~~~

After carefully advancing another ten miles west, they arrived in Orwell Village late in the afternoon, two days later. The countryside between Wayne and Orwell had been mostly barren farmlands and meadows, but the going had been slow due to exhaustion, Diane’s injuries, and an increase in the number of the dead along the roadway. They had spent a lot of time crossing the open fields to avoid being seen and had decided to camp out in a secluded pine grove on their first night away from Wayne, trying to get whatever rest they could.

Orwell was a welcome sight after picking pine needles out of their clothes and wearing camp fire cologne, but it was as deserted and neglected as everywhere else they’d been, creating that familiar silence that never became comfortable. A mixture of old homes and red brick buildings with the occasional sprinkling of modern fast food restaurants, dollar stores, and far too many used car lots, Orwell’s downtown district was all crammed together but its size was far from suffocating. Surprisingly, Orwell did not carry the look of a small town looted several times over, which just raised everyone’s paranoia levels.

With evening approaching, everyone agreed to find the most secure structure and get some real sleep, hoping to forage for supplies and find more clues to the whereabouts of the so-called Lunatics in the morning.

When they reached the western end of Orwell, they found an isolated two-floor brick building on a large lot that served as the town library, with ample windows on all sides to keep an eye on the town. It sat on the corner of an intersection with N. Maple Street running along the west side of the building and they’re current road running along the south. On the north and east sides were two large empty parking lots.

“This looks promising,” Tony remarked, staring at the front entrance facing the south side. “At least we know there wasn’t anyone inside when The Change occurred. Library was obviously closed.”

Diane was studying the dust-covered second-floor windows. “No snipers. Windows are all shut. Looks like they’ve stayed that way, too.”

“Roof is clear, as well,” Alysa remarked, scanning the top of the structure with her bow raised high.

“I suppose there wasn’t much of a need to loot the local library,” Nine laughed. “Unless, of course, you’ve got late fees pending and an expired library card… now’s the perfect chance for a permanent check-out on your favorite fiction titles. Although, I don’t imagine anyone frequenting the ‘Horror Fiction’ section for a good while since-”

“Nine,” Diane said.

“Yes.”

“Shut up.”

“As you wish, my angel.”

“Okay,” Mark began. “Maybe no zombies and no apparent hostiles. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t survivors hiding in there waiting to bash our heads in with encyclopedias.”

Wendy shook her head at him. “Your optimism toward the human race is never-ending.”

Mark shrugged his shoulders.

“Do you all hear that?” Alysa asked. She was staring around, trying to pinpoint a very faint sound.

They all got quiet and heard it. There was a very faint static-like sound, like water striking the shore of a beach, or loud rain striking cement. But it was so faint, no one could identify it. Once they recognized the sound was there, hiding just within the background, no one could then not hear it.

“Great, something else to worry about.” Tony let out a heavy sigh. “I’m too tired to keep being this paranoid. Strange sounds or hostile towns… doesn’t matter. Best move is to get out of the street before dark. We’ll take it slow. If anyone’s inside the library, we’ll try not to startle them… or get our heads bashed in by books.”

They approached a wide set of concrete steps leading up to a formidable looking oak door. “I’ll bet my next MRE that it’s locked,” he announced over his shoulder.

When the door suddenly opened, Tony almost fell down the steps.

A tall, lanky middle-aged man with a long scraggly red beard and a bald head stepped out and stared it them over an old set of reading glasses.

Alysa’s bow was up immediately.

The man leaned over and squinted at Tony, and then scanned the others’ faces likewise.

Tony raised his hands submissively.

The bearded man, wearing faded dress pants with holes in both knees and a soiled looking dress shirt partially tucked into his pants as if he’d just returned from the bathroom in a hurry, spoke first. “Hello there,” the man said, attempting a partial smile like he’d forgotten how. “It took all the nerve I could muster to open this door and… well… here I am.” The man appeared proud of himself. “Are you… are you really standing there… or am I just imagining you?”

Tony didn’t know how to respond to the strange question. “Hi… we’re… we mean you no harm.”

The bearded man’s eyes went wide as he took a step back, obviously startled. “Damn! You really are standing there, aren’t you?”

Tony laughed. “Yeah… we are.” He took a step back. “Name’s Tony. Are you… alright, sir?”

The man nodded vigorously and laughed. “Yes… yes… I’m doing fine. So much better than I was a minute ago when I thought I’d made the lot of you up in my head. Been surrounded by so many characters for so long that I just figured… well… you are real, in fact, aren’t you? All of you?”

Nine noticed the man was holding a hardback book and then understood. He stepped forward and said, “Yes, sir. We’re real.” He waved a hand back at Alysa to lower the bow.

She reluctantly did.

“My name’s Nine… although I suppose that sounds more like a character name in one of your stories.”

The bearded man gave him a puzzled look.

“In fact,” Nine continued. “I know just how it is when you read enough books, especially the good ones you get lost in… those characters in stories can seem just as real as anybody.”

The man nodded with a smile. “Yes! Yes, exactly!”

“But we’re the real deal, sir. You probably haven’t seen people in a good while, yes?”

The man nodded again, appearing to relax. “I guess it shows.” He laughed again and shook his head. “You all must think me strange, or crazy. Don’t blame you, not at all. These are strange and crazy times.”

“Sir,” Tony said, smiling briefly at Nine, “our understanding in the ‘strange and crazy’ department has gone through daily revisions. Compared to what we’ve seen, meeting you seems almost… normal.”

The man laughed hard and scratched his beard. “I can see your point. Well… crazy or not… you can call me Jim. I guess you could say that I’m the caretaker of this house of histories, both true and fictional.” He laughed at himself like a man used to telling and receiving the same old jokes.

To the others, Jim had clearly gone insane from loneliness.

“Are you… alone here?” Tony asked.

“No,” Jim said with a smile, holding the book up to his chest in an embrace. “Lonely, but never alone. I’ve made friends here, at the library… and we’ve traveled to so many wonderful places.”

Mark leaned in and said to Wendy, “There’s the future of humanity for you. Take a good long look.”

Wendy scowled at him.

Jim’s face became serious. “What’s the matter with me? I’ve lost my manners and good sense, it seems. Please… won’t you all come inside? It’s been too long since I’ve had guests visiting the library.”

Before anyone could object, Tony smiled and said, “Thanks for inviting us in, Jim. We’d be honored to be your guests.”

Jim got animated as he turned and waved them all inside. “I have plenty of food and water, all you can eat and drink.” He laughed at himself again as if he’d told the funniest joke. “But more than that, my new friends, I have gold and silver in abundance, found between the lines of each and every page. Come! Come!” He laughed at himself again and stepped into the library. “Just close and lock the door behind you!” he yelled back.

Nine walked up beside Tony. “Welcome to the apocalypse,” he whispered. “Home to the monstrous beast known only as… The Book Worm.”

Tony shook his head. “The world’s always been one big can of mixed nuts… we’ve just finally reached the bottom of the can.”

Nine snickered. “You sure you want to do this?”

“He seems harmless. I’ll take a little obvious crazy any day over sinister hiding behind sane.”

Alysa stepped up. “He never answered the question.”

Nine and Tony gave her a puzzled look.

She sighed. “About whether he was alone in there.”

“Sure he did,” Nine said with a devious smile. “There’s a horde of characters waiting to jump out at us from the pages of every haunted book in the place… and your arrows can’t stop a single one.” He added a wink.

Alysa sneered at the young man. “I understand what the hunter sees in you now.”

Nine smiled. “Handsome, intelligent, extremely funny, way-super cool…”

“You are continuously obnoxious and she obviously keeps you around to develop huge reserves of patience… as any good hunter needs,” she said.

Nine’s eyebrows went up. “Well… aren’t we the testy one today.”

“And if I had a sock… I’d stuff the hole on your face with it,” she finished.

Tony laughed hard. “Let’s go… before Jim comes back to read us a story on these damn steps.”

They entered the house of histories, both true and fictional, closing and securing the door behind them.

