~~~

Stephen, Logan and Megan sat in shocked silence as Meredith destroyed them with the truth.

She told them an incredible story about a young thirteen-year-old girl with special abilities who was abducted by Mother after being injected by Dr. Candice Forrester in that orphanage basement. Meredith told them about the unaccounted time between the summer of 1973 to the winter of 1974 where she was taken to a Mother-run facility on an island and hooked into machines connected to a brain-dead patient named Toby Forrester, Candice’s brother.

Meredith told them about being inserted into Forrester’s experiment involving ‘Elsewhere’—a place that the doctor had discovered in an inactive brain which she believed was the ‘dream center’ of the mind. It was a place where the complete identity, the soul of a person, could be retrieved from a mental ‘back-up drive’, and then be rebooted back into the body. It was Candice’s hope that she could revive her brother, essentially, bringing him back from death, by tapping into this dormant part of the brain.

Mother had repurposed Dr. Forester’s work, without her knowledge, using it instead to connect with an entity they’d discovered in shallow places where the barrier between our world and the other side could be breached. With Forrester’s work, Mother found a doorway to make contact, leaving them only to find a proper key, a.k.a., Meredith, to complete the connection.

Mother’s original attempts to breach this barrier failed down in the cavern beneath the orphanage, known as Labyrinth Level One—the entire reason why the orphanage existed and why the underground Wasteland compound was originally constructed. Eventually considered ‘unstable’, Mother abandoned the cavern and relocated all remaining resources to an offshore island where they believed another thin barrier was still accessible.

After being sent to the island facility, Meredith spent over a year connected to the entity, calling itself Toby, in ‘Elsewhere’. Meredith told them everything she’d experienced on a fictional island where every day felt like the same day because time had no relevance on the other side. She told them about a ten-year-old boy who had manipulated her, getting her to use her abilities to release monsters, disguised as lions, across the veil, and into our world.

While attempting to use young Meredith to get himself across, Toby’s connection was interrupted by Dr. Forrester, who had figured out that it wasn’t her brother that Meredith was connected to, and that Mother had manipulated them both. She’d become blinded by her own desperation to free her brother that she’d failed to recognize what Mother was really doing, or the young lives she was responsible for destroying in the process.

Michael Finch, Candice’s fiancé, died trying to save Meredith. It took his death for Candice to finally open her eyes and see the truth. Michael was dead. Her brother was dead. Forrester, deciding to make things right, and ruin Mother’s plans, found another way to manipulate ‘Elsewhere’ by essentially removing the ‘back up’ drive in Meredith’s mind and putting it in another brain-dead patient, something Michael always believed was possible.

After stealing Meredith away from Toby’s version of ‘Elsewhere’, Forrester put herself in Meredith’s place to taunt Toby into killing her there. The ruse worked, resulting in the physical deaths of both Forrester and Meredith’s bodies in the real world and stealing Mother’s precious connection through Meredith, who they had originally believed had died afterwards.

Dr. Forrester’s experiment to retrieve the brain-dead patients from Elsewhere and restore them back to their bodies… had failed. But the alternative worked for Meredith, who woke up in the body of a brain-dead girl named Michelle, with most of her memory from those dark days hidden… until now…

~~~

Meredith paused from her story and wiped tears from her face. She refused to look any of them in the eye, but their silence was deafening in the ruins of the barn. She kept going while she had the strength.

“I hid myself for years, pretending to be Michelle, with fragments of memories from the orphanage before I was… experimented on… to the memories starting with waking up with that strange face staring back at me. Everything else in between… was gone. Eventually, the rest started to slip away as I grew older and had my own new struggles trying to live with this gift that never went away. I eventually met Hannah… and well… you know the rest.” She looked into their stunned faces and said, “I never knew. Believe me, if I’d known what I’d done… what I was capable of… I would’ve ended my life a long time ago, long before this nightmare world ever happened.”

Stephen sat back and ran his hands through his hair, letting out a heavy sigh. “My mind is completely blown,” he said, the weariness in his voice apparent. “Of all the things you’ve told me over our time together… that… that was like a bomb that just exploded in my face.”

