~~~

When the party finally died out, Annie graciously offered up her two boy’s bedrooms upstairs and her older daughter’s live-in basement room that she’d shared with her grandson. No one wanted to mention the absence of the Greenman children, especially Annie.

Tony thanked her for the thousandth time as Matt and Mark took one of the upstairs bedrooms, Wendy and Beverly moved in to the other. They all had to share one bed per room and Annie insisted that the boys and girls sleep separately.

“Don’t want no hanky-panky under my roof,” she’d said, escorting the four upstairs.

This caused Nine to smirk at Diane with an expectant look on his face.

“Don’t even start,” Diane had cautioned the troublemaking young man.

“Yes, my angel,” he’d said with a laugh.

After Annie returned from helping the others settle in upstairs, she lit a small candle and set it at the center of the coffee table. She started shutting off the lights and then excused herself to go turn off the generator.

When the power went out, Alysa came back inside.

“The Queen of the Dark has returned!” Nine said dramatically.

Alysa ignored him. She turned to Tony. “You can’t even hear the generator running out there. She must have it below ground.”

“She did mention… a bunker,” Tony said, staring up from the couch at the archer through bloodshot eyes.

Alysa frowned at him. “You drank too much.”

Tony laughed. “I’m just really tired… and… I drank too much.”

“Look at him, honey,” Nine said, elbowing Diane. “That’s what a cheap-date looks like.”

“Don’t call me honey,” she said, feeling the eyes of the Shadow Dead woman on her.

Annie returned and said, “Well… if y’all are good, old Annie’s gonna turn in. We’ll talk more tomorrow over breakfast.”

“Goodnight, Annie,” the others said, watching the old woman finally slow down and drag her tired frame upstairs to her room.

“Annie offered us her kids’ bedrooms,” Tony told Alysa. “The basement room is all yours if you want to get some rest. Myself, Diane and that clown with the shit-eating grin on his face over there will stay in the living room and keep watch.”

Alysa’s eyebrows shot up. “Are you watching each other to see who passes out before the rest?”

It took them a moment to realize she was attempting a joke… well, mostly.

Tony laughed and admitted, “I guess we aren’t in too good a shape right now, but we’ll be alright. You should get some rest.”

“I’ll rest later,” Alysa said. “After we’ve left this house and everything about it behind us.” She turned to return to the front porch. “I’ll stay posted outside.”

Before Tony could object, the archer was gone.

“Okay,” Nine started excitedly. “I think I’ve figured this shit out.”

“What are you babbling about now?” Diane asked.

“I’m talking about… Alysa,” he said, being sure to drop his voice to a whisper before saying her name.

“What about her?” Tony asked.

He started counting on the fingers of his left hand. “She sees in the dark, hides in the shadows, no one ever hears her creepy ass coming. Add in the fact that the Shadow Dead probably sleep during the day… and she just said she doesn’t sleep at night-”

“That’s not what she said, fuck-stick,” Diane corrected.

“Well… close enough. Point is, I know what she is now.”

The other two waited.

“Come on, guys! Isn’t it obvious?” Nine stood up. “She, and the others like her… are Vampires!”

Diane and Tony looked at each other, and then busted up with laughter.

Nine folded his arms and shook his head. “Alright, I see how you two are. I yell ‘zombie’ and everyone turns to run… but if I say ‘vampire’… now I’m being farfetched?”

This just made the others laugh harder.

“You all lack imagination,” Nine said, giving up and sitting down. “Just wait. She never said she didn’t eat people, she just made a joke about it. I’ll bet she’s just waiting for us to fall asleep… hell… she can probably feed on us without us knowing. Don’t come crying to me if you notice unusual marks on your bodies.”

“Nine, I swear,” Tony started, trying to calm down. “If I wake up in the morning and you reek of garlic, I’m throwing your damn ass into the closest lake.”

This made Diane double over with laughter.

Nine raised his arms in surrender. “Alright, don’t say I didn’t warn you. And don’t bother with that crucifix shit… that only works in the movies. Any self-respecting vampire hunter knows that shit.” He sat down on the empty couch, leaned back, and buried his head into the cushion. “Damn, I didn’t realize how tired I was until just now.”

“You two get some sleep,” Tony said. “We’ll take shifts. I’ll take the first one.”

“No,” Diane said, getting up and sitting down next to Nine. “The vampire was correct. You look shitty. Get some sleep and I’ll take the first watch.”

Tony was too tired to argue. He removed his shoes, turned, and propped himself up on the sofa. He looked over toward the young couple who were now snuggling together in the shadow of the candlelight. They look great together, despite how different they are. Love is certainly a mysterious thing. He smiled at them and then thought of Alysa on the front porch. “Diane,” he said, as his eyelids started to get heavy.

“What is it, Tony?”

“Would you please try to be nice to her if she comes back inside?”

“No promises… but I’ll try.”

“Garlic sticks and extra cheese please…” Nine muttered groggily and then started to lightly snore.

Diane shook her head and laughed. “See what I have to deal with? I stand watch while asshole over here gets to eat pizza in La La Land.”

Tony laughed. “Night, Diane.”

“Goodnight, Tony.”

Thirty minutes later, all three of them were fast asleep.

