~~~

Walking through the silent remains of the old home was much more painful then Meredith wanted to admit. She could still picture the girls all moving about, performing various evening chores before sitting down to dinner together in the massive dining room. Every room was stripped bare, left broken—like the decaying bones of an abode where the walls still echoed with young voices that had no idea what the future held for them outside those walls, but in here, they had each other. And that was still something special, lies or not.

Meredith could still feel the buzzing in her mind as they approached the basement door. It was much fainter now, but it was what first compelled her toward that dark secret place when she was younger. An overwhelming panic mixed with nausea struck her as she crept toward that old forbidden door—memory reminding her that, like some addict in the worst stages of withdrawal, she had needed to come down here. But it was mostly out of fear, when she’d broken off her friendship with Clem, that had last pushed her down those steps, hoping she could hide from the deranged young girl… and return to the creepy little doll with the sad, dark eyes.

Logan lit an old lantern he’d found among the antiques left behind in the attic. He turned to Meredith, a look of trepidation painted on his face. “I don’t know what went on in this house but coming up in this basement almost made me want to turn around and head back down into that cavern. It was terrifying wandering around down there in the dark, all disoriented, and… I swore it felt like that darkness was thick… like it had substance that we had to push through until we found these steps up into the daylight.”

“I couldn’t breathe,” Stephen added. “I think the silence was the worst.” He looked to Logan and Megan, then back to Meredith, and finished, “I don’t know if it was just my imagination, but I thought I heard voices beneath that silence. Not loud enough to hear what they were saying, but just enough to know that we weren’t alone. It was damn creepy. You sure you want to go down there?”

“I need to,” Meredith said. “Everything in my memory ended in that basement, so long ago. I’m hoping I might remember more than I do now… something vital.”

“You going to tell us what’s down there?” Logan said. “And what the hell is happening now, that’s got a horde of zombies surrounding this place?”

She smiled at the suspicious preacher and said, “Let me finish this, Logan. If I can fill in a few more blanks, then perhaps the things I’ve stayed secretive about won’t feel like such a secret from me.”

“Fair enough.” Logan opened the old door. It moaned on rusted hinges like a very bad joke. He laughed and looked to Stephen. “Another door, little brother. Want to go first?”

“We’ve already experienced this horror show. At least we have a little light this time,” he said.

“Wait!” It was Megan.

They all turned to the half-dead young woman. She was fidgeting and sweating so much it looked like she was suffocating in her own skin. “I… I can’t. I can’t go down there. It’s too much!”

Meredith put a hand on her shoulder. “It’s okay, honey. I know you’re trying to be brave for us. But you’ve done enough, and you’ve come so far. This isn’t something you can protect me from.” She took the rest of them in. “None of you need to do this with me. These are my ghosts to face.”

“I… I can guard the landing,” Megan offered shamefully. “That… basement… is too much like what’s going on inside my head. It’s like the darkness inside of me has been turned inside-out down there. But up here, I’m starting to feel closer to… normal? If I still qualify for that.”

Meredith thought about the girl’s words and frowned. All this time below ground, hidden behind that electrified field, I never once considered that what was keeping my abilities shut out might also be keeping Megan trapped in that savage shell. Maybe all she ever needed to get stronger was to get back up here, where she came from, and away from those all those dark labs and compounds where she was… changed. What was my oasis from the world above… became her prison. “That’s fine, honey,” Meredith said, turning away to wipe frustrated tears off her face. “You’ve done enough. Stay here and watch our backs.” The old medium shut her eyes and shook her head. There was nothing to be done about it now. She’d already lost Coop. Perhaps that was the price for her selfish need to stay below ground and maintain her own illusion of ‘normality’ while forcing this poor girl to stay the monster.

“Meredith?” Stephen said.

“It’s nothing,” she said, shaking the regrets away. “I’m fine.”

Logan sighed heavily. “If Megan’s staying up here, maybe I’ll just-”

“We’re with you,” Stephen said, staring down the big preacher who looked a little disappointed. “No one should go down there alone.”

Logan reluctantly nodded. “Yeah… what he said.” He then laughed and shook his head.

Meredith smiled at them. “Thank you both. I know I haven’t been forthcoming about this place… and I intend to change that. But your fear is valid. I’m doing all I can to keep from shaking so I don’t fall down these steps.”

