~~~

Candyman’s cramped and dark tunnel led them north, beneath the courtyard and exited directly beneath the main boardwalk which ran along the southern portion of the lake.

The leader of New Cleveland pushed the second concealed hatch open and stepped out beneath the tight space beneath the boardwalk. He crawled out of the way to let the others up and stared down toward the beach. An old dock stood at the edge of the lake. The dock extended out into the lake, then narrowed, becoming a bridge, which had collapsed a third of the way across the lake. Back when the former amusement park was bursting at the seams with attendance, a long bridge was constructed that ran directly across the center of the lake. Now, the decrepit bridge spanned a third of the lake before reaching a point where the rest of it had collapsed.

Briana crawled over next to him. “Sonofabitch,” she said, staring out at the beach. “How many more secrets do you have up your sleeve?”

He smiled. “I’ve learned a long time ago that if you want to keep a secret in this town, you don’t tell a soul… except for maybe a dead man or two.”

“What?”

“Never mind.”

Briana shook her head. “Someone sleeps with a whore and doesn’t tell his wife, that’s one thing. But these are some big fucking secrets. The explosives, the sound system, the secret passageways… you had to have help putting this all together. That’s a lot of mouths to keep quiet.”

Candyman laughed. “Yes, Briana. You are correct.” He turned to her and said, “The Murder Shops.”

Her eyes went wide with understanding. “That’s why we leave them alone,” she said. “I’ve always wondered why we treat that part of town like they’re all so damn special. Those sick fuckers helped you set this all up, didn’t they?”

“The men and women in charge of those… operations… understand the importance of keeping secrets. A lot of them were with me from the beginning. When they approached me about setting up the Murder Shops, I saw an opportunity to get what I wanted out of the deal. So, we came to a mutual understanding: I kept their secrets and let them run their businesses without interference, and they helped me with all this, including keeping quiet about it.”

Briana shook her head. “Is there anyone you haven’t made some sort of deal with in this town?”

“Running a town is an intricate affair,” he said. “As a leader, you make deals all the time that you hope are mutually beneficial. That way, your position remains secure.”

“Obviously, the fucking dead no longer feel that way.”

Candyman nodded. “Yes. That was unavoidable. I’d hoped we would have come up with a better solution before all this… but obviously the appetites of the deceased have far exceeded our arrangement.”

Briana looked back at her ten Lunatics staring back at the hatch nervously. “So, what now? It won’t be long before the dead find your secret tunnel.”

Candyman smiled and pointed toward the dock. “Get me to the bridge. We’re crossing the lake.”

Briana looked back toward the dock in surprise. “That’s the big plan? You do know that bridge is collapsed, right?”

“We just need to reach one end. That should put us safely out of the blast radius.”

Her eyes went wide as he flashed the remote he was still holding. Seeing it up close, she realized it was a remote detonator. “Got it,” she said. She silently readied her men with hand signals.

They nodded and stepped out beneath the boardwalk and down toward the sand to secure the beach. After a few moments they signaled an ‘All Clear’.

“Time to go,” she told him.

Candyman nodded. “There is a boat tied off at the end of the bridge. It’s big enough for our party. We can wait out what happens next from there.”

Briana nodded.

Forming a tight circle around their leader, the Lunatics led Candyman onto the large dock.

Several of the men stopped and started pointing frantically back toward the boardwalk.

Briana and Candyman turned.

“Holy shit!” Briana hissed.

All along the old boardwalk, which extended the length of the southern shore, yellow-eyed men, women and children in various states of decay were lined up like some massive wall of the dead, gazing silently across the beach toward their location.

“What are they doing?” Briana whispered, drawing her guns. “They’re just… standing there… like fucking sightseers! Why are they not attacking?”

Candyman gave the long line of the dead a puzzled look. They were waiting for us, he thought, and the thought disturbed him to the core. “Doesn’t matter,” he said. “Get me to the end of the bridge. Let them stare all they want.”

Briana nodded and signaled her men to guard the rear. She accompanied Candyman across the old bridge, staring back constantly at the waiting horde. “Your damn boat better be there,” she said. “I don’t like this. The dead don’t behave this way… ever. It’s like…”

“It’s like someone or something is holding them back,” Candyman finished.

She stared at him and nodded. “Yeah. That’s exactly what it’s like.”

Candyman placed the detonator in his other hand. He wiped sweat off his free hand and tried not to look back at the dead. Something’s not right, he thought. They shouldn’t know where we are. They should all be racing toward the courtyard.

“There’s more coming!” one of the Lunatics shouted.

Briana and Candyman turned.

There were more coming. Lots more. They weren’t running toward the docks, screaming and howling like savages… but rather… walking… in silence… filling the entire beach behind them.

“Fuck me,” Briana said. “I’ve never seen so many in one place. Why are they… why are they acting like that?”

The dead continued to fill the beach. None of them approached the dock. They just stopped in the sand, waiting for the rest to fall in rank next to each other like some massive dead army awaiting orders.

Candyman stared. For the first time in a long time, he didn’t feel in control. “Doesn’t matter,” he said. “We’re far enough away.” He raised the remote.

“Wait!” Briana called out.

He gave her an anxious, annoyed glance, wiping sweat from his brow.

“You said the dynamite at the theater came from town, right?” she said.

“Yes, we’ve covered this.”

“So… so, that means this Taven guy, the one Tony was talking about, he had access to it.”

“Okay. So, he found some of it that was left over and gave it to Tony. Is there a point coming?”

Briana gave him a sharp look. “For a smart guy, you really aren’t connecting the dots very well at the moment.” She stared back at the beach as the actions of the dead were causing her mind to itch in a place she couldn’t quite reach.

He waited.

“What if Taven didn’t find it… what if it he knew where you planted it?”

“That’s impossible. The explosives were well hidden, beneath the courtyard.”

“In tunnels like the one we just used?”

Candyman ignored her. He raised the remote. “I don’t know what you’re getting at, but we’ve no more time. If the dead get any closer-”

“That’s it!” she cried out. “That’s fucking it! They’re not getting any closer! Don’t you get it?”

Candyman stared at the face-painted woman as if she’d lost her damn mind.

“If Taven knows where the explosives are planted then that means your secrets aren’t so secret… and you have a leak in your plan!”

“Impossible!”

“Don’t press anything!” she said. “This isn’t right! Nothing about this feels right!” She pointed toward the dead and finished, “They don’t act like that! They should be storming this fucking bridge right now!”

Candyman gave her a long look, then gazed out at the silent dead horde.

“Enough talk,” he said.

Briana’s eyes went wide as she finally reached the itch in her mind.

Candyman reached for the detonator switch.

She looked down at the old bridge planks. “Fuck… me…” she hissed.

Candyman flipped the detonator switch with a devious little smile.

I’m in control.

The bridge and dock erupted in a series of massive explosions sending wood, flesh and water up into the air.

