~~~

Stephen entered Cubicle City and stopped to enjoy the silence. Most of the lights were in dim mode to allow the illusion of evening, helping most of the tired community get some much needed rest. In the three weeks since he had assumed leadership, Stephen had created several small committees who were assigned various projects designed to give everyone a voice and a purpose in the eventual relocation of their group. He had received overwhelming support and had discovered a whole new level of unified strength in this band of survivors, who were once on the verge of tearing each other apart a short time ago.

Among some of the major committee groups were: Resettlement and Recovery–a group dedicated to preparing the community for mass exodus by accounting for all vital supplies and figuring out how to distribute those supplies among the survivors when the time came to move out. They were also in charge of planning out future missions to scout out locations, such as nearby neighborhoods and farmlands, for possible resettlement. They used whatever local road and topography maps they could get their hands on, as well as first-hand knowledge from survivors who had once lived or visited various locations, to make long-term assessments of surrounding areas.

Another group called Search, Rescue and Growth, was in charge of figuring out where other survivors might have fled, well beyond the wilderness preserve, to outlast the long grueling winter and the dead. They made plans and discussed possible scenarios to approach other groups of survivors, and how to safely assess if they were hostile, friendly, or the unpredictable “desperate”, which could fall either way.

Logan, who was no longer in charge of security, was appointed the task of rounding up as much information about each survivor’s families, in order to put together profiles with the eventual intent to locate missing members, dead or alive, and offer closure or happy reunions. He named the group: The Ministry of Hope.

There was even a group entirely devoted to the welfare and morale of the community, called, Operation Laughter, which met weekly to discuss fun recreational activities to help the survivors get their minds off their troubles and ‘loosen up’ when time allowed.

Stephen’s primary purpose for the committees was to give every man and woman an important task, hoping to get everyone on the same optimistic page and start thinking about their future. So far, it was working. He met twice a week with representatives of each group to discuss and vote on various issues, which destroyed the old “inner circle” way of leadership that often felt exclusive, and instead, let everyone have a seat at the decision-making table. He also insisted that each group have a name, whether he picked one or each committee did. Stephen believed that by giving groups ‘titles’, it made them official, adding a permanent position of importance to every issue.

The exhausted new leader sighed as he quickly checked the shadows surrounding him, hoping for any sign of Nicole. Since his public admission of the accidental killing of the girl, Stephen had not seen or heard from her. In order not to freak out about it, the former history teacher had jumped head-first into his awesome new responsibility, hoping that Nicole would return when circumstances quieted down.

Nicole? I know you’re still there. Why are you hiding?

Yes. He knew it… felt it. Nicole was too much a part of who he was now. Stephen would know if she was really gone, the same way anyone would know if the sun was ripped from the sky.

I’m not mad at you anymore. Please… just come back. He closed his eyes and shook his head to clear his thoughts. I love you, Nicole, but I can’t keep doing this. These people need me to lead them.

Stephen continued on and found Logan in his usual pre-bedtime spot, praying to his God before the prayer wall in the back of Cubicle City.

While he waited for the big preacher to finish, Stephen gawked at the wall, marveling at how much it had evolved since Logan took over as head of The Ministry of Hope. Where there was once just fading pictures of missing loved ones, now, the wall was covered with every piece of information Logan had acquired from the survivors. He placed everything up on that wall, from hand-scribbled notes to detailed descriptions of the last whereabouts of loved ones. Logan treated all of it as sacred and prayed for God’s help every evening to lead him in eventually finding them all.

Stephen stood back and smiled at the big man who continued to wear his infamous black tank-top (he often wondered if the man owned any other shirt), with his old hate tattoos branded across his arms, which Stephen hardly noticed anymore. In the last three weeks Stephen had relied upon his new second-in-command heavily, getting to know the man on a more personal level than before. In some ways, Logan reminded him of his optimistic old friend, Greg, whose faith in God had never wavered. But as he watched Logan, knelt down before the wall of fragile dreams, face pressed to the floor and fervently whispering to God, Stephen realized that the difference between Greg and Logan’s faith was that while Greg’s simplistic beliefs made him the easy-going man that he was, Logan’s faith was quite different. The big man before him approached God with such intensity at times, reminding him of a soldier before going into battle.

Logan slowly got up from his knees and wiped tears from his eyes. “Thank you, Jesus,” he whispered before the prayer wall, raising his arms in praise.

“I get exhausted just watching you pray,” Stephen said stepping up beside him. He looked up at the pictures on the wall. “If we find just one of them… it will all be worth it.”

Logan put a big arm around Stephen’s shoulders and shook them lightly. “That’s the spirit, little brother!” he said with a heart-felt laugh. “Praise God! Just one, we give you thanks! But I’m gonna be greedy and ask for as many as you can give us back!”

“Amen,” Stephen said with a smile.

Logan turned toward a couple of fold-up chairs and motioned Stephen to sit with him.

They both sat down, feeling the weight of another busy but satisfying day.

“What brings you out here to see me so late, Stephen? Can’t sleep?”

Stephen frowned. “It’s Gina. Tomorrow’s the day… and I can’t do anything to stop it.”

