~~~

At the back of the small inn was a screened-in porch overlooking a vast field with rolling hills. An old wooden fence separated the field from what used to be a garden at the edge of the yard. Now, the garden and the field were slowly being reclaimed by Mother Nature as weeds, wildflowers and tall grass dominated the view.

Meredith sat in a comfy wicker chair staring off into the field. She could almost picture horses running free on that side of the fence… almost. She inhaled deeply and placed her hands within her hoody pockets as the evening quickly approached, delivering a cool breeze. She was grateful for a little alone time without Megan looming over her shoulders like some celebrity’s bodyguard. Meredith smiled thinking about the overprotective young woman who took her assignment very seriously. The half-dead often laid down for a nap after receiving a blood dose, providing the old medium a temporary respite.

Meredith tilted her head back until she heard Megan’s deep breathing coming from the common room. Convinced the young woman was still asleep, Meredith retrieved the folded wad of notebook paper from her hoody pockets and straightened them in her lap.

As she’d done every time she’d examined the handwriting on the notebook paper, Meredith marveled at the two distinctively different handwriting styles, neither resembling Stephen’s handwriting at all. One style was clearly the product of a young woman who had benefitted from a private education and who took pride in each perfected stroke of her pen. The other style, which was more like insane dark scribbles, was clearly the work of someone writing in anger as each stroke was rushed, the tip of the pen pushed down hard on the pages, almost to the point of tearing them.

Stephen had reluctantly given up the pages of Nicole’s notebook two days after leaving the orphanage. Meredith had gone over the pages repeatedly since then trying to understand the entity that had appeared to both Stephen and Logan, in different forms.

Over the past six weeks, there had been very few secrets left unspoken among any of them, but it was Stephen who had been the most guarded about his ‘relationship’ with Nicole, and Meredith still sensed that he was holding something back.

Since entering the cavern beneath the compound, Nicole had not made another appearance. Stephen believed that she’d refused to go down into the cavern with him for fear that Toby or the darkness where she’d come from would reclaim her in that strange place. Once she was unable to stop them from taking the elevator down into the cavern, Nicole had severed her unusual bond with Stephen and apparently fled. Stephen had felt oddly out-of-place for about two weeks, claiming that losing his connection with Nicole was like losing a part of himself on the inside. But he’d recovered and Nicole had not returned. Stephen believed she was gone for good.

Meredith didn’t believe it.

The medium perused the pages. Most of it was written in Nicole’s hand, showing the dead woman’s obsession with her former teacher. And then out of nowhere, the dark bold handwriting would interrupt the ongoing love letter at various points with the vilest, hate-filled words, before returning to Nicole’s romantic fantasies as if nothing had interrupted the flow of her endless love. Meredith didn’t gleam much about the entity from Nicole’s words, but what she did learn was that it appeared that the entity had some kind of split personality. The Nicole persona seemed to deny the existence of the ‘dark’ persona. In fact, there were times in the pages that made it appear as though Nicole’s spiritual body, for lack of a better term, had been hijacked as easily as Nicole had taken control of Stephen’s physical body.

Meredith had addressed this once with Stephen. He’d told her that ‘Nicole’ had been born when the two of them got together. The entity, attracted to Stephen’s pain after accidently killing the girl, had found a new purpose in the form of rescuing Stephen from his guilt. In turn, the entity had developed feelings for him and found a way to reinvent itself by becoming… Nicole. Stephen believed that deep beneath the surface of this illusion of a dead girl who appeared to love him, something dark and sinister waited to devour anything it could the moment Nicole would let it take control. He believed that the notebook showed this very clearly through the different writing styles, as well as the deaths that were all documented in those pages, all made to look like suicides. He also shared that he had experienced this duality himself with Nicole’s sudden dark mood swings when she turned cruel and threatening. He believed that whatever Nicole was before she became the dead girl, he’d seen glimpses of it, but Nicole always regained control of it… this… darkness.

“I know who you really are,” Meredith whispered, putting her hand over one patch of dark words surrounded by Nicole’s flowery paragraphs. She lifted her hand and read them:

...THE MAGGOTS ARE DEAD! THE MAGGOTS ARE DEAD! GHOSTS ROAMING THE LIGHT. BONES OWNED BY THE NIGHT. THEY WALK WITHOUT BREATH IN THE LANDS OF THEIR DEATH. THE MAGGOTS ARE DEAD! THE MAGGOTS ARE DEAD!…

“What are you reading?”

Meredith jumped in her chair. She turned, quickly putting the pages back in her hoody pocket. Megan just stood there, staring at her. “You scared me,” she laughed. “You can be unnervingly quiet when you choose to be.”

“Sorry,” she said. “I didn’t want to disturb you… until I did.”

