~~~

Gina Melborn’s trail went cold once Russell Bower departed the Wasteland woods and entered the much larger forest. What made tracking her difficult was the abundance of the dead that flourished in these new woods, creating false trails all over the place. Since leaving the underground compound four days ago, he’d pushed too hard on his sprained right ankle, slowing down the healing process and forcing him to rest it more than he desired. Gina had been living in exile for six days now, which meant she could be anywhere in these dangerous woods. As nightfall approached, all Russell knew was that it appeared Gina had chosen to stay just south of the interstate, perhaps using it to forage for supplies.

As evening twilight dwindled to black, Russell caught the faint traces of a campfire through the thick forest foliage. He stopped to rest behind a large tree trunk as he considered his next move.

Do you think that’s her, boss? Have we finally found the bitch at last?

Russell closed his eyes and took deep breaths, trying to ignore the savage who had done nothing but push and push for blood ever since leaving the compound. The other one had made tracking Gina, while staying invisible from the dead, increasingly difficult, as Russell continuously struggled to maintain focus… and control.

He stared down at his shaking hands, feeling like an addict suffering from withdrawals. He lifted his right hand in front of his face, staring at the black leather glove he now wore to conceal his branded palm. “Be patient,” he scolded. “All you ever want to do is rush right in to every situation.”

Fuck patience, boss! We’re free now. Free to do whatever we want, when we want. If not for your fuckin’ quest for the golden goddess, promising me again and again that we’d be bathing in her blood, we could’ve been roamin’ the countryside, all free-style like, slashin’ and dashin’ on the local bumpkins. Ya’ know we’ve seen signs of some truly unrighteous kill potentials out here.

“You’d like that,” Russell hissed. “You’d like nothing more than for me to let you off your leash so we could just go slaughter anything that moved.”

Damn straight, boss. And why the hell not? Your fuckin’ way hasn’t yielded any results in a very long time. All this damn prentendin’ to be somethin’ we’re not. Tryin’ to fit in and become some goddamn member of a group of piggies who have done nothin’ but put us in harms way, is getting’ fuckin’ OLD!

“Be silent!” he hissed.

No fuckin’ way! I’m tired of lettin’ you run the show, boss! You promised me blood, and I mean to get dirty!

“Soon.”

YOU PROMISED!

Russell was surprised to discover that he had retrieved the machete, holding it fiercely in his non-branded hand. He let go of the weapon, made a fist, and started pounding it into the earth. “I said… WAIT!” he pushed back.

The other one finally relented… this time.

Russell forced himself to remain calm. Whoever started the camp fire, he believed it wasn’t Gina. She was much smarter than that. The camp site was too exposed. Gina would’ve found somewhere more strategic. Russell knew the savage also understood this… but he had another agenda… always a bloody one. Regardless, there were people nearby, people who might have seen her. It was worth revealing himself to find out.

Gina or no fuckin’ Gina, we’re killin’ somethin’ tonight, boss.

Russell exhaled and strapped his machete to his pack. He stood up and started planning his route toward the fire. He wanted to move in close enough to see who he was dealing with before revealing himself. Russell crept through the forest toward the camp fire and stopped when he noticed the aluminum can trip wire surrounding the perimeter.

Fuckin’ amateurs, boss.

He ducked down, staring through the dark trees. He could make out two tents near the fire but could see no movement.

He listened to the too-silent woods, smiling at himself when he realized his mistake. They’re not that bad, he thought back, understanding that someone was already waiting for him.

You’re losing your edge, boss. All that peaceful lack-of-killing bullshit has made you dull.

Russell stood up slowly and raised his hands to show he wasn’t carrying anything.

As expected, they made their move.

“If you fucking flinch another inch, friend, I’m going to blow your damn head off.” The low gravely male voice was coming from just behind a tree, ten feet to Russell’s right.

Russell didn’t move. “I’m… I’m not going to cause any trouble. I’m alone. I just saw your camp fire and was curious. I haven’t seen anyone in these woods for days.”

He’d already located the other two people before they moved out of their hiding spots. One was a man, the other, a woman.

The woman, carrying a shotgun, stepped in front of the fire light. Her silhouette was tall and very thin, making her look like one of the dead. “What do you want?” she barked.

“Just a little warmth from your fire… and to be honest… a little company,” Russell said.

“What’s in the pack?” the third man, who sounded much younger, asked. He remained behind another tree.

