~~~

“…But sometimes, we discover friendship in the strangest situations…”

~~~

“You look a little flush,” Nadia said, as Diane entered her trailer, a little winded, and sat down. The tall blond sat beside her. “You weren’t gone very long. Tell me the jacket wasn’t a prelude to Nine breaking up with you.” She shook her head. “Men like to do stupid shit like that. They think a kind gesture, or a gift softens the blow and makes them look better for being the bad guys.”

“No,” Diane said. “Nothing like that.” She gave Nadia a probing glance.

“What?” she said. “Why are staring at me like that?”

“No more bullshit,” she started. “You know more than you pretend to know. Like Nine, for example. You knew before I told you, that we were together. You must have known. Just like you probably know a lot about me and my friends. And yet, you just sat there when I showed you the jacket, acting like it was big surprise who it come from.”

Nadia looked stunned. She gave Diane an equaling probing glance. “What brought this on? I thought we were friends before you left this trailer a short while ago. Now… now you’re acting like I did something wrong?”

Diane shook her head. “I’m just… well… I’m just short on time. In a few hours from now, everything’s going to change, and I need to know that I can really trust you.”

Nadia rose and crossed her arms in front of her chest. “I see,” she said. “You think I’m working for ‘the man’ and pumping you for information, that it?”

“I don’t know,” Diane answered honestly. “I don’t want to believe that, but you are sleeping with the leader of this place.”

“Fuck you, Diane.” Nadia turned and started to pace. “If I haven’t earned your trust by now, especially after last night, then I probably never will.”

“You do know more. I know you do.”

“Yeah, maybe I do,” Nadia spat. “You don’t sleep with the leader of New Cleveland and not hear things. But that doesn’t mean I don’t care about you, or what happens to your friends. In fact, I went out of my way to avoid talking to you about them just so you wouldn’t stare at me like you’re doing now! So, I played stupid about the details. So what? That doesn’t make me any less your friend. Maybe I just wanted you to tell me what you felt comfortable telling me. That way, you never had to question my loyalty.”

“I want to believe that,” Diane said with a heavy sigh.

“But you don’t want to risk your friend’s lives on it,” Nadia finished.

Diane nodded.

Nadia started to calm down. “That’s fair. You’re still a bitch for confronting me like this, but I do understand.” She sat back down. “You’re not the only one taking risks here, you know. I’ve made myself vulnerable opening up to you, too.”

“I know you have,” Diane said. “That’s why I’m doing this now.”

“You mean interrogating me?”

“Call it what you want,” Diane said. “But I have to know what this is between us.”

Nadia leaned back and laughed. “What you lack in social graces you certainly make up for in your no-bullshit attitude. But it still hurts to have a friend question your motives.”

“I know.” Diane looked away.

“Go ahead, then. Ask me what you must. I can’t guarantee I’ll satisfy your suspicions.”

“How much do you know about me and my friends?” Diane pushed.

Nadia sighed. “I know you’ve all been meeting out in the open, as often as you can… just like today. Candyman knows that, too. He’s not stupid… and he certainly doesn’t need me to tell him with the number of eyes he has on you and your friends. I also know that you deliberately kept that from me, when you shared some of that note you found in your jacket.”

Diane stared.

“Come on,” Nadia said, disbelievingly. “It was written all over your face. As soon as you started reading it, you couldn’t wait to put that letter away, acting like I might dare ask you more about it. So, I didn’t. But I knew what it was then, and I still helped you.”

“Yes, you did,” Diane admitted. “But I know how clever you are, too.”

“That’s right, you do,” Nadia added sarcastically. “That’s why as soon as you left, I sent my escorts to follow you to your little lunch meeting, so they could listen in like flies on the wall.”

Diane raised her eyebrows. “Now who’s being the bitch?”

“Well, you got that one right,” Nadia said. “Guilty as charged.”

Diane smiled. “What else do you know?”

“Does it matter?”

“Maybe.”

Nadia shook her head. “Okay. I know about your map beneath the mattress and how every time you go out, you scout the area, looking for every possible avenue to escape New Cleveland.”

Diane said nothing.

“It’s sitting right next to that home-made knife of yours. You know, the one you’ve considered smuggling into Candyman’s trailer some night, hoping to get a chance at slitting his throat.”

Diane tensed up.

