~~~

Another half a mile up the highway, they entered the central hub of Wayne Village, unremarkably located around one major intersection. Small residential homes lined both sides of the streets, branching out and away from the intersection in all four directions. At the intersection, there was an old family restaurant on the right, that had been closed and boarded up. A long-neglected sign read: CROSSROADS FAMILY REST… The remaining letters, too faded to make out. On the other side of the street on the right, a tall church spire penetrated the surrounding tree tops. On the left was a burned down grocery store, and a three-story brick structure with a generic dirty sign that read: Wayne Apartments.

The sky continued to get darker as a light rain began to fall.

Tensions were high as the survivors continued to stare back the way they came, expecting another herd of the dead to appear out of nowhere. To make matters worse, every structure in Wayne stood exposed with the front doors either completely off their hinges, hanging askew, or just left wide open, blowing against their frames as the wind picked up. Most windows had been shattered. Litter blew across the street from piles of domesticated junk that had been removed and abandoned in front of their homes.

They needed to find shelter from the storm but Wayne felt uninviting and sinister.

Tony told the others to hold up near the intersection while himself, Diane and Alysa examined the yards.

When they crossed the intersection, Nine got a good view of the church parking lot. The large lot was full of ancient-looking cars that had been there long before the winter, resembling more of a junkyard. The front double doors of the grime-covered faded white church stood open like the mouth of some dormant monster, waiting for its next victim to foolishly step inside… and prey.

Wendy stepped up next to Nine and startled him. “It looks like everyone fled their homes in a hurry to… what… go hide in the church? Wait out the storm in numbers?”

Nine couldn’t stop looking away from the church doors. “I keep thinking if we went up there we’d find rotting bodies loaded in the pews, still listening to their last sermon.”

“Everything here feels… wrong,” Wendy said, nodding toward the church. “Especially that place.”

“They came here to die together,” Matthew said. “Probably hoping to meet God when all hell broke loose on Day One.”

“That’s fucking bleak,” Mark said, staring at the cars. “Think any of them might have left a set of keys before the service?”

Nine ignored their chatter. He found the church marquee lying in the weeds near the entrance:

First Congregational Church
Pastor Ray and Mary Speers
Going to waste? Let God recycle you.
BS – 9:45 Services – 11am & 7pm

Any other time, Nine would’ve found the saying amusing, but in light of the present, it gave him a chill instead. This whole damn world is going to waste.

Wendy snickered at the sign and said, “‘Soul food served here’.”

Nine gave her a puzzled look.

“That’s the only one I could remember,” she said. “My friends and I used to read all these church signs just for those funny phrases.”

Nine laughed, remembering one. “‘To prevent ‘sinburn’ use ‘Sonscreen’.’”

“That’s a good one,” she said. “How about, ‘7 days without prayer makes 1 weak’.”

“‘Vote Mother Teresa, nun of the above’,” Matthew chimed in, surprising the others.

“‘Forbidden fruit creates many jams’,” Nine added.

Wendy snorted at that one, causing even gloomy Matt to crack a smile. “Okay… ‘Brush up on your bible, it prevents Truth decay’,” she added.

Nine shook his head with a smile. “That’s lame.”

Wendy laughed. “Yeah… it is.”

“Okay, wait for it,” Nine said with a deviant smile. “‘Cremation is your last chance for a smoking hot body’.”

Matt and Wendy both lost it on that one.

“Would you idiots keep it down,” Mark hissed.

Tony, Alysa and Diane came over.

“Everything alright?” Tony said.

“Just trying to lighten the mood,” Nine said, staring back at the church doors. “Please tell me we aren’t sleeping in there.”

The big man stared at the church. “Hell no.” He turned and pointed across the street at another smaller church set back from the road that had been converted into a town hall. “Alysa checked the building through the windows. Two ways in or out, with one large room. Big wooden secure doors. But most importantly, it’s one of the few places here that appears to have been overlooked… and the front door is unlocked.”

“We could just… keep going,” Nine suggested.

Tony looked at the sky. “No. We’re about to have one helluva storm. Last thing we need is to get sick out here. And Diane needs rest.”

“I’m okay,” she defended a bit too harshly. “Besides, this place… this place reminds me of the back end of a horror novel with the front pages missing; don’t’ know what happened, but all the signs point to something bad.”

“Agreed,” Tony said. “But we need shelter and we all need rest. We’ll lay low in the town hall, get our strength back, and get the hell out of here at first light.”

Alysa was looking around repeatedly, holding her bow at the ready. She made the others jumpy.

“What is it?” Tony said.

“I’m with the hunter,” she said. “This place is giving me a bad vibe.”

The rain started falling harder.

“Let’s just get inside and we’ll figure out what to do from there,” Tony said. He looked back once more at the church doors. “I want to get out of the street… now.”

They were all in agreement as Alysa led them across the highway and into the vacant town hall building.

Overhead, the sky grew increasingly darker. A bolt of lightning zipped across the sky.

