~~~

The trek from the rear of Ollie’s Oasis, heading north and away from the marketplace district and into the amusement park ruins just south of the lake, was absolutely terrifying. Nine led the group of shocked New Cleveland citizens into the aftermath of an area that looked like it had been ripped apart and gutted by the savage dead. Every trailer and plywood constructed shop door had been partially torn from hinges or removed entirely. Windows had been shattered. Bloody footprints ranging from bare feet to boots and sneakers were scattered around every entrance, staining every porch like wild muddy animal tracks after a storm. Trails of blood exited every shop, leading into the center of streets where thicker pools of blood lay congealing in the late morning sun. There were no bodies left behind, at least, nothing resembling human corpses. Arms, limbs, organs, heads… all were scattered everywhere like unwanted leftovers tossed out after feasting.

They had been fortunate to slip through this ravaged area undetected while bombarded by screams from fresh kills, sporadic gunfire and the raging howls of the dead coming from adjacent streets. Nine could see trails of black smoke spiraling up toward the sky as parts of New Cleveland burned indifferently.

When they cleared the last street, ducking in between two blood covered trailers, the survivors stepped down into a small field of waist-high tall grass and weeds hiding various rusted amusement park debris where only the imagined screams from the long deceased could reach their ears.

Nine squinting at every disfigured shape in between swaying reeds, expecting it to move, and then discovering another rusted attraction. They’d passed an ancient bumper car, an overturned rollercoaster chair, and a disturbing clown caricature statue that was missing half its face, revealing an exaggerated smile full of dirty teeth. The statue had a hand raised, appearing to wave between the blowing weeds —its smile made it look insane. In its other hand was an old sign, barely legible, which read: ALL YOU CAN EAT FRIDAYS! COME ON DOWN TO BOBO’S BARBECUE PIT AND EAT AND LAUGH ‘TILL YOUR STOMACH’S BURST!

Nine let out a nervous laugh, “That’s fucked-up,” he muttered, leading the others away from the disturbingly appropriate clown.

The lake came into view. Nine started for the shore, then motioned for everyone to get down.

Fred grabbed his wife’s hand and pulled the nervous woman down behind Nine.

Greta looked around, shaking constantly.

Harold, John and Missy squatted in the grass.

Asshole Mike took up the rear, looking back anxiously. “What are we waiting for?” he said. “You got us out here… let’s move it!”

Nine glared at the man and then pointed toward the lake.

Two dead women and a teenage boy were crouched down on the beach, their backs turned. They were eating someone.

Greta covered her mouth. “I think I’m going to be sick,” she whispered.

Harold gave her a stern look.

Nine studied the area around the yellow-eyed trio. There were no other dead things around. He turned and motioned the others to come in close. “We’re fortunate the wind is at our backs and those things are… preoccupied,” he said. “We should back up and stay in the field, then cut left and-”

“Fuck all that,” Asshole Mike said. “I’m not going back there. Everyone knows this place is full of… you know… spirits and shit.”

“We’re surround by the dead and your worried about Halloween stories?” Nine said.

“Look!” Fred hissed, pointing toward the beach.

They all turned.

The two women and the teenager were gone… and so was their meal.

“Where did they go?” Greta asked frantically. “Are they… do they know we’re here?”

“Calm down,” Nine said. “They’re probably heading up the beach to catch up with their-”

To their right, the tall grass started to shake. Something howled nearby in a gravely feminine voice.

They’re headed back toward town, Nine thought. That was too close. He signaled the others to remain still. Nine looked back toward the shore. He spotted a rowboat turned over and sitting near a small broken dock off to their left. The boat looked old as dirt, but undamaged. Shit, we could use that to get out on the lake and follow the shore up to Harper’s Run. It’s gotta be safer than what we’re doing.

Before Nine could point out the boat, everything went to hell.

“Run!” Asshole Mike shouted, standing up.

All three zombies stopped and started hissing nearby.

Fucking idiot! They were almost past us!

The reeds shook violently as all three zombies stormed toward them, howling and growling.

The New Cleveland survivors started to panic. They all got up and started bolting in different directions.

“Wait!” Nine yelled. “Head for the shore! There’s a boat!”

Too late.

Fred and his Wife got so turned around that instead of running away from the dead… they turned right toward them. A woman with long grey hair wearing what looked like a torn nightgown jumped on Greta’s back. The woman’s eyes blazed yellow, her veins bulging on the surface of her pale skin. It bit into the back of Greta’s neck, causing her to scream and fall forward, disappearing into the reeds. Before Fred reached his wife, the monster splattered Greta’s blood across his face. Nine could hear Greta making choking sounds as the zombie woman bit into her face.

Before Fred had time to register what just happened, the teenage boy pulled him to the ground. Fred screamed in agony.

“Fuck!” Nine said, backing up toward the beach while trying to locate the others in the tall grass. The third zombie was still unaccounted for.

I can’t tell who’s who!

Harold, John and Missy had bolted to the left, running parallel to the beach but losing each other in the field overgrowth.

