~~~

“So, let me get this straight,” Mark said. “The Army shows up with all that fire power, and instead of wiping the dead out, they gathered them all up and locked them in the football stadium? What the fuck?”

“Not all of them,” Jim said. “The Army eliminated the yellow-eyes ones in town, said they were too dangerous. But the rest of them, the…”

“The re-animated?” Nine finished.

“Yes, that’s a good name for them. The re-animated from the cemetery, and those who were bitten, along with any of the other ones that shambled into town… we all helped the military gather them up. They said they needed as many ‘fresh specimens’ they could get to test their vaccines.”

“Over at the high school, right?” Tony asked.

Jim nodded. “That’s right—where those white coats all went. Honestly, if we hadn’t been so scared at the time, and so grateful to have the Army fighting for us, we probably would’ve objected much sooner, especially after we started hearing them every night.”

“Just how many specimens are currently at this football stadium?” Alysa asked.

Jim smiled sheepishly and answered, “Before the Army abandoned us, there were over a thousand of them.”

“Holy shit!” Mark said getting up. “And you all just kept collecting them for the Army’s secret experiments? How could you ever live in a town with a horde that size, capable of wiping out the rest of you, just rotting away at your public high school? Did you ever think they might get loose?”

“Yes,” Jim said. “Myself and a few others started having doubts. We couldn’t understand why they needed so many… and our arrangement with the military was becoming uncomfortable. Still, most of the town didn’t care. We’d lived with the Army’s presence for damn near a month without incident. No one wanted to consider defending the town on our own… so… we turned a blind eye, and just did what they asked. But I started preparing for the worst and decided to hold up here, in the library. I tried… I tried to talk a few of the others into staying, but they believed if the military was leaving, then we should, too.”

“And what happened after?” Tony said. “What happened to the military? The rest of the town?”

Jim stared down at his feet. “After I started hearing disturbing rumors about the military getting ready to leave Orwell, I chose to ignore it. Even when the others tried to get me to leave with them, I refused. I had already ‘checked out’ and wanted to be left alone. I was prepared to die, in here, if the rumors were true.” He closed his eyes and continued. “It was right before the first winter storm. The military had packed up in the middle of the night and started leaving. They gave up the perimeter around the town. Even the white coats were evacuating… but no one gave us any warning.”

“What happened?” Diane asked.

“One of the soldiers must have felt sorry for us. He’d told someone, before leaving, that the yellow-eyed monsters were getting… smarter. Said there were reports that they were gathering in large herds all along Interstate 90 to the north and migrating south… and slaughtering everyone in every town in their path on a brutality level that no one had imagined them capable. Apparently, they were manageable when scattered, like what happened initially after the epidemic started. Those white-coat guys described it as ‘hive minded’, meaning, when they came together, those brutes were more organized, more cunning, and more lethal. It was enough for the Army to take seriously. They obviously felt the town was lost, long before they dead arrived… so they abandoned us… but left all the food, water, and emergency equipment. Perhaps that was their guilty consciences reacting. Doesn’t matter. Most of that stuff was already in the library, so I stayed.”

“Where is everyone else, Jim?” Tony gently pushed. “What happened to them?”

“The next morning, everyone in town packed up in a hurry, jumped in their vehicles and attempted to follow them. Of course, the winter storms were a primary concern, too. Some of them said that if they couldn’t catch up to the Army, they might try to make it to Mosquito Creek, just a few miles south of here.”

“Mosquito Creek?” Diane said.

“Yeah… it’s a large campground in the forest surrounding a large lake, lots of places to hide out if that horde came through. I think they were considering sheltering in the cave system there. Maybe they thought they could just come back after the dead passed… I don’t know. Everyone was in panic-mode by then. I tried to talk some of them into just staying here with me, but they thought I was crazy, like I had a death wish or something.”

“So, everyone fled south,” Tony said. “And I assume those yellow-eyed haters came?”

