~~~

By mid-afternoon, Tony and his group departed Orosco’s camp. They all felt relieved to put that dead place behind them, but they couldn’t escape a sense of dread that struck them in the pit of their stomachs as Alysa led them to the State Route 322 intersection and the familiar beer cans scattered across the highway.

They cautiously traveled west for four miles on the two-lane country road, passing long neglected farmsteads in between the occasional run-down house swallowed up by vegetation or nestled in silence behind suspicious looking tree groves where the daytime shadows lingered from dark windows hiding horrors within that no one wanted to investigate.

The road was surprisingly clear, offering up false hope every time they came across a long-abandoned vehicle parked along the shoulder. Each one had been looted long ago, leaving only broken-windowed traces of the living, the vehicle owners’ futile stories left untold.

It was becoming increasingly clear that in the six months since The Change, the world around them had been slowly rotting away, along with the dead, leaving behind one large graveyard of humanity that would one day be hidden away when Mother Nature finally removed all evidence of them.

They stopped briefly and ducked down when they came across an old corn field off to their left and spotted a small herd of the re-animated, standing in the field like ancient scarecrows.

Matthew noticed a young boy, who stood closest to the road. The boy was staring away from them toward the distant wood line at the back of the field. He was wearing a dirty striped and torn short-sleeved shirt, revealing his brown skeletal looking limbs dangling from his sides. On his back was what looked like a dirty school pack. On his head was a faded blue ball cap, perhaps displaying the logo of his former favorite baseball team.

Wendy moved in beside him and crouched down, startling Matthew. “They look so… peaceful… just standing out there. It’s hard to believe they’re as dangerous as we’ve been told,” she whispered.

Matt continued to lock in on the boy, praying silently that it wouldn’t turn around, because he didn’t know if his mind could take seeing that zombified horrific little face. “That’s not peaceful,” he said. “That kid would’ve been in bed when this all started, dreaming about Saturday afternoon and playing with his friends. Look at him now. He probably lost his parents and then had to pack whatever he could and try to find some help… alone. Can you imagine how terrified he must have been?” He looked away.

Wendy put her hand on Matt’s shoulder. “Just try not to think about all that… okay? You’ll give yourself nightmares.”

“Nightmares?” he laughed. “This is a nightmare… and I’m hoping that somebody wakes me the hell up soon.”

Wendy frowned and turned to the boy. Something was happening. The decrepit looking zombies in the field started to shamble toward the trees as if responding to something only they could hear. She watched the young boy move with them, almost dragging its arms in the tall grass as the weight of the pack made it hunch over, its movements, grotesquely making it look more like some injured animal than a boy.

“That’s fucking horrible,” Matt said, watching the boy shamble away. “Do you think it was those other ones… you know… that did that to him? Maybe he ran to them for help, didn’t know what they were before it was too late, and then… hell… now he’s just like them.”

Tony was signaling them all to move.

“Let’s get out of here,” Wendy said, regretting ever describing zombies as ‘peaceful’.

The boy with the blue cap and the backpack continued to follow the others toward the trees. He was not thinking of Saturday or playing with friends. He was hungry. He was dead.

~~~

Two lonely miles later, they came across a dirty faded sign, just on the other side of some railroad tracks, that read: WICK TOWNSHIP.

They walked another quarter of a mile, the roadway passing through two long rows of trees hiding more fields behind them, and stopped, noticing another house to their right. It was an old two-story quaint Craftsman style home with an overhanging roof. It had a small front porch with two columns bordering the front steps. A lone rocking chair sat at the top of the steps. The white-painted siding was peeling but looked cleaner than most of the run-down houses they’d seen. What gave them pause was that the grass looked recently mowed, an ancient looking push mower sitting near the porch added additional proof. Two American flags blowing in the wind stole their attention, supported on two flagpoles attached to the two columns.

“What a cute little house,” Beverly remarked, earning her several sneers.