Logan moved toward the landing, using the lantern light to extinguish some of the shadows. “Let’s get this over with.”

Meredith followed the preacher and Stephen took up the rear as they descended the creaky old steps into the dark basement like ghost hunters approaching the source of evil which still resided in this long dead place.

When they reached the bottom, Meredith led them to the right, toward the room with the old half-circle of toys with the doll cases. She did everything she could to reinforce her mental defenses, expecting the darkness itself to attack her mind. When they entered the cold, empty space, she was relieved. Except for an old water-stained carpet, all the toys were gone. The only thing that remained was the wall of old doll cabinets—all of which were empty.

She sighed heavily. “It’s all gone,” she said. “Even the dolls are gone.”

“Dolls?” Stephen asked.

“Yes. This used to be a playroom. At least, I think it was. Don’t ask me why it was hidden away in the basement, but there used to be a bunch of toys down here.” She pointed at the cabinets. “And in those cabinets were four dolls. When I first found them, I thought they were staring right at me.”

“Great,” Logan said, staring around at the shadows near their feet. “A room full of creepy dolls that are currently missing. If I see one running around like Chucky, you and our gracious Lord above, will have to forgive me when I shit myself.”

Stephen laughed nervously. “A room full of abandoned toys ruled by old dolls. Anything else we need to know about this increasingly terrifying basement, Meredith?”

The old medium was staring at the first doll case, which was a hidden door left partially open. She found the etching of the small Mother symbol and felt a chill. “Did you… is that where you came out?” she asked them.

Logan and Stephen turned toward the first cabinet. Logan shined the lantern on it.

“Shit,” Stephen said. “I guess that is. We just fumbled around in the dark until we found the staircase. We had no idea how we managed it. We could’ve crawled out of there.”

“You asked about the basement, Stephen,” Meredith said, dropping her voice to a near whisper. She bent down and pointed out the symbol. “There was a doctor who frequented this place who kept four patients strapped into beds. This was where she hid them. They were hooked up to machines and appeared to be asleep. I remember cables on the floor. I believe they were connected, somehow, to the four dolls in those cabinets. I was just a child when I was led to this secret room, but it left quite an impression on me. Back then, it was like walking into some mad scientist’s secret laboratory. Looking back at it now, I don’t know if they were asleep at all. They could’ve been sick… or dead. I’m not certain, but I think one of them grabbed my arm… and I think it was Toby.”

Logan shook his head. “You mean… there’s bodies down here, too! Oh, this is getting better and better. Can we leave now?”

“I have to believe they’re long gone, like everything else in this place,” Meredith said. “But maybe there’s something left behind… anything… to help me make sense of it all.”

“Other than a secret door in the floor hidden within a secret room in a basement full of creepy ass dolls?” Stephen asked.

Meredith smiled. “Something like that.”

Logan tugged nervously on his beard and stepped forward through the doll case door, muttering under his breath about ghost dolls and dead men in a world full of zombies. He was half praying, half cursing that if they ever got out of this place, he’d build a church with no basement… praise, God… amen!

Meredith and Stephen followed.

As expected, the large room was empty. There were no bodies, no machines… even the back office that Meredith remembered a surprised Dr. Forrester storming out of, was completely bare. The only thing that remained was a large metal closed hatch sitting alone in the back corner of the room.

“That’s it,” Stephen said. “We came up through there and closed that damn thing behind us.”

While the others’ attention was focused on the hatch, Meredith just stared about the room. She shook her head in frustration like stepping into a vault and finding it empty. They left nothing! Robbed me of my memory and anything else that could connect what happened to me in here! She stared at the hatch. Except for that.

Stephen and Logan knelt on either side of the hatch. Logan tested it to make sure it was still secure while Stephen lowered an ear, half expecting to hear monsters coming up from the darkness.

“It appears that we managed to lock this thing,” Logan said. “Fortunately, it wasn’t locked on the trip up.”

“Of course, it wasn’t,” Meredith said dejectedly, tossing her arms in the air. “That was his plan all along.”

Stephen turned. “You mean this… Toby… right?”

“Yes. Toby,” she said, crouching down next to them. “This was always where he wanted us to end up. I’m sure of it.”

“It didn’t seem that way down in that cavern,” Stephen said. “If you hadn’t… you know…”

