~~~

Exiled – Day 16

Moonlight penetrated the late evening forest causing the shadows to come alive all around her. With the absence of wildlife, the woods felt much more menacing at night. Every sound from a snapping twig beneath her foot, to a dead branch falling from a rotting tree was amplified in the darkness. A cool but pleasant breeze made the tree tops dance and every swaying branch looked like the arms of the dead. Eyes had replaced the animals… and they were everywhere.

“Don’t trust your eyes at night, Gina,” Marcus had told her. “They lie, distorting perception. It is the one sense that can cause you trouble if not tempered with the others.”

Gina remained still, crouched down within the shadow of a large oak tree as she tried not to let her imagination cause her to panic. She knew Marcus was nearby but had not revealed himself.

Keep your shit together, she reminded herself. Remember what Marcus said: “You are not here”.

She focused taking deep breaths to slow her heart rate.

The point of tonight’s exercise was to travel through the forest and not be discovered. Marcus had assured her that he would watch her back and intervene if necessary, but he refused to tell her if the dead were in this part of the forest. That was for her to find out and adapt accordingly… whatever the hell that meant.

Her scent was already masked by her time spent in the woods, but if she wasn’t careful, she could betray her position with any sudden sound or just by stepping into the moonlight where the movement of her elongated shadow could easily give her up.

The reanimated dead which occupied these woods were not very intelligent, but their hunger and inability to feel fear or be hindered by any other emotion gave them an edge in the darkness, especially if there were several of them in the area.

You are not here, she repeated in her head. She picked out her next location, waited for the wind for cover, and then quickly rolled forward into another tree’s shadow. She stopped moving immediately and waited for the night to catch up.

There was no attack. The dead did not charge blindly through the brush the moment she moved. She was not there. She was the wind… the rustling branches… and now… the newest tree. She used it all to mask her movements, encouraging herself that nothing lurking in the night could locate her if she simply became… the night.

She continued to calculate and stealthily move across the dark. Gina laid down flat in the spider-like shadow of a swaying bush, stretching her arms outward and gently swaying them in rhythm with the slender branches until her shadow and its shadow merged. I am the bush, she thought to herself and smiled. She thought back to two nights earlier when Marcus spoke about stealth…

“What’s your secret, Marcus? How the hell do you creep around so well without being detected?”

“There’s no secret, Gina… no trick. You just need to remember that when you’re trying not to make a sound, by trying not to make a sound, that’s when you get caught.”

“What the hell does that even mean?”

“When you take a cautious step forward to avoid producing sound, you’re trying to be something impossible. You cannot become silence. You begin to overcompensate, placing your body into an unnatural state. The harder you try to ‘be’ quiet, the harder it is to do so. The way to move quietly is not by being quiet… that’s ridiculous. It’s far easier to emulate whatever sounds are available to mask your own movements… and in sense, becoming what makes those sounds.”

“So… you’re saying that if I want to move with stealth, then I need to learn how to… be something else?”

“You need to learn how to not be there at all. Answer me this, Gina. When you see a branch on the ground, what should you do?”

“Step over it.”

“Wrong. You’re trying to avoid stepping on it because it might break and give you away. By avoiding the branch, you’ll surely step on something else you can’t see or anticipate, which then will betray you.”

“So… I should step on the fucking branch?”

“No. You should blow across the branch by becoming like the wind. Should the branch break, it will sound like something the wind did, and not your out-of-place awkward stepping over or on top of it. Understand?”

“I think so.”

“We will practice this… a lot.”

…Gina studied a pile of leaves, watching which way the wind started to scatter them and how. She calculated her next move. When enough of the pile started to twirl into the air, Gina quickly spun with them and cleaved to the trunk of a small tree by wrapping her arms around it. She took a long slow breath and waited. That’s when she saw one of them.

She’d almost missed the tall dead thing standing in the moonlight less than fifty feet away. It resembled a man, what was left of it anyway. The man stood still, staring up at the moon, his long, rotted arms hanging at his side. He was completely naked. His flesh looked brown, black and wrinkled over old bones. To Gina, the man could easily be mistaken for the trunk of an old dead tree. Its jaw bone hung down from one side of its saggy face, the side facing Gina, revealing its rotted upper teeth. A few faint strands of long hair were blown across its balding scalp—details that only the moonlight granted her. The darkness spared her the rest.

What is it about the fucking moon that gets these beasts all calm and quiet? she wondered.

No matter. She was feeling good about herself and decided to take it out.

Gina moved within ten feet of the creature.

It still had no idea she was there.

Marcus would be so proud.

She looked at its long narrow shadow set directly behind the dead-head. The creature continued to stare up at the moon as if worshipping it in some ancient zombie ritual.

Gina waited on the wind and started calculating.

When her moment arrived, Gina rolled forward and stopped directly in the beast’s shadow, less than a foot behind it. The monster continued to stare skyward, oblivious to her presence.

Gotcha fucker!

She slowly unsheathed her hunting knife and carefully rose behind the creature, matching its posture perfectly so as not to reveal her own shadow coming out of his.

I am not here. I am… the dead, she thought with a wicked little smile. She turned the knife point up toward the soft spot above the creature’s neck, just below the base of its skull, for a fatal thrust into its brain. She took a victorious half-step forward, putting her within easy arm’s length of the tall creature and then…

The small branch snapped loudly under her foot.

Fuck me.

The creature turned surprisingly fast, swinging one long arm toward Gina’s face as it growled. Gina had just enough time to duck beneath the monster’s arm, losing her balance in the process, as she fell back on her ass.

The tall zombie was about to pounce on her.

Gina raised her hunting knife, hoping to land a lucky blow to its face as it fell upon her.

From behind her right shoulder, an arm shot out as the machete pierced the creature right between the eyes.

Russell quickly retracted his weapon.

The beast fell limp right on top of Gina.

“Sonofabitch!” she cried out as she pushed the dead thing off her.

She turned just in time to catch Marcus’s shit-eating grin as he stepped to the left and away from where his shadow had been hiding within the monster and Gina’s shadows a few moments ago. He turned his back and said, “Not bad. Except that you stepped on that branch.”

“You were right behind me and I never even knew it,” she said. “For how long?”

“Only for that last bit,” he said, turning. “I couldn’t resist.”

“Asshole.” She shook her head and smiled. “And here I was thinking I was the fucking ninja bitch of the damn forest.”

Russell laughed. “You are getting better. It’s late. That’s enough for one night.”

Gina got up, stared down at the dead thing, and then kicked it once in frustration before following Marcus back into the shadows.