“Just some supplies and a few weapons to defend myself… I’ve got canned food if you’re interested.”

The first man stepped out, holding a rifle. He was a big, burly man with a long curly black beard, wearing a faded green ballcap backwards. “Drop the pack and keep your arms up.”

Russell obliged.

“Now, step on over closer to the fire so we can get a better look at you. Don’t fuck with us. You’ll regret it.”

Russell nodded. He stepped over the trip wire and through the remaining brush until the small camp site came into full view.

All three of them moved in to surround him, leaving plenty of distance. The burly man took up the rear and grabbed Russell’s pack. After a few moments of investigating the contents of Russell’s pack, the burly man nodded to the other two. “Just a handgun, machete, a hunting knife and the food he mentioned.”

The woman stepped in front of Russell. She looked much older up close—her bony frame holding up a loose-fitting dirty black tank-top that made her chest stand out from the rest of her thin frame. She also wore tight-fitting jeans, ripped in several places. The woman had straight black hair tied back in a ponytail with streaks of gray showing through. The creases in her face stood out as she frowned at him. The woman lowered the shotgun and said, “I’m gonna search you. Don’t give me any shit about it, okay?”

Russell nodded.

She roughly patted him down, slowing down considerable around his crotch and ass areas. She smiled up at him, noticing his discomfort. She stood back up. “He’s clean, Albert.”

The burly man with the beard stepped into view, dropping his pack at Russell’s feet. “You can have your shit back. We’re not thieves, just careful.”

“I understand,” Russell said.

Albert gave him a final glance and said, “Well, come on over to the fire. Just leave your shit in the bag, especially that gun, and we’ll get along just fine.”

Russell nodded and picked up his pack.

The younger man had already moved back to the fire pit. He sat down and laid his rifle across his lap. He was no more than nineteen or twenty years old. He had short blond hair in the back, with long bangs that hid his eyes. The young man wore a red t-shirt with a long-faded design on the front and loose-fitting jeans with holes in the knees.

“That’s Calvin,” Albert said, sitting down next to the young man. His big frame made him look uncomfortable sitting near the fire. He motioned toward a spot next to the woman. “Please, sit. You look like shit.”

Russell laughed. “Thanks. I feel worse than I look.” He sat down by the fire.

Albert smiled. “That’s Tonya next to you there. Don’t let her get too close. She bites.”

Tonya winked at Russell and smiled.

“The kid here doesn’t say much. And I’m sick of talking to this bitch,” Albert said, earning him a teasing glare from Tonya. “We don’t see too many fresh faces around here… and the company is starting to get real stale.”

“Amen,” Tonya added with a laugh.

“Thanks for your kindness. My name’s Russell. I think I’ve said more words in the last five minutes than I have in the last five days. I was starting to think I was the last person still alive… and that’s not a comforting thought.”

“I hear you,” Albert said. “Myself, Tonya and Calvin over there… well… I guess you could say we’re the scouting party for our larger group. We go out, search for supplies, weapons, or whatever else we can find. We also try to recruit good people when possible. We just don’t find too many of those. Are you good people, Russell?”

Russell smirked. “I don’t know. I’m a poor judge of character on my best days.”

This made Tonya laugh. “I like this one,” she said. “He’s got jokes.”

Albert shook his big head with a smile. “So… Russell… why the hell are you out here?”

Russell didn’t hesitate. “I’m looking for a friend of mine. Maybe you’ve seen her. She’s got red hair, green eyes, and a temper. Her name’s Gina.”

They all looked at each other questionably.

“No… doesn’t sound like anyone we’ve seen,” Tonya said. “Sorry.”

Russell nodded.

There, boss. Q and A is done. Now let’s skin these fuckers while they’re feelin’ all friendly. We can cut ear muffs out of Ms. Perky Tits and-

“Well,” Russell said. “I had to try.”

“Sure,” Albert said, half-heartedly. “These are some pretty big fucking woods. Just ‘cause we haven’t seen her, that doesn’t mean your friend is… gone. Is she alone out here?”

“Yes. But she’s a resourceful woman. I’m sure I’ll catch up to her eventually.”

Grab the fuckin’ machete, boss. Do it now, while they’re all sittin’ stupid by this fuckin’ fire. We can end this in seconds.

“So… how did you lose your friend?” Tonya asked.

