~~~

“My apologies. My… appearance… has caused you discomfort.”

Meredith stared in shock at the entity wearing Hannah’s favorite sundress, one that she wore often on their evening walks together. She looks and even sounds like my Hannah, Meredith thought. “It’s… it’s alright,” she said. “I was caught by surprise, is all. It’s not often the past stares back at you.”

Hannah flashed her a smile. She looked to Stephen and then back at all of them. “It doesn’t always work, but when I make a connection with someone new, it’s usually the strongest memories of people that I’m drawn to. They are the most detailed and easiest to emulate. Unfortunately, these vivid memories are also surrounded by pain and regret and are of loved ones who have passed.”

“Who do you see, Meredith?” Logan said.

She smiled at him. “I see… I see Hannah. And you?”

Logan frowned. A skinny young man with slicked back hair, wearing a leather jacket over a concert t-shirt stared back at him. “It’s something pretending to be Jonas.”

Meredith turned to Stephen.

“Nicole,” he said with a smile. “Always Nicole.”

“This is extraordinary,” she said to the entity. “Do you have access to the personalities and thoughts of the people you appear as… through our memories of them?”

“Sometimes,” Hannah said. “The stronger the connection a person has with someone, the easier it is for me to form accurately, completing the appearance.”

“That’s fascinating,” Meredith said.

“It’s disturbing,” Logan added. He could no longer look at his dead nephew.

Jonas frowned at the big preacher, then said to them all, “Again, I apologize for any pain that I’m causing by appearing to all of you wearing these faces. There was a time when I did this frequently, but only to hide in your world, or in an act of desperation as when I had to appear as Logan’s nephew near that awful cavern.” Jonas looked back at the preacher. “I regret that action… and I’m sorry.”

Logan nodded, but refused to look at it.

Nicole looked to the man she loved and said, “Since finding Stephen, I have strived to ‘become’ rather than ‘appear’.” She turned to the rest and finished, “And never have I appeared to three at once. The odds are against it. This is as strange for me as it is for all of you.”

Megan sniffed at the air in the area of the creature.

Nicole stared at the half-dead girl. “I cannot connect with the girl, not in the way I can with the rest of you… and yet… we are connected.” She turned to Meredith puzzled, “How does the girl continue to function like a human when there’s so much darkness within her?”

“Her name is Megan. What do you mean?” Meredith said.

Megan turned, not appreciating being the topic of conversation she couldn’t hear.

“Her kind normally don’t last this long. I’m surprised she hasn’t tried to kill you all. She is… unusual.”

Meredith relayed to the half-dead what Nicole said.

Megan crossed her arms in front of her chest and looked in the direction she detected the entity to be, giving the shape-shifting creature a cold, dark stare.

Nicole laughed. “She even acts… human. It’s as if I’ve offended her.”

Meredith relayed this as well.

“You have… and you still are,” Megan said in response.

Nicole smiled sheepishly. “Sorry.”

“She is sorry, Megan,” Meredith said, amused.

Megan turned to the medium and whispered, “She smells stupid, too.”

Meredith hid her smile behind her hand.

Nicole turned to Stephen. “Why am I here? This was clearly a mistake.”

“You’re here because I asked Stephen to invite you,” Meredith said.

Hannah turned back to Meredith. “To what end? Is this some sort of trick? If so, you will find me a whole lot less amusing if you intend me harm.”

Logan shifted at the veiled threat.

Meredith raised her hands submissively. “No tricks. I was hoping we might meet to establish some sort of… understanding.”

“‘Understanding’?” Hannah said. “What is there to understand? You all reek of fear, as has always been the case when your kind and mine cross paths.”

“And yet, we’re here now, having a civil conversation, despite our fears,” Meredith said with a smile.

“I know who you are,” Hannah said. “I’ve been in your world for a very long time and have seen many faces, have worn many faces… and yet… your face I recognize from before this place. You were just a child back then. I don’t know how… but you are the reason I’m here.”

