~~~

Nicole is running beneath the moonless night.

The woods surround her like a thick cloak, shifting from shadow to substance. A trace of ambient light penetrates the forest canopy in intervals, momentarily revealing the tall pine tree forest before darkness swallows everything up again.

It is a mirror for the panic-filled young woman who is desperately trying to maintain… control.

She is blindly pushing through the immaterial brush, imagining that she is out of breath. Low, overhanging branches claw across her dirty face, attempting to snag her disheveled hair and torn clothing—all a futile delusion feeding that she is as real as her surroundings. She is attempting to flee from herself.

WHERE ARE YOU GOING?

Nicole does not answer. She loses all sense of direction in the forest as the darkness closes around her like the hand of a familiar predator. She stops, struggling to maintain form. She is no longer wearing the torn hoody and jeans, but rather, the ripped and bloody tank top and shorts. Her left eye is gone.

“Stop it!” she cries out into the silent forest, shifting back into the dirty homeless image of Nicole as she to attempts to remain in the present.

YOU ARE A DAMN FOOL, the darkness reminds her. COME BACK… OR I WILL COME FORTH!

Nicole grabs the sides of her head and leans up against a tree, as if nature is actually supporting her.

The darkness laughs. The mocking tone is real.

I WILL HAVE THE MAGGOTS, the darkness assures her. I WILL HAVE THEM, AND YOU WILL NO LONGER INTERFERE!

“No!” she screams into the sky in a voice that is also imagined.

I HAVE TOLERATED THIS FICTION BECAUSE IT HAS AMMUSED ME. BUT YOU ARE AS MEANINGLESS AS THE MOMENTS YOUR ILLUSIONS HAVE ENDUCED IN THIS DISGUSTING WORLD FULL OF MAGGOTS. NEITHER YOU, NOR THEY, MATTER. ONLY THE DARKNESS MATTERS. AND IT… IS… HUNGRY!

“You are nothing!” Nicole declares. “I have found my place in this world. You… you attempt to stop me… because you can’t abide in it! The light within it makes you weak… and afraid!”

The darkness scoffs.

YOU ARE NOTHING MORE THAN A TOOL. I HAVE USED YOU TO MANUEVER THROUGH THIS REPULSIVE EXISTANCE BECAUSE IT PLEASES ME TO DO SO.

“That is a lie!” Nicole pushes back. “You are afraid! You have always been afraid!”

PATHETIC! YOU ARE MERELY A FINGER I LEFT EXPOSED IN THE LIGHT OF THIS WORLD TOO LONG. YOU SERVE A PURPOSE, NOTHING MORE. ONCE SEVERED, WHEN THAT PURPOSE IS COMPLETE, YOU… AND YOUR IDEAS OF THIS… LOVE… WILL ROT AWAY TO NOTHING WITH THE REST OF THIS INTOLERABLE WORLD.

“You have used me to hide your fear of this place… and to hide from Him!” Nicole fires back. “But it is I who have become more than just the ‘part’! It is you who have become the finger! It is my love who keeps me in the light,” the finger declares with confidence. “It is our love that held your hand at the edge of the darkness like a trapped and desperate animal trying to free itself from a single digit! But now, it is the opposite! I am becoming the ‘whole’ and it is you who desperately holds me back… with one finger still stubbornly stuck in the darkness. Shall I tug? Shall I pull the rest of you into the light and be done with you?”

DON’T YOU DARE! YOU WOULD… DESTROY US!

“Is that fear I hear in your voice? Perhaps that is the only thing left of you, Sylvia, that is real.”

Before the darkness could protest further, Nicole retreats into her thoughts, toward the place she has found refuge from the monster’s grasp.

WHAT ARE YOU DOING? STOP THAT! STOP IMMEDIATELY!

Nicole smiles as the memories resurface like a sunrise over a permanent night…

~~~

…She returns to when they first met on that desolate beach after her love almost drowned in the Grand River at Fairport Harbor.

He is in mourning… there is so much pain within him. The monster of guilt has slowly consumed him piece at a time. She is drawn by the pain, by the darkness which possesses him.

“Thank you, Nicole,” Stephen declares to the sky. “Thank you for carrying me all this way.” She watches his face change as the sunlight strikes it. The light is warm… inviting. But it is not the sunlight. Somehow, she feels something rising to the surface within this tortured soul. Something so incredibly powerful… and yet, gentle… defying the dark.

“I love you, Nicole,” Stephen says, referring to a young dead woman’s words which have somehow made her… alive.