“Gone all supernova?” Meredith finished with a smile.

“Exactly,” he said. “If you hadn’t used your abilities down there, we wouldn’t have made it to the ladder. Whatever was happening to all of us, we were-”

“We were royally screwed,” Logan finished. “That madness, or whatever it was, had us, Meredith. We were done.”

“Yes,” she said, “until I conveniently opened myself up to that madness, expending myself in the process, just in time to allow us a window to escape.”

“You believe this Toby arranged that, too?” Stephen asked.

She slumped to her knees. “I don’t know what to believe now. I feel like I’ve been betrayed by my own mind, and what I can remember is like pieces to a very old puzzle. I don’t even remember what I did down in that cavern… just that I woke up here.”

Logan started to stand. “Well, let’s get out of this oppressive basement and maybe we can help you put those pieces together.”

“There’s just one thing I need to tell you now,” she said. “Whatever this entity is that’s been manipulating us. I believe it’s responsible for everything that’s happened leading up to the Shadow Dead attack.” She paused and let out a heavy sigh. “I’ve been hearing Toby’s voice in my mind since the attack… since before then…and I’ve been fighting against his trespasses in my head ever since. The reason I’ve kept it to myself is that it’s been really difficult to determine if I’m really hearing from this creature… or if I’m going crazy.”

Stephen looked to Logan then nodded to Meredith. “Are you still hearing his voice… in this place?”

“When I first woke up, I heard him say that if we tried to leave this house, he’d send the dead to finish us off.”

“Shit, that might have been good to know.” Logan couldn’t hide his frustration with her.

“You have to understand,” Meredith defended. “I’m not sure if it’s Toby or if it’s just some subconscious part of myself… or my faulty memory… that I’m finally tapping into.” She stared pleadingly into the preacher’s eyes. “Can you understand why I hesitate to talk, Logan? I’ve been treated with scorn and suspicion most of my life for what I can do… and for being different… for being feared for those differences. It wasn’t that long ago that I was kept under house arrest for my association with Mother, and one of your own men tried to murder me for being the Wasteland Witch.”

“Yes… but we’re past that, now,” he said.

“Are we?” she challenged. “What if am going insane? What if I’m not hearing from Toby at all… or I never have? What if it’s all in my mind? What if Toby is nothing more than a character that I’ve created to process this dark side of my mind, full of holes, just so I can live with it? For all I know, I’ve been doing it since I was thirteen, managing to block it all out for a long time, and it’s now come back.”

Logan had no response.

Stephen stepped in. “But you’ve already mentioned this entity… even the research files we’ve discovered confirm that.”

“Yes,” she said. “But what if my connection to this entity has only made my abilities worse? Rather than communicating with something, what if I’ve been changed by it, instead? When I was in this basement for the last time, I was injected with something that knocked me out, and then whisked away to God-only-knows where. There are huge gaps in my memory where I have no accounting for where I was. Who knows what’s been done to me, and for how long?” She started to wipe frustrated tears from her eyes. “For all I know, I’m Toby… and I brought the dead here to surround this house. And all the files below could just as easily be talking about me and what I did after I was abducted.”

Stephen shook his head. “No. I can’t believe that. There’s a whole lot I don’t understand about this crazy new world, or about what you can do, or where it came from, but I do know you. And you have a good heart. This Toby is real, and just like the dead that you have a connection with, Toby has also found a way to exploit that.”

“I hope you’re right, Stephen, I really do,” she said. “I’ve been claiming for so long that my silence on matters… and my secrets… have been to protect the people I care about from the evil plaguing this world. But sometimes, especially now, I wonder if I’ve just been trying to protect you all from… me.”

Logan looked increasingly uncomfortable. “Again, let’s get back into the light. This dark place is ripe for dire thoughts.”

“He’s right, Meredith,” Stephen said. “I think being down here is just that darkness that Megan sensed, feeding off our doubts as easily as the dead feeding on our flesh.” He looked around and finished, “We’ll work this out together… whatever this all is… and you’ll know, as I do, that you’re not the cause of it all. Okay?”

She nodded. “Thank you. Thank you both.”

“Just one more thing,” Logan injected.

Meredith waited.

“You will tell us, insanity or not, if this Toby has anything else to say, right?”

The old medium laughed. “I will. Promise.”

“That’s good enough for me,” he said. “Let’s get upstairs and promise each other that we’ll forget this house even has a basement… Lord willing, of course.”

