~~~

“I come bearing gifts,” Logan said as he sat down on an old sofa, placing his backpack in front of him. He started searching through his pack.

Stephen plopped down in a large armchair, placing the heavy boom box beside the chair. He looked over at Meredith, sitting beside Logan, and then up at Megan who stood next to an old grandfather clock at the back of the small inn common room. “Did you miss us?”

“Yes,” Meredith said. “How is it out there?”

“The usual,” Stephen said. “We followed the river into Ohio and found another horde searching north of the river. We didn’t have to deal with them this time, thankfully.”

“So, nothing headed in our direction?” she asked.

“Nothing.”

Meredith looked at the boom box. “What on earth is that thing?”

“Portable toilet,” Logan said, winking up at Stephen.

He rolled his eyes at him. “It’s just another distraction tool. These things play some really loud music. Figured it would be good to have it here since Cherry Hill is scarce on supplies.”

Meredith nodded. “Is that a tape player attached to it?”

“Yeah,” Stephen laughed. “Don’t worry, thing came already loaded with a cassette. Garth Brooks… but hey… don’t judge. It’s slim pickings out there.”

“And here it is,” Logan said, removing a big round hairbrush from his pack. “‘Ask and you shall receive’, so sayeth the Lord.”

Meredith’s eyes lit up at the sight of the brush. She grabbed at it greedily. “Oh, my word! Thank you, Logan. And my knotty hair thanks you.”

Logan laughed. He peered over his shoulder at the half-dead woman who was trying not to look obvious staring over his shoulder. “Other than Stephen’s obnoxious portable stereo, the brush, and a few canned goods, I’m afraid that’s it for specialty supplies.”

“I smell them,” Megan said, unconvinced.

Logan smiled and looked to Stephen.

Stephen laughed. “I told you. She probably knew you had them the moment we walked in.”

Meredith stared back and forth between the two men with an amused expression.

Megan paced impatiently behind the couch.

“Alright, hold on a minute,” Logan said, digging into his pack again. He pulled out a vending machine sized bag of pork rinds.

Megan’s eyes went wide.

“Little lady, I’ve been searching every day for weeks for this ever since you told me about them. Lord only knows why you like these things.”

“So sayeth the guy who eats expired sardines,” Stephen teased.

Megan moved in like a predator and snatched the bag from Logan’s hand. She tore it open and tossed a bacon-flavored piece of stale fried and crispy whatever into her mouth with a loud crunch.”

“You’re welcome,” he said with a laugh.

Megan stopped with another piece hanging out of her mouth. “Tank woo,” she said.

Meredith giggled at the sight of the girl going at the bag of grinds like a barbarian.

Megan wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and showed some restraint. “I think the thought of having one was more enjoyable then the taste,” she said. “I remember that I used to enjoy these things.”

“You go on, girl,” Logan said. “We all have our unusual cravings.” He stopped himself. “Shit, sorry. I could have said that better.”

Megan shrugged her shoulders and tore into the bag.

This made Stephen laugh hard.

Meredith sat back and enjoyed the moment. “We make quite a strange little family, don’t we?”

“Yeah,” Stephen said. “On the longest and most bizarre road trip ever.”

Logan laughed at that. He leaned back on the sofa. “I could sleep right here. How are things? Any trouble?”

Meredith shook her head. “No. Nothing to report. This little town is calm and boring… just the way we like them.”

Logan nodded. “That’s good. We checked across the bridge before heading back. No sign of the dead, or anyone else. Maybe we’ve finally found a place that everyone’s forgotten about. We could probably get a few days rest here if we’re lucky.”

Stephen suddenly became distant as he leaned back and stared into his lap.

“Something wrong, Stephen?” Meredith said.

He looked up and sighed. “We’re not entirely alone here,” he finally said, gaining everyone’s attention. He leaned over and rested his elbows on his knees while nervously picking at his nails. “Nicole’s here, too.”

Logan sat up and stared at him. “I fucking knew it!” he said. “You saw her on the road in, didn’t you?”

“Yes.”

“And you said nothing!” Logan was getting upset. “Little brother, you know what we’re up against here. No more secrets, remember?”

“Logan,” Meredith said. “He’s telling us now. Let him explain.”

The big preacher nodded and attempted to calm down.

Stephen couldn’t look at any of them. He felt their probing eyes and was reminded of what Nicole had told him:

“They don’t trust you. They hate what we had and now… they think you’re just like me.”

He looked up at Meredith and said, “This was the first time I’ve seen her since before the cavern. I don’t know how she found us… but she did.”

“Are you sure it’s the first time you’ve seen her?” Logan pushed unapologetically.

