~~~

All is lost… all is lost…

Tony closed his eyes as those three words hit home in his thoughts. He couldn’t look at the pile of burnt flesh any longer without wanting to turn his head up towards the sky and throw obscenities at God, or anyone else who would listen to his outrage. Every time he tried to rise above present circumstances or the inner war that was slowly tearing him apart, the old part of himself, the one who understand the preserving power of hope, would reach up to find it, catch a glimpse of it like a well-timed life preserver tossed out in an indifferent dark sea, just to have some sadistic behind-the-scenes presence pull it away with a mocking laugh.

He opened his eyes and stared at the bonfire again. Here is the end result of all your wishful thinking, Marcuchi, he thought. Every time you want to believe that there’s a chance… any damn hope at all… just remember these monuments of the dead, left behind like knife wounds to the heart, reminding you that everything good is rotting away while evil celebrates.

Tony was tired of being teased and tormented by this horrible new world. He was beginning to feel like some apocalyptic ‘play thing’, or the punch line of some bad joke that always ended up with the ‘good guys’ falling flat on their faces in a pile of never-ending shit.

“At least she wasn’t here,” he said out loud, and was surprised by the two-fold relief he felt from saying it. Yes, part of the reason that made it an easy call to search out Orosco’s camp was knowing that Gina might have made it here before the attack. Part of him had hoped that she heeded his advice and tried to find this place after getting her exiled, but if she had, there would have been nothing to find but this dead place… and something else for her to hate him for.

“You’re the reason she can’t accept what she’s become. You’re… light… for lack of a better word, makes her see all of it… all that darkness inside of her. I think a part of her resents you for it. Another part of her clings to that light, that good, noble soul that you possess which keeps you far from the dark. She loves you for it… but can’t survive in it… not without seeing how dark she’s become.”

Marcus had said those words the night he left, the night he told him about the rape… and forced Tony to accept what he’d known since being reunited with Gina again.

Our love has become another one of these morbid monuments, he thought. Another bad joke played on the rest of us who dare to believe that love is enough. How long had he held on to that very hope before finding Gina in Andover? How long had he relied upon their love to get out of the Bad Man’s basement after being separated by The Change, and to get him through everything else that followed?

He thought about how their relationship had changed over the long winter, and how hard Gina tried to put on a good face for his sake, while she continued to descend into whatever darkness owned her. The truth was that they had both drastically changed. He’d tried to accept her, regardless of that darkness, because he loved her and believed that it was enough to overcome it all… together. But it wasn’t. As a result, she brought him down to her level. Made him do things… cover for her when she murdered two of their own.

He had watched her torture Marvin, that pathetic sick man, and then when Tony’s back was turned, she had burned him to death. He thought about the irony of coming full circle back to that horrible place with a different Gina, after escaping with a Gina who no longer existed, except in his heart.

She wasn’t getting better, and he knew it. But because he loved her… he turned a blind eye, until he could no longer live with himself, and then he finally turned her in.

And now, she was out there, somewhere, doing God knows what, and he was… relieved. Relieved that she didn’t suffer the same fate as Orosco’s people or the others in the Wasteland facility. But it was much deeper than that. Tony wasn’t going to lie to himself any longer. Not now. He was relieved to be free of her… and all that darkness she carried around.

He started to weep, feeling like he was betraying her again by not holding on to that precious memory of who they were, and who he had long hoped they might be again. He refused to lie to himself any longer, not after so much death and suffering. Maybe he was the real reason their love could not overcome and adapt? Maybe it was his unwillingness to see Gina for who she was now, and not who he hoped she might be again, that kept them apart? Or, perhaps the only way they could be together again, is if he betrayed himself, and embraced that darkness, too?

Tony let the tears roll down his face and made a hard decision, perhaps one of the hardest decisions he would ever make.

I love you, Gina. But I can’t be with you. I can’t continue travelling down that dark path… not without losing myself.

For the first time since the world went insane, Tony did not lean upon their love for strength. That crutch was gone. He did the hardest thing, for both their sakes: Tony let her go.

Wherever you are, I hope you find your way out of the darkness, Gina. I hope you find peace and a way to keep on surviving without becoming as dark as this world we’re struggling against. I love you… always.

He then forced himself to finish. “Goodbye,” he whispered before the ashes.

Tony found no joy in what followed. He felt like an incredible load had just been removed from his shoulders. And for the first time, his heart and mind were clear. He shook his head and laughed toward the sky. “So, this is how it has to be… to survive.” He spit out that last world with all his bitterness. “Well, all you Assholes responsible for this mess… fuck you! And fuck this world that spawned you, Survival! We’re going to do better than that. So, keep on laughing at us, but we’re not done yet.”

The Apocalypse had no response.

Tony rose from the ashes and added, “All is not fucking lost… not yet.”

