~~~

Meredith opened her eyes. They were slow to focus. She was staring up at a dull, beige-painted ceiling with several dark patches that looked like water damage and black mold. She tried to lift her head, but the effort made her sweat. She needed someone to remove whatever several-ton vehicle was parked atop her prone body first.

“You’re awake.” It was Stephen’s voice.

She managed to turn her head to the right.

The tired young school teacher was smiling down at her from his chair beside her small bed. “Take it easy,” he said. “You need to rest.”

“What… what happened?” she whispered. “I feel like a building collapsed on top of me.”

Stephen laughed. “You went all supernova again, I’m afraid. Saved all our lives, but you passed out in the cavern.”

She remembered running for the tunnel within the cavern wall, but not much else. “How did I-”

“We made it through the cavern tunnel and found Logan’s ladder. It ascended all the way up to the surface. That climb… I don’t ever want to repeat.” He then stared past her, a distant look in his eyes. “Before that, I think… I think we were going crazy down there… myself, Logan, Megan… and it was… terrifying. We lost all control of ourselves.” He then shook off the memory and smiled at her. “Then you did something… something big enough to push back that darkness. Whatever you did brought us back from the brink and we found you unconscious on the ground.” He smiled and finished, “Megan carried you over her shoulder… all the way through the tunnel and up the damn ladder. She looked like some war hero.”

Meredith smiled like a proud mother. It hurt, but she did it anyway. “Is… is everyone okay?”

“Like I said, you saved the day. We’re out of the cavern.” He looked about the room and frowned. “We ended up in the basement of this old house. But enough of that. You should rest.”

“Where’s Megan? Logan?”

Stephen nodded toward the opposite side of the bed. “She hasn’t left your side since we got here.”

Meredith slowly turned her head to the left. Standing in a dark corner, beside a small, off-centered window that let in the dull light of an overcast day, the young half-dead woman glanced over at her and attempted a smile.

The older woman almost didn’t recognize her. Megan’s long tangled mess of hair looked clean and tied back into a ponytail. Her face, no longer covered in dried up blood and dirt, revealed her pale skin. She was no longer wearing the bloody gown, but jeans and an old, thick brown sweater. She was also wearing a pair of large, round sunglasses that looked too big for her face. They’re sensitive to natural light, Meredith thought, remembering her first encounter with the half-deads from Harpersfield. It’s been so long since either of us have been above ground, I nearly forgot.

“Something happened to her down there,” Stephen said. “Something in the cavern. I can’t explain it, and I’m hoping you can, but she’s been acting much more… human… since we got up here.” He turned to Megan. “No offense, of course.”

“Of course,” Megan said. “I’ll let that one slide.”

Meredith laughed at the joke, her eyes wide with surprise. “Megan, honey, you look wonderful… beautiful, in fact.”

The young woman looked down, embarrassed. “There’s nothing beautiful about this sweater. I’m glad you’re okay, though,” she said.

“Thanks to you.” Meredith turned back to Stephen. “You did that? Cleaned her up?”

“Well… I helped her when we found some old clothes boxed up in the attic. She saw her reflection in a broken mirror and started undressing right then and there.” He laughed. “You should have seen Logan’s face when he turned and saw Megan strip right down to her birthday suit. I think he went three shades of red and quickly excused himself. I grabbed an old sheet and covered her up. That’s when she realized what she’d done and… no shit, Meredith… she laughed.” He turned to Megan and finished, “She laughed like some college girl on spring break at Mardi Gras who’d just flashed the locals before realizing what she’d done.”

This made Meredith laugh hard.

“Stop it,” Megan said, shaking her head. “It wasn’t like that.”

Stephen laughed. “I’m just playing. No, seriously, she looked at herself in that mirror and it was like she’d just become aware of what was staring back at her. It shook her up some. That’s when she wanted out of those filthy clothes and asked me to help her get the blood off her when she got dressed. This place is a wreck but there’s still running water connected to a well out back.”

Meredith nodded, turning back to Megan. “Well, you look great. Welcome back, honey.”

Megan smiled. “You too.”