Stephen glared at him. “Yes. You want to talk about secrets? I know you and Meredith are talking about me behind my back, but I don’t care. I’m telling you the truth. This is the first time she’s contacted me since then… and that’s why I’m telling you all now. I just… I just needed some time to process it.”

“I believe you, Stephen,” Meredith said.

He looked at her.

“You’re right. We have been talking about you and Nicole privately, but it was only a precaution.”

Stephen nodded. “Because you don’t trust me, right?”

“No,” she said. “Because you still love her.”

This caught Stephen off guard. He didn’t know what to say.

Megan was surprised by Meredith’s direct reply. She stared at the medium.

“That is insane,” Logan said, rubbing his tired face. “You can’t possibly still love that… that demon! Not after everything you know now. Tell her, Stephen. Tell her that can’t be it.”

Stephen felt trapped. Tears started to fill his eyes. “Wow,” he said. “Up until this moment, I thought I was over her. I’d convinced myself that Nicole was some monster who manipulated me… and since she’s been gone… it was easier to convince myself that it was all a lie. Then I saw her again, and it all came back, like a flood.” He looked away. “I’m sorry that I still… feel… for her. I can’t help it. Regardless of everything, it wasn’t all bad. Not in the beginning.”

Logan looked on the verge of imploding.

Meredith raised her hand to calm him down. She addressed Stephen, “What did she say to you, Stephen? Are we in danger of Toby finding us now?”

“No… hell no!” he was quick to say. “She doesn’t want to be found by Toby any more than you do. Nicole’s afraid to go back… back to wherever she came from. I think that’s what scared her so much down in that cavern and why she tried to destroy the airlock. She didn’t want to leave me, but she couldn’t… she wouldn’t go into that scary place. So, she tried to keep us from going.”

“Yeah, by wearing her masks to trick us,” Logan pointed out. “She tried her bullshit on me, too, remember? When she appeared as Jonas.”

“That was different,” Stephen said. “She was different. Nicole had never done anything like that before.”

“That you know of,” Logan said. “And let’s not forget how she possessed you to murder those people.”

Stephen nodded and looked away. “Yeah… I know. I haven’t forgotten. I’m still struggling with all that. She’s done horrible things. I know this. But I still care for her.”

Logan waved a dismissive hand in his face. “She’s fucking bewitched you, little brother!”

“Stephen,” Meredith said. “Is she… is she with you now.”

“No,” Megan said, surprising everyone. “I don’t smell her here.”

Stephen didn’t know what to make of that. He said, “She’s right. Nicole’s not here. She didn’t try to possess me or anything. I saw her in the woods for a just a moment. She was keeping her distance… and she looked terrible, like she’d been through hell to find me.”

“Did she say how she found you?” Meredith pushed.

Stephen shook his head. “No. She just looked miserable… desperate. All she wanted to do was talk with me. She asked me to meet her tonight… privately.”

“And there it is,” Logan said. “The trap.”

“Perhaps,” Meredith said. “I think Stephen’s aware of that, too. That’s why he’s telling us now.”

Stephen nodded. “Look, guys. I may still have strong feelings for Nicole, but that doesn’t mean I’d sacrifice any of you for her. You are all my family. Part of me believes she must know that. Nicole took a risk exposing herself to me when she could’ve… you know… just possessed me again.”

“What do you believe her intentions are, Stephen?” Meredith said.

Stephen closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “She probably wants me to run away with her. That’s all she’s ever really wanted. I don’t believe she wants to harm any of you… but she does have a dark streak at times… when she doesn’t get what she wants.”

“And do you want to meet with her?” Meredith said.

This got Logan and Megan’s attention.

“I don’t know,” Stephen said. “Honestly, part of me wants to… part of me needs to. But I don’t trust that part of myself. I’ve told you about it, and I’ll do whatever ‘we’ decide to do. I just hope you all can still trust me after this.”

“I trust you, Stephen,” Meredith said. She looked back at Logan. “He’s upset, but deep down, Logan trusts you, too.”

Logan grumbled and said nothing else.

“I trust you,” Megan added.

Stephen looked toward the half-dead and smiled.

She quickly looked away.

Meredith sighed heavily and shook her head at him. “Darn it, Stephen. How could we have traveled this long together and I’ve never even suspected her presence?”

Stephen laughed. “That’s a good question. Marcus was the only one who knew.”

“What?”

“Well… I should say, he figured it out and confronted me in Jefferson. That man’s good at keeping secrets.”

She shook her head. “I should’ve known. I guess I never had a reason to look in your direction with my… abilities. I’ve always trusted you.”

“You still can,” he said.

“And yet,” she added, “a potential threat has been hiding in plain sight all his time, right under my nose. How is that possible?”

