~~~

Stephen sat at the control room console, half-heartedly listening to the radio static on low volume. Part of him hoped he would hear Gina’s voice on the air so he could answer up and tell her to come back and that this whole nasty affair of exiling their former leader could be remedied. “It was all just a big misunderstanding… one whopper of a mistake,” he whispered to the silence.

After this morning, Stephen had diplomatically tried to distance himself as much as he could from the community, feeling like he’d had to perform their dirty work. He knew it wasn’t their fault, but he couldn’t help feeling anger toward them. He may have been their newly elected leader, but Gina was his friend. He’d spent the remainder of the day dodging the endless gripes and concerns of his people, wanting only time to process and accept what he’d done… what he’d had to do. A one point he’d hidden in Gina’s storeroom cell, sitting on her cot, and reminiscing on their early days together. Logan was a big help, sensing Stephen’s inner turmoil, as he’d tried to keep the community distracted while addressing all their constant wants and needs directly, allowing Stephen a reprieve.

Now, with another long day put to rest, Stephen was able to escape to the one place within the compound that very few people felt comfortable; the one place where he had found solace in the company of his imaginary relationship in a room full of ghosts where the walls still told frightening stories of days few people wanted to remember.

“I miss you, Nicole,” he said, hoping another return visit to their familiar hideaway would bring her back. It had been weeks since he’d seen her, and now, with another one of his friends gone, Stephen only felt the amplified loneliness which remained. “I’m sorry that I hurt you… that I scared you away. But if you’re still out there… please come back to me… please.” He leaned forward on the console and put his head in his hands, allowing himself a vulnerable moment to silently weep. “Some leader I’m turning out to be,” he laughed. “I bet Gina never spent her evenings wallowing in self-pity.” He knew he had to move on, but tonight, for one damn evening, he would allow the grief to stay. Tomorrow, he would ‘man up’ and move forward.

“Stephen… I’m here.” Nicole’s voice was like a soothing salve over his heart.

He turned to his left and saw the beautiful brown-haired woman sitting as close to him as the confines of their limited physical relationship would allow. Her hair was tied back. She was dressed in a black blazer and slacks, almost as if she’d just come back from a business meeting… or a funeral. She looked much paler than he remembered–more dead than alive. She had dark circles around her eyes caused by lack of sleep and too many tears. Her long frown was etched in place.

“It’s good to see you,” he said, dismissing her grim appearance. “I thought I’d lost you.”

At last, she smiled. It warmed his heart immediately. “I couldn’t stay away,” she said. “I tried… but you’ve been in so much pain… I had to come back.”

Stephen sat up. He wanted to reach over and embrace her. “Why did you leave? I never wanted you to go.”

She gave him a thoughtful look. “When you gave that speech, I felt like you were trying to bury me… bury us… and move on. I thought I was holding you back from what you really wanted. So I stayed away. But I’ve always been here, watching from a distance. At first, I didn’t understand. Then I realized that I couldn’t leave because of you… you wouldn’t let me go.”

Stephen shook his head. “When I thought you were gone, I threw myself into this role of leadership… tried to stop thinking about you. I had to. I forced myself to stay busy… distracted… because you were always there with me when I was alone. I could hardly stand it.”

“I know,” she smiled. “God… I know. I could feel it.”

“Then… why?”

Nicole looked away. “I was… angry. Angry that I couldn’t leave. Angry that you sent me away. Angry that I couldn’t be the woman you needed me to be… that we couldn’t make love or even touch each other. I… wanted to hurt you. But I was only hurting myself. I felt betrayed. And then I felt that I betrayed you, too.”

“I love you,” he said through tears. “To hell with what happened before. I was angry at first. But when you left- I was wrong for being mad at you. I understand now that you were just trying to spare me from Lannister’s mess… that you wanted me to go away with you.”

Nicole started to cry. She nodded fiercely and said, “Yes… that was… everything. I regret what I did… how I kept things from you… but I was greedy. I wanted you to myself. I wanted us to be free of all this… chaos. And you promised we would leave…”

Stephen moved in closer. He wanted to kiss her. “I know I disappointed you. But now, I intend to fulfill that promise.”

