~~~

Stephen stared at Meredith—his look of surprise equaling the look of anguish on the old medium’s face. Finally, he said, “You mean your Hannah?”

“Who the hell is Hannah?” Logan asked, managing to keep himself from pacing and finally sitting back down at the table.

Stephen raised a hand to the preacher. “In a minute Logan. This is… new.”

Meredith continued to stare at her hands. They were shaking. A tear streamed down her cheek as she forced herself to continue. “I’ve not spoken to anyone about this. Not Gina… not even Coop. It’s a hard thing to admit when someone you… when someone you loved… betrays you.” She looked at them both and settled her gaze on Logan. “Hannah was my soul mate. We’d met in nursing school and… and she was there for me when I went through a rough stage with my… abilities. She was always on my side and so supportive, no matter what. I truly loved her with all that I was.” She shifted uncomfortably. “This is… this is very difficult to talk about. When Coop came along, I was able to suppress it all… and I just stopped thinking about it, hoping I would never have to think about it again. ‘What did it matter,’ I told myself. She was gone. So, I went into a state of denial. Then things changed rapidly down in that compound and I had more pressing issues to think about.” She slammed her hand on the table, in a rare display of emotion. “It simply didn’t happen! She wouldn’t do that to me!”

Stephen placed a hand over Meredith’s shaking fist. “I’m sorry, Meredith. You don’t have to relive this.”

She shook her head. “No, no. I need to get this out. No more secrets.” She looked at the weary school teacher and continued. “Her and I… Hannah was always doing things, little things, to make me laugh. Once, I went through a real dark spell, and she found me balling my eyes out, alone in our dark apartment.” Meredith raised her left hand flat, palm down, and smiled. “She’d come up with a secret handshake. It was just one of those childish little things… but it worked. She’d raised her left hand, just like this. Then, I ran my right hand over it like one hand sharpening the other—that’s how she described it.” Meredith raised her right hand to demonstrate. “Then she’d said, ‘Now, all we need’s a code.’ I didn’t know what she was babbling on about… she was always like that. So, I just played along, wiping the silly tears off my face. I’d said, ‘Code? Code for what?’. Then she shook her head like I was the one acting like the idiot.” Meredith laughed. “She’d said, ‘I know! How about the day we met? It was June 15th, 1983. We’ll use that.’ Of course, she had me so confused by then I forgot all about what made me so upset in the first place.” She glanced at Logan and laughed again, shaking her head.

Logan smiled, but remained silent as the older woman fell down the rabbit hole of some happier time.

Then her face grew grave. She left her right hand out, palm down, and just stared at it. “Before The Change claimed my Hannah, there was a moment before everything went… insane… where she insisted that I remember… that I always remember that code. Mind you, I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about. Everything was going crazy, and here she was, adamant that I remember that silly darn handshake. She yelled in my face, ‘Remember, Meredith! Promise me!’ So, I promised her whatever she wanted, just to shut her up. Then she’d said, ‘The code! Say it!’.” Meredith lowered her hand and stared down at the table. “So, I did. Sixth month, fifteenth day, and eighty-three for the year: 061583… just like the first time she’d come up with it on that day I was a weeping mess on our apartment floor.”

Logan and Stephen shared an astonished glance.

“You mean… that was the code?” Stephen said.

Meredith nodded. “I knew immediately what to do when I saw that box outside the compound door. The right hand inserted… then the code… just like how Hannah had been getting me to do that very same thing every time circumstances were at their worst. I had no idea she’d been preparing me all along… for the day I would really need it.”

“Shit,” Logan said, shaking his head in disbelief. “So… that would mean-”

“That would mean that my Hannah had been watching over me on Mother’s behalf ever since those monsters put us together,” Meredith finished.

Stephen, remembering to breathe, finally exhaled deeply. He ran a nervous hand through his hair. “So, she reminded you of the code the night everything went crazy… and that was when Hannah…”

Meredith looked up at him. “Yes. That was shortly before Hannah died,” Meredith said, volunteering nothing else.

The heavy silence that followed was broken by a gust of wind whistling through one of the shattered den windows.

Meredith straightened her back, brought her shaking hands back together on the table, and continued. “There’s something else I’ve not told anyone else about.”

She had their complete attention.

Meredith glanced at them, then stared down at her hands. “I don’t remember what happened to me after the summer of 73’, when I was knocked out in this orphanage basement. But it was the winter of 1974 when I finally… started remembering again.” She stared at Stephen. “You asked me how I escaped Mother. Truth is, I never escaped. But I can tell you how I didn’t end up like those poor girls in the cavern, or much worse.”

Stephen waited.

She stared at them both and smiled. “I died.”

~~~

Logan laughed abruptly, believing Meredith had just told a strange joke to lighten the mood.