“That’s a long story,” Russell said. “Why is it just the three of you out here? Didn’t you say you had a larger group?”

“Yeah,” Albert said. “We’re heading back tomorrow. We do this shit a lot. I don’t know. Makes us feel like we’re actually accomplishing something, know what I mean?”

Russell stared into the dark forest. “Seems risky. But I get it. Can’t really live if your too busy hiding all the damn time.”

Albert laughed and stared at the others. “He gets it.” He looked back at Russell. “Maybe you’d consider coming back with us. I don’t want to get your hopes up, but maybe some of my friends have seen your friend.”

“Are you sure? You don’t even know me.”

Tonya laughed. “None of us knew each other before the winter. We’ve… grown on each other since then.”

“Yeah, like warts,” Calvin chimed in.

“He speaks at last!” Albert teased, making the young man shake his head. “What Tonya’s trying to say is that we didn’t get a group together by being afraid of everyone. We’ve learned to take chances on people. We’re cautious… but we haven’t given up on the rest of humanity yet. When this shit finally runs its course, we’re gonna need to learn how to trust each other again.”

Russell raised his eyebrows at the big man. “But how do you know who to trust? I could be a serial killer for all you know.”

Good one, boss.

Albert shook his head and laughed. “Doesn’t really matter what we were. It’s all about the big damn reset button now. Ever since the shit hit the fan, we’ve all been given another chance to un-fuck this world. That’s how I see it, anyway. Besides, you don’t look like the killer type.”

How did this big fuckin’ idiot survive this long, boss? If we wait long enough he’ll probably have us all holding hands before the night’s over.

“You have a refreshing perspective on things,” Russell said. “Don’t know if I buy it, but it’s better than the doom and gloom perspectives others have shared with me. So many have misunderstood this new opportunity we’ve been given, and chosen to wallow in everything they’ve lost, instead.”

“Yes… you’re right, Russell,” Albert said. “But that’s the problem, isn’t it? Anyone left who’s still really breathing knows that we can’t go back to the way things were. Somewhere in all that bullshit is how this all happened… I’m sure of it. But surviving isn’t enough either. We need each other now. That was the only thing we lost that mattered, and we lost that long before this fucking apocalypse ever started.”

Oh… please! This dumb fucker’s gonna make me vomit in your mouth, boss. He wants peace… I say… give ‘em pieces.

“So, this group of yours,” Russell started, “are they close?”

“We found a construction site before winter,” Tonya said. “Some new neighborhood development. They’d built a couple demo-houses, fully furnished, before everything went to hell. The entire site’s surrounded by a tall chain-link fence. It was perfect, so we took it over.”

Albert finished, “It’s just a few miles southwest of here. You’re more than welcome to come back with us. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but the houses are quite large. There’s room for you and your friend.”

Russell smiled. “I’ll consider it.”

“I wouldn’t wait too long, though,” Albert laughed. “Got room available now, but pretty soon, after we find more people like yourself, we’ll have to relocate. It’s hard work rebuilding society, my friend, but we intend to bring it all back… eventually.”

Russell looked confused. “But didn’t you just say, ‘we can’t go back to the way things were’?”

“Well… yeah… sure. What I meant was the people. We can’t have those same old attitudes that brought us to this point. We have to change up here and in here.” Albert pointed to his head and then to his chest.

Russell looked toward the fire.

“What do you think he meant?” Tonya said, flabbergasted by Russell’s lack of enthusiasm. “Did you think we’d all just live out in the woods forever? After we gain strength in numbers and resources, we’ll start getting back what’s ‘ours’, and then put the dead back in the ground where they belong.”

“When the lights finally come back on and shit gets back to normal,” young Calvin started, “I’m going to spend my first week doing nothing but sitting in front of the TV and just flipping through the channels, staring at the remote like a damn caveman discovering fire for the first time.”

This made Albert and Tonya laugh.

Russell stared into their faces like they’d just gone insane.

What did you expect, boss? These piggies had their straw, wood and brick houses blown the fuck down… and all they can think of, while they’re asses are turned to bacon, is killing off the latest wolves and going back to business as usual. Pathetic. They still don’t get it, do they, boss?

Russell had no response.

“All joking aside,” Albert said. “We’ll get it all back, including what we took for granted. People will change, you’ll see.”