“Something wrong?”

“No,” she said. “I was going to ask you that.”

Meredith smiled. “Nothing’s wrong. I was just… going over some things in my head.”

“Concerning those old folded pages you keep sneaking peeks at when you think you’re alone?”

Meredith flashed her a crooked smile. “Perhaps. It’s a private matter.”

Megan looked down in Meredith’s lap. “Must be magical papers, too. They always seem to disappear when I’m around.”

“They’re not about you, honey,” Meredith said.

“Oh… I know that. They’re Stephen’s pages. You and Logan talk enough about them.”

Meredith looked irked. “Have you been eavesdropping on our conversations?”

“Yes,” she said. “You both think Stephen’s dangerous because of the woman. The woman who’s there… and not there.”

Meredith raised her eyebrows in surprise. “What do you know about that? Did you ever see her, too? Like Logan?”

Megan shook her head. “No. But I could smell her by that elevator. She smelled… wrong. It made me crazy at the time… but then… so did everything else.”

“That’s interesting, Megan. You sense… the woman… like you sense the dead.”

“That’s because she is dead… when’s she here. When she’s not… she smells like something else.”

Meredith leaned over and put her chin on her hands. “And what do you mean by that?”

Megan shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know exactly. It’s hard to put into words. But when the woman… Stephen calls her Nicole, right?”

Meredith laughed. “Right. Apparently, you eavesdrop a lot.”

Megan continued. “Well, when Nicole is around, she just smells wrong, like the dead, but worse. But the smell lingers when she changes.”

“You mean, when she shape-shifts?”

“Yeah. Something like that. It’s not what I smell after she changes, but in between the changes. That smell lingers… and it’s very, very bad… like Toby.”

“You know what Toby smells like?”

Megan gave her a puzzled look. “Don’t you?”

Meredith laughed. “I don’t sense things the way you do, Megan. I certainly can’t smell the dead, or Toby. I guess my sniffer works differently than yours.”

Megan nodded. “I wish I had that. I smell Logan when he takes the toilet paper and goes outside. Even when he thinks he’s far enough away. Yuk!”

Meredith busted up laughing.

Megan gave her a half-smile. “I’m getting better at the jokes, yes?”

Meredith nodded, calming down and wiping tears from her eyes. “You’re certainly getting the timing down. I didn’t see that coming.”

“Why are you and Logan worried about Stephen so much?” she asked abruptly. “Are you afraid Nicole will find him again?”

“My, oh, my, nothing gets past you does it?”

Megan waited.

Meredith nodded. “Okay. Yes, I fear for Stephen. I’m afraid that Nicole will eventually find him, or Stephen will find a way to bring her here.”

“You think he’s looking for her?”

“I don’t know, honey. Love’s a very strong motivator.”

Megan cocked her head. “So… Nicole loves him and wants to find him. And you’re saying that Stephen loves her, too?”

“Maybe.”

“Then what’s the problem? Isn’t love a good thing?”

Meredith gave her a disbelieving look. “It’s not that simple, honey. Sometimes people confuse emotions for love, when it’s really something… dangerous. You said it yourself, Nicole smells wrong, like Toby. Do you think that’s good for Stephen? For any of us? You know what she made him do in the compound. All those suicides.”

Megan considered this. She waited so long before speaking that Meredith thought she’d drifted off. Finally, she said, “So, if someone smells wrong, then there can be no love? If someone does horrible things… then there’s no coming back from them?”

“Yes, honey,” Meredith said. “What Stephen and Nicole have, or had, it’s… very unhealthy.”

“I don’t agree with you,” Megan said. “I can’t.”

Meredith looked confused. “Honey, do you actually believe that Nicole and Stephen are good for each other? You know that’s… that’s not possible, right?”

Megan looked down at her feet. “I smell wrong, too. Is love not possible for me? After everything I’ve done… all the blood I’ve shed… am I any different from Nicole?”

Meredith was stunned. She didn’t know how to respond.

Megan gazed at her with those dark silver eyes. “Look at me. Really look at me.”

Meredith met her uncomfortable gaze. For the first time it felt like Megan was staring into her.

“I know you care about me, as much as you can. But can you truly love someone… like this?”

The longer she met Megan’s gaze, the more painful it became. She wasn’t staring into the young woman’s gray eyes any longer, but rather, into the gray mist of memory.

“I don’t know what Nicole really is any more than I know what I’ve become,” Megan said. “But we are the same, in some ways. We both are a part of the darkness that’s infected this world. I don’t know what that means either… but I do know that it’s not a place where love can exist.”

Meredith nodded. She attempted to speak but was at a loss for words.

“And If I can come back from that darkness, drawn out by the light of love… then why not Nicole… or whatever she really is? Does love have limitations? And if it does, what good is it in the end?”

Meredith closed her eyes.

“If love can’t bring back anyone, or anything, from the darkness,” Nicole said, “then the darkness has already won… and we’re just lying to ourselves with all this struggle and pain.”

The old medium could feel tears forming. She was responsible for so much darkness unleashed on the world. But nothing as dark as when she failed to heed Love’s call…

