~~~

Logan ascended the ladder beneath the mesh walkway, expecting to be jumped the moment he reached the top rung. He stopped before climbing off the ladder and turned his head to the right, back toward the door leading to the observation room. There was no one waiting on the walkway. He looked left toward the other door leading toward the small room with the airlock.

“Holy shit!” he hissed, nearly slipping off the ladder.

Standing in the threshold of the open door was a tall lanky young man, his black hair slicked back, wearing a leather jacket, jeans, and cowboy boots. The young man attempted to smile at him with a broken grin on a constipated-looking face.

Jonas!

Logan immediately looked away and caught himself on the ladder. “That is not possible,” he declared, rubbing his tired eyes and shaking his head. “Dear Lord,” he prayed. “I’m severely exhausted and cannot trust this tired brain. It’s been a long damn day. Please… grant me your grace to get back to the others before I break my damn neck falling off this ladder… in Jesus’ name… amen.”

He finally mustered up the courage to look back toward the open doorway.

No one was there. The door was closed.

“Praise God,” he whispered, quickly climbing up off the ladder and back on to the walkway. He stood up on shaky knees and refused to look back toward the airlock room door. He started back the other direction, desperately needing to return to the others. He could still feel the rolled-up diagram he’d stuffed in the back of his pants, bringing him back to the present. Logan laughed at himself and said, “Calm down, you damn fool. It’s just more of Stephen’s ghosts.” But before he took ten steps, he heard metal striking metal coming from behind him.

Logan stopped and reminded himself to breathe. “That’s no damn ghost.” He turned around. Regardless of what he imagined he saw, there was no mistaking the violent pounding coming from the other direction.

Someone’s over by the airlock… someone who doesn’t care about being stealthy any longer.

The big preacher, suddenly aware that he was behaving like a frightened child, immediately straightened up, puffing his large chest out through his tank-top, and grumbling to himself. “You may be a child of God now… but that’s no excuse to be a damn pussy… man up! It’s time to put childish ways behind you.” Logan approached the airlock room with a scowl on his face. Someone’s playing games… and I’m too tired for games.

Logan reached the door, stopped, and took a moment to prepare his mind for a fight, balling his right hand into a fist.

The pounding on the other side of the door continued.

Logan grabbed the door knob with his other hand, closed his eyes, and prayed, “‘The Lord is on my side; I will not fear: what can man do unto me?’”

The preacher opened the door and entered the airlock room.

All his strength and courage immediately exited his pale face.

The first thing Logan registered was the logo on the back of Jonas’ leather jacket as his dead nephew swung a steel pipe against the round entrance wheel on the airlock door. It was the same: The large white diving eagle with the bold words, The Brotherhood of One, dripping from the eagle’s talons like captured prey. Logan’s stomach dropped as that old emblem from a darker time mocked him:

Welcome back, you hate-filled sonofabitch. The Brotherhood misses you.

Logan became self-conscious of the tattoos branded across his large arms. He could fill the ink bulging like veins as the past assaulted him.

Jonas, out of breath, stopped swinging the pipe, turned, and smiled in surprise when he realized Logan was standing behind him. “Well it’s about damn time, uncle,” Jonas said. “Are you gonna help me with this or not?”

Logan recoiled at the sound of his nephew’s voice. “What… what manner of devilry is this?” he finally said.

Jonas ran a hand through his greasy hair and gave his uncle a puzzled look. “Oh… that’s right,” he said. “I fucking forgot. You’re some kind of damn holly roller now.”

“You’re not… Jonas. He’s dead.”

The young man laughed and shook his head. “Man… you must’ve bumped your head or somethin’. Of course, I’m dead! If you haven’t noticed, the damn world is full of dead people now.” Jonas opened the front of his jacket, revealing a bloody concert t-shirt with several bullet holes in it. “Got some way cooler tats now, uncle. This is the real damn deal. Remember what you called ‘em? Battle scars, right?”

Logan looked away. “Dear God,” he whispered.

“Man… when did you become such a little bitch? Maybe it’s all that time you’ve spent with those soft-minded mixed-breeders that call all the shots now. Hell, you’ve got a damn half-dead bitch, that old witch zombie lover, and a stinking child murderer with you right now! There was a time you would’ve handled losers like that! But now… look at you, uncle. You’re a friggin’ mess!”

“Stop it,” Logan said. He grabbed the sides of his head, feeling like his brain was about to explode. “What… do you want? What do you… how can you be here?”

“I’m trying to save your pathetic ass, uncle. That hag and her cohorts are gonna make a break for the airlock and get you all killed as soon as they open this fucking door. We can’t let that happen. There’s nothing but fucking monsters and mayhem down there! But you know that already, right, uncle? That’s why you’re here. Can’t open the fucking door if it’s all broke dick, right? Fucking contaminated Paradise bullshit! Hell, it’s written right on the damn door, for Christ’s sake.”

“Language!” Logan said, automatically reverting to his former relationship with his dead kin.

Jonas averted his eyes and shuffled his feet nervously. “Sorry.”

What the fuck!?

Jonas, a little humiliated, turned back toward the airlock, preparing to attack the wheel again. “Screw it, I’ll do it myself!”

Logan pointed at him. “Stop that! Whoever… whatever you are… just fucking put the pipe down!”

Jonas turned back, let the pipe hit the ground, and put his hands up defiantly. “Fine! Don’t have to be a big A-hole about it! I’m just tryin’ to help.”

“That might be our only way out of here,” Logan said, calming down.