“People have changed,” Russell said, unable to pretend any longer. “Under the threat of their very existence, day in, day out, those of us who are left have had all those ridiculous distractions removed from the equation. We went from slowly dying in our indifference and fear… shedding all illusions of safety, arrogance, and acting like we were immortal… to understanding what it means to truly be alive. It took Death to get us here. Why would any of you give that up?”

All three of them gave each other an uneasy look, not expecting such a dire turn in the conversation.

Albert smiled and said, “Look. I get it, Russell. I really do. But-”

“We are free of the cages,” Russell pushed. “And you, and others like you, want to fight to rebuild the prisons. That’s not progress, that’s not change,” Russell spit out the last word. “That’s the age-old voice of Fear calling out in the darkness, calling out to all its children to come back home and forsake real freedom in exchange for the comforts of familiar shackles.”

Calvin shifted uncomfortably. “I don’t like this guy. I think he’s been out here too long. Make him leave.”

“Agreed,” Tonya said, staring with concern into the intense man’s eyes.

They both tightened their grips on their weapons.

“Relax everybody,” Albert said, raising his hands. “Russell has some strong opinions. He’s entitled to them. Hell… he’s fucking earned them after surviving all this shit.”

“I am not… a survivor,” Russell said, staring into the fire.

Albert raised an eyebrow. “Then what are you, friend? You have a death wish we should know about?”

He’s the mother-fuckin’ storm that’s gonna blow your fuckin’ house down, little piggies.

Russell gazed into Albert’s eyes, appreciating the irony of the foolish man’s final words.

The firelight shimmered in the reflection of the blade. Before Albert and Calvin could register what just happened, Russell had slipped the machete out of the back of his pack, turned, and with one upward slice beneath Tonya’s chin, he’d completely removed her face… her revolting, primitive face.

Tonya’s hands reached up in shock, the pain not yet registering, as blood dripped down between the cracks in her fingers. What was left of her face, was laying in her lap. The woman started screaming like a banshee.

Now that’s what I’m fuckin’ talkin’ ‘bout, boss! Kill ‘em all!

Calvin raised his rifle late, firing wildly in a panic, and shot Tonya in the chest.

Russell was already moving behind the dying woman by the time Albert stood up and retrieved his handgun from the back of his belt.

Albert extended his arm to aim but Russell quickly dismembered it at the elbow. The big man stared in shock as his limb fell into the fire, his gun spinning free near Russell’s feet. Russell ducked down and spun his foot just above the big man’s feet, while grabbing the handgun. By the time Albert fell to the ground, screaming in pain, Russell had fired four rounds into Calvin’s chest before the young man could get a clear shot. Calvin collapsed, dead.

Russell discarded the gun and moved toward Albert. His elongated shadow holding the machete fell over the terrified man who was putting pressure on his severed arm, trying not to bleed out.

The big man looked up into Russell’s expressionless face. “Why… why would you… do this?”

There was no way Albert would understand. None of them would. But he said it anyway. “Because the Lady has commanded it.” He moved in to remove Albert’s head.

NO! Not like that!

Russell hesitated. The machete shook in his hand.

Slowly, boss… slowly…

“I’m not like you, savage,” Russell spoke out loud. “This is finished.”

You owe me, boss. I’ve waited too damn long!

“No.”

YOU OWE ME!!!

“No! I will not… I can’t…”

Albert was losing consciousness. He was convinced of two things: He was about to die… and this man was insane.

You can, boss. And you WILL! Tonight, you are the savage. Give in.

“NO!”

GIVE… IN… NOW!

Russell Bower approached the dying man. He raised his machete and brought it down again… and again… removing his feet first, then the other arm. Albert screamed until he passed out from the pain. He was dead long before Russell tore him open down the midsection, leaving his intestines spilling out beside the fire.

When he was finished, Russell looked into the vacant eyes of the dead man and turned away in disgust from the bloody mess, dropping to one knee and breathing heavily.

By now, the dead were stumbling through the trees, attracted by the screams and gunfire. He heard the aluminum can trip wire sound off.

You did good, boss. Real good.

“Enough,” he said. “It’s done.”

Not quite yet, boss. There’s more bacon back where these piggies came from.

Russell closed his eyes. He started calculating.

A minute later, he grabbed his pack and headed southwest into the night. Hopefully the dead would be satisfied by the butchery he left behind, and not pursue him toward the neighborhood development site.

~~~

Next Episode 45-2

Previous Episode 44-8

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 45-1: Predators” 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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