~~~

Alysa glanced through the front window and into the candlelit living room. Tony, Nine and Diane were all asleep.

She smiled and shook her head. So much for the night watchmen. She lingered a moment more, staring at the sleeping forms, wondering just what it was that Marcus found so fascinating about them. To her, none of these sheep appeared all that special… nothing like the infamous Gina Melborn that her former patient had raved about in his drug-induced state. And yet, he had chosen to keep his true identity hidden rather than slaughter all of them systematically as the blood-thirsty Russell Bower of old. Why? Why bother staying with these pathetic people at all?

But she knew why.

Marcus had showed his contempt for her isolated existence several times in the three weeks they’d shared that cabin together. He believed hiding away from the world—from people—was weakness, and at the root of that weakness… fear.

She smiled fondly, thinking back to the time they’d spent together. In the end, she had given Marcus the choice to flee, or attempt to kill her. He had wisely departed—the need to get back to his Gina outweighing his need to murder her. But was it fear that drove people to live a lonely existence? Or was it just strong survival instincts, reacting to the current chaotic environment, that drove people to separate from one another? And what drove her to finally decide to pursue Marcus back to the wilderness compound? Did she actually miss his company? She would continue to explore the question while traveling with these leftovers from a dead world, while hoping that their path would eventually intersect with Marcus’s… and his god, Gina.

In the meantime, there was Tony. To understand why Marcus worshipped the red-haired woman, she needed to understand her. And how better to do so then by getting close to the man that Gina esteemed.

She looked at the sleeping man, turning uncomfortably on his side. He barely fit on the small couch.

So far, Alysa was not impressed.

She stepped away from the window and sat back down on the porch steps. She decided to wait another fifteen minutes and then investigate the strange old woman’s bunker out back. Perhaps she would loot her supplies, or at the very least, take an inventory, and then steal what they needed before leaving. If it had been up to her, Alysa would have killed the old woman by now. It was foolish to advertise your existence to strangers, let alone inviting them inside where they could clearly ambush you and take everything. Annie had it coming. If they didn’t do it, eventually, someone else would. She struggled to understand what validated the morality of her travelling companions, especially in a world where desperation ruled… and desperation never gave a damn about morality. But, she would continue to show restraint and yield to some misplaced notion of “right and wrong” in order not to alienate herself from the others.

A bright light briefly flashed from one of the front windows of the dark Pendleton house, and then it was gone.

Alysa frowned, grabbed her bow and quiver, and then quickly dropped prone to the ground at the base of the porch steps. She remained still for several minutes, watching the property for any movement.

That old woman became guarded when we asked about her neighbors, Alysa thought. It was only there for a moment, but the signs were obvious: A pause in her breathing, a subtle shift in her eye movement, that nervous twitch of her finger… and she started choosing her words very carefully, too.

Alysa decided to postpone her trip to the bunker.

Moving swiftly but stealthily, Alysa blended into the darkness and crossed the highway, stopping behind a large tree just to the left of the long dirt driveway. She let her eyes adjust to the increasing shadows that filled the fenced-in yard, watching for the slightest movements. There were none.

Alysa lowered her shoulders to make herself as small as possible, and then sprinted across the dirt roadway, making no sounds, until reaching the old chain-link fence. She dropped back into the prone position, staring between tall grass and weeds at the front of the old ranch house.

From this close, she could see faint light slipping through the crack between a drawn curtain. As far as she could tell, the exterior of the house looked long neglected. A partially caved-in roof stood over a weathered front porch. The peeling paint looked ancient around an old wooden front door surrounded by windows that looked like they offered no protection from the previous winter winds. The house resembled more of an old rotting cabin, long forgotten. Her night vision was better than most, but she couldn’t make out any further details under the limited light. If anything was clear from the surface of things, Alysa believed that the Pendletons wanted their home to look abandoned. The ranch house was the exact opposite of the Greenman house; where one was homely and inviting—this place looked haunted and menacing. It screamed, STAY AWAY… OR ELSE!