~~~

The inside of the town hall building was mostly clear. There were rows of aluminum folding chairs set up before a raised platform. A podium with a long dead microphone collected cobwebs at the center of the platform. On both sides of the room were two long fold-up tables, presumably where refreshments might have once been set up for various public official speaking engagements.

After securing the front door, Tony set Diane, Wendy and Matthew near windows on three sides to act as lookouts while himself, Alysa, and Nine swept the remainder of the hall, behind the platform, to verify that they were alone. A single hallway ran along the backside of the podium where they discovered two small bathrooms, and a large storage room full of town relics from days long past. They made sure the back door was still secure and then rejoined the others in the front.

“What do you suppose the final town meeting was like?” Nine joked. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” he said in a mock politician’s voice. “I assure you, there’s no need to be alarmed. The situation is well under control. There is no zombie epidemic… I repeat… no epidemic. So please… return to your homes and go about your business as usual. There is no need to panic. Pizza delivery services have been restored… I repeat… pizza delivery services-”

“Nine,” Diane interrupted.

“Yes, my angel?”

“Shut up.”

“You got it.”

“Sky is getting real dark,” Wendy said, staring out one of two large front windows and up at the dark swirling mass of ominous clouds. “Looks like night out there but it’s still a couple of hours before sunset. It’s going to be a bad one.”

Tony nodded. “This place looks like our new home for the night. Might as well get comfortable and settle in. We’ll eat and try to get some sleep in shifts.”

Just then, the sky erupted as a bright flash followed by a loud BOOM reverberated overhead.

“Shit,” Mark said. “That’s close.” He started removing candles from his bag. “No lights, no worries. Courtesy of Annie’s bunker of doomsday supplies and horrors.” He met Diane’s gaze. “Sorry.”

The hunter turned away and pulled a chair up next to the window facing the creepy church across the street. She collapsed in the chair and let out a heavy sigh. “What do you suppose happened over there? It doesn’t look like anyone left that church after entering for the final service.”

Nine stepped up behind her and placed his hands on her shoulders. “I keep thinking we’ll find them all sitting in their pews… dead and decomposed… getting ready to sing another hymn.”

“That’s a disturbing image.” Another burst of lightening lit up the sky. Thunder rumbled and cracked overhead, causing Diane to jump in her seat. “That’s going to get old real fast.”

“How’s the pain?”

“Manageable,” she said. “Annie’s doomsday bunker of supplies and horrors came fully stocked; drugs to knock you out for immediate arm removal, and drugs to help you forget that it’s gone.”

“Yeah, but she didn’t have any laugh-inducing drugs you could smoke… total let down.”

She looked up at him and smiled. “That’s the last thing you need.”

“Are you kidding?” Nine said. “We should all be stoned to oblivion right now. Pass the apocalyptic peace pipe, please.” He leaned in and whispered, “Hell, can you imagine what a little wacky-tobaccy would do to that ultra-serious archer in the room?”

She laughed. “Stop it. Now I really want to get high. I’ll just have to add it to the list, right below a double-cheeseburger and just above a two-hour bath.”

Nine let loose a wicked little smile. “I know what just bumped itself to the top of my list.”

“Keep dreaming… maybe I’ll let you have a bite of my burger.”

