Thank God. Some sensible people have arrived.” He noticed Marcus. “Who’s the new guy?”

“Marcus Dempsey,” Russell said, reaching out his hand. “I’m… a friend of Amanda’s.”

Charlie gave the extended hand a distrustful glance and said, “Yeah, whatever. Just stay out of the way, alright? Lots of shit going on right now.”

Russell smiled back, nodded, and then lowered his hand. He turned to Amanda and whispered, “Nice friends.”

“Charlie, stop being a dick!” Amanda said. “What’s got you all spun up?”

Can we gut this one, boss? Sounds like the others would thank us.

“Amanda, they’re getting ready to leave,” Charlie stammered. “Fucking goody-two-shoes goes bonkers and starts screaming about zombies coming and suddenly everyone wants to split!”

Russell, overhearing the conversation, wanted to laugh out loud. This was all working out so much better than he’d planned. He silently thanked the Lady for this tremendous opportunity.

“Zombies?” Amanda looked at Stephen who simply shrugged his shoulders. She rolled her eyes and said, “Why the fuck would they want to go out there? Did everyone lose their fucking minds since I was here last?”

“Exactly!” Charlie said. “That’s why you and Stephen need to come back and talk them out of it. There’s nothing coming. That fucking woman is losing it, screaming about how they’re coming and we have to leave now. The rest of them are buying her bullshit!”

“We really need to get back,” Stephen reminded them. He started toward the camp.

“Not you, too,” Charlie called after him. “I thought you were an educated man!”

“I believe Meredith,” was all he said.

“Fucking moron.” Charlie turned to Amanda and Russell. “Please come and talk to that big fucking idiot. They’re talking about using some abandoned train tracks near the south end of the plant—something stupid like that.”

“Train tracks?” Russell asked, feigning ignorance. “That’s smart. Fewer people near the tracks.”

Charlie dismissed him with a wave. “Let’s go. They might already be headed there.” Charlie impatiently prodded them along with hand gestures like a pudgy out-of-breath kid trying to catch the ice cream truck.

That obnoxious prick reeks of it, boss. You can smell the fear on him a mile away.

Amanda sighed and said to Russell, “See what I have to deal with here? Is it any wonder I left these losers.”

Russell was amused but hid it beneath his false concern. He began taking mental notes on Amanda’s so-called ‘loser’ friends.

When they reached the camp, Doug and the others were finishing up stuffing their small packs and distributing their collective of camping gear, water bottles and MRE’s. Doug was in the process of hammering something. Without looking up, he directed his inquiry toward Stephen. “It’s about time. Was about to give up on you two. Did you have to sober her up first?”

“Fuck you, Mr. Charming-As-Ever,” Amanda said.

This awarded her the finger. “I’d hurry up and pack. We’re leaving shortly.” Douglas continued hammering.

Amanda assessed the situation. Greg and his daughter were finishing packing. Meredith was napping and being looked after by a new girl she assumed was a nurse. Frank sat in his spot, watching nearby survivors with a hawk-like intensity—just being his usual anti-social self. Charlie continued to make his annoying presence known.

“And there he goes again,” Charlie said, dramatically throwing his arms in the air. “There’s no reasoning with this rock… and would you please stop hammering!”

Doug smiled and continued to hammer a little harder.

“Just where are we going exactly after we abandon this place we fought so hard to get to?” Amanda asked the rock. “Do you think we’ll just move back to our homes and wait this out?”

Doug continued hammering.

“Hey! Fuck Face! I’m talking to you. Build your bullshit later and answer my questions,” Amanda said.

Doug was finished. He lifted the baseball bat lined with long nails like a strange talisman. “That will do it. Pretty savage, I’ll admit, but better than bashing up my last good bat on those things’ skulls. I’ll need less force this way.”

Russell raised his eyebrows at the sight of the strange bat. He wanted to laugh out loud.

I think I like the look of things if that fuckin’ bat is any indication, boss. Maybe we can keep Doug around long enough to build some more toys. Seems like he wants to inflict some pain… my type a guy.

