~~~

He is falling… falling… falling into the abyss of memory. Once more the madhouse of dreams has swallowed him whole, forcing him into the prison of youth.

Russell is ten years old. He is standing in the fenced-in backyard surrounded by everything dead. There is an ancient Harley Davidson his father had salvaged from a junkyard sitting next to a once silver Mustang, both infected by rust and neglect. There is a half assembled swing-set, tipped over and shoved off to the side. A small swimming pool sits toward the back of the yard, filled with green, murky water that hasn’t been cleaned in years. It is now home to the mosquitoes that visit every summer. There are numerous discarded tools, a broken lawnmower, an abandoned refrigerator and an old television set laying sporadically across the tall un-cut grass. Everywhere he looks Russell discovers the relics of his long-dead childhood and the remains of his father’s failed projects.

Young Russell remembers the strong smell of garbage as he looks to the right where a small shed stores black trash bags full of trash. His parents haven’t paid the bill for trash pick-up in months.

His father currently resides in there, dismembered, bagged up, and lying near the front of the pile.

Russell smells his mother’s Virginia Slims cigarette before hearing her approach. “Dig, you fucking brat!” She swats him in the back of the head… hard.

He stirs from his daze, realizing that he’s still holding the garden spade. He stares down at the two-foot deep hole, wishing that the monster would go back inside. He refuses to look at her.

“You disrespectful shit! Look at me when I’m talking to you!” She pushes him this time.

Russell turns. His mother looks ancient and worn-down. She’s been crying again as her hastily applied make-up runs down her face like a failed oil-painting. He knows that she isn’t crying for her father. He knows that she only cries for her fucked-up life… even now, after murdering her husband… she is still the victim.

“Stop staring at me like that, you fucking shit!” she threatens with her bony outstretched arm, still yielding the cigarette. “You think you’re better than me? Well… do you?”

Russell doesn’t answer. He knows there is nothing he can say that won’t cause a beating. He turns back toward the hole.

“You finish digging that hole right, or you’ll be digging yours next. Damn thing needs to be four feet.”

Russell resumes digging.

She doesn’t say another word for ten minutes. Russell starts to believe she’s left until he hears the man approach… the man who he must never ask about… the man who cut his father up with the chainsaw after his mother murdered him.

“He still isn’t finished?” the man asks.

“He’s useless… like his father,” his mother says.

Russell is not hurt by her words. He has learned how to disconnect from his emotions… from the pain… something he learned from his father first. Sometimes, when the violence was excessive, Russell would crawl deep within himself and talk to his friend while his mother, father, or even the man beat him.

Sometimes his friend would talk back and help him forget his pain. Sometimes his friend showed him how to harness it and turn the pain into something else entirely.

“We should take care of him, too,” the man suggests. “You know, before he tells someone.”

“He won’t say shit,” his mother says. “He knows that I’m all he has left in this rotting world and that no one will want a crazy child like him around if he talks to the cops.” His mother laughs. “Isn’t that right, you crazy shit? You wouldn’t ever think of telling on your Momma, would you? Because if you do, they’ll put you in the nuthouse, just like your father.”

Russell shakes his head.

“Good. That’s what I thought,” she says.

Russell knows that she will try to kill him again… with the poison. It’s just a matter of time. And if not that, she will find some other way.

“I think it’s deep enough,” the man says. “Let’s go get him.”

Russell stops and watches the man and his mother approach the shed.

They retrieve the black bags… the bags containing his father.

The man and Russell’s mother spend the next half an hour burying Russell’s father in the hole. Then the man covers the hole with another junker car.

That is when his mother grabs him by the shoulders and threatens, “Now remember, you little shit, if you do decide to tell anyone what happened here, they’ll take you away, too… put you in that nuthouse. Because you killed your father, too, when you dug that hole and helped us. Understand?”

Russell nods. Yes, he understands a lot. He understands that his father is dead in the ground. He understands that his mother and the man are also dead above the ground. And lastly, he understands that his emotions are dead since he feels nothing… nothing at all…

~~~

…When Russell woke, it was still dark. Alysa was once again tending to her pot by the fireplace. And he was still stuck in bed.

