~~~

The large den at the back of the house, once a converted classroom for young gifted girls who no longer had a place in a world which feared them, now stood abandoned, decrepit and hollow, much like the dead minds subjected to Mother’s lies who were once taught here. Nightfall descended upon the orphanage like a huge sea beast, swallowing the house whole. They could no longer see the dead from the large den windows, but Meredith had assured them that they were all still there, surrounding the house, doing whatever monsters did when concealed within the darkness. Lamplight from two oil lanterns retrieved from the attic filled the large space with dull light, scattering elongated shadows across the partially caved-in ceiling, as eerie shadows danced and shifted indifferently with the flickering of two small flames.

Once full bookshelves that dominated the room with the appearance of knowledge, now stood bare, broken and infested with ancient cobwebs and dust—even the arachnids had died off long ago. More broken glass littered the rotting floorboards. A few scraps of crumbled paper debris occasionally blew across the darkness as a light, steady breeze blew in from one of the shattered windows facing the rear of the house.

Meredith, Logan and Stephen sat at one of the four round tables centered before a large cracked and dusty chalkboard, sharing a silent meal of cold canned goods recovered from the kitchen pantry. Megan, still in dormant mode, was lying across a second table, resting on an attic couch pillow and covered in an old quilt. She had not moved since collapsing in the clinic. Meredith had assured them that the half-dead was alright, but that she would be out for hours after her partially dead systems had been tricked into a hibernation-like state while her body reset itself from devouring the living. This was something else that her former fiancé had been researching before his death—something else that died with Cooper that Meredith could not explain, or even cared enough to guess about.

“Just add it to the list of many things Meredith doesn’t have answers to!” she’d told them crossly, ending that brief discussion.

The exhausted older woman forced the stale, cold raviolis and peas down her throat more out of necessity than hunger. Just being in this ancient room brought back memories of the inquisitive young faces she’d sat with once, all eager to understand their place in a now-deceased world, while finding comfort in the company of misfits like themselves.

I’m the last one, she thought sadly. Even our brainwashing former headmaster is long gone. She stared bitterly at the lifeless chalkboard and for a moment that obsolete question appeared mockingly within the dust:

WHAT IS AT THE END OF THE ROAD?

She snorted at the question, as dead as everything else from a world which could once afford such questioning, a world that existed in the illusion that time was something anyone had to waste on such pointless ponderings.

“Something funny?” Stephen said. “Or is that crunched-up face just the result of this wonderful meal?”

She turned to the former school teacher and forced a smile. “It’s this place that leaves the only bad taste in my mouth,” she said. “I sat here, at this very table, while that dead woman, Miss Evans, filled our impressionable and naïve minds full of lies. I was only thirteen. No relatives, no friends, no place where I belonged, and the world had rejected our kind long before… well… long before that world died. I remember sitting in here feeling vulnerable, and yet, accepted for the first time in my life.”

“That’s how it works,” Logan chimed in, using his spoon to scrape the last ravioli from his can. He popped it into his mouth and then wiped his beard with the back of his hand. He belched proudly. “Excuse me,” he added with a laugh.

Stephen shook his head. “Well, it’s good to see that bad manners have survived the apocalypse.”

Logan gave him a wink.

“What did you mean?” Meredith pressed. “How does what work?”

Logan put the can down. “Sorry, I thought it was obvious.” He absently waved his hand about the room. “This place, everything about it, Mother or not, it’s just another cult when you get right down to it.”

Meredith laughed and rolled her eyes. “I’m sure you understand by now that Mother is a bit more than just a cult.”

“Same principle,” he continued. “Always starts the same way: Recruiters go out, find the lost, the broken—anyone at the bottom of the barrel—the disgruntled, the lonely, the depressed and suicidal. Then they’re given things they never had before: Sense of purpose, of belonging, something to believe in—and that right there is powerful. Once they catch someone and reel him in, they take him to some place just like this. Somewhere remote and off-the-grid, keep him busy with chores and various tasks so they don’t have time to second guess anything while pumping them full of bullshit in rooms just like this one. The younger the better, but the broken will suffice.”

Meredith smiled. “Sounds like you’re speaking from experience. You do realize that you could just as easily apply your theory to modern day Christianity, right? What makes this orphanage any different than a church, by your reasoning?”

Stephen slapped his forehead. “Don’t get him started, Meredith, you’ll regret it.”

Logan laughed and pointed his spoon at her. “Ah… I love sceptics! As much as I’d enjoy getting into that very discussion with you, I strongly suspect that for you and me, it would be a lengthy one… and we’ve already got quite a few things to discuss as it is.”

Meredith shifted uncomfortably.

“I will address the first part, though,” he said, leaning over the table with his tattooed arms and folding his hands together. “The Brotherhood of One.”

Meredith looked confused. “What’s that?”

“It’s the name of the biker group Logan led before he found God,” Stephen said.

“Ah… yes,” Meredith said. “Okay.”

Logan gave Stephen an amused look, then returned to Meredith. “Stephen’s just trying to put it politely. It’s the name of the criminal hate group I was primarily responsible for back in my ignorance… and it was a cult. We recruited, we distracted, and we certainly pumped up the brethren with something very bad to believe in.”

“Yes, the name threw me, but I remember hearing about your sermons denouncing your former life,” Meredith said. “And I see your point.”

