~~~

Since her arrest three weeks ago, Gina had been confined to a guarded storeroom where she was provided a cot and sparse furnishings while the community decided what to do with her. Aside from her visits with Stephen, Gina was not permitted to see anyone else, leaving her with far too much time to feel the small space closing in around her. Her new number one enemy, since Gina constantly needed something to fight against, was herself.

The knock on the door rescued her from her troubled thoughts.

“Come in,” she said, standing up and straightening her clothes.

Stephen stuck his head in the door. “Did I wake you?”

Gina relaxed and sat back down on her cot. “No, of course not. Sleep’s not a big fan of mine these days. Come in.” She motioned toward the fold-up chair.

Stephen entered the store room and closed the door behind him. He sat down in the chair and crossed his legs, trying to get comfortable in the squeaky seat. After shifting around a bit, he finally folded his hands across his lap and smiled at her.

Gina laughed at him. “You’re wound up awfully tight this evening… and you suck at hiding it.”

Stephen shook his head. “Yeah… I’d make a lousy poker player.”

Gina crossed her legs and scooted back against the wall. “So… two visits in a single day. What’s the occasion?”

“Can’t a friend just stop by and say ‘Hello’?” Stephen laughed.

Gina shook her head. “Normally, yes. But I know how damn busy you are. You should be sleeping.”

Stephen took a deep breath and sighed. “I can’t stall them anymore, Gina… not unless you defend yourself or give me anything I can tell the community to persuade them to change their minds.”

Gina gave her friend a deep smile. “I know. I love you for standing up for me, Stephen, I really do. But I think it’s time to face the inevitable.”

Stephen shook his head. “It doesn’t have to go down like this. I can talk to them, buy you some more time-”

“You and I both know that they were only waiting for my wounds to heal, or else I’d be gone already. It’s been three weeks–more than enough time to get my strength back.”

“Yeah, but, I… need your help. They all know that I’ve been picking your brain every night on tactical matters.” Stephen was desperately reaching. “I could tell them that your counsel is invaluable and that I need to keep you here to apprise me of what the world is like ‘out there’.”

Gina laughed. “You don’t need me anymore, Stephen. I’ve told you all I know. You’re doing just fine. In fact, you’re a far better leader than I ever was.”

“Don’t say that.”

“It’s true. Just look at how much you’ve accomplished already. You’ve brought these people together and are actually working ‘together’ to solve problems for the first time. I think you’re a natural.”

Stephen looked away.

“Oh, don’t do that,” Gina pushed. “Look, I’ve had nothing but time in here to think about everything. I’ve examined and re-examined my own actions so damn much that I can hardly stand myself any longer. But when I look at you, and what you’re building, I take some comfort in knowing that I helped get you here. That gives me hope.”

“You did a whole hell of a lot more than just ‘get me here’, Gina. These people don’t know– they will never know– how much you sacrificed to get all of us here. I was there and I remember.”

They exchanged smiles followed by a moment of nostalgic silence like two old veterans of the apocalypse.

Gina finally said, “I thought about what you said to the community–about needing more than just surviving in this horrific world, and you were right. The best I could do was try to keep everyone safe by hiding them beneath this rock… and it wasn’t enough. But you, you’re going to lead them into living again. That’s important… that’s everything.” Gina looked away in shame. “I couldn’t do that. Hell, I can’t even figure out how to live with myself.”

“You did just fine, Gina. We’ve all made mistakes. But I remember when we were out on the open road, running for our lives. It was your strength that helped us get here.”

Gina nodded, wiping tears from her eyes. “My… mistakes… are inexcusable. I justified anything and everything in the name of ‘survival’… and became a murderer.”

Stephen didn’t know what to say.

“Remember those snipers who killed Greg?”

Stephen nodded.

“You and Meredith were the only ones who saw the evil in what we were doing. That was my decision… and I crossed the line.”

“But you were just defending us,” Stephen said. “They fired first and-”

“They were kids, Stephen,” Gina said, looking up, her eyes haunted by memories. “We killed a few misguided teens who had been brainwashed by that Donovan asshole. I didn’t even take a second to consider my actions. I saw red and wanted blood. I would’ve shot that pregnant girl, Megan, too, if Frank hadn’t been there to stop me. That’s why I left you all in Andover and tried to save her… and save myself.”

Stephen had never heard Gina admit that before. Frank had never spoken of it.

Gina looked away. “I’m going to tell you the most important thing I’ve learned about being a leader, Stephen. And you will have to learn it, too… or it will destroy you.”

