~~~

It took Tony and Diane longer than expected to find the private drive, which led to a peninsula off the southern portion of Lake Pymatuning, where they had originally discovered the four large vacation homes that had gone unnoticed after the world went mad. Diane was the last to visit the lake before the winter, when she had left Frank Carman and Marcus behind, to retrieve their community, not yet split. That was back when Gina had seized the compound, deciding that it would be their new home. But that was months ago, and now, everything looked different… older. It was as if every month that passed since The Change, equaled a year out in places abandoned, where mother nature ruled with a vengeance and chose to wipe out all traces of mankind as fast as possible.

They found the private drive entrance by late morning, hidden behind overgrown weeds and vegetation. It hadn’t looked used in a long time.

“Orosco’s a clever man,” Tony reminded her. “He probably abandoned the roadway to help hide the camp.”

Diane wasn’t convinced, but said nothing.

They started up the small private drive, rounding a heavily wood bend, and came across a wall of fortified automobiles, parked sideways across the road, extending on both sides of the property to neatly block easy access into the peninsula. Each vehicle’s windows facing them were boarded up with thick plywood, with gun ports cut into them.

“Your man’s been busy,” Alysa remarked, admiring the vehicle blockade. “The plywood’s shit for stopping bullets, but effective for keeping the dead out… and adding a little concealment.”

Tony smiled at the largest vehicle, an old school bus, which must have served as the main gate since it was positioned just behind two other vehicles, allowing it to move in reverse for entry if needed. The windows of the bus were all covered with more plywood, with more gun ports built into them.

“Where is everybody?” Nine asked, surprised that they hadn’t been greeted yet. “What good’s a wall without guards?”

Tony tried to peer between the vehicles without alarming anyone on the other side. But the low-hanging foliage on tree branches blocked his view.

“There’s room to crawl beneath the bus,” Mark said. “Looks like someone forgot to put whatever barriers they were using back in place.”

“It’s too quiet,” Alysa added, staring up into the trees. “Something’s… off.” She made her bow ready.

“Calm down,” Tony said. “Maybe they heard us coming and are waiting in the houses. If I remember correctly, you could see in all directions from the second-floor windows.”

“He’s right,” Diane added. “This wall of cars was probably just to keep the dead out. I’m sure Orosco has a secondary plan to deal with other potentially hostile survivors. They could watch anyone approaching from those windows with snipers in place, keep everyone hidden inside to make the place look deserted, while deciding what to do from there.”

“That’s exactly what I’d do,” Tony said with a smile. “And I taught the man everything he knows.” He added a playful wink.

Diane rolled her eyes and retrieved her handgun. “Let’s send someone under to let them know we’re friendly… someone who dresses funny that they’d easily recognize.” She immediately looked at Nine.

This caused Beverly and Wendy to laugh.

Nine shook his head at Diane. “Make fun of me… that’s fine… but make fun of these awesome threads… well, now you’re crossing the line.” He failed to keep a straight face as he tried to puff out his chest and straighten the collar, proudly drawing attention to his favorite jean jacket with the ‘80’s bands stenciled in.

“I guess you told me, Caption Retro,” Diane laughed, affectionately messing up his hair.

Now Mark and Matt were both chuckling.

Tony just shook his head and smiled. “I’m too tired to appreciate the absurdity that is ‘You’, my young friend,” he said to Nine. “But your girlfriend is correct… you stand out like a sore thumb.”

Nine smiled like an idiot and lightly elbowed Diane. “You see, everyone knows the truth, even Tony.”

“What… that your fashion sense is as outdated as your jokes?”

He leaned in and whispered, “No… that you’re my girlfriend.”

“Go,” she pointed to the bus.

“She’s so in to me,” he laughed, strutting toward the vehicle. He leaned down to crawl under, turned back, and said to them, “You’re all my witnesses. Even in the apocalypse, it’s never too late for the one you love to throw you under the bus.” He gave Diane a mock pouty face.

This caused Beverly to snort hysterically, drawing everyone’s attention.

The laughter was infectious, as they all let their exhaustion get the better of them… but it felt good.

Alysa was the only one who didn’t join in, standing back with her bow in hand, and staring at all of them as if wondering if they’d all been gassed or if they’d just gone insane.

“Get your ass under that bus,” Diane said through tears, failing to regain her composure.

He mockingly saluted and then disappeared beneath the bus.

When the laughter ran its course, Tony wiped tears from his eyes and said, “I guess we needed that… more than we know.” They all started to feel better knowing that they were one bus away from being reunited with friends they hadn’t seen since before the winter. Considering what they’d just lost, the need to be reunited with their people again, was overwhelming. They needed to mourn or cry or shout against God… but they needed to do it together.

Nine reappeared from beneath the bus two minutes later. His shoulders dropped, his face was pale, and his eyes red from wiping tears away.

All jubilation faded away like a mist that never was.

Diane came over. “What… what’s the matter? Did you make contact?”

Nine’s eyes started to water up as he looked at her and said, “They’re… all gone.”

Tony came over and gently put a hand on Nine’s shoulder. “What do you mean?”

Nine stared into Tony’s frightened face. “Everything… it’s all… gone!”

