~~~

THEN…

The bearded man, Greg, and that suspicious brute, Frank, had just departed the railroad tracks to explore a possible shelter for the night. Russell watched as Greg’s daughter looked as though she would follow her father into the unknown forest rather than stay with strangers. And then Russell observed Gina move in to comfort her.

She forgets herself immediately to help the child while everyone else is made oblivious by their own fear-driven concerns. Russell unknowingly smiled as he watched her work. The child offers nothing to the survival of the group. She is a liability. And yet… Gina shines in Ashley’s presence. Her strength continues to surprise me.

I see weakness, boss. Your golden girl’s gonna get herself killed trying to save this piglet. This ‘ain’t no place for children anymore.

This world was never fit for children, before or now, Russell thought back. Gina gives the child a light in a dark place. If only every child had one such as this who genuinely tried to care for them before it was too late. Russell was surprised by his own thoughts as he wondered which child he was really thinking about.

Them dreams are catching up with you, boss. Best you kill them from your thoughts before they make your knife edge dull. We should put the child down… call it a mercy skinning.

Russell tensed up. Don’t you ever suggest that again! You know the rules: No children!

The other one laughed. Got it, boss. Just don’t you forget what they are… what they eventually grow up to be. You know that more than most. Hell, every one of those pigs you’ve slaughtered started off like that little girl.

Russell frowned. He could think of no better example and justification for the old world, which was quickly rotting away, to perish. That old monster swallowed children whole and spit out their remains across an infinity of broken homes where abuse was king. And those original monsters, more heinous than the dead, more savage than he could ever be, had once walked around freely in the daylight pretending to be something acceptable called ‘Parents’. But in the darkness, they hunted their own offspring. Russell would never need the prompting of the other one to brutally destroy one of these old beasts. He hoped that most of them were gone now… the ones like his own parents.

Russell overheard the girl say something that reminded him of an item he’d brought along. He searched his pack until he found it.

I was wondering why you took that, boss.

Russell smiled as an opportunity to finally speak with Gina presented itself… and he had the child to thank for it.

So now ya’ think your Jesus, boss? Instead of turnin’ water into wine, you’re gonna turn them worthless piggies into somethin’ useful?

Just watch and learn, savage. Russell moved toward Gina and Ashley.

“And just what do we have here… smiles? Why that’s unheard of in these dire times,” Russell said in a theatrical voice. He sat down right in front of them, crossing his legs and waving his hands. “No, don’t say a word, it’s perfectly alright. Simply allow me to amaze you with my woodland magic, taught to me by the fairies themselves from the faraway land of Lollapalooza!”

“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding. Did he just say, Lollapalooza?” Ashley asked.

Gina smirked, stared at Ashley, and raised her arms with a, ‘I’ve no idea what planet this guy just came from’ look.

“Now,” Russell continued, “as you can see, my hands are empty… I’ve nothing up my sleeves… I assure you, this is no trick.”

Ashley laughed as Russell waved his arms in the air like a swimmer out of water.

“Now, by the magic entrusted in me by the sacred fairies of the woods-”

“From Lollapalooza!” Ashley injected.

“Yes, indeed! I will now pull from your mind your heart’s desire and make it materialize from the very air!”

“Oh, this ought to be good,” Gina said with a wink, rubbing arms with Ashley.

“Now, concentrate little lady and let the fairies grant your request!”

Ashley gave Russell her best crunched up face.

Russell laughed and said, “This requires concentration… not constipation.”

Both women laughed.

“Here it comes now… I can sense your thoughts… and presto!” Seeming to appear from above, something fell right into Russell’s hands.

“No way!” Ashley said.

Russell handed her a pink iPod, another item acquired from the recently departed scientist, Sarah. “For you, my lady. The fairies have heard and answered your request!”

Ashley grabbed at it greedily and began to fumble with the buttons. She stopped abruptly and said, “It’s loaded with songs! How did you-”

“Oh, no, my young lady. It’s forbidden to inquire of woodland magic. Simply take this gift and offer your praise to the fairies of Lollapalooza!”

“Lollapalooza!” Ashley said, feeling foolish for doing so. She started giggling uncontrollably.

“I couldn’t help overhearing and remembered that I had acquired this gizmo on my travels toward the power plant,” Russell said. “I’m glad I held on to it.”

“Thank you,” Ashley said, feeling the tears rise up in her again.

“You are very welcome, Ashley.”

She spotted Meredith nearby and said excitedly, “I have to show Meredith, she’ll never believe the luck!” She got up and quickly hugged Russell before heading over to Meredith.

Russell was surprised by an old emotion which struck him. One he refused to name which he believed long deceased. He quickly suppressed it and forced a laugh as she ran off.

“Your magic act was probably a little better than my singing would’ve been,” Gina said. “That was very kind of you to do that for her. I think you made a friend for life.”

Russell moved into Ashley’s spot next to Gina and waved off the compliment. “Oh, that was easy. What was hard was seeing that girl’s sad face all the time. She’s far too young to be that miserable. Misery is an occupation best suited for the old who have abandoned the adventures of youth for stagnant stations in life… or I should say, what used to be this life.” Russell’s acting skills did not miss a beat, even after the girl nearly made him stumble.

Gina immediately moved over to create some space between them. “Well, I don’t know about all that… Marcus. But I know that you just helped Ashley immensely.” Then she took a deep breath and changed the subject. “I suppose this would be a good time to thank you for saving my life yesterday.”

Russell, dismissing her discomfort, folded his hands and stared at the tracks. “You are welcome. I’m just trying to earn my keep here. I never imagined it would come to doing something like that, but I’m glad I was in the right place at the right time to intervene.”

“Ditto,” she said. Gina rolled her eyes.

Russell smiled at the woman’s transparency. She was clearly nervous but genuine. Beneath the dirt and grime of their travels, Gina was unquestionably a beautiful woman, but that was not the beauty which captured Russell’s attention. Surprisingly, he found something in the red head’s demeanor that reminded him of the girl, Ashley. Yes, there was an untainted innocence buried deep within her eyes, something not yet breached by the rest of her jaded life. He looked forward to their next conversation, once he was no longer under the scrutinizing eyes of the jealous Amanda Howard. But for now, he basked in her innocence. And like a child, Russell knew that, as Gina was a light for Ashley, he too, could be a light for Gina. He looked forward to guiding this beautiful woman into all she was intended to become.

Then… and only then… would he show her salvation.