~~~

…She couldn’t stop her hands from shaking as she pulled the car up in front of the Patterson house and parked.

“Relax, Meredith. Take a breath. Everything will be alright.” The brown-haired woman with the gentle brown eyes never seemed to run out of smiles. She reached over and placed her hands over Meredith’s and gave them a squeeze. “This is just like the others. I know it’s hard, but you’re doing a wonderful thing for this family.”

Meredith turned and smiled back. She rolled her eyes and took a deep breath. “I’m a nervous wreck. How do you put up with me so well?”

Hannah laughed and pulled her hands away. “I smoke lots of weed after you go to bed… medicinal, of course.”

Meredith broke into giggles. She ran a hand through her long black hair and stared at herself in the rearview mirror. “I look horrible. One look into my face and that family’s going to freak out.”

“You just leave the introductions to me. That’s my part, remember. I’ll start in about how much concentration it takes for you to do your thing while you prepare. You just slip on up to that little girl’s bedroom, and I’ll keep the family calm and collected. Easy-peasy.”

Meredith gave her an incredulous look.

“You know what I mean,” she said with a smile. “I was referring to your discomfort with new people.”

“What if they… you know… start asking too many questions?”

“That’s what I’m here for. Don’t worry, I’ll make sure you have your space. You just… do what you do… and find that girl.”

Meredith’s eyes drifted. “She might not be here. Some of them don’t come back.”

Hannah nodded. “We’ve talked about this. The Patterson family understand this is a long shot. Also, if Emily was still alive…”

“I know. I know. If she were still alive then she wouldn’t be here regardless.”

“That’s right. Are you good, then?”

“I’ll manage,” Meredith said.

Hannah’s phone started buzzing. The younger woman sighed impatiently then checked the number on her flip phone.

“Are you going to answer that?”

Hannah glared at her. “You know I’m not,” she said.

Meredith frowned. “You should talk to him. This might be the last chance before they transfer-”

“And say what, exactly?” Hannah snapped. “You know he just wants to say something mean and spiteful about what a great parent I turned out to be.”

The phone stopped buzzing. Meredith glanced into Hannah’s frowning face.

Hannah took a deep breath and stared out the passenger window with faraway eyes.

Meredith gently put a hand on her shoulder. “He says what he says because deep down, he still cares about you. It’s his way of reaching out.”

“You mean ‘lashing out’, don’t you?” Hannah said. “Come on, Meredith. You know he hates me. He blames me for his father abandoning us… he always has.”

“That’s not true.”

Hannah scoffed. “Oh, yes it is! I swear the only reason he left home was to find the quickest way into as much trouble as he could… just to throw it all back in my face! Now look what he’s become?” She stopped. “I can’t get into this right now, Meredith. You know how much he gets under my skin. We’ve got a job to do.”

Meredith was patient. “It can wait. Emily’s probably gone. But your son, he’s still alive… and trying to reach out to you.”

“He’s a fucking criminal! What can I possibly say after all he’s done?”