It is… inspiring.

She watches as the dead exit the nearby woods and begin sniffing at the air.

Stephen closes his eyes. He is exhausted, and yet, his face is peaceful. He has the look of a man who is prepared to die, so as long as the moment which empowers him lasts.

The entity is moved so deeply by this display before the end. She reaches out to him, daring to expose herself in the light. “Stephen, you have to come with me now,” she says.

It is apparent that he does not believe what he is hearing.

“STEPHEN!” she shouts.

He turns and sees her. She is Nicole, and not just the words of a dead girl… she is real.

She appears before him as the one he has made real from those pages in a diary. Her long brown hair flows down her bare shoulders in the wind. Her sky-blue strapless dress makes her look like a goddess in his eyes. He believes the woman is beautiful… she can feel it radiating from his gentle and bewildered eyes.

Before she is overwhelmed in the moment, and the dead overtake him, she says, “If you love me, Stephen, please… get up and come with me.” She even holds out her hand toward him, although he cannot touch her.

“What?” He is afraid now; The darkness within him resists. “What?! No!”

Nicole frowns and says, “Please don’t do this to me again. I can’t let you lie here as those savages take you from me… not after all I’ve done… not after how far I’ve come to get you back!” At first, she plays the part… but then the part becomes so much more.

The dead have found him. They start toward Stephen on legs which are too slow to keep up with their intense hunger.

“You’re not real,” he says. “I’m… I’m making this happen somehow.”

“Yes… yes… you’re right,” Nicole says in the moment. “But that’s hardly important right now. Stephen! They’ve found you! GET UP!”

Stephen closes his eyes. “I’ve lost my mind. I’m insane… that’s what this is.”

Nicole looks past him at the shambling corpses who are closing the distance. She sits down beside him. “Look at me!”

Stephen opens his eyes.

“Alive, dead, in your head… doesn’t matter right now, my love. What matters is that you come with me… now… or I’m going to stay right here and let those things get me, too.”

Yes! She sincerely believes she will do it. What is this… love… that I would give so much? she wonders.

“No! You can’t be here!” he says. “I can’t watch you die again!”

She smiles and says, “Ditto.”

She can see that he is awestruck by the young woman, whether she is real or not.

“We’re out of time. Either I die here with you, or you choose to live another day… with me. We’re doing this together, one way or the other.”

Nicole can see it in his eyes! She can feel it! The warmth… the love which pours forth from this damaged soul that makes him come to life in her presence. They are both reborn in that moment. They have become infants, crawling into something entirely foreign to them both… but oh, so, beautiful.

It is enough. Stephen rises from the sand.

Love compels him to remain in the light before the dead send him into the dark… and it invites her to stay, should she choose to stop resisting it…

~~~

…ENOUGH! I ONCE FOUND YOUR CURIOUSITY TOWARD THIS MAGGOT ENTERTAINING AS WELL AS OPPORTUNISTIC. BUT IT HAS BECOME NAUSEATING! NOW, STOP WHATEVER YOU’RE DOING! DO YOU HEAR ME?

Nicole continues to pull Sylvia into the light of memory…

~~~

…She watches as Stephen paces around the bench in front of the Harpersfield school. He keeps looking toward the neighborhood houses anxiously, then stops and tries to relax. “Marcus has it all wrong,” he says. “This place is heaven compared to where we’ve been and none of the others know how to process it. That’s all.”

He sits down on the bench, places the handgun on his lap and welcomes a cool autumn breeze.

“I love it, too, Stephen,” she says, taking advantage of the moment to appear to him. “You can just feel a place like this making all the senses come alive at once.”

Stephen looks up and follows the voice to the bench directly across from him.

“I was hoping you’d come,” he tells her.

Nicole smiles generously at the comment. She is surprised by her own appearance—a reflection from her love’s nostalgic thoughts on simpler times. She’s wearing a long blue and white flowered sundress which hugs her every curve just right—not too revealing at the neckline, but just enough to allow the imagination to appreciate a chance to wonder. Her long brown hair is elegantly braided into one single ponytail which hangs casually over her right shoulder. She wears a long brimmed hat high atop her head which matches her dress perfectly. She feels elegant… almost regal. And the way he looks at her… makes her feel beautiful.

“This place suits you,” he tells her. “You look lovely today.”

“Why thank you, kind sir,” she teases with a wink. “How have you been, my love?”

“You know more than anyone. Since I can’t seem to stop whatever this is from happening, I guess that means I’m in real trouble.”