Jonas pointed at the red words scrawled on the door. “Seems fucking obvious, uncle. There’s no damn ‘Paradise’ on the other side of this fucked-up door.”

Logan was about to scold his nephew again, then stopped. He took a step back, closed his eyes, and started to quietly pray.

“C’mon! Don’t start that shit! Stop acting like you’re some kind of changed man or somethin’. Just look at yourself… still sportin’ all those tats like they don’t mean anything. Quoting scripture like a holy man when you’re still the same damn person! ‘No one ever really changes, on the inside’… isn’t that what you always used to say about all those half-breeds trying to steal our country out from under us? They try, and they try to be like us, blend in, wear sophisticated clothes, hide behind their educational degrees that they never had to pay for, shit like that. But inside, their all the damn same—dirty mixed-breeds contaminating the moral waters of our nation.”

Logan tried to ignore the apparition.

“You think you’ve stopped all that hating, uncle? You think you’re free? Hell… you just have another breed to discriminate against now. Just look at the way you treat that silver-eyed girl. Tell me you don’t hate that fuckin’ bitch… that you don’t want to take her and all her kind and burn ‘em up-”

“Shut your damn mouth!”

Jonas laughed and shook his head. “I’m just tryin’ to help you, uncle.”

Logan continued to pray.

“It’s more than you did for me that night. Remember? Shit… you left me alone in that bar, without back-up, while you went around chasing the retarded Asian kid.”

Logan stopped praying.

“That’s right. How fucking wrong were you that night… huh? You left me there to get slaughtered!”

“I’m… I’m sorry… Jonas. I… I live with that shit… every day.”

“As you should! I’m the one who payed for your fuck up! So, here I am now, tryin’ to help you again… like I did that night… and you’re still on the wrong damn side of town! Wake up… man!”

“If I could take it all back… I would,” Logan said. Tears of pain and frustration started to fill his eyes. “I’d go back and die for you… but I can’t.”

Jonas shook his head. “Fuck all that, uncle! The world’s upside down now anyhow. Probably did me a favor in the long run.” He pointed at the airlock. “You go in there… you’re dead… like me.”

“I deserve nothing less.”

“Fuck that, uncle. You know what all of us ‘dead folk’ have in common… and I’m not talking about the ones who want to eat your asses?”

Logan waited.

“All we have left is the rest of you still alive and kickin’. When all of you die, there’ll be no one left to remember us… and to be forgotten is fuckin’ worse than death, uncle. Trust me, I know. There’s a fucking dark, black-as-shit place where the nameless go. Is that where you want to send me?”

“Dear Lord, of course not.”

“That’s why I’m here, uncle. I’m doing what I can to keep you alive a little longer. That’s your job now… your curse. You need to keep breathing so your dumb dead nephew has a place to be. Memories are all I have left… that’s what keeps my kind alive and out of the darkness. And don’t give me that afterlife Heaven horse-shit. Unless you’re dead, you don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.”

“I don’t believe that,” Logan said. “There’s has to be more… or what’s the point?”

“You live… you die… you’re forgotten… and then there’s the blackness. When you become nothin’, that’s when you’ve reached the fuckin’ end of the highway.”

“Bullshit,” Logan turned away. “I can’t believe that… I WON’T!”

“Uncle,” Jonas said with a defeated sigh, softening his tone. “I don’t want you to die. The paradise you believe in is the same paradise written on this airlock. You go to the other side of this door, and you’ll feel it… and it’s a dark fucking cold that rips into your bones… your very soul. Your mind will be the first to go. The darkness will infect your brain and turn everything black… as the for the rest… I’ll spare you the gory details.”

Logan’s shoulders dropped. Finally, he said, “Maybe you’re right. Maybe there is a place like the one you described.”

“It’s not a place. It’s… nothing… nothingness. I know it’s hard to swallow. Hell, I wasn’t prepared for it. But… in this new world… we get to come back… I can’t explain it… it’s just… well… it’s possible now. There’s no Heaven, no white fucking light at the end of some damn tunnel. There’s only-”

“I wasn’t finished.” Logan stared directly into his dead nephew’s eyes. He took a step forward. “I believe there is a place where the blackness rules all… where creatures like you gnash your teeth at the living… creatures full of hatred, full of spite—loveless and dark.”

“No, uncle, you’ve got it all-”

“And sometimes, I suspect, even in all that nothingness, something like you finds a loophole, especially in this crazy world, where you get to sneak out of the dark, put on a false face, and pretend like you still belong here, like you’ve got some damn right to dwell among the living!”

This time, Jonas took a step back.

“How dare you! How dare you pretend to be my Jonas, you unnatural beast!”

“Uncle… I…”

“Shut up! I am a child of Light, redeemed by the blood of the Lamb! But you… you are nothing! I wasn’t sure before about that damn airlock… but I’m sure about it now. If you’re trying to keep us out of there, then I’m certain there’s something for you to lose… something to fear. And that is all I need to say to you!” Logan turned his back and started to leave.

“Wait!” Jonas yelled. “You’re wrong! You go down there and you’re all gonna die! YOU’RE ALL GONNA DIE!”

Logan continued to walk away. He felt something lift off him, something thick, dark and loathsome.

Praise God! Thank you for protecting me from… from whatever that thing is.

But deep down, he knew. The residue of Hatred, no matter what form it chose, always felt the same.

“Okay,” Jonas said. “I’ll tell you exactly what’s down there! I’ll tell you… and trust me… man… you’re gonna be shitting your pants! You’re gonna- wait! No. No, no, NO! You can’t be here!”

Logan stopped at the airlock room door and turned back. Something in the vile creature’s voice had changed. Instead of hatred… he heard fear…