Tony panned away from the house, to the rusted grey mailbox standing at the end of a small gravel driveway. He read the last name, GREENMAN, painted across the side in faded red. Directly across the roadway was a longer dirt driveway and another house, set farther back. He could see a deteriorated ranch home surrounded by tall weeds, a few trees, and an old chain link fence. Apart from the two houses, there was nothing else out here but the highway and more endless fields standing off in the distance. “Welcome to Wick,” he laughed. “Blink an eye… and it’s gone.”

“Should we check out the cute house?” Diane asked, smiling at Beverly. “It’s the only one we’ve seen that doesn’t look abandoned… lifeless.”

“Someone still lives there,” Alysa quickly added, feeling a need to remind them of the obvious.

“We need supplies,” Tony said. “Diane’s right. This is the only home we’ve seen so far that doesn’t look looted, or like it’s hiding the dead inside. If someone is there, maybe they can help us.”

“Or shoot us the moment we step into the yard,” Mark said. “It doesn’t feel right.”

“Agreed,” Alysa said. “Perhaps we should just move on.”

Tony looked up the long stretch of highway that continued toward nowhere. “It’s going to be dark in a couple of hours. I don’t like the thought of spending the night out here in some field with those dead things roaming about. Let’s try something old-fashioned. We’ll go to the front door… and knock. If no one answers, we might have a decent roof over our heads tonight.”

“Wonderful,” Mark said. “Are you hoping for hospitality? Because the way I remember it, there wasn’t much of that around before this shit-storm started.”

Wendy shook her head at him. “My God… you are such a constant buzz kill. Why do you automatically assume that every human being has to be evil?”

Mark just shrugged his shoulders. “Believe what you want. It’s your funeral.”

“I’ll go,” Nine offered. “Looks inviting to me. If someone still lives there, they still care enough about the way things were to cut the grass. That’s not your typical response if you’re a paranoid hermit trying to remain hidden from the rest of the world. Could just be some lonely soul hoping to see another living person out here. I say it’s worth the risk.”

“Agreed,” Wendy added. “Not all of us have given up on humanity, yet.” She looked over at Mark.

“Cheese placed on a mousetrap is also an invitation,” Alysa added.

Nine laughed. “Well… when you put it that way…”

Before anyone could add another word on the matter, Tony said, “Wait here.” He started to cross the yard, stopped, and then approached the driveway instead.

Nine snickered at Tony’s courteous attempt to approach the house.

“Something funny?” Diane asked.

“Since every day is like… permanent Halloween now, I’d just cut through the damn yard like an anxious trick-or-treater.”

“Nine.”

“Yes, my angel?”

“Please, shut up.”

He laughed.

Tony made it to the front porch steps and stopped.

Someone was standing on the opposite side of a screen door, half-hidden in shadow.

When Tony’s hands went up submissively, Alysa raised her bow toward the door, arrow at the ready.

“Hello?” he said. “Don’t be alarmed. I’m not a zombie… just a man.”

The figure in the doorway didn’t move.

“I see you standing there.” He wiped sweat from his brow. “My name’s Tony. I’m not here to cause trouble. Me and my friends saw your house and just wanted to find out if anyone still lived here.”

“And if I’d just happened ta’ been out when you came strollin’ up to knock on my front door, ya’ would’ve just turned around and left when y’all realized I wasn’t home, right?” a woman with a deep southern accent asked.

Tony distinctively heard what sounded like the hammer of a gun being cocked back. Shit. Play this straight, Marcuchi. He smiled weakly and said, “Honestly… Ma’am… if no one had answered the door, we would’ve checked out the house, realized someone was living here, and then… waited for you to return.”

“So… ya’ planned on jumpin’ me in ma’ own home?”

Diane shook her head.

“And you thought I said stupid things,” Nine whispered to her.

Idiot… that was ‘too much’ playing it straight. “Sorry,” Tony corrected. “That didn’t come out as intended. What I meant was-”

The woman laughed. “Son… if ya’ gonna rob somebody’s home, then ya’ just do it. What ‘cha don’t do is say what ‘cha just said ta’ the other end of a gun barrel pointed right at ‘cha. Did ya’ lose all your good sense after the ‘pocalypse?”