~~~

When they all cleared the bus, and walked up what remained of the private drive, exiting the canopy of trees, they stopped as the peninsula came into full view. Nine’s words could not capture the horror their eyes revealed.

The burnt down remains of four large vacation homes sat like neighboring graveyards in a half-circle at the edge of the peninsula. There was hardly anything left, except for their foundations, a few charred first floor walls, and the collapsed rubble that the rest was leaning inward against.

At the center of the half-circle, in the large front yard all four houses once shared, was the ancient remains of a small bonfire surrounded by weeds and tall grass. Burned up bodies, long past the point of recognition, were stacked unceremoniously on top of each other. Around the old fire were numerous empty beer cans and food trash, completing the grim scene of some sort of after-slaughter party.

Tony dropped to his knees before the bonfire, feeling like the wind was just knocked out of him.

Beverly and Wendy started to weep.

Matt and Mark just stood there… shocked into silence.

Diane turned away, burying her face into Nine’s shoulder.

Alysa was already moving about the ruins, making sure they were alone.

“Who… who would do something like this?” Tony was close to breaking. They had already lost so much… and now this? “What kind of sick fucking world is this?” he whispered to himself.

The others started disbanding, heading toward the peninsula beach at the rear of the homes. They needed to be anywhere but near those hideous remains. Once on the beach, Nine and Diane, holding each other close, walked off to the left; Wendy, Beverly, Matt and Mark all wandered to the right. They all needed time to process and grieve in their own way.

Tony remained before the bonfire, refusing to look away. He was too exhausted to cry or yell out in anger. He felt nothing. Numb. When he couldn’t make out their faces, Tony started counting the bodies.

“The area’s clear. We’re safe, for now,” Alysa squatted down beside him.

“What? What was that?” Tony was in shock.

The archer stared at the big man, into his eyes, and saw the depths of his sadness. “May I sit with you?” she asked.

Tony looked away from the bodies and down toward the grass.

Alysa sat down three feet to Tony’s right, placed the bow beside her, and then rested her arms on her knees. She stared around at the ruins and remained respectfully quiet.

“Why are you still here?” Tony finally said, still staring at the ground. His tone was not accusatory. It was just a worthless question, like so many others he could ask now.

Alysa stared thoughtfully at the big sad man. “I’m sorry for your loss… both now… and before. I meant to say that earlier, but-”

“Did the Shadow Dead do this?” Tony asked. His voice sounded weak and void of emotion.

Alysa’s eyebrows went up in surprise. That was the first time he hadn’t associated her with them. “No,” she quickly said. “Of that much, I’m sure. This is not their way.”

Tony partially turned his head. “And what is your ‘way’?”

Alysa smiled weakly. “That is… complicated.”

“Of course, it is. So, why are you still here? As you can see, all our people are dead. We’re alone now, and by the look of things, we’d all just like to lie down and die with them.”

Alysa gave him a puzzled look. She couldn’t decide if he was joking. “I came to find and help a mutual friend,” she said. “When I realized Marcus was gone, I chose to do the next best thing and help his friends.”

“That’s mighty big of you,” he said sarcastically.

Alysa frowned, regretting opening up a little to this man and his group that would never accept her. She rose to her feet, grabbing her bow, and said, “When I shot and killed the Shadow Dead who was about to kill you, I became dead to them. I can no longer be reunited with my people… and that makes me just as alone as the rest of you.” She started to walk away.

Tony turned to watch her go.

“You need your privacy,” she said over her shoulder. “I’ll leave you in peace. Sorry for disturbing you.”

“Alysa,” Tony called out.

She stopped and turned, surprised that he addressed her by name.

“Don’t wander away,” he said. “None of us can make it very far… alone.” He forced a smile.

Alysa offered one in return and nodded. “I’m going to walk around a bit and see what there is to see. Perhaps we can try to talk again when I return?”

“We can try,” Tony offered. “And… thank you for saving my ass back in those woods. We wouldn’t have made it this far without you.”