~~~

The afternoon dragged on, the rain continued, and the sky refused to release the sun from its cloudy prison. Moods plummeted quickly as the promise of evening approached and all they had found was more unrelenting and tedious tracks into nowhere.

There had been no sign of Greg and Frank for hours which just added fuel to the fire of hopelessness which threatened to spread like a wildfire in their exhausted thoughts. Hearing the faint sound of gunfire, only made things worse.

Doug had told them about the boxcar to give them something to aim towards, but even that seemed lost among the endless old railroad ties which mocked their every step.

Russell watched Gina move back beside Doug who was watching the rear and keeping an eye on the groups condition since progress along the tracks had slowed considerably.

Can smell it again, boss. They reek of fear like a shitty diaper on a toddler.

Russell was taking notes. Finding the dead man in the woods a few hours ago had reminded these fools of their mortality. When the dead man came back and attacked Gina, everything they ever understood about death had been challenged… destroyed. None of them, including Russell, had actually ever seen the transformation take place. While everyone else stood horrified, Russell was in awe as he watched the corpse return. The Lady had chosen death itself to deal out death to the lost in this new world. He had tried to get a good look into the dead man’s eyes before he was put down by the strange older woman with the knife. What he saw were two dark pools of nothingness. It disturbed him.

And what about the ones that I saved over the years? Did they come back, too? Was all my effort for nothing if they’re all here… now? Russell struggled to understand this. He did not question the Lady, only his service to her cause.

