~~~

He is walking down a narrow path, through an endless field full of rotting corpses and flies. The oppressive sun hurts his eyes, keeping him from looking away from the carnage and into the blood-red sky. The scent of decay makes his stomach turn. Matthew believes the foul stench is permanently embedded in his nostrils. The vast, grim scene reminds him of a battlefield after a bloody war where both sides have lost. It was the last war. He pinches his nostrils in vain to block out the invading odor. It is the world he smells… and it is long dead.

He feels the cold grip around his hand. Matthew looks down to his left. The boy with the blue ballcap and backpack, wearing soiled and ripped clothing, is walking beside him, holding his hand. At first, he believes he’s leading the boy, but now, it’s clear that the boy is leading him.

The pale-faced boy, with dried up blood and dirt streaked across his cheeks, lifeless eyes sunken into his skull, smiles up at him. His teeth are either rotted away or completely gone.

Matthew wants to tell him how sorry he is, how bad he feels for not being able to help him, but he knows that saying such things is pointless… everything is pointless.

Matthew fakes a smile. “What was your name?” he asks. All questions have become shallow and meaningless.

The dead boy surprises him with a response. “We are Toby,” he says, in a raspy, emotionless voice, void of all innocence.

“Toby,” he repeats with indifference.

“Yes,” the boy says. “Everything… is Toby.”

Matthew doesn’t understand, but doesn’t care. Compassion is dead. Knowledge, enlightenment or revelation—all irrelevant.

Destination?

“Where are we going, Toby?” Matthew asks.

The boy’s smile widens, giving him a ghastly inhuman expression. “You know.”

Surprisingly, Matthew does know. “The grave?” he asks.

The boy laughs. The sound is hideous. “Nooo,” he says, as if talking to a small child. “You are all already in the grave.” The boy looks around, waving his free hand. “See?”

Matthew gazes across the dead landscape. He feels nothing.

The boy laughs again.

Matthew feels the cold grip around his hand tighten.

He looks back at the boy.

Flesh and blood begin to melt away from the dead thing’s face, oozing to the ground like thick mud, until there’s nothing left but a brownish skeletal frame standing beside him.

Matthew desperately tries to free himself from the bony hand. He can feel his own flesh turning to liquid mush as he collapses to the ground, the muscles in his legs falling off his useless frame like two stripped chicken legs. He is horrified as he stares at his bony arm attached to the skeletal boy.

Matthew falls over with the dead boy, rotting away to nothingness.

He hears the boy in his exposed skull, speaking clearly, all pretense rotting away until only the awful truth remains:

“Flesh is for the grave… but the soul rots in the darkness…”

~~~

…Matthew’s eyes shot open as he sat up, gasping for air. He put his hands to his face, believing for a moment that there would be nothing but bone. “Just a damn dream,” he announced to himself, wiping cold sweat from his brow.

He looked to his left and right, disoriented by the tall imposing shadows lit up by the ambient light coming in through the second-floor window in front of him, before remembering where he’d set up the three chairs that made up his makeshift bed. He could now make out the books on the two tall shelves of the middle rows facing the front of the library.

Suddenly feeling claustrophobic, Matthew got up and approached the window. He unlocked it and opened it halfway, letting in the cool night air. Instead of relief, he regretted the move immediately as he let in the unnerving background sound of the moaning dead from the stadium to the north.

Matthew listened to their collective moans. It reminded him a little of static on an AM radio band, in between stations, with the volume turned down low. He wondered if he listened long enough, would he hear them, all of them, speaking collective words breaking through that moaning static? And if he did, Matthew felt certain that he would know exactly what the dead would say… what Toby would say.

He shook in the dark and closed the window, but he could still hear them in his head.

Matthew collapsed to the floor, closed his eyes, and covered his ears with his hands. He was tired of fighting… exhausted by the very thought of living one more day in this bleak world that had become their…

Grave?

He opened his eyes. “I have to know,” he whispered, as a desperate thought took hold and wouldn’t let go. All this time they had spent struggling to get by, searching for meaning, answers… while just waiting for their turn to die… what was the point?

We are Toby.

Matthew got up and started downstairs.