The bat is absurd, Russell thought back. Damn thing will get him killed the moment it gets stuck in bone.

Yeah, boss, I know… I know… but it sure looks scary, don’t it?

Amanda looked at the grotesque bat. “What the fuck’s that for?”

Doug looked at her finally and said, “To answer your questions, we’re going to take the tracks southwest out of Percy and into the neighboring forest, which runs as far away from people as we can get. With any luck we’ll make it to Fairport Harbor in a couple of days, catch a boat, and wait this out on one of the islands north of Port Clinton.”

“But you’ll still need someone to drive the boat,” Charlie reminded him. “Since you haven’t convinced me to go along on your suicide mission, I guess you’re shit out of-”

“Frank has informed me that he also knows how to navigate a boat. So just shut your pie-hole and pack, little man.”

Frank snickered, while continuing to monitor the surrounding survivors’ camps.

Charlie murdered him a thousand times with his eyes.

For a moment, Frank’s eyes fell on the stranger and lingered.

Russell smiled at the big man and nodded.

Frank was a stone. He stared a moment longer, sizing up the new guy, and then focused on the camps.

Don’t like the looks of that one, boss. He’s the type that pays attention… to everything.

Yes, Russell would have to tread carefully around the big man. Frank had the look of a man who was hiding something. And men who knew how to hide things could find things hidden in others.

“Anything else?” Doug was tired of talking. He held the bat across his large arms and remembered, “Oh, and this beauty is to stop any of those fuckers from keeping us from arriving at the marina. Hated to do this to my last stick—my favorite one, too—but I don’t imagine I’ll be playing ball for a while. I recommend you both arm yourselves with something other than words and get packing.”

“Fuck that! I’m not going out there!” Amanda held her ground. “Why don’t you put that bravado shit to rest and realize what you’re asking us to do! You came across a handful of those… zombies on the freeway, but you didn’t see the shit we saw in Willoughby and Mentor… There were hundreds of those fucking things killing people and we barely made it out of there! I lost my fucking daughter out there just a few days ago!”

This brought immediate silence.

Doug didn’t know how to respond. He chose to end the conversation. “Stay if you want, both of you. But if Meredith is right, we’re all going to die here. I’m not doing that. Choice is yours.”

Amanda turned to Russell. “Let’s get away from these fucking losers.”

You’re gonna have to think of somethin’ quick, boss. Without this bitch on board, the others might not let you play with them.

Russell was calculating.

“It’s Amanda, right? You should listen to him,” Gina said, stopping Amanda from storming off. “You weren’t here when Meredith… well… let’s just say that she was very convincing.”

Russell was distracted by the new voice as he turned his attention toward the red haired woman with the sad, and yet, compassionate green eyes. She was obviously afraid, but beneath the fear, Russell discovered gold.

This one has a strength about her that I’ve never seen before! he thought.

The other one sighed. Give it a fucking rest, boss. Stop looking for someone to save! They’re all ridiculous! If this group’s any indication of the quality of cattle left in the world… well… they’ll probably talk each other to death long before your blade reaches ‘em.

No, Russell continued. This one’s different. There’s a fire there, just behind her eyes. She’s the one we’ve been waiting for our whole lives! You can’t see it because you only know butchery… but I’m the artist, remember? I have the gift, and I’m telling you, she is The One.

You’re not fuckin’ with me, are you, boss? Are you certain this time?

Yes. He was certain. And the other one knew it… felt it.

Amanda looked up and caught Russell staring a little too long at the red-headed woman. She turned and glared at the stranger. “Will someone please tell me who this bossy bitch is? She your twin sister, Doug?”

A noise erupted from the woods to the east destroying all conversations. It sounded like a thousand maniacs riding on the wind. Ten seconds later it ceased.

She’s comin’, boss! Can ya’ feel it?

Yes. Russell could feel it. Death had just announced her arrival. He retrieved his machete. The beast within wanted to go on an immediate killing spree, starting with the fools in this dysfunctional group. But Russell held him back… barely. His heart raced. He never felt more alive.