~~~

Megan was relieved when her friends finally returned from the terrifying basement. She’d spent most of her time peeking out windows at the dead. Every time she did so, she immediately felt a fresh wave of savageness attempting to rip away at her identity and causing her to lose control. It was becoming more and more intense—the hunger, the call to return to her base self. But she pushed it back, each time… barely. Aside from being in such close proximity to the horde outside, she couldn’t deny the fact that at some point very soon, she would have to feed. The longer she went without, the more urgent the need for blood became. In her rational mind, or what was left of it, she couldn’t understand the need, the compulsion, that drove her to consuming flesh. She’d pictured herself devouring human remains, hoping to feed her repulsion, rather than her addiction. But as her hunger intensified, such imaginings only made the need stronger. She remembered the bloody image of herself, in the broken mirror, and how shocking it was to see the monster staring back at her. She tried to keep the image firmly set in her mind as the hunger grew worse. She started to shake. She started to sweat. Her insides were on fire. She could hear her own voice screaming in her thoughts like a primitive beast. But she still managed to resist.

This is not me. This is not who I am. The desperate mantra had echoed in her thoughts when the primitive stopped screaming. She needed the others to get back soon so she could feed… NO!… so, she could stay distracted, encouraged. If anything was becoming increasingly clear to her, it was that she could not remain alone, not for very long, not if she wanted to remain human.

She’d stolen one more peek at the dead outside.

Men, women, children—didn’t matter. They were all lost souls, ripped from life or forced from places of rest from beneath the ground, all here now, to roam the graveyards that dominated the surface, in search of whatever light remained. They wandered about the fields and yard surrounding the orphanage, waiting to be let off their leashes so they could extinguish the light from within the house and darken another small corner of this dying world… forever.

They aren’t alone, either, Megan thought sadly. Even the dead can’t make it alone.

Meredith was the first up the stairwell. She didn’t make it half way before almost stumbling forward, knocked off-balance by the intense mental anguish she sensed emanating from the young woman near the landing. An immediate wave of nausea struck her next. At first, what she sensed felt so much like the dead attacking, that she almost turned and pushed Stephen back down the stairs. She quickly shut her mind down before she was overwhelmed by Megan, and then fought through her own physical discomfort and finished climbing the stairs.

“Oh, you poor child,” she said, clearly seeing Megan’s pain as the half-dead girl shook but tried to maintain her composure.

“I’m… I’m okay,” she lied.

When Stephen and Logan cleared the landing, they took one glance at Megan and stepped back.

By now, Megan was more embarrassed than hungry. “I said, I’m okay. I’m… I’m not going to hurt anyone.” She slammed her fist against the wall in frustration and tried to calm down. “Doesn’t matter how much I clean the blood off, fix my hair, put on new clothes, I’m still some fucking ugly monster!”

“No, no,” Meredith said, reaching out to embrace the girl.

Megan collapsed into the older woman’s arms and started to weep.

Stephen felt for her, but maintained his distance, feeling shame for doing so. He forced himself to step forward and placed a hand on the trembling girl’s shoulder. “It’s okay, Megan. We’re here for you.” He still felt like an asshole when the girl turned her face to look at him, and he nearly pulled his hand away, thinking she would bite it. Will we always be afraid of her? he wondered. Even if Megan, and others like her, battle back from the brink and beat this thing, won’t they always be… dangerous? For a split second, the question felt prophetic, like stepping into the uncertain future and discovering Megan’s fate. He frowned and opened his heart to the girl. It’s not fair. The dead and the living have it easier than she does. They will both hate her equally—for not committing one way or the other.

Logan stood still, whispering fervently to his God on Megan’s behalf.

Meredith could feel the young woman burning up in her arms. She was a sweaty mess. I’m a darn fool, she thought. Lowered my guard because she was acting so… normal. I never should have left her alone. Regardless, she knew what had to be done now. She and Coop had seen this before, when all other forms of nourishment had failed. Even feeding the girl intravenously after sedating her had only delayed the inevitable. And they’d done the unspeakable, when everything else had failed, in a desperate attempt to keep Megan… alive?

Meredith frowned. Seems like I’m going to have to spill all my dirty secrets today, she thought. Sorry, Coop. I know you were always against it. She turned to Stephen and Logan. “Did you have a chance to explore the entire house when I was out?”

Stephen was caught off-guard by the question. “Yeah. We searched the rooms to make sure there weren’t any surprises waiting for us. Keep in mind we weren’t looking for secret rooms.”

“Did you find the clinic?”

“Yes,” Logan said. “The old eyechart on the wall gave it away. Not much left of it though.”

“Were there any medical supplies left?” Meredith said.

Logan and Stephen simply looked at each other.

“We weren’t that thorough,” Logan admitted. “When the dead showed up, we were a little preoccupied. The clinic’s a mess, stuff scattered across the floor, but there might be something left.”

“We need to get Megan there… now,” she said.

“Is she hurt?” Stephen said.

Meredith frowned at him. “We need a syringe.”

~~~

Next Episode 49-3

Previous Episode 49-1

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 49-2: 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.

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