Logan studied Meredith’s face, and finished, “I bring it up now to point out the underlying difference between a cult from anything else worth a damn. While Love aims to bring Mankind together, a cult’s only purpose is to keep us all apart… separated. That’s the only point I want to make. Mother is nothing more than another dirty cult, and I’m sorry you were exposed to this… madness… especially at such a young age.” He leaned back in his chair. “I’m too damn tired to debate the finer points of God’s love with you, but I suspect you’ve seen your share of that, too.”

Meredith smiled, thinking fondly of Gregory and her own personal pleas to God. “You may be right, Logan.” She left it at that.

“What’s that make us, then?” Stephen said, intending to lighten the mood with a joke.

“Verdict’s still out on that one,” Logan said with a wink. “I guess that will depend on where we end up after all this running is finished.”

“You believe that day will ever come?” Meredith said.

“As surely as I believe in my God above,” Logan said. “It has to… or what’s the point in all this running? We’re not on Mother’s hamster wheel, no matter how it feels right now. Eventually, God’s gonna set things straight, and there’s going to be a reckoning.”

“Amen,” Stephen said.

Meredith raised her eyebrows to him bemused.

“What? I may not be on board with all this man’s ‘God’ stuff, but he’s certainly preaching on the side of hope… and that’s something I can wrap my mind around. I have to.”

“Well said, brother,” Logan added with a nod.

Meredith looked over at Megan, then stared dejectedly down at her old hands. “I don’t know what I believe anymore,” she admitted. “My life’s been layered in mysteries I can’t comprehend no matter how hard I try. Every time another layer is peeled back, there’s just many more layers shrouded in darkness. Between all this death out here and all the death plaguing my mind, I find it difficult to believe in a loving God, hope, or anything else promising an end to all this… darkness.” She sighed heavily. “Forgive my grim mood. I’ve just very tired. I’m worried about Megan. I’m worried about the two of you. I’m worried about the dead outside storming into this place at any moment. But mostly, I’m worried about what it will mean if there’s ever any real light shed upon my black, full-of-holes memories.”

Logan nodded. “You carry an extensive load, Meredith. Perhaps it’s time to stop bearing it alone.”

Meredith laughed. “Everyone knows no one likes the girl with all the baggage, right?”

This made Logan chuckle. He placed his muscular arms behind his head and stretched.

“Seriously, Meredith,” Stephen started. “Why don’t you begin unloading what you do know and let us help you carry the rest. Like Logan said earlier, it’s time to lay our cards out on the table.”

“I don’t even know where to begin?” she said.

“Start with this creepy-ass cult compound,” Logan suggested. “Since we’re currently trapped here by dark forces we clearly don’t understand, it seems fitting, don’t you think?”

“And after?” she said.

“After what?” Logan countered.

“After I bear my soul and share what I know… and what I don’t… will I still remain the Wasteland Witch in your eyes? Will you be able to see me as a friend trying my best to save you… despite what I am and how much it goes against what you believe?”

Logan was caught off-guard by the question.

Meredith looked around and sneered. “You may be right about this place being a cult, at the heart of it. And maybe they did some incredibly horrible things to me while I was here, things I’m still trying to sort through, things I may still be influenced by. But I am trying to find the light in all this darkness that surrounds my life. Just as you strive to find your way out of your darkness each and every day. Am I correct?”

Logan considered her words. “Yes,” he said. “You are correct. I’ve sworn to turn away from a hate-filled life, but it still tries to claim me as one of its own. That is my burden… my shame… to bear.”

Meredith nodded. “Then don’t hate me for what I am. Don’t hate Megan for what she is. And don’t hate either of us for discovering how much more that will mean when the truth comes out. You don’t have to understand us, but your fear…”

Logan raised a hand and nodded. “Yes, Meredith. I hear you loud and clear. I can’t promise you that fear will not tempt me to fail, but I can promise you that I will seek my Lord Jesus Christ to help me face it, and the many things that I will certainly fail to understand.” He looked at Megan. “I have wanted to hate her for what she is.” He turned back. “As I have wanted to hate you, as well. But I know, deep down, that I’m wrong about both of you. My Lord speaks to my heart clearly on this matter. You two are not part of the problem, but as much victims as the rest of us.”

“So… ‘we’ are a part of ‘us’ then?” she said. “Because fear would try to convince you otherwise.”

Logan smiled. “Yes. ‘We’ most certainly is ‘us’.”

Stephen laughed. “Sounds like we needed to break down our little cults-of-one before we could finally arrive here. It’s ironic, don’t you think, considering where we are right now, in this place, and how far we’ve come? There’s so few of us left in the world and we still have so much farther to go. From the amount of separation we’ve all strived to achieve from one another back in that old brainwashed society to now… and we still struggle with coming together.”

Meredith and Logan stared at Stephen and nodded.

“You should write that on the chalkboard,” Meredith teased. “It’s definitely worth pondering in any of Miss Evans’ classes.”

“How’s that?” Stephen said.

Meredith shook her exhausted head, then stared around the room. “Yes. Maybe I should start in this very room and then explain the rest of what happened to me here.”

“We’re all ears, Meredith,” Logan encouraged. “No one’s going to judge you tonight… but I can’t speak for tomorrow,” he teased with a wink.

She laughed. “You sounded a little like someone else I knew, in a boathouse, a thousand years ago, right before the last time I had to open my mouth.”

Stephen smiled. “Douglas?”

“The one and only,” she said. She stared thoughtfully at them both and then took a deep breath. “When I was thirteen-years-old, back in the summer of 1973, a very nice man named Michael Finch (all of us girls just called him Finch) drove me to this house for the first time…”