Stephen wasn’t laughing.

Meredith looked at her old friend and said, “I remember sitting in that old boathouse near the marina, getting ready to tell you all about my abilities for the first time. You had that same look on your face, Stephen.”

“You mean the one when I’d just figured out how to accept that the dead were really roaming my world and I’d finally managed to right my upside-down ship for the first time while bracing myself for another devastating wave against all that I understood as fact? That face?”

“Yes,” she said with a sympathetic smile. “That’s the one.”

Logan calmed down. “Wait… she’s not kidding?”

Stephen unconsciously gripped the rounded ledge of the table with both hands. “I guess I have to ask… would exactly do you mean, ‘You died’?”

Meredith sighed. “I believe I said something back then along the lines of things that were hard to believe being so much more believable now. All I can do, in this room, at this time, is repeat the sentiment.” She gave them both a hard look, then continued. “Here’s the truth, swallow it as you will: Meredith Montgomery, age thirteen, died in the winter of 1974 in, what I assume, some Mother laboratory. The woman you see before you today was actually Michelle Brogan, clinically declared brain dead at age twelve after falling through a lake of ice and drowning—resurrected in the winter of 1974 at the age of fifteen… as me.”

Silence.

Meredith started rubbing her temples. She refused to look into their faces. “Wow. Now that I’ve said it out loud for the first time, it does sound quite strange. I’ve lived in this body for so long with what I’m still capable of doing, that it’s easy to forget how extraordinary it all truly is.”

“I assume we’re talking about some sort of identity theft situation,” Logan said. “Someone helped you escape Mother, someone from the inside, and then with the right forged documents, you became this… Michelle… person.”

“No, Logan,” Stephen said. “That’s not what she’s saying.”

“Well, that’s what I’m saying!” Logan was clearly upset. “Because if you expect me to add in all that ‘dead’ stuff, then what I’m hearing is rubbish!”

“I don’t know if it’s being in this house, or away from the compound that blocked my abilities, thinking about Hannah, or a combination of it all, or none of it—but I’m remembering things, thoughts really, from before I first surfaced in some dead girl’s bedroom many years ago. I remember a conversation with Dr. Forrester in a dark place—no, a secret place—that she called, Elsewhere. It felt like a dream, but it wasn’t.” Meredith’s eyebrows crunched up as she struggled to piece the fragments together. “I’ve recalled bits and pieces of that conversation throughout the years, but it’s all coming clear now. Like some fog finally lifting.”

“So, it was Dr. Forrester who… helped you escape?” Stephen said, trying to choose the right words to calm Logan down.

“Yes,” she nodded. “I don’t understand how she did it. I probably never will. But whatever Mother was using her research for, and why they needed me, Forrester somehow turned the tables on them, and used her research to get me away from them. In fact, she insisted that I stay hidden from Mother for as long as I could.” Her face grew grave. “And that they would be looking for me… and that it would be bad if they ever found me.” She stared at Stephen, the terror evident in her eyes. “And that they would make me do bad things!”

“You’re safe with us, Meredith,” Stephen said. “Even if it’s like you said and Mother’s been tracking you for a long time now, you’ve managed to stay out of their grasp.”

“Have I, Stephen? Have I really? Every new circumstance we face seems to be putting me one step closer to giving Mother exactly what it wants. I still don’t know what I did down in that cavern that allowed us to escape, but I can’t help but feel like I did exactly what Mother wanted.”

“How’s that?” Logan said.

She turned to the preacher. “What if I was supposed to go down there, beyond the confines of that electrified field, just so I could tap into my abilities again? What if everything that happened down there was another test designed to push the limits of what I could do?”

“You’re saying that Mother set the whole thing up?” Stephen said. “Like another experiment?”

“I wouldn’t put it past Mother to try it,” she said.

“But you said that this entity, or Toby, or whatever it is, was drawing us down there,” Logan said. “You said that we didn’t have a choice.”

“Yes, I did say that. And at first, I believed it. But then everything changed in the cavern. I was sure I understood… but after we exited Labyrinth Level 1… I don’t remember anything.”

“You saved us, Meredith,” Stephen reminded her. “Then you collapsed, and Megan carried you out.”

“Yes. But why can’t I remember what happened?”

He had no answer.

Meredith pointed to the side of her head. “What if I blocked it out of my memory to keep it from myself?” she proposed. “What if that’s what was done to me in that missing year back in the summer of 73’? Maybe Mother did something to my brain and can turn my head off as easily as a light switch, then make me do awful things with my own abilities, and then just flip the switch back on afterwards without me knowing what I did, or who made me do it?”

Logan sighed. “That’s a whole lot of ‘what ifs’,” he said.