Stephen shook his head. “Maybe because she wasn’t… dangerous… until after she felt trapped down in that compound. Before then, when we were on the road, she only cared about me. As strange as it sounds, without Nicole, I never would’ve survived the guilt of killing… Nicole. Whatever she is… she saved me. That much I know for sure.”

Meredith raised an eyebrow. “That does sound strange… but so does everything else these days.”

“Amen,” Logan chimed in, finally calming down. He stared at Meredith. “You should tell him. He has a right to know.”

Meredith gave the preacher a weary glance.

“Tell me what?” Stephen said.

Meredith sighed. “Logan’s correct. Up until now, I thought keeping my suspicions about Nicole between the preacher and myself were for the best. It seemed like you were free from this entity and didn’t need to carry any additional burdens about her.”

Stephen shifted uncomfortably. “Alright, out with it. I appreciate that you’re trying to protect me, but she’s here now. No more secrets.”

“Agreed,” Logan said.

Meredith nodded. “When you and Logan first described your encounters with… Nicole… assuming what Logan saw is the same entity… it reminded me of that beach in Elsewhere, where Toby manipulated me and…”

“When you caused The Change,” Megan finished.

Meredith glanced at the half-dead woman and found no judgment. She nodded sadly. “Yes. When I caused The Change.” She stared down at her lap. “You’ve all heard this strange story, and we’ve discussed it several times since I unloaded it on you. Before I sent that beach full of lions over into our world, all at once, there were six others that Toby had me believe I’d cast into the ocean. He called them, ‘The First Ones’. Well, the very first one I unknowingly sent across into our world turned into a black mist right at the end, as if it were trying to change form from the emerald lion… into something else… much like what Logan described from his encounter down at that elevator airlock when Jonas became Nicole, then shifted into the Shadow Man, or mist, that he described from his past.”

“Wait,” Stephen said, shaking his head. “Are you trying to tell me that Nicole was that first lion?”

“I don’t know, Stephen,” she said. “It’s just a suspicion. But if Nicole is that lion that I brought over to our world, then she’s very old… and she’s been here a long time, long before The Change. Toby named her Sylvia and called her one of the oldest of The First Ones… and described her as very fierce. We already know one of the other six I’ve sent over. The last one was named, Taven.” Meredith took a deep breath. “It’s possible that Sylvia was initially drawn toward me at the power plant… and that’s how she found you.”

“Shit,” Stephen hissed, completely in shock. “If you’re right-”

“If she’s right, Stephen,” Logan interrupted. “Then your demon girlfriend is extremely fucking dangerous.”

Meredith raised her hands. “If she is, Stephen. I don’t know for sure. But now we’ve told you.”

Stephen rubbed his eyes. “If Nicole is this… Sylvia… then she appeared to Logan before we ever met, and possibly others several times before that, over the course of however long she’s been around.”

Meredith laughed at the implications. “Correct. If Nicole is Sylvia, then she’s been here a while, and has been alone in our world for God-knows how long. Who knows what that did to her over the years and what she’s done. Maybe when she found you, she found something much better than being alone in all that darkness.”

Stephen looked at her. “Is that even possible?”

Meredith and Logan looked at each other, unable to find a suitable answer.

“Maybe love saved you both,” Megan chimed in, causing everyone to stare. The half-dead girl nonchalantly shrugged her shoulders and poured the crumbs out of the pork rinds bag into her mouth.

Meredith laughed. “This wise young woman has reminded me of a thing or two today. But most importantly, that we now have another option other than trying to trap this thing the next time it comes for you, Stephen… and destroy it. That was the original plan if Nicole ever showed back up.”

Stephen looked terrified. “You were… waiting for something like this to happen? So, you could… kill her?”

“Yes,” Logan said. “We had a plan… a damn scary one.”

“A risky plan,” Meredith added. “One that would have exposed us to Toby because I would have had to use everything within me to destroy this creature… along with whatever Logan knew about demons, and what his God could do to… stop them.”

“In Jesus’ name,” he added. “But since we’re short on animals. A pig was out of the question.”

“So, let me get this straight,” Stephen said. “If I remember my Bible stories correctly, you wanted to… what… wait and see if Nicole would possess me again, and then… exorcise her from me and send her into a pig? That is absolutely ridiculous!”

“Not exactly, little brother,” Logan said. “But the principle is the same.”

Meredith smiled. “We discussed this to some length and decided that I might be able to get her out of you-”
“With the power of Jesus flowing through you,” Logan corrected.

“Okay,” Meredith said. “And then… trap her in the body of one of the reanimated.”

“Long enough to kill it… and her,” Logan said.

“Or… send it back to the darkness,” Meredith finished.

Stephen was rubbing the sides of his head. “And you really believe you could do this?”

Meredith looked to Logan and said, “Logan believes more than I… so I left the believing up to him and his God. This was the best plan we had, until now.”