Nine laughed.

She suddenly imagined herself naked in a tub, having to look at the grotesque stub sticking out of her right shoulder. Her mood immediately changed as she quickly wiped a tear from her eye. “Forget the fucking bath. It’s off the list… permanently.”

Nine wanted to reach out and take all her pain away. He hated seeing Diane like this. But anything he could do or say would come off as pity, and for Diane, that was the same as pouring salt over an open wound. He just pulled a chair up beside her and sat in silence.

She leaned over and put her head on his shoulder as they stared out into the fast approaching night.

~~~

The rain clapped the pavement outside and struck the roof like gravel being dumped from the sky. Thunder continued to roar overhead as intermittent lightening lit up the large space, illuminating the tension on everyone’s faces.

Mark and Nine had found several dark blankets in the town hall storeroom that they used to cover the windows before night set in. This allowed them to safely light a few candles without risk of exposure to anyone or anything lurking out in the darkness.

They all sat in a small circle of fold-up chairs, like an addiction support group, near the back corner of the room. Some were eating what they could while others were just waiting for the dreadful storm to end, trying to kill the time with hushed sidebar conversations. No one was ready to attempt sleep.

Alysa, who normally looked like she was waiting for some imminent attack that no one else knew about, was sitting in a chair, bow resting across her lap, looking… at ease? She listened to the rain, staring off into some distant place, with a nostalgic little smile betraying her humanity.

Tony found her unusual demeanor amusing. “Where are you right now?”

Alysa looked at the big man, immediately raising her shields. “It’s nothing.”

He waited.

She smiled and said, “Okay. I was remembering a time from my short-lived youth. I had a sister once. When we were younger, we’d listen to the storms and make up stories. Sometimes… in the afternoons… we’d sneak outside and dance in the rain, pretending we were anywhere and anyone we desired. I never laughed so hard in my life.” She frowned as reality set in. “But that was long ago. Storms like these always bring it back… for a moment.”

“What was your sister’s name?” Tony asked.

“Eva,” she said with a smile. “I was always the practical one. She was the dreamer.” She stopped abruptly. “Doesn’t matter. She’s dead.”

“I’m sorry,” Tony said. “I didn’t mean to stir up anything.”

“It’s alright,” she said. “She died a long time ago, long before any of this. Perhaps she was the lucky one.”

“Perhaps.” Tony caught himself staring too long. He looked away from the vulnerable archer. “It’s nice seeing another part of you, something other than the warrior. It’s… refreshing.”

Alysa didn’t know how to respond. She started to rise. “I should do a sweep. Make sure everything is-”

“I’m sure we’re still alright,” Tony said with a laugh. “No one with any sense will be out in this weather right now. Why don’t you sit back down and we’ll finally have that chat.”

Alysa let out a heavy sigh.

The others stopped what they were doing and were looking at her.

Tony waited expectantly.

“I suppose now is as good a time as any,” she relented, sitting back down in her chair. “What do you wish to know?” Whatever vulnerabilities Tony had observed were gone.

“I was captured in those woods, long before we acquired the compound,” Tony began. He was all serious now. “Samantha Petroskovich, a former police officer, was in charge of security at that… death camp… run by Micom and some crazy machine referred to as Micolad. Any of this ring a bell?”

Alysa’s face was unreadable. “I am aware of the camp, the cop, and the leadership.”

Tony nodded. “Then you know the horrific things that took place there? The Gathering?”

“Yes.”

“Were you part of all that?”

“Initially, before the objectives changed, yes, I was part of it.”

“Objectives?”

Alysa leaned back in her chair and scanned their suspicious faces. “There’s nothing I can say in my defense that will make up for some of the atrocities that I participated in at that camp. I did horrible things that I’m not proud of.”

Wendy looked at the others and then said, “Well, I can’t speak for the others, but all I know is that you helped get us out of the woods. And if not for you, Diane would be dead… just like Beverly.” She wiped a tear from her eye and finished, “Whatever you did, I’m sure that’s not you anymore.” She added a smile.

Alysa smiled back. “Thank you for that.”

“Hell, we’d all be sleeping while the dead Greenman family ate us alive, if you hadn’t showed up,” Mark added. “I’m sure we’re going to bite the bullet in the end… but I’m grateful it wasn’t like that… so… yeah, whatever you did… screw it.”

