~~~

A cool evening breeze disrupted the unnatural silence in Cherry Hill. Two loose flaps from a torn and moldy awning incessantly brushed against the aluminum siding of Sandy’s Shakes and Sundaes, making Stephen jumpy. He sat at one of the three round picnic tables beneath the awning, trying to figure out what he was going to say to Nicole. He’d arrived an hour after darkness settled and sat down after pacing around the ice cream shop for fifteen minutes.

Maybe she knows? he thought, believing Nicole had decided not to show herself. Maybe we’re still connected somehow, and she knows I told them?

Before he could torture himself with more questions, a slender figure approached from out of the darkness that swallowed up the roadway. Nicole was still wearing the dirty blue hoody and jeans as she sheepishly walked toward him, her hands buried in her pockets, her head hung low.

Stephen stood up as she stepped just under the awning and stopped.

She looked up at him through her messy hair and smiled. “You came.”

Stephen forced a smile. “Yeah. I came. Now what?”

Her shoulders dropped. “Please, my love… please don’t be like that.”

“Like what? And don’t call me that.”

She nodded. “There was a time when we were very comfortable around each other,” she said. “But now, now you look terrified.”

“Well, a lot has changed, Nicole.”

“I won’t argue with you on that. May I… May I sit with you?”

With reluctance, Stephen waved her over and sat back down.

Nicole sat directly across from him and sighed heavily while wiping her messy hair away from her eyes.

Stephen just stared. He felt like a statue, afraid to make a move.

“I must look awful,” she said. “I’m sure you’re not used to seeing me looking like a homeless person.”

“Frankly,” he said, “I don’t know why you chose to appear to me like this. Were you trying to make me feel sorry for you?”

Her smile faltered. “Sorry,” she said. “Since we’ve been apart, I… I’ve strived to find appearances that convey the way I feel… as opposed to the way you felt.”

“Can something like you really feel anything?” he said. “Or is that just part of the act?”

Nicole looked hurt. She took another breath, then said, “I know… I know you’re upset with me. I’ve done some horrible things to you… and to… others.”

“You mean all those people you manipulated into killing themselves… through me? Yeah… the word I was thinking of was ‘monstrous’.”

She placed her dirty hands on top of the table and stared at them. “If my appearance troubles you, I could-”

“No,” he said, coldly. “Don’t change a fucking thing.”

“Okay.”

“What do you want from me? I hope you don’t honestly expect me to want to run off with you.”

“No, I don’t expect you would, my… Stephen.” She looked up into his hard yes. “I came to ask for your forgiveness.”

Stephen was thrown off by the request. “Seriously?”

“Yes,” she said. “I want you to know that I take full responsibility for the evil things I’ve done, but I also want you to know that there’s another part of me that compels me to do them… a darker part. Since losing you in that horrible cave, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect and confront that ‘monster’ you spoke of. It was hard, but I… I finally defeated that darkness.”

“What does that even mean?”

She smiled. “It means that I’m free, Stephen. I’ll never be able to undo all the bad things I’ve done, but it was our love that made me… better… different. I never knew there was anything else for someone like me… until I found you. And now, I’m not who I used to be.”

“You mean when you were Sylvia?”

Her eyes went wide. She tensed up. “Where did you hear that name?”

“Then it’s true,” he said.

“I haven’t heard that name in a very long time,” she said. “The fact that you know it disturbs me. Did you… did you discover it in that awful place?”

“You mean the cavern?”

“Yes.”

Stephen paused, then said, “No. Meredith told me.”

Nicole got up quickly, causing Stephen to jump. She started backing up and looking around. “You told them, didn’t you? You told them I was here?”

“Calm down,” he said. “They’re not here.”

“I don’t believe you.”

Stephen sat back down. “Well, then what’s the point to any of this? If you don’t believe me… if you think I’ve set some trap… then just go away.”

She stopped and stared at him. “You… you told them… but came alone?”

“Yes,” he said. “I came alone.”

Nicole looked confused and ready to flee in an instant. “Why… why would they let you come here alone?”

Stephen sighed. “Because they know you wouldn’t hurt me. Because they know I still … I still care about you, too.”

Overwhelmed, Nicole put her hand over her mouth as tears streamed down her dirty cheeks.