Nicole’s eyes lit up briefly. “But… you… you’re their leader now. How can you-”

“We’re getting out of here, Nicole.” He longed for her in that moment more than he longed for anything.

Suddenly, her appearance changed. She was no longer dressed in mourning. Her hair flowed wildly down her bare shoulders as she looked down to find herself dressed in revealing black lingerie, her chest barely contained within the tight confines of a transparent brassiere. Her loins were on fire as she knew that she’d be completely naked next. He’d never allowed her to appear before him in such a seductive fashion. He was literally undressing her with his eyes.

She stood up and backed away, feeling the intensity of his gaze, the desire for her physically was too much for her to bear. She wanted him as much as he wanted her and she felt like she would implode if she didn’t reclaim control and cool down. “Wait!” she said, cupping her hands over her now bare breasts. “Stop, Stephen! You know we can’t do… this!”

He stood up and took a step closer before realizing what was happening. “Shit! Did… did I do that?”

Immediately, Nicole’s appearance changed. She was now wearing a conservative blue sundress. She looked flush in the face and tried to steady her breathing. She turned away and said, “I can’t be that for you. As much as I want it to happen.”

“I’m sorry,” he muttered. “You’re right. Shit… what was I thinking?”

“I think that’s obvious,” she laughed, trying to disarm the moment.

Stephen averted his eyes and laughed. “Wow,” was all he could say. “I guess I really missed you.”

She turned and walked toward him, now that the fire was dying out. “It’s… okay. I just don’t want you to be disappointed.”

He gave her a serious look. “You could never disappoint me. I love you, Nicole.”

“And I, you, my love, but look at us? We can’t ‘do’ that… and I know how badly you desire it.”

“Forgive me,” he said. “I was… overwhelmed. I saw you again and just forgot about all those limitations. It’s okay. Now that you’re back, it doesn’t matter.”

“But it does, Stephen,” she said in frustration. “It always will. When we leave here, it might be alright for a
little while, but then something like this will happen… again. You’ll long to touch me… and can’t.”

“But-”

“Hear me out.” She started pacing. “You’ll want… need to reach out to me… physically… and I’m afraid that when you do, when you won’t be able to stop yourself, I’ll simply disappear… and that’s the moment I’ll become less real to you. And the more it happens, the more I’ll become less. Then you’ll meet a real woman someday, like that bitch, Olivia, and I’ll simply fade out of existence.”

“Olivia? What does she have to do with anything?”

“Doesn’t matter! You’re not hearing me!” She walked up close to Stephen, leaned in until their noses nearly touched, and said, “This is it. This is as close as we can be. You want to touch me now, I know you do… but you can’t. And that’s it!”

Stephen smiled. “It’s enough.”

“Really?”

“Yes,” he said confidently. “I’ve been a mess without you. I’d accept all these… sexual frustration moments… over your absence. I’ve missed you that much. I miss our times together… our talks… that’s the intimacy that makes us… us.”

Nicole let out a heavy sigh and relaxed. She shook her head and said, “You drive me insane, Stephen Eddington. You know just what to say when I’m being so… dramatic.”

“Even though I can’t hold you right now, in my heart, I know we both feel that embrace. And that for me, is as real as the physical. People spend their entire lives in a ‘physical’ relationship and never get any closer to real love. But you and I, we’ve crossed that barrier long ago.”

Her face lit up and she started to weep.

He loved her more in that moment than at any other time. “Don’t you feel it?”

“Yes,” she admitted. “Yes… of course… you’re right. I’ve been behaving foolishly.”

“We’re leaving this place… together.”

She looked into his eyes and knew that he meant it. “I’m ready. When, my love?”

He stepped back and raised his arms excitedly. “I’m the leader now,” he said. “Everything’s already happening!”

Nicole looked confused. “What do you mean?”

“We’re all getting the hell out of this hole in the ground… together!”