~~~

Back at the ruins camp, Gina washed her hands and face in an old bucket Marcus had found two days ago. He’d filled it with stream water each afternoon and placed it in a corner, so they could clean up a little each night after training. As per their post-training ritual, Gina would get the food ready while Marcus collected wood for the fire. They’d already located a portion of Gina’s hidden food stash and brought it up the ridge.

“Looks like cold baked beans tonight,” she said, holding up two large cans. “It’s too bad that group at the underpass didn’t leave a pot behind.” She watched Marcus silently collect branches from around the perimeter of their camp. She looked up into the late evening sky and watched the moon disappear into the clouds. Gina smiled and said a little louder, “I think I’m starting to get used to this. I haven’t done the up-all-night, sleep-all-day gig since my stripping days… God, I can’t even picture that girl anymore.”

Russell came over and dropped a large pile of branches beside the fireplace. “I’ve always been a night owl,” he said, placing his hands on his hips and staring out into the darkness. “I’ve always found you can get so much more done at night.”

“Peaceful,” Gina added. “I like the quiet. There’s none of that busy bullshit of the day to contend with… you know… like back how it was in the old world. Though, I guess it doesn’t matter anymore.”

Russell washed his hands and then sat down in front of the hearth across from Gina. “We’re going to keep this schedule for a little while. Sleep during the day and keep training at night.”

“Where do you go during the day?” Gina said. “You’re gone every time I wake up. I’m starting to think you never sleep.”

Russell smiled as Gina handed him an opened can of beans. “I sleep. You just sleep longer… and you snore.”

“Do not.” She opened her can of beans with her hunting knife.

Russell continued, “I’ve been keeping an eye on our friends at the airport and searching the forest for anything we can use.”

“You mean anything you can use to make my training more… exciting… right?”

He winked at her.