“Please… just sit back down,” he said. “But if you can’t believe anything I say… then you might as well go away and never come back.”

“I don’t want to do that.”

He motioned her back to the table.

She stared, then nodded. “Okay, Stephen. I’ll trust you.” She came back over and cautiously sat down.

Stephen found something new beyond the dirty ruse, something genuine. The surprise in Nicole’s face showed him that whatever this entity was, it had not anticipated any of this.

“When I got back to the inn, I told them you found me. They’re my friends, my family, I couldn’t keep it from them, especially after everything that’s happened.”

She waited, unsure of what to say. Nicole’s face had become a collage of conflicting emotions.

“At first, they were afraid,” Stephen continued. “But then something changed.”

“What changed?”

Stephen laughed lightly and said, “Meredith looked past the fear and… she started to understand how we are with each other.”

Nicole’s eyebrows shot up. “Explain that?”

“I don’t know that I can. All I know is that they were originally waiting for you to show up for weeks, and they intended on confronting you, believing you might… take control of me again.”

Nicole was stone.

“But then, Meredith… started to see another way.”

“And what way is that, Stephen?”

He looked her in the eyes and said, “She knows that we still love each other. She believes… she believes that counts for something, something that might not make you a threat.”

Nicole sat back. “She… they… believe in us?”

“As crazy as that sounds… yes. They want to meet with you and… talk.”

“It’s a trick.” Nicole was about to get up. “They’re using you to get to me!”

He shook his head. “Stop that. Stop trying to run. Aren’t you tired of running?”

She hesitated.

“After all that time we spent together on the road, then stuck in the compound… aren’t you fed up with keeping what we have a big dark secret?”

“There… there is no other way for us, Stephen.”

“Bullshit. They want to meet you… not kill you. For the first time, we might be together… openly! You speak of freedom, but all you know is running away with me so that we can keep our dark secret love going. But now, we have a chance to be accepted!”

“Then… then you still… you still love me? After all I’ve done to you and yours?”

Stephen closed his eyes and laughed, realizing everything he’d just said. “Yes, I guess I still do. But I also hate you for what you’ve done.”

Nicole buried her face in her hands and started to weep. “I’m… I’m so very sorry. I can’t… I can’t undo what I’ve done… but… but if you still love me… I can make the rest of it matter! I can make amends!”

“Can you make this first step?” he said. “Can you come out of the darkness… for real… and show yourself to them?”

Nicole looked horrified. “You mean… my true form? No…NO! I’m… I’m not Sylvia anymore. I’m Nicole!”

Stephen frowned. “You’ve transformed your appearance to look like a dead girl… but that doesn’t make you Nicole.”

“But I am!” she insisted. “Not the Nicole from the diary… but Nicole nonetheless! I was born out of a book, and from your immense grief… but it’s what we’ve created together that makes me… this Nicole! Do you understand?”

Stephen paused. “Yes,” he said. “I do understand.”

“Then you know… you know me, Stephen. I’m not Sylvia… not anymore… not ever again.”

Stephen frowned. “And what if the darkness overtakes you again? What then? How many more people will die because you can’t hold back the darkness within you… that’s still a part of you?”

“It’s a part of us all, Stephen. We all struggle against it, do we not?”

Stephen was stunned by that response. “You’re right.’

“I was born in the darkness… but I’m drawn to the light, the light that you and I have created together. I never knew what it was… what it meant… until our love was born. And now, there is no Sylvia. There is no darkness. There is only you and I… and what we both feed upon… together.”

Staring at Nicole now, he could almost forget everything he’d found out about what she was, just as their love had originally taught him how to forget everything she wasn’t.

Almost.

He reached his hand across the table to grab Nicole’s.

She retracted them quickly before the illusion was challenged. “You know,” she said, sadly. “You’ve always known that we can’t interact physically.”

He nodded with a smile, pulling his hand back. “Sorry,” he said. “I sometimes forget.”

She smiled at him. “Yes… you do. And it always makes me happy when you do.”

He nodded. “Please come back to the inn with me. Meet my family. Let them see that you’re not a monster. Let them see… let them see what I see.”

Nicole stared into Stephen’s sincere eyes for a very long time.