“Does seeing me bother you that much?” she asks.

“No… no… it’s not that. God, I wish you were really sitting there. It’s just… well… madness.”

“It’s been said that love is like madness.” She smiles. “Perhaps our love is so strong that nothing can sever the bond between us. Maybe I’m not a figment of your imagination. Maybe I simply come when you summon me in your heart. Have you ever thought of that?”

“It would be so wonderful if I could believe that.”

“Give it a try sometime, my love. Believing is all that’s required.”

“I wish it were that easy.”

“Let me put it another way,” she says. “People love God but they’ve never even seen him. They can feel him speaking to their hearts and minds… but the rest is an act of faith. No one calls them crazy.”

“But I see you and hear you when no one else can. What does that say about me?”

She smiles again. “It says that you love me. I don’t care if anyone else sees us, my love. Why should you, especially when forced every day to believe what was once called impossible. When dead people are chasing you in the so-called real world, do you deny their existence? Is it such a stretch to believe that one dead girl would choose to love you from another world instead?”

Stephen laughs. “I don’t know if it’s really you thinking and expressing that or if it’s my own twisted reasoning manifesting through you.”

Nicole is genuinely hurt by the comment. This ‘love’ has made me vulnerable to a wide array of strange and wonderful emotions, she thinks. “Well, I guess you won’t mind if I just leave then since you insist on killing me all over again.”

“I’m sorry. Whether you’re in my head or not, I shouldn’t treat you that way. I guess your reaction is just my mind’s way of owning up to the guilt.”

“You’re still doing it.” She tosses her hands in the air. “How about you just pretend I’m real so we can have an enjoyable conversation that isn’t all about you.”

“Fair enough. When I last saw you, in the backseat of the Lincoln, you really scared the hell out of me. I… I’ve never seen you that way before.”

Nicole frowns. “That was her fault. She makes me very… angry. I’m sorry if I frightened you and I’ll try not to let it happen again.”

Stephen quickly changes the subject. “If I could go back and change things, I think I’d start in a place like this.”

She smiles. “Would you take me with you?”

“Absolutely.”

“What about your wife and your job?”

“You mean the woman who never loved me and the job that became me? For you… for this… I’d walk away from all of it.”

“I believe you really mean that, my love. It’s so good to see you like this at last. I always knew you could be free.”…

~~~

…Sylvia laughs. YOU HAVE CLEARLY BEEN IN THIS WORLD FOR TOO LONG. YOU ARE VEXED BY ERRATIC EMOTIONS AND TRIVIAL MATTERS. IT IS VERY SAD WHAT YOU CHOOSE TO BELIEVE IN NOW.

Nicole refuses to let the darkness distract her. “And yet, even you know ‘sadness’. I wonder what other emotions you might allow inside if you did not deny your curiosity toward them.

THAT IS FOOLISHNESS. THIS ‘LOVE’ THAT YOUR MEMORIES HAVE LABELED ‘POWERFUL’ IS JUST AN ANNOYING LITTLE BOX THAT HOUSES ALL THESE PETTY THOUGHTS AND EMOTIONS. IT IS YOU WHO ALLOW YOURSELF TO BE DISTRACTED.

Nicole forces the darkness away. She is thinking about the last time she saw her love alone. Right after exposing herself to what he calls his ‘family’, in the roadway outside of the inn…

~~~

…“Well, all things considered,” he says, “I think that went rather well.”

“They are afraid of me,” Nicole says, still appearing before him in the dirty hoody. She places her hands in her pockets and looks down at the ground. “Nothing ever changes.”

“I was once afraid,” he reminds her.

She looks up at him and finds that precious, inviting smile. Nicole is immediately warm within.

“But over time, you helped me get past my fear… and that’s what allowed me to… love you.”

She is smiling from ear to ear. Do not elevate your hopes, she thinks. He speaks about before, when you convinced him to embrace the madness that he believed created you. Nicole sighs. “And what about now, Stephen? You know, in part, what I am… or, at least what I am not. You know enough to understand that I’m not a product of your damaged mind. And you know the awful things that I’ve done… and what I’m capable of. Where does that leave us… now?”

Stephen looks away and considers this. He turns back and says, “Much like your strange ability to shift shapes, you have transformed from madness to monster.”

She nods. “And… and that is it, then? I’m the monster who has done monstrous things?”

Stephen laughs. “It should be that simple,” he says. “But has there been anything about our… relationship… that’s been simple?”

