~~~

The fragrant garden flowers fill her nostrils with the scent of new beginnings. The tree tops gently sway in the cool breeze, playing peekaboo with the sunlight. It is spring, her favorite season.

Gina runs her hands nervously down the front of her dress. It is not a bad nervousness, like when a horde of the dead pass your hiding place and you wait to find out if they’ve detected you. No. It is the anticipation of something long sought after, finally arriving, causing her stomach to dance.

She is happy.

“You ready for this?” says the big man to her left. She turns and finds Frank grinning from ear to ear. He is wearing a suit that looks too big for his shoulders. He ignores his discomfort, too excited for his friend.

Gina smiles up at him and nods.

“Then let’s do it… and it’s about damn time, by the way,” he says with a wink. Frank offers up his arm and Gina takes it.

Together they walk through the park, entering a large rose garden with a fountain at its center. Running water pours from the outstretched hands and the mouth of some angelic statue standing in the pool.

Another one of her friends greet her at a podium just beyond the fountain. It’s Logan, the street preacher. He, too, is sporting a suit and laughs delightedly when he sees her approach. His laugher is infectious, causing Gina to giggle then snort through her nose.

“Well, that’s attractive,” Frank teases.

Gina lightly punches him in the shoulder as they stop before the podium.

“You look absolutely radiant, Gina,” Logan says. “Very beautiful.”

She becomes self-conscious in her long white wedding dress, her now long red hair flowing down the back. She blushes. “Thank you.”

There are others in attendance. Greg is there with his daughter, Ashley. They are clapping, hooting and hollering. Meredith is there. She can barely keep the tears of joy off her face with her handkerchief. Amanda smiles and raises a wine glass toward her, standing next to Stephen who can’t stop grinning. Nine and Diane are there, embracing each other. Nine will deny that he was the emotional one later. There are so many others; familiar faces from the compound. They’ve all shown up to honor her on this very special day.

She is not alone.

And then he approaches.

Tony walks toward the podium. He looks dashing in his tuxedo. His eyes are full of life and she’s never seen him so excited.

He stops before the podium, nods to Logan, and then turns to Gina. He is on the verge of joyous tears but smiles instead.

Gina is overwhelmed by all the emotion emanating from his face. She wants to reach out and embrace him forever… but not yet.

“We’re ready. If you two are,” Logan says.

They both nod to the preacher, then turn to each other.

Tony takes Gina’s hands in his.

Gina can feel his heart long for her through the warmth of his touch and his eyes. She can’t stop smiling. Gina’s heart beats differently now, like a child running excitedly through rain puddles after a spring storm.

She is in love.

Logan smiles at them as he opens his Bible, retrieving his notes. He stares out at the assembly and says, “Ladies and gentlemen, we are gathered here today, in the sight of God, to bring these two precious souls together as one, in holy matrimony. If there is anyone in attendance who would object to this union, please step forward and speak your peace.”

Gina half expects to be exiled from her own wedding, but then shakes the foolish thought away. She is not in that horrible place any longer. She is in a better place. A place where all dreams come true, exactly the way they were intended. A place where no monsters can come and tear up all your friends, and where no monsters within can rip you apart from the inside out. Gina is free… free to be all the things she could not be in that dire place. Free to let her heart soar and-

Gina is pushed hard from behind.

She stumbles forward, tripping over the front of her long dress and then slams her forehead into the corner of the podium.

Blood drips from a long gash across her bangs, turning the front of her dress crimson. Gina turns and stares in shock at her attacker.

“Doug?” she says. “You… you can’t be here! Not like this!”

The pale-skinned, rotting former baseball player growls at her, points accusingly, and says in a gruff voice, “Get up!”

Gina looks around for help. Tony’s gone. Frank’s gone. Logan’s gone. She is alone… except for this monster. “Get out of here! This is my wedding day, you fucking asshole! Don’t you dare ruin this for me!”

Doug charges toward her, grabs Gina by the hair, and then drags her kicking and screaming toward the angelic fountain.

“Let me go!” she yells. “I want this. Do you hear? I WANT THIS!”

Doug shakes his head at her and then plunges Gina’s face into the fountain water.

When he lets up, Gina rushes to the surface, coughing and struggling to breathe. “Stop it! This is my day! Get out! GET… OUT!”

Doug shakes his head and then shoves her head back beneath the pool. The angel made of stone watches indifferently. This time, Doug does not stop, but continues to hold her head beneath the water.

Gina struggles to get to the surface, but the dead thing that resembles her old friend will not release its grip.

I’m going to drown… on my own wedding day! she thinks while swallowing fountain water.

And then it strikes her… hard, like Doug’s bat.

I’m not dead… and there is no wedding. None of this is real.

Doug let’s her back up to the surface and whispers in her ear, “You can’t stay here.”

Gina starts to weep as she turns her head to the side and discovers a pained expression on her dead friend’s pale face. Then the monster returns. “Don’t come back,” he growls, plunging her head back into the cold water.

Gina closes her eyes and stops struggling. She realizes that the only way to come back up to the surface, is to go straight down to the bottom… back into the darkness… back into that depressing lonely world…