Nine wanted to call out, but the other two zombies were feeding on the older couple right near his position.

Then there was more movement… a lot more movement… coming from town. The tall grass came alive with the terrifying screams of the dead as they turned toward the fleeing survivors. Nine listened in horror as Harold, John and Missy were hunted down and slaughtered.

It’s too late for them, Nine thought. They drew the dead away from the beach. You have to go! Move your ass!

A new sound caught his attention from behind him. Nine turned. “Sonabitch!” he hissed.

Asshole Mike had just flipped the old rowboat over. He was pushing it into the lake.

He fucking saw it, too! He saw the boat and then caused a panic… just so he could lure the dead toward us while he stole it!

Nine balled up his fists and started toward the beach.

The reeds exploded off to his right as the grey-haired woman and the teenage boy were racing toward the rowboat. The third zombie, a woman with short black hair wearing a ripped bloody blouse came out of the grass from Nine’s left.

Nine ducked back down before they saw him.

Asshole Mike was already in the lake crawling into the boat. He was ten feet away from shore.

He’s going to make it, Nine thought, shaking his head.

The three zombies stopped at the shoreline and then stared down at the water. They started hissing at the missed meal in the boat.

Mike was now in the rowboat, twenty feet from the shore. Out of breath, he still had time to point and laugh in the zombie’s faces when he realized they wouldn’t enter the water. “Fuck you, pricks!” he shouted at them. “I beat you! I fucking beat you!”

The woman with gray hair cocked her head at the mocking man.

“Go on!” Mike yelled at it, reaching down and retrieving an oar that was attached to the interior of the boat. “Go find someone else to munch on you hideous looking bitch!”

Nine turned away. Time to go. At least the dead are distracted by that piece of shit. He decided to stay near the shore, just inside of the tall grass as he turned west. He suddenly stopped to the sound of a large splash behind him.

“Hey! Stop that! What the hell are you doing?” Mike yelled.

Nine turned back and raised his eyebrows in surprise.

The two dead women and the teen had moved to the broken dock. They were tearing off pieces of wood and throwing them out at the rowboat. Some of the pieces were large as they splashed near the small vessel, causing Asshole Mike to move about and nearly drop his oar in the water.

They’re trying to knock him out of the boat! Nine thought. He was initially awed by the dead’s cleverness, which quickly turned to fear. They’re starting to reason. What else can these scary bastards do now?

Mike was struck in the head by a long piece of wood. Every time he tried to row the boat away, he had to raise his hands to deflect more flying debris. “Cut it the fuck out!” he yelled, wiping blood off the side of his face.

The sight of Mike’s blood just made the monsters more crazed and determined, as they continued to throw pieces of wood while screeching toward their floating meal.

Mike made a fatal error. The rowboat started to spin the wrong direction due to his jerky movements. He stood up and attempted to turn around too fast and started to lose his balance.

The dead waited in anticipation for the man to fall into the water, but Mike regained his balance and instead of falling over the side, he stepped forward, falling to his knees at the bow of the boat. The impact was too much for the old boat to take as Mike’s left knee penetrated the bottom of the vessel. “Shit!” he hissed. While trying to remove his knee, his whole leg fell through the bottom instead. The rowboat quickly filled with water.

The dead seemed excited… if that was still possible. They were waving their hands at the small boat and jumping around at the water’s edge in some sort of… Victory dance?

Nine watched as Asshole Mike tried to pull himself up into the boat, but the hole just got worse. His other leg fell through the bottom as more pieces of the old vessel started collapsing in on itself. Mike fell completely through the bottom of the boat and struggled to stay above water as more pieces of the rowboat broke off on top of him. That’s when Nine realized that the boat was going to drag him beneath.

“Help… Help me!” Mike desperately cried. He may have escaped the dead’s reach… but not the depths of the lake as the frantic man reached for anything to stay afloat and found nothing.

The three dead things stood on the shore and watched the flailing man slowly drown.

I should help him, a voice within Nine protested. He thought about Joe hanging from the rollercoaster and dismissed the voice. Instead, the young man watched from the tall grass, along with the dead on the shore, as the desperate man started sinking with the boat wreckage, coughing and gasping for air.

Either Asshole Mike couldn’t swim, or he couldn’t escape the sinking rowboat. He went underwater three times… and never resurfaced after the third time.

Nine stared at the dead who were staring out at the last of Mike’s air bubbles striking the surface. They were either contemplating entering the water to retrieve the remains, or they were waiting for the lake current to provide it for them. That was when Nine became aware of his own sickening, satisfying smile.

I wonder if the dead feed off the act of dying as much as the blood itself? he thought with a chill, realizing that he had just enjoyed watching Asshole Mike drown to death.

Nine turned away in disgust and pushed west through the tall grass.