Meredith was overcome with emotion for the young woman. Remarkable! It’s like… it’s like I’m meeting her for the first time. What happened down in that cavern?

The answer was immediate:

You know, Meredith. You already know everything now… oh… and welcome home.

The thought felt foreign, causing her to shudder.

She noticed a nail in the beige wall close to where Megan was leaning. There was a large square vacant space where the color looked lighter and a large portrait might have once hung. No, her mind corrected, that’s where the painting of the broken staircase leading up to heaven over a pit of flames was.

Meredith’s heart started to race. For the first time, she started to examine her surroundings. She didn’t need to get far. Her eyes fell directly on the only painting that remained in the old, unremarkable guest bedroom with the boring beige walls, a single sized bed, dresser, and a small nightstand. On the wall just past the foot of the bed, a creepy monster with sharp teeth and huge yellow eyes stared back at her from the crooked and partially torn dusty painting on the wall.

No, no… NO!

She started to panic as she managed to lift herself up in the bed, alarming both Stephen and Megan, as she imagined hearing the voice of young Clem, mocking from beneath the bed in a creepy voice, “Why are you here, Meredith?”

“Meredith, what’s wrong?” Stephen asked. “You look like you’ve just seen a hundred ghosts?”

With her guard down, her mind was assaulted immediately. She grabbed Stephen’s arm and said, “I sense them! We’re not alone! I sense the dead outside!”

Stephen placed his hand over hers and nodded. “We’re aware of them,” he said. He stared toward the small window. “I wasn’t going to mention that yet, not until you were well, but it looks like you’re getting your abilities back. Logan’s on lookout, watching the perimeter from the second-floor windows. This place is surrounded by large fields and woods. There appears to be a lot of them, but for whatever reason, they’re staying where they are, just hovering at the back of the property. It’s strange, but they don’t seem interested in this dead place.”

Oh… they know where you are, Meredith. They’re right where I want them to be.

There was no mistaking the invading thought this time. It was Toby.

“No!” Meredith said, shaking her head. “You’re wrong, Stephen! They know we’re here!”

Stephen’s face grew grave. He looked to Megan who started to tense up. She was trying hard not to, but the young woman started breathing heavily, slipping back into savage mode. Stephen turned back. “Are… are you positive, Meredith? We’ve been here all day and they’ve stayed put. Not one of those dead-heads have made an aggressive move toward the house.”

“Help me up,” Meredith insisted.

Stephen and Megan shared a concerned glance. He said, “I’m not sure you’re ready to move-”

“Help me, Stephen!” Meredith pushed. “We can’t be here. This place is bad… very bad.”

Stephen looked confused. “You… know this place?”

“Yes,” she said. “It’s an orphanage… but not really… run by Mother. I stayed here briefly when I was a young girl.”

Stephen didn’t know what to say. He started to help Meredith to her feet. Megan came over and helped.

“We need to get Logan and leave this place,” she said. “Before it’s too late.”

“Too late for what?” Stephen asked.

The door to the small guestroom flew open. Logan entered, out of breath. “Sorry for barging in,” the preacher said. “But we’ve got a problem. Those dead things outside are moving toward the house. They’re not storming the place… just creeping they’re way closer, like they’re just taking a stroll through the damn park.”

Meredith was in so much pain from moving so abruptly she got light headed and almost passed out. “We… we need to… need to…”

“She’s going under again!” Logan observed.

Stephen and Megan caught the older woman before she collapsed from overexerting herself. They led her back to the bed to sit. “I’m… okay. Just need a minute,” she said. “Then we can go.”

You are not leaving, Meredith.

Toby had her complete attention.

First one of you who steps outside, I’ll send them. I’ll send them all. They’re very hungry, Meredith. I’m not sure I can hold them back… not if you test me.

Leave us alone! she thought back.

Toby laughed inside her mind. Listen to your friends. Relax, Meredith. Kick back and… reminisce. You’re in the perfect place to understand everything I’ve shown you below.

Meredith didn’t know what to make of that.

And you’re not going to like what I’ve unlocked in you… not at all. But you’ll have to accept it… and accept it soon. I’ve got big plans for us to finish.

What have you done to me?

Toby laughed. Baby steps, Meredith. Baby steps.