Her face turned to stone. “When you say ‘we’ you mean the community?”

“Yes! Yes! It’s happening, Nicole! I’ve got them all on the same page and we’re going to relocate topside… find a new life… and live it!”

“But… what about us?”

“That’s what I’m talking about.” Stephen now looked confused. “Once we find a place to exist as a real society again, you and I will be free to be together. We’ll find us a nice, cozy home, away from the rest-”

“They will always need you,” she interrupted. “They will suck you dry with their constant demands for your time and protection, bombard you with their persistent whining and complaints until you’re so spread thin caring for these… these pathetic creatures… that I will wish them all dead after they’re finally done using you!”

Stephen was shocked speechless. It had been a long time since he’d seen her so angry. “How… how can you be so… selfish?”

“Selfish? Selfish!” she shouted. Nicole started pacing as her appearance began to change. “I’ve done nothing but wait patiently for these leeches to finally leave us alone and give us a moment’s peace!” She was now wearing jean shorts and a familiar ripped and bloody white tank top. “‘Help me, Stephen’,” she mocked in a whiny voice. She thought of Olivia and the others–every one of them she’d managed to convince that killing themselves was the solution. But every time she got rid of one, another creature would take its place. ‘Protect me from the big, bad monsters, Stephen’, ‘Hold me, Stephen, and tell me that everything will be alright and that I’m not a worthless little girl who’s afraid of her own fucking shadow’!”

Stephen took a step back as bloody scratches appeared on her legs arms and face. “Nicole… what are you doing?”

She couldn’t stop as the rage took over. “‘Save me, Stephen, fuck me, Stephen, blah, blah, blah…’ First, it’s your long suffering guilt; then your idol worship of that red-headed bitch; next, my insufferable mother; and now, all these needy, greedy babies that have to hold your hand to fucking breathe… and I’m the selfish one?”

“Nicole… stop this!” He watched as her face grew pale, her left eye suddenly sunk in, leaving a dark, empty pit where the eye used to be.

She turned away from him and tried to regain control… unsuccessfully. “You know what the worst thing is, my love? It’s not the sharing… hell… I understand all that. Who can compete with the living, especially when you’re just some dead girl with a god-damn crush that won’t go away! No… the worst thing is all that fucking down time I spend waiting for you to come to your senses and return to me! There’s nothing worse than being reminded of how fucking dead you are, and it really hits home when you’re ignored by the one you love! When you leave me and run to all of them… those fucking living, breathing pieces-of-shit who never thought highly of you until I made you strong! I sit around in the suffocating darkness, like some convenient little guidance counselor waiting for you to take me back out of that hellish closet where I can pretend to be special again. Because being special is the only consolation prize after the one you love sticks a fucking knife in your damn eye!” She whirled around to face him.

Stephen looked away from the ghastly apparition of Nicole, the knife sticking out of her left eye, completing the image of the woman he’d murdered long ago. “No! Don’t do this to me… not again!” He tripped over his chair and landed on the floor, hands raised defensively against a nightmare.

“How does this appearance suit you, my love? Can you still love me like this? If you want the real fucking deal… well… this is it, in all my last-fucking-breath glory! You remember me, like this, don’t you?”

“Stop it!”

“This is me, my love! This is the last time I had a real damn chance competing for your precious time! Hell, I was even flattered that you came to look for me that night at the school, when you still thought I was alive! Now that meant something!”

Stephen covered his face with his hands. He was sobbing as the monster ripped open the old wounds of guilt.

“Look at me!” she shouted. “Look at me and love me like this… if you can!”

Stephen shook his head.

“LOOK AT ME!”

He forced himself to look. Stephen fought off the urge to cringe and turn away. He understood this now, understood the face of his arch enemy… and had already defeated it. “I… I will love you… no matter what you do to me or how you choose to appear to me. But this… this is not you… this is all me… my guilt.”

“You promised!” she shouted. Nicole ripped the knife out of her eye and held it threateningly over him.

