~~~

The competitors all scattered like ants after the hill was struck. The crowd above them came alive with noise.

In a panic, the girl started running in front of the closest competitors who nearly plowed her over. Nine grabbed her arm. “Wait!” he hissed. “Not yet!”

Seven of them ran to the left, the other three ran to the right.

Most of them went left. We go right, odds are better the dead won’t get as riled up.

The girl desperately stared up at him. Nine was about to pull her to the right, then stopped. Wait, those seven that went left… they knew exactly what they wanted to do. The others nearly trampled over the girl just to go the other way. Besides, seven is always better than three.

“Screw the odds,” he told her. “Those idiots that went right are going to get us killed… maybe even on purpose.”

Nine pulled the girl to the left, following the other seven competitors.

Within seconds, they were out of the spotlight and plunged into the darkness as their eyes adjusted to the ambient light above.

From just beyond the first set of obstacles, they heard a man scream from behind several tall wooden shipping crates that were positioned to form three narrow walkways granting access into what appeared to be a small crate maze.

“One, two, three, left to right,” Nine mumbled to himself, pulling the girl cautiously toward the three paths. “Or is it right to left?”

“Be quiet!” the girl hissed.

“Doesn’t matter!” he said, still talking to himself. “It has to be two!”

“Which way?”

“The middle one!” he said. “We go right down the middle!”

Nine took the lead through the narrow middle aisle, keeping the girl directly behind him. They had to turn sideways to slip between the crates.

They heard a woman cry out this time from further ahead in the darkness.

Once within the aisle, Nine immediately realized the trap as he noticed the crates had slats build in them just wide enough for-

“Watch out!” the girl cried out.

Several dead arms pushed through the slats, reaching out for them. The girl ducked down on all fours, pulling Nine down with her.

Nine rolled over on his back. He looked up and saw four deadhead faces pushed up against the slats, their pale heads turned and sticking out just enough for their flailing arms to grab at anything and pull them toward their snapping mouths. “Be still,” Nine whispered to the girl lying flat beneath his legs. She’d dropped her head into her hands, refusing to look up at the monsters reaching down to grab at her. Nine tilted his head back until he had an upside-down view of the narrow aisle ahead. He expected the dead to come storming around the corner and finish them.

Nothing happened.

“We crawl,” he told her, “all the way out of the aisle.”

“I can’t… I can’t move,” she said. “They’ll get me.”

“You’re fine. Just stay on the ground. They’re arms can’t reach down that far. Okay?”

She managed to look at him and nodded.

From somewhere ahead, another contestant screamed. It sounded like he was being eaten alive.

The girl covered her ears with her hands.

“Don’t think about that,” Nine told her. “Just focus on me.” He carefully rolled over on his stomach and started to crawl forward. The girl reluctantly followed.

Nine poked his head out of the end of the aisle, looking left, then right, to make sure another surprised re-animated wasn’t chained up and waiting to jump out at them. So far, they were clear. He looked forward, scanning the labyrinth of wooden crates stacked in various configurations. Some were designed to be climbed over, others formed low ceilings requiring ducking beneath. There were more narrow aisles, with sharp corners, easily concealing the dead. They had choices, and each one could be fatal. It’s like a damn haunted house in here, he thought.

The girl managed to crawl in next to him. “What now?” she whispered, getting a good look at the dark wooden maze of crates before them. “We have to get through all of that?”

Nine put a finger to his mouth and then whispered, “Listen.”

They could hear the hungry cries of the re-animated from behind them, and a few moans from up ahead along with the rattling of chains.

“They can’t be stealthy,” he whispered. “Not once they’re riled up, and the competition has already done that. We just need to stop trusting our eyes and use our ears. Okay?”

She nodded. The girl pointed toward a random crate. “Any more in those?” she whispered.

Nine nodded. “Probably. We’ll just have to be super careful, and quiet. It’s the ones outside the crates we need to worry about. I don’t know how much chain they have to play with. Let’s move.”

They slowly got up and approached a dark wooden archway. Nine held her up. “I have an idea,” he whispered, and then removed one of his shoes. He tossed it underhanded through the arch and watched his sneaker strike another crate on the other side. They heard the clanking chain before they saw the deteriorated beast rush in front of their view from the left, attempting to grab at the sneaker. The chain went tight around the monster’s head, causing the beast to get jerked back. It fell backwards, just out of reach of the shoe.