The former Shadow Dead offered an awkward smile, unprepared for the big man’s gratitude. She then turned and headed toward the vehicle wall.

~~~

Beverly sat near the edge of the beach, letting the water rush over her bare toes. She’d rolled up her jeans a little, grateful to have those awful running shoes off for a moment, and then started untying her knotted long hair. “I’d kill for a brush,” she said over her shoulder. She wiped sand on her soiled jeans and added, “And a laundry machine.”

Wendy sat behind her, staring despondently out across the lake.

Matt and Mark were standing off to the right, skipping large stones across the lake’s surface.

Mark turned and addressed Wendy. “Cheer up, girl. It could have been worse. You might have been here when those murderers showed up and extra-crispy fried our friends. We all know how damn worthless you would have been then.”

“Oh… gross!” Beverly said. “Show some respect for the dead, asshole!”

Wendy scowled at him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nice shooting, by the way, Legs. You have bigger balls than Matt over here.”

Matt ignored the jab.

“Shut up, creep!” Beverly said. I don’t want to talk about that… ever.”

“What the hell did you mean, Mark?” Wendy pushed.

Mark smiled. “Come on, Velma! You can’t even shoot a damn zombie without crying out in behalf of their rights to be… what… dead?”

She shook her head. “They were just like us not too long ago. How would you feel if someone made me shoot you in the head after you turned, just to find out later that there’s a cure that could’ve saved you?”

Mark stopped throwing stones. “You really think there’s a cure? Even after all this time?”

“Why not?” Wendy said. “Just because we don’t know about it, doesn’t mean it isn’t out there.”

“Please… wake… up… Velma! What’s happening in the world can’t be cured. It’s the predetermined extermination of Mankind, designed by God, or Mother Nature, or the damn universe… to finally rid the earth of all our bullshit. Just look at this damn camp! Look at what just happened at our own little safe haven! We can’t escape it. We are being eliminated one day at a time.”

Wendy shook her head. “Why do you hate your own kind so much? What the hell happened to you that made you this way?”

Mark turned away. “Doesn’t matter. None of us matter, Velma.”

“Stop calling me that!”

“Or what? You gonna go all pacifist on my ass?”

Wendy’s face turned beat red. She took a deep breath to calm down. “If you don’t start treating people better, especially since you’re quickly running out of friends who will put up with your cynical shit, you’ll wake up one day worse than being dead.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

She smiled. “You’ll be alone.”

Mark was getting upset. “Fuck you, Velma. Fuck all of you.”

“I have an idea,” Matt said.

They all turned to look at him.

Matt reached down and pretended to pick up a glass. “I’ve been thinking about poor Joe. He was a goofy guy, but his heart was always in the right place. He never judged us, even when the rest of the community labeled us as extra baggage. Joe was one of the good ones. He stood up to those Shadow Bastards… protected us…” His voice cracked. Matt raised his pretend glass, cuing the others to follow suit. Wendy and Beverly raised their glasses. Even Mark reluctantly played along. “Here’s to Joe. May he rest easy, along with all our lost friends, far from this hellish place.”

“To Joe,” Mark agreed.

“To Joe,” Wendy said.

Beverly’s emotions got the better of her as she started to cry. She raised her glass and nodded.

Matt raised his glass and finished, “To Joe. May we all find a way to escape this place… and join you… wherever that is.”

This was followed by a heavy silence.

~~~

Nine and Diane found a large piece of driftwood and sat down together.

Diane shivered from a breeze blowing in from the lake and Nine placed his favorite jacket around her shoulders.

She looked at him and tried to smile. “I’m not good at this.”

Nine laughed. “Yeah, we both know I’m the romantic one. That’s okay. You try.”

“No,” she said, elbowing him. “I mean… I’m not good at these long dark moments that make me question everything. It scares the hell out of me. There’s so much uncertainty in the world now, and every time it looks like we have a handle on it… something bad happens.”

Nine nodded, appreciating this vulnerable moment. They hardly had time to talk, really talk. He just wished their dire circumstances didn’t force them into such moments. He looked down the beach at the four young rookies who were damn lucky to still be alive… and have each other. He envied their naïve innocence and their ability to draw strength from the past. It still bothered him that he now referred to everything prior to The Change as the past. “I know what you mean,” he said. “A minute ago, there was Gina, then Stephen… the compound… the hope of finding Orosco in this graveyard… and now… it’s all gone.”

She looked at him.

“What do we do with this now? What does it mean?” he continued. “I feel like some homeless guy, except that they had carts with cool stuff, and warm boxes to sleep in. They could just squat anywhere they wanted, surrounded by people who just ignored them… and then there’s me… the bum that everyone wants to turn into a meal. That’s messed up, don’t you think? I mean… who eats the smelly ass homeless guy, right?”

Diane laughed. “I hear you. In your own warped way… I hear you.”

Nine reached in and kissed her gently on the lips.

“What was that for?”

“That was just another slow attempt to wear you down in the hope that you’d share my cardboard box with me someday.”

“You are an ass,” she said, shaking her head. “I’m glad you’re here. This would be… unbearable… if I’d lost you, too.” She quickly looked at her feet.