Stephen refused to look away. “I love you, Nicole… but I love them, too. I’m sorry you’re not alive… and I’m sorry I killed you… but I won’t abandon them… and no matter what this is, or what we are… I won’t abandon you, either. Hate me if you must, but this has to stop… right now. This is not you… this is me.”

Nicole hesitated, stared at the knife, and then dropped it. The shame was immediate. She remained in the bloody white tank top and jean shorts but the wounds on her flesh faded, her left eye returned, as did the color to her face, offering the illusion of alive. She was fighting the tempest within, but the sight of her love cowering on the floor was too much. “Stephen… I’m… so angry with you. I… I’m just so tired of waiting. I want us to leave together, just the two of us. I don’t understand why you won’t go away with me, right now.”

Stephen remained on the floor. He was emotionally and mentally drained. “Because in order to atone for my sins, I have to do my part, Nicole. I deserved to die that night at the school, not you. It was my life that was squandered and a mess before The Change, while yours was just beginning. I took that from you.”

“Then why do you take it from me now?” she asked. “You love me, and you owe me… but you won’t give me your whole heart. Is it because I’m dead?”

Stephen laughed at the irony. “No, my love. It’s because I’m alive. I’ve a debt to pay, for as long as I still draw breath.”

She shook her head. “That’s bullshit!”

“No, it’s the truth. I love a dead woman who I owe my life. Not a day goes by that I don’t realize how much your death and you staying with me, has saved me. But my life’s not worth anything to you or me if I don’t try to help as many people as I can. What kind of man would I be if I turned my back on the living, especially when there’s so few of us left? What would I possibly have left to give to you… to us… if allowed myself to die inside?”

Nicole turned away. “I fucking hate you sometimes, especially when you’re right.”

“We will have our time, Nicole… but I have to do this. I have to lead these people to safety and do my part. Only then will I feel worthy enough for your love. Can’t you see that?”

She turned and looked at him sadly. “You’ve always been worthy. It’s the world and those who still live in it that keep you from seeing yourself the way I see you.”

“I read your words… they were… inspiring,” he said. “I told myself that I would strive to be the man you wrote so fondly of. Everything I do now is toward that end.”

“Oh, so I have only myself to blame for not being able to have you all to myself? Just because I wrote that naïve shit in a diary?”

“In a way… yes.”

“Fuck you. We burned that damn book, remember?”

“Yes we did,” Stephen said. “We burned up that fictional man you dreamed up… and I’ve been striving to become the real thing for you ever since. So, in a way, I’m trying to be as ‘alive’ in the world your words created, as much as you are trying to be ‘alive’ in mine.”

“It’s not the same and you know it.”

“I know that I love you the best way I understand how. And I know that it’s real, just as I know your love for me is real. The rest will work itself out. We’ll find a way to breach the barriers together, because love doesn’t abide by any rules that bind the living or the dead. You know this. I know it.”

She turned. Her face was a mixture of longing and loathing. “I hate that I love you… right now, anyway,” she said and smiled.

He started to laugh uncontrollably.

“What’s so funny?”

“And here I was thinking I was the ‘intense’ one tonight.”

Her anger lifted as she caught the joke. Nicole’s face erupted with laughter. “Is this the part where I say, ‘Wow’?”

They both shared another round of laughter.

Stephen finally settled down, looked her in the eyes, and asked, “So, are you staying this time?”

She nodded. “Yes. And you’re not leaving?”

He nodded.

“Well, then there’s only one thing left to do… since you’re still lying there,” she said, raising her eyebrows.

Stephen raised his suspiciously. “What are thinking?”

“You said love doesn’t play by the rules… well… maybe we can make up a few of our own.”

“I’m listening.”

She let loose a wicked smile. “Take your pants off.”

“Excuse me?”

“I’m feeling like we wasted an opportunity earlier to get a little… creative… in the physical sense.”

“How so?”

She removed her tank top and then covered her breasts with a playful giggle. “The damn rules say we can’t touch each other, but I suspect we could get around that.”