She looked down at her hands and nodded. “That’s about how I feel… now that I know.”

Megan remained silent. She refused to look at the older woman.

Logan, however, looked like he’d just sat on an ant hill. He got up and started pacing.

Meredith stared up at the big preacher. “Go ahead… ask.”

He turned to her, stroking his beard. The big man didn’t know what to think or how to feel toward this woman, who apparently, destroyed his world. “Let’s talk about the lions, again,” he said in an angry voice.

“Logan,” Stephen warned, “stay cool.”

Meredith closed her eyes and waited.

He waved a frustrated fist in her direction, trying to keep his temper in check. “No, I’m good,” he said to him, then glared at the Wasteland Witch. “I’m struggling to understand how something you did in some… dream place… all the way back in 1973… caused The Change in 2010. How the hell is that possible?”

She nodded. “Time,” she said. “That monster tried to tell me back then… but I get it now. He’d said, after I’d let the lions loose, that our world was dead, he just didn’t know when. Time had no meaning in Elsewhere. But he’d said that anything I affected over here… from there… would affect time differently.”

“So, it took almost fifty years for something you did, causing all this madness and death, to finally catch up to us?” he snapped.

She winced at his harsh words but accepted the blow. He’s right. You did all this. The blood is on your hands. “Yes,” she said. “That’s exactly what I’m saying. Don’t ask me how or why that is… I just know that it’s true.”

“You’re an abomination!” he roared into her face, pointing, and taking a threatening step toward her.

Megan was up immediately, standing in between Meredith and the big fireball. She hissed in his face and tensed up. The look in her silver eyes promised more death if Logan didn’t stand down.

“Logan… this isn’t helping!” Stephen also moved in defensively in front of Meredith with his hands up. “Just… chill the fuck out!”

The big man shook his head at them both and laughed. “What’s the matter with you two? She killed everyone you ever knew… everyone you loved… by her own admission!”

“She was just a little girl manipulated by a devious monster,” Stephen corrected. “You heard her story. She didn’t send the lions across the ocean believing she was hurting anyone! Get a grip before you make things worse!”

Logan waved his hands at them and backed down, walking toward the other side of the barn.

Megan relaxed and gave Stephen a grateful nod.

He smiled back reluctantly, feeling sick to his stomach.

“I think what I did has more ramifications than I realize,” Meredith said, still sitting and staring dejectedly into her hands. “Before sending all those lions off the other side of the island-”

“You mean ‘before you unleashed that plague of the dead’!” Logan shot back. “Let’s stop calling them lions, shall we?”

“Fair enough,” she agreed. “Before that, Toby had me on our beach, where I sent six others first. He kept calling them ‘The First Ones’.”

“What’s that mean?” Stephen said.

“I almost forgot, but he’d named some of them… those First Ones. I remember the last one, he called it Taven.”

Megan turned and stared at her.

Meredith nodded her head. “Yes, I’m sure of it. That would mean-”

“You caused everything that happened in the cavern,” Stephen said. “You’re the reason that place turned unstable, right?”

“I believe so,” she said. “I think the first six crossed over in accordance to the dates in those files… somewhere in our past. Taven stayed behind, apparently.”

Logan was laughing. “You’re just full of great news, aren’t you?” he spat. Logan stepped up beside Megan and said, “You realize what you’re saying, don’t you?”

Meredith looked up and met Megan’s sad eyes. “Yes,” she added weakly. “I know what that means.”

Stephen looked confused.

Logan filled in the blanks. “Not only did she break the damn world of its hinges, Stephen… Meredith, here, is directly responsible for the Megan you see before you today! Not to mention what happened to her-”

“SHUT UP!” Megan snapped, staring down the preacher. “JUST SHUT YOUR DAMN MOUTH… OR I’LL RIP IT FROM YOUR FACE!”

Logan looked stunned, taking a cautious step back.

“He’s right, Megan,” Meredith said, wiping away fresh tears. “I did this to you. I did this to you long before The Change even started when I let Taven loose.”