“What?” Logan looked as confused as Stephen. “We have a better plan now?”

Meredith looked over at Megan and smiled.

Megan just stared back.

“What was that passage of scripture about ‘love’ again, Logan?” she said. “The one in Corinthians something or another about how love endures?”

Logan looked confused for a moment, then quoted, “‘Love never fails’.”

“That’s the one,” she said, turning back to Stephen. “I think you should meet her tonight.”

“Excuse me?” Stephen said, in disbelief.

“Are you fucking kidding me!” Logan expressed.

Megan just stood there, staring back and forth between the two men, wishing she had more pork rinds.

“Yes,” she said. “I think you should meet her tonight. I believe that if she wanted to harm you, or us, she didn’t have to expose herself on the road. She could’ve just seized your body, ran far away, and then spent an eternity trying to make you love her. But that’s not how love works… and even Nicole has learned that much from her time in the light.”

Stephen shook his head. “I show up alone, she may do just what you said. She won’t harm me… but she might force me to come with her, especially if she falls into one of her dark… moods.”

“Would you rather we attempt to kill her?”

“No,” he said. “Please… I don’t want it to come to that. It could get ugly for everyone.”

“Then go meet her… and invite her back here.”

Logan’s jaw was about to hit the floor.

“You want me to… invite her back here?” Stephen said.

“Yes,” Meredith said. “Tell her we want to talk with her.”

“Even if you could… talk with her… which you can’t because only Logan and I can see her… you’re assuming I can convince her to agree to this?”

Meredith smiled. “You let me worry about the ‘seeing her’ part. If she loves you as much as I think you love her… then yes… I believe you can convince her.”

“She’ll think it’s a trap.”

“Then tell her the truth. Let her know what we know and that you’ve told us she’s here. Play it straight with her, and she’ll trust you.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“I can’t, Stephen. This time, I’m putting my faith in you. I would rather not get into a confrontation with this creature. It could be costly to everyone and Toby might find all of us, including Nicole. Maybe we can come to some common ground.”

Stephen laughed. “This is insane!”

“Amen,” Logan agreed.

“Maybe,” Meredith said. “But maybe Nicole is tired of running as much as we are. Maybe she’s ready to come out of the shadows and stop being someone’s secret lover.”

“This is as risky as your first plan,” Stephen said. “You’ve read the notebook. What if she can’t control the darkness?”

“Then help her,” she said. “As I suspect you’ve always done, Stephen.”

Stephen’s shoulders dropped. He looked down toward the floor and shook his head. “This is all… too much. For the longest time I thought Nicole was only in my head… and that I was going crazy. After a while, I just accepted her regardless of my mental state… and made her real. Turns out she was here all along… and she’s some kind of… what… monster from another world?”

Meredith smiled. “I don’t envy what you’re going through. I know it’s difficult and I appreciate your openness about Nicole, especially over the last few weeks. I don’t want you to get hurt, Stephen. If I thought for a moment that I was putting you in danger-”

“I know,” he said. “And you’re right. Nicole or Sylvia… she’s had plenty of opportunities to harm me since the beginning.”

“And that’s why I believe this might be the best way to proceed,” she finished. “By us showing her that we trust her with you, then perhaps she’ll take a chance and trust us. But don’t get me wrong. If this is something that’s going to hurt you in other ways… then we’ll find another solution.”

“I’ll do it,” he said. “Even if she doesn’t agree to meeting with the rest of you, perhaps I can still talk her into keeping her distance, or, just leaving. She did promise me that she would leave if I met with her and still wanted her gone.”

“If you can trust that demon,” Logan added.

Meredith glared at him.

“Okay… sorry,” he said. “Nicole.”

“Nicole, Sylvia, demon, or whatever she is… I do still have feelings for her,” Stephen said. “Everything else might be uncertain… but I know that much is true. I can’t explain that to any of you in a way that makes sense… not without sounding insane.”

“You don’t have to,” Megan chimed in, once again looking away from Stephen’s gaze. “When you really love someone… it never goes away… it just ‘is’. I suppose no one can explain that… or should have to.” She flashed Meredith a quick glance, then looked away. “

Meredith smiled at the girl.

“Okay,” Stephen said. “How do we do this? She said she’d be at that ice cream shop down the road after the sun went down.”

“That’s out of my range,” Megan said. “I won’t be able to smell her from here.”

Meredith nodded. “Of course, it is.” She rubbed her hands together and finished, “Let’s get this place ready to meet… your friend… Stephen. Although, I must be honest, my skills as a medium are rusty. It’s been a long time since I’ve entertained a spiritual entity.”

They all gave her an incredulous look.

She smiled. “That was a joke… mostly.”

~~~

Next Episode 53-4

Previous Episode 53-2

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 53-3: 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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