We’ve been doing this all wrong, he thought. We’ve been fighting against the inevitable… that’s what this world had been trying to tell us… that’s what it’s always been trying to tell us…

Matthew descended the stairs. He was beginning to truly understand the only message that mattered. As far as living and fighting and struggling… he doesn’t care about any of it. Compassion is dead. Knowledge, enlightenment or revelation—all irrelevant.

Destination?

He needed to get to the stadium.

~~~

Before sundown, Jim had fed them from his vast surplus of MRE’s and bottled water, left behind by the Army. He also retrieved several blankets for his guests and gave them free reign to sleep anywhere in the main library before abruptly excusing himself for the evening and retreating to his basement bedroom.

Crazy Jim, as Mark and Nine started calling him to the disapproving glares of the others, seemed relatively harmless, but had definitely been alone for far too long. He had his routines and guests or no guests, Jim intended to stick to his rituals of necessity, which included reading a good book after the sun went down. Nine theorized that Crazy Jim probably spoke to his ‘characters’ during these quiet times. The others were far too tired to ponder it.

Tony assigned pairs for four-hour shifts to patrol both floors of the library while the others tried to sleep. With the exception of Matthew, who decided to sleep on the second floor, and Alysa, who everyone just assumed never slept, Tony, Nine and Diane slept on the comfortable lounge couches.

Wendy had the misfortune of being paired up with Mark for their four hours of fun.

“I mean, it’s not like we serve any real purpose being awake right now,” Mark said, while collapsing into a chair near the front door. “Tony knows us ‘new guys’ can’t be trusted. That’s why the archer is still up.”

Wendy sat down in a chair opposite the grumbling young man, removed her glasses, and started wiping them on her shirt. “You done yet?” she asked.

“What… you don’t like my company?”

She gave him an ‘are you serious’ look. “Of all the people left on the planet, you are probably on my top ten list of least favorite people right now.”

Mark laughed. “Ah… come on, Velma. I’m not that bad.”

“Stop calling me that, asshole.”

Mark raised his hands submissively. “You win. Cease fire. I’m way too tired to mess with you tonight. I just want to get this stupid watch over with and get my ass to sleep.”

Wendy smiled. “For once, we are in agreement.”

After a long lull in the conversation, Mark changed gears. “So… how are you doing? I mean… all ‘fucking with you’ aside, are you okay?”

She answered with a puzzled expression, “Is that your attempt at genuine concern, Mark?”

Mark laughed. “I’m trying. So… is everything… cool?”

“When you want to be mean, you usually have no trouble being blunt about it… but add a little concern and you’re vague as hell.”

“You know what I mean,” Mark said. “I was talking about Legs… I mean… Beverly. I know you two were close.”

Wendy was caught off guard. She shifted uncomfortably in her chair and sighed. “I’ve not come to terms with it yet. Call it shock, denial… whatever… I’m just trying real hard not to think about it. Does that make sense?”

Mark nodded. “Yeah… I get it.” He looked at her and then quickly looked away. “I just want you to know that… well… you and I… we’re ‘it’. Matthew’s so withdrawn I don’t know how to talk to him anymore, and then Beverly… shit, I didn’t realize how much she kept us sane with all her babble… until she was gone.”

Wendy raised her eyebrows in surprise, her eyes watering up. “I think that might be the nicest thing you’ve ever said… about any of us.”

“Just because I give you guys a hard time doesn’t mean I don’t care.”

Wendy was shocked to silence by the rare admission.

He rose from his seat, embarrassed. “You know what, just forget I asked. I was just trying to… you know… keep it real with you, let you know that you’re not alone in all this bullshit.”

“Thank you, Mark,” Wendy said. “I’m doing okay, for now. Thanks for asking.”

Mark nodded. “Sure. Anytime, Velma.”

Wendy rolled her eyes and smiled. “Well… it was good while it lasted.”

Mark shrugged and then stared up toward the western staircase. Matthew was coming down. “You’re a little early for watch.”

Matthew walked over to them, hands in his pocket.

“Everything okay, Matthew?” Wendy asked, rising to her feet. “What’s the matter? Can’t sleep?”

“I’ve slept enough,” he said, and then gave them both a curious look. “I just want to take a walk.”