“You saved my ass… twice,” Diane added weakly, discovering that her pride felt as absent as her right arm. “I still don’t know what to make of you, yet, but maybe you’ve earned a little leniency from us. That’s all I’ve got to say.” She quickly looked away.

Nine looked at Diane proudly. He turned to Alysa and laughed, “What can I say, except, you haven’t eaten any of us yet, so, maybe you’re not all bad.”

Alysa raised an eyebrow. “Is it Tuesday yet?”

Everyone laughed a little.

“Good one!” Nine said. “And I sure hope you were kidding about that.”

“Go on, Alysa,” Tony said. “We’re not going to judge you for the past. We’ve all done things. Maybe not as bad as what you’ve done, but things that we have to live with.” He looked away. “You can provide us some answers now, and perhaps a little bit of closure for all the ones we’ve lost.”

Alysa nodded, took a deep breath, and continued. “In the beginning, The Shadow Dead, Micom, Micolad—we were all part of the same controlled experiment. The camp was created, in part, to study the long-term effects on survivors forced to live within a vacuum environment. Micom was the leadership, Micolad was the diety, and we were… we were the devil. The experiment was designed to work in phases. Phase One’s purpose was to form and focus on the strengths and weaknesses of ‘community’. Phase Two introduced an unbeatable adversary to discover what conflict would do to that community. That’s where the Shadow Dead fit in. What would happen to said community in the face of adversity? What would the element of fear show us? Desperation? Panic? Emotional reactions were documented and studied. Phase Three’s intent was to focus on faith. Could a populace, after being scattered like ants, be controlled by giving them a higher power to believe in? Could faith be forged into a weapon against an unbeatable enemy? That’s where it all started going wrong.

What started off as controlled fiction, turned into a delusional fact. Micom tossed out the script. He’d perverted the experiment and turned Micolad into a god-like mediator between man and beast with the intent to find a way to coexist with the dead… and like some of the gods that history has taught us about, Micom believed that human sacrifices were the key. It was Micom who created The Gatherings. He re-programmed Micolad and modified the Shadow Dead’s agenda to suit his new objectives. And like good little soldiers, following orders, my former brethren never questioned it… and that’s when I got out.”

“Sam was right all along,” Tony said, stunned, and shaking his head. “She tried to tell us that something was off about the camp. She believed we were guinea pigs in an experiment.”

Alysa nodded. “Somewhere along the way, well above my paygrade, the order came down to ‘secure’ the children. So we took them… all of them. And then when the experiments started on the kids, I was done.”

Tony remembered the pool full of bodies along the river, and the lifeless eyes of the young boy with the hole in his forehead. “I found bodies in the river,” he said. “Some were just kids.”

She nodded, staring at the floor. “Those who were sentenced to walk the river after the gatherings were either turned… or killed. Some of the children were… rejected. They were also put to death.”

Tony unconsciously balled his fists and closed his eyes. “Did you do that?”

“I followed orders,” she said. “If death was required… it was quick. One stab to the skull, just in case the outbreak ever mutated… or repeated.”

The silence in the room was thick.

Tony nodded, but refused to look at her. “That explains the wounds I saw on their foreheads. But what did you mean by ‘mutated or repeated’?”

Alysa sighed and stared into all their faces. “The organization you’ve come to know as ‘Mother’, is pulling all the strings. Mother has known what was coming for a long time… and has prepared for this epidemic in a variety of ways, with unlimited funding and resources. Aside from that general fact, and understanding that the Shadow Dead is one of many pieces created to fit this apocalyptic puzzle, I don’t pretend to grasp the motivations behind everything Mother has put in play. But I do know that the powers-to-be have been carefully monitoring and adapting to the effects of the outbreak on the population. They knew how the infection spread, and that if someone died aside from being bitten, that they would just… die. But they also knew that the possibility remained that this could change—mutate—especially since the dead initially came back from the grave. Along with this, they also knew ‘The Change’ was coming, and that it would strike randomly. But while most survivors sat around afterwards trying to figure out all the ‘whys’ behind who was spared and who wasn’t, everyone except Mother overlooked the most terrifying possibility of all.”