“Apparently,” he said.

“You’re not much of a thief, I reckon’,” the woman said. “First time?”

Tony laughed nervously. “I never did much ‘Breaking and Entering’ before The Change. I’m not familiar with the protocol for being caught at the front door.”

“What the hell is he doing?” Mark asked, stepping up beside Diane. “Is he trying to get shot?”

“Just… calm down,” she said. “Let’s see how this plays out.”

“I have a clear shot,” the archer said. “I could kill the woman and we would be done with this.”

“Just hold on, quick draw,” Nine told her. “I don’t know what they teach you in Shadow Dead School, but we don’t just kill everyone we meet.”

Alysa frowned at him. “Very well. But if she fires her weapon… I will eliminate the threat.”

“‘Eliminate the threat’?” Nine laughed, shaking his head at her. “What are you? A Terminator?”

Alysa clearly didn’t catch the reference. She dismissed the young man and focused on the front door, her bow still locked in place.

The woman in the doorway paused, and then asked, “What do ‘ya mean, ‘The Change’? That some fancy liberal nonsense?”

“‘Liberal nonsense’?” Tony was confused. “No… no… nothing like that. It’s just what some people call the ‘Event’… or the ‘Outbreak’… I guess.”

“Son… are ya’ talkin’ ‘bout the ‘pocalypse?”

“Yes.”

“Then why didn’t ya’ just say so? ‘Aint gotta be fifty flavors of the same damn thing.”

Tony frowned. “I’m obviously failing miserably at my communication skills today. Is there anything I can say that will stop you from shooting me on your front porch?”

“Who’d ya’ vote for?”

“Excuse me?”

“Your hearin’ broken, too?”

“Are you talking about the presidential election?”

“Yep.”

Tony considered the absurdity of the question, thought about the woman’s liberal remark, and then said, “McCain.”

“You’re about as good a liar as ‘ya are a thief. I can smell you ‘Bama types from a mile away.”

“Alright,” he said. “I did vote for Obama… not that any of that matters now.”

“It sure does matter!” the woman said. “Damn ‘pocalypse doesn’t change what ‘cha believe. Once ‘ya stop believin’ in things… then the dyin’ begins.”

Tony nodded. “I see your point.”

“‘Ya believe in God Almighty?”

That was an easy one. “Of course.”

The woman paused again, then said, “Well… it takes a good liar to do a lot of bad things… and a good liar you ‘ain’t.”

Tony laughed.

“You tell that skinny Robin Hood girl over there, ta’ lower the bow, and I’ll consider invitin’ y’all inside.”

Tony turned and signaled Alysa to ease off.

The archer reluctantly lowered her bow.

Tony waved them over.

The old woman stepped out of the shadows. She was wearing a long faded blue sundress with a soiled apron hanging down the front. She stepped out on to the porch carrying a two-barrel shotgun. She was short, but had a large girth with very broad shoulders, giving her a strong appearance. The woman’s face was hard and weathered by age and many years spent outdoors, but it wasn’t an unkind face. Her long silver hair was slicked back and tied up into a tight bun.

“They all more liberals like yourself?” the woman asked suspiciously.

Tony smiled. “Ma’am, we’ll all vote for you if there’s ever another election. I promise.”

The old woman laughed hard at that. “I see now. ‘Ya ain’t a good liar, but the next best thing is a charmer.” She looked over at Alysa and added, “Them charms he’s throwin’ around ever work on you, darlin’?”

Alysa and Tony shared a glance, verbally tripping over each other to make it clear that they weren’t together.

Nine giggled.

“Well, never you mind. Name’s Annie. Come on in before the sun sets. And close the door behind ‘ya. Don’t wanna let any of them strays in the house.”

