~~~

Nine woke beneath an overturned rusted merry-go-round buried in tall weeds near the eastern shore of Geauga Lake, somewhere to the southeast of the fight pits. He felt sluggish, disoriented, and every muscle in his body ached from pushing hard to avoid being captured before dawn.

The morning light stung his eyes. He lifted his muck-covered hands to cover his face. The smell of the heavily polluted lake made his stomach turn. Get up… and move! he scolded himself. You’re still alive. That’s still gotta count for something.

He reluctantly crawled out from beneath the merry-go-round, expecting to be shot the moment he was exposed. Nothing happened. Nine sat up and scanned his surroundings. On the far east side of New Cleveland, between the shoreline and the perimeter wall about fifty yards farther east, there was nothing but swamp and a small forest where the tree canopy above concealed all beneath. Mother Nature had reclaimed this small strip of land, not worth developing due to flooding during the winter months. It was probably the most remote section of town, and unfortunately for Nine, the farthest away from where he needed to be.

Nine sat on a small sand dune surrounded by knee-high water and tall grass. He could see other pieces of old playground equipment half submerged in water and weeds. Behind him, beneath the trees, a few rotted out picnic tables lay in ruins, scattered about the area. Clearly, this was once some beachside oasis placed in a remote corner of the former amusement park where families could get away from the more congested areas and enjoy swimming in the lake, perhaps have a picnic and regain their sanity before returning to the main hub of continuous activity and noise that had once dominated the rest of the park.

Nine had followed an old trail around the north side of the lake, which brought him here. He’d only intended on resting a few minutes, giving him time to formulate a plan to get back to the others, but had collapsed from exhaustion instead.

He peeked out between the tall reeds swaying in a light breeze and gazed at the old lake. Despite the smell, the view from where he sat seemed serene and out of place. He felt like a man viewing a forgotten paradise, out of sync with time, hidden in between two worlds—the former amusement park of the past, and the notorious post-apocalyptic New Cleveland of today. It made him smile, despite his grim circumstances, giving him a much-needed boost. Nine closed his eyes and listened to the wind rustle the surrounding leaves and tall grasses. I could almost forget I’m still inside this fucking town if I stayed right here long enough. A part of him wanted to do just that. The prospect of returning to the chaos that awaited, terrified him.

He opened his eyes and sighed heavily. “I’m all they have left,” he reminded himself. “It’s up to me now to figure this shit out.” The spoken declaration brought the truth crashing home. Last night before dawn, and everything that happened after, was a nightmare he couldn’t wake from.

Nine thought back to last night, trying to process everything that had happened: After parting ways with Joe, he’d attempted to reach the parking garage to warn Tony and Diane of Taven’s treachery. He’d never even made it to the First-Aid Station.

The Lunatics had been quietly moving in and surrounding the area. Nine had come in behind them, watching everything play out from a distance. The Lunatics had hidden patrols near the station and at every approach toward the parking garage. There was no way Nine could get close. Instead, he was forced to watch the whole scene play out. He’d heard gunfire from the garage. He’d watched the Lunatics rush in like a large hand slowly closing. He’d even seen that horrible woman, Briana, orchestrating events outside, before the gunfire started. The worst part was that he didn’t know if they were already dead, not until he caught a glimpse of Tony and Diane being escorted up the ramp to the roof.

After that, everything had become a blur. That was when the theater exploded.

He remembered being spotted trying to backtrack and get to Joe. The Lunatics had chased him all over the place, forcing him to run down alleys, through fields, and finally pinning him in toward the lake. Everywhere he’d turned, another patrol was moments from spotting him. He’d managed to avoid notice and make it around the northern end of the lake. The farther east he’d traveled, the less patrols there were. Nine attributed that to the theater explosion and the rush to get patrols over on the west side to put out the fire and police the area. From there, he’d found a drunk man sleeping beneath a boardwalk. He’d stolen the passed-out man’s filthy long coat, which had a hood attached. Adequately disguised, he’d continued along the shore of the lake, trying to avoid being spotted by Lunatics perched along the wall and up in the rollercoaster towers, until finally arriving in this forest.

It was midmorning. It had been hours since Tony and Diane’s capture. He had no idea where Wendy, Sergeant Hash, or Joe were, or what awaited him once he started back west.

“I told her to wait for me near the pavilion,” he said. “Just find Joe. Maybe by then, if you haven’t been caught yet, some wonderful, brilliant plan will materialize to help me with the rest.” Determined to keep his promise to Joe, and not let everything else overwhelm him, Nine gathered himself, pulling the hood up over his head, and decided to keep following the lake around to the south, headed west. If I can get to the marketplace district without being seen, maybe I can hide in plain sight among the crowds.

The young man, momentarily displaced from time, departed the ancient summer picnic area from a deceased world and reentered the danger zone of New Cleveland—a world about to be ripped apart.