~~~

…Gina opened her eyes to faint light. Elongated shadows danced across a very high arched and paneled ceiling. She was lying on a bed in the corner of a very large and dark space. Everything beyond the limited range of the small lantern sitting on a nightstand beside her was swallowed up in blackness. Aside from the bed and the nightstand, there was an old chest pushed up against the wall.

If I’m dead, then these are the best accommodations left in hell, I suppose.

She tried to sit up. The pain in her chest was immediate.

“Oh… fuck,” she cried out, lying back down. She pulled back the thin blanket and examined the bloody bandage placed just above her heart beneath a roll of gauze wrapped several times around her chest. The realization that she’d been stripped down to her underwear came next as she pulled the blanket back up.

I should be dead, she thought. That strange bitch shot me in the chest with an arrow! The pain she was experiencing made it very clear that she wasn’t in hell, yet. So… where the fuck am I? And who patched me up?

“Try not to move too much, dear,” an elderly voice advised from somewhere in the darkness. “Your wounds are still fresh.”

Gina strained her eyes to follow the voice. She heard someone approaching.

A woman emerged from the dark, wearing a long red robe with her hood pulled up to conceal her face. The woman was carrying a fold-up chair in one hand and some sort of pitcher in the other.

Initially, Gina thought this woman was a witch. Shit… I am dead! This crazy old crone found me and cast some voodoo spell over me to bring me back to do her unholy bidding!

Gina wanted to laugh out loud. Partially due to her nerves, but mainly because she’d thought the words ‘unholy bidding’. Nine would be so proud. I’m acting like some half-dressed sacrificial lamb in a B-rated cult film from the ‘70’s… with the worst lines ever. What’s next, my cleavage shot?

The robed woman set up the chair near Gina’s bed and sat down, placing the pitcher on the floor. She pulled back her hood, revealing an old woman with black and white streaked hair, more white than black. “Relax, child. I’m not gonna cook you up in my cauldron, if that’s what you’re thinking… well… at least not yet.”

Gina didn’t appreciate the joke. She’d just figured out who this was. “You’re Lady Clementine,” she stated. Her tone was loaded with contempt.

The old woman raised an eyebrow at her, then reached down to retrieve the pitcher and a clean cloth. She poured some water on the rag and reached toward Gina’s face, stopping when the young woman flinched.

“I just want to keep you cool, child. You were burning up when we brought you in. Do you mind?”

Gina relented.

The old woman placed the rag on Gina’s forehead. “Better?”

“Yes… thank you.”

Clementine leaned back in her chair and placed her hands in her lap. She smiled and said, “Not the scary confrontation you’d thought this would be… hmm?”

Gina didn’t know how to respond to that. “Why am I here?”

“You were hurt. We couldn’t just leave you out there to die.”

“But… your archer… she was the one who shot me.”

Clementine nodded with a smile. “Yes. An inch lower and you’d be dead. Fortunately for you, that woman is an excellent archer. She doesn’t miss… unless she intends to. It was a risky move… that I did not sanction… but it worked. As far as your psychotic friend is concerned, he believes your wound was fatal. The strong sedative delivered by the arrow took care of the rest. When your… friend… was removed from the area, Alysa quickly tended to your wound and brought you back here. But it was a close call.”

Gina turned away from the woman. “Doesn’t matter. That archer bitch works for you. She’s one of your people.”

“No, child. That woman is not one of my people. She was there for your friend, the intense one who wanted you dead. I wanted you alive, so we struck a deal. When your friend’s true intentions became apparent, and we were short on time, we needed Alysa to get to you quickly and stop him, and she used us to get what she wanted.”

“Bullshit.” Gina tried to move again, but the pain forbade it.

Clementine shook her head. “You keep getting riled up like this, I’ll have to call my medic back in. Please… for your own sake… try to stay calm.”

Gina took a deep breath. There’s absolutely nothing you can do right now… and this bitch knows it. Just play along and wait for an opportunity.