“Holy shit!” Charlie fell on his ass. “What in Christ’s name was that?”

Meredith’s eyes popped open. “Go! We need to go! Quickly!”

Gina began to help her up and was surprised to find Frank on Meredith’s other side. “Keep your gun handy, girl,” he said to Gina. “Things are about to get ugly.”

Gina nodded to the big man and said without thinking, “I damn near wet myself after hearing that.”

“Me too,” Frank said with a wink.

Doug was up, staring toward the east with his insane looking bat drawn back to the swinging position. He looked terrified. After a moment, he took a breath and whispered to the air, “What are these demons?”

Greg and Ashley were huddled close. He had his axe in hand. “I reckon’ we should get while the gettin’s good, folks. Follow me.”

Charlie, Amanda and Russell watched the others depart.

“Fuck,” was all Charlie could say. “I can’t stop shaking long enough to think. Maybe we should just go.” He didn’t wait for a reply and scurried after the others.

Amanda couldn’t look away from the wood line without fearing something would rip her heart out as soon as she moved. She wanted to hide. She wanted to run. She was incapable of either.

Russell was there, wrapping his arms around her from behind. He whispered in her ear, “You can do this. Just focus on following the others and move your feet one step at a time. Don’t think. Just act. We’ll figure out what to do when we get away from here.” After a long pause, he added, “Don’t let the fear get you killed today.”

Amanda looked back at Russell, trembling, and said, “I’m so fucking afraid.”

“Can you feel it?” he asked.

“Feel what?”

“Can you feel your heartbeat racing to keep up with all this uncertainty—never knowing what waits just beyond the corner, or what stalks from the very next shadow? If you can still feel it, you’re still alive. Use it to move away from the fear. Being afraid is to know you’re still alive. Giving in to fear are the last remaining breaths before death. So choose, Amanda, for it sounds like we’re almost out of time.”

Amanda nodded and stepped forward. “Okay, let’s do this fucking crazy thing.”

Russell smiled. “We’ll have to hurry.”

Well played, boss. Now we get to have some fun.

Russell’s only concern was catching up to the red haired woman. If not for needing Amanda as his ticket into the group, he would’ve snapped her neck and left her body for the vultures. The blood lust had almost overwhelmed him anyway as he fought against it and won… this time. He knew that he would have to put the other one on notice. Now was not the time to go savage. Never had he been so close to achieving his dream. Gina was the key to achieving it. But things would have to change… he would have to evolve… and the other one would have to submit.

Russell gave Amanda an encouraging nod.