Logan nodded. “You’ve done all you can, little brother. Gina’s fate is in God’s hands now. I’ve been praying really hard for her to come back from that dark place… and she will… but it’s a tough climb out of that pit. Believe me… I’ve been there.”

Stephen had stalled for as long as possible, hoping the newly discovered spirit of the community would allow Gina a place among them. But the better things became, the more they placed the blame for everything that had gone wrong, including Carl Lannister’s rebellion, on the often distant, harsh, and war-minded dictatorship of their former leader. Many felt that her secret execution of two of their own had crossed the line and the community remained firm in their final decision on the matter.

“She doesn’t even fight it,” Stephen said. “It’s hard to defend someone who is so eager to be punished. It’s like she’s already gone–like she died that day Tony turned her in.”

Logan shook his head. “It’s a hard thing, little brother, to hear the truth about what we are, what we’ve become. It really hits home when the ones closest to us become the mirrors of that truth.” He shifted gears. “How is Tony holding up?”

“He’s managing in his own way,” Stephen said. “When I refused to let him step away entirely and asked him to take over as head of Security, he accepted it and threw all he had left into it. He’s outside everyday making sure the perimeter is secure while we have the topside camp operational during the daylight hours. But in truth, I think he’s just distancing himself from the whole matter. He still refuses to visit her.”

“Tony is a man of conscience,” Logan said. “It’s very hard to do what is right when it hurts the ones we love. I’ll keep praying for him, too.”

Stephen nodded with a frown.

“I never did thank you for… taking away that burden,” Logan said. “It was very thoughtful of you to assign security matters to someone else. I never realized the load it was until it was lifted.”

Stephen looked into the big man’s humble eyes and saw a glimpse of the memory that still haunted him. “I know you still struggle with it, Logan. But you did the right thing. Shooting Sabastian saved lives.”

Logan nodded. “Yes… but it’s not a thing I wish to ever repeat. When you kill a man, right or wrong, you live with it. It becomes a part of you. Taking a life never leaves you. You can only learn from it and become… better… or it swallows you whole.” He placed a hand on Stephen’s shoulder.

Stephen nodded, understanding that the preacher’s words were as much for him, too. “I live with Nicole’s death every day. In fact, it has made me… better. I’d like to think so, anyway.”

“That was a brave thing you did, telling the community. You shared your soul with them. That’s why they love you, Stephen. You’re a good and honest man who cares for these people… and they feel it in everything you’re doing.”

“What am I really doing, Logan?” Stephen asked. “I talk to Gina every night. She’s told me about the horrors they’ve seen ‘out there’. She tells me that she worries for me and doesn’t want me to go through the hell she went through trying to keep everyone safe. What if we finally leave this place and I lead them all to their deaths because of some naïve notions that there’s something better than this?”

Logan smiled. “Because you already know, little brother. Your faith has opened your eyes.”

“What does that even mean?”

“I know you struggle with God. That you have a hard time giving in to an ‘all-loving’ deity when the world looks like it has been abandoned. But that doesn’t mean he’s stopped believing in you. Look around, little brother. You have turned the tide and stopped these people from becoming… monsters. God has chosen you to lead these people, not because you are some skilled warrior who will fight their battles for them, but because you can help them see what the real battle is… and that’s the darkness within… and show them how to win their own battles. You love them and they love you for it. That’s how we survive down here now. And that’s how we will survive out there, no matter what dark and dire circumstances await.”

“And if we get slaughtered the moment we leave these woods… what does that say about us? About love?”

Logan laughed. “It’s says that we held our ground, Stephen. That we stood for something greater than all the darkness out there. It says that we refused to let the evil forces at work in the world make us cower and hide in a hole any longer, snuffing out the light and love this new world desperately needs… that it’s always needed. When we leave here, we will leave together, and that is what our God has left us to do… the only thing left there is to do… and that’s how we will find our way in the dark. You’re eyes have been opened down here. Mine were opened from a jail cell in my former life when I once worked as an agent of the darkness. Love trumps all and as long as we fight for each other… we will find our way. God will guide our every step as long as we keep on loving each other.”

Stephen stared at the big man, admiring his conviction. “I wish I had a tenth of your faith… I really do.”

“You have more faith than you know, little brother. Your compassion for these people is the evidence of that faith. You will lead us to whatever end awaits, arming us anew with a sense of community we’ve almost lost down here. Trust in yourself. God has given you his favor with these people. He will be there at every step of the way as long as we hold true.”

“And if I lead them straight to the gates of hell, what then?”

Logan laughed long and hard. “Then I’m sure we will have this discussion again as we turn and feed off the compassion of our family as we march confidently through the flames! Praise God!”

Stephen shook his head with a smile. “There’s just no reasoning with you when you get like this. Perhaps when we find ourselves surrounded by a hungry horde of yellow-eyed demons, they’ll smell the aroma of love and just lose their appetites.”

“Now we’re talking, little brother!” Logan laughed. “‘Lose their appetites on love’… now that’s a keeper!”

“Does the word ‘sarcasm’ hold any meaning to you at all?” Stephen laughed.

Logan settled down. “We’ll be alright. And if not… well… we can always hope those yellow-eyed bastards choke on all that love we’re carrying around.”