Don’t worry, boss. The one you just saw was marked. He’d been branded by Death, destined to return. I don’t think ya’ need to worry about being invited to the reunion party. Although, it might be interestin’ to attend and kill all those little piggies… again.

Branded. Yes, that was a good word. He could kill any one of his travelling companions right now and he believed that they would stay… deceased. But if one of the soulless beasts with the dark, empty eyes were to bite them first, they would return like the corpse in the woods. But what about the ones who attacked him in the forest outside the Schuler house? They had come from the graveyard. Many of them had been dead longer than Russell had been alive. Were they ‘branded’ long ago? Were they somehow destined to return many years later to serve the Lady’s purpose… now? Questions such as these were mind boggling and beyond Russell’s limited imagination.

He turned his focus on Gina and felt his equilibrium return. She had become his constant in a world now riddled with inconsistencies and mysteries from the beyond. Perhaps they could explore these mysteries together, as Russell helped her find enlightenment. Yes, she would have to be enough until the Lady revealed the bigger picture which remained clouded to him.

Russell looked back. Gina and Doug were talking again. He had no idea what the woman saw in the big man with the crude weapon. Russell knew that Doug wore his filthy rags of fear as clearly as the rest and that he just hid them better, buried beneath his overcoat of false bravado and the convenient title of ‘leader’. Doug would eventually lead them all to their deaths if allowed to stay in charge. Russell would have to remedy that before too long. Doug was no good for Gina and would only hinder her growth.

He turned to the older woman, Meredith. Speaking of mysteries he could not fathom, Russell immediately recognized how dangerous Meredith truly was. She did not wear her fear of the dead like the others… she owned it somehow. This was another one who Gina found comfort in. But unlike Doug, he believed Meredith could help her and inadvertently aid in helping him tap into Gina’s true potential. He would have to find a way to make an ally out of Meredith without tipping his hand. For now, he would keep his distance and observe.

Hey, boss. Feel like takin’ a trip down memory lane?

Russell was puzzled by the comment until he realized where they were.

Sarah, the scientist, had died near this portion of the tracks.

Russell discreetly looked over toward the right, away from the tracks, where the land rose upward, hiding a steep cliff just on the other side.

Just then, a brief but high-pitched, labored scream came from the woods to the right.

Russell nearly stumbled.

“Everyone, down! Now!” Doug barked. “No one move! No one make a sound!”

Gina’s heart was tap dancing outside of her chest. “Is… is it one of them?” she whispered.

Doug simply shook his head and scanned the wood line. He had his bat out.

Gina drew her handgun.

Then they heard it again. This time, there were words: “HELP ME! SOMEBODY… PLEASE… HELP!” It was a woman’s voice. She sounded like she was in great pain.

Holy shit, boss! She’s still alive!

Russell’s face was stone. He squeezed the handle of the machete, as if it were a comforting talisman to ward off evil spirits that had suddenly invaded the area.

“Fuck me,” Gina said. “She sounds bad. We have to do something.”

“Hold on,” Doug said.

Gina looked at him like he’d lost his mind.

“There’s a valley on that side of the woods. Sounds carry. Whoever that is could be miles away.”

“Or she’s right fucking over there,” Gina said pointing toward where she thought the voice came from.

“OH, GOD… IS ANYBODY THERE? I CAN HEAR YOU UP THERE… PLEASE… I’M HURT… NEED HELP!”

Russell ducked down lower as if expecting the woman to step over the top of the wood line and see him.

It’s been days, boss. How is that bitch still alive?

If not for the others’ clear reaction to the screaming woman, Russell would have believed that it was all in his own mind. He still wasn’t convinced that she wasn’t a phantom.

“Fuck this!” Gina got up and started across the tracks and toward the woods.

“Gina! No!” Doug could do nothing but follow.

“Where the hell is she going?” Charlie asked.

This is not good, boss. If they somehow reach that woman-

BE SILENT!