Stephen waited.

Gina looked up. “When you lose people, and you will, you’ll have to find some way to live with it and move on. If you don’t, it will infect your heart, turn it black, until you’re either drowning in guilt… or you shut down completely and become cold… as I did.” She took a deep breath. “Promise me, Stephen, that you will never do what I did. Learn from my example. Find a way to accept responsibility for the people who die under your command… but don’t die with them.”

Stephen nodded. He thought about Nicole and how much he’d suffered after killing her.

Gina could see it. She reached over and took his trembling hands in hers. “It made you stronger… even if you don’t understand it.”

“What was that?”

“Amanda’s daughter,” she said. Gina was stunned when Stephen had announced Nicole’s death to the community. Since then, she’d connected most of the dots and Stephen had told her the rest on his daily visits to her cell. “I never had a clue what was happening with you and Amanda. That had to be hell keeping the truth from her all that time.”

“I wanted to tell her… but I was a coward,” Stephen said. “Amanda found out anyway and tried to kill me in Jefferson… but she saved me instead.” He’d told Gina about Nicole’s diary, and why he’d kept it–the guilt and the peace it gave him reading her words. Gina hadn’t judged him. She’d listened patiently as he’d told her about the pain and the eventual confrontation with Amanda when she’d somehow acquired the diary. She’s sensed that there was more, but she didn’t press. Stephen refused to tell her about his visits with Nicole since her death… and how much he loved the dead girl. Some things were just not meant to be shared with the living.

“But she did find out,” Gina said. “And it must have given Amanda some closure before the end… you know… just to discover what finally happened to her daughter.”

Stephen looked at his shoes and nodded.

“And then she saved you… hell… probably saved herself, too. We all know how much Amanda struggled to get free of the bottle. Amanda died a hero. That’s says a lot these days. How many of us can claim that?”

Stephen looked up.

Gina smiled. “Point is, you’ve suffered enough over that’s girl’s death, and it’s made you the person you are today. In a twisted sense, Nicole’s death probably saved you and Amanda both.”

“I never thought of it that way,” Stephen said. “You’re right, though. Nicole did save me… a part of her has remained with me all this time.” He had to stop there before he said too much. Stephen straightened himself in the chair and said, “I promise, Gina. I won’t let the guilt win. I’ve learned that much… from Nicole.”

Gina smiled and squeezed his hands before letting go and leaning back against the wall.

“Now, promise me something.”

“If I can,” she said.

Stephen continued. “I know you’re in a dark place, but you’re the strongest person I know. I’ve seen it. Promise me that you won’t give up. Keep fighting, Gina.”

Gina looked up and flashed a familiar defiant smile. “Fighting is the one thing I’m good at. I promise.”

Stephen laughed, reached over, and gave Gina a hug.

She could feel her walls tumbling the longer her emotions were exposed. Damn you, Stephen! I can’t let you break me… not now. This dark bitch is the only thing keeping me alive. She pulled away with a smile, quickly drying her eyes with the back of her hand.

Stephen freely let his own tears fall.

“Get it together, you big baby,” Gina teased. “You can’t let your people see you crying over a prisoner.”

“I’ll get them to change their minds,” Stephen said. “Just help me, help you… please.”

Gina smiled at her old friend. “You’ve already helped me, Stephen. Now get out of here and let me have one more good night of sleep under a roof.” She stood up before he could protest further.

Stephen nodded, standing. “Well, I’ll see you tomorrow then.”

She nodded. “Goodnight, Stephen. Thanks for always believing in me… it means a lot.”

Stephen smiled. “Just say the word. I’ll go grab the others and we’ll head back out, like the old days when…” He stopped abruptly realizing that besides the two of them, Meredith was the last of their original group.

Gina could see it in his eyes. She touched his cheek and said, “We’ve made it this far… but the cost was too high. I think about that every day. And that’s my burden to bear.”

Stephen frowned. “And now I’m losing you, too.”

“I’m already lost. But I promise… I’ll try to find my way again.” She smiled. “This is for the best. I can’t be here anymore. Not now.”

“And what about, Tony?”

She couldn’t–wouldn’t–talk about that.

Gina forced a smile. “Goodnight, Stephen.”

Sensing he’d crossed a line, Stephen nodded. “Goodnight… and… sorry.”

She nodded and walked him to the door.

Stephen gave her a final smile and exited.

When she was alone again, Gina fought the urge to rip her hair out and scream. She collapsed against the back of the door, rolled her knees up to her chest, and reached down deep into the darkness, until the assault of raw emotions were once again safely submerged beneath a calm, black sea.