Wendy and Beverly looked around the yard for cats before realizing Annie wasn’t talking about animals.

~~~

Annie Greenman’s small home was a moment from the past, completely immune to the decay of the outside world.

“Make yer selves comfy. Chair’s mine, though,” she said. “I know it ‘ain’t much of a castle, but that chair’s been my throne since my daddy died twenty years ago,” she laughed.

Annie was amused by the awkwardness and shocked expressions on her guests faces as they sat down on two old sofas before a long antique wooden coffee table, visually absorbing everything in the room as if they’d forgotten what a living room was supposed to look like. All the furniture in the room looked ancient, including an old grandfather clock (no longer working) which permanently displayed fifteen minutes past three. The walls were cluttered with memories; picture frame after picture frame displayed what they all assumed were members of the Greenman family tree. Many of the photos showed men in decorated military uniforms. There was an old fireplace off to the right with more pictures sitting on the mantle. A big Zenith console television sat useless in the corner of the room, but remained as a reminder that things might one day return to what was… and that big screen might once more display Annie’s favorite television shows.

Diane, Nine and Tony sat on one couch. Wendy, Beverly, Mark and Matt squeezed in on the other. When Tony got up and offered Alysa his seat, she refused as though the thought of getting comfortable repulsed her, opting to stand at the back of the room, instead.

Annie was already moving a hundred miles an hour as she traveled back and forth between her small kitchen and the living room, talking all the while. For an old woman, she had a surprising amount of energy. At some point, she’d put the shotgun down, presumably in the kitchen. “Now… I ‘ain’t got much as far as beverage choices. It’s water, water, or water. The Lord blessed me with this house. Still have the well out back so there’s plenty of that. The well keeps it nice and cold, too.”

Tony laughed. “Water’s fine… and thank you.” He smiled at the others to help put them at ease.

“I run my geny sparingly,” she called from the kitchen. “Just long enough each day ta’ keep a few things runnin’ when I need ‘em. I use just enough juice ‘ta keep my ‘fridge cold but the pot-belly stove’s been a lifesaver, ‘specially this last winter. I just can’t chop all that wood like I used ‘ta. But I gotta have my stove, fer sure. ‘A hot meal’s the only thing keepin’ us from turnin’ into damn barbarians’, my mama used ‘ta say.”

Nine looked extremely amused. As Annie continued to chatter on, he raised his right hand, turning it into an Annie puppet, mouthing her words with the hand, while pretending to be Tony, who was constantly nodding or trying to get a word in.

Beverly started snorting again, causing Wendy to cup her mouth to keep from bursting out with laughter.

“Children, behave,” Tony scolded them teasingly. It felt good for him to see the others laugh a little. There had already been enough death and sadness to last several lifetimes.

Annie returned with a tray of glasses filled with water, a bowl of pretzels, and a bowl of potato chips (the non-stale kind). She placed it on the coffee table, shooting Alysa a disapproving glance for standing around. “Now, I know it ‘ain’t much, but it’s a start.”

Tony stood up. “No, it’s fine… Annie. Thanks for your hospitality.”

“Sit, sit, sit,” she said with a wave of her hand. “Have a snack and a drink. Y’all look like you haven’t had either in a spell.” She moved to her chair and slowly sat down. “That’s better.” Her younger guests were attacking the chips and pretzels, making Annie laugh. “It’s been a while since I had young people in this house. I’d forgotten how much they like that junk food.”

Diane slipped a chip away from the savages and tried not to inhale it. “This is wonderful,” she told Annie. “We haven’t sat down in a real living room like this in a long time.”

“It shows,” Annie said with a wink. “And what might yer’ name be, young lady?”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m Diane.”

“That’s a lovely name. And the rest of ‘ya?”

The others went around the room introducing themselves.

When it came around to Alysa’s turn, the archer simply stood there.