Clementine was studying the red-headed woman’s face. “You are a bit intense as well. Would that have anything to do with your failed attempt to murder me?”

Shit… she knows. Gina stared at the old woman. “What’s your game here, lady? Information? You patch me up and pretend to give a shit until I’ve told you what you want… then you’ll kill me?”

Clementine laughed out loud. “Intense… and paranoid. That’s a lethal combination. No, child, I’m not interested in anything you have to tell me—or rather—I am interested… but not for any tactical advantage you could provide.”

“What did you do to my… where is he?”

“You mean that scary man who tried to kill you? What do you care?”

“Is he dead?”

The old woman sighed. “I wish he were, child. But no. The ones you call The Shadow Dead control his fate now.”

Gina tensed up. “Explain that.”

Clementine patiently continued. “The woman who shot you, Alysa, she was on her way back to her Order. She’d been out here hunting for your friend for quite some time. Don’t ask me why, because I don’t have an answer.”

“You’re saying that the archer… that she’s… one of the Shadow Dead?”

“Up until recently, Alysa has been our… liaison… between us and them. When we discovered you and your friend hiding out in the forest, and identified exactly who the two of you were, as I said, we struck a deal. Alysa offered to assist me getting to you on the condition that your friend become her prisoner. I thought the bargain was fair, so I foolishly accepted it. Then she betrayed me and shot you with that arrow. That was not part of the plan.”

“‘Part of the plan’?” Gina said. “And what plan was that? And just what do you mean ‘identified’?”

Clementine smiled. “You are Gina Melborn, are you not? Your friend… you know him as Marcus Dempsey, but his real name is Russell Bower.”

Gina looked away.

“Shit, I’m sorry. You didn’t know, did you?”

“There’s a great many things I don’t know these days,” Gina added sadly. She turned back toward Clementine. “But I do know who you, and your fucking Shadow Dead serve… and that’s why we came to kill you.”

Clementine rolled her eyes. “Bravo. You’ve seen the symbol, probably read the flyers, too. But do you really know what you’re talking about?” She leaned in and finished, “Do you even know what Mother is?”

“I know that every time your people came around, I had to watch my friends die,” Gina hissed. “That’s all I need to know.”

The old woman nodded thoughtfully. “I understand.”

Gina gasped in disbelief. “‘Understand’? Is that all you can say for the deaths your fucking organization is responsible for?”

“I understand from your perspective… Gina… that there isn’t any other way you can feel about Mother. But I assure you, you’ve got it all wrong.”

Gina wanted to bite back, but her chest started hurting again.

“We should talk about this later,” Clementine advised, getting up. “Get some more rest… please.”

Gina refused to look at her.

The old woman nodded and started walking off. She turned back. “Gina?”

Gina glared at her.

“All I ask is that you hear me out. Mother has been gravely misunderstood since this… epidemic… started. That’s partly our own fault for remaining in the background for far too long. But that’s about to change. When you’re able, I would like the chance to prove that Mother is actually on your side.”

Gina smiled and shook her head. “Sure. Prove to me that the whole lot of you aren’t just a bunch of mass fucking murderers taking advantage of what’s left of the world. I dare you to prove that!”

Clementine smiled. “Splendid! I accept the challenge.” She then appeared to glide across the floor in her long robe, moving toward Gina, and finished, “And if I can’t prove that Mother is not what you think… then I’ll let you finish what you came to do.”

“Excuse me?”

The old woman raised an eyebrow. “Have you forgotten already? You did intend to kill me, didn’t you?”

Gina remained silent.