~~~

She immediately felt better when they exited the small, claustrophobic room filled with too many uncomfortable memories. Meredith was shocked by the dilapidated condition of the orphanage as they walked the second-floor hallway. The old home, once rich in history, and proudly maintained by the regimented routines set forth by Miss Evans, was as dead as the former headmaster and everything else in this new world. The walls were stained with neglect and covered in dust. Paint had peeled away. Each bedroom, which housed the many girls who shared it, were long abandoned. Most of the furniture had either been demolished or removed. Whatever memorabilia that each girl once owned was gone—all memory of them wiped away as if they had never existed.

Meredith stopped in front of the open doorway to one of those haunted rooms while the others stood by. She could still hear the laugher and late-night whispers of the girls staying up past curfew, getting to forget for a time that they were different and just being normal girls gossiping into the late-night hours, or perhaps talking about the new girl down the hall. Now… all dead. “Project Home: Terminated,” Meredith muttered bitterly. She closed her sad eyes and shook her head.

“I imagine it’s difficult seeing this place like this,” Stephen said, gently placing a hand on her shoulder, causing the weary older woman to jump. “Whatever else happened, I can tell by your face that it wasn’t all bad. It’s clear this place became a victim of our old world passing away… like so many others. It’s very sad.”

She turned to look into the former school teacher’s eyes. He was right, of course. But it didn’t matter. “We were all fodder,” she said. “All the girls who lived here and laughed and learned… they gave us the illusion of belonging somewhere… of having a family… of having each other. And it was all a lie.”

Stephen nodded solemnly and turned away from Meredith’s painful gaze.

Logan stepped awkwardly into the bedroom, feeling the heaviness of disturbed memories scattering like the dust beneath his feet as the old floor boards creaked. He moved toward the large broken window, offering a view of the fields out back. “You can see them clearly from here,” he said. “They’re much closer now but they’ve stopped again.” He rubbed his bearded chin with a puzzled expression painted on his face. “It’s damn odd. They’re just standing there, staring up at the sky like dogs listening to some high-pitched sound only they can hear.”

The others moved in toward the window and peered out.

At first glance, it was alarming to see how many there were, scattered across the open fields surrounding the house. Meredith could sense them clearly, but it was different this time. She could still feel all that hate and hunger, but it was like a tide being held back before crashing into the shore. The dead seemed distant… distracted. Toby’s made them dormant… or something like it, she thought.

“Do you see that?” Stephen said, pointing toward the closest group. “Some of them are clearly the re-animated, you can tell by how much more deteriorated they look. They’re also more sluggish. But then others standing right next to them look livelier and more agitated, just like-”

“No shit,” Logan blurted out. “You’re right, Stephen. Those are yellowed-eyed dead-heads! But how’s that possible? Don’t these different breeds despise each other?”

Stephen was nodding his head. “They usually keep to their own kind. I think I even see a few of those nasty red-eyed ones down there, down on all fours like animals. I thought they were nocturnal.”

“The only ones I don’t see are those creepy silver-eyed bastards,” Logan said. He immediately caught himself and winced, turning back toward Megan who had seen enough and was standing back in the shadows by the bedroom door. “Sorry,” he finished.

Megan was rubbing her arms as if standing in a freezer. She smiled weakly and said, “It’s okay. We are a bit creepy.”

Meredith turned back. She was clearly trying to put Logan at ease, but it was the first time she’d ever heard Megan use the word ‘we’, associating herself with the dead. “You alright, honey?”

Megan nodded. “Yeah, I’m good. It’s just a bit much… you know… seeing them all together like that. Part of me can hear them, not like in the normal way, but…shit… I don’t know how to put it.”

“You can hear the call,” Meredith said. “The collective call of the hunger that drives them.”

Megan was stunned. “Yes… when you put it that way… I guess that’s it. It terrifies me how overpowering it is… when we’re all together.”

She said it again. ‘We’.

“I feel it, too… up here.” Meredith pointed to the side of her head. “It’s how I sense them. If I let them in, too much, it truly is… overpowering. That’s why I guard my mind from them, like standing at a door that I only allow to open a crack. Anything further, would be… well… I would lose myself, I suppose.”

“I like that,” Megan said. “Feels the same for me, except that I’m on the other side of that door, trying to pull it open as much as possible. That crack, you mentioned, is the only connection I have to… me.”

Meredith’s eyebrows shot up. “That’s… fascinating… honey. I’ve never thought about it from that perspective before.”

“‘Fascinating’ isn’t the word for it,” Megan said with disgust. She raised her pale hands. They were shaking. “If I let go of that open door, even for a moment, I feel like they’ll all pull me back… further into that dark, savage place. Even now, with so many of them all around us, I can feel them pulling at my shoulders, screaming into my ears to give in.”

“And yet, here you are, with us,” Meredith said.

“Barely.”