Nadia laughed. “Oh, come on! Seriously? As soon as you left me here, first thing I did was snoop around your place to find out what I could about you. The mattress is the first place anyone would look to find something hidden.”

“Why would you do that?”

She stared at her like she was the biggest idiot. “Because, like you, I also have trust issues!” She averted her eyes. “And… I may have revealed too much about how I feel concerning you… at least… to myself.”

Diane felt blindsided. “You mean…”

“Yeah, you harsh bitch! Are you happy now? Do I need to spell it out for you?”

The hunter didn’t know what to say. “I… I didn’t suspect that. I mean… you and I being women…”

“Oh, just shut up!” Nadia hissed. “You’re just making an awkward situation much worse. I knew you didn’t feel the same about me. I knew you had a ‘man’. But that didn’t change the way I felt.”

“Tell me what to say?”

Nadia laughed. “Damn… you sound just like a man.”

Diane laughed.

“Don’t flatter yourself,” Nadia chimed in. “That wouldn’t necessarily make you the ‘alpha male’ in our hypothetical relationship.”

This made Diane shift uncomfortably.

“That was joke.”

“Okay.”

Nadia sighed. “So… there you go. My big embarrassing secret’s out. Although, honestly, the signs were all there, girlfriend.”

“I guess… I guess I’m out of practice?” Diane gave her a puzzled face.

This made Nadia crack up. She covered her mouth to keep from being too loud.

Diane smiled, feeling a little more at ease.

Nadia calmed down. “You wanted to know my motives… my agenda? That’s it.”

“But you know we can’t… I mean… I can’t-”

“No shit,” Nadia interrupted. “We’ve covered that already. All I’m saying is that my feelings for you are… genuine. Everything else I’ve done, revealed or kept to myself, has just been my failed attempts to get you to… care about me, too.”

“I believe you,” Diane said. After an uncomfortably uneasy and equaling confusing few moments, she added, “I do care about you… just not in that way.

Nadia smiled. “So, I guess a little light petting is out of the question?”

Diane rolled her eyes. “Stop.”

“Although I wouldn’t object to some hard-core girl-on-girl tongue action below the waist.”

Diane gave her a disbelieving look, her face turning three-shades of red. “Please… quit it!”

Nadia had to cover her mouth again as she fell back and rolled on her side of the bed and laughed.

Diane immediately moved over as far as she could without falling off the edge. “This was not the conversation I expected… at all.”

This just made Nadia laugh harder.

Diane stood up and glared at her.

“Sorry,” Nadia said, sitting up and finally calming down. “I couldn’t help it.”

“Okay.” Diane took a deep breath. “Now that we’ve… I don’t know what you want to call it… established our feelings for one another, I’ve made a decision.”

Nadia looked excited. “About the light petting or the carpet munching?”

Diane closed her eyes. God, please kill me now.

“My bad,” Nadia said, barely keeping herself from losing it again. She raised her hand. “I mean it this time. I’ll behave… unless you want me to be… bad.”

The hunter glared at her.

Nadia said no more. But her coy eyes spoke volumes.

Diane attempted to move on. “I’m going to trust you.”

Nadia’s face turned from playful to mildly disappointed. “Okay. What does that mean now?”

Diane gave her a long, hard look before continuing. “It means that me and my friends are about to do something very dangerous tonight… and I’m going to need your help.”

The tall blond got serious. She sat straight up and said, “What do you mean by ‘dangerous’?”

“We’re getting out of here, Nadia. And if you care about me like you say you do, then you’ll help me.”

“When you say ‘we’… you mean-”

“All of us,” Diane corrected. “You and me… and my friends.”

“Out there?” she said. “I can’t do that!”

“Why not?”

Nadia shook her head at her. “Look at me! Do I look like someone who’d last five minutes on the outside?”

Diane smiled and said with complete confidence, “Yes. You do.”

Nadia was beaming.

“In fact,” the hunter continued, “I believe you’d do better than most outside these walls. There’s a strength in you to do whatever you had to do in here to survive… and I’m telling you… you can survive out there, too.”

“With you, and your friends?”

“Yes.”

Nadia stared at her and sighed. She smiled and said, “My God, you just make it hard for me to say ‘no’.”

“Will you help us, then?”

Nadia looked down into her lap, then back up at the hunter. “What do you need me to do?”

“Like I said, it’s going to be dangerous.”

“I don’t care about that,” Nadia dismissed. “It’s always dangerous in here. Just tell me… how can I help?”