~~~

“For the record,” Logan started, continuing to wear out the common room rug with his pacing, “I think this is a very foolish idea.”

Meredith smiled at the big preacher from the sofa, then folded her hands across her lap, trying to keep her mind calm. “Logan, you’re making me dizzy. Please, why don’t you sit down and try to relax.”

“Bah!” he grunted, waving a dismissive hand in the air. “Someone needs to take this threat seriously.”

“I understand the risks in what we’re attempting,” she said. “But I also understand the alternative. If I’m forced to confront… Nicole… the danger we will be in afterwards is far more significant.”

He stopped. “Do you really believe we can… what… befriend this creature?”

She smiled. “I wouldn’t go that far. But, yes, we might be able to win her over to our side without confrontation. If Stephen is correct, Nicole has just as much to lose by Toby locating us.”

“Assuming she hasn’t been sent by that fucker.”

Meredith looked toward the kerosene lamp lit up on the small coffee table, then stared about the room at the entrancing shadows cast upon the wood-paneled walls decorated with framed black and white photos. “I rather like this inn. I imagine it was once very… nostalgic… pointing to the simplicity and comforts from another time.”

Logan shook his head at her in disbelief. “Well… I’m glad you’re pleased with our present accommodations,” he added sarcastically, and continued to pace.

From her position near the front window, Megan snickered, drawing the preacher’s attention.

“Something funny?” he said.

Megan kept her back turned to hide her smile. “No,” she lied.

Meredith cupped her own smile to hide her amusement.

He shook his head at them. “Great!” he said. “Apparently I’m the only one bothered by inviting the demon over for a welcome-to-the-neighborhood sit down! Hell, we even got some fucking ambience to set the mood! I wonder if we can whip up some iced tea, you know, just to show our hospitable side, assuming the demon likes-”

Megan laughed, surprising them both. She quickly cupped her mouth and regained her composure.

This made Meredith giggle uncontrollably.

Logan just stared at them, his hands on his hips. He looked ready to implode. “Did I say something amusing?” he growled.

“Sorry, Logan,” Meredith said, calming down.

Megan kept her back turned.

“I guess we each deal with stress a bit differently,” she added, offering the big man an apologetic look.

Megan tensed up by the window. “Stephen’s coming back.”

Logan immediately started pacing, whispering prayers into the air.

Meredith didn’t move. Instead, she straightened her back against the sofa, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath to steady herself. Be ready.

Stephen knocked lightly on the door, then entered the inn. His face wore a mixture of excitement and trepidation.

Meredith opened her eyes and smiled.

“Was she there?” Logan said. “Did you see the damn thing?”

“If you mean Nicole, then yes, we talked,” Stephen said, turning his head toward each of them. “It went better than expected.”

Before anyone could ask the obvious, Megan stared over at Meredith, her eyes going wide as she sniffed at the air and then retreated into the nearest corner, crouching into an attack position. “She’s close,” she said, staring at the door as if she were ready to charge at it. “I can smell her.”

“Shit!” Logan hissed.

“It’s okay!” Stephen said. “She agreed to wait in the road until I had a chance to prepare you. But she’s ready to bolt in a moment… so, please-”

“It’s alright, Stephen,” Meredith said. She turned to Megan. “Megan, honey, could you please join me on the couch. We don’t want to scare off our guest.”