Nine smiled at the girl. “Stay to the right,” he whispered.

She smiled back with a nod.

They quickly ducked under the arch and turned right while the creature was distracted by the frustrating chain.

The veteran pick-pocketer was mindful to snag Nine’s loose sneaker right before they turned the corner.

Moving painfully slow, they maneuvered around the next three corners using the moans of the dead, the scratching sounds or their chains on the concrete, or the cries of their dying competitors to pick alternate paths through the maze. They stopped only at the threat of silence, using their shoe-detectors to rouse the inactive dead that had not been startled, yet.

Everything was going well until they found the first body.

In between another aisle of crates, much like the first one, a woman’s body had been yanked across the aisle, her head down, body facing them like a twisted human barrier. Opposing beasts had engaged in a human tug-of-war from their crates. Pale arms from both sides of the aisle continued to pull at each of the woman’s arms, trying to get to the more ‘meatier’ portions of their prize, yanking the dead woman toward one side and then the other, making the woman appear more puppet-like than human. The dead were stuck in a bizarre stalemate as neither side refused to give up the prize and continued pulling on the unfortunate woman’s gnawed on arms.

The girl stared in horror as Nine started to pull her toward another aisle.

The woman slowly lifted her head, her horrified face in full view, her eyes going wide when she saw the girl. The woman tried to call out for help, but blood flowed from her mouth.

The girl covered her mouth to stifle a scream.

Nine stared down the aisle at the woman they thought was dead and cringed. He looked away. “We need to move,” he whispered to the girl. “We can’t help her. You don’t need to see this.”

Before Nine could move the girl away, she bent down, removed both of her shoes and then stepped forward into the aisle, throwing each shoe toward one side of the crates, then the other, until the creatures were distracted. They released their grip on the woman’s arms and rushed toward the girl. The woman fell limp to the ground and did not move again.

The girl quickly stepped back out of the aisle, staring in satisfaction at the frustrated, howling beasts, reaching out through the crate slats toward her, their prize stolen from them.

Nine stared at the girl, then toward the dying woman lying limp in the center of the aisle. “You know we can’t save her, right? She’ll turn… eventually.”

The girl nodded, still staring at the savage faces pressed up against the crate slates. Her eyes looked haunted and far off. “They’re just like the rest of them,” she said. “Fighting for a piece of everyone stuck in this shitty place, until we’re all pulled apart and useless to them.”

Nine didn’t know what to say. He was overwhelmed by a moment of compassion for the girl who had seen far too much horror in New Cleveland long before this moment, and by monsters much worse. He gently placed a hand on the girl’s shoulder. “Come on,” he urged softly. “This isn’t over yet.”

She looked up at him with glazed eyes. Her face, her real face, displayed a stone frown full of old pain. And then it was gone, replaced by a forced smile. “Okay,” she whispered.

Nine stared down at her bare feet and laughed. “Well, I guess we’ll have to find you some shoes after this.”

“I’ll just take yours later,” she added with a wink.

He rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Come on.”

They maneuvered through the remainder of the crate maze, climbing over, ducking under, crawling through aisles, and carefully approaching corners, until the cleared the crates. They’d come across two more bodies in the maze with the dead feeding distractedly upon them as they quietly went around each one as if not wanting to disturb the final resting places of the slain.

With the maze behind them, and Nine also losing both of his shoes, the next section of the course was all an uphill climb around a sharp winding path that led up toward what was once the top of the original water rapids ride. The concrete chute became much narrower as they ascended. The dead were fastened to large concrete blocks with longer chains, scattered in plain view.

Nine and the girl studied the newest obstacle from a distance, watching as one of the male contestants attempted to maneuver through the blocks of chained dead. The man made it half-way up the winding chute before miscalculating the length of one zombie’s chain to get away from another. He was blindsided from behind as the savage bit down into his shoulder, causing the man to fall back down the chute and into the waiting arms of the famished beasts in the center of the course.

They looked away as the dead swarmed on top of the man, digging greedily into him—his screams—a quick reminder of their own mortality.

Nine had already made a head count. “Twenty,” he told the girl. “I counted twenty of them scattered up the chute. That number could work either way for us. We’ve no advantage in it.”