Meredith nodded. “And you are Sylvia.”

“No longer,” Nicole said, turning to smile at Stephen.

He smiled back.

“I have not been ‘Sylvia’ for a very long time.”

“You said you were hiding in our world,” Meredith pushed. “Was it Toby you were hiding from?”

“Not at first,” Hannah said. “But when no one else came… I lost faith. I felt like a mistake. The concept of time, and its passing, was foreign to me… it left me confused and alone. Eventually, others came. I hid from them because I feared them. I was not like them anymore… and yet… I felt them in the darkness.”

Meredith’s eyes lit up. “You’re referring to the First Ones?”

“You should know. You sent us here.”

“And are they all here now?” Meredith said.

Hannah looked confused. “‘Now’ is a relative word. It is always ‘Now’ where we were, when you sent us here.”

Of course, she thought, remembering one of earliest discussions with the boy, Toby, from the fictional beach. “Think in terms of our time,” the old medium clarified. “Have they all arrived, or are there more to come?”

“Yes, they are all here… now.”

Stephen turned. “Now… I’m confused.”

“Ditto,” Logan said.

Meredith laughed lightly. “Remember when I spoke of Elsewhere? There is no concept of time in the darkness. On that beach, when Toby first tricked me with the lions, as practice, he had me send six across the ocean from that timeless place. But over here, any of the six could have arrived anywhere along our timeline… including the future. Sylvia just confirmed that this is not the case any longer.”

“Got it,” Stephen said, then added, “Her name is Nicole.”

“Of course,” Meredith said. “I meant Nicole.”

“Thank you,” she said to the medium, still looking at Stephen.

“Which leads me to ask an inappropriate question,” Logan said. “But since Nicole’s not a lady… not really… I suppose it’s okay. How the hell old are you?”

Jonas glared at him. “Lady or not… it’s still a rude question.”

Logan averted his eyes. “Whoops,” he said. “I retract the question-”

“450 years… give or take a few,” Jonas said. “That’s how long I’ve been in this world. Prior to that, it doesn’t matter since age has no relevance in the dark.”

Stephen looked faint. He reached for the wall and took a deep breath.

Nicole looked concerned. “I’m sorry, Stephen. These are things I’d hoped we’d never need to discuss. I was not trying to deceive you.”

“I know,” he said. “It’s just mind-blowing.” He stared into the dirty face of a teenage girl, just on the edge of being a woman before he’d stabbed her, remembering thoughts he’d had since their bizarre relationship had started of how he would continue to age and she would never look any older than eighteen. He had considered approaching her on the subject eventually to see if she could alter her appearance to include ‘aging’… but now… with hundreds of years buried behind those adolescent eyes… it all seemed suddenly irrelevant. He managed a smile for her sake, and said, “I’m okay… really. It’s just strange and ironic that I’m now the one who gets to use the, ‘you may be too old for me’ line.”

“Don’t you dare,” she teased.

Meredith broke the moment. “I knew that actions in Elsewhere affected time differently here… but… my goodness… 450 years!”

Hannah turned and frowned. “Trust me, it’s not been a pleasant experience. Imagine yourself thrown into another world with no understanding of it. And then imagine the terror that comes with knowing you’ve been marooned on that world. For many years, I sought to end my existence… but had no idea how to achieve this.” She quickly wiped a tear away from the corner of her right eye.

Stephen yearned to reach out and comfort her but restrained himself for obvious reasons.

Nicole collected herself and sighed. “I don’t want to discuss this any further,” she said. “I came because Stephen asked me to come… and I thought… I thought he might think better of me if I did.” Hannah glared at Meredith. “But in the last few minutes of talking with you, I’ve only managed to confuse and cause my love more pain. So again, why am I here?”

Meredith nodded and took a deep breath. “You know who I am… or more accurately… you know what Toby made me do.”

“Yes. The one who calls himself Toby is much older than I, speaking in terms you will understand, and his hunger and designs for your world, though far exceeding my understanding, is as old as what you call… time.”