~~~

“Diane!” Sergeant Hash managed to shout. “Get away from her! She’s not… she’s not Wendy anymore!” Hash tried to move but fell over, his limbs becoming lead. The exertion pushed him over the edge as the sedative was on the verge of knocking him out.

Tony struggled to move toward Diane but fell sideways in a clumsy mess. He reached over and tried to grab the hunter’s foot but missed. The big man opened his mouth to speak but started to black out.

Diane stared at the young woman. She couldn’t move.

Wendy started to convulse violently. She started scratching at the air as if a thousand invisible demons were assaulting her mind. Wendy opened her mouth and let out a gut-wrenching scream.

The scream of the dead.

Diane tried to pull herself away from the poor girl. “Wendy,” she whispered as a tear fell from the corner of her eye. “Wendy… I’m so… I’m so sorry.” Diane fell on her side. She felt the entire room spin. Her eyes started to close. Every time she managed to partially open them, she could see Wendy, panting like a rabid dog with drool dripping down from the corners of her mouth as she leaned forward, hunched over and crawling… crawling toward her.

Wendy stared at her with those dead eyes.

Diane found no recognition in them.

Only hunger.

Diane let her eyes close and gave up fighting. She let out a deep cry and slammed her fist on the ground, failing to stay conscious.

This is how it ends, she thought. My God! This is unbearable! Please… please God… let it be quick.

She could hear Wendy approach… growling… panting… gone.

From behind them, someone was frantically attempting to unlock the lab door.

Wendy grabbed at her feet and pulled until she was on top of the hunter.

At least you’re not here, my love, Diane thought. I couldn’t stand to watch you die… not like this. And you won’t have to see what happens next.

Diane felt the probing hands of her dead friend reaching toward her neck.

Those cold hands.

The door to the lab opened.

Footsteps.

Wendy had Diane’s throat in her hands.

The hunter refused to open her eyes.

Wendy opened her mouth to feed.

A single gunshot resounded in the lab.

Diane felt Wendy’s hands relax… and then depart her throat.

Can’t… do it… can’t fight it… anymore.