She gave the strange man a look, then pointed at the newest dead man. “We should go now. While the first group is distracted. Look. You can see how long their chains extend. They’re all in the middle of feeding. We could slip right around their blocks and out of their reach.”

Nine stared out at the dead and nodded. “We just need to make sure we stay out of reach of the ones after. That’s how that poor man bit the bullet. If we sneak around the feeders on the left and then run our asses back to the right, we should be good.”

The girl nodded. “Then let’s go… before they finish.”

“We’ll use their blocks for concealment,” Nine said. “But if one looks up and sees us… we’ll be stuck against the wall.”

“Then we make sure they don’t see us,” the girl said with confidence. “Let me take the lead on this. I have some experience on being sneaky.”

Nine smiled. “Yeah, I imagine you do. Okay… just remember, we’re trying to sneak around them, not right behind them if you spot a shiny trinket in one of those dead thing’s back pocket.”

She rolled her eyes at the joke. “Got it, smart ass. But if I see a zombie with anything chocolate on his person… you’re on your own.” She added a wink.

Nine shook his head. “Let’s go.”

The girl took the lead taking them up the winding slope. Nine marveled at how stealthy she was as the young girl appeared to move them with ease from block to block, timing each move perfectly as if keeping one eye on the path and one eye constantly on the distracted dead. Of the five feeding zombies, three of their blocks were on the left, the other two were on the right.

Everything went without a hitch until they reached the third block above them.

One zombie they had not seen, his block placed above the first five and just around a bend and out of sight, just happened to be shambling out from around the corner, dragging his chain behind him. The tall, half-naked man wore ripped jeans and what looked like fresh intestines dripping from around his neck and hanging proudly across his sunken chest like the zombie-version of ‘bling’.

When the girl led Nine to the north side of the last block, and momentarily hidden from the feeding frenzy below, they failed to spot the new deadhead until it cried out from behind them.

Nine turned. “Shit!” he hissed.

The new zombie started to rush toward them, then stepped forward on a dangling intestine, slipping backward to the ground and getting its legs tangled up in the bloody entrails.

“That’s a new one,” Nine said at the disgusting sight. The girl yanked at his shirt, causing him to turn.

The dead below had been alerted. They started rushing toward the block, the sounds of their chains scratching at the concrete like an audible omen.

The three farthest away were yanked back by their chains, but the last two could reach them, as well as the tangled deadhead, who was now getting up.

Nine fought off the panic. “To the left!” he shouted. “All the way to the left!”

They ran across and into the open, causing all three zombies to chase them. A fourth one up ahead, his block positioned to the left but much farther away, started to come down the slope.

Fuck me! Nine thought, as they rushed to the left wall. If even one of them reaches us, were dead!

Four zombies.

Between forced breathes he wondered if the number four would save them now.

Fours could go either way… according to Nine’s rules on numbers.

They reached the left wall and moved upward to escape the bling zombie’s range and not step into the fourth zombie’s reach.

The farthest feeder below them hit the limit of its chain and fell back.

That left three.

The next one who’s block they’d hid behind also hit its limit as it pulled at the chain around its neck in vain but stopped.

Two.

A fifth zombie from a block all the way to the right, behind the bling zombie, rushed toward them now. It was unclear whether its chain would reach. It didn’t matter. They had nowhere left to go but up along the wall.

Noises from above made the girl look up. At the top of the wall, several spectators started shouting down at them. Even an armed lunatic standing guard over this stretch of the course was getting involved in the excitement as he waved down at them. It was unclear whether they were all supporting the survivors or encouraging the dead to finish them off.

Nine suddenly stopped as the fourth zombie along the left side of the wall was closing in.

The girl ran right into him. “Why are we stopping?”

“We’re out of room,” Nine said. He looked to his right at the fifth zombie from the far right. It was also just about there.

The girl turned around to stare at the bling zombie. Dragging a trail of bloody intestines behind it, bling zombie was finally yanked back. The thing had reached its chain’s limit, five feet behind them. “There’s only two now!” she said.