“Yes,” Jim whispered. “I… I watched them from the second floor. They came near sunset that same day. I remember it like a nightmare, permanently branded into my brain. The clouds above were all dark… and strange. Like the sky couldn’t decide if it was going to snow or thunderstorm. I remember seeing the sun break from the bottom of the clouds to the west, and it was blood-red. The air felt heavy, like it wanted to crush you, if it could. And then they came down from the northeast end of town. It was the most terrifying sight I’d ever seen. There were so many of them—flooding the streets—all crazed and bloody. I was waiting for them to scatter and storm all the houses and buildings… but they just kept going… almost like they already knew the town was vacant… like the knew exactly where everyone was!”

“Shit,” Nine said. He looked to Tony. “They were already hunting.”

Tony nodded. “So, they didn’t find you?”

Jim shook his head. “I think the storm system messed with their senses, or they just didn’t care about one lonely survivor. All I know is that they were moving so damn fast… with a single purpose… like they were in a hurry to get to wherever they were going. What made it worse was those damn re-animated ones in the stadium—thank God they were on the other side of town—but they were louder than they ever were. It’s like they knew the others were here and it got them all riled up. I remember laughing at the irony when the last of those yellow-eyed nightmares passed through town, and thought, ‘Now those stadium monsters will break out and finish me off’. But they calmed down after the others were gone.”

“And those yellow-eyed ones headed south, the same way the Army and the town left?” Wendy asked.

Jim nodded. “Right down, Route 44… straight toward Mosquito Creek.”

Diane shook her head. “And you haven’t heard from anyone since that day?”

Jim frowned. “No. I’ve been alone ever since. I’d like to think they got away, made it to those caves, or were lifted away in helicopters by the Army… but I really don’t know. Since then, I’ve been here… waiting for the world out there to right itself.” He took a deep breath and looked around fondly. “But I’ve found peace in here. This place has kept me safe… and all these books have kept me sane. I don’t know if anything out there will ever go back to the way things were… and honestly… I no longer care. There’s enough supplies left behind, an entire town’s worth, to last one lonely librarian quite a long time… or a few more of us, if you want to stay.”

Tony stared at the bearded man for a long time before answering. He’s not insane… not yet… but this poor man has abandoned the real world for a fictional one. He’ll die in this building, one day, and no one will remember he ever existed. He’ll just become another character, like the ones in all his stories, except no one will be around to write about him… so his character, and his story, will die with him. Tony smiled at the pathetic man and said, “We appreciate the offer, Jim, but we can’t. We’re looking for our friends. They were captured by a group of face-painted survivors who apparently call themselves The Lunatics. The trail’s a month old, and our odds are slim at finding them alive, but we have to try. Since you said that we’re the first people…real people… you’ve seen, I don’t suppose-”

“You mean they were real, too!” Jim rose to his feet, clearly upset. He was pacing back and forth in front of them, pulling tightly on his beard. “This is unacceptable! How’s a man supposed to live like this, not knowing the damn difference between who is and who isn’t?” The question was obviously directed at himself as Jim continued to pace, oblivious to his guests.

The others tensed up and we’re about to move, but Tony raised a hand to keep them seated. “Jim, please calm down. I didn’t mean to upset you.”

Jim didn’t hear him. “I mean… I was certain they couldn’t be real. I heard the trucks pull up, woke up, looked out my window, and saw them… but… but… they looked like clowns or something… and real people don’t look like clowns, right? Of course they don’t, silly! Clowns don’t drive trucks and carry guns… they… they make people laugh at the circus.”

Alysa tightened her grip on her bow but did not raise it. She looked to Tony.

He shook his head at her and then focused on Jim. “Jim… it’s okay. These people, the ones who call themselves The Lunatics, they’re bad people, they do bad things. They probably wear face paint to scare people. If I first saw them out a window, I probably wouldn’t think they were real either.”

Jim whipped his head toward Tony. His eyes were wide, his breathing heavy like he was close to a panic attack. “You’re Tony, right? I mean… you’re still… here… right?”