They ran off together to join the others before fear could devour their souls…

~~~

NOW…

“…The dead came like a storm and devastated the power plant. We watched the slaughter on the way out from a train trestle,” Russell was finishing. “There was so much blood and destruction. It was… overwhelming.”

That’s the fuckin’ understatement of the year, boss. You almost couldn’t hold me down that day. Was a good thing you let me loose to kill a few of those dead things or I would’ve gutted all of them… including your precious prize, Gina.

Alysa was sitting down again. She placed her hands over her mouth as Russell had described in detail the events of that day, including in graphic detail… the slaughter.

To Russell, she seemed on the edge of breaking down. He had hoped to use the carnage committed at the power plant to rip open the scab and expose the woman’s wounded heart. It was evident that Russell’s story had made her revisit an equal tragedy buried in the young woman’s thoughts. However, she would not break.

“What was that you told Amanda? Something about not letting the fear kill you today?”

“Yes,” Russell said. “I had to wake her up and get her to see the cage for what it was. And the irony is that once you see the damn cage, you realize it isn’t a cage at all since the door stands wide open.”

“And what cage is that?”

“Safety… seclusion… isolation…” he said this while staring about the cabin to emphasize the point. “It’s all a slow working poison intended to kill from the inside out.”

Alysa’s face hardened. “I see. And what possessed you to save that woman near the trestle… Gina, right? I’m sure that if the situation had been reversed, she would’ve left you to die when the dead attacked, especially since you were nothing more than a stranger in her eyes.”

Russell paused. He found the question odd only because he’d never considered it before now. Yes, his motivations for saving Gina a number of times since that day were beyond anything anyone in his group, let alone this coward, could understand, but was Alysa correct? Would Gina let him die?

Your golden girl was in no hurry to come look for you when the woods caught fire, boss.

And then he remembered the tree. Gina had been stripped and beaten within an inch of her life, barely hanging on when Russell found her in Micom’s strange camp. But then she had distracted the swordsman by firing a gun at him, long enough for Russell to survive that vicious attack. Russell was not a slave to pride, he was clearly outmatched by the one called Copperfield. But then, Gina had saved him.

We have come so far, her and I, he thought. I never considered the possibility that while it’s my responsibility to bring Gina to her fullest potential, to one day present her before the Lady unblemished and worthy of the word ‘Alive’, I never considered what it meant for her to risk all of this… for me.

He felt extremely humbled… and confused. After killing this smug, worthless woman and getting away from her cabin of death, he would need to reflect upon this.

Stop it, boss! The other one was also confused, for different reasons. Gina is not your friend, your one-true-love, or anything else of consequence. She is a means to a fuckin’ end and the moment you forget that… the moment you forget that you are not Marcus… you and I will be revisiting our little arrangement. You know, the one where I behave only because you’ve promised a bloodbath like no other with this woman when the time has come?

Be still! Russell thought back.

Then don’t make me… angry… boss. Don’t you dare forget what we are… what we really are!

Russell was disturbed at how much resistance the other one was showing. He’d never done that before.

He turned to Alysa and said, “What concern is it of yours why I do the things I do? You’ve obviously chosen to forsake what it means to be ‘alive’ in exchange for your ghostly existence… here… in this graveyard you call a cabin. You look down at me for saving others. You think I’m being foolish to forsake safety in exchange for sacrifice, but it’s you who have no idea what living means because you sit here, unchallenged, untested, and very much full of yourself, believing that you aren’t acting out of fear, but out of ‘survival’. You are no damn different than the sheep I watched get slaughtered at the power plant! You play it safe and remove yourself from humanity, and give up your own claim on humanity in the process! That is not living, that is the definition of dying. And your kind have been doing that long before this world changed!”

Careful, boss. You’re tellin’ the bitch too much! Just stick to the story, entertain the piggy’s questions until you’re able to move, and then be done with this sickening mess of a woman. Afterwards, we’ll hang her carcass on the front door and burn this place to the ground.

Russell regained control. The other one was right. He almost screwed up and revealed himself to this stranger. If Alysa suspected for a moment just how much danger she was in, she could distance herself from him, maybe even leave him here to perish in this bed, while she went to find another hole to crawl into.

Alysa was surprisingly calm after the outburst. She picked up her soup cup and took a long sip of broth.

For a moment, Russell swore he saw the hint of a smile behind that cup as she stared at him from deep within her hood.

She put the cup down. Her face was unreadable again. “I’ve always hated the cold,” she said. “Worst thing about this new world for me was the long-ass winter we just had. No matter what I did, I could never shake the chill… it’s rather unpleasant. I will miss things like central heat, snow plow trucks, and updated weather forecasts that always told me when to dress warmer. Now, the winters will be longer than before, even after spring arrives, because we can’t help remove it like we once did. That’s something I’m going to have to get used to.”

Russell waited for the point.

Alysa smiled. “I’m sorry I upset you. I’ve been away from people too long and I’ve forgotten what the boundaries were between strangers. But I feel I must clarify a couple of things: Apart from what I’ve just told you, I will not miss anything from the old world. Of that, you can be certain about me. Also, I’m not here cowering from the world out there… I’m preparing… like you… but in my own way.”

Russell did not know how to respond.

She took over. “But enough about that. I’ll tread more carefully with my questions next time. If you’re still willing, I’d love to hear a little more about your adventures while we’re forced to share each other’s company. But first things first, let’s get you some more soup while it’s still hot. After that, I’ll let you rest and we can talk again tomorrow.”

~~~

Next Episode 37-5

Previous Episode 37-3

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 37-4: 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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