She shook her head in frustration. “Yes. But now you must understand why I second guess my every move? She nodded toward the windows. “For all I know, I’m controlling the dead outside… and I don’t even know it.”

“You can do that?” Logan said.

“I’ve seen her summon the dead,” Stephen said. “Back at the waterfall cave, she brought them to fight the Shadow Dead. They can also sense her like she can sense them. And as you’ve seen her do with Megan, she can also, in a manner of speaking, put them to sleep.”

“Dormant,” Meredith corrected. “I can make them go dormant.”

“Then why don’t you do that with those freaks outside so we can get out of here?” Logan suggested.

Stephen shook his head. “For Meredith to do that with a horde that size, it could kill her, or worse—she could lose control and… become a savage herself.”

Meredith nodded. “That’s one way to put it. Yes, I could try that. With Megan it was easier because she was just one person… but with a horde like the one outside, there are risks.”

“I don’t want to see that again, Meredith,” Stephen said. “Every time you reach out to the dead on such a massive scale, I swear, you lose a part of yourself.”

She smiled at his genuine concern and keen understanding. “Well, I don’t think it’s worth the risk this time. Like I said, Toby has already warned me what would happen if we ventured outside. Can you imagine what might happen if I start tampering with the dead he put there?”

“I thought you weren’t sure that Toby was even real,” Logan said. “Which is it?”

She nodded. “Exactly, Logan! Am I going against Toby… or going against myself? Who’s to say what will happen in either case?”

“Good point,” he conceded. “I guess I should just be grateful they haven’t stormed the house yet.”

Stephen rubbed his chin. “Okay. Let’s just work with what we know. Assuming that this Toby, or Mother manipulating you under the guise of Toby, is pulling the strings, then we are exactly where we’re supposed to be.”

“That’s a chilling thought,” Meredith said. “But yes. It seems clear that this is where Toby wants us.”

“Agreed,” Logan said.

“Then what’s the enemy’s next move? If we can figure that out, then maybe we can counter, and do something unexpected.”

Meredith’s shoulders sank. “Since I seem to be Mother’s prize lab rat, and perhaps the source of all our problems, I would suggest taking Logan’s gun and putting a bullet in my skull.”

“That’s not an option, Meredith,” Stephen firmly said.

She shook her head. “Sorry. I’m just… I feel responsible for all this. If none of you were anywhere around me, perhaps more of our friends would still be alive today.”

“Speaking on behalf of all of us you’ve saved, I strongly disagree,” Stephen said. “Mother is responsible.”

She smiled. “Thanks for that.”

Logan threw his hands into the air and said, “You know, her idea’s not a bad one.”

“Excuse me?” Stephen said.

“You heard what she said. She already died once, then came back as someone else, like some damn body snatcher. Maybe she could just wave her magic wand and do it again.”

“You’re being an ass,” Stephen said.

“I am… and I’m running out of patience with all of… this!” He waved his hand around the room, then at Meredith, and finally toward the dead outside. “There’s only so much my damn brain can take!” He stood up and started pacing again. He turned to Meredith. “Look, I appreciate your honesty, even if it’s at the last fucking hour… but shit! All of this is insane!”

“I’m telling you all that I know, Logan,” she said patiently. “I didn’t say it would be easy to believe.”

“Fair enough… and I believe you believe it. But what can we possibly do against an adversary that might very well be sitting at this table with us… by your very own admission?”

“Logan!” Stephen said, standing up. “That’s enough!”

“He’s right, Stephen. I don’t even trust me right now.”

Stephen turned to her. “That’s bullshit! If Mother’s succeeding at anything, then it’s driving a wedge between us with all this paranoia and suspicion! Toby is real. And so are you! I don’t care if you were somewhere else, frigging Elsewhere, then died, came back, changed your damn name from Meredith to Michelle to Hannah Montana, then back to Meredith… none of that matters to me! I know you! And you are still the woman I remember. Nothing’s changed. So, the sooner we get over all these things we can’t possibly wrap our minds around, the better! We can get out of this mess. I know it! But we can’t if we don’t do it together.” He gave Logan a challenging glance. “Together, yes?”

Logan raised his eyebrows in surprise, then laughed. “I’m remembering now why you were elected as the leader of our little community.”

“As am I,” Meredith said with a smile.

“Then we’re on the same page?” Stephen put his hands to his hips.

“I’m in, little brother,” Logan said. Then he turned to Meredith. “Sorry. I got a little… overwhelmed.”

“Understandable,” she said. Then she stared up at Stephen proudly. “What do you want to do?”

Stephen, feeling a little embarrassed, sat back down. “Like I said, we figure out the enemy’s next play and then counter with something unexpected.”

“Any suggestions?” Logan said.