~~~

It was the longest night of her life. Gina desperately needed sleep, but every time her eyes closed she dreamt of the monster who hunted down her friends and butchered them while she watched helplessly. In every nightmare, the beast arrived unexpectedly, always flashing its devious smile at her while she tried to shout… tried to move toward them… to protect them… but failed. In every dark and disturbing scene, the dead thing with hate-filled yellow fire for eyes, ripped them apart and devoured them–Stephen, Diane, Nine, Meredith… Tony. At the end of each dream, Gina woke violently from her cot, sweaty, gasping for air, as the monster would turn toward her after each slaughter, its pale and bloody face void of compassion, numb to its own sickening need to feed, and then it would crawl toward her–laughing–its long red hair drenched in blood as Gina realized that she was the monster.

The light knock at her door caused her to jump.

Is it time already? she thought, dreading the coming day. It felt too early for morning, but then again, day and night lost all meaning down here, regulated only by the automated lights set to perform the illusion.

Gina got out of her cot with relief, ran her hands through her hair, and took a long deep breath to steady her nerves. Let’s get this over with. The sooner they’re all rid of me the better. As she approached the door, she put her head down to avoid catching a glimpse of her wretched self in the small mirror on the wall. She opened the door and froze.

Meredith was standing there with a medical bag held protectively across her chest. She immediately frowned when she saw the scowl on Gina’s face. “You don’t have to say anything,” she quickly said. “I’m here to change your bandages and check on your wounds… as ordered. Dr. Cooper couldn’t make it today.” After taking a deep breath and looking away, Meredith finished, “May I… come in?”

Gina was too much in shock by the appearance of her old friend to let the useless anger take over. She hadn’t seen Meredith in months but the older woman looked like she’d aged ten years. Before a fresh wave of erratic emotions overwhelmed her, Gina closed her eyes, turned and left the door open as she walked back to her cot.

“I’ll take that as a ‘yes’,” Meredith said raising her eyebrows. She entered the room and closed the door behind her.

Gina sat down on the edge of her cot like a good patient and stared at her feet.

Meredith sat down in the fold-up chair and dropped the medical bag in front of her. She opened the bag and cleared her throat. “So… I guess we should just start. Are you experiencing any new pain from-”

“You shouldn’t be here,” Gina cut in, refusing to look at the woman.

Meredith stopped and took another breath. She leaned back in her chair, folded her arms across her chest, and stared at her. To her, the once fiery redhead looked exhausted–‘faded’ was a better word. Gina looked like a worn-out, spread-thin version of her former self. “Well… you shouldn’t be here either,” she snapped back, surprising herself.

Gina looked up and was surprised to find anger in her former friend’s eyes.

“I’m sitting here, trying my best not to get emotional,” Meredith said. “Part of me wants to reach over and hold you in my arms and never let go while I cry like the foolish woman that I am.”

Gina said nothing.

“Another part of me wants to come over there and punch your lights out!” Meredith’s voice cracked a little as she tried to keep control, quickly wiping a tear from her eye.

Gina smiled at the frustrated woman, and let out a nervous laugh. “‘Punch your lights out’?” she said. “Did you really just say that?”

Meredith let out a nervous giggle and then covered her mouth. “I… I guess I did just say that.”

Gina felt tears fill her eyes as she stared at Meredith. She was losing control, and for once, it wasn’t a bad thing.

“I’m sorry,” Gina said, the words spewing forth from a vulnerable place she hadn’t felt in… well… forever. “I’ve been such a horrible bitch to you… and you almost died… and I’ve been… so angry… and I almost lost you…”

Meredith was there immediately, sitting beside her friend, her arms wrapped around her like a warm blanket in the middle of an emotional blizzard.

Gina turned in toward Meredith’s shoulder and buried her face there. She started to sob and fiercely embraced her friend, feeling all of it… the pain, the regret, the incredible loneliness… the love.

Meredith held her and refused to let go. She was smiling and crying and laughing. “You just… you just let those tears come, honey. Meredith’s here now. Just let them come… let those refreshing drops of gold fall.”