Meredith paused to let that sink in. “As far as my understanding is concerned, I am still just that naïve child he manipulated on that beach long ago. But I do know he is the enemy of light and life.”

“That he is,” Hannah agreed.

“And you know, as I do, that regardless of Toby’s plans… he has not succeeded.”

“Not yet.”

Meredith studied Hannah’s face. Her expression was unreadable. “We will stand against Toby for as long as we can, as long as we must, to give our world a chance to survive. I can’t tell if you believe our cause if futile, perhaps you do, but we’re not going to accept that… we cannot.”

Hannah nodded. She measured her words carefully, then responded, “I understand your motivation to fight, even if I believe you can’t win.”

Stephen stared at her. “Is that why you didn’t help us at the compound? You knew the Shadow Dead were coming. You could’ve warned us but chose to stand aside.”

Nicole couldn’t look at him. “Yes. I chose not to be involved. My only concern was to see you safe. But you wouldn’t leave.”

“And yet, despite your disbelief in us, some of us survived that attack,” he said.

Nicole looked at him. “Only because Toby willed it,” she said. “The only reason you are all still here is because Toby wanted her.” She glared at Meredith, and finished, “The only reason Toby attacked that compound in the first place was to push you in the direction he intended.”

“Toward the cavern?” she said.

“Yes. I believe he’d hoped to reconnect with her in that dark place. The barrier between this world and the darkness is very thin there. But the cavern was too… unstable.”

Logan nodded. “That explains a lot. We saw some terrible things down there that I’d very much like to ‘unsee’. Things that don’t belong in the light.”

Stephen shook his head sadly. He couldn’t shake her actions at the compound. “You… you let all those people die… when you could’ve warned me of Toby’s intentions.”

Nicole frowned. “As I’ve said, I’m not proud of my actions. At the time, I only wanted you away from them… away from Meredith. But you refused to leave. I… I was acting selfishly. I know that now.”

“Then help us now,” Meredith said.

Hannah gave her a puzzled look. “Is that what this is about? You asked me here to help you… what… fight against Toby? That’s absurd!”

“Any more absurd then believing that you can whisk Stephen away and hide while Toby consumes this world?” Meredith pushed. “Did you think that Toby was just going to forget about you while he was preoccupied with destroying the rest of us?”

Hannah looked away.

Stephen frowned at her. “Answer her, Nicole.”

She sheepishly looked into his disappointed eyes and nodded. “Yes. I… I’d been here so long… alone… and despairing… I didn’t care about anything. I didn’t care about Toby, and the others. I didn’t care about myself, or the darkness that called to me, or the light that sickened me. I wanted nothing to do with any of it… especially after what you call, The Change, finally occurred. I took that as a sign that Toby was close. I knew that if he ever found me and discovered what a lowly and useless mess I’d become, while others were furthering his cause in his absence, that he would dispose of me.”

Meredith’s eyes went wide. “You weren’t drawn to me when you found Stephen. You sought me out. You were coming for me, weren’t you?”

Hannah refused to meet her gaze.

“The Change had come, and you believed Toby would be riding in on its wake. So, you came to the power plant to get me as some sort of prize, hoping to win back favor in his eyes.”

“Is that true?” Stephen said. “Don’t lie.”

She sighed. “Like I said, I was desperate. I knew he would find me.”

“And then an unexpected,” Meredith said. “You found Stephen first.”

“Yes. That changed everything.”

Meredith smiled. “Because Stephen gave you something you failed to find in this world. He gave you purpose.”

“More than that,” Hannah said. “I tasted… love… for the first time. And I… hungered for it, rather than the darkness that had abandoned me.”

The old medium nodded. “I understand.”

“Do you?” Hannah challenged.

“I understand that you stayed with Stephen while we fled the power plant, and that you fell in love him,” Meredith said. “But I now understand why you never tried to possess him while we were on the run, and why you waited until we found the underground compound.”