But then there was the flashing light… the ‘inviting’ flashing light. Had that been a careless mistake, or did the current residents, Pendletons or otherwise, want her to see it?

Alysa dismissed all questions. She started moving along the fence line, looking for a vulnerable point to breach, while working her way around toward the back of the property. She did not concern herself with monsters or men hidden in the darkness waiting to ambush her… she was the darkness. No one would know she was there unless she wanted them to know.

At the rear of the house, the chain-link fence ended and an old wooden horse fence continued, bordering the back half of the property. There were no horses, or anything else.

Alysa easily maneuvered between a gap in the fences as she slithered through more tall grass and approached a lone door at the back of the deteriorated ranch house.

Despite Annie Greenman’s good relationship with her estranged neighbors from across the street, Alysa felt like there was more to the story than Annie revealed. The former Shadow Dead would find out for herself what that story was as she slowly opened the creaking back door with her bow drawn, like a viper getting ready to strike out at the night, itself. She no longer cared if those within were tipped off by the loud door. They would try to hide, using the darkness to their advantage. That was expected. But they would never see her coming until she was standing beside them, or not at all, if Alysa decided to enter, investigate, and then exit without the occupants’ knowledge.

Alysa crept into the dark house and disappeared within it.

~~~

Beverly and Wendy slept soundly next to each other in the single bed of the youngest boy’s bedroom.

Before Annie had shut off the power, the two women enjoyed examining the walls full of old sports memorabilia and music bands, wooden shelves full of treasured toys and stuffed animals from youth, and more family pictures, including one young woman who clearly might have been the boy’s girlfriend a long time ago.

Wendy had always admired parents who preserved the spaces once occupied by sons or daughters even long after they’d grown up, moved on, and perhaps were now raising children of their own. She had smiled fondly at the room and thought, They never really grow up, never really leave, as long as the memories remain. She had fallen asleep with Beverly sharing another one of her famous Cleveland adventures from a world long gone… and Wendy loved her for it. They had felt like two girls having a slumber party together in some brother’s room.

The door to the youngest son’s bedroom opened slowly and quietly on recently lubricated hinges. Two shadows entered the room and moved to either side of the sleeping girls.

The shadow on the right side of the bed turned on a flashlight, being mindful to keep the light directed away from the girls’ faces but close enough to still see them. “They’re out,” a gruff male voice whispered. He was a tall, lean man with an unkempt beard.

Annie Greenman stepped into the dim light from the left side of the bed. Her face looked grave, almost sinister in the partial light. She retrieved two syringes, handed one to the man, and whispered, “Remember… meaty part of the shoulder.”

The tall man nodded.

Annie and the tall man leaned in carefully over the sleeping girls. They gently placed their hands on both girl’s chests buried in blankets and applied just enough pressure to minimize any premature movements.

Annie pulled back the sheets just enough to expose their shoulders. She turned to the tall man and nodded.

They quickly moved in over the girls, injecting them both in the shoulder with the syringes.

Beverly and Wendy’s eyes shot open immediately as the sharp pain woke them.

Before they could cry out, Annie and the tall man cupped their mouths closed with one hand while holding their heads to the pillows with the others. Both girls squirmed beneath the blankets until the powerful horse tranquilizers kicked in, causing their nervous systems to shut down.

Wendy and Beverly’s world went black.

Annie and the tall man stepped back from the bed.

The tall man started shining his flashlight back and forth between the girl’s faces while Annie moved in to check for breathing. Either the Xylazine was performing its desired effect… or the girls were already dead.

The old woman seemed satisfied. She nodded toward the second bedroom while retrieving two more syringes.

~~~

Alysa hid within a narrow gap between the refrigerator and a pantry door. The kitchen was dark and small, but provided a clear view of the back hallway as the man with the battery powered lantern walked right by her, and stopped at the open back door to investigate.

She could see tell from the man’s silhouette that he was young, probably late teens, and that aside from the lantern, the man also carried a rifle slung around his back.

One of the Pendleton sons, Alysa deduced. As she waited to see what the young man would do, she took in her dark surroundings as best she could while the man’s lantern partially lit up the shadows. The kitchen was a mess. A mountain of dirty plates filled the sink; the counter tops hadn’t been cleaned; trash filled the floor and everything smelled of rotten food. If not for the appearance of the young man, Alysa might have suspected that no one had lived here for quite some time. But then again, this wasn’t the first time since the old world ended that she’d come across so-called survivors who had already given up on everything except breathing, and who were just waiting their turn to die.