~~~

Nicole Howard had felt foolish, hiding from the big preacher as he descended the generator room walkway stairs. There was no reason to believe he could sense her, but it still troubled the young dead woman that this ridiculous man had managed to spook her back in Cubicle City. And being this close to the darkness she’d spent so much time getting liberated from, a darkness that could alter the fabric of reality between her old world and theirs… she wasn’t taking any chances. She had to know. Could Logan perceive her on any level? And if so, could he be manipulated like Stephen.

Nicole looked away, feeling shame for what she’d done with the former school teacher, using his guilt against him at his most vulnerable moment. But that was so long ago now. What initially started as manipulation over a girl he’d accidentally stabbed had evolved into so much more… more than either of them expected.

No… he loves me… and I love him. Everything’s different because of what we’ve built together. He’s confused and angry right now… but he’ll come back around. None of this matters, and none of these worthless creatures matter. They’re just a means to an end. And it doesn’t matter what I did at the beginning to win his heart… because he also won mine. So, the manipulation was mutual. Perhaps manipulation is just another word for love? Nicole shook her distracting thoughts away. Stay focused. Use whatever you must in whatever way you must to get Stephen away from all of this. Then… we will both be free.

She stepped quietly across the walkway once the preacher reached the lower level. It wouldn’t take him long to find the diagram.

He’ll see it… the alternate exit… then he’ll start believing the airlock might be their only option. He’s against it now, but that idiot will change his tune. Once he brings the map back to the others, they’ll talk him into it. He’s too pliable around the others.

She watched Logan through the grated flooring as she crept closer. He’d already found the diagram and was studying it.

His mind is wide open right now from the exhaustion. If I can get close enough, I can slip in through the surface undetected, peek at what’s really beneath, and maybe find something to use. When Nicole was in range a few feet behind the preacher, she lay down on the grating, closed her eyes, and reached out into the dark void within the preacher’s mind. She wasn’t gone long. Nicole’s eyes bolted open with alarm.

Fuck me! I know this one from before! Back when I was… not me! She started to rise just as Logan rolled up the diagram and turned toward the ladder. If he looks up, he will sense you. The darkness has appeared to him before… manipulating him for years!

Nicole quickly scrambled off the grating and out of sight. She returned to the walkway and headed toward the airlock room door. She froze half way there and dropped to one knee to avoid being seen.

“Stephen? Is that you?” the big preacher called up.

Fuck! He heard you! That means… he can see you, too!

One of the powerful generators kicked on as a second started to shut down, making the room temporarily very loud.

Now’s your chance. Run for it! Nicole, taking advantage of the distraction, rushed the rest of the distance to the airlock room door, reached out with her mind, causing it to open on its own, then stopped in the doorway.

WHERE ARE YOU GOING? THIS ONE’S MINE FROM LONG AGO. I WANT HIM. I WANT HIM BACK! GET HIM FOR ME… GET HIM… AND I WILL SAVE YOUR PRECIOUS LOVER… AND FULFILL ALL YOUR WORTHLESS DESIRES.