~~~

The marketplace district of New Cleveland was in chaos. Everywhere, people were gathering in groups, like gangs, suspiciously guarding their territories after the explosion of the theater. Distrust toward each other and especially toward the authorities who were viewed as failing to maintain the security and comfort they’d grown accustomed to, permeated the air. Tempers flared, fights ignited in the streets, and most businesses refused to open in fear of looters and the sudden increase in violent activities.

Lunatic patrols, usually monitoring daily affairs from a distance, now penetrated the crowds in force, adding more fuel to the fire by arresting citizens for the slightest offences. Anyone raising their voices in protest or even staring too long in the Lunatics’ direction were immediately seized and dragged away. In some cases, the Lunatics even provoked confrontations just to have an excuse to make more arrests.

No one was whispering any longer. Dark rumors ran wild around town concerning the leader of New Cleveland losing control of his town and no longer able to maintain order. This caused a fresh surge of fear and panic, as citizens started packing up their few belongings, looking to depart New Cleveland and lining up outside the front gates with wagons and carts, like a medieval traffic jam.

Nine maneuvered through the fearful crowd, avoiding all skirmishes between the Lunatics and the people, and taking advantage of the distractions to escape notice.

Finally, he arrived at the casino pavilion, looking for a reprieve from the madness that had taken hold of the town, only to discover more disruption in the flow of normal business activities. The pavilion was packed with people looking for anywhere safe to gather where the anger and violence hadn’t infected yet.

Nine glanced into the faces of frightened and confused citizens in passing who saw him approach and immediately tensed up, got quiet, and tried not to make eye-contact. He lowered his hood over his face, hoping to avoid being recognized, and scanned tired faces for his friends, especially Joe. He hadn’t needed to stop by Ollie’s Oasis, which was on the way. All he had to do was glance toward the long line of pissed off patrons waiting outside Herbie’s front door to understand that the bar had not opened for business. Wendy and Herbie had either been arrested or they were already in hiding after discovering what had happened. And if the Lunatics wanted to set another trap, the Oasis was the perfect place to hide a patrol waiting inside.

Nine arrived at the crowded Black Jack tables, but no one was playing cards. He searched everywhere he could think of, excluding his own small trailer, which was surely another trap. Still, no Joe.

Where the hell are you? he thought. Nine could see the entrance to Harper’s Run at the back of another sheep-like crowd. No one would be racing today. He stopped and stared up at the course. Could she already be in there? Maybe she had no choice but to make a run for that door by herself? The thought scared him senseless, like a parent concerned for his child left all alone.

“Ho… ly… shit! Is that you smelling up the place, pansy?”

Nine tensed up at the voice coming from behind him, then rolled his eyes. Not now. He turned around.

Asshole Mike stood in front of him, his hands to his side, and smiling like a damn idiot.

Nine flashed him a crooked smile. “What do you want?” he said. “Aren’t you on the wrong side of casino? I thought Black Jack was small potatoes to you.”

“Damn… that is you!” he said. “What the hell are you wearing? Shit… you really do smell horrendous!”

“Fuck off, Mike,” Nine said. “This is not a good time for your bullshit.”

“Obviously,” he said. “Town’s all screwed up on account of that explosion last night. Hell, I can’t get a game started to save my life! No one wants to play cards. They all just want to bitch and cry like babies. Then I saw you, and thought, ‘Hell… might as well have a little fun.’”

“Gee, I’m flattered you consider time with me… fun,” Nine said sarcastically.

Mike laughed. “Seriously, though, what the fuck? You look like someone trying to hide?”

“Leave it alone,” Nine warned. “I’m in no mood for this… not today.”

Mike raised his hands. “Okay. Okay. I understand. Everyone’s on edge today. It’s crazy shit. I’ve heard all kinds of talk that you wouldn’t believe.”

Nine stared at him suspiciously. “What have you heard?”

