~~~

The evenings were getting much warmer, but out in the forest, especially down in the valleys near the water, the long nights could still chill the bones. Gina tried not to think about the cold or the suffocating darkness as she wrapped her arms tighter around her coat, longing for a small campfire.

The steady rush of the nearby stream made it hard to stay awake as she forced her eyes open for the um-teenth time. Fortunately, all she had to do was listen to the collective moans of the wandering ghouls roaming the tops of both sides of the small valley, and she was sufficiently motivated to stay conscious. There were so many out tonight, more than she’d anticipated when Gina had dragged her prisoner half-a-mile back north along the valley stream.

She stared across at the lying form of the unconscious man. She’d bound his hands behind his back with her nylon rope before stopping for the night. She kept her hand-ax, a silenced handgun, and a small flashlight she’d discovered in the man’s backpack, all within reach.

“I know you’re awake,” she said in a low voice. “Why don’t you stop trying to plot my demise in the dark and tell me why you’re really out here.”

She heard the man sigh and shift uncomfortably. “Where… where are we?”

“Nowhere,” Gina responded.

The man strained his eyes to see into the face of the silhouette. He finally said, “You… you struck me, knocked me out. I remember falling. Were you trying to kill me?”

Gina turned on the flashlight, cupping the bright beam with her hand, and aimed it toward the ground. This gave off just enough light for the two of them to see each other. She could see the man’s bandaged head and his accusing eyes. “You’ll live,” she said. “But not for long if you don’t keep your voice down.” She nodded up toward the cliffs. “My friends are very active tonight. Fortunately, they don’t like water—God only knows why. I can imagine them up there, stumbling around in the dark, then stopping when they hear the river with this dead, distasteful look on their faces, before shambling off in the other direction. It’s a good thing, too, because they’re stupid enough to wander right off the edge and fall right on top of us.”

The man looked up toward the dark cliff above them. He could hear the dead, shuffling through the foliage, their animal-like moans making the hair stand up on his arms. “Fuck,” he whispered. “They sound like they’re all around us.”

“They are,” Gina said. “But they won’t bother us if we’re quiet down here.”

The man looked at his captor. She looked like one of the dead in the faint light. Her dark dirt smeared face was buried within her tangled reddish mane. “May I sit up? I promise… I won’t try anything.”

Gina nodded, picking up the hand gun, and lying it across her lap as a clear warning.

The man slowly sat up, staring around into the dark forest and feeling like every sound he made would bring the dead raining down upon them. He shivered from the cold. “I suppose they love camp fires.”

“Too much light,” she said absently. “Stop complaining. You’re the reason we’re freezing our asses off tonight.”

“Fair enough,” the man said. He could feel the bandage wrapped around his forehead. “And thank you.”

Gina gave him a puzzled look. “For what?”

“For patching me up and not leaving me alone out here.” He looked back up toward the cliff. “I had no idea what I was getting into in these woods. You probably saved me from running right into them.”

“Yeah… you are a noisy fucker.”

The man let out a nervous laugh. He paused, considered the strange woman, and then said, “My name’s John… John Sterling.”

“I don’t care who you are.”

“O-kay… but I care,” John said. “Before we were these bastards’ food source, we used to be people that gave a shit about each other… or at least pretended to.”

“What’s your point?”

“My point is… we’re not savages, and that we still have names, and those names should still mean something.”

Gina said nothing.

“So… what’s your name?”

“Who the hell was chasing you, John Sterling?” Gina leaned forward, her fiery green eyes falling on him. “Let’s start with their names.”

John smiled. “Not the trusting type, I assume.”

“And you’re stalling.” Gina raised the handgun. “I could just shoot you right now… John… like the damn savage that I am, or you can start telling me what I want to know.”

“Whoa… just… relax! I’m not trying to stall. Really, I’m not. I’m just trying to… absorb… this fucked-up situation, and why I’m tied up as your prisoner when all I was trying to do was get away.”

Gina leaned back and nodded. She put the handgun down. “Okay. We’ll… relax. My name’s Janet. There, does that make you feel more at ease?”

“It’s a start,” John said. “Why did you knock me out and take me prisoner, Janet?”

Gina smiled. “Because I don’t know if you were really running from anything, John. I saw that airport full of armed people. They looked organized. For all I know, you’re some damn spy sent to check me out. That’s why we’re surrounded by the dead right now. I figure your friends are still terrified of my friends.”

John gave her a strange look. “You keep calling these things your friends. Just how long have you been out here?”

Gina shifted uncomfortably. “Just a figure of speech. Doesn’t matter. Point is, I had to take you somewhere I believed was safe. So far, I haven’t seen anybody chasing after you with automatic weapons, so either they’re afraid to follow you into these monster-infested woods, or you’re lying to me.”

John frowned. “I’m not lying, I wish I were.” He leaned forward. “Those people you saw at the airport, they’re fucking dangerous, Janet. I don’t know where we are, but you better believe they’ll be searching for me in the morning.”