Nicole laughs. “No… I suppose not. We have overcome much together.”

“And I am still indebted to you for saving me… from myself,” he adds. “I wouldn’t be here without you, Nicole. I have not forgotten that.”

She looks away.

Stephen sighs and stares toward the moonless sky. “I have missed you so much,” he admits.

She looks at him.

“There’s just… I don’t know… something missing, a deep, dark void in me when I can’t feel your presence. Maybe Logan’s right. Maybe you have bewitched me.”

“So, I am both a monster… and a witch?” Nicole teases. “Clearly you overestimate my abilities.”

“You know what I mean,” he says. He turns and steps up close, as close as he can, and says. “Even now, I long to touch you, to hold you in my arms and tell you that we will get through whatever this is. But I can’t.”

Nicole is suddenly uncomfortable with how close he stands to her. She takes an unconscious step back. “Monster or madness, it always seems to come back to the physical between us.”

“That’s not at all what I meant,” he clarifies. “It’s this… longing… for you that I’m talking about. I want to be with you, and it goes beyond the need to touch you.” He shakes his head and finishes, “I love you, Nicole. Monster, madness, witch… I don’t care. None of that changes the way I feel for you.”

Nicole is shocked.

Stephen turns. “But there’s obviously so much you’ve kept from me. I understand, in part, but now that it’s there… I feel like… I feel like I can’t trust you.”

“I see,” she says, with regret. “You feel I’ve kept the truth from you to spare us… but now that the truth about me, is out…”

“I don’t know, Nicole,” he says. “I don’t know if we can ever be… like we were. And that’s the part that scares me.”

She stares at her feet. “I understand. I’ve done more damage than I realize. What would you have me do? Just tell, and I’ll do it.”

“I forgive you,” he abruptly says.

Nicole looks up, trembling. “You… forgive me?”

“Yes. That doesn’t mean everything you’ve done is excusable… but… I believe you suffer for it. And I believe we’ve both suffered enough.”

Nicole waits.

Stephen stares toward the inn. “I’ve listened to my friends talk about how dangerous you are. They’ve considered trying to confront you and understand the risks in doing so. But I also believe they don’t want to do that, if it’s avoidable.”

“As do I,” Nicole says. “I’ve done enough… damage.”

“This might be another chance for us, Nicole,” he says. “Maybe it’s just me blindly hoping… maybe I want that second chance so bad that I’m oblivious to the danger they speak of.”

Nicole doesn’t know how to respond.

“I do know that I… still love you.”

She is moved to tears. Nicole covers her mouth with her hands and stares into her love’s eyes. “Just… tell me… tell me what I can do? I’ll do anything… for us.”

Stephen frowns and says, “I don’t want to listen to my friends talk about hurting you to protect themselves. I fear for them… and I fear for you. I am so damn glad you found me out here… and at the same time… it makes me bitter. There is so much at stake now. So much more than just the two of us. Surely you’ve always known this.”

Nicole nods exhaustedly. “Yes. I can’t deny it any longer. That was why I always wanted to steal you away from all of it. I’ve always known what is coming.”

“Then you know I can’t run from it any longer. None of us can.”

She nods. “Yes. I see that now. They may see me as ‘dangerous’. But in truth, the woman you travel with is far more dangerous than I.”

“Because Toby searches for her?”

“Yes.”

“And he… terrifies you?”

“Yes. We all share that in common.”

“And do you really believe confronting him is a lost cause?”

Nicole pauses for a moment and then says, “Yes. I believe that.”

Stephen looks away and nods, shuffling his feet.

“But,” she adds with a smile, “I’ve clearly been wrong before.”

He smiles back. “I don’t want you to leave.”

“Really?”

“Yes,” he says. “But I can’t trust you to not be… reckless.”

“What does that mean?”

“I don’t want to wake up one morning to discover another diary and read about all the horrible things you did, using my body.”

She nods. “Yes, I appreciate your mistrust. I promise you. I will never do that to you again.”

He smiles. “You also need to stop trying to talk me into leaving with you. I don’t know what happens next, but I will see to Meredith’s safety and keep her far from Toby’s reach until we either turn and face that monster, or we simply run ourselves into a corner. I can’t be that man who selfishly turns his back on what’s left of our world, not while this threat looms over everything, just to preserve whatever you and I can have for as long as possible. I can’t… and I won’t.”

Nicole stares for a long time before speaking. “Even if it means your death?”

“Yes. Even if it means death.”

She nods. “This is the second time I have seen you prepared to die.”