The old woman frowned at her and said, “And who might you be, other than short-of-manners?”

Alysa looked at Tony who nodded for her to continue. She looked back at Annie. “Are you alone here? I find it difficult to believe you’ve managed this long by yourself… considering your age.”

Tony winced. “You’ll have to forgive my friend. She’s…”

“Emotionally challenged,” Nine finished. He grabbed a handful of pretzels.

Alysa rolled her eyes, sighed, and said, “Alysa. My name’s Alysa.”

“Well, Alysa, you can come on in and join us. I’m not gonna bite ‘ya,” Annie said. “And, yes, I’ve had a little help from time ‘ta time.”

Tony gave the archer a pleading look.

Alysa returned it with a ‘what the hell did I do?’ look. “I… need some fresh air,” she announced, heading for the front door. “I’ll be on the porch.”

“Sorry about that, Annie,” Tony said after the door shut. “Times are tough, as I’m sure you know. Sometimes it’s hard to remember how we’re supposed to ‘be’ in certain situations.”

Annie waved it off, leaned in and whispered, “‘Takes all kinds of nuts ‘ta fill this world jar’ my mama used ‘ta say.”

This time it was Diane who laughed, earning her a surprised look from the others.

“Truth is… Tony,” Annie continued. “Your girlfriend reminds me of a dog I once rescued from a bad way. Took that mutt a whole week ‘ta start trustin’ people again.”

“She’s not my girl- ”

“I had ‘ta feed that poor thing on the porch,” Annie continued. “Damn thing wouldn’t run off… but it wouldn’t come in either. Eventually, it came around.” She patted Tony’s hand. “Don’t give up on her, son. It’s damn near impossible ‘ta find a good woman these day. Slim pickin’s. You might have ‘ta settle for them broken ones, too.”

Both Nine and Diane were laughing now, enjoying Tony’s discomfort.

Tony immediately thought about one ‘broken girl’ in particular, causing the scab over his heart to peel. He was relieved when Annie changed the subject.

“So, what brings you folks out ‘ta lonely old Wick, Tony? Never saw many people before the ‘pocalypse… much fewer now.”

“We’re looking for some friends that might have headed through here,” he said. “Have you seen anyone else, like us, come through in the past month?”

“You mean, there’s more lousy thieves out there roaming about?” she said with a laugh. “You better stop them right quick before the lot of ‘ya give the profession a bad name.”

“Annie,” Nine laughed. “I really like you.”

“Well, thank you, young man. You go on and take an extra couple of chips for that.” She winked.

“Seriously,” Tony said. “You might have seen them. They would’ve been with a larger group.”

Annie leaned back in her chair and thought back. “Well… there was one group that came by right after winter let up. But they weren’t like any of you. They was strange… and a little scary.”

“Go on,” Tony urged.

“I’d seen all sorts come through here… but this lot… well… they just spelled trouble. Most folks just pass through and never give old Wick a second thought… it’s always been… always will be, I suppose. That’s why no one bothers old Annie, all alone on this here highway. But this group, they were driven’ in three cars, all slow like. One was a big green Caddy, another was a flatbed truck full of face-painted people and lots of stuff. The last was a box truck. They came creepin’ through Wick in the early hours, almost didn’t catch ‘em, but I heard one of them trucks squeal to a stop… just out front, too.”

“I’m sorry,” Tony said. “Did you say ‘face-painted’ people’?”

Annie shook as if reacting to a draft. She started rubbing her arms. “Yep… I got a good look at ‘em ‘cause the moon was out that night. They were paler than ghosts, remindin’ me a little of clowns, ‘cept they wasn’t funny… not at all. I was sure that it was white face paint. And they’d painted black around their eyes, noses, and around their mouths, too. I’d looked outside my window and seen ‘em when some of ‘em got off the flatbed truck, just standin’ there at the end of my driveway. They was just starin’ at the house like they were tryin’ to decide what to do. And they was armed to the teeth!”

“How many of these face-painted people did you see?” Mark asked.

Annie started counting on her fingers while she tried to picture what she saw. “At least twenty-five… maybe more.”

“And did you see any other people, Annie?” Diane asked. “People without the face paint?”