Mark scratched his head. “That’s cool. Plenty of room to walk around in this place.”

“Outside,” he clarified.

Mark and Wendy shared a nervous glance.

“Matthew,” Wendy started. “why on earth would you want to go outside, especially in the middle of the night?”

Matthew stared at her so long that Wendy thought he was looking right through her. He finally responded, “Why are you guys giving me shit? I just want to take a walk. It’s still a free country, isn’t it?”

“Dude, you don’t know what’s out there,” Mark said, slowly moving before the door. “I think you need to think this through before you do anything stupid.”

“Move, asshole,” Matthew said. “I’m taking a walk. If I want to leave and never come back, what the hell is that to you?”

“Matthew?” Wendy said. “We’re just worried about you.”

“Well, stop worrying.” He flashed her a smile. “I just need to get outside and… move. This place is driving me stir crazy.”

Mark tried again. “Maybe you should wait for the sun to come up and-”

“Maybe you should stop treating me like some fucking prisoner and let me leave,” Matthew interrupted.

“Fine,” he said, moving away from the door. “Your funeral.”

Matthew walked past them, unlocked the door, and exited.

“Mark,” Wendy hissed. “We can’t just let him… go.”

Matt was already closing the door. “What the hell was I supposed to do? He wanted to leave.”

“You know he isn’t… himself,” Wendy said. “You said it yourself.”

Mark shrugged his shoulders. “He’s probably just standing outside getting some air. He’ll be right back.”

Wendy pushed passed him and opened the door. She could just make out Matthew’s dark shape, moving north. “He’s not getting air. He’s headed toward that awful sound… toward the stadium.”

“Even he isn’t that stupid.”

“We have to get him back,” she said. “Matthew doesn’t know what he’s doing.”

Mark sighed. “I’m not waking the others over this bullshit! They’ll blame us.”

“Then we need to go get him, ourselves,” she said. “Drag his ass back here if we have to.”

“Fuck that.”

Wendy’s face turned red. She stepped up to Mark and started tapping on his chest. “You’re some piece of work!” she accused. “You act all caring and compassionate when it’s convenient, but the moment you have to actually take a real risk and put yourself on the line… you’re just a fucking coward!”

“Shut up, Velma! You don’t know shit about me! If that dumb ass wants to go out there, that’s not on me! It’s not my fault he’s all fucked in the head!”

“Is there a problem here?”

Both Wendy and Mark jumped at the sound of Alysa’s voice. The archer appeared out of the closest shadow with her arms crossed in front of her chest.

“Shit… lady!” Mark hissed. “I hate it when you do that!”

Alysa didn’t move. “Is there some tactical advantage to leaving the front door wide open that I’m not aware of?”

“Matthew’s out there,” Wendy said. “He just… left.”

Alysa stepped over to the open door and looked out. “Which way?”

“He took that road headed north,” Mark said.

“I see,” she said, slowly closing the door.

“Well… aren’t you going to go after him?” Wendy asked.

“No. I’m not.”

“See,” Mark said to Wendy. “I’m not the only one who-”

“Your friend, Matthew,” Alysa interrupted, “has been looking for a reason for quite some time… and now he’s found one.”

“A reason for what?” Wendy was clearly frustrated.

Alysa’s face was blank. “To die.”

Both Mark and Wendy had no response to that.

“If that is a road Matthew has chosen to follow, there’s nothing you or I, or anyone, can do to stop him.” Alysa started walking away. “You should both make your peace with that. Your friend already has.”

“You know what,” Wendy called out to her back. “Screw the both of you! He’s our friend, and he’s in trouble.”

Alysa stopped.

Wendy opened the door. “Both of you chicken-shits can wait here. I’ll go get him.”

Before Mark could protest, Wendy had already stepped out into the darkness. “Wait! You’re not even armed!” He watched as the night swallowed up Wendy. She turned on the road heading north. “Shit!” he hissed. Mark turned back to Alysa who was once again standing there with her arms crossed. “Give us fifteen minutes,” he said. “Maybe we can get that idiot to come back.”

“And if not?” she asked.

Mark shook his head. “I don’t know. Wake the others. Tell Tony what we did. He can yell at us later.” Before Alysa could respond, Mark followed after Wendy.

Alysa slowly approached the front door and watched them fade away into the darkness.

She shook her head, closed the door, and locked it.

The former Shadow Dead had no intention of waking the others.