Nine raised his arms defensively as the last two zombies raised its arms toward him. “Get behind me!” he shouted. Without a weapon, the odds of fending off both frantic beasts without getting scratched or bitten was slim. Just buy the girl time to get past them, asshole, he scolded himself. That’s your only damn job now. He buttoned the wrist sleeves of his jean jacket, wishing he’d been wearing leather instead. Nine raised his right forearm toward the closest zombie’s snapping jaw. This is going to hurt like a sonofabitch!

“When the first one reaches me, you run behind me and around!” he told the girl.

“What?”

“Stay against the wall! Don’t wait for me and don’t you dare look back!”

Both disgusting and disfigured creatures moved in, their long pale arms like dead tree branches reached out for Nine’s face. Their eyes, black and pushed back into their skeletal faces, showed no resemblance of life, only compulsion to feed. Their black and bloody teeth were exposed. A sickening alien-sounding moan escaped their open mouths from distorted and rotting vocal cords.

Nine raised his arm higher to cover his face. He was pushed back as close to the wall as he could manage without crushing the girl behind him.

I’m sorry, Diane. I tried. This was the best I could do.

The girl started to scream as the dead closed in.

Yank. Yank.

Both deadheads stopped a foot from Nine’s face as he lowered his arm to avoid being grabbed, their arms clawing at the air in front of his eyes. But they could go no farther.

Nine laughed nervously, staring into two pairs of savage dead eyes. They were hissing at him in frustration. They were so close he could smell they’re stale, rotted stench. The scent always reminded him of week-old garbage mixed with manure.

The girl looked cautiously out from behind Nine’s jacket. “Are… are we okay?”

The crowd at the top of the wall went wild as an answer. They were cheering down at them, some were swearing at the stupid zombies, but most were excited by the narrow escape.

“I’m starting to really hate this race,” Nine said. He stared past both monsters at the length of their chains. “They never intended anyone to get past these two,” he said. “Their chains are too long.”

“What do we do?”

“We have to move back down and out from the wall… then outrun them to the right,” he said. “We have the advantage because they’re slower, and chances are, they’ll get tangled up.”

“Okay,” the girl said. “Let’s do it. My feet are getting really cold.”

He laughed. “Want to borrow my week-old socks?”

“No… I’ve been smelling those nasty things since the maze.”

“Ouch,” he said. “Come on, they still smell better than these guys.”

“Barely,” she teased.

“Okay… time to go,” he said. “Watch out for that twisted-up intestines guy behind you. We still need to stay out of his range.”

They ran back and around, crossing from the left side of the chute over to the right. Just as Nine anticipated, the two zombies on extended chains got wrapped up in each other’s chains struggling to cross back over. They made it to the right side and climbed up past them both.

The remainder of the course was easier to maneuver as the chute leveled out near the top. There was also a spotlight in the area granting a full view of the dead spread out on shorter chains. They only needed to time their runs between them as they successfully completed the course, arriving at the top of the old ride.

The crowd cheered for them as they reached the top.
From there, they entered a small tunnel that leveled out, temporarily hiding them from the crowd. Harper’s men were already there greeting the winner of the Run, a tall man who looked half-alive, standing on a platform off to the left. No one had seen them approach yet. The girl recognized the man. He was one of the ones that had nearly run her over at the starting line and had come up the course from the other direction.

“That sucks,” the girl said. “I thought we won this thing.”

Nine hadn’t heard the girl. His attention was focused on a large door off to the right. It had a small window built into it. “Be right back,” he told her.

“Where are you going?”

Nine was already moving toward the door. There was a sign that said:

AUTHORIZED EMPLOYEES ONLY.

The door was locked. He managed to get a peek through the small window before Harper’s men noticed him. It was dark inside, but he saw concrete steps heading down. Nine smiled. Maintenance tunnel, he thought. It’s gotta go somewhere under this thing. His wheels were spinning.

“Hey!” one yelled. “Finish line’s over here!”

Nine turned and waved. “Sorry,” he called over. “We’re coming.” He quickly moved back toward the girl.

“What’s behind the door?” she asked.

Nine leaned in and said, “I’ve been wondering since before the Run how they get the dead in and out of here. I think they use that door to do it. There’s a long staircase behind it.”

“Okay. So what?”

Nine smiled. “They have to get the dead from somewhere on the outside and bring them safely in. I think what’s behind that door is how they do it.”

The girl was catching on. She nodded. “Like some kind of secret passageway into New Cleveland? Beneath the ride?”

“Or a way out,” Nine said.

“What… are you planning your great escape?” the girl teased.

Nine laughed. “Maybe.”