“No matter,” Clementine said with a laugh while turning away. “If I can’t prove to you that Mother is not the evil empire you’ve come to believe… then I’ll let you have your chance.”

~~~

Several hours later, Gina was roused from a deep sleep by the sounds of revving vehicles, barking voices, and bright headlights breaching every crack in the old hangar walls and partially covered windows. She cursed herself for her weakened condition, failing to seize an opportunity to escape.

“They probably drugged me,” she smugly defended, making another attempt to sit up. This time, the pain in her chest was manageable. She took advantage of the activity outside to getter a better view of the surrounding hangar interior. The place was big and empty. What surprised her the most was finding no one guarding her while whatever was happening outside clearly seemed urgent.

Gina stripped the blanket off her body to assess the rest of the damage. There was another bandage and a strip of gauze around her left thigh where she’d been stabbed. There were multiple cuts and bruises up and down her entire body. The most disturbing wound was the strip of gauze that surrounded what was left of her big toe on her right foot. “Fuck me,” she whispered. “I’m a mess.”

No longer desiring to be the battered-wife version of some underwear model in a Victoria Secret catalogue, the next thing she needed was her damn clothes.

Victoria Secret my ass,” she reminded herself, glancing down at the damaged goods. “Maybe a Sears catalogue if you’re lucky.”

Her clothes were gone. She remembered the old chest.

“Okay, now I just have to get there.” Gina painfully turned her body until her feet touched the floor. She carefully applied her weight to her severed-toe foot as she stood up. She could still walk on it. “Now… just don’t stub your fucking bad toe on the bedpost on the way.”

Gina slowly walked over to the chest and reached for the lid.

“Nothing in there, dear. Just some useless shit from an older life.”

Gina rolled her eyes. Fuck. She slowly turned.

Clementine stood there, still in her red robe, holding up clean dark coveralls and a pair of sneakers. “Your clothes were unsalvageable, I’m afraid,” she said. “I hope these will suffice until we’ve time to hit the mall.”

Again, Gina did not appreciate the woman’s jokes. She walked back toward the bed as Clementine placed the clothes on the end.

“It’s good to see you up and about,” the old hag said. “You must have a strong pain threshold.”

Gina sat back down on the bed and started dressing in the forest-green coveralls. Without looking back, she absently said, “I’ve been in worse scrapes than this. It’s just something you get used to… and… thanks for the clothes.”

“You’re very welcome. May I sit?”

Gina nodded.

Clementine sat in the fold-up chair and stared while Gina dressed.

“I don’t do shows anymore,” she said, sensing the woman’s eyes on her back.

“Excuse me?” Clementine said.

Gina turned. “I was an exotic dancer before the world went to hell. Why I’m telling you that… I really don’t know.”

“Oh… I see,” the old woman laughed, catching the joke. “Well… I didn’t mean to stare. I was just wondering how a young woman like yourself ends up out in these woods… especially since you were once the leader of a much larger group… and rather successful at it, I’ll add.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Clementine smiled. “Okay, we can pretend I don’t know about your group of survivors holding out through the winter in one of Mother’s underground bunkers, or we can cut to the truth and save a lot of time.”

Gina started putting on the sneakers. “You seem to know all about me and my friends. It seems rather pointless asking me questions you already have the answer to.”

Clementine laughed lightly. “My, you sound like someone else I know. Yes, I know quite a bit about you and your people. What I don’t know is why you came out into these woods alone?”

Gina turned. “I was… exiled.” Again, she was surprised by her own openness. Maybe I’m just getting tired of hiding from what I am.

“Exiled.” Clementine said the word is if trying to decide if she liked the taste. “That doesn’t sound very pleasant.”

“It wasn’t.”

The old woman nodded and then let the matter rest.

Gina turned around on the bed. “What’s happening outside? Sounds like your group is scrambling for something big.”

“Yes. We’re getting ready to leave at dawn. I’ve got a convoy of vehicles that haven’t seen any action in a while… as well as a small army in the same condition. We’re in the process of shaking off the dust.”

“An army you say? Sounds like Mother is beginning her invasion.”

Clementine smiled. “Our primary facility, Gina… the place where Mother begins and ends… is on an island out on Lake Erie. What we have here at the airport, is enough to get things started.”

Gina was stunned by the volunteered information.

“When everything went from bad to worse shortly before the winter, most of us were recalled back to the island. A few stayed behind to keep watch over things and act as the eyes and ears for those of us back home… And then there were those who started with us, but then took advantage of the chaos to go their own way, using the organization’s name in vain.”

“Why are you telling me all this?” Gina said.

“Because I need for you to understand that the only sin Mother is truly guilty of… is the sin of inaction.”

“You go tell that bullshit to the people that I saw caged in one of Mother’s facilities where some sick machine was turned into a malicious god who tortured people! Same place where Mother’s demented soldiers, dressed like zombies, terrorized and slaughtered… and even stole children to do God-only-knows what to them! That’s what your fucking organization does!”

Clementine sighed and looked away. “Yes. You’re right, of course. What happened at that place in the forest was despicable… but that wasn’t Mother.”