“Well, for starters, Candyman’s authorized his patrols to go around town and arrest tons of people. Doesn’t matter what for, just as long as it’s being done.”

“Why’s that?”

Mike laughed. “Something about that theater blowing up has got the boss all anxious about replenishing supplies… if you know what I mean.”

Nine was stone. “No… what the hell do you mean?”

Mike’s eyebrows shot up. “Seriously? You’ve never heard the stories? Fuck me, you really are a clueless wonder, aren’t you?”

“Perhaps. Why don’t you just tell me.”

Mike looked around nervously, then leaned in. “Okay… well… there’s an old tale about how Candyman’s been sending human shipments over to some lake outside of here. It’s said that there’s a fucking horde over there that’s so large you can’t even count ‘em. Anyway, the story goes, he made a deal with those freaks to keep them from attacking New Cleveland. He sends them trucks full of people and in exchange, the monsters stay away from here. Not that I believe any of that shit, of course. It’s just a story. I’m really surprised you don’t know that one.”

“What do you mean he’s ‘anxious about replenishing supplies’?” Nine pushed

“I was getting to that,” Mike said, looking around again. “I’ve got sources that tell me that the theater that blew up last night, was anything but a fucking theater.”

Nine waited.

“I’m told that, if those silly stories are true, then the theater was where Candyman was keeping the… you know… ‘merchandise’.”

“‘Merchandise’?”

“Come on! Do I have to spell it out for you? That’s where he’s been keeping all the people that get shipped out!”

Nine was stunned. “You mean… at the theater?”

“Yeah, dipshit! Whoever blew that place up last night, blew up a shit load of people being stored there… or so I’ve heard.”

Nine felt dizzy. Fucking Taven! That’s what he was after all along! And we heard them! Me and Joe fucking heard them moaning from that fucking hole!

“You okay, pansy? You don’t look well.”

“I’m fine,” Nine said. “So, you’re telling me Candyman’s been rounding up people all morning for another shipment?”

“I didn’t say that,” he said with a wink. “And if you say I did, I’ll deny it. Not that anyone would believe your sorry ass. It’s just a fucking rumor.”

Nine nodded. “Okay. Are you done having fun with me? Because I’ve got shit to-”

“Hold on,” Mike said. “I get that everything’s all fucked-up today, but that doesn’t change the fact that we’ve got business to conclude. I figured you would’ve brought it up by now.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?”

“Wow… really? The girl… dumb ass. You know, the one you’re so hung up on? We we’re supposed to meet this morning and seal the deal about me selling her to you… unless you’ve changed your mind.”

Nine’s head was spinning. Then he remembered. “Shit… that deal. Yeah… with all this crazy shit happening today, I totally forgot. Let’s discuss this later, once things settle down.”

Mike shook his head, his face filled with mock concern. “Wow, you couldn’t wait yesterday, and now, you’re all different. Well, I guess that works for me since what I really had to tell you was that the deal’s off.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m afraid things have changed that will greatly affect me selling you the runner.”

Nine waited.

“You see,” Mike continued, “I may not own for much longer.”

Nine stepped closer to the asshole. “You sold her to someone else?”

“No… no… I wouldn’t do that. We had a deal, and I intended on keeping it. It’s just that Candyman’s been earnest about arresting people for anything, and I thought, ‘Shit, what if it gets around that that little runt was stealing for me on the side? Would he arrest me, too?’ So, I did the only respectable thing a man in my position could do under the circumstances… since, technically, she is still my property.” He smiled at Nine, like a man who just won a sweet bet.

Nine took another threatening step toward the man. “Have you seen her? What have you done to Joe?”

Mike took a step back. “Back off!” he said, becoming uncomfortable. “I had her arrested for thievery! Turned her in myself after I ran into her early this morning.”

“You did what?” Nine balled his fists.

Mike laughed. “Didn’t see that coming, did you? I was looking for a way to get back at you, but when I heard about the arrests, and then that girl just showed up in the pavilion… I couldn’t refuse such a perfect opportunity.”

“So, you had her arrested… for thievery… when you were the one making her steal shit?”

“Yes,” he said. “And the timing for it couldn’t be any more fitting. I get to finally rid myself of that little runt… and get back at you, too! And I never breached our agreement. She was still mine this morning, and it was within my rights to protect myself. Everyone knows that when a runner starts a streak of bad luck for the owner, that streak continues. So, I took care of it. But, if they release her, then I’ll still sell her to you… as agreed. But I can’t imagine that happening, not with everything going on today… especially after the hangings.”