~~~

Tony, Diane, Nine and Hash exited the woods north of New Cleveland and spent the remainder of the day pushing their exhausted bodies northeast, following a maze of backroads to avoid scattered hordes of the reanimated that had been drawn south away from the Interstate after the most recent explosions coming from that hellish town.

No one had much to say about the explosions, but Tony suspected Taven. No one said much of anything after Nadia’s death. No one knew what to say.

Each of them struggled with every step to unburden themselves of their heavy hearts and troubled thoughts, separately trying to process their own nightmarish experiences and conflicted emotions. New Cleveland had permanently changed them, leaving wounds that would never completely heal and scars upon their souls that would serve as reminders of the people they had become… and all they had lost.

Near dusk they discovered an old gas station in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by neglected farmlands. After scavenging some stale chips from a vending machine, along with a case of bottled water from a back office and a few other essentials, they cleaned themselves up, changed into some clean coveralls they’d found in a maintenance garage locker, and then put their backs to the station and continued northeast along a two-lane strip of monotonous black top that cut through the middle of flatlands… and silence.

Fifteen minutes later they spotted a grassy knoll at the center of a large field surrounded by a secure wooden fence. They agreed to set up camp for the evening up on the hill. After gathering wood for a small fire, they finally stopped moving and collapsed around the flames.

The good sergeant handed out the chips and water and everyone ate as the last of the fading light faded from the western sky.

“You know,” Hash started, breaking the heavy silence, “I was half tempted to have a cup of that ancient coffee we left sitting in that moldy pot at the gas station. Hell, it probably tastes about the same as when they first brewed it.”

Nine looked up. “I’ve always wondered about that,” he said. “What is it about gas stations and coffee? Is it some long-running tradition to brew one pot at dawn that every patron partakes from? Because I swear that it’s the same damn bottomless pot before closing time.”

Hash laughed. “You know, you may be on to something there. Perhaps it’s like some ancient tribal tradition where only the bravest warriors filling their cars up before battle, go and drink that burnt shit to prove their strength.”

Nine smiled. “Yeah… and that’s when they receive strong visions from that all-powerful God of Java who rewards your sacrifice of assaulting your taste buds to that nasty old shit with that week’s winning lottery numbers.”

Hash pointed at him and laughed. “That’s it!”

Their shared joke quickly fell flat as the black hole of silence sucked the words away.

The good sergeant looked over at Tony who seemed lost in a trance, staring into the fire, and tried again. “So, now that we’re liberated, and we clearly have no fucking clue where we ended up, what’s the plan?”