Gina pulled back to look into her friend’s face. She put a hand along Meredith’s tear-streaked cheek, savoring that precious smile, and said, “I’ve needed you for so long. I’ve been so lost… and cold… like you tried to warn me about. I don’t know what to do? I’ve done so many horrible things…”

Meredith nodded, and gently brushed back Gina’s hair from her face. “I know, honey. I know. But the fact that you see it now, too… that means something. That means everything. It’s going to be alright, now.”

“It’s too late. I’ve done things that can’t be undone. And now I have to leave.” Gina gently pulled free and reached out for Meredith’s hand.

The older woman held it and tried to regain her composure. “We’ll work this out. I’ll… I’ll talk to Stephen and we’ll find a way to-”

“I have to leave, Meredith.”

Meredith looked into those beautiful green pools and saw so much deep sadness. “No. That won’t happen. It can’t.”

“It’s the price for my crimes… and they are… crimes. I’ve murdered people. I’ve hurt the ones I care about. I’ve lost… my self-respect. I wouldn’t stay even if I could. I can’t look at them. I can’t look into all their faces knowing what I’ve done to them, seeing it reflected back at me in their eyes.”

Meredith opened her mouth to protest, but didn’t know what to say. Finally she said, “Well… then I’ll come with you.”

Gina smiled. “You would, too. But I can’t allow that. You’re too precious to me and I won’t allow anyone I love to suffer for my sins. I’ve done enough damage.” She finished, “I need to go away, as much as this community needs to see me leave. For now, anyway. I need to figure it all out… and find my way back, if that’s possible.”

Meredith shook her head. “But… where will you go? What will you do? You’ll be all alone! None of us can make it alone.”

“I’ll be okay. I’ll find a place, a safe place. I need to do this, Meredith.”

Meredith started to cry again. “But I just got you back! Oh, you can’t leave me now… please… stay with us.”

“It’s not up to me,” Gina said. “Stephen’s tried, but I won’t help him. I don’t deserve to be here, and until I do, I need to go away. That’s it.”

Meredith stared long and hard. She could tell that there was nothing she could say to persuade Gina to change her mind. She was decided. “Then… you go do what you have to do. But you come back. Are you hearing me? If you don’t, I’ll hunt you down and drag you back here. Are we clear?”

Gina laughed. “Very clear. Now, let’s stop wasting what time we have left and why don’t you tell me what’s been happening with you. We have some catching up to do.”

Meredith laughed. “That’s an understatement.” She rose to her feet, getting excited. “Well, let’s start with some really good news for a change. Something I know will make you feel better about ending up here in the first place.”

“Did that persistent doctor finally wear you down?” Gina said with a wink.

Meredith looked flustered. “What? Oh… no… I wasn’t talking about that.”

“You sure?” Gina pressed. “You do have a certain ‘glow’ about you that I don’t remember.”

“Well… sure… Cooper’s been a great help… and a dear friend. But-”

“I bet he has.”

Meredith put her arms to her hips and gave Gina a playful scowl. “Now you just stop teasing me, Miss Matchmaker, or I won’t tell you the great news.”

Gina leaned back with a laugh. “Okay, okay. I haven’t seen you this excited since we found that disgusting boxcar in the woods. Must be good.”

“Better,” Meredith said. She started to pace. Finally she stopped, placed her hands over her mouth and stared at Gina.

“Just tell me already,” Gina laughed.

“It’s about Megan!”

Gina’s smile quickly faded.

“She’s coming back to us, Gina! After all this time… she’s finally coming back.”

“What does that even mean?”

Meredith knelt down beside her and whispered, “As you probably heard, three weeks ago she started speaking again… just an occasional word or two… but now it’s so much more.”

Gina felt like throwing up. She was immediately reminded of the sick man she’d met on the boat a thousand years ago–the grey-eyed crazy man who kept his infected daughter locked up in the ship’s cabin. And then she remembered the fanatic, Ezekiel, from Harpersfield.

Meredith saw the look in Gina’s eyes. “No, it’s not like that, Gina. She’s really coming back. Megan’s starting to remember.”

“Remember?”

Meredith smiled. “Megan’s starting to remember who she is again. She’s asking questions and actually starting to communicate with us.”

“You mean… who she was,” Gina corrected.

Meredith gave her a confused look.