Megan whipped her head toward the old medium and attempted to calm down. “Sorry,” she said. “Some scents put me on edge.” Surprisingly, the half-dead woman, exercising considerable restraint, stood up, took a deep breath, then calmly walked over to Meredith. Instead of sitting, she moved around the couch and stood directly behind it, placing her hands along the back edge which she gripped fiercely.

Meredith looked over at the young woman’s hands, then said, “I guess that’s your version of calm?”

“It’s the best I can do… right now,” Megan said.

Even Logan attempted to appear calm. He stood at the back of the room, leaning against the old grandfather clock. He crossed his arms and continued to pray beneath his breath.

Stephen wiped nervous sweat from his brow. “She’s taking a considerable risk… on me,” he reminded them. “That should count for something, right?”

“Maybe,” Logan said suspiciously.

Meredith scowled at him. She looked to Stephen. “Yes, Stephen, I believe it does. Why don’t you go ahead and invite her inside.”

Stephen hesitated, then said, “Nicole wanted me to tell you that she doesn’t want trouble, but she’s prepared to offer it… if this is a trick.”

Meredith smiled. “No tricks, Stephen. You have my word.”

“I know,” he said. “She also wanted me to tell you that she’ll go no further than the front door, and she wants me to leave it open.”

“That’s fine. Anything else?”

Stephen just stared at her. “How will… you know… how are you going to… see her?”

“When you go back outside, tell Nicole that I’ll be… opening myself up… just a little… but enough for her to make a connection with me.”

Stephen gave her a confused look.

Meredith laughed lightly. “I believe she’ll understand what that means. Her kind know what I’m capable of… in the spiritual sense.”

The school teacher nodded. He was about to exit, then stopped, and turned back. “Will she appear to you as differently as she does to both myself and Logan?”

“If you’re wondering if I’ll see her true form, Stephen, then I believe the answer is ‘no’. We can establish a connection… but I’m certain she’ll be as guarded as I will be.”

He nodded. “But you will see… something?”

“Yes. She’ll have limited access to my memories, enough to choose a form that’s familiar to me.” She turned to Logan and said, “She may very well appear to you as Jonas again. Can you deal with that?”

Logan shifted uncomfortably. “Yeah,” he said. “I figured that was the case. I’m prepared.”

Meredith looked to Megan. “You won’t see her at all, honey.”

“That’s okay,” Megan said. “I can track her by scent. I’ll know exactly where she is.”

Stephen laughed nervously. “This is going to be very strange.”

“Are you ready for this?” Meredith said.

Stephen sighed. “I’m absolutely terrified,” he said. “But a little relieved, as well.”

“I believe that sums up what we’re all feeling, including Nicole,” she said. “Go on now, Stephen. Go invite her in before she thinks something’s wrong.”

He nodded and stepped outside.

A few minutes later, Stephen stepped back inside and moved off to the right of the open front door.

Meredith could feel Megan increasing her grip on the back of the couch as the young half-dead tensed up next to her. “She’s standing in the doorway,” she half-whispered, half-growled.

Logan stopped leaning and reached behind him to touch the barrel of the shotgun he’d placed up against the clock. “Dear God,” he whispered as the entity stood in the open doorway, appearing to him as Jonas. “Protect us from our folly,” he finished.

Stephen turned to Nicole. She was still wearing the dirty blue hoody and jeans.

She flashed him a nervous smile.

“It’s okay,” he told her. “Everyone’s a little unnerved by what they see.”

She nodded. “I know. This is hard for me, too.” She turned her gaze directly toward the older woman on the couch and reached out toward the keyhole opening in the woman’s thoughts.

Meredith’s eyes suddenly went wide as she restrictively opened her mind toward the entity and established a connection. She gasped and covered her mouth.

Standing before her in the doorway, she saw a woman with short brown hair and brown eyes. She had a gentle smile and was wearing a familiar sundress that both Meredith and her old lover shared a fondness for.

Meredith’s throat became tight and her eyes started to water. “Hannah?” she whispered.

~~~

Next Episode 53-5

Previous Episode 53-3

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 53-4: 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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