~~~

After having the strangest five minutes of sex that never happened, Stephen and Nicole shared an awkward goodnight and he departed the control room. On his way to his bed, he tried to process the encounter, but all Stephen felt afterwards was emptiness, which led to shame. On one hand, it all felt so real… she was there… but ‘in’ the other hand… well… was their sexual experimentation any different from a perverse fantasy induced by a more elaborate version of porn? He felt foolish, regretting that they had tried to cheat the physical limitations of their relationship… and now, he felt they were something less because of it.

He shook off his dark thoughts, chalking it up to exhaustion. He didn’t bother undressing and simply crawled into his cot and closed his heavy eye lids…

~~~

…Nicole opened her eyes and wanted to scream. She got up from the cot and pushed Stephen’s tired flesh out of Cubicle City and down the silent halls until she reached the storeroom where her diary was hidden. She was grateful that she hadn’t seen anyone, too tired to pretend that she was him, too upset to patiently put up with all their constant demands.

FUCK ALL OF YOU! HE… IS… MINE!

Nicole retrieved the diary from her hiding place within the vent, sat down in the fold-up chair, and started scribbling frantically…

It didn’t work! What the hell was I thinking? What would my darling dead mother think of her pathetic dead daughter now, I wonder? I can already hear her mocking voice: “Look at you! Whoring yourself out like the sticky pages of a dirty magazine hidden under a teenage boy’s mattress! Did you really think you could get Stephen to love you by reducing yourself to that? PATHETIC!”…

Nicole threw the diary across the small space and let out a frustrated growl. She tried to calm down but she wanted to destroy something… she wanted to destroy all of these worthless, living, leeches who had become so fucking important that he wouldn’t leave them… that he couldn’t.

“He will never leave these maggots because they’re alive… and I’m not.” A deep, dark depression started to replace the anger. She hated herself. She hated them. She hated… him!

Nicole lifted Stephen’s arms and stared at his fragile flesh. I can do all this! But I can’t ever be… THIS! Not anymore… because I’m dead! She balled Stephen’s right hand into a fist and wanted to strike the nearest wall repeatedly until that fist turned into a bloody stump of blood and shattered bones. But she restrained herself. She knew that the pain she couldn’t feel in that hand would wake him up… and then what? What would become of them after that? If Stephen knew that she could control him while he slept… Nicole cringed at the thought.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said despondently. “I’m losing him. I’m losing him to the living. It’s just a matter of time and he’ll get tired of playing games with dead girls who can’t love… who can’t touch or even make love that isn’t something demeaning!” She started to weep with tears that weren’t even her own.

Pathetic.

She got up and retrieved the diary with borrowed hands and sat back down. She started writing again…

I love him. That much is real… that much is mine. But I don’t believe it’s enough. It will never be enough because, like me, my love is dead….

She stopped and stared at the words, feeling the cold truth sink in. She continued writing…

I believe him when he says that we’ll be together eventually. I believe he means that… right now. But I just don’t know what to do. What happens when we’re finally alone and forced to face the fact that we will never be able to be anything… real? What happens when we long for each other in the night and we can’t…

…TAKE IT! TAKE HIS FLESH AND DESTROY IT! IT’S NOT YOUR DEATH THAT KEEPS YOUR LOVE APART, IT’S HIS LIFE! SO TAKE IT… AND YOU WILL BE TOGETHER…

…touch each other? Do we simply let our passion burn away into the void between us and keep pretending that our relationship is without limits? What if there’s another way? Would I… would we… have the courage to take it that far for the sake of protecting our love?…

Nicole stopped writing. What was she thinking? No! I couldn’t! That would be… but… maybe it would solve all our problems. Wouldn’t it? She allowed the strange new idea, the horrible idea, to become tangible in her mind until it filled her with hope. She had no idea why it took her this long to see it… but now… it made sense. If she couldn’t be with Stephen, then perhaps he could be with her.

Could we love each other… in the dark place? Is that possible?