Gina tried to be sensitive to her friend’s optimism, but nothing could change the truth. “Meredith, I’m excited to hear the news… really… I am. But you still have to remember that Megan will never be the same person again.”

“I don’t believe that,” Meredith became defensive. “You haven’t seen the progress she’s made… you haven’t seen how far she’s come from that savage animal she once was. I’m telling you, Gina, Megan’s fighting… and she’s coming back to us.”

“But, Meredith,” Gina said, “she’s still dead.”

~~~

The morning was surprisingly warm. It felt good to be back outside and away from the gloomy underground facility. Gina stared up at the trees. She could see new leaves beginning to reveal themselves on what was left of the Wasteland woods which that hadn’t been scorched by the bomb.

A warm breeze struck her face. Gina closed her eyes and breathed in deep. They need this, she thought. All of them need this. Winter’s been a brutal bitch.

Stephen stepped over beside her and brought her back to reality. “It’s time, Gina.” He paused with a heavy sigh and finished, “I have to make this official.”

She looked at her old friend and smiled. “I’ll be okay, Stephen. This is not your fault. Let’s get this over with.”

Stephen nodded.

They turned together.

They were standing in a small clearing near the narrow pass that led up to the topside entrance into the compound. All the representatives of the various committees that Stephen helped to form were in attendance, as well as Logan, Diane, Nine… and Tony. In Meredith’s stead, Dr. Cooper was there with an apologetic look on his face. They’d said their goodbyes in the cell, Meredith explaining that she didn’t trust herself to go topside right now. Gina was grateful that her old friend wasn’t there, believing Meredith would be balling by now… as would she if Gina had to see it. There were also two armed guards standing on either side of Gina and Stephen, reminding Gina of her prisoner status.

Everyone was there to bear witness to Gina’s punishment. They stood in a half-circle before her as Gina refused to stare into their eyes for too long.

“I really hate my job today,” Stephen muttered under his breath for only Gina to hear.

She smiled nervously and stared at her feet.

Stephen cleared his throat and stepped forward, placing his hands behind his back to hide his shot nerves. “We are all gathered here today to carry out sentencing for Gina Melborn, guilty of murdering two of our own.” He paused and took a deep breath. “As your leader, it is my responsibility to guide us toward the future… and a future without justice, without holding one accountable for crimes committed against us… is a future without law and order where chaos prevails. We can’t have that if we want to move forward and reclaim our civilized lives.” He turned to face Gina, trying to hide his pain, as he performed his duty. “Gina Melborn, do you have any final words in your defense before the community passes sentence?”

Gina looked up and met Stephen’s pleading gaze. Sorry, Stephen, she thought. I’m so sorry you had to be the one to do this. She smiled briefly for his benefit and then her face turned to stone. “No, I have nothing to say in my defense. I plead guilty to the charges.”

Stephen was clearly disappointed. He turned back to the community and said, “Does anyone have anything they want to add before sentencing?”

“Yeah!” Nine shouted, while Diane tried to calm him down. “This is all bullshit! Gina deserves better than this!”

No one said a word.

Stephen had made it clear an hour before sentencing that there would be no time for goodbyes once the deed was done. Gina had caught them in the hall, saying her goodbyes to Nine and Diane before exiting. Diane had told her to stay strong, and in a rare display of emotion from the hunter, Diane had embraced her. Nine had been an emotional wreck telling her that he felt like he was losing his big sister. Gina had consoled him as best she could without losing it herself, until Diane had taken over and pulled the distraught teen away. Gina had watched them depart down the hall with a smile, watching the young couple hold each other close. They love each other… very much, she’d thought, taking some comfort in that. She’d looked for Tony then. But he hadn’t come to say goodbye.

Nine caught Gina’s pleading stare and regained control. “That’s all I wanted to say,” he finished, stepping back into the crowd.

Gina dared a glance at Tony.

He refused to look at her.

He looks terrible, she thought, noticing his frail frame. Tony looked like he hadn’t eaten in days. He was clearly in pain and exhausted. They’ve all been hiding the truth from me. He’s hurting… bad. She forced herself to look away before her emotions overwhelmed her.

Stephen turned back to Gina. “Gina Melborn,” he said, trying to sound as official as he could, despite his own emotional turmoil. “It has been decided that you are to be… exiled… immediately for your crimes. From this day forth, you are no longer a member of our community.” He forced himself to spew out the rest. “If you are seen here again, for any reason, you will be arrested as an enemy and dealt with as such. We have provided you with a pack of provisions to see you on your way… but you are never to return to these woods. Do you understand the terms of your punishment?”