“Ditto,” he said, reaching in to squeeze her hand. “That’s a ridiculous, anti-romantic word, by the way. Who the hell says, ‘Ditto’? It’s almost like-”

She leaned in to kiss him.

“What was that for?”

“It’s the only way I know to shut you up,” she laughed.

“You know my weakness, woman,” he said with a laugh. “But seriously, now that we’re technically ‘homeless’, why don’t we just take off… you and me… and find somewhere far from all this… insanity.”

“What are you suggesting?” she asked. “You want to just… leave? Where the hell would we go?”

“Anywhere! Everywhere! Doesn’t matter. I know! Since I’m a rock god and you’re a farmer, we could go find a farm where the dead hate roosters and cow shit. You can teach me how to farm the land while I bitch about it constantly, and I’ll teach you how to play rhythm guitar for the new band I’ll form.”

“Shut up,” she laughed.

“Seriously! Think of the possibilities! Eventually we’ll have crops growing out our ass and I’ll teach you how to dance naked in our very own cornfield while we howl at the moon together!”

Diane shook her head.

“And then we could, I don’t know, live happily ever after… just the two of us… for as long as we can… maybe have some kids and stuff-”

“Hold on!” she interrupted. “Did you just say ‘kids’?”

“I… uh… I meant goats… isn’t that what they call baby goats on the farm?”

“You’re impossible,” she laughed. “My mother always warned me about you dreamer types.” She continued in a mock motherly voice, “She’d say, ‘Their heads are full of strange ideas. They always sow in the clouds and reap rainbows from a unicorn’s ass’.”

Nine couldn’t stop laughing. “She really said that? That’s awesome. She’s absolutely right, of course.”

When Diane calmed down, she gently stroked his cheek. “Thanks for making me feel better. But seriously, you know we can’t leave. Maybe someday, but not now.”

Nine sighed. “Spoken like a good soldier. War’s over, babe… we lost. I think Tony can make do without you since he’s got nothing left to command.”

“Well,” she said, “We’re all soldiers now.”

“Doesn’t mean we have to be,” Nine offered. “We don’t have to keep fighting against whatever all this is. We could just try to make the most of it and live the life we choose.”

“Until the dead come along… or something worse… and snatches it away. That’s why we have to keep fighting. We fight until we don’t have to anymore… then… who knows. Maybe I’ll run naked with you in that cornfield.”

“Promises, promises.” He looked back toward the rookies. “So… let’s assess the current line-up. We have Commander Tony, who looks like one exhausted large muscle; one stylish and handsome young adventurer (that would be me); and then there’s you, a deadly vixen, hiding in plain sight; four youngsters who look like they’re fighting for who gets dibs on the next video game-”

“Oh, please!” she laughed. “Those ‘youngsters’ are all older than you.”

“Yes, but in ‘apocalyptic years’ I’m an old man compared to them. Hell, they make me look like I know what the I’m doing.”

“Fair enough. We’ll have to remedy that before one or all of them get themselves killed, or someone else. Especially that short-haired young lady. She needs to understand what the threats are now.”

“Just go easy on them, soldier,” Nine teased. “They’re still holding on to the old world, feeding on nostalgia, while the rest of us fight.”

“That’s what I mean,” she said. “They won’t survive on their own, living in the past. It’s going to catch up with them and crush them.”

“Maybe so, but they also represent what we hope to get back one day. What good will all this fighting do if we forget all the good things that made us who we were? I don’t want to be remembered, or only remember, how well I ‘survived’.”

Diane nodded. “Okay. I get it. I could go a little easier on them.”

“There you go,” Nine said. “I think they’ll come along better at their own speed. But if you force them into the fire too soon, at the cost of all those precious memories, they’ll crack…”

“…Becoming worthless steel that breaks under pressure. Damn… you just pulled a forge analogy on me.”

“I’m full of surprises, aren’t I?”

“You’re full of something,” she teased.

Nine turned as Alysa stepped on to the beach and walked toward the water. “And then there’s her. Don’t know what to make of that yet. I’m still not convinced she won’t try to eat me when I’m sleeping.”

Diane’s composure changed immediately. She stood up and drew her gun.

“What are you doing?” Nine asked.

“What I should’ve done long before now,” she said. “It’s time to be a soldier.”

“Wait.” Nine got up. “Don’t do something stupid.”

Diane tuned him out. She approached the Shadow Dead woman, seeing only red, and a target for her vengeance.

~~~

Next Episode 40-3

Previous Episode 40-1

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 40-2: Wick” Copyright © 2017 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Five: Remains. 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. Gylion says:

    Rapid Moodswings… Could be either stress or pregnancy. Just kidding

    Like

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