“I’m sorry… did you just say… ‘hangings’?”

Mike’s smile faded. He saw something in Nine’s face that disturbed him. He took another step back, losing all motivation to gloat. “Yeah. With the explosion last night, and then the replenishing detail with all the arrests, Candyman knew he needed to deal with all the unrest in town. So, as he’s done in the past to get the people back in line, he ordered a public hanging earlier this morning, although I think it just made matters worse. I’m surprised you didn’t see them on the way over here, swinging from that fucking coaster. From what I understand, it’s the most he’s ever done at once. At least twenty people.”

Nine was boiling over with anger… no… rage. It took all he had to turn from the vindictive asshole and walk away, but if Mike had spoken one more word, Nine was certain he would’ve turned back around and beat him to death, right there in the pavilion.

Asshole Mike sensed something off about the young man’s demeanor and stopped talking as he watched Nine abruptly leave and rush out of the pavilion. Remaining silent was the best bet he’d made all morning.

~~~

As Nine pushed his way through the indifferent and uneasy crowd, he could already make out the serpent’s largest hump, rising over the marketplace district. He could see twenty indistinguishable bodies, swaying from lines suspended down from the top of the Big Dipper.

I never even noticed, he thought. I came in from the lake, on the opposite side of the coaster… I was so afraid of getting caught… I never even looked up!

A chill seized him as he maneuvered around citizens to get a closer view, reminded of one his first impressions of New Cleveland, sitting in the back of a truck with Diane when they were first escorted into town.

Diane.

He tried desperately to deny what his fears wanted him to believe.

No! No fucking way! My fucking friends are ‘not’ hanging up there!

He needed his eyes to confirm it… and yet… a part of him was afraid to get any closer.

Nine stopped in the center of a busy street. He stared upward and could make them all out now—men and women, suspended upside down from the coaster like an offering to the beast above. He quickly looked away, closing his eyes and shaking his head.

You need to look, asshole, he reminded himself. You need to know for sure.

Nine took a deep breath, opened his eyes, and started scanning the suspended bodies from left to right.

Relief mixed with guilt started to slowly fill him as he glanced into each dead and unfamiliar face.

No Tony. No Diane. No Wendy…

Nine gasped as he neared the end of the horrific display and gazed into the face of a familiar overweight man, spinning upside down in the breeze.

Fuck me! That’s Herbie!

Then his eyes went wide as he noticed a much smaller form initially obscured by the dead bartender.

“No…” he whispered.

As Herbie spun and swayed to the left, a young girl wearing a camo jacket appeared. Her shoulder-length blue hair blew wildly in the wind, mercifully covering most of her pale, dead face.

Nine dropped to his knees and put his hands over his mouth. He couldn’t look away from Joe, suspended from the coaster—couldn’t believe his eyes. But his heart was way ahead of him. Nine felt something break within as he lost control, fell forward in the dirt, and starting sobbing in the middle of the street.

Citizens maneuvered around him with annoyance, oblivious to the young man’s grief.

Nine didn’t care about the attention he was attracting, or about being captured.

He only thought about Joe.

A small Lunatic patrol was headed toward him from the opposite direction.

Someone stepped up to them, said words, then pointed toward Nine.

The leader of the patrol looked annoyed but ordered the others to follow him and check on this newest disturbance.

Nine never saw them approach.

Joe… I’m so fucking sorry…

The patrol could see the young man now. To them, Nine appeared to be praying in the middle of the damn roadway.

The Lunatic leader shook his head, pointed to Nine, then ordered, “Take this one, too. He’ll complete our quota for the day.”

Four face-painted men rudely pushed their way through the crowd as they moved in to arrest the grieving man.

That was when the sky erupted with the most horrific sound anyone in New Cleveland had ever heard.

The Lunatics stopped. The crowd became silent.

From all around them, somewhere outside New Cleveland’s walls, it sounded like the moans and howls of a million maniacs had just merged into one terrifying scream that went on for ten long seconds.

And then all went silent.

Sergeant Hash would have recognized it immediately.

It was the war cry of the dead.

~~~

Next Episode 52-6

Previous Episode 52-4

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 52-5: Sodom” 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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Comments
  1. alikolino says:

    He lowered his hood over her face

    *his face

    Like

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