Did I sleep the whole day away? Russell wondered. Or was I only asleep a few minutes? He felt exhausted physically and assumed his body was repairing itself with some long overdue rest.

That would explain the fantastic dreams you’ve been havin’, boss. You’ve been fishin’ deep in the archives as of late.

Indeed. Russell seldom remembered his dreams, and when he did, they were brief and savage, usually involving lots of blood. It seemed that the dreamscape was the one place Russell had no control as the other one often reenacted previous kills there. But he had been returning to his childhood as of late and the dreams were so vivid that they felt more like memories than dreams. No matter. Russell had long since dismissed such trivial matters. Dreams meant nothing. They were places where fears tormented the living… if allowed to fester.

Alysa was coming. She was still wearing her large hooded robe. She was carrying two cups of what Russell assumed were full of soup.

“Welcome back,” she said, placing the cups on the nightstand. “I was starting to think you were dead since you slept so long.”

“I feel like I slept for five minutes,” he said.

Alysa smiled. “That’s your body being greedy for more sleep than you’re probably used to. That’s how you’re going to get well. Takes time.”

Russell nodded. “What time is it?”

“A little after midnight… not that time matters much these days.” She laughed and sat down. “I still keep a watch around and check it occasionally. I act as though I’m waiting for my favorite television show to come on or wondering how much time I have before returning to that meaningless day job. Force of habit, I suppose. Everything is much simpler now: There’s just day and then there’s night. Everything else that required us to count off the hours of our lives is gone now.”

“And you don’t miss it?”

Alysa’s face looked radiant this evening. She seemed more relaxed and not the despondent, depressing woman from last night. Russell suspected that she sensed the tension between them and decided to guard her thoughts this time rather than spew them on a stranger. She picked up a cup of soup, removed the spoon, and stared at it. “I miss… well, hell… I miss pizza.”

Russell laughed. “That’s the repetitious soup talking. Chicken noodle again?”

Alysa pretended to pout. “Yes… yes… chicken noodle… again. But at least it’s hot.”

“Because you just love the cold.”

Alysa smiled. “I’m just an open book to you now, aren’t I?” she teased. She held up the cup. “Ready for another monotonous meal?”

“Only if it’s pizza.”

She shook her head. “You’re just mean.” She began feeding him.

Russell took a bite and then asked, “So how long do you think before I can leave? Not that I’m complaining, but I really need to get back to my group. I assumed you were a nurse of some sort in your previous life by the way you patched me up and by how confidently you assessed my injuries. I’m wagering that you could give me a fair estimate.”

“You thought I was a nurse? Well, I’ll take that as a compliment.” She continued to feed him. “Truth is, I’ve had a lot of time to read. I don’t know what people value these days since money is worthless, but I value literature. Whenever I get the chance to move inland for supplies, I always check for books. Just so happens I read a medical book a few months back. Good for you that I did, too.”

“Well, it certainly paid off. I’m already feeling better than I did yesterday,” he lied.

Alysa was now grinning from ear to ear. “Why, thank you. I really appreciate that. And… don’t be fooled, you may feel okay right now, but you could relapse at any time. It’s hard to say right now when you’ll be able to move. But I’m sure it won’t be too long.”

“Anything you say, Doc.” Russell needed to take advantage of the woman’s better mood and get on her good side. Especially after last night’s outburst. If he could gain some common ground with Alysa, he might be able to win her trust. Once she trusted him, Russell could persuade her into either helping him get back to Gina, or to lower her guard enough for him to have an opportunity to kill the bitch. He preferred the second option. He took another bite of soup from her spoon, wishing he had the strength to lift his arm enough to grab it and shove it into her eye.

“So,” she started, after he was done eating. “You’ve told me about the scientists who helped you reach the power plant. Then how you met a new group and barely escaped down the railroad tracks. Where did you go after that? And I’m curious about these new friends of yours.” She sat back in her chair and began eating her own soup.

Russell had given her the generic version of his travels, carefully omitting his own thoughts and actions and anything else that revealed him as Russell Bower, a stone-cold killer. He gave her Marcus Dempsey, the same persona he’d fed Gina and the others.

Story time again, boss? This is gonna get old. I think the bitch needs to get out more.