~~~

Diane approached within fifteen feet of the Shadow Dead woman and raised her handgun to Alysa’s head. “This is all your fucking fault,” she accused.

Alysa turned to face the angry woman but did not raise her bow. Instead, she dropped it in the sand and held her hands out, palms up, in front of her chest. “I’m not doing this with you,” she said. “I’m not your enemy.”

Diane’s long brown hair blew wildly around her face, but she didn’t flinch. She maintained her shooting stance, locked in, with both intense eyes open and staring down the sites of her weapon. She almost pulled the trigger… almost. “Of course you’re my damn enemy!” she hissed. “You and your fucking people came to our home, attacked us, and now… now we’re here, in this dead place, staring at more Shadow Dead savagery.”

Beverly, Wendy, Mark and Matt came up from behind Alysa, saw Diane’s gun, and stepped to the side, looking very confused.

Nine calmly stepped beside her and said, “Diane… you know this wasn’t them. All those beer cans… really? From what we know of the Shadow Dead, do you think they’d build a bonfire and throw a party afterwards? They don’t strike me as the partying type.” He quickly turned to Alysa. “No offense.”

Alysa shrugged her shoulders.

“Doesn’t matter,” she barked. “They’re still responsible for everything! If not for the constant threat of her fucking people all winter, Gina wouldn’t have lost her shit and pushed Orosco to come out here in the first place!”

“I tried to warn you,” Alysa said. “I told Marcus they were coming.”

“She’s right, Diane. You remember what Marcus said when he got back,” Nine pleaded.

Diane shook her head. “You’re all the same,” she said. “I have no idea why Tony still tolerates you being here. Isn’t what we suffered enough? We’re all that’s left! You got your damn compound back! So why the hell are you still here?”

Alysa frowned and let out a deep sigh. “Would it matter what I told you?”

“No, it wouldn’t,” Diane said. “You killed my friend! Put a damn arrow in his head after he saved my life!”

Alysa put her hands down. Her face became dark. “I’m done trying to convince you to put aside your hate. Do what you must.”

“I’ll do it, bitch!” she threatened, raising the gun a little higher for emphasis.

“Yes,” Alysa said. “I believe you just might.”

“Who’s hungry?”

They all turned as Tony strolled up the beach carrying a handful of sticks.

He looked at them and said, “I’m fucking starving. We should get a fire together and eat.”

Alysa raised an eyebrow at his peculiar behavior.

Diane shifted uncomfortably, but continued to aim her gun at the enemy.

“Tony?” Nine said.

“Yes?”

“Uh… we seem to have a bit of a problem at the moment.” Nine laughed nervously. “Perhaps lunch could wait a few more minutes.”

“Screw that,” he said, putting a hand to his belly. “All this gun-pointing shit is just making it worse.” He looked to Diane and said, “Could you hurry up and finish? I’m an impatient son-of-a-bitch when my stomach starts growling like this.”

Diane turned and gave him a ‘what the fuck’ look.

Nine was about to speak, but realized he had no idea what to say.

Tony dropped the sticks and brushed his hands on his pants. “Alright, I warned you,” he said. Then he put his hands to his side, stared at both women, and said, “Look, either you shoot her with the gun… or you, pick up that damn bow, and shoot her with an arrow. Either way, it’s time to sit down, make a hot meal, and try to talk like fucking civilized people used to do. There’s been entirely too much death since last night, so… go on… get your shit over with, because I’m done with it.”