~~~

Once back at the pavilion, asshole Mike met them with his arms held open wide, a look of contempt barely hidden behind his fake smile.

“Well look at that,” he announced, “turns out you’re good at something after all.” Mike glanced over at his old runner and glared at her before quickly composing himself.

The girl shifted uncomfortably, staring at the ground as if surviving the Run was another bad mark against her.

Nine frowned and gently rubbed her shoulder. “Stay here,” he told her. “I’ll handle this. You’re going to be okay, I promised you that.”

The girl looked up gratefully and nodded.

Nine turned and walked up to the jerk. “And now you’ll want your money. Relax. I’ll get it for you… just, not tonight. I’m fucking shot.”

“We’re good,” the asshole said. “Was just checking up on you. You both cost me a small wager, but that’s on me. Besides, I more than made up for it with your winnings.”

Nine smiled. “Should’ve bet on the sure thing. That’s twice you’ve gone against me… and lost.”

Mike’s cheap smile fell away. “Enough of that. Let’s just get down to the business end of things, shall we?”

“Please… and hurry this up,” Nine said. “I’m so tired I might just forget myself and kick your ass… fuck the consequences.”

Mike laughed, stopping a safe five feet from him. He then looked down, bemused at Nine’s shoeless feet. “I’ll expect all your winnings tomorrow without delay. You can keep a little for yourself, of course. The shoes are on me.”

“You’re funny,” Nine said, feeling less threatening standing in his socks.

Mike frowned at the girl. “Also, there’s the matter of payment for that worthless piece of shit you rescued tonight.”

“Watch it,” Nine warned.

Mike’s smile resurfaced. “No matter. We’ll talk about that tomorrow.”

“She’s staying with me tonight,” Nine said. “You understand that, right?”

“Of course. I get it. You want to sample the goods before purchase. That’s fine. Do what you want with her tonight. I hope she’s worth something more than the bad luck she’s been to me.”

“You’re disgusting.”

Mike laughed and turned. “See you tomorrow. Don’t make me hunt you down.”

Nine gave him a fake smile than raised his middle finger to the man’s back, causing the girl to smirk. He looked over at her.

The girl immediately looked back down toward the ground, and said, “So, I guess that means I’m yours now.”

“It’s not like that,” he said. “And definitely not like what that big asshole was implying.”

“You bought me,” she said. “So, it’s definitely like everything else here.”

He caught her veiled insult and sighed heavily. “Look, we’ll talk about all that tomorrow. I’m just glad we’re still standing here. We beat that shit in there… together.”

She looked up and smiled. “We did, didn’t we?”

“Yeah, we did. You’re a good kid.” We’re going to beat the rest of this shit together, too.”

“What about right now?”

“Now,” Nine said with a laugh. “We head back to my little crappy shack and get some sleep. But first, you owe me big time and I mean to collect.”

She nodded, an emotionless look settling in on her face. “I get it. Whatever you want. Take me to your… shack… and-”

“No!” Nine said, standing up. “Hell no! I wasn’t talking about that! I’m not some freaky pervert! Man, what’s wrong with everyone in this town?”

“Then… what did you mean?”

He put his hands to his hips and said, “You owe me big time, so how about finally telling me your name?”

The girl’s eyebrows shot up. “That’s it? That’s all you wanted?”

“Yeah. That’s all I wanted… duh.”

This made the girl laugh. She nodded. “Okay. My name’s… Joelle.” She said the last as if not hearing it spoken out loud in a long time and trying it back on for the first time.

The look she gave him made Nine sad. He nodded and repeated it. “Joelle. I like that. From now on, no one’s calls you anything else… are we clear… Joe?”

She stared up at him in surprise. “My… my father… he called me that.”

“I’m sorry. Do you prefer Joelle?”

“No… Joe’s fine.”

“Okay, Joe it is.”

She smiled at him and nodded.

“And you can just call me Nine. And I don’t want to hear any more talk about that ‘me owning you crap’. No one owns you, kid. You got that?”

She flashed him a fierce smile. “Name’s Joe, not kid, asshole.”

Nine busted up laughing. “That’s the spirit!”

“Your name’s still stupid, though,” she added.

“Hey! Now, you’re pushing it,” he teased.

“What happens now?” she said.

Nine considered the question. He finally smiled and said, “Now, we get some sleep. But tomorrow, I’ll need you to do a little running for me. Can you do that?”

She looked a little offended. “Yeah, I’m the best.”

“I thought so. I have a delivery run for you and you’ll need to be… discreet about it.”

“Sounds fun,” she said.

Nine got serious. “I’ll be counting on you now. What I’ll be asking you to do from here on out could get us both in trouble. Can I trust you?”

“Yes,” she quickly said. “And… I’m getting used to the trouble part.” She added a wink.

Nine smiled. “Yeah, I guess I had that coming.”

“What’s the errand?”

“We’ll talk about it in the morning,” he said with a sly expression. “But you’ll probably not like it as much as you think, considering how me met.”

Joe gave him a suspicious look and waited for more.

“Later,” he said. “Come on. Let’s get out of here. My feet are freezing.”

~~~

Next Episode 50-8

Previous Episode 50-6

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 50-7: Amusement” 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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