He stared toward the back of the den. “The enemy clearly wants Meredith. We can’t let that happen. And the only way to ensure that, is to get all of us away from this place and take matters back into our own hands. That just leaves getting past the dead outside. I don’t know about the rest of you, but compared to everything I just heard, that sounds like something I can wrap my head around.”

Logan sat back down. “Alright, little brother. I’m with you there.”

Meredith nodded. “Sounds delightful. I would love more than anything to never see these walls again.”

“That just leaves the ‘how’,” Logan said. He turned to Meredith. “So, we step outside, and Toby sends the dead in to dissuade us, correct?”

“Correct.”

Logan nodded. “Fighting our way through that horde doesn’t sound like a winning move, although, with Megan up and running, we’d stand a better chance.”

“Going back the way we came seems like a death sentence as well,” Stephen threw in. He looked to Meredith. “Anything in your bag of tricks that could help us?”

The old woman was staring at Logan. She finally snapped out of it. “What? Sorry. I was just thinking about something Logan said earlier.”

Logan laughed. “Well, I know it wasn’t asking my God to part that sea of the dead outside so we could just walk on through, but I can assure you, I have asked already.”

She smiled. “No… but you did give me an idea.” Meredith looked to Megan. “I need some time to think it through carefully before I bring up what might be a…very unexpected move.”

Stephen looked intrigued. “Do tell.”

“Not yet,” she said. “Let’s wait until Megan comes back. Besides, I’m doing all I can to… camouflage my thoughts with so many other ones, just in case someone else might be listening.”

“Toby?” Stephen said.

Meredith nodded.

“Okay,” Logan said. “Let’s get some sleep. Fresh minds and eyes might be just the thing we need to conquer this problem. I suggest we take shifts while one of us watches out for Megan and our friends outside.”

Just the mention of sleep made them all aware of just how exhausted they were.

“I’ll take the first watch,” Meredith insisted. “My mind’s too much of a battlefield right now for sleep.”

“You sure?” Stephen said, betraying himself with a long yawn.

She laughed. “I got this. Go on. Both of you have been up since before the Shadow Dead attack.”

“You don’t have to tell me twice,” Logan said with a laugh. He was already looking for a place on the floor to collapse on.

Stephen gave Meredith a final glance. “Be careful,” he said. “Wake me in a couple of hours. Let the big guy sleep. If anything happens… and I mean anything… wake me up immediately.”

She nodded.

Stephen crawled beneath one of the round tables and was out in two minutes.

Meredith waited until both men were lying on the floor like snoring corpses. She then checked on Megan, and then returned to her chair.

Buried beneath a jungle of random thoughts she used to hide her true thoughts, the old medium considered her wild plan carefully. She thought again about what Logan had said that spawned the idea:

“…She already died once, then came back as someone else, like some damn body snatcher…”

Body Snatcher.

Meredith, where are you? Why are you trying to hide from me? Toby broke through her jumble of thoughts like a gusting wind scattering paper. Whatever you’re trying to do… just stop… it won’t work.

Meredith tried to ignore the invasion, but Toby was persistent.

Doesn’t matter what you’re hiding, I’ll find out eventually. We’ve more pressing matters to deal with right now.

Meredith addressed him and thought, What lies am I to believe this time… hmm? Are you here to make me doubt myself some more?

Toby laughed. Oh… that’s right… you’re still caught up in the whole ‘Is this entity real or am I being controlled by Mother’ nonsense. Well, I assure you, after the gift I’m about to give you, all your questions will be answered.

What does that mean?

Toby laughed again. Come with me and find out, Meredith. I’m ready to show you the rest… and help you fill in those tedious blanks in your memory.

Meredith closed her eyes and shook her head. You’re a liar.

Am I? According to you, I may not even exist… and if that’s the case… you can only lie to yourself.

Stop twisting my words around! she fired back. I’m not interested in anything you have to say!

That’s okay, Meredith. You will understand in a little while. By the way, while we’ve been speaking, you’ve fallen asleep in your chair. Apparently, you’ve placed so much effort into fighting against me that you’ve left yourself wide open for an attack against the enemy of fatigue.

Before Meredith can wake, Toby’s already pulled her deeper into the depths of sleep.

Let me go!

Again, she is greeted by condescending laughter. Not yet, Meredith. Not until I grant you the gift I’ve promised. The gift of Truth… like you’ve always wanted.

She opens her eyes. Meredith is surrounded by darkness. She tries to move but can’t feel her own body. She is floating in the dark. Meredith tries to speak but her words are devoured by shadow.

Sweet dreams, Meredith, Toby mocks. I’ll see you soon… and then you’ll remember everything!

Meredith surrenders to the darkness and closes her eyes…

~~~

Next Episode 49-6

Previous Episode 49-4

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 49-5: 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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