“Yes, Jim. We’re all here. We’re all real and have been sitting with you… just talking… like real people do.”

Jim cocked his head and studied Tony, slowly raising a shaking hand toward the big man’s face. He was trying to work up the nerve to touch him, but was too terrified to do so, believing his hand might pass right through him. He started tugging as his beard again. Jim looked up at the library ceiling and shouted, “Jim, today might be the day, so tell me, have you lost your mind… finally?”

Jim waited for the library to answer.

Tony was done waiting. He stood up from his couch and grabbed Jim’s arm, causing him to cry out. “It’s okay, Jim. Look, I’m not a ghost. I’m flesh and blood, just like you. There’s your answer. You are not crazy.”

Jim looked at Tony’s hand on his arm. His face relaxed, his breathing slowed. “Yes… yes, of course. You’re real. Only real people can grab on to real people.” Jim let out an unnerving laugh that caused everyone to shift in their seats.

Tony released his arm and slowly sat back down. “Just sit down, Jim. You’re okay. Everything’s fine.”

Jim nodded with a smile, wiping perspiration from his brow. He finally sat back down. “Whew!” he said with a laugh. “That was close.” He looked around at the others, hoping they were all still sitting there.

“Jim,” Tony said.

The bearded man turned back.

“Let’s just focus on what you saw that day.”

Jim shook his head and wiped tears of relief mixed with regret from his face. “If I’d known… you know… that those clowns were real, I might have done something to stop it.”

“Stop what?” Tony asked.

“They… they stopped out front, got out of those trucks and then grabbed a man out of the back of a box truck… all real, of course.”

“Yes, all real,” Tony urged. “Go on.”

“Well… the man struggled with them, those clown people, and they just dragged him out to the center of the street and surrounded him like a bunch of vultures. There was one… a woman, I think. She had long hair, her face was all painted and she had two handguns. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but it looked like the painted woman was asking the man questions… and she wasn’t happy with the answers. And then it happened. It was so quick. The woman shot the man in the leg. He fell in the street. And the others… my, God, they just started shooting into him. They shot him in the legs, the arms… anywhere they could not to kill him. Then that woman walked up and put the last bullet in his forehead. It was awful… more so, now… now that I know it really happened.” Jim’s tears were flowing freely. “And all I did was watch. I didn’t know… I thought I was still dreaming… or seeing things.”

“It’s okay, Jim,” Diane said. “Even if you’d tried to help, they would’ve killed you, too.”

Jim shook his head at her. “I’m so sorry. I should’ve helped that poor man.”

“Jim,” Tony said. “Was the man… was he a black man?”

Jim looked confused. “Black painted?”

“No… was his skin black… was he an African American?”

“Oh… no… no he wasn’t. He was a white guy.”

Tony relaxed his tense shoulders and addressed the others. “Orosco might still be alive.”

“Not likely,” Mark said, winning him a shot to the shoulder as Wendy hit him. “What? You heard what they just did to that guy. I’m just being the realist here. We should give up on this suicide mission before we end up dead in the street with bullet holes.”

No one said a word in response.

“What happened after, Jim?” Tony pressed. “Did you see where they went?”

Jim nodded. “After all that gunfire, the stadium dead got all riled up. I could tell, because those painted people stopped and stared north. They probably thought a herd was coming right for them. They looked scared… well… most of them did. The painted woman laughed and then fired her guns one more time into the sky. I think she was enjoying herself. She then ordered everyone else back in the trucks. They even took that man’s body and tossed it in the back of the box truck. Why on earth for, is beyond me.”

“They wanted to remind their captives what happens when you cross them,” Alysa said.

The others considered this and shook.

“Thank you, Jim. Now we have a trail again,” Tony said. “I’m sorry you had to see that happen. Perhaps it was better when you thought they weren’t real.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Now I have to live with it.”

“We’ve all had to learn to live with a great many horrible things, Jim,” Tony finished.

~~~

Next Episode 41-5

Previous Episode 41-3

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 41-4: 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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