Nicole’s stomach started to turn. She hated it when the darkness rose up in her like this, often causing her to lose control as she sometimes did with Stephen. Her clothing began to change: She was wearing the ripped and bloody tank top. Her arms, legs and face were bruised and bloody. Her hair, looking like someone had ripped chunks out of it. One of her eyes—missing—the knife reappearing in the socket-

Stop it! She fought back. I can handle this!

After a pause, the blackness within, responded, THEN, HANDLE IT!

The generators quieted down to a steady hum.

“Stephen? Meredith?” the big preacher called up again.

He’s suspicious, Nicole thought. He’ll be coming up soon. Be ready. She’d already seen enough from Logan’s dark past to know exactly where to strike, where he was most vulnerable. She closed her eyes and traveled back through the channels of Logan’s darkest memories. She found who she needed to use to establish a connection. Nicole was nervous, but confident. She hadn’t done this since fetching her present persona from Stephen’s dark mind, but it was coming back. The only question that remained was whether it would work on Logan. There was no telling what he would really see… until it happened.

IT WILL WORK. The darkness intruded again. I’VE DONE IT TO HIM BEFORE. HE WILL SEE THE PAST. HE WILL THE SEE THE PAIN. HE WILL CRUMBLE BEFORE IT.

Nicole tried to ignore the darkness, but it was the blood that ran through her entire being. She could not deny it. It was still part of who she was… who she would always be.

Nicole opened her eyes and… shifted.

Logan reached the top of the ladder and started scanning the walkway.

She smiled from within her new accommodations, marveling at the artificial feel and smell of the leather jacket sleeves surrounding her arms.

I did it! Now… will he see him?

Logan turned toward her and nearly fell off the ladder.

It worked! He sees… he sees Jonas!

~~~

… “Okay,” Nicole/Jonah said. “I’ll tell you exactly what’s down there! I’ll tell you… and trust me… man… you’re gonna be shitting your pants! You’re gonna- wait! No. No, no, NO! You can’t be here!”

Standing directly between the preacher and Nicole with his arms folded across his chest was the apparition of Stephen Eddington. Again, he was dressed entirely in black. He was frowning at her. His intense eyes bore through stolen flesh, cutting through the masks of Jonas and Nicole and staring straight at her… and into the darkness that was truly who she was.

Nicole started to panic as she stepped back toward the airlock. “Go away! You can’t be here!”

The Stephen apparition appeared to smile, then pointed directly toward the airlock as if scolding a bad dog for escaping into the front yard.

“I won’t!” Nicole screamed at it. “And… and you can’t make me!”

Nicole’s appearance began to fluctuate between the leather clad young Jonas and the tortured looking Nicole with one challenging eye.

Logan had no idea what was happening. One moment, he was staring at his dead nephew, the next, a young girl he did not recognize who looked hideously disfigured with a kitchen knife sticking in her eye. “What the hell is this?” he whispered.

Nicole had lost all interest in the preacher. She no longer cared that she’d lost all focus and was shifting randomly between manipulations. She only wanted this… thing… to depart, and finally leave her alone. “I will never allow it!” she insisted to the shadow-like Stephen.

The fake Stephen dropped its arms and stared into her.

“You can’t intimidate me,” Nicole told it, still shifting back and forth. “I know you’re still limited, and you’ve exceeded your reach! I will not go back! Do you hear me? I WILL NEVER GO BACK!”

The shadow Stephen took a bold step toward her, raising its arms toward her neck. This made Nicole scream as she raised her arms defensively.

What Logan heard was a scream that sounded both like a woman and a man at the same time. It made him want to crawl out of his own skin. He could not see what was making this creature cry out, but the fear was palpable. Get out of here, Logan. Get out while this thing is distracted, he thought.

Fearing that whatever force was assaulting the thing pretending to be Jonas would turn on him, Logan reached back for the airlock room door, then stopped, raising his eyebrows in disbelief, as his face paled. “It can’t be!” he said.

He watched Jonas shift into the girl, then back to Jonas once more, right before it shifted into something else… something blacker than night and all too familiar.

“You!” the preacher accused.

Nicole was too terrified to maintain control, as was the shadow Stephen’s aim by approaching her. She shifted back into her original form… the one the darkness within her used quite often.

Logan watched as his Shadow Man from old, the one wearing the long black coat and hat, the one who had appeared to him in that dark alley so long ago, appeared, glancing his way with those cold yellowish eyes full of hate, before shifting into what he could only describe as a black mist that expanded briefly before vanishing into the air.

Then he was alone before the airlock.

Logan dropped to his knees and fervently prayed for the strength to stand back up before the madness that owned this place could claim his soul.

~~~

Next Episode 48-6

Previous Episode 48-4

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 48-5: Hell” Copyright © 2018 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Six: Mother. 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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