“They won’t find us searching this far in, not unless they want the dead following them back to their base. I assume they’re smarter than that.”

John was shaking his head. “Won’t matter. They’re not worried about the dead. My people… those people… know how to handle themselves.”

Gina laughed lightly. “That’s what all stupid people say right before they make the menu. Sure, these dead-heads are manageable when you isolate them, if you know what you’re doing. But get them riled up, attract enough of them, they’re relentless.” She scowled at the man. “But I’m sure you already know that, John.”

“I’m no spy, Janet. I meant what I said. I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to run… and I took it.” John leaned back, looked around into the darkness, and finished, “Of course, now I’m starting to wonder if I reacted prematurely. This wasn’t what I had in mind.”

Gina nodded. “How many people are at the airport?”

John hesitated, then said, “Twenty-five… I think. Close to that, anyway.”

“And how long have you all been at that airport?”

“We relocated there just before that horrible winter. Before that, we were on the move for a while.”

Gina considered this. “A large group, heavily armed and organized.” She stared at the man’s clothing. “I would say military… but you don’t look like the military type.”

John laughed. “No. We’re definitely not that.”

“Then where the fuck did you all come from, John?”

John felt the weight of Gina’s eyes. He treaded carefully. “We…. my former group… we’ve been around a while.”

“What does that even mean?”

“It means we were prepared…well… as prepared as anyone could be, when the shit hit.”

“What? Are you some sort of survivalist group?”

“Something like that,” John said. “We were ready when the time came.”

Gina shifted. “You’re being suspiciously vague.”

“Well, Janet, let’s just say I don’t trust you any more than you trust me. For all I know, you are part of some larger group getting ready to attack the airport. Why should I tell you anything?”

“For someone who’s lucky to still be alive and claiming to be escaping from some dangerous fucking assholes, you sure don’t act like it,” Gina said. “What’s going on at that airport?”

John shook his head. “I’ve said enough. Yes, I’m trying to get away from these people, but that doesn’t make me a traitor. They took care of me. They’re the reason I’ve stayed alive this long… so… I owe them that, at least.”

Gina shook her head and smiled. “You run but claim loyalty. Maybe you’re just some low-life they found trying to steal their shit. Hell, there’s lots of people like that now. Maybe instead of putting a bullet in your head, like you deserved, they took you in all winter, then, you managed to slip away.”

John gave her a hard look. “Well, remind me never to steal from your people’s camp, if that’s what you believe.”

“Shut the fuck up!” Gina moved in to strike the man, then restrained herself. “You don’t know anything about me, or my people, you fucking piece of shit!”

John scooted back, staring up at the top of the valley. “You… you might want to lower your voice. I think some of your ‘friends’ can hear you.”

Gina stared up toward the top of the valley and calmed down. I’m letting this asshole get into my head. Settle down, before you prove him right. Gina took a few breaths and said, “Sorry. I don’t… interact with very many people these days. I imagine it’s starting to show.”

John looked back at his bound hands, then smiled at Gina. “Well… your first impressions might need a little improvement.”

Gina laughed at that. “I’m a survivor, John. I’ve learned that if you hand out trust like fucking candy, you don’t stay alive very long.”

“I get that,” John nodded. “People have become… unpredictable… these days. Hell, that’s one thing you can appreciate about these, what did you call them? Dead-heads?”

Gina nodded.

“Well, dead-heads don’t hide their cards. You know exactly what they want the moment you see them. People, however, can be downright evil these days, hiding their intent until it’s too late to see it.”

Gina looked at him and smiled. “For a moment, you sounded just like an old friend of mine.”

“A good friend I hope,” John laughed.

Gina looked away. “No. Just another dead one.”

“Sorry.” John shifted. “I hope after we clear up this misunderstanding, we might be friends. In case you haven’t noticed, I just ran away from mine.”

Gina was exhausted. Living with the dead, alone in these woods, seemed easy compared to conversing with this stranger. And yet, the thought of having a friend, a real living friend again, did appeal to her on some desperate level. She sighed and said, “Look, John, it’s late. I’m… tired of trying to figure you out. And honestly, I’m way out of practice. If you could just start trusting me a little, tell me what I need to know, then I could start trusting you, too.”

John nodded. “Sounds reasonable. Tell you what, since you have me at the disadvantage, seeing that you’re the one holding me prisoner, how about you give a little first. Does that sound fair?”

Gina nodded. “I’m alone, John. As you can tell by my appearance… and behavior, I’ve been out here a while. There’s really nothing more to know about me.”

“You said something about ‘your’ people. What happened to them?”

Gina felt herself becoming defensive again. But her mental fatigue won out. “I don’t… I don’t have ‘people’ anymore.”

John frowned. “Are they all… dead?”

“No… no… nothing like that,” Gina struggled. “Let’s just say we didn’t see things the same way. I wanted us to survive and they wanted to live. As a result, they… kicked me out of the club.”

John gave her a puzzled look but wisely chose not to push. “Okay,” he said. “That’s good enough for me. Sounds like you got the shit end of the stick. Me too. You were forced out of your group… and I had to run from mine.”