The hunter lost consciousness…

~~~

Briana loaded her handguns with the remaining rounds from her pockets. The six-cylinder revolvers were still hot, but her fingers moved with such practiced efficiency that she barely noticed the burn marks on the tips of her fingers. Her sweaty black hair hung over her face, sticking to the smeared white paint on her cheeks.

She stared out from the second-floor balcony of Candyman’s trailer, into the courtyard. Her remaining ten Lunatics formed a horseshoe pattern in front of the trailer. They were all armed with assault rifles aimed out toward the courtyard, ready to destroy anything that moved into the area.

Briana stared at the blood-soaked ground enclosed by the glorified trailer park. The front of every trailer was splattered red like a bad paint job or some prank on Hell Night. Except this was not a prank… and that was not red paint.

“Relax,” came the foolish man’s voice from behind her. “Everything is under control.”

Briana turned. Candyman was sitting on the edge of his ridiculously large bed wearing a turtleneck and sipping on a glass of vodka. He simply sat there staring at one of his stupid city scene paintings on the wall.

Briana could still hear the screams of the living mixed with the howls of the dead riding on the warm breeze that offered no relief. “We shouldn’t be here,” she said. “The only reason we’re not dead yet is because those yellow-eyed assholes hit this area first.”

“We will be fine,” he assured her in his ‘way too calm’ voice. “Clearly the numbers of the dead were greatly exaggerated.”

Briana laughed and shook her head. “Are you trying to convince me… or yourself?”

“I don’t appreciate your tone.”

“Okay,” she said, staring back out at the courtyard. She didn’t like what she wasn’t hearing anymore. The sound of Lunatic gunfire throughout the town had diminished. Now, there was only the occasional gunshot resounding around New Cleveland, which sounded more like the last worthless efforts of scattered Lunatics either firing their final rounds into the dead before being consumed… or ending their own lives. “New Cleveland’s lost,” Briana announced, more to herself than anything else. Surprisingly, the admission didn’t bother her too much.

“That’s not the kind of talk I expect from the head of my security force,” Candyman cautioned. “Put your fear in check before the men see it on your ridiculous face.”

Briana turned back and laughed. “Come on! Seriously? Can’t you hear the obvious? Hell… even the screams of the living are starting to die down. Pretty soon all we’re going to hear is the dead chomping down on a bunch of corpses like a bunch of feral dogs roaming the streets. New Cleveland’s full of ghosts and monsters now. We need to get back into that fucking tunnel and get the hell out of here.”

Candyman glared at her from the bed. After evacuating the lab with thirty men, they emerged from the secret tunnel beneath an unused trailer with a hatch build into the floor, several blocks from the courtyard. The tunnels were the primary means Candyman used to get around town unseen, but it was also the unofficial escape route. After fighting their way through packs of the dead and losing two thirds of their forces in the process, they finally arrived at Candyman’s courtyard and secured the area. “I’m not giving up my damn town!” he snapped at her. “So, get you head on straight and do your fucking job!”

“The town’s gone!” she fired back. “We’re probably all that’s left. How long do you think it’s going to take for those men outside to figure that out and bail on us?”

“They wouldn’t dare,” he said.

She smiled. “If I’m considering it… then I know they are, too.”

Candyman stood up. “You leave. I’ll have you executed. When order is restored, there will be nowhere you can hide that I won’t find you… eventually.”

Briana aimed her guns at him. “I could just shoot you dead right now. No one downstairs will say anything. And there won’t be anything left of your body by sundown in the way of evidence. Those critters like to eat as they go, if you haven’t noticed.”

Candyman continued to stare at her with an intensity that Briana still found unnerving. “I want you to remember who led us out of that fucking mess Downtown when we were all alone in that prison. The odds were against us then, too. No one gave a damn about us when the world fell apart… they just left us to rot… remember?”

“Yeah,” she said, lowering her guns. “I remember.”

“And who got us out?”

“You did.”

“That’s right,” he said. “When we fought our way out of the prison, when several of the other inmates wanted to just run, I went back to free the rest of you in Women’s Detention. I was the one who kept the others from losing their shit.”

Briana looked away.

“If not for me, you would’ve rotted away in a cell like forgotten leftovers in the back of the fridge with the dead hovering around your cage. Do you think this chaos is any different?”

She nodded. “Okay. I hear you. But what do we do now?”

Candyman smiled. “Do you really think I haven’t prepared a contingency plan for something like this? Knowing how fragile our arrangement is with those monsters out at Mosquito Creek, do you really believe I haven’t planned for this?”

Briana gave him a curious look.

“Why do you think I wanted us to come here… hmm?” he said.

She shook her head. “I don’t know. I thought it was stupid at the time. There’s several places we could’ve gone that are easier to defend.”