She nodded. “Yes. I’ll confess if it proves I’ve changed. I had my love… and while the two of you traveled together… I had you, as well.”

“Like a damn insurance policy,” Logan said, shaking his head. “Should Toby come back and find you in the middle of your unnatural romance, you could still offer up Meredith as your prize. That’s some shady shit, not that I’m surprised.”

Nicole felt the weight of Stephen’s hard gaze. She started to feel cornered. “Have I been brought here to stand trial, then?”

Meredith wasn’t finished. “Did you… were you responsible for Toby discovering me at the compound?”

“No!” she quickly said. “He didn’t need me for that!”

“But when he did find me… that’s when you were preparing to take Stephen away, yes?”

She nodded. “I knew you couldn’t stop him, any more than I could. I just wanted to leave and take my love with me.”

“And after all that,” Stephen said, “what do you think would’ve happened once Toby found us?”

Nicole didn’t have an answer.

Stephen laughed. “Do you think he would’ve given us his blessing to live out the rest of our days, or mine anyway, in bliss?”

Nicole shook her head.

“And when he took me from you, or made you kill me in front of him for his own amusement, what then? Would you just jump back into the darkness and serve your master?”

“I… I would never!” Nicole was aggravated. “I would never let him harm… how could you possibly think that I would-”

Megan tensed up behind the couch. “Something’s wrong,” she whispered to Meredith. “She smells… different… bad.”

Meredith refused to look away from Hannah. She was ready to shut the entity out of her mind in a moment. “Nicole, please… stay calm. Stephen, didn’t mean to-”

“I WOULD NEVER HURT HIM! NOT THE ONE I LOVE!” Nicole shouted at the medium.

Megan looked like she was about to leap over the couch. “I smell it!” she hissed. “The very bad smell!”

“Shit,” Logan muttered under his breath. He was about to grab the shotgun.

For a moment, the illusions of Nicole, Jonas and Hannah shifted into black smoke, and then they all saw a badly beaten and bloody young woman in a torn tank top flicker in and out of the blackness. A kitchen knife was protruding from her left eye.

“Nicole, don’t do this!” Stephen pleaded. “You need to control the anger!”

And then the image of the murdered girl was gone.

Meredith relaxed a little when the image of Hannah returned.

Logan was looking once more at his dead nephew.

Stephen was relieved when Nicole changed back into the woman wearing the dirty hoody.

“I’m… I’m sorry,” she told them all. “Everything’s… everything’s alright now.”

Meredith smiled to lighten the moment. “That was a bit… unsettling.”

Hannah nodded sadly and stared at the floor. “Sometimes my anger gets the best of me and I… drift.”

“That’s okay,” the old medium said. “No harm done. Are you… feeling better?”

“Yes.”

“I’ve seen you before,” Meredith said, attempting to redirect the conversation away from what offended the creature. “Just now, when you changed, you resembled a young woman who appeared to me in a cave that was made to look like the den of those who called themselves the Shadow Dead. I remember losing control in that cave. If I recall correctly, you helped me come back from the edge of a very dark place in my mind.”

The others looked confused.

Hannah nodded. “Yes, I was there. You were doing something extremely dangerous, summoning a horde. I feared you were about to be overcome… so I intervened.”

“And you were afraid I’d turn on Stephen, yes?”

She looked to him. “Yes,” she answered.

“How did you-”

“No more questions,” Hannah interrupted. “What do you want from me?”

“I want you to help us,” Meredith said. “Just like you helped me in that cave from being overwhelmed. Help us find a way to defeat Toby.”

Hannah laughed. “That’s ridiculous! There is no ‘way’.”

“You’re just afraid,” Stephen said. “And that’s okay. We are all afraid.”

Nicole smiled at him. “I fear many things since coming to this world. But nothing more than losing you, my love.”

“Then help us,” Meredith pushed. “We all fear losing the people we care about, but together, our strength measures up to that fear and gives us a chance.”