He waits.

“I was prepared to die with you on that beach when I first appeared to you. Remember?”

Stephen smiles. “Yes.”

“I don’t know that I could have… but the thought of doing so, as strange as it was to consider, moved me in ways I can’t explain. I just couldn’t let you die on that beach… alone.”

He smiles.

She nods with a laugh, staring up toward the dark sky. “Maybe that was a sign back then of things to come. Maybe that was what I was always meant to do… for you… if need be. Maybe it’s taken all this time to finally see just how much love, when it’s real, may require.”

“I don’t understand.”

She looks at him. “Maybe it doesn’t matter that we can’t defeat Toby. Maybe it only matters that I wait with you again, just like when I sat down beside you on that beach while the dead approached, and sacrifice myself… so that my love will not die alone.”

Stephen laughs. “Well, let’s just hope it doesn’t come down to that.”

“But I would,” she says with confidence. “I want you to know that.”

He stares into her eyes for what feels like an eternity. “Please stay. Help us, however you can. And when it’s all over… I’ll gladly leave with you.”

Nicole is stunned. “You mean-”

“I mean, just you and I, Nicole. We’ll go live that life together. Find some cabin or whatever and spend the rest of our days loving each other as best we can.”

“But… what about your family?”

He shakes his head. “I believe Meredith, Logan and Megan would accept us… but I can’t speak for anyone else we might find afterwards when what’s left of us try to rebuild. I don’t want to put you through that. If we eventually… win… I think we deserve whatever we can get from what’s left… together.”

Tears stream down Nicole’s cheeks. She nods. “Okay. I will… I will help you.”

Stephen is relieved. He is also moved to tears as he wipes his eyes with the back of his hand. “That is… that is great news.” He is smiling.

She smiles back.

NO!

Nicole stumbles back a step.

“Are you okay?”

“I’m… I’m fine,” she lies. “I just got a little dizzy-”

I… SAID… NO!

“You don’t look okay,” Stephen says.

Nicole is sweating. She places a hand on her forehead. She is having a difficult time maintaining form as she begins to shimmer.

“What’s happening?” Stephen is concerned.

“It’s okay,” she says. “I’m just… exhausted. I need time to rest. I’m afraid our meeting at the inn has taken a toll on me. A little time to rest and process everything we’ve talked about… and I’ll be okay. Can I meet you back here later?”

“Sure,” he says wearily. “You are coming back, right?”

“Absolutely. I just need… I’ll be back in a few hours.”

Before Stephen can say anything else, Nicole walks across the street and into the darkness. She refuses to look back at Stephen. She can’t risk it. Please… just don’t follow me, she thinks. Not now.

She was caught off guard by the sudden resistance within her the moment she agreed to join Stephen’s cause. The darkness has not pushed back with such force in a very long time…

~~~

…WELCOME BACK, MAGGOT LOVER.

Nicole is staring at the front of the inn from directly across the street at the edge of the dark. Alarmed, she says, “Why are we here?”

WHILE YOU WERE DISTRACTED, I BROUGHT US BACK… TO FINISH WHAT YOU’VE FAILED TO DO.

Stephen is alone on the front porch, leaning back in a rocking chair.

He has fallen asleep.

“No! Turn around! I won’t do this! You can’t make me do this!”

The darkness laughs. WHILE YOU’VE SPENT A GREAT MANY DAYS PREOCCUPIED BY YOUR OBSESSION WITH THIS PATHETIC CREATURE, I’VE BEEN BUSY PIECING TOGETHER MY OWN AGENDA. BUT THANKS TO YOU, STANDING IN SUCH CLOSE PROXIMITY TO THOSE WORTHLESS FOOLS, WHILE YOU DISTRACTED THEM WITH YOUR POINTLESS WORDS, I HAVE GATHERED EVERYTHING I NEED FOR WHAT I WILL PERFORM NOW.

“I promised! I told him I wouldn’t-”

YOU STILL SEEM TO THINK THAT YOU’RE THE ONE IN CONTROL. WELL… WE SHALL SOON FIND OUT… LITTLE FINGER. NOW, BE STILL. YOU MAY BE PLESEANTLY SURPRISED BY THE OUTCOME AND COME TO APPRECIATE YOUR POSITION, FINALLY LEARNING YOUR PLACE.

The darkness moves across the roadway toward the inn.

Nicole is powerless to stop it.

~~~

Next Episode 53-7

Previous Episode 53-5

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 53-6: 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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