The word struck her harder than she expected:

Exiled.

For the first time, the gravity of her situation was finally taking hold. I’ll never see any of them again. I will be… alone.

“Do you understand the terms of your punishment?” Stephen repeated.

She couldn’t look at him… any of them… without bursting into tears. “Yes,” she finally said. “I… I understand.”

“Goodbye, Gina… and good luck,” Stephen said. He turned away before he lost his composure and joined the community.

One of the guards dropped a backpack by her feet and then they stepped away from her and also joined the others, making her feel completely naked, standing there alone.

They all turned and started back up the path toward the compound entrance.

Gina refused to look up, refused to move until they were all gone. She closed her eyes tight and listened to their shuffling feet, wondering if this was the last time she’d ever hear sounds of the living again. If I watch them leave… I’ll lose it. Have to stay strong now. I have to get through this and move on… somehow.

When all she could hear was the lonely sound of the wind blowing through the trees, she finally opened her eyes. For a moment, she saw Tony standing there to greet her with open arms. But then realized her longing had created a momentary mirage out of the tree she focused on.

Her heart sank immediately. I am alone. She quickly wiped fresh tears from her eyes and grabbed the pack by her feet. I need to get the fuck out of here before I die right here! She strapped on the pack, turned, and stopped, staring into the ominous forest before her. Where do I go? She had not considered this until now.

Unable to shake Tony from her tortured thoughts, she remembered him telling her of his original route into the wilderness preserve, and how he came in from the west and followed the river in. She decided to start there.

As she neared the river, she remembered that hellish winter night when she’d escorted Tyler and Brannigan out here to die… by her hand. It’s fitting that I’m wearing their shoes now. Were they as terrified by the prospect of being exiled as I am now? I didn’t even give them a chance. Her shame was immediate. She fought it off as best she could.

Gina reached the bank of the river and felt better. The ice was almost gone. She watched the vibrant rush of the river downstream and started to turn west. She stopped and looked across the river, to the north. That’s where I ordered them to go. Made them piss their pants with ghost stories of the Shadow Dead out there to the north until I knew they’d fight me… and fight for their lives… giving me an excuse to murder them. Gina saw a narrow gap in the stream where she could cross. That’s where I belong. Go north, Gina. Find your fucking Shadow Dead, or wait until they find you… if they’re even still out there at all. That’s what you really deserve. She shook off her dark thoughts and realized that even she was too cowardly to face that fate… alone. Hell, stay out here long enough, maybe you’ll be just like them. Maybe you are what’s left of the Shadow Dead for as brutal as you’ve become. She shook her head and spoke out loud to the river. “No. I’m not that far gone… yet.” She continued to stare across the river into the northern woods, half expecting all the ghosts from the people she’d slain, living or dead, to step out of the trees and come for her. She shivered at the thought, turning her back toward the haunted forest.

“I had a feeling you’d come this way.”

Gina nearly fell back into the river when she looked up and saw Tony standing in front of her. For a moment, she simply stared at the ragged looking man she loved, not believing he was there at all.

“Are… are you real?” she finally said.

Tony stepped up, unslinging a pack from his shoulder. “I had to leave quickly and take over the perimeter patrol in order to get these and catch up to you in time.” He crouched down and opened the large pack revealing a shotgun, three handguns and extra ammunition. “The perks of being in charge of security now,” he said with a half-hearted smile. “I wasn’t going to let them send you away unarmed.”

Gina continued to stare at him. She crossed her arms across her chest, struggling for words.

Tony looked down at the pack. “I tried to get what I could from the armory. Hope this is…” He stopped. Tony’s shoulders fell as he took a deep breath, trying to maintain control. The big man started to weep. “What have I done, Gina? I didn’t want this to happen… please… can you forgive me?” He finally looked up into her eyes. Tony had the eyes of a man who had spent the last several weeks punishing himself for turning her in. “I had to stop you. I didn’t know how else to do it. I knew what you did… what you were about to do… again. They would’ve killed you… or you would’ve killed everyone. So I… stopped you.”