Candyman smiled. “Consider what we’ve learned from earlier this morning.”

Briana rolled her eyes. “Let’s not. Why don’t you just speak plainly for once.”

“Okay,” he said. “I’ll put it another way. Was the dynamite used to blow up the theater smuggled in from outside… or was it already here?”

She raised her eyebrows.

“That’s right,” he said. “Now, where do you suppose the rest of that dynamite is?”

Briana was catching on. She looked down and smiled. “That’s why we came back here!”

“Yes,” he said with a smile, taking a sip from his drink. “I’ve rigged the courtyard with enough explosives to blow up half of New Cleveland—everything on the south side of the lake.”

She nodded with a smile. “That’s why you didn’t run. You want to blow those fuckers up and solve our Mosquito Creek problem… permanently.”

“Yes,” he said. “Losing half the town is a hefty price to pay… but we can rebuild again… and make this place better.” He stepped up to a large painting on the wall beside his bed. It was a picture of several dogs playing poker in a smoke-filled casino. Candyman grabbed the sides of the painting and removed it from the wall, revealing a safe with a combination dial. He started turning the dial. “I’ve been aware of certain threats since the beginning. Long before our arrangement with those monsters attacking the town, I had another arrangement… with the Shadow Dead. They’re the reason we have this town… and they’ve never given up control of it. I’ve always known they’ve been here, watching from the shadows, and reporting back to their masters. So… when our original scavenger parties discovered a rather large supply of explosives in a mine, I took advantage of it.” There was a loud click. Candyman opened the safe.

Briana stepped inside for a better view. She could see what looked like some large lit-up stereo. Candyman picked up a remote control sitting on top of it.

Briana nodded. “You originally thought the Shadow Dead were coming back… and you were ready to blow up half the town if they invaded.”

“Yes, and when they didn’t come back… I let my guard down.” Candyman turned with the remote.

“That’s why that Alysa bitch freaked you out so much,” Briana said. “You thought they were finally coming back and she was their first spy.”

“No, not the first. I’m certain of it. But Alysa confirmed that they were here all along.”

Briana laughed. “So, this ‘explosive’ plan of yours has become a ‘kill two birds’ scenario, is that right?”

“Precisely,” he said. “I’ve since considered the possibility that Mosquito Creek would violate the truce, regardless of our deal. And if they did, I imagined something like this happening. So, now… we’ll purge the town of Mosquito Creek and the fucking Shadow Dead infiltrators in one big… Ka-Boom.”

“But… the dead are everywhere. How are you going to get them all to come here?”

Candyman smiled, pointed the remote at the stereo, and then clicked a button. Moments later, the sound of trumpets started blaring from the elaborate sound system.

“What the fuck?” Briana said, turning back toward the balcony. From all around the courtyard, from beneath every trailer, the same song with a trumpets intro started blaring.

The Lunatics below stared around in confusion.

“It’s Ring of Fire, Candyman said with a wicked smile as the voice of Johnny Cash resounded across the courtyard. “Appropriate, don’t you think?”

Briana looked around in alarm. “Shit,” she said. “A little warning would’ve been nice.”

“Time to go,” Candyman said.

“Go? Go fucking where?”

“Signal your men to come in. We haven’t much time. The song’s not that long and I expect the dead will arrive before the finale.” Candyman started downstairs.

Briana stared at the man in shock, then looked down at her Lunatics from the balcony.

They all gave her confused shrugs.

She shook her head at them and then waved them inside.

Downstairs, Candyman was dancing to the chorus of the song, his vodka glass in one hand, the remote in the other. He stepped up to the coffee table in front of his favorite chair and then pushed it forward with one foot until the tacky ‘70’s style area rug beneath was clear.

Briana and the others stood near the door watching the courtyard and Candyman. They could all hear the rising screams of the dead drowning out the song. They were coming.

“What the fuck are we doing?” Briana said, trying to stay calm and failing.

Candyman threw his vodka glass against the wall, then grabbed a corner of the carpet and rolled it back, revealing a hatch door leading beneath the trailer. He reached for a handle and then pulled up the hatch revealing a rope ladder descending into the darkness. He turned back and said. “I’d understand if you wanted to stay and hear the rest of the song… it’s a classic… but I recommend you stop standing there and follow me.”

“Follow you where?” Briana said, her head spinning from the doorway back to Candyman. By the sound of it, the dead would storm the courtyard in minutes.

Candyman smiled. “Come and see. There’s not really any time to explain.” He disappeared into the hatch.

Briana and her men followed the leader of New Cleveland into the darkness. The last Lunatic closed the hatch behind him.

~~~

Next Episode 52-10

Previous Episode 52-8

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 52-9: 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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