Alysa folded her arms across her chest and stared at Diane.

“Tony,” Diane said. “She’s one of them! We have to-”

“We have to what?” he snapped. “Kill her? Why? Because her people killed us? We probably wouldn’t have made it out of the woods last night without her… but go ahead… shoot her in the head!”

Alysa looked like she wanted to object, but remained silent.

“Tony?” Nine tried. “You’re not helping-”

“No… no… if Diane needs to kill the Shadow Dead woman, then let her do it.”

“Tony, are you alright?” Diane asked.

“No… I’m being serious.” He sat down in the sand. “You go ahead, kill this woman, and then you take that fucking gun, turn it on your boyfriend over there… and shoot him, too.” Tony laughed. “Because if you think that you two will ever be the same again after Nine watches you murder this woman in front of him… then you’re a fucking idiot!”

Diane recoiled as if Tony had just struck her across the face.

“And then after you’ve killed whatever chance you have at a relationship in this wonderful new world of ours, and believe me, after a little murder gets in between you two, it’s never the same again, then you might as well shoot me, too, for letting me believe that you’re better than this. Obviously, I was very wrong.”

Diane closed her eyes and lowered the weapon, slightly. “Tony… I… I don’t know what to say. I’m… I’m so fucking angry.”

“Angry?” Tony said. He laughed hard. “You’re angry? Try standing in my fucking shoes for five minutes, woman, and then talk to me about angry!”

Diane took a step back.

Tony got up, gave her a seething look, and then turned to the rest, raised his hand in the air, and said, “Anyone else reached their limit on how much more death we can tolerate today? I sure know I have!” He walked over to Diane and stripped the gun from her hand. “This is over. Do you understand? NO MORE FUCKING DEATH!”

She nodded and looked at her feet, feeling two feet tall.

Tony took them all in with a long gaze and said, “Now, if all this bullshit is finished, let’s make a damn fire, search this place for anything else we can snack on, sit the fuck down… and eat! Any objections?”