“You still love him. I know you do.”

Hannah stopped and slammed a fist against the car door. “Damn it, Meredith! What did I do that was so wrong? I didn’t make his father leave! I did the best I could! There was only the two of us and I couldn’t be the father that he needed! How is that my fault?”

“It’s not your fault.” Meredith pulled the woman over to her and embraced her.

Hannah hugged her fiercely. “He hates you, too. You know that, don’t you?”

Meredith smiled. “He doesn’t hate me. He just hates what I represent. I’m just more ammunition to feed his anger toward you.”

“Same thing.”

“No. He used to talk to me a little before we lost him to all those bad people that led him astray. He’d try to push my buttons for sure, but I just took it and smiled. I think he got tired of wasting his talents, trying to drive me crazy… so we talked instead.”

“Well… that’s more than I ever got. He just comes at me like a shotgun, both barrels loaded to cause the most damage. I made his father go away… then gave him another mother. He hates me for that, too.” She pulled away and looked Meredith in the eyes. “You know he’ll never accept us, don’t you?”

“I know,” Meredith said. “He’s already taken his jabs at me with that… trying to scare me off. I just smiled at him and took the punches.”

“You’re way more patient then I could ever be. I hated the way he treated you before he left. I swear, all he wanted to do was destroy anything good in my life… no matter what!”

“He’s in pain, Hannah. You need to talk to him.”

“I can’t… I won’t!”

Meredith frowned. “After he gets transferred, it’s going to be harder to see him… especially if you turn away now while he’s trying to reach out. He’ll hold that over your head, too. And then the anger will win.”

Hannah nodded. “You know, for someone who doesn’t like to talk to people, you do very well talking to me.”

“That’s because I know you… and I love you. And it’s also because I know you still care about him beneath all that anger, despite everything he’s done.”

“It’s too late, Meredith. What can we possibly achieve… now?”

“You just keep trying. That’s all you can do. Maybe one day he’ll appreciate that you never gave up on him, no matter how much he cuts into you. Maybe then he’ll know that it was his father who left… and not you.”

“Wise words from the medium,” Hannah teased, feeling a little better. “You know he also thinks you’re full of shit, right?”

Meredith laughed. “He thinks everyone is full of shit. He’s got serious trust issues.”

Hannah laughed. “Gets that from his asshole father.”

“I rather enjoy the fact that he sees me as a fraud. Makes me feel less like a freak in his eyes, and just some disappointing replacement.”

Hannah shook her head. “You are the most long-suffering person I know, Meredith Montgomery. How the hell do you stay so nice?”

“It’s my ‘real’ gift,” she teased.

Hannah leaned in and kissed her. “You are a gift… to me.”

Meredith looked away, embarrassed. “Don’t change the subject. You need to talk to him… while you still can.”

“Alright,” she said. “But not tonight. First thing in the morning, okay?”

“I’ll hold you to it.”

“We should get inside, it’s almost time.” Hannah said.

Meredith nodded. “He’s not as bad you think, Hannah. He’s in a lot of trouble, for sure, but deep down… he’s not evil.”

Hannah nodded. “I know. I’m his mother… of course I know that. It’s just… trying to reach him through all that resentment… I don’t begin to know how to climb that damn wall.”

“We’ll figure it out together, okay?”

Hannah smiled. “Okay. You ready? It’s almost three in the morning and that little girl was abducted shortly after.”

Meredith looked over toward the dark Patterson house. Someone pulled back the front curtain, revealing the living room light. Meredith sighed and thought, Emily’s already gone. I don’t need to go in there to figure that out.

“Shit… you already know, don’t you?” Hannah said, seeing the truth clearly on Meredith’s face.

The medium nodded sadly.

“Can you sense her… out here?”

“It’s not the same as when I go to the place it happened… but I can feel her just enough to know that she is here. And we both know what that means.”

“Yeah,” Hannah said, preparing herself to share bad news. “Yeah, we do.”

“Talk to your son,” Meredith pushed. “Promise me.”

“I promise.” Hannah paused. “Now promise me something.”

Meredith turned, puzzled.

Hannah smiled. “Promise me that you’ll love me no matter what.”

“You know I do. Nothing can change that.”

Hannah seemed suddenly distant. “You’re not the only freak in this world, Meredith. What we have… You and I… this world has already judged us for it. They may fear you because of what you can do… but they fear us for what we represent, together.”