“No… but there was still that box truck. You think your friends were with them?”

Tony sank in his seat. “We don’t know, Annie. It happened a while ago… but our friends were attacked. We think some of them may have been captured.”

Annie nodded. “Well… these could’ve been the capturin’ kind, fer sure. I think they knew I was here ‘cause they started acting all strange… howlin’ and cussin’, tryin’ everything they could to scare me out. At least that’s what I think.”

“That must have been dreadful,” Beverly said. “I can’t imagine what I’d do if it were me. I’d probably run out the back, screaming.”

“Oh… I thought about it, yes sir, but I decided ta’ wait ‘em out. Then, when it looked like they was gonna come inside, this tall one stepped out of the Caddy. It might have been a woman ‘cause she had long straight hair, but I wasn’t certain ‘cause of all that face paint. She was wearing a leather jacket and jeans, looking like some kind of circus gangster, holding a handgun in each hand.

“Shit,” Matt said, earning him a reproachful look from Annie. “Sorry… excuse my language.”

Annie continued. “Anyway, this woman, or long-haired man, startin’ yellin’ at the others ta’ get back in the trucks. She seemed in a hurry while the others wanted to play. So, they all got back in their cars like pouting children and drove off. Haven’t seen them since, thank the Good Lord.”

“Amen,” Nine said with a smile. “I’m glad nothing happened to you. There’s been enough bad things happening to good people since this all started… and that’s without having to worry about our own kind, too.”

Annie nodded thoughtfully. “I’m grateful they drove off… but I was pissed in the mornin’ when I went outside and found all their damn beer cans tossed about the road. Wick ‘ain’t much, but it’s always been clean. This ‘ain’t some damn trash can… this is my home!”

Tony and Diane exchanged a worried glance at the mention of the beer cans.

Annie caught it. “My, I sure hope your friends weren’t involved with that lot. We’re they?”

“They might be,” Tony said. “So, when they left, did they just continue heading west?”

Annie nodded. “Yep, but like I said, haven’t seen ‘em since. Sorry.”

“That’s okay, Annie,” Tony said. “You’ve been a big help. At least we know who and what we’re dealing with now.”

“Tony?” Alysa surprised all of them from the doorway. She’d come back inside unnoticed.

He turned.

“I need to speak with you… outside.”

“If you’ll excuse me a moment,” Tony said to Annie, getting up.

“Go on… take care of business,” Annie said, rising to meet him. She then leaned in and whispered with a wink, “I understand. I was young once, too. Take care of your woman. Maybe you can talk her into sitting down with us.”

Tony just shook his head and tried to ignore the others amusement. He walked outside with Alysa.

“Were you in there for any of that?” he asked.

“What… the ‘she thinks I’m your girlfriend’ bit?”

“Not that,” he said, shuffling his feet.

Alysa smiled. “Yes, I caught the gist of it. It sounds like her face-painted people are our new enemy.”

Tony nodded with an exhausted sigh. “I’m too tired right now to consider what that will mean for us if we ever catch up to these… people.” He shifted gears. “What was so important that you couldn’t tell me inside?”

Alysa looked across the street. “It’s that ranch house.”

“And?”

“I wanted us to have the advantage of information that our host might not know we have.”

Tony laughed. “You really don’t like this woman, do you?”

“It’s not that… I’m just… careful. Annie’s someone we do not know. And I don’t trust easily.”

Tony nodded. “Fair enough. What is it?”

She turned back. “I’m almost certain that someone is living in that house, too.”

~~~

Next Episode 40-5

Previous Episode 40-3

~~~

If you’re enjoying Don’t Feed The Dark so far, please consider voting for it on Top Web Fiction and Top Site List by clicking the links below. This will help increase its visibility and draw in more potential readers. No registration is required. Thanks for your support and for reading :)

Vote for DFTD at topwebfiction

Vote for DFTD at Top Site List

__________________________________________
“Chapter 40-4: 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

Advertisements

Comments? I love to read them

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s