No one objected.

~~~

Everyone was grateful to be doing something, anything to quiet their dismal thoughts.

Matt and Beverly gathered wood while Wendy and Mark argued about how to build the fire.

There wasn’t much to salvage from the destroyed homes. Nine discovered an overturned cupboard with enough coffee mugs still intact for each of them. He also found a dented tea kettle. Combined with Diane’s discovery of a pack of plastic spoons and a half bag of stale potato chips from the trunk of one of the vehicles in the wall, they decided to try preparing their meal of soup and chips by slowly heating the soup in the kettle over the fire.

Tony and Alysa checked the vehicles for keys and anything else they could use. Only the bus and a sedan had them and neither vehicle would start. The bus had no gas and the sedan’s battery was dead. They did find a cigarette lighter to light the fire. Whoever came and attacked Orosco’s camp, picked the camp to the bone afterwards, leaving nothing of real relevance.

By early afternoon they were all sitting around a small campfire on the beach, taking slow sips from their mugs full of hot split pea soup. If felt good just to get a little nourishment, which helped them get their heads on straight.

Alysa was the last to sit down around the fire as Nine scooted over to allow her room.

“Here you go,” Beverly said, handing her a mug of soup. “Normally, not the best of meals, but it’s amazing how great a seasoning hunger can be.”

“Thank you,” Alysa said, taking the cup from the smiling young lady. She looked away and quickly sat down, staring into her mug.

Tony was enjoying his soup while Diane was pretending to, and trying not to cause any more trouble.

The others were savoring their portioned handful of chips, staring at each irregular crisp or licking the salt off each one before inhaling it, as if these were the last potato chips they might ever eat, stale or not.

Nine took it upon himself to break the silence (of course) as he watched the Shadow Dead woman out of the corner of his eye and noticed she wasn’t eating. “Not hungry?” he asked.

Alysa smiled politely and said. “Just waiting for it to cool a bit… and… no, I’m not very hungry.”

Nine seized his opening. “I’ve never spoken with an urban legend before… well… a former urban legend.”

She gave him a puzzled look. “Excuse me?”

Diane was already shaking her head.

“What I mean is… until the attack, many of us were starting to doubt if your people even existed. Tony and Diane have encountered your kind before, and a few others from back in the early days, but guys like me… well… we just heard the stories.”

“Stories?” Alysa put down her mug.

“Nine, tread easy,” Tony cautioned. “It’s already been a hell of a day.”

“Oh, no!” Nine said. “I mean no offense. I’m genuinely curious, is all. It’s just that, Shadow Dead talk always happened late night, when someone wanted to scare the pants off someone. You get bored down there in that compound after a while and start entertaining each other with ghost stories and stuff.”

“Joe was great at that,” Beverly added, and then got quiet.

Alysa cracked a partial smile, betraying her amusement. “So… is talking to me like talking to the Boogeyman.”

“Exactly!” Nine said, excitedly. “Except you’re like the Boogeyman off camera, kicking back, hair down with the costume off.”

“Oh… my… God,” Diane muttered to herself, clearly embarrassed.

“I sense you wish to ask me questions,” Alysa said, now amused by Diane’s discomfort. “Maybe to find out what’s real from legend… is that it?”

“Do you mind?”

“Not at all.”

“Oh… I’m Nine by the way. We’ve not officially met.”

“Beverly,” the smiling girl said. She pointed to the others. “That’s Matthew, Mark and Wendy… and you know Tony… and Diane.”

Everyone except Diane quickly greeted the Shadow Dead woman. Diane simply nodded.

“Well, it’s nice to meet all of you… officially. I’m Alysa Monroe, a.k.a. The Boogeyman.” She turned back to Nine and smiled. “I sense we don’t have a lot of time to explore urban legends right now, so… I’ll let you ask one question. Make it a good one.”

Nine pondered for much longer than he should have, acting like he’d just found a genie and trying to decide upon a wish. Finally, he said, “Okay… okay… I’ve got it. Of all the stories I’ve heard about you guys, the one thing that I would really like to know so I can sleep tonight is… well…”

“Go ahead… Nine. Ask your question,” Alysa invited.

“Do you… like… you know… eat people?”

Alysa’s face was stone.

Everyone stopped eating. They were staring at Alysa.

She leaned in toward Nine a little, causing him to lean away, and said, “That’s a good question. I guess all of you would sleep easier if we just got that one out of the way… hmm?” She picked up her soup mug and waited.

She made Nine wait so long before answering that he started to regret the question. “Doesn’t matter,” he said, waving it off with a laugh. “I was just-”

“Yes,” she interrupted, staring straight into his eyes with a serious expression. “I eat people.”

The others suddenly lost their appetite.

Nine opened his mouth to speak but said nothing. He wiped sweat from his forehead.

Alysa then cracked a full smile and finished, “But… only on Taco Tuesdays.” She added a playful wink and then began eating her soup.

Nine let out a nervous laugh.

Beverly was pointing at his face and laughing so hard that she snorted.