The man finally closed the back door. It creaked shut, reducing all light save for the small sphere surrounding the pale-faced young man.

Alysa got a good look into his despondent eyes before he passed the kitchen. His face mirrored so many other faces—those who had witnessed so many unspeakable horrors that it no longer registered as anything but normal, now. That faraway, haunted expression in the eyes spoke of someone who resembled alive, but was no longer living, in his former shell. Alysa understood that those who shared this look were capable of anything… or absolutely nothing. They had nothing left to lose, and that made this young man very dangerous.

When the lantern light faded, Alysa quickly and quietly moved out of the kitchen, being mindful to walk lightly on the old hardwood floors just waiting to moan with age and indifference to her stealth. She followed the man to the front of the house, stopping in the shadows at the end of a long hall that opened up to the Pendleton living room.

She watched the young man sit down in an old recliner that had been repositioned before a large front window. He put the lantern down on top of an old television console turned table. On the other side of the console was what looked like a telescope on a stand, aimed directly toward a small gap in the long black curtains that covered the window.

Alysa took in the rest of the room. Off to the left was an ancient-looking fireplace. To the right there was an alcove leading toward the front door. The back of an old sofa faced her, leaving a considerable gap of open space between the couch and her hiding spot at the edge of the hall. Mounted on two of the dusty living room walls were the heads of two animals; one, a buck; the other, a bear. There was also a large bear-skin rug spread out across the floor, just between her and the couch. There was a yellow-stained pillow and what looked like a quilt laying on top of the rug. He sleeps here, she thought. Someone else uses the couch. Why? She considered exploring the bedrooms but believed what she really needed to see was here.

The young man got up and stood before the telescope. He peered within the viewer and started scanning slowly, first to the left, then back to the right.

Surveillance, Alysa thought. He’s been watching us and the Greenman house. She suspected that the telescope might have some sort of night vision capability, which would mean…

Alysa raised her bow toward the young man. “How long have you known I was here?” she asked.

At first, the young man didn’t move. Finally, he raised his head from the telescope and said in a low monotone voice, “I knew you were… somewhere. In the yard, maybe.” He slowly turned toward the intruder with the bow and attempted a smile which ended up looking ghastly on his pale face. “You’re quiet… real quiet. After the back door, I never heard another sound.”

“Why are you spying on us?” Alysa asked.

“Not spying… inventory.”

“Explain that.”

The young man pointed to a notebook near the lantern. “People come. People go. I watch. I count. I describe it all in here.”

Alysa considered killing the man immediately. But then she’d have to explain it to her travelling companions if it was discovered. “So, you watch the road for people, assess their numbers, what they have, and then, what… set up an ambush down the road?”

The young man laughed. “No. No ambush. Just watch.”

“Sure. Just watch,” Alysa frowned at him. “Are you a Pendleton?”

He nodded.

“Where’s your father?”

“Busy.”

“Is he here? I want to speak with him.”

He shook his head.

Alysa was growing tired of this game. She took a threatening step forward, hoping the young man would panic, go for his gun, and give her a reason to put an arrow through his head.

The young man didn’t move. He continued to stare at the intruder with what looked like a mix of wonder, curiosity, and something malevolent just beneath the surface of his face.

She frowned. This one’s checked out a long time ago.

“Are you alone in this house?” she asked.

He nodded.

“Where exactly is your father?”

The young man laughed again and then pointed over his shoulder with his thumb.

Alarms were going off inside Alysa’s head. “Your father’s at the Greenman house?”

He nodded.

Time to go. She started slowly backing down the hall.

“Wait,” the young man said. “There’s more.”

Alysa stopped.

The young man waved her toward the telescope. “Come see. Come see… and you’ll understand.”

Alysa stepped back to the edge of the hall. “If you’re playing games… I will kill you.”

He nodded. “No games. Come see.” The young man stepped back from the telescope, raising his arms submissively.

“Look into my eyes,” she ordered.

He did.

“Can you see it? Can you see that I don’t care if you live or die?”

The young man nodded and took another step away from the telescope. He pointed at it and repeated, “Come see… and you’ll understand.”

Alysa stepped forward toward the back of the couch to get a better look at the telescope. She stepped on the bear skin rug and started… falling.

She dropped her bow into the darkness below, managing to catch an edge of the floor with one hand, as she dangled from the hole that the rug was concealing.

The young man came over quickly.