~~~

The partial moon crept in and out of the clouds, intermittently hiding Orwell’s local businesses, only to reappear suddenly like old brick haunted houses as moonlight presented them along both sides of northbound Route 45. Eerie elongated shadows slowly moved across empty parking lots like irregular shaped arms reaching toward the three foolish young people walking in the center of the dark roadway.

As they approached Grand Valley High School, the magnified moans of the dead became more distinct, the sounds of their collective hunger was unnerving as they turned left in front of the lifeless school, following a sign pointing toward the large, dark football stadium in the back.

“This if fucking crazy,” Mark said, trying to keep up with Matthew. “Why the hell are you so adamant about coming here?”

Matthew didn’t say a word. He continued to leisurely walk, hands in his pockets, toward the stadium parking lot.

“Matt,” Wendy said. “Please slow down and talk to us.” Her shoulders were tense, the sounds of the dead were making every hair on her body protest this folly. “We just want to understand where you’re going?”

“We need to turn around,” Mark said. “This freak’s lost his fucking mind!”

“I need to know,” Matt finally said. “I need to see them with my own eyes.”

“What the hell for?” Mark said. “Can’t you hear them? We’re getting so close that it feels like they’re slowly dying in my fucking skull!”

“What is it, Matt?” Wendy tried. “What do you hope to accomplish coming out here?”

He turned to the terrified young woman. “It’s like… like seeing pictures of the Grand Canyon and reading about it. You can appreciate the size of it through the images and the facts… but it’s not the same as actually being there… and how it makes you feel.”

“Okay,” she said, managing to get him to stop. “I get that. But… this isn’t some awe-inspiring scenic moment. There’s a thousand dead maniacs in that place just waiting to devour the living.” She looked around nervously. “And there’s probably a bunch more lurking around out here, too. Every moment we spend out here puts us at risk-”

“You didn’t have to come,” he said. “In fact, you both should just go back. I know you want to.”

“Hell yes I want to,” Mark affirmed. He turned to Wendy. “We need to go back. Matt’s got a damn death wish or something.”

“Just deal with your fear, Mark,” she said with impatience. “No one should be alone out here. We don’t just ‘leave’ people… even if they’re doing incredibly risky things.” She said the last, hoping to wake Matt up.

“I know what I’m doing,” Matt said. He turned back toward the stadium. They could now see the entrance gate across the parking lot. He started walking again.

“Come on, Matt!” Wendy said, forcing her lethargic legs to keep following. “This is close enough. Don’t do this.”

“I need to know what they’re saying,” he said. “Can’t you hear them all? I feel like… I don’t know… like… if I could just get close enough… I might just hear what they’re saying and what this all means.”

“He’s lost it,” Mark said, shaking his head at Wendy. “This fuck thinks the dead is calling his damn name!”

Wendy started to slow down as they moved within fifty feet of the long iron bars that made up the metal gate blocking the entrance. The tall iron fence surrounded the stadium, keeping the dead locked within. She could see them now, pressed against that gate. There were so many dark forms, pushed together, that it looked like they were just one huge mass of dead flesh with multiple mutilated faces. She stopped. “Matt… I can’t get any closer. I won’t. Please… just come back with us. You’ve seen them now. If you get too close… they’ll know we’re here.”

Mark stopped beside her and watched as Matt moved closer to the large gate.

Matt stopped. He turned back and said, “It’s too much… too much senseless blood and death and sorrow. There must be a reason for it all. Maybe they can tell us. Maybe they’ve been trying to tell us this whole time… but we just can’t hear it.”

Wendy intended to speak, but realized she didn’t know what to say.

“They’re not saying anything, numb nuts. They’re groaning. They’re just mindless beasts… and all they want is to kill us and eat us. Why? Who the fuck knows. Who the fuck even cares anymore?”

Matt frowned. “No. There’s a reason. Something made them this way. They can’t be like this and not know, right?”

Wendy was crying. “Matt… they’re not people anymore. Whoever they were are long gone. There’s nothing these… things… can tell you.”

Matt turned away. “We’ll see.” He walked right up to the front gate, just out of arms-reach, as the famished dead extended decayed limbs and rotting hands, attempting to snatch Matt’s vibrant flesh… and consume him and the light within the young man that drove them mad with intense desire.