Wendy, Mark and even Matt were also laughing.

Tony and Diane were not amused, but let the moment pass, understanding that Alysa was just trying to ease the tension. They both exchanged a look across the fire, understanding all too well the previous horrors they’d experienced facing these boogeymen.

“Damn!” Nine was laughing and shaking his head at her. “You got me, good, Alysa.”

She just smiled and leaned back, while tossing a stale chip in her mouth.

“You know,” Tony said to Alysa after the laughter died down, “we do have a lot of questions that need addressing. Not right now… but soon. Will you have a problem with that?”

“Of course not,” she said. “I’d be surprised if you didn’t ask… but I, too, have questions. I know nothing about any of you.”

Tony nodded. “That’s understandable. After we’ve put this beach behind us, and figure out where we’re heading next, we’ll talk again.”

Alysa nodded.

“You have that look in your eye, Tony” Diane said. “Do you know where we’re going? Because I’m scared to death of leaving this beach without a plan.” She looked toward the ruins. “I know there’s nothing here for us… but graveyard or not… this is the last familiar place we have left. Once we leave here… it’s all unknown territory.”

Tony nodded and gave them all a hard look. “I wanted to get here, get reinforcements, and then go back to the compound to kill those fuckers.” He looked at Alysa and continued. “But I realize now that my emotions were screwing me up… just like the rest of you.” He took a deep breath and continued. “If anyone survived back home, then they’d have to be long gone from those woods. I believe that returning now would just guarantee our own deaths…” He paused, took a sip of his soup and continued. “I hope that Gina and Marcus got away safely… but we may never know. I’m just going to have make peace with that. We do know that this place is lost to us. The compound is lost to us. And we, all of us sitting here right now, need to stop looking for ghosts… because we’re the community now.”

They all started to scan each other’s tired and skeptical faces.

“And before I hear a fucking peep out of anyone about how Alysa can’t be one of us… let me remind you that she chose to help us, and by doing so, became as much an enemy to the Shadow Dead as we are. That makes her one of us.” His intense eyes searched their faces.

Alysa simply stared at the big man, shocked into silence.

“Before all this shit went down six months ago, I didn’t know any of you and you didn’t know me… and here we are… now. We were strangers, some of us more strange than others,” he said smiling at Nine. “But now we’re like blood, we’re stronger than that because we’re bonded in blood. I say all this to remind you that we will get through this together. That’s our strength. That’s the only strength that matters.”

Diane stared into the fire and nodded. She quickly wiped a streaming tear from her eye with the back of her hand.

“I’m not going to bullshit you,” Tony said. “I’m tired. I’m hurting inside, but I’m working through it. I’m going to make mistakes. So, I need you to help me keep my shit together and I’ll do the same for all of you.”

“Nice speech… Tony,” Wendy said, adjusting her glasses. “But… where will we go now?”

“Hell,” Mark added. “Where do we even start?”

Tony nodded and smiled at Diane.

“You do know where we’re going?” she happily accused.

Tony shook his head. “No… what I have is a number… which will lead to a choice.”

Alysa gave him a curious look.

“Well… it better not have a damn six in it,” Nine said with a laugh.

“No,” Tony continued. “Twenty.”

They all waited.

“I stared into that damn bonfire and counted, and counted, and I’m sure of it. There were only twenty of Orosco’s people burned in that fire,” Tony said.

Diane caught on immediately. “Shit! He left with thirty people to come out here! That means some of them might still be alive.”

Tony got up and started pacing. “We’ll have to search the area again thoroughly to make sure we didn’t miss any bodies… but, yes, it’s starting to look that way.”

“And if your people survived the attack,” Alysa started, “you believe they have them, don’t you? The people responsible for this attack?”

“If they’re alive,” he said, looking around, “then they either drowned in the damn lake, or they were taken.” He raised his arms out wide. “It’s a damn peninsula… they had nowhere to escape.”

“So, you want to go after them… these unknown murderers who like burning shit up, on the chance that they might have our people as captives. Is that what you’re suggesting?” Mark asked.

Diane shook her head. “This happened a while ago, Tony. Judging from the ashes, the overgrowth, and a few other signs… at least three weeks ago to a month, probably right after winter let up. The trail’s gone cold. I’m good, but I’m not that good. We’d never find them now.”

“That’s not entirely correct,” Alysa added. “After assessing the scene when we first arrived, I headed back out past the vehicle wall, up the private drive, and back out where we entered. Just a couple of minutes farther south, is a state highway intersection. I found beer cans just like the ones around the bonfire, scattered along the highway headed west. Whoever these… murderers… are, I don’t believe they made any attempt to conceal their movements. It was evident that after slaughtering your people, they headed west.”

