~~~

Stephen and Logan sat in two wooden rocking chairs on the small front porch of the inn.

Since his last conversation with Nicole near the roadway, and the way she abruptly departed, Stephen anxiously waited for her to return. He felt Logan’s uneasy presence sitting beside him as the preacher struggled to start a conversation.

The big man leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. He stared out into the darkness just past the road, while taking sideway glances at his friend. “Did you both have a good… chat… before she left?”

Stephen didn’t look at him. “You don’t have to play ‘watchdog’, Logan. She’s already agreed to help us.”

“I know,” he said, trying to appear less on edge. “I’m just… concerned. This has been one strange-ass night so far and I’m hoping-”

“You’re hoping the demon doesn’t come back to snatch me away,” Stephen finished.

Logan laughed lightly. “Well… can you blame me, little brother?”

Stephen turned to him and relaxed. “No, I guess I can’t. I appreciate your concern… and you’re right… all of this is strange. I never imagined sharing any of this—my relationship with a dead girl—with anyone. And now, you all know she’s real, and everything else.”

Logan nodded. “So, you really believed Nicole was all in your head… before? That your guilt created her and that you were…”

“Go ahead,” he said. “You can say it. ‘That I was going insane’?”

The big preacher just stared at him.

Stephen nodded. “Yes. I struggled with what I thought were hallucinations for a long time. Then after a while… I don’t know… she just became as real to me as anyone.”

“And you just accepted that you might be… pardon the pun… off your rocker?”

Stephen laughed. “That about covers it.”

“That must have been difficult.”

“It was, for a while. Believe me, before arriving at the compound, I often thought about telling the others, or just leaving, since that’s what Nicole, or my subconscious mind, was always trying to get me to do. I was always afraid that I might… I don’t know… get worse. And it’s not like I could go see a doctor about it.”

Logan nodded thoughtfully. “What was it then? What made you decide to accept her even if a part of you understood that she wasn’t real?”

“Real or not… I fell in love with her, Logan.” Stephen shifted uncomfortably. “When I gave in and accepted that love… crazy or not… everything got better. I just had to let go with my rational mind, and let it happen… let ‘us’ happen.”

Logan laughed. “I guess we’ve all had to accept a lot of impossible things. Thinking about it now, if our ‘present’ selves could go back in time before The Change and tell our ‘past’ selves everything we’ve seen and experienced… we’d all be considered insane.”

Stephen’s eyebrows shot up at the thought. “Maybe none of this is happening, and we’re all having one hell of a massive hallucination.”

Logan shook his head and smiled. “Wouldn’t that be wonderful. Maybe the two of us aren’t really sitting on this front porch right now talking, because we’re really in some padded room somewhere?”

“Why not?” Stephen added with a smile. “Can you imagine Meredith in one of those one-sleeve crazy jackets?”

Logan laughed. “No, little brother, I can’t. Not unless it had flower patterns or some shit.”

Stephen laughed. “Now that’s crazy.”

The big preacher let out a big yawn and stared out into the darkness. “So, what was easier?” he said.

“Excuse me?”

He nodded toward the road. “Your girlfriend out there. Was it easier on the relationship knowing that you might be crazy, or knowing now that you’re not, and trying to understand what exactly ‘she’ is?”

Stephen shook his head and yawned. “I’m far too tired to wrestle with that one. But… thanks for not calling her a demon, or a monster.”

Logan nodded. “There’s a lot I don’t understand. I’m constantly petitioning my God for guidance since this apocalypse started. I keep telling myself that the Good Book might be missing a chapter or two about surviving a zombie invasion. But then, I think about all the strange stories in there about the flood, and the plagues over Egypt, and the parting of The Red Sea, just to name a few, and think, ‘Shit, could living through all that be any less impossible than this?’”

“That’s a good point.”

“Maybe it doesn’t matter what the circumstances are, or how we perceive them with our limited, rational minds,” Logan continued. “Maybe what matters is how we respond to any and every situation, no matter how impossible it seems.”

“And is that what your God has been trying to tell you?”

Logan smiled. “Yes.”

Stephen turned back toward the road. “Any mention in the Good Book on what to do when you’ve fallen in love with… whatever Nicole is?”

The big preacher laughed. “I can only speculate, little brother. If she’s a demon, that’s one thing. If she’s something else entirely… well… the only thing that comes to mind are the Nephilim.”

“The what?”

“One theory goes that the Nephilim were said to be angelic beings, cast down from heaven with Lucifer after a revolt against the Kingdom of God. They eventually slept with the daughters of men, producing children who became races of giants.”

That’s in the Bible?”

Logan laughed. “Not all that. Most of it is theory based upon a few vague lines scattered across God’s Word. But it was clear that the Nephilim did exist, and that they were around long before we were.”

Stephen shook his head. “I never heard that one in Sunday School.”

“There’s all sorts of interesting stories in the Bible, little brother. Mysteries hidden from the eyes of men since the beginning of time. Maybe all this is in there somewhere, too.”

“Now, you’re starting to sound like Meredith,” Stephen joked.

“I guess I am,” he said with a laugh. “That woman has made quite the impression on me since I’ve come to know her. She seems to have the most insight into all this ‘crazy’… more than the rest of us lunatics do.”

“Amen,” Stephen added with a laugh.

Logan stared at him and finished, “I don’t know what Nicole really is, little brother. But what Meredith said… about Love… she’s not wrong. It never fails. Now, does that count in your crazy situation? I am unqualified to answer that. I often initially react to crazy situations poorly, as you all know.”

Stephen snickered at that.

“But, eventually, when I get quiet enough to hear my Lord’s voice, He, too, reminds me that Love is the greatest mystery of them all. Take that for what’s it worth in your situation, little brother.”

Stephen nodded. “Thanks for sharing that. It helps.”

“You look tired. Why don’t you come inside, and I’ll stand watch for Nicole.”

He nodded. “No. I want to be here when she comes back. Anything could scare her off right now.”

Logan nodded. “Then I’ll stay with you until she does.”

“I’d rather you not,” Stephen said. “Sitting here with me, looks like you’re standing guard.”

“Call it a precaution toward the beginning of an uneasy alliance,” Logan said. “In time, when Nicole has proven trustworthy-”

“Yeah, I get that, Logan,” Stephen interrupted. “But when she comes back, she’ll see that, too, and know we’re still afraid. Whatever she is, Nicole’s been in this world for a long time… and that has always been her experience with our kind.”

“Fear?”

“Yes.”

Logan nodded. “I understand.” He started to rise from the chair. “Maybe I’ll just head in for a spell, get a little prayer time in.”

“Thank you.”

“I will be back though, little brother. Whether we can trust Nicole or not, no one should be left alone in this world for very long. Surely even she can understand that.”

“Sounds fair,” Stephen said. “I just want to wait here a bit longer, by myself, to make her feel comfortable… and let her see that we’ve lowered our guards… just a little… so she can start lowering hers.”

The big preacher nodded. “I’ll be back to check on you in