Gina ignored him. She started into the woods and Doug followed right after her. They both disappeared over the top of the hill. The others followed after leaving Russell standing there. He didn’t know what to do. Should he flee? Should he kill them all? From his left the answer came. Someone took his free hand. It was the child.

“Please… stay with me,” Ashley said. She was weeping. “I’m… I’m afraid of ghosts.”

Russell stared into the child’s eyes and saw an earlier version of himself there. He smiled and said, “It’s alright, Ashley. We’ll wait here.”

She looked relieved… as did he.

They could hear the others arguing. Gina was clearly upset.

Russell was calculating.

“Who is that?” Ashley asked. “Who’s down there?”

Russell turned to her and struggled for an answer.

She saw it in his face. “It’s alright, Marcus. You don’t have to be afraid. I’ll look after you. The others will make the monster go away.”

Russell was floored. For the first time, in a very long time, he felt it… he felt the fear. Apparently there were things in this new world which could terrify even him. Dependent on if he survived the next few minutes, and that an evil presence hadn’t come back to claim him, Russell would have to meditate on this.

He smiled at Ashley and felt surprisingly at ease by her company. “Thanks for waiting here with me,” he said. “You’re right. The others will fix this and everything will be okay. You’re a brave girl.”

She looked away. “Not really. But… thanks.”

A few long minutes passed.

They’re gonna rescue the woman, boss. And when she gets up here, she’ll ruin everything. We need to run! Take the girl as insurance and let’s get the fuck out of here!

No. Russell felt the fear depart. And then he understood what this was. He was being tested.

If you’re worried that the little brat will betray our position, boss, we can always end her on the way. The scientists’ camp isn’t far from here. We could head there, restock our supplies and dispose of the little piggy after.

Russell looked back at Ashley. She was also no longer afraid.

I said ‘no’, savage. Calm down. This will work itself out. Yes. Russell was certain of this now. The Lady would deliver them from this situation and they would learn something important from the experience.

The other one fled anyway, back into the dark recesses of Russell’s mind.

“Good riddance,” he said.

“What was that?” Ashley asked.

Russell smiled. “Good riddance to all that pointless fear. Everything will be okay… can’t you feel it?”

Surprisingly, she did. “And the monster?”

“We’ve already defeated the monster, Ashley. We haven’t run off into the woods, we’re still standing our ground. That means we’ve won, no matter what comes down over the top of that hill.”

Ashley smiled. “I do feel a little more ‘bad-ass’ than I did a few minutes ago.”

Russell laughed.

Charlie and Amanda returned first, followed shortly after by Stephen. While the first two were clearly upset, Stephen appeared ashamed.

They weren’t able to get to her, boss! Maybe she’s dead… for real this time.

Welcome back, chicken-shit. Russell fired back.

The voice of the ghost woman returned. Much weaker this time. “ANYBODY THERE? PLEASE… HELP… I’M ALL ALONE OUT HERE…”

And then Gina answered the ghost loud enough for them all to hear. “You’re not alone! You hearing me, girl! Help’s on the way! Just hold on! Help’s coming!”

Russell was grinning from ear to ear. She’s defeated her fear! Gina has stood up to the phantom!

Doug and Meredith were coming down now with Gina reluctantly in tow. They wore the same shame-filled faces as Stephen. But not Gina. What Russell saw was a raging goddess who refused to back down from the abyss… who refused to give up on the girl.

And then understanding came. Russell looked into all their faces for his answer. They had decided to leave the woman down there… to perish.

Didn’t see that one coming, boss. Looks like they all finished the job for us. What a cruel way to kill someone. Feed ‘em false hope and then leave ‘em to die slowly. Poor, poor, Sarah. Maybe I was wrong about these pigs… perhaps they’re the savage ones. My kind of peeps. The other one was laughing at the irony.

Russell looked into Gina’s eyes. She was heartbroken.

Not Gina, he quickly corrected. This was not her decision.

No… never your precious golden girl, boss, the other one mocked. Not yet anyway…

~~~

Next Episode 37-7

Previous Episode 37-5

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 37-6: 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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