“That… The Change… might happen again,” Wendy whispered.

“Exactly,” Alysa said. “Thus, the word ‘repeat’.”

Another boom of lightning struck overhead to add emphasis.

Nine laughed nervously, pointing toward the ceiling.

Tony shook his head and looked at the archer. “Well… we’re just going to have to hope that possibility doesn’t happen… or else we’re screwed.”

“Randomly screwed,” Mark corrected.

“What was it the first time around?” Wendy asked. “One out of every five or so, right?”

“That’s about right,” Alysa said.

“And there’s no way to determine… who might turn?” Nine asked.

“The term I’ve heard come down is ‘selected’,” Alysa said. “I don’t know what the means, but I do know it sounds a lot less random when you put it that way.”

“Sure does,” Diane said as a sudden chill seized her.

“So, let’s get back to the kids,” Tony said, refusing to continue entertaining the notion of a second Change. “You said that you got out because of what was happening to the children. Explain that?”

Alysa’s shoulders sank as though she were suddenly wearing a thousand pounds. “Mother had already found a way to ‘weaponize’ the outbreak. God only knows why. An injection was all it took. We could also apply it to our traditional weapons… like what happened the night of the attack. But that was forbidden… at least, until then.” She sighed and continued. “We’d catch them escaping, inject them, and then tie them up to the trees as warning markers for the rest of the community. This also kept up the illusion that the Shadow Dead were… zombies… to use a generic term.”

“And how do the children fit into this?” Diane asked.

“Through all sorts of hideous experimentation on the children that I will not repeat… it was originally believed that a cure could come from them… but it turned out to be the exact opposite. The younger the child, the more potent the disease. All the children tested, were in fact… carriers… even if they showed no outward signs.”

“How can that be possible?” Wendy asked. “What you’re saying is that all children contracted whatever the hell it was that happened when The Change occurred… but it didn’t ‘change’ them?”

“Oh, it did,” Alysa said. “It’s been documented that most of the children above the age of two were affected as randomly by The Change as anyone else… and when they turned… it was estimated that they were five times more… ruthless… for lack of a better word, than the rest of the older yellow-eyed beasts. But some of the youngest ones Mother had acquired, didn’t ‘change’, not outwardly. Either they continued on with the infection inside of them, for a short time, until they simply burned out, or, in the case of the rare few… they simply continued on… living. Those rare kids are who Mother is trying to locate. They believe the infection has either gone dormant inside of them, or, that their bodies have simply adapted to it… which, in a sense, makes them immune. And pregnant women… well… they were considered gold. The opportunities to study the effects of the outbreak from the womb, watch it progress, and learn from it, was considered one of Mother’s higher priorities. There were… lists… of women already being monitored prior to The Change, who were of special interest. Should they survive the ‘selection’ after The Change commenced… well… they were highly sought after.” Alysa placed her hands together and finished the rest. “As for the non-rare children, their blood is drawn and used in the injections. The particular strain that runs through their bodies, is the most potent and works very rapidly to ‘infect’ people.”

Tony immediately thought of Megan. He got up out of his chair and walked away before he exploded on the former Shadow Dead. He looked like he wanted to punch a wall.

Diane was the first to speak. “You knew about all this? What they were doing to the kids? So, you just… ran away? How do you sleep at night?”

Alysa’s smile was loaded with irony. Her eyes were full of sadness and far, far away. “I don’t sleep much. The one realm my skills are useless in are the dreams that haunt me. They are the only things that truly terrify me.” She looked back toward the floor.

The others were surprised by her open admission of vulnerability.

Another volley of lightning lit up the room, followed by more crackling thunder.