The massive horde’s moans became louder and more savage, as the ones in the front spotted the blood-bag, causing a chain reaction that rippled through the throng. They started pushing hard against the gate, causing Matt to take several steps. For a moment it looked like they would breach the gate with the large chain and lock holding it in place. But the robust barrier between the barely living and the hellish dead held.

Matthew was repulsed and equally exhilarated when he considered the sheer size of such an unstoppable, relentless force. He was… overwhelmed… with conflicting emotions. He had never felt so needed in all his life, until now. The hungry creatures desperately wanted to claim the young man… but why? What drove them to slaughtering their former species? What did they gain in spilling so much blood? In digesting the flesh of their fellow man? He stared across the sea of endless faces pressed into the gate and needed to know more.

“Why are you all doing this?” he addressed the horde. “Why haven’t you… moved on? Is there an ultimate plan? A divine purpose?” He put his hands on the top of his head. Matt desperately wanted to understand.

He dared a step closer. He could feel savage fingers brushing against the front of his clothing.

“Matt!” Wendy called out.

He could barely hear her. Matt turned back and stared at his frantic friends. They were calling out to him, but due to the deafening sounds of the dead, it sounded like they were calling out from a faraway place, or from the other end of a long tunnel. They’re lost. Just like me. Just like all of us, he thought.

Matt turned back and stared into the distorted and mangled faces of the many. We’re the minority now, he thought. We’re the ones who aren’t supposed to be here.

And then he understood. At last, he could clearly hear them.

Matt whispered the only question that mattered. “Are we… Are we supposed to be… you?

The dead did not answer, because they were the answer.

Matt turned back, his eyes ablaze with revelation. He smiled at them and started to weep… tears of joy. “I’ve got it!” he called out. “I know what we have to do!”

Mark and Wendy continued to call out, but he could no longer hear them. He could only hear the answer. Matt stared at the massive lock on the gate and then started looking around for anything he could use.

He found a crowbar, lying beside an overturned trashcan.

Matt grabbed the crowbar, lifted it above his head, and then brought it down hard on the lock.

Clang!

They want us to be free! His mind rejoiced. Just like them! No more pain. No more tears. No more nightmares… not a fucking care in the world!

From fifty feet back, Mark turned to Wendy. “What the fuck is he doing?”

Wendy lifted her hands to her mouth. She felt all the blood leave her face. “My God,” she whimpered. “He’s trying to let them out!”

Matt stared disappointedly at the lock. It held.

He raised the crowbar again and took a deep breath to steady his aim. This time, he would give it everything he had. “Everything makes perfect sense now,” he said with a laugh. “Why did it take so long to finally see it?”

He brought the crowbar down on the lock.

Clang!

The lock fell obsolete to the ground. The large heavy chain uncoiled from around the stout bars like a metallic snake, and slithered toward the concrete.

This is the only way, Matthew thought. They are the next step in our evolution… they are US. This is what we are meant to become!

For Wendy and Mark, the next few seconds seemed to slow down, like the moments before a massive explosion after staring at a countdown timer running down to zero.

Matthew took a few steps back, raised his arms out, appearing like some perverse human cross. He smiled, closed his eyes, and shouted two words:

“I’m ready!”

The gate exploded open as the first wave of the stadium dead swarmed out and swallowed up the young man.

Matthew’s screams were brief as the dead tore into his flesh, ripping away limbs, his throat, his tongue, an eye fell absently into one beast’s mouth. His head briefly launched above the horde like the cork of champagne bottle violently coming off.

Pop!

Blood sprayed across the faces of the savage dead as they dug decomposed teeth into warm meat.

Wendy couldn’t move as the stadium dead were quickly expelled through the front gate, pushing and gnashing their teeth, screaming, moaning… starving.

They spotted two more blood bags and charged at Wendy and Mark.

Their pace was frantic and frighteningly fast considering their deteriorated condition after the long winter. In fact, that was the only thing that saved them. If these had been the yellow-eyed brutes instead…

Wendy was paralyzed with fear as the horde pushed toward her. She couldn’t shake the image of her friend being torn to pieces in front of her eyes… and it was so… so… quick! Her mind couldn’t process the horrors fast enough. She was going into shock.

Someone pulled her arm from behind—hard—and spun her around.

It was Mark. “Run!” he screamed into her face. “FUCKING RUN!”

~~~

Next Episode 41-6

Previous Episode 41-4

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 41-5: 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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