“But a month, Tony?” Nine said. “That’s a whole lot of ‘what if’s’ between heading west from here, to God knows where. Not to mention, they might be dead… now.”

Tony shook his head and raised his hands. “You’ve all brought up valid points. Like I said, all I have is a number that takes us to a choice: Do we attempt to find our friends, knowing that we may never catch up, or that they’re already dead? Or, do we go our own way, avoid the danger, and try to rebuild… somewhere? Take some time. Discuss it. Think about it. We decide together.”

“You want to go after them,” Diane stated.

Tony laughed. “Of course, I do. But I’m just hard-wired that way. You throw me a bone of hope… and I’ll go running after it, every time. But I’m not making the call on this one. It’s too important a decision, and both choices will require a long commitment. Talk it over. I’ll be back in an hour.” Tony started walking down the shoreline with his hands in his jean’s pockets.

“May I join you,” Alysa asked.

Tony turned and gave her a surprised look.

She explained. “My decision is made. I will follow whatever choice the majority decides… and it’s not wise for anyone to wander off alone.”

“Unless it’s you, right?”

She smiled. “I am… a lethal exception to the rule.”

“How can I argue against that?” he laughed. “Well come on, then,” he said, turning back toward the shore.

Alysa stood up and followed, stepping up beside him. For the first time, her bow was not held at the ready, but slung around her back instead.

For a couple of minutes they walked in silence. They could hear the others in what sounded like a heated debate.

“So, are you going to tell me what you wanted to talk about?” Tony asked.

She looked at him, her eyes narrowing. “Why are you defending me? You know what I am?”

“What you were, right?”

She sighed. “Okay. Yes. But… you don’t know me. And… those questions you all have… I’m certain you won’t like some of my answers.”

“You’ve done bad things, right?”

She looked straight ahead and then reluctantly nodded.

“And those… things… are what caused you to run off and hide out in some cabin… far from the rest of your kind, right?”

“Yes, but that doesn’t excuse-”

“You’re right,” Tony interrupted. “I don’t know you, or what you did, or the shame you carry from what you did.”

She waited.

“But you got out. Turned it around and now you’re not out there doing God-awful Shadow Dead business, like slaughtering my friends. And as result, you saved some of us instead.”

Alysa shook her head and smiled. “You are a very unusual man, Tony.”

Tony laughed. “I’ll take that as a compliment. Normal’s never been my thing.”

“I just haven’t decided yet if that makes you a fool, and even fools look wise until their luck runs out.”

“So much for the compliment,” he said. “Anything else?”

She hesitated and then said, “These people who attacked this camp, like I said, they were not concerned about hiding where they went. In my experience, that either means they are confident in themselves because they have the numbers…”

Tony nodded. “Or?”

She gave him a grave look. “Or, they are simply insane and don’t fear death. The world is much different now. It hasn’t only affected the dead, it’s changed the living, too.”

Tony frowned, thinking about Gina. “Don’t I know it,” he said cryptically. “Do you think following after these murderers is a bad idea, then?”

“I just wanted to put the facts out there. You say that returning to your compound is a death sentence, and you are wise in believing so, but… chasing after your lost friends from this disturbing place might also be a death sentence if we find them.”

“You don’t have to come,” he said. “You owe us nothing.”

Alysa smiled. “I’m not concerned for my safety. It’s the rest of you that need to understand the risks.”

“Noted. Anything else?”

She stopped, causing him to stop and stare at her. For the first time, Tony took in her appearance. Beneath her imposing exterior, Alysa was a very beautiful woman. He stared at her dark skin, eyes, her high cheekbones, her cute little nose with the ring making her look exotic, her lips… He wondered what her tightly braided long hair would look like let loose. He wanted to see her smile again. Tony forced himself to look away.

“I just wanted to say… thank you… for standing up for me. I’m not comfortable with it, and you may have been better off letting Diane shoot me after you find out about my past, but it’s refreshing to find someone I don’t have to… distrust… all the time.” She started walking again. “That was all I wanted to say.”

Tony watched the strange woman walk away and smiled. “You’re welcome.”

When they returned to the others, Tony smiled, opened his arms wide and said, “So, are you all ready to head west?”

Wendy looked surprised. “How did you know we decided to go after Orosco’s people?”

“Because we’re still the ‘good guys’,” he said. “And in this fucked-up world, that’s what the ‘good guys’ do.”

~~~

Next Episode 40-4

Previous Episode 40-2

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 40-3: 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. nashmcgowan says:

    Good entry. You’re starting to turn me around when it comes to Tony. I think this is one of the first entries where I didn’t want to punch him in the face lol,

    Liked by 1 person

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