Agreed. Russell did not relish spending every evening telling watered-down bed time stories. But, he needed to win her over and so he continued to oblige.

“Well, we traveled the tracks, as you already know. We saw a lot of what was left of Percy. I’ll spare you the details. We found an abandoned house near the tracks before nightfall-”

“Were you and Amanda… together… at that point?” Alysa asked.

Russell raised his eyebrows. Yes, he’d spoken about how he’d met Amanda… but excluded the graphic parts.

Alysa laughed at his surprise. “It’s not what you told me that has me curious about her. It’s what your eyes told me when you spoke about her… or rather… when you didn’t speak about her. A woman can sense things when it comes to men and I caught that their might have been a bit more.”

Russell smiled and said, “You are a perceptive woman, Alysa.”

“Not really. I’m just a woman who can read a man as easily as any of my books when it comes to certain things.”

She’s pokin’ at the pricker bush, boss. Probably misses her daytime soaps. Why don’t ‘cha give her somethin’ juicy to nibble on? Could go a long way to makin’ her your best friend.

Russell laughed. “Okay, we did have a… brief fling. But it didn’t work out.”

“That’s too bad,” Alysa said. “Did you tap it?”

“Excuse me?”

“You know… was there sex involved?”

“That’s really none of your-”

Alysa laughed hard and waved a hand at him. “Sorry… I was just playing. A little joke at your discomfort.”

Russell wasn’t amused.

Lighten’ up, boss. I think this strange bitch is testin’ her boundaries again. Tryin’ to see if you’ll bite back.

Alysa calmed down. “I’ve been told on more than one occasional that my sense of humor’s a bit crude. I apologize.” She took a sip from her cup.

“That’s alright,” Russell said and then smiled. “And for the record, my ‘tapper’ was working just fine.”

Alysa spit out her soup. She started keeling over with laughter.

Russell joined in, taking advantage of the moment.

Well played, boss.

When Alysa regained herself, she wiped tears from eyes and said, “I haven’t laughed that hard in ages. You’re alright, Marcus. At first, I had my doubts, but I’m glad I was wrong.”

“Ditto. Seems we got off on the wrong foot yesterday. I’m grateful that there’s still something left to laugh about.”

“You said it.” Alysa was nodding. “In fact, a lot of the books I read claimed that laughter has healing properties. Powerful stuff, I say.” She got back on track. “So, please, go on. Continue your story. You said something about a house?”

“Yes, we were exhausted and needed a place to hide out for the night-”

“What went wrong?”

“Pardon?”

“With you and Amanda… why didn’t it work out?”

Russell was puzzled by the push on the subject.

Alysa explained. “Call me curious, but I’ve always been interested in knowing what makes relationships tick… or not. Especially now. Do you mind? I promise I’ll let the matter rest afterwards.”

“Answer me one question first,” Russell said.

“Fair enough. Ask away.”

“Who broke your heart after the outbreak? I assume he didn’t die… but left you.”

Alysa’s face went dark.

Now you’ve done it, boss. So much for being cuddle buddies.

Alysa gently put her cup down, leaned back in her chair, and folded her hands in her lap. She stared at him as if trying to figure out what Russell was.

To Russell, it looked like she was about to explode.

He held her gaze a moment and then smiled. “Just kidding. That was a mean question to ask. I take it back. Sometimes my sense of humor is a bit warped as well.”

Alysa continued to state at him. Finally she smiled and said, “I guess I had that coming.”

Russell could tell that she was still trying to put out the fire within. He’d found a vulnerability to exploit. Now, he had to turn things back around. He chose to be completely honest. “The reason why Amanda and I didn’t work out was because she was already dead when we were together. Breathing, laughing, fucking… didn’t matter. She was pretending to be alive… and then eventually she really did… die.” He broke away from Alysa’s gaze to appear remorseful and was surprised by the genuine hint of sadness that struck him.

What was that, boss?

Russell did not know. But he believed Marcus might.

Alysa looked away, feeling uncomfortable by the whole exchange. She quickly re-routed the conversation. “So when your group found this house by the tracks, what happened next?”