Alysa had just enough time to look up as the butt of the man’s rifle struck her hard in the head. She lost her grip and fell unconscious into the basement beneath.

~~~

Diane woke in the strange dark living room, a sudden feeling of panic overwhelming her before she realized where she was. She stared at the barely burning candle; the wax had melted down to the base. It’s been two hours, maybe three.

“Fuck,” she whispered, realizing that she’d fallen asleep on watch. She glanced over at Tony and Nine. They were still asleep. The hunter smiled. Well… they never have to know.

Diane stood up and stretched. She walked over to the front window and looked outside. All she could see was darkness. If the Shadow Dead woman was still out there, she’d never know unless she stepped out onto the front porch. Check downstairs first, she thought. Hopefully the bitch had enough sense to come inside and get some sleep, and then you won’t have to go outside and have a conversation with her. Of course, if she did come in… why didn’t she wake one of us first?

Diane let out a long yawn and decided that she was too damn exhausted to care. She started toward the basement door, near the kitchen. It was open. She reached into her pants pocket and retrieved a small flashlight. She turned it on and briefly scanned the quiet living room. All was as it was before she passed out. Good. Now… just creep on down and see if she’s there… then… maybe I might find some secret coffee stash in Annie’s kitchen. Walking around did some good as she felt her groggy head begin to clear. She was half-way down the steps that led into the furnished basement when she stopped. What if I startle her and she puts a fucking arrow in my skull?

“Alysa?” she called down. “It’s me… Diane. If you’re down there, just let me know, and I’ll leave you alone.”

There was no answer.

Of course.

Diane finished descending the steps, scanning the room before her. It was as expected. A large bedroom, obviously the older daughter’s, with a master bed and a smaller bed set against the wall. Both were unoccupied. Further back was another open door which either led into the rest of the basement or perhaps a small bathroom.

Shit. Miss Creepy is still outside.

She turned to head back up the steps and stopped.

Diane heard a faint noise coming from the possible bathroom.

She turned back. “Is anyone there?”

No answer.

Just calm down. It’s an old house. Old houses always make noises.

And then a dark shape filled the doorway at the back of the bedroom. Diane nearly jumped out of her skin, when she panned her light over and saw someone standing there.

Diane lowered the light slightly and grabbed her chest with a laugh. “You scared the hell out of me. What the hell are you doing down here, Annie?”

Annie smiled back. “Sorry, child,” she whispered. “Didn’t me ta’ frighten’ ya’. I come down here sometimes to be close ta’ my kin. I have dreams… dreams that have me wakin’ up at the strangest hours, believin’ my kids have all come home. Dreams that are so strong… I start ta’ wonder if I was dreamin’ or if it really happened. So… I wander about sometimes in the dark, thinkin’ I hear them callin’ out ta’ me. Ya’ probably think I’ve lost my marbles or somethin’.”

Diane relaxed. “I think you’ve just been alone for a very long time.”

Annie looked away, embarrassed. “Well… you’re too kind. I’d appreciate it if you’d just keep what I said between us.”

“Absolutely,” Diane said. Sensing Annie’s discomfort, she changed the subject. “I don’t suppose you’ve seen Alysa? You know, Miss Antisocial with the bow?”

Annie laughed. “No, child. I haven’t seen your rude friend. But since your down here… would ya’ mind keepin’ a foolish old woman company for a spell? Just ‘till I get my bearings?”

Diane glanced around the basement and then gave Annie a hesitant look, realizing that the old woman hadn’t yet moved away from the doorway. “I don’t mind… but how about we talk upstairs? Basements are not my thing. I guess my boyfriend’s love of cheesy horror movies is starting to rub off on me.” She surprised herself with the admission that Nine was, indeed, her boyfriend, but vowed never to let him hear her say it.

The old woman laughed. “I understand. If you would be so kind…” Annie raised her arm out to her. “I could use a little help gettin’ back up those stairs. Old Annie can still do a lot of things… but stairs are a real challenge. I’m surprised I made it down here. I must admit, I was a little winded and disoriented when you found me. I’m glad ya’ came down when ya’ did, or else old Annie probably would’ve slept down here.” She added a laugh, making fun of herself.

Diane smiled. “Of course.” She started over toward the old woman.

When Diane’s light left her face briefly, Annie’s jovial facial expression started to change. She held one hand behind her back, her fist clenched around the syringe.

After dealing with the hunter, Annie and the tall man, who was hiding in the laundry room shadows just behind her, could focus on taking out the last two sleeping beauties in the living room.

~~~

Next Episode 40-7

Previous Episode 40-5

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 40-6: 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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