Gina put her hands to her face and let out an agonizing sob. Her feet gave way beneath her as she fell to her knees in front of him. “Forgive you?” she sobbed. “My God, Tony. You didn’t do anything… I did it… I killed those men… I had no idea that you knew… that you… always knew. I love you… and I put you through so much misery… covering for my fucking sins!”

“I don’t care what you did,” he said. “Not anymore. I can’t lose you like this… I won’t. I never should have turned on you… and put you in this position… I’m so fucking sorry.”

Gina reached for him, grabbed his face gently in her hands, and said, “There’s nothing to forgive, Tony. You’re a good and decent man. This was something you never should’ve had to handle… to hide… for me. I did this. I killed people and justified it. And I was so fucking wrong! You did the right thing… the only thing. And I’m grateful that you did it… really.”

Tony tried to speak through tears.

She reached over and embraced him fiercely.

“I forgive you, Tony,” she whispered in his ear. “Not because you did anything… but because you need to hear it. You need to stop this now. Take care of yourself… for me. I can’t bear to see you like this. I won’t make it out there if I know you’re in pain. Please… promise me, you’ll take care of yourself.”

“I… I promise,” he said.

“You know I have to go.”

“I know,” he said.

“And you know I can’t allow you to come with me.”

She felt him tighten up and then he finally relaxed. “I know.”

She smiled and looked into his eyes. “I’ll get better… I’ll… figure this out. When I do… when I can stand to look at myself in the mirror again… I’ll come back for you… okay?”

“They won’t let you come back. So… I’ll leave… I don’t care,” he said. “You just go and work it out and I’ll be waiting. I’ll come here every day, to the river, and when you’re ready, you just meet me here and we’ll go. Fuck everything else.”

“I don’t know how long, Tony,” she said. “I’m pretty fucked up. But I will find you… okay?”

“Okay,” he tried to regain control, breaking free of her embrace. “Okay. I get it. If you get lost out there, you go find Orosco. They’ll take you in and you can contact me that way. Just… just don’t be alone too long. That’s not going to help.”

She gave him a puzzled look. “Orosco?”

“I left a map in the pack. He told me where he was going when he left… when he asked me to come. I know where it is and I put it on the map. Just go find him and heal. They don’t have to know about any of this.”

“Okay,” she said. “If it gets too rough out there… I’ll go find Orosco. Just don’t go chasing after me and get yourself killed. I need you to be here… to be alive… when I’m ready to come back. You’re the only good thing in my life and I need you.”

He nodded. “I’ve waited this long. I can wait a bit longer.”

She got up and wiped the tears away. “Thanks for coming… and for the weapons.”

He shrugged it off. “Just stay safe, Gina. I love you too damn much to see you like this… just… just work it out and come home to me.”

“I will,” she said with a smile. “Now get out of here before I can’t leave.”

He stood up and looked west along the river. “Where do you think you’ll go?”

“Anywhere… Everywhere!” she said. “Maybe I’ll find a cozy little cabin and just sleep in for the next hundred years.”

Tony smiled. “Sounds lovely. You find that cabin and come get me.”

“You got it.”

“All you ever had to do was ask,” he said.

“What was that?”

“When we were at Herpies. Your dream of running away with me… If you’d asked… I would’ve gone. It was a good dream.”

She laughed through tears and said, “Yeah… maybe it was.”

“It still can be,” he said. “Someday.”

“Someday it is, then,” she finished. Gina put on her pack.

Tony handed her the weapons pack and kissed her passionately. When he finished, he said, “All of this, all of this darkness will pass and we’ll go follow that dream. Just you and I. Hold on to that and we’ll get there… okay?”

“Deal,” she said. “Now let me go before we end up getting naughty on the forest floor.”

Tony laughed. “Agreed. I don’t think either of us are up to that right now.”

She pointed in his face. “Yeah… but it’s gonna happen next time I see you… so work on that stamina.”

“You got it. I love you, Gina. Always.”

She smiled and grazed his cheek with her hand. “And I love you. See you soon.”

“See you soon.” Tony stepped back and nodded. He turned without another word, allowing Gina a chance to do the same.

She started west along the river, praying that Tony would not follow. She didn’t think she could keep lying for much longer about coming back. “I love you, Tony, with all my heart,” she whispered to herself. “But I won’t share this darkness with you any longer. It’s a part of me now… and you deserve better than that.”

She continued following the river, another Wasteland phantom disappearing into the wilderness.

~~~

Next Episode 38-3

Previous Episode 38-1

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 38-2: 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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Comments
  1. nashmcgowan says:

    Really good chapter.

    Like

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