Hannah looked at the strange woman. “You really believe that, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

Nicole looked back at Stephen. “And… you will fight with her… even if you can’t win?”

Stephen smiled. “I think we gave up on winning a while back. We’re just trying to survive… moment to moment… until the chance to win presents itself.”

Nicole shook his head at him. “You will die, my love. I… I can’t stand the thought of it.”

“Dying isn’t the worst thing that could happen to us,” Logan chimed in, surprising them all. “It’s how we live before the dying, that matters. That’s the hard stuff.” He took in his friends and laughed. “We’ve all done our share of falling flat on our faces in the living department. But I believe God Almighty is pleased with the outcome so far. ‘Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’, the Good Book says. And if we die tomorrow, loving each other as best we could, then Death… well… good ole’ Death doesn’t seem to matter as much.”

“Amen,” Stephen said, causing the preacher to laugh.

Megan nodded her approval.

Meredith was staring at the big man, smiling from ear to ear. She turned back to Hannah and said, “As you can see, we’ve made up our minds to live for as long as this crazy world will allow it. We may not be able to defeat Toby… or win… but as long as we abide in Love, regardless of our greatly depleted life expectancy, we are victorious already.”

“AMEN!!!” Logan jumped in enthusiastically. “Preach it, sister!”

Nicole looked stunned. “I… I fail to understand this… optimism… in the face of Death’s certainty. Perhaps if you all had been in the darkness that waits beyond, you would not be so… encouraged.”

“I have been in the dark,” Meredith said. “Probably for most of my life. But love has overcome that darkness, whether I understand how that is… or not. And you, Nicole, have been liberated from the darkness by that same… Love.”

Nicole stared long into Stephen’s eyes. “Yes… what you speak of is true. It’s as you say… I do not understand the ‘how’… only that it just is.”

“Then perhaps, we will find a way to ‘win’ a winless battle in the same fashion,” Meredith said. “But I believe your help would bring us closer to achieving it.”

“Please, Nicole,” Stephen said. “You were always trying to get me to run away with you… and I get it… you wanted to protect me and… our love.”

“Yes,” she said with a smile. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted.”

“But now, when I need you to stay and fight with me—to make a stand instead of fleeing—you resist.”

Nicole desperately wanted to understand. “But… to stay… means death. How is that better?”

“How does that still matter?” Stephen countered. “Whether we stay or flee or die… if we are together, then the rest is irrelevant.”

Nicole nodded then looked away. She scanned the other’s faces then rested her gaze on Meredith. “I… you all have given me much to consider. I will require time to ponder your words.”

“Okay,” Meredith said. “That’s a start.”

“Unless there’s anything else, I would like to leave now,” she said.

Meredith nodded. “Of course. It’s getting late. We could all use a little time to reflect on this evening.”

Nicole nodded then turned to Stephen. “That’s… that’s the best I can do… for now.”

Stephen smiled. “It was brave of you to come here. I want you to know that I appreciate that.”

She smiled. “Will you walk me out? I’d like a few more words alone with you.” She quickly caught herself and turned to Meredith. “If… If that’s okay with the rest of you.”

“Of course,” Meredith said. She looked to Stephen.

He nodded. “We’ll be alright.”

Stephen and Nicole stepped out of the inn. As soon as she did, Meredith and Logan no longer sensed a connection with the creature. The illusions of Jonas and Hannah were gone.

Logan waited until Nicole and Stephen were out of earshot, then turned to Meredith and said, “Well?”

Meredith frowned at the big preacher. “Yes,” she said. “I was very careful. I don’t believe she sensed me in her mind when we were connected. I’ve discovered… well… I believe I’ve found a vulnerability, albeit, a very dangerous one to exploit.”

Megan stared at them. “Is something wrong?”

Meredith replied, “I hope not, honey, I really do. But just in case… we will be ready.”

“For what?” the half-dead said.

Meredith looked away, refusing to answer.

~~~

Next Episode 53-6

Previous Episode 53-4

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 53-5: 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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