Meredith smiled. “I know. And I don’t care what anyone thinks about us.”

“My own son can’t accept what we have. That terrifies me.”

“And we’ll get through that, too, like we always have. Where is this coming from? You’re starting to scare me.”

Hannah laughed. “Sorry. It’s just… it’s just that I never saw this coming. I guess I’m just waiting for the other shoe to drop… eventually.”

“You’re being dramatic. You and I, we’re fine.”

Hannah nodded, coming back. “You’re right. Of course, you’re right. I guess it’s just the guilt talking. You know, I’ve already scared off a husband, alienated a son. The only thing I fear is losing you, too.”

“How on earth could you ever lose me?” Meredith said. “That’s absurd!” Then her eyes went wide. “You’re not going to die on me, are you? Tell me you don’t have some terminal illness you’ve been keeping from me.”

Hannah laughed. “No… nothing like that. But you don’t know everything about me.”

“So, you’re afraid that I’ll eventually learn something from your past that would make me stop loving you?”

“Maybe.”

“Then you’re not half as smart as I’ve given you credit for.”

“Ouch,” Hannah laughed. “I guess I deserved that.”

“You did… now stop scaring me. We are good.”

“You promise?”

Meredith rolled her eyes. “Yes. I promise.”

“Meredith?” …

~~~

… “Meredith?”

The old medium came back. She opened her eyes to find Megan staring, concerned.

“Where did you go just then?” she asked.

Meredith smiled. “Sorry, honey. Your words reminded me of something… of someone I’ve tried very hard not to think about.”

Megan looked away. “Cooper?”

“No… not Coop.”

“I miss him. I don’t feel much. But I feel that. He saved my life.”

Meredith reached over and gently grabbed the young girl’s cold hands. “He saved us both.”

Megan attempted another smile and said, “I’m sorry I made you think about a bad time. I say too much now without thinking about how my words hurt others.”

Meredith smiled. “You didn’t hurt me, honey. The pain was already there. I’ve just never dealt with it. That’s what happens when we run from things within ourselves. Sometimes it catches up with us at the most inopportune times. Understand?”

Megan nodded.

“I was thinking about the last time I saw Hannah.”

“You must have really loved her.”

“Yes,” Meredith smiled. “I still do.”

“Even after… everything?”

“Yes. Even after everything.” Meredith released the girl’s hand and shifted uncomfortably. “But enough about that. Let’s talk about what you said.”

It was Megan’s turn to look uncomfortable. “Never mind that. Like I said, I say too much. I’ll have to relearn how to think before speaking.”

“No,” Meredith said. “You were right. I was wrong.”

Megan waited.

“We’ve all done bad things. We’ve all dealt with our share of darkness, before the world went crazy, and after. That doesn’t mean it’s alright… but like you reminded me… love is much bigger than all we’ve done.”

“I only meant that maybe Nicole… and what she feels for Stephen… might be real… even if everything else about her is not.”

Meredith nodded with a smile. “I like the way you put that, young lady. I will certainly keep that in mind. You’ve given me and Logan so much more to consider. Thank you for that.”

“You’re welcome.”

Megan turned abruptly, throwing her nose up in the air. She smiled. “They’re coming back.”

Meredith laughed. “It tickles me how you can smell when Logan and Stephen are coming. Does that mean they desperately need showers?”

“Maybe Logan,” she said.

Meredith covered her mouth to stop the giggles. “Well, we’ll just keep that between us, okay? Call it some of that ‘thinking before speaking’ stuff.”

Megan smiled and nodded. She got up to head for the front door of the inn.

“Oh, and Megan?”

She turned.

“I love you… more than you will ever know… and I don’t care about the rest.”

Megan’s face turned to stone. “You promise?”

Meredith’s eyebrows shot up. She smiled and finished, “If I’ve learned anything about love over the years, it’s this: When you really love someone… you never have to make it a promise… it never goes away, no matter what.”

Megan’s smile was genuine this time. “I… I love you, Meredith.”

Meredith almost cried… almost. She was grateful when Megan turned and departed before she became a blubbering idiot.

~~~

Next Episode 53-3

Previous Episode 53-1

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 53-2: Love and Loss” 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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