Megan kept her gaze fixed on Logan. She was trying to control her breathing and calm down.

“Logan… if you’ve got any bullets left in that gun of yours, I suggest you put one in me right now,” Meredith said. “It’s not only what I deserve… but considering how badly Toby wants me back… it’s probably for the best.”

Logan looked at the others and then back to Meredith. He shifted uncomfortably. “No,” he said. “You don’t get to do what you did and then take the easy way out. Hell, no! You suffer the consequences just like the rest of us!”

Meredith gave the big preacher a weary look. “I’m not looking for a way out from under my guilt, Logan. I’m just suggesting that I’m dangerous. No… I’m not suggesting… I am dangerous. Toby’s trying to finish what he started, and that requires me. God-only-knows what I’m capable of if he manages to manipulate me any further.”

Logan looked like he wanted to speak, but then waved a dismissive hand at her instead, turning to walk away.

“No one’s shooting anyone,” Stephen said, kneeling beside her. “I don’t care what you did. It’s not your fault. Toby’s behind everything… he’s the one who made you release the lions. You were just a terrified little girl who had no idea what was happening. You can see that, can’t you?”

Meredith shook her head. “Doesn’t matter. I may not have pulled the trigger on the end of our world… but I’m definitely the gun. Toby was powerless without me.”

“That’s not true,” Stephen said. “He’s still been reaching out to our world and influencing it for years. Mother is direct proof of that. And if he still needs you, then that means he’s gone as far as he can. I believe that’s why he’s so desperate to get you back now after all these years.”

Meredith stared at the former teacher. “Then why keep me alive? If Toby’s reached his limit on how he can affect our world… then it’s clear. I need to die.”

“No.” Stephen shook his head. “You said it yourself in your story. He’ll just find another like you eventually. You can’t be the only one who can do what you do… and that monster knows it.”

Meredith silently considered this.

“Look at it this way,” Stephen continued. “The longer he’s chasing you, the less time he has to look for others like you. So, by that reasoning, keeping you alive works to our advantage.”

“Unless her catches me, Stephen.”

He nodded. “Sure. But he hasn’t. And after what you did to get us out of the orphanage, maybe he can’t.”

“Or maybe we’re right where he wants us to be,” Meredith added. “I remember what happened in the cavern now. We didn’t escape because I did something to stop Toby. He let us go.”

Logan came back over. “Explain that.”

Meredith sighed and lowered her eyes. “The madness in that dark, unstable place had the three of you. You were all going insane just outside the tunnel. Toby was mocking me… showing me how helpless I was to do anything about it. But what he was really doing was baiting me to get angry. Right near the end, he just… left me there in that cavern to watch you all die. I was so upset that I didn’t see the ruse for what it was.”

“What happened?” Stephen said.

She shook her head. “He tricked me into following him. As unstable as the caverns were, Toby knew that if he got me down there, he could connect with me again because the barrier between our world and his was thin there, too. He left me there in the darkness, so I followed him… back to Elsewhere. Next thing I remember is we’re standing in this awful field where I first met him in my dreams at the orphanage. The lions were there, too. Toby was older, a teenager, and this was the place he’d lied about and said he’d escaped from when we both ended up on that false island. It felt like a memory… but different. I was there, and I wasn’t there at the same time.”

“You said a lot of things like that down in the cavern,” Stephen reminded her. “How that place was and wasn’t; how those creepy girls were there, and they weren’t… stuff like that.”

“Yes,” she said. “I believe the cavern is just like the place I was taken to at thirteen.”

“When Mother took you to that offshore location? Some island?” Stephen said.

“Yes. That must be it. But I don’t remember that place at all because I was kept sedated until I was inserted into Elsewhere. But that cavern… it has to be the same kind of place.”

“But the cavern is unstable,” Stephen said. “You said Mother abandoned it.”