~~~

She told them about her experiences at the orphanage. From her strange dreams of the young man named Toby and the emerald lions up in that claustrophobic bedroom to her strained friendship with a disturbed young girl named, Clementine. She detailed daily life with the other gifted girls. Meredith spoke of her hushed conversations with Finch, the interrogations of Dr. Candice Forrester, and Miss Evans’ teachings. She told them about the dolls in the basement, especially about the one who called itself, Toby. She finished with how she found the secret room behind the doll cabinet, discovering the four comatose patients, and finding Forrester there…

“… After Forrester injected me, my world went dark… and I’ve been trying to piece the rest together ever since,” she finished.

Logan and Stephen were shocked.

Meredith looked down at her open hands. “Those files we discovered in the Observation Room were the first hints of what happened here after I was whisked away from this house. Apparently, Clem finally lost control of her dark abilities, and her temper, and did some very horrible things to the girls who still lived here. Shortly after, it looked like they shut this place down. I’d never returned, as far as I know, and I just assumed Mother took me to where all those other missing girls went.”

“You’re talking about the girls in the cavern,” Stephen whispered. “The ones with no eyes. That’s why you asked what they were wearing.”

Meredith wiped a tear from her eye. “Yes. I suspected they were all brought down to that horrible place after I read about it in those files. Whatever experiments were conducted down in that cavern failed, and those girls… those poor gifted girls… they never made it out of there alive.”

“And you had no memory of being brought there?” Logan said.

She looked at the preacher. “I thought so, at first, but I don’t believe I was brought there. I think they had other plans for me. There was something mentioned in those files about another location. I think I might have been transported there.”

“And you don’t remember anything else that happened to you after finding that secret basement room?” Stephen asked. “I mean, how did you manage to escape Mother all those years ago?”

Meredith frowned. She knew this would be the hardest part to talk about. She raised the palm of her right hand. “Remember when we found the tunnel behind the waterfall cave?”

“Yes,” Stephen said. Then his eyes went wide. “Yes! That’s right! We were trapped at that door! You stuck your hand in that box and then punched in some code.”

She nodded sadly, lowering her hand. “That was the day I knew that I had never escaped Mother. That was also the day I decided to keep quiet… about everything.”

Logan looked confused.

Stephen filled him in. “It was right before we discovered the compound. We were trapped by the dead. There was this security door with a code box. It required hand identification and a numerical code. Meredith slipped her hand into it and typed in the code. The door opened right up.”

Logan stared at Meredith, one eyebrow raised. But he remained silent.