Tony looked at him, his face expressionless. “Plan?” the big man said. “I don’t know. I’m tired. I’m tired of coming up with plans.” He leaned back on his arms and yawned. “I just want to sit here in peace until I pass out by this fire. Then sleep for a real long time. How’s that for a plan?”

Hash raised his eyebrows. “Sounds like we should go back for that coffee.”

Nine snickered. He turned to Diane and lost all humor. The hunter hadn’t said a word since they left the woods. Every time he’d approached her to talk, she’d given him a look that clearly said, ‘Back off’. Now, she appeared a thousand miles away in thought as she poked the ground between her feet with a stick. “You okay?” he dared to ask.

She didn’t look at him. Instead, she took a deep breath and announced, “I’m not sorry for Nadia. Deep down I know that I should be… but I’m not.”

The others looked at her and waited.

“I really thought she was my friend… that we’d… bonded. I was a fool for lowering my guard and letting that woman get close. I should’ve known better… and we all paid the price for it.”

“It’s not your fault,” Tony said. “We take a risk on people. If we never did… none of us would be sitting together now.”

She looked at him and then around at the others. “You must all think I’m a monster for what I did.”

“No,” Nine said. “You’re not a monster.”

Diane looked at him. “I murdered that woman. You all saw me do it. What else could I be?”

Nine frowned. “I know you. I know who you really are. We’ve bled together. It’s that fucking town… it made us… it made us forget who we were.”

Tony sighed. “We’ve all done some very unpleasant things, Diane. We’ve done things we never thought we could do—things we would’ve despised in others.”

“And what… that makes it okay, now?”

“Of course not,” Tony said. “I’m not going to lie to you and tell you that the road back will be easy. It won’t. We’re all going to be wrestling with ourselves for a very long time.”

Diane shook her head. “Then what’s the point to any of this? If places like New Cleveland are just going to bring the worst out of us… then maybe we’ve already been out in this shit for far too long. What happens next time we find people in another town like that? What if everyone is like that now?”

“It’s not all bad yet,” Hash said. “Believe me, I’ve been running with the wrong people for a long time and I started to think like you… like there wasn’t anything else but to be ‘bad’ in a world gone bad. But I was wrong. Your people showed me that.”

Diane turned to him with tears streaming down her face. “But what I did was fucking evil. I know it. I’ve been with good people… and I still did such an evil thing. How is that possible unless I’m as bad as the rest?”

“The difference, Diane, is that you know what you did was wrong, and you’re suffering for it,” Tony said. “You say you don’t regret killing Nadia. I think that’s just the anger talking. But deep down, after all this emotional mess within us finally clears, we’re all going to suffer for our actions. That’s why we’re still the good guys.”

“And then what?” she said. “What am I supposed to do after that?”

“You live with it,” Hash said. “You live with it and never forget what you did. Then you use that pain and disgust in yourself to turn around and go the other direction… and never be that person again.”

She nodded.

Nine put a hand on her shoulder.

She turned and saw no judgment in his eyes… just compassion. Nine was weeping. She smiled at him.

“I’m sorry I don’t have something profound to say to ease your pain,” he said. “These two are better at words like that. I just crack jokes… and occasionally a really good one.”

She laughed.

“But I do know that I love you. I’ve seen you at your best… and now your worst… and nothing’s changed for me.”

She reached over and took his hand.

“I do know that we’ve been through some heavy shit in that town… and lost so much,” he continued. “And it’s going to be just like what Tony and Hash said. But you and I… we’re going to make it.”

“How do you know?” she said.

Nine smiled and answered with confidence, “Because I know ‘Us’. Together we always beat the odds. And you and I make up a number that can’t be defeated. You know me. So, you know I don’t bullshit when it comes to numbers.”

Diane reached over and kissed him. “Thank you,” she said. She turned to Tony and Hash and nodded at them both. “You guys mean everything to me. I can’t do this shit anymore… but you all keep reminding me that I can still hope that shit will change… and then I won’t have to. That’s what keeps me holding on.”

Tony smiled. “It’s the same for me.”

“Well hell, you all are getting me all choked up. It’s embarrassing. A grown fucking man weeping like a little bitch,” Hash said rubbing his eyes. “It’s a good thing it’s the apocalypse or else I’d never hear the end of it.”

Nine laughed. He stared back into Diane’s eyes and promised, “You’re going to be okay. We all are.”

She nodded and let out a heavy sigh. “Yeah. Eventually.”

“That’s good enough,” Tony said. “It has to be. For now, we’ll just try our best to go the other direction.” He nodded at Hash with a smile.

Hash winked back.

“Did you all happen to notice that none of us picked up a single blunt instrument from the garage at the gas station?” Nine said. “What do you think that means?”