Gina laughed. “Are you fucking kidding me? That place has Mother’s fingerprints all over it! How can you deny it?”

“Because the man you knew as Micom, who was originally with Mother, went rogue after the outbreak… as did a whole contingent of Shadow Dead,” Clementine patiently explained. “I told you that Mother’s only sin was the sin of doing nothing. That’s what really happened at that camp. Mother lost control of that place, as well as this entire area… and shamefully… we did nothing to restore order. That’s partially why we’re here now.”

Gina ran her fingers through her hair. “So, let me get this straight. You want me to believe that this all-powerful, all-seeing, all-knowing group of yours, couldn’t even see the factions sprouting up within its own organization? I find that difficult to believe.”

“Yes, as did many of us. That’s why we never saw it until it was too late. I guess I was mistaken. Mother is also guilty of the sin of pride.”

Gina shook her head. “Even if you’re telling the truth, it changes nothing. Mother’s still responsible for the monsters it released into the world… even if they lost control of them.”

“You’re absolutely right, Gina. And that’s why we’re here now.”

“What? To clean up your mess. You’re a little late. My people took care of that already.”

“Yes, they most certainly did,” Clementine said. “And you and your little band of survivors caught our attention on our safe little island. In fact, what you all achieved, taking down the rogue element, and forcing the Shadow Dead to depart was… inspiring.”

“And that’s why you and your army are here now,” Gina mocked. “You came all the way over here to thank the little people who did what you couldn’t or refused to do.” Gina shook her head. “Gee, I’m touched.”

Clementine raised an eyebrow. “Actually, we came here to do more than thank you. We came to warn you… and help you.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Remember the Shadow Dead woman who shot you with that arrow?”

“Yeah, that Alysa bitch,” Gina said. “You called her your ‘liaison’.”

“That’s right. She was our eyes and ears working within the rogue Shadow Dead element. She was the one who told us what they were planning after winter passed… and that they were coming to eliminate all your people in the underground facility.”

Gina’s heart sank.

Clementine turned toward the lights outside. “What you’re hearing out there is my little army getting ready to head out at dawn, meet up with your people, and hopefully mount a combined effort to take down the rogue Shadow Dead element… and finally do some good.” She turned back to Gina. “That’s where you come in.”

Gina waited.

“It’s clear by your reaction to Mother that none of your group will accept us at face value. But if you’re there with us… maybe they’ll at least listen before it’s too late.”

Gina rubbed her temples. This was all too much. If this woman, the very woman she was preparing to assassinate, was telling the truth, then her friends would need all the help they could get to stop the Shadow Dead. But if Clementine was lying, she could be leading the enemy right to their doorstep. Finally, she said, “You’re forgetting something. They’re not my people anymore. I was exiled… and for good reason. Seeing me return with all of you might not have the reaction you hope it will.”

The old woman smiled confidently. “My dear, I believe this is the perfect opportunity for you to win back your people’s trust. As it will be for us, starting with you, your people, and everyone else suffering in this area.”

Gina considered this. “And if I don’t want to be involved. What then? Will you just let me leave?”

“Of course not. You’re in no condition to be alone… not yet. You can stay here. I’ll leave my medic behind to make sure you heal properly.”

“I see,” Gina said. “Sounds like a nice way of saying that I’ll still remain your prisoner.”

“Please,” Clementine added. “Come with us. It’s not dawn yet. You’ve some time to consider this carefully. I really believe it’s a win/win situation for you and for Mother.”

“I’ll… think about it,” Gina said.

“Splendid!” Clementine said. She turned to leave and stopped. “For the sake of being as transparent as you’ve been with me, I feel I should tell you that I have some… personal… stake in this matter.”

“What do you mean?”

Clementine looked at her. “You have one living among you that’s a sister of mine. She’s not my sister by blood… but in every other way that counts… and then some.”

“Who is it?” Gina asked.

“Meredith. Meredith Montgomery. We’ve known each other since we were kids. We shared the same home for a little while. I guess you might call it an orphanage.”

Gina was stunned. “Yes. I know her. She’s a good friend of mine… or… was.”

“When you saw her last, was she… well?”

“Yes. She was engaged.”

Clementine smiled, her thoughts a million miles away. “Imagine that.” Before Gina could inquire further, she hastily interrupted. “Well, I just wanted to get that out there. So, you see, it’s very important to me that your people let us help them. My sister’s life is at stake.”

Gina nodded. “You’ve given me a headache of things to think about.”

“Of course,” she said. “I’ll give you some privacy.” She turned to leave again. Then stopped once more. “It’s important that we do this, and that we do it together.”

“Why’s that?” Gina said.

Clementine gave her a grave look. “Because your friends can’t beat the Shadow Dead… not without Mother’s help. If you believe anything I’ve told you… believe that.”

~~~

Next Episode 47-6

Previous Episode 47-4

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 47-5: The Enemy” 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.

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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