She nodded. “Yes. That was the beginning of all those Mother-collaboration rumors that started to spread about me like wildfire. But for me, that was when I knew that Mother had played me all along. I was never free. I had never escaped the watchful eye of that diabolical organization. They just let me go about my life as if I really had control of it. But the truth was… they wanted us there, or rather… me. Just like when the time came for the Shadow Dead attack. That was when Mother had decided it was time for me to leave the compound… and find that awful cavern.”

Stephen sat back in his chair, mind blown. He ran his fingers through his hair. “So… the compound was just another controlled experiment, like the marina?”

“I believe so,” she said. “Except that I was the experiment under control. I don’t believe that was the initial plan for the compound we’ve been living in all winter, but when everything went bad topside with Charlie’s horde, the explosion, and everything else that happened on that horrible day, Mother improvised. I believe they granted me access to the compound… to keep me safe. Everything else that place became for us was incidental… allowable… as long as they had me where they wanted me. Mother couldn’t have planned for a better prison to keep my abilities in check while using the rest of you to watch my every action.”

“But how could they possibly know where you’d be in all that chaos? That you would make it to that compound door behind the waterfall cave?” Logan said. “Even Mother’s not that good.”

Meredith shook her head. “I don’t know. Maybe they realized I was in the Shadow Dead cave and orchestrated events to make sure I found that compound door from there. I always found it a little puzzling that we only had to face two Shadow Dead warriors when the crack at the back of the cave opened up. They could’ve swarmed the place, killed us all… but they didn’t.”

“Those two Shadow Dead came to retrieve you,” Stephen said. “They easily could’ve killed the rest of us, but didn’t want to risk losing you in a massive attack.”

Meredith nodded. “It’s very possible. I was vulnerable after going… supernova… that day. They could’ve easily handled me. But then Frank showed up when he did and messed up their plans.”

“So, they cleared out of the compound—the Shadow Dead, Taven and his group of children-stealing madmen, and whoever else was already there—then granted you access, and let you all have the compound instead,” Logan said, shaking his head. “And all right before the massive explosion that scorched the woods, but miraculously left the compound intact.” He stood up and started pacing, shaking his head. “Hell, we’ve all been played.”

Stephen closed his eyes. “They could’ve seized the compound any time they wanted. They knew exactly how to hit us, where to sneak in undetected, and then made sure you had a way to get out.”

Meredith looked at him and shook her head. “I didn’t know how to open that mystery door until moments before you arrived, Stephen. I hope you believe that. I never would’ve let all those people die by keeping that from you.”

“What was that?” Logan turned.

Stephen stared at her.

She nodded. “Go ahead, tell him. No more secrets.”

“Right before the Shadow Dead pinned us down in that clinic hallway, Meredith gave me the password phrase that opened the mystery door. It activated on a verbal command.”

‘The Lions are sleeping, but we always stand guard’,” she said. “It was part of a mantra that was spoken by the girls in this very room. I told you both in the basement that I was hearing from Toby in my thoughts, and I also just got done telling you that he spoke to me through that doll when I was thirteen. He spoke to me in the compound clinic and provided me that code… right when we needed it.”

“You mean, when Mother needed you to tell us it,” Logan snapped.

Meredith looked away. “Yes.”

Logan laughed and started pacing again. He looked like he wanted to throw something… hard. “I thought those Shadow Dead were holding back near the end. They clearly had us beat. It all makes sense now. They let us have that hallway just long enough for you to get out of the clinic, then they moved in on us like a closing fist!”

Meredith refused to look at the angry preacher. He had every right to be upset. “At this point, I’m still not convinced that there really is a Toby at all. For all I know, this Toby persona is just part of what Mother did to me to make me feel less responsible… while they speak directly to me, under the guise of some powerful entity, while they manipulate my every move, leaving me nothing but more doubt in whether I’m really helping us… or hindering us.” She looked at them both. “Can you start to understand why I kept my secrets? Ever since the compound, I’ve known that Mother has been aware of me all these years. Anything I did, anything I said, could inadvertently be Mother using me to get you all killed. I thought it best to seclude myself and try to figure it all out.”

Logan calmed down and nodded. “Of course. Sorry… I’m just tired of feeling like some damn puppet on strings.”

She nodded.

“Let’s go back to the compound door after Charlie’s attack. The one behind the waterfall cave.” Stephen said. “I can see how they might have your hand geometry on file for the reader. But how did you know what to punch in? Did Toby speak to you then, too? Did he tell you the numerical code?”

Meredith looked into his face, her sad eyes haunted by the mistrust of her own broken memories. “No. It was Hannah who told me that code.”

~~~

Next Episode 49-5

Previous Episode 49-3

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 49-4: 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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