Tony laughed. “It either means we’re really fucking tired and it’s made us careless since we’re all fucking unarmed out here… or… we’ve all just lost the taste for killing anything… dead or alive.”

“Wouldn’t it be nice if we never had to arm up again?” Nine said.

Diane laughed at herself. “You know, it’s not like me, of all people, to not be armed. I’m usually the first to bring it up… but not now.”

Hash nodded. “Maybe we can just take our chances tonight and have one fucking evening of peace. We can arm up for war again tomorrow.”

“Yeah,” Tony agreed. “Tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow,” Diane echoed.

“Fuck yeah! Tomorrow!” Nine added.

Hash laughed at the enthusiastic young man and then stared over at Tony’s lighter face. “Feeling better?”

“A little,” Tony admitted. “These guys always bring me back from the edge.”

Hash nodded, then froze, staring past the big man and down the hill. “Fuck me,” he hissed. “I don’t believe this shit.”

“What? What is it?” Tony said.

The good sergeant was motioning them to get low as he attempted to put out the fire. “There’s movement down there,” he whispered. “And I’m not talking about the dead kind of movement.”

“Shit!” Diane hissed, spinning around. “Lunatics?”

“You’ve got to be kidding me! Now? Really?” Nine was getting frantic.

“Hash,” Tony said, surprisingly calm. “leave the fire alone and sit back down.”

“Pardon?”

“I’m not doing it,” Tony said. He refused to get down. “We said, ‘Tomorrow’. I don’t care who they are… I’m going to sit here and enjoy this fire with my friends. Fuck the rest.”

His stance was like stone causing the others to calm down.

“He’s right,” Diane said, getting back up and sitting down. “Fuck it. We’re unarmed anyway.”

Nine laughed nervously then sat back down. “Alright. We’re really doing this?”

Hash sat back down as well. “I’m too fucking tired for this, anyway. Every muscle in me aches.”

“You still see them?” Tony said, refusing to turn.

“Yep. They’re coming up the hill,” Hash said. “All ‘sneaky’ like.”

“How many?” Diane said.

“Don’t know,” Hash said. “Enough to not be scared of us.”

“Armed?” she asked.

Hash shrugged his shoulders.

“Shit. What do you want to do? Offer them stale chips?” Nine said.

Tony closed his eyes. “Nothing. We will do nothing. Let them come.”

Moments later they all heard movement coming up through the grass on all sides. They were surrounded.

Tony kept his eyes closed and took a deep breath. God, he silently prayed. I don’t know if you’re still there or if you’ve left this world a long time ago. But if you are, all I ask is for one damn night with no violence. I’m spent. Please… just one damn night, and I promise you, I’ll never return to violence ever again.

When the intruders reached the top of the knoll, they stopped.

“I don’t know who you are,” Tony announced, his eyes still shut tight. “But me and my friends are not armed. We’re just trying to enjoy one night of peace. We have nothing of value, but you’re welcome to share our fire.”

Several armed men stepped up around the fire dressed in body armor.

Tony couldn’t see it, but Nine’s eyes went wide as one man stepped up behind Tony. Nine started grinning like an idiot as he shook Diane’s shoulder in excitement.

Diane stared at the man in shock.

Sergeant Hash glanced around at what appeared to be soldiers, then back at Nine and Diane. He was confused.

“Tony?” the man said. “Tony… is that you?”

Tony opened his eyes. He spun around at the man with the familiar voice, also wearing body armor, and smiled with tears filling his eyes. “Sonofabitch,” he said. “We’ve been looking for you… for a long time.”

The black man looked as stunned as the rest. He smiled a toothy smile and lowered his rifle.

Tony rose to his feet. “It’s damn good to see you… Orosco.”

Thank you, God.

~~~

Next Episode 52-12

Previous Episode 52-10

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 52-11: 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. Anonymous says:

    Wooooooo! What a wild ride that place was. I lucked out being able to binge read that whole chapter at once up to this point. So much character development and surprises. Awesome end for Candyman and his crew and having the dead gather to watch is both terrifying and exciting. It seems like what’s left of our survivor group may get some much needed rest, but have a lot of grief to sort through. They were all pushed quite hard physically and emotionally.

    And Tony swearing off violence?? He should know that just can’t happen 😄 he still has to save Gina!

    Thank you for the story!

    Liked by 2 people

    • sscherr says:

      Hello, Someone. Yeah, this was a wild ride. One more episode to go to on Friday and we close out the chapter… with a few more surprises. Then after a three week hiatus to recharge, we will get back to Meredith’s group and finish out this book. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts on the New Cleveland story. I’m glad you’re still enjoying this massive tale ;)

      Like

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