“You’re impossible… but I like the sound of that.” Stephen started laughing, causing Logan to erupt into more laughter.

Stephen finally calmed down and got up. “Well… if anything good comes from being this tired all the time it’s that everything starts get a lot funnier by the end of the day.”

“That’s the damn truth.” Logan got up. “Off to bed?”

“Soon,” Stephen said. “Got one more visit to make and then I’ll try to pass out for a few hours.”

Logan caught Stephen off guard with another one of his bear hugs. “Thanks for making me laugh, little brother… and for everything you’re doing for these people, praise God.”

“Same to you,” Stephen tried to get out, feeling crushed by the big man who finally let him go. Stephen collected himself with a laugh. He then looked at Logan and said, “I don’t know if I could’ve made it through the past few weeks without your help. I mean that.” He looked around briefly again for Nicole. “I’ve learned one thing really fast about leadership. It’s an incredibly lonely position sometimes. But having your help reminds me that I’m not alone.

Logan looked embarrassed. He said, “Well… you’re not alone. We will all strive to do our best to help you carry that burden, little brother.”

Stephen stared at the big man feeling his throat tighten up. He was about to speak but then just nodded.

Logan nodded back with a smile.

He turned to go, “Goodnight, Preacher. Don’t forget to find your own bed. It scares the locals when they find you snoring out by the wall in the mornings.”

Logan laughed. “Will do. Goodnight, Stephen.”

Stephen walked off.

Logan sat back down, feeling the weight of his heavy frame collapse into the squeaky fold-up chair. He closed his eyes and started praying silently.

From where she stood in a shadowed corner beside the prayer wall, Nicole waited for Stephen to depart before stepping out into the dim light to look at the praying man. She was wearing one of Stephen’s favorite sundresses, the same one she wore when they talked together outside the school in Harpersfield. She longed for those days when they had an abundance of time alone together with none of these pathetic creatures stealing him away at every moment. She had wanted to appear to him tonight and let Stephen know she was alright. But she was still upset. Nicole was angry that he’d spoken publicly about her death and that he’d lied to her about leaving this horrible place together when all along he wanted to stay. She was upset with herself for holding things back from the man she loved, especially about Lannister’s plans to take over. She’d overheard Lannister’s men talking about it on one of her nightly excursions in Stephen’s body, which were not as frequent, now that he was so fucking busy taking care of these… people. But mainly, she was upset that she couldn’t reach out and touch the man that she loved, and that no matter what he said, she knew that Stephen understood that it created distance between them, restricting the love they could have for each other. This made her furious… uncontrollable at times… and it frightened her. That was why she’d chosen to stay away. Lately, she’d gone from wanting to make love to him… to just wanting to reach out and… destroy him.

Nicole looked at Logan and hissed, “You’re all pathetic little creatures that deserve what’s coming next!”

Logan continued to pray quietly, unaware of the ghost girl who wanted to rip his throat out.

She looked at the worthless man with his worthless prayers and said, “Maybe I’ll get inside your head, too, like Olivia and all the rest of them, and get you to end your own meaningless existence!” She knew that she could, too. Nicole could see the darkness in each of them–and exploit it when it served her.

“But not you… not yet… my love would be all alone, surrounded by these ungrateful creatures if I took you from him,” she said to Logan. “But when he doesn’t need you anymore… when he only needs me, I will take care of you! I will take care of all of you worthless dumb animals!”

She could feel the anger trying to consume her again. Nicole closed her eyes and calmed down. She shook her head at the preacher and started walking away.

“I know you’re there,” Logan said.

Nicole stopped, turning with alarm.

Logan was still praying. His back was to her. He hadn’t moved.

That’s impossible! She waited to see if the preacher was just talking to his vain God again.

Logan opened his eyes, took a deep breath, and said, “I know you’ve been here all this time. Just like you were there when the Lord Jesus rescued me in that jail cell and turned me toward the light.”

Nicole didn’t move. She started to panic. He’s not talking to me! If he were, than that would mean…

“I just wanted to thank you, as crazy as that sounds,” Logan continued. “If not for you on that long night, I never would’ve found my way… never would’ve realized how close I was to my own destruction. I never would’ve turned from the darkness.”

Nicole waited.

“I know you now. I know what you are… and my God will put an end to you… and others like you.”

Something stirred from deep within her, making her want to jump out of her skin and lash out at the big man with such ferocity. Leave. Now! He’s not talking to you! He’s just a crazy man speaking to the shadows… they all do that… the ones like him.

But Nicole had to know. She took a step toward the preacher and said, “You… you say you know me. Then who am I?”

Logan did not respond.

Nicole frowned. See. It’s just crazy talk. He’s not talking to you. Stop being foolish. Nicole turned and walked away, disappearing into the closest shadow.

Logan turned in Nicole’s direction, and for a moment, he swore he saw it– the same shadowy man he’d seen in the alley the night something had tricked him into believing that he’d murdered the Asian busboy, Brian Cheng.

~~~

Next Episode 38-2

Previous Episode 37-15

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 38-1: Healing” 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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