~~~

Jim led them toward a large reading lounge at the center of the first floor where several decorative, red felt sofas faced each other, each with their own corner table and small reading lamp. Rectangular wooden coffee tables were placed at the foot of each sofa to store excess books for later browsing. Surrounding the lounge were larger tables and chairs for group study and research. Every wall was lined with tall bookshelves with columns of long stand-alone shelves grouped in different sections by numeric, alphabetical, or subject listings. Two large staircases ascended the western and eastern sides of the library, leading to a U-shaped balcony with ornate looking rails for safety. From the first floor, you could look all the way up to the second and discover more walls of books, giving the library a very comfortable, open feel as it seemed much bigger within than from out on the street. The tall ceiling had several large skylights built into it, providing plenty of natural light along with the standard windows on both floors.

“Wow!” Wendy exclaimed, not prepared to hear her own echo in the large space. “I love this place.”

“No surprise there, Velma,” Mark teased. “A nerd loving a library… what a concept.”

“You probably can’t even read,” she fired back. “What’s the matter? You find all this knowledge too intimidating?”

“‘Boring’ is the word I was thinking,” Mark said with a yawn.

Matthew stood with his hands in his pockets, staring up through one of the skylights at the evening colors. Pink cumulus clouds were scattered across an indifferent sky. He wore a tranquil look upon his face and smiled when he imagined he saw a pink elephant in the clouds.

The others were more focused on their host, who had stopped and leaned up against one of several rafters with his arms folded, letting his visitors appreciate the initial impression the library left on them. They were also scanning every potential hiding spot behind bookshelves, tables, a large check-in desk, and the second-floor balcony, looking for a potential ambush.

“Marvelous, isn’t it?” Jim called out with a smile.

Wendy turned. “It’s wonderful, Jim. It looks so… clean… too. Like the apocalypse never affected this place.”

Jim laughed. “This is my home away from home. My sanctuary from the world out there. Has been since the beginning. I’ve learned to appreciate and respect what these books have done for me. The least I could do was keep the place… well… like it was.”

Wendy smiled and nodded.

Alysa walked up behind Tony and whispered, “The area appears clear. No obvious threats.”