Russell was equally grateful for the distraction. “We hunkered down for the night. Some stood watch while others tried to sleep. The dead eventually found us and we tried to become invisible. It was a very long night…”

~~~

THEN…

Russell found the dark and silent house very comforting… very familiar. As he crept from room to room, peeking in on his sleeping travel companions, he smiled in wonder at the series of events which had brought him into this group. From meeting Amanda which led to eventually discovering Gina, he praised the Lady for his good fortune. Then by a turn of events, he was given the opportunity to save Gina’s life exiting the plant, winning him a seat of respect. And now, because of The Change and all the violence and bloodshed that accompanied this bizarre event, ten strangers had been brought together on a mutual quest for survival. No questions asked. It was all too… perfect.

He stopped at the base of the stairs and blended into the shadows. He marveled at the moonlight that invaded the dark home like graceful fingers of soft light which gently caressed various dark spaces. Russell found Mother Nature’s evening attire strange and believed she possessed mystical qualities far beyond his comprehension. It was human nature he understood: the mutual coexistence and denial of Man vs. Beast trapped in fragile flesh… and the tiresome struggle which always followed.

It’s just like old times, boss. Seems like we never stop creepin’ around these dark ass houses. Too bad we can’t sneak up on a few of these sleepin’ beauties and make the snore monsters go away.

Russell ignored him. His thoughts drifted to earlier. Stephen, the school teacher, had been sitting on the steps reading a book of some importance. As Russell had observed from the dark hallway, the teacher appeared to be speaking to the night by name. And he had called it… Nicole.

He’s a strange fucker, boss, the other one chimed in. Can’t quite put my finger on it yet… but, something feels awfully familiar about that egghead.

Russell would have to pay more attention to the strange young teacher. Perhaps the book was something they could use… perhaps it was something they could exploit. Time would tell.

Something stirred in the darkness just outside the porch door. Two figures. They stepped just inside, entering the moonlight where Russell could plainly see Amanda’s naked flesh. The obnoxious one, Charlie, was also there, clumsily trying to remove his clothing. Amanda immediately took control of the little man, forcing him to the floor. She aggressively mounted him. Amanda fucked him so hard that Russell swore he heard Charlie ask her to stop. She ignored him… and made Charlie her bitch.

Man, that fucking crazy sex addict needs some therapy, boss. Wanna join in? I’m game if we can include a little S & M… the painful kind.

“Where… where are you going?” Charlie called out.

Russell watched as Amanda stepped over him and grabbed her bottled poison. “I’m done with you. I’m going to bed.” She walked off without another word, heading straight for the downstairs bathroom to wash up, leaving Charlie alone in the dark.

Russell watched this whole dirty scene play out, not because it aroused him, but because of what Amanda was doing to Charlie’s pride. Within a few brief minutes, Amanda had made short work of Charlie as she used him until she was satisfied, and then rejected him outright.

That’s the kind of behavior that could cause a man to murder a woman, he thought. If Charlie, was indeed, a man, then he would not stand for Amanda’s abuse. The humiliation alone would smolder until something reignited the embers. If pushed the right way, Charlie’s temper could be made useful at some point. If Amanda continued to draw unwanted attention to him, like she almost did earlier on the stairs with her childish drama, perhaps he could get Charlie to take care of this drunk nuisance for him. Russell was concerned that Amanda would eventually jeopardize his efforts to win over Gina’s trust if she continued with her distracting outbursts. And he would kill her himself before letting that happen.

Boss, you’re about to play games, aren’t ya’? You know how much I love it when ya’ fuck with their heads.

Indeed, Russell knew very well how much the other one enjoyed the foreplay before the kill… in fact… he was counting on it to help him stall the beast. And if he couldn’t find a way to keep the animal entertained, Russell would eventually have to cave and give in to the blood lust. His control over the other one had its limits.

Charlie got up and slowly put his clothes back on, looking back repeatedly to see if anyone was watching. His pants irritated his bruised inner thighs making it difficult to sit. He hobbled out on to the porch feeling confused, and surprisingly… violated.

From the corner, just at the base of the stairs, Russell’s smile was shrouded in shadow. He turned and headed back up the stairs. He’d seen enough…

~~~

Next Episode 37-6

Previous Episode 37-4

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 37-5: 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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