She lifted the pen to her eyes, studied the sharpness of the tip, knew immediately where to stick it in Stephen’s frail flesh, especially a certain artery in his neck that would cause him to bleed out quickly… with the least amount of pain.

Why not? If it meant that we could finally be together… then why the hell not? And… ‘they’ would never be able to reach him again! He would be exclusively… mine.

The more Nicole entertained the idea, the more it made sense. She’d been going about this all wrong from the start. Instead of convincing them, like Olivia and the others, into taking their own worthless lives, why not just take Stephen away from this horrible place.

Nicole placed the pen to Stephen’s throat. Her hand shook. She tried to keep it steady. She closed her eyes and tried not to imagine Stephen waking up from the pain as he bled out on the floor. He would call out, but he would be dead before anyone could save him. No. That wasn’t right. She was saving him. They would only be trying to keep him here, among the pending dead. “I do this… I do this for us, my love… so we can finally be together. I know you’ll understand. It doesn’t matter where we are… just as long as we can be-”

Someone was there, standing behind her. Nicole could immediately sense it. She lowered the pen and spun around.

“No!” she cried out. “You can’t be here!”

The apparition of Stephen Eddington, dressed all in black, stood before her. He was frowning at her. His intense eyes bore through stolen flesh, staring straight at her… nakedness… exposing what she really was, trapped in between Stephen’s body and his perceived form of Nicole Howard, when he was awake.

The Stephen apparition pointed toward the ground.

Nicole could feel it… she could feel what she was… the darkness, oh, that horrifying darkness, beneath the Stephen-shell she was currently losing control of, beneath the illusion of the dead girl that Stephen imagined her to be. She felt exposed–formless, black and empty…

“NO!” she shouted, backing away. “I won’t! I won’t accept that! I am not…THAT! Go away! You can’t be here! You’re not real!”

The Stephen-thing cocked its head to the side with an unreadable expression. It then pointed straight at her, like a sword piercing through all illusions.

Nicole backed away. It was happening again. She was staring to see it… see herself for what she truly was… and it was more than she could bear. “No! Go away! GO AWAY!” She closed her eyes and refused to look at him… at it. “I will open my eyes, and you will be gone! Do you hear me?”

The Stephen-thing did not respond. It never did.

Nicole waited. She retreated deeper into Stephen’s flesh, refusing to look at what the monstrous version of Stephen always tried to reveal, refused to accept any of it, until it all went away. She opened her eyes, knowing that it would be gone, and found herself staring into darkness.

She was no longer in Stephen’s flesh, no longer wearing Nicole’s mask…. She was surrounded by the black, cold place where she’d first come from… back to what she truly was.

“NOOOOOOO!” she cried out from the void. “You can’t keep me here! I won’t stay! I WON’T STAY!!!…

~~~

Stephen woke abruptly, lifting his head and banging it into the bottom of a metal fold-up chair. “Fuck!” he cried out, grabbing his forehead. He pushed the chair away, realizing that he wasn’t in his cot. He looked around at the unfamiliar room. “What the hell?” When his disorientation lifted, Stephen deduced that he was in one of the compound storerooms. He slowly got to his feet. “How did I get here?” Before he could consider this further, he felt a throbbing pain in his throat. He lifted a hand and wiped blood away from a small puncture wound. Fortunately, it wasn’t deep. He laughed uncomfortably and then noticed a red spiral notebook laying on the floor. Looking for any explanation he could find, or just waiting to wake up from this strange dream, Stephen bent down and retrieved the notebook. Written on the cover in neat black ink was a title. He read the words, and then dropped the notebook as if realizing he was holding a venomous snake for the first time.

“This isn’t happening,” he said, backing away from the notebook until he found the chair. He collapsed into it, continuing to stare at the notebook. “This is some fucked-up dream. Has to be.” But he knew it wasn’t. Stephen closed his eyes and tried to calm down. The words on the cover of the notebook were screaming in his head; the implications, too terrifying to consider:

A Higher Education: The Continuing Tales of My Rebirth

~~~

Next Episode 38-5

Previous Episode

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 38-4: 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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