Tony nodded. He looked to Diane and Nine coming back. They shook their heads.

Good, he thought. Maybe Jim’s legit… and we can get some damn rest.

“Come on.” Jim waved them over to the reading lounge. “We can sit and talk like regular people. Haven’t done that in so long… it’s kind of exciting.”

Mark raised his eyebrows at Nine. “Seriously? This guy needs to get out more.”

Nine laughed. “And go where? Are the local dead having an ice cream social this weekend? I don’t recommend the Friday night ‘all you can eat’ special at the infested Denny’s a couple blocks back.”

“You really are an ass,” Mark said.

They all followed Jim and spread out on the surprisingly comfy sofas.

“Wait!” Jim said excitedly. He leaned back on his sofa and put his feet up on the coffee table, crossing his feet. “That’s the best part,” he laughed. “The old librarian would scold you until tomorrow if she caught you doing that.”

Nine smiled and followed suit, grinning at Diane like the Cheshire Cat. “Feels good to break some rules… when I can.”

Diane rolled her eyes. “You’re such a rebel.”

“How long have you been here, Jim?” Tony started. “I thought I heard you say ‘since the beginning’.”

“Yes, yes,” Jim said stroking his beard. “I was here… well… not here specifically, but here in town, in my apartment, when the epidemic struck. Nasty affair that was. People went crazy, turning on each other with no warning… except for those terrifying yellow eyes and a road map of veins bulging on the skin.”

“I’m sure that was awful,” Tony said. “We’ve come to know that event as The Change. It struck everywhere.”

Jim nodded, nervously pulling on his beard and staring beyond them like a man haunted by memory. “Well, that was bad enough. But then the graveyard north of here came alive and all those dead people were spit out of the ground. I think the only thing that spared a lot of us was when the yellow-eyed ones came up against the previously dead ones… well… it became clear that both groups of the dead didn’t care for each other. Most of the yellow-eyed ones started attacking the other group, allowing the town to get over the initial shock and horror, regroup, hide or find weapons to fight. There was a lot of death and mourning those first three days. Then the Army showed up and cleared out the dead.”

“The Army?” Diane said, trying to ignore Jim gawking at her missing limb. “How did you get the Army to show up in this rinky-dink town… no offense.”

Jim laughed. “None taken. We all wondered the same thing. But at the time, no one cared. If not for those military types… we’d all be dead now. They showed up in these massive armored vehicles and over a hundred troops. They had supplies, too. Plenty to spare for everyone in town after they cleared the streets of the dead and cleaned up the… mess. There was a lot of blood.”

Tony and Diane shared a surprised glance. “So where are they now?” Tony asked.

“Yeah,” Mark said. “Coming into town we didn’t see anyone. No military… nothing. In fact, it looks like most of the vehicles are gone, too.”

“Was the town evacuated?” Wendy added. “I sure hope you weren’t left behind.”

Jim raised a hand and laughed. “Please be patient with me. I’m not used to so many questions. It’s wonderful… and a bit overwhelming. Up until now, I only ever had to deal with one question.”

“And what would that be?” Alysa asked.

Jim frowned and let out a long sigh. “Every day, I asked myself, ‘Jim, have you lost your mind yet?’ And then, I’d wait and get real quiet, and just listen to the library.” He laughed and finished, “Luckily for me, I never heard an answer.”

Nine laughed nervously. “I guess that’s one clear way to gauge your sanity.”

“Let’s get back to the Army, Jim. Just tell us what you can,” Tony said.

Jim nodded. “Like I said, those Army types came in and cleared out the dead and saved us. Then they set up a base of operations up north at the high school. That’s when all the white coats started showing up.”

“‘White coats’?” Diane asked.

“Yeah, that’s what we called them. They were dressed all in white, like doctors and scientists, and they went straight to the high school. Not once did we ever see one come into town. We just figured they were working on the problem, trying to come up with a cure.”

“It doesn’t look like they succeeded,” Mark said.

“No, they certainly did not,” Jim added with a hint of sadness in his voice. “Anyway, they sent a representative to talk with us—Ajax, that was his name. Major Ajax. The Major told us they could keep the town secure but they needed our help rounding up the remaining dead in and around town. In return, they set up provisions in this very library. Tons of MREs and bottled water, enough for everyone. So, we helped them gather the dead.”

“‘Gather the dead’?” Matthew asked. “What does that even mean?”

Jim tapped his fist on his forehead. “Sorry. I take it for granted because I haven’t been outside for a long time. None of the noise gets in here, thank God. I just assumed everyone knew about them… and I didn’t expect to meet anyone from out of town.”

“‘Them’?” Tony asked.

Jim smiled and pointed to his left ear. “I’m sure you’ve been wondering what that strange background sound was when you reached the center of town? You know, the faint sound that you just can’t figure out.”

“Yeah,” Wendy said. “We were wondering about that. Some of us assumed there was a strong river flowing near the town line.”

“It’s coming from the high school football stadium. That’s where the Army locked up the dead… all of them.”

~~~

Next Episode 41-4

Previous Episode 41-2

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 41-3: 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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