“Why did you run?”

John looked struck. He lowered his head and said, “People change, Janet. I’m sure you know that as well as any one. No one can still be alive this long without understanding that fact.”

Gina averted her eyes, feeling like she’d left a crack into her soul exposed. She silently nodded.

“Anyway, let’s just say that the people I started out with… I really believed in what they were doing. They had a cause, a mission… hell, the only mission that still mattered. Then, things changed. Things got dark, and then they got darker.”

Gina stared at the man. “I get that, John. Go on.”

“Well, sometimes you just don’t realize how bad circumstances can get, how dark your fucking soul can get, because you’re surrounded by so much of it… and then one day, something happens. Something that just shakes your foundation and eats away at you until you can barely stand looking at yourself in the mirror.” John stopped, struggling for words.

“I’ve been there,” Gina whispered. “Hell, I think I’m still there.”

John looked up into the savage woman’s haunted eyes and saw that she meant it. He nodded with a half-hearted smile. “Anyway, someone died… horribly. And I couldn’t stop it from happening. She was just a girl, a mouthy fucking teenage girl, who did what all dumb rebellious teens do, even in the apocalypse. Well, it got her killed. Her name was Debra and she was… slaughtered by the leader of my group, made a pointless example of, never to live out her stupid teenage years…” John stopped and sighed heavily. “Anyway, I was never the same after that. All that I’d believed was bullshit. They were bullshit. So, I crawled into my shell, waiting to die, while I went through the motions of believing in their bullshit, too terrified to run away because I still valued my pathetic existence on some level, until I’d finally had enough.” He looked at Gina and finished, “That was when you found me. You see, I had one last chance to run. By now, no one in my camp looked at me twice. I was… forgettable. I’d reached rock bottom, but once I was presented a final chance to run, I no longer cared about the consequences of getting caught. That made me free, for a just a moment, to face my fears and risk all to get away.”

Gina stared at John long and hard. She finally said, “It’s sounds like you’ve been their prisoner for a long time.”

John laughed. “Yeah, a prisoner of fear and self-loathing.” He looked back. “I don’t know, Janet. Have you ever reached the place when you fear yourself more than anything anyone could do to you?”

Gina absolutely refused to answer that question.

“Well, that’s what it took. And that’s why I ran.” John let out a heavy sigh. “And that’s why I’m out here in these woods with you now.”

Gina nodded. She was wrestling with the ghosts of her past that this man’s story brought out in her. It took incredible effort to force it all back down and raise her defenses. Doesn’t matter. None of it matters. His people, your people, what they did, what he did… what you did… pointless.

“This leader you spoke of,” Gina pushed. “Is this the person who intends to hunt you down in the morning?”

John nodded. “Yes. She will look at my actions as direct defiance. She will know that if I get away with this, it will set a bad example for the others who are already wavering.” John stared at Gina with terrified eyes. “Fear brings compliance, Janet. And my so-called leader expects… no… demands compliance. She won’t rest until I’m found, brought back, and punished publicly for everyone to watch. And I’ll die in some horrible way you or I couldn’t possibly imagine.”

“What’s her name?” she asked.

“Excuse me?”

“This leader you spoke of. What’s her name?”

John looked terrified to even speak it. “Does it matter?”

“It matters to me. Should I ever cross paths with that bitch out here, I want to know the name of this despicable child-killing person before I stick this axe blade in her skull.”

John saw the fire in this savage woman’s eyes and knew that she meant it. His face went pale as he whispered, “Her name is Lady Clementine.” He looked around nervously as if invoking the name would suddenly make her materialize in front of them. “Trust me, Janet, you don’t ever want to meet her. She’s a monster.”

“I’ve killed monsters,” Gina said. It takes a monster to kill a monster. The thought caught her off guard and made her tremble.

“I believe you,” John said. “But I wouldn’t wish such an encounter on anyone, including you. She’s the worst kind of monster in this world—made for it—and you’d be wise to steer clear.”

“If your monster hunts us down out here, I may not have a choice,” Gina said.

John looked irked. “Of course, you do! You run… like me! Get the hell out of these fucking woods and never look back! You run while there’s still time!”

“What do you mean by that?”

John averted his eyes. “This is bigger than you or me… bigger than everything out here. This group is part of something much larger, something much more dangerous than just fighting off dead-heads in the woods. Fuck! She can make the dead… do things!”

The alarms were going off in Gina’s mind. “Who is this woman, John? Who is she really? And who are these people that make you want to shit your pants right now?”

John looked into her eyes and said, “They started the whole fucking thing, Janet! Everything that’s happened starts with them… and they’ve been preparing for it for a very long time.”

Gina forgot to breathe. “Are you talking about… Mother?”

John’s eyes went wide with surprise.

~~~

Next Episode 44-7

Previous Episode 44-5

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 44-6: The Nomad” Copyright © 2018 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.

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