“No,” Meredith corrected. “Don’t you ever believe that. When we found you, that darkness had almost consumed you.” She looked down and smiled. “As an old friend of mine might have said, you are closer to the light now, than you ever were. Even if it’s just a sliver shining out through a crack in a door, you still sense that, too. And you choose to seek it out. Remember that, honey. In the end, that might be all that matters.”

Megan smiled and nodded. “I’ll try.” She turned and caught Logan staring at her. He seemed a million miles away in thought. “What?” she said defensively.

“I am sorry,” he said. “About the ‘creepy’ comment. I didn’t mean you. I’ve been wrong about a great many things in my life, and I’m sure to miss the mark on a great many more things to come. But… I’m humbled to say… that being wrong about you being a monster… well… I find a lot of hope in that error, for myself, by admitting it… and for you. My God, who has not given up on my worthless ass, when he should’ve a long time ago, has clearly not given up on you, either. I’m glad you’re still with us… and not down there in those fields… with them.”

Megan didn’t know what to say. Clearly touched by the admission, she said, “Thank you.”

Meredith turned and smiled at the big preacher.

He suddenly felt exposed and turned back toward the window. He added with a gruff, “Just saying what had to be said. Let’s not make a ‘made for Lifetime movie’ moment out of it.”

Stephen covered his mouth, to hide his smirk.

“Shut up, peanut gallery,” Logan said with a smile.

Meredith turned back to Megan, tempted to peer into the young woman’s mind, as she knew she could, but chose to marvel at Megan’s strength, instead. I don’t need to pry to know that there is still hope. Never needed it down in that compound… don’t need it now. She will beat this.

Toby’s laughter in her mind was immediate. Meredith quickly placed her mental guards up. She, too, could feel the chill in the room.

You have no idea how dark your world is about to become, Meredith. Yours… or that pitiful girl’s. I could take her right now if I wanted to. And there’s nothing you could do to stop it.

Meredith tried to shut him out. Go away, monster!

Toby responded with more mocking laughter.

The old medium closed her eyes and tried to shut it all out—Toby, the horde outside, the darkness—all of it. But she couldn’t. The curse had returned, and she would have to deal with it.

She looked over at Stephen and Logan, grateful that they did not witness her internal struggle. She then remembered something Logan said and smiled. Maybe it’s time to stop fighting this fight alone. Maybe that’s why we’re all still alive despite Toby’s manipulations. She found some peace in that. Meredith took a deep breath and announced, “I think Logan’s right.”

She had their attention.

“About putting our cards on the table,” she said. “I’m aware of the entity that’s been toying with us. It goes by the name, Toby. Up until now, it’s been orchestrating everything that’s led us here… and why those monsters outside haven’t attacked us yet.”

The others looked stunned.

“I don’t have all the answers, and I still feel very much in the dark, but maybe together we can come up with the answers we need to get out of this.” She looked at Logan and smiled. “I’m tired of secrets. Maybe it’s keeping them that won’t help me protect you all anymore. Maybe now… it’s the opposite.”

The big preacher nodded. “Amen.”

Stephen nodded encouragingly.

Meredith closed her eyes, still trying to remember exactly what happened down in the cavern. Her frustration was evident. “I still can’t remember what happened to me down there, or what I did… and that truly terrifies me.”

Megan moved in next to her and smiled.

Meredith smiled back. She glanced at them all, sighed, then said to Stephen, “When you said ‘basement’, I assume you all came up through the secret room behind the doll cases?”

Stephen and Logan looked at each other, confused.

“It was… it was very dark down there, Meredith,” Stephen said. “We were lucky to find the staircase out of that creepy place.”

“Did something happen?” she asked.

Again, Stephen and Logan shared a look. Neither one of them knew how to answer the question.

“There’s ghosts down there,” Megan said.

Meredith raised an eyebrow at the half-dead girl and smiled. “Yes,” she said. I suppose there are. Even after all this time, I shouldn’t be surprised.”

“You’re not suggesting we go back down there, are you?” Stephen’s said.

“Yes, Stephen,” she said. “You want answers, and so do I. That basement might trigger something from my past. There’s so much I don’t remember… but what I do know, is that it all started for me down in that basement many years ago. It’s time I face those ghosts once more.”

~~~

Next Episode 49-2

Previous Episode 48-8

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 49-1: Lions in the Dark” Copyright © 2019 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.

Comments
  1. alikolino says:

    Feels the same for me, accept that I’m on the other side of that door,

    I think you meant “except” instead of “accept”.

    Keep up the good work

    Like

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