“I’ll need two things.”

“Name it,” the tall blond said, rising to her feet.

“First, I need you to find someone for me. One of my friends.”

Nadia nodded. “You’re mean the sergeant?”

“Yes.”

“I know where he is.”

Diane’s eyes lit up. “Can we get to him?”

“No,” Nadia said. “We can’t. But I can.” She stepped forward. “Let me get him out for you. Then you’ll know I meant everything I said.”

Diane hesitated. Finally, she said, “Okay. But you need to be careful. I… I don’t want you to get hurt.”

Nadia smiled. “You’re getting better at this.”

“At what?”

“Being the man?”

“Stop it.”

“Sorry. What else do you need?”

Diane smiled. “A make-up case, preferably with a lot of white face paint.”

Nadia gave her a puzzled look. “O-kay. That one’s easy. I can have that to you in an hour. How about you ‘paint’ the rest of this strange picture for me and tell me what the hell’s about to happen?”

“Sit down,” Diane said. “This will take a few minutes.”

“I’m getting excited again,” Nadia teased.

“I didn’t mean that!” Diane said.

~~~

“…Other times, we meet friends who bring out something in ourselves we never knew was there…”

~~~

“Where the hell have you been?”

Joe ran a hand through a lock of blue hair, throwing it back away from her defiant eyes. “Sorry, Dad, I didn’t know I had to have your approval for my every action.”

Nine briefly considered grabbing the punk girl by the back of her hair and dragging her back to the pavilion. “I told you to come right back here. If Asshole Mike had seen you-”

“I know, I know. I was careful. I took the long way back around,” she said. The girl kept playing with the collar of her new mercenary jacket. “It’s a little big for me,” she said, regarding the green coat, “but I like it. What do you think?”

“What?” Nine said, distracted and confused by the change in conversation. He scanned the area around the Black Jack tables.

“The jacket,” Joe said. “Your girlfriend gave it to me in the trade. I think I made out alright.”

Nine glared at her. “That’s all you have to say? Tell me what happened?”

“I did what you said and delivered the jacket,” she said. “Had a hard time finding her. You didn’t tell me your girlfriend was a dude.”

Again, Nine was confused. “A ‘dude’? What the hell does that mean?”

“First, I thought you forgot to tell me Diane was blond. I found the woman in the fancy dress, just like you said, but then I realized it wasn’t her.”

“Blond-haired woman? Diane’s not blond.”

“I figured that out, genius,” Joe said. “Then Diane, dressed like some dude, followed me through the crowd. I was about to run off… but then I saw her hair and realized ‘she’ was the ‘dude’.”

Nine shook his head. “Okay. So, you’re telling me Diane was dressed in some kind of disguise, and that there was a blond woman with her?”

“Man, you ask a lot of questions. Yeah. A tall woman. She was attractive-as-hell, too.”

“Okay, did Diane say anything about the tall woman after you gave her the jacket?”

“No. She just wanted me to tell you that she loved you… mushy shit like that.”

Nine nodded. “Well… I think she told us about the tall woman. It’s her friend on the inside.”

Joe sighed. “If you knew that already, then why are you asking all these pointless questions?”

“I had to make sure she wasn’t being watched,” Nine said, and then added with a glare, “And that my runner was being followed or detained afterwards. You had me worried.”

“Sorry,” she said, averting her eyes. “I had… things to do… before coming back.”

“Did you steal anything?”

“No,” she lied. “Okay… maybe a little.”

Nine shook his head at her. “Doesn’t matter now. Lots of things are happening… and I’m just glad I found you first.”

“This is about your little lunch meeting?” Joe said.

“Yeah,” Nine said.

“What’s wrong? You look… weird.”

Nine stared at the girl long enough to make her feel uncomfortable, then said, “I’ve been trying to find a way to keep you out of what’s going down tonight. But I don’t trust you to stay out of trouble… so… you’re coming with me.”

“Where are we going?”

“You and I are meeting up with my friends later tonight. I’m going to need your special skill set for what happens after.”

Joe looked intrigued. “Late night? You mean, past curfew?”

“Yep. Do you know where Splash Landing is?”

Joe’s face went pale. “Why the hell would you want to go there? That place is haunted. Everyone knows that.”

“That’s why we’re going there,” Nine said. “It’s the perfect place to have a secret meeting where no one will be watching.”

Joe shifted her feet. “Fuck that. I’m out.”