“Yes. Mother did. But not Toby. He knew I could handle the madness and that’s why he wanted me down there. I believe the boundary between our world and his is so thin in the cavern that at times we were stepping in and out of that dark world without even knowing it. I also believe that’s what drove everyone insane… from the early scientists all the way up to when Miss Evan’s team was there. None of their minds could handle it and that’s why the electrified field was created. I’d already had a connection or developed an immunity to that dead place because I lived there for over a year on that fictional island with Toby… and Elsewhere served as a tether to keep me there, and not there at the same time. Also, I’ve always had a doorway into that otherworld through my… gifts.”

“So, he had you back… but he couldn’t keep you there?” Stephen said.

“No, he couldn’t… and I believe Toby already knew that. But he wanted to test me to see if I could come back… and I did.” She stopped herself abruptly, and then finished, “I don’t know what it was Toby wanted out of us meeting in that place again, but I assume he got what he came for and due to how unstable the cavern had become, he just couldn’t keep me there for long.” She felt bad for holding back the rest of what she suspected happened in that field, and the conversation she and Toby shared, but Meredith needed time to sort the rest out. There was enough already on the table to look at and be horrified by without adding any more speculation. “What I know is that when the connection was severed, the effects of that world on ours, down in that cavern, also diminished. I suspect our worlds merge and then separate at irregular intervals in the cavern. When the separation occurred, balance was briefly restored. For me, I was ripped out of Elsewhere so abruptly and thrown back into my own body… it knocked me out. As for the rest of you, I didn’t do anything. You came back to your senses when the merge ceased, found me unconscious… and, well, you know the rest more than I do.”

“But you said Toby let us go,” Stephen said. “Sounds like the cavern really let us go before we went mad.”

Meredith laughed. “That’s very true. But if I were a betting sort of person, I wouldn’t bet against the possibility that Toby timed all that perfectly, and that he knew exactly when to push and when to pull back. The cavern may be an unstable doorway between our worlds, but I’m sure Toby’s figured out how to use it… and he did.”

“So those creepy eyeless girls, the rotting corpses on the floor, and all the rest of that house of horrors was what… glimpses into that other world?” Logan said.

“Yes,” Meredith said. “I believe that’s why everything we saw down there was confusing my senses. They were there… but they really weren’t there. It was all side-effects of that unstable doorway. Now imagine what that shifting of being in two worlds at the same time would do to the human mind.”

“Madness,” Stephen said with a nod.

“Exactly,” Meredith said.

“But you could handle it. That’s what’s made you such a target to Mother and Toby all these years,” Stephen said.

Meredith nodded sadly. “Yes.”

“You… and Taven,” Megan said, surprising them all.

Meredith looked at the half-dead girl. She was too tired to tell if that was an accusation or just an observation. She frowned at her and said, “Yes, Megan. Taven, too.”

Megan surprised them all again. “What happened to the lions?”

Meredith stared at her. “Come again?”

“You said you followed Toby back to Elsewhere from the cavern, back to the place in the field from your dreams. Then you said, ‘the lions were there, too’.”

“Did I say that?” Meredith started to sweat.

“Yes,” Megan said. “You did.”

“I… I just meant that Toby brought me back to the dream where I first saw the emerald lions… I didn’t mean they were there this time. I must have mis-spoke,” she lied.

Megan just stared at her and said nothing.

Please, Meredith thought. Don’t go there, Megan. Don’t go there right now… not yet… I need time. I need time to understand it… and what it will mean.

It was Logan who bailed her out. “I’m going to ask the question that someone should’ve asked by now.”

They all turned to him.

Logan shook his head, stared at the dirt, and laughed uncomfortably. “All this talk about the damn lions running loose on our world, while they clearly come from some dark, dead place… and we know they aren’t lions at all.”

“What are you getting at, Logan?” Stephen said.

The preacher gave him a wide-eyed look of surprise. “Well… isn’t it obvious? If it ‘ain’t lions that have jumped right out of the living at random back at The Change, or caused the long-deceased to rise up out of the earth, and every other damn horrific manifestation that’s out there… then what the hell are they?”

~~~

Next Episode 49-11

Previous Episode 49-9

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 49-10: 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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