Tony turned back toward the former Shadow Dead. He wanted to hate her and throw her ass out into the darkness… but he couldn’t. Beneath all the atrocities she was a part of, and her connection to this diabolical group known as Mother, Alysa was once someone else… someone who used to laugh and dance in the rain with her sister. He continued to stare at the downcast young woman, with the perfectly braided hair, an imperfect mask of stone no longer able to conceal her guilt; a beautiful, attractive woman—and a repulsive one—all rolled together. Alysa was a complicated mess; a childhood on fire constantly burning within an older house made of arctic ice… but still human. She ran… to save herself, Tony thought. Because if she had stayed any longer, she would’ve completed becoming another monster.

He took a deep breath and walked back over to his chair and sat down.

Alysa refused to look at him… any of them.

Tony finally spoke, breaking the uncomfortable heaviness. “Alysa, I only have one more question for you, right now. My mind’s already spinning out of control with what you’ve unloaded on us.”

She looked up into his eyes. “I completely understand. Ask your last question.” She looked around at the others, and finished, “I just hope my next answer doesn’t result in me being hung from the rafters.”

Tony smiled. “No… this is an easy one.”

She waited.

“Your sister, Eva, do you miss her?”

The smile that broke on the former Shadow Dead’s face was a mixture of surprise and intense relief. “Yes,” she said. “Every day.”

He couldn’t turn away from that stunningly beautiful face. Tony felt like he was truly seeing the woman behind the monster for the first time.

The storm rescued them from the strange, yet alluring moment.

Another burst of thunder cracked overhead causing Wendy to jump. “I’m really starting to hate that!” she said, causing Mark to laugh.

The rain came down harder and the wind picked up, causing the water to strike the front door at a new downward angle.

Wendy excused herself from the conversation to go peer out through the curtain of one of the front windows and into the blackness. As her eyes adjusted, she just made out the familiar form of the church spire against the overcast sky, but nothing else. The darkness made her shiver as her imagination made it come to life in her mind; it felt oppressive and heavy, just waiting out there for one of them to let it in as the night would consume them all, like it had everything outside.

Lightning illuminated the clouds for three seconds, several large bolts speeding across the sky like lit cracks across a dark mirror. Wendy looked toward the church parking lot and gasped, stepping away from the curtain and nearly falling over a chair.

“What is it?” Tony asked, rising to his feet.

Wendy’s face looked haunted. She couldn’t find words and pointed outside.

Tony and the others raced to the two front windows and peeked out from behind the curtains.

Another round of lightning lit up the area.

And then they saw them.

“Fuck me,” Mark whispered.

Appearing out of the darkness at brief intervals, the lightning revealed the reanimated dead, standing out in front of the town hall, spread out across the highway, in the church parking lot, and on the church steps—all motionless—as the wind ripped against their tattered, rain drenched clothing. They were all staring up into the night as if trying to figure out how to devour the storm.

“There must be at least a hundred of them,” Nine said, feeling his throat tighten up.

“More than that,” Alysa said. “These are just the ones we can see. They’re probably all around us—maybe the entire town.”

“What the hell are they doing?” Matthew asked.

Tony stepped away. “Doesn’t matter. They don’t know we’re here, or they would’ve swarmed this place.”

“Storm’s hiding our scent,” Diane suggested.

Tony nodded. “Okay. Let’s just try to stay calm, reduce some more of this candlelight, and stay quiet. I don’t know what this is… but we’re hidden for now.”

“So much for sleep,” Mark said.

“So much for sleep,” Alysa repeated with a smile.

Mark caught the joke and laughed.

For the remainder of the night, they took turns patrolling the building in pairs, checking and re-checking the doors and windows. The rest sat huddled around a single candle, waiting for the fierce storm to end and jumping at every sound, believing the dead had finally found them.

The night passed painfully slow. The storm eventually ceased a couple of hours before dawn. The dead slowly wandered back inside the church, the apartment building, and everywhere else they’d sat dormant, until the storm had drawn them all out.

By dawn, the Village of Wayne once again resumed its illusion of another ghost town while the dead went hungry.

The exhausted survivors departed quietly out the back of the town hall, hit the highway, and continued west without a word until the living nightmare of Wayne was an hour behind them.

~~~

Next Episode 41-3

Previous Episode 41-1

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 41-2: Siege” 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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