“Language,” Nine scolded.

Joe rolled her eyes.

“Anyway. We won’t be there long. We’re picking up… a package… then headed off with my friend’s contact to another place… to deliver ‘said’ package.”

Joe laughed. “You suck at this whole ‘cryptic’ speaking thing. Why don’t you just tell me what you’re talking about?”

“Not here. Too many eyes and ears.”

“Are we about to do something… dangerous?” Joe’s face lit up.

Nine laughed. “You’d like that?”

“Hell yeah! This place is boring as shit.”

Nine stared up toward the sky. “The kids today,” he told no one. “Anything for a quick thrill.”

Joe stared up. “Who you talking to?”

“Doesn’t matter,” Nine said. He smiled at her. “If it’s something dangerous and exciting you’re after, then I have just the place for you.”

“I’m down with that,” she said. “Just not that creepy haunted place.”

“How would you feel about going ‘out there’?” He nodded toward the closest wall surrounding New Cleveland.

“You serious?”

“Yeah. Me and my friends are leaving this boring-ass town. That’s what’s going down after tonight.”

A mixture of excitement and fear crossed the young girl’s face. To Nine, she had the look of someone
reliving her own haunted experience.

“What’s the matter?” he said.

“My parents… they died just outside those walls.”

“I’m sorry,” Nine said. “I didn’t know.”

She nodded. “They fought like hell to get us here. Thought this place was going to save the damn day. They were wrong.”

Nine felt for the girl. He put a hand on her shoulder. “Yeah… I’m sure lots of people came here and thought the same thing. When you’re desperate, anywhere there’s people, especially in a place like this with walls surrounding it… seems safe.”

She nodded, then lowered her head, letting her hair fall back over her face to hide fresh tears… but old ones. “I watched them die,” she said. “I was afraid. I didn’t know what to do when the monsters came. The Lunatics gunned them all down… eventually. But they came out of nowhere. My parents, they shoved me under our piece-of-shit car. I heard them scream… saw their bodies fall to the ground right next to me. My mother… my mother turned to me, even while they tore her apart, and put her finger to her mouth, telling me to stay quiet… so the monsters wouldn’t see me there.”

Nine swallowed hard. He pulled the girl close to him and knelt in front of her. He brushed Joe’s blue hair out of her face and wiped the tears of her cheek with his thumb. “You don’t have to tell me the rest. I know it hurts.”

She wouldn’t look at him. “I just remember my mother’s eyes. They were so… full of terror… she was looking right at me when she died. I saw the light go out… and then she was gone.”

“Look at me,” Nine said.

Joe raised her head and saw tears streaming down his face.

Nine opened his arms.

Joe started to sob and reach out for him.

Nine embraced her. “It’s okay now. I understand,” he whispered. “I’ve seen my friends… my family… I’ve seen them die, too. It’s not easy out there—It’s not easy anywhere anymore.”

“I want to go home,” she said through tears. “Can you take me home?”

Nine’s heart went out to her. “Damn,” he said, wiping the tears out of his own eyes. “You’re killing me, kid.”

“I hate this place,” she said. “There’s nothing here… nothing to remind me of… them.”

“I hear you,” he said. “It’s… it’s not right… this place is just not right.”

“Are the… are the monsters still out there?”

Nine didn’t know how to respond. So, he told her the truth. “Yeah. Those monsters are still out there… but they’re not everywhere. Me and my friends… we’ve learned to fight against them… together.” He paused, then added, “I want you to come with me. You can be part of my new family. I promise, they’re really great. We look out for each other.”

She nodded in his arms. “Sounds nice. You think they’ll like me?”

Nine laughed. “Oh, you’ll fit right in. Trust me.”

Joe said nothing for a while, then added, “Can you… will I be able to go home?”

“Maybe,” Nine said. “Anything’s possible once we get the hell out of here.”

“I know… I know it isn’t really ‘home’ anymore,” Joe said. “I’m not the stupid, terrified girl I used to be… like on that day. I know there won’t be anyone… I just need to see it. Maybe get a few things so I can remember my parents’ faces again.”

Nine frowned. “Yeah… maybe we can do that.” He felt the girl’s arms tighten around his shoulders.

He thought about his dead brother and his own parents. Nine struggled to remember their faces.

~~~

Next Episode 51-5

Previous Episode 51-3

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 51-4: The Desperation Factor” 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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