Gina started eating her beans with a plastic spoon. “So… anything new happening down at the airport?”

“You always ask me that.”

“Yeah,” she said. “And you always say the same damn thing!”

He raised his eyebrows and said, “They’re still there…”

“…and we’re still here… got it, asshole,” she laughed. “Translation: Nothing’s changed.”

“There… now you’re answering your own questions,” he teased. “I call that progress.”

“Just eat your damn beans.”

They sat in comfortable silence for a couple of minutes, enjoying the fuel. Training at night was very exhilarating… but also exhausting.

Gina finally looked up from her empty can and watched as Marcus appeared to study the beans on his spoon. “Not hungry?” she said.

“I’m just… thinking.”

“You’re always thinking,” she said, pointing her spoon toward him. “I swear your face only has two expressions: Stone face or Constipated face… like the one you’re wearing now.”

Russell smirked. “Well… in all fairness… we have been eating cold canned food.”

Gina laughed. “So… when are you going to share those heavy thoughts you’ve been hiding? I know you’re working on an attack plan for the airport.”

“Patience, Gina… remember? We’ll talk plans after we’ve trained.”

“Yeah… yeah… yeah.” She shifted gears. “You know, this is kind of nice. Eating beans out in the wild and just bullshitting with a friend. Hell, you and I never had this kind of time together… not since the tracks out of Percy.”

“The good old days,” he said with a smile. “As I recall, things got busier the bigger our little group became.”

“Yeah,” she said with a sad note in her voice. “They certainly did.”

“Do you miss it?” He abruptly said. “You know, being in charge of so many people?”

Gina frowned and studied the inside of her can. “No… I really don’t. I think I was addicted to the action being the leader afforded… but none of the rest.”

“You had your moments,” Russell defended.

Gina rolled her eyes. “Bullshit, Marcus. Stephen… now that’s someone who can lead. I was just good in the… crisis situations. Hell… I only felt comfortable when shit was hitting the fan… that’s when I knew what to do. But that long winter in the compound… with no enemy to fight… that was hard… very hard.”

“Well,” Russell said, putting his beans down. “You may not have been the ideal choice for leadership while everyone was hiding beneath the ground, but when it came to our backs up against the wall… you always rose to the occasion… and I mean that.”

“Thank you, Marcus. That means something coming from you.”

“You’re welcome.” Russell got up to put some wood on the fire.

She watched the strange man and said, “I’m surprised I never asked before… but… how do you know so damn much about fighting and all that other ninja shit? Were you in the military or something?”

“No,” he said, sitting back down. “I took advantage of several opportunities presented to me when I was young… and simply adapted.”

“‘Adapted’? Really? That’s all I’m going to get? Come on, Marcus. It’s just you and me out here. No more secrets. You already know too damn much about my shit.”

Russell gave her a serious look, nodded, then said, “I was once a defenseless child in a world where I was led to believe monsters did not exist. After I learned the truth, I chose not to be defenseless ever again. When you make a commitment like that at an early age… the ability to fight finds you.”

“Cryptic as ever,” Gina said with a laugh. “I might as well be listening to a fortune cookie speak.”

Russell frowned and stared into the fire.

“Well, I’m beat,” Gina said, getting up. “Maybe one of these days you’ll decide to open up to me. But I’ll respect your privacy until you-”

“I witnessed my mother and her secret lover murder my father.”

Gina froze.

He turned to her and continued. “That was after finding out my mother had been poisoning my food to murder me, too.”

Gina sat back down. “Marcus… I… don’t know what to say. That… that must have been horrible.”

“Life-altering,” he corrected. “But that’s all I’m going to say about that old life, Gina, so please… don’t ask anymore. It’s all irrelevant. But… I’ve just told you more in two sentences about me than I’ve told anyone. So, don’t think that I don’t appreciate what you’ve shared with me… because I do.”

She smiled uncomfortably. “Okay.”

Russell hesitated, then said, “There is one more thing I want to tell you… about my past.”

Gina’s face went pale as she reminded herself to breathe. “Sure… go ahead and tell me, Marcus. I’m listening.”

He smiled at her and finished, “I once had a cat named Mr. Patches.”

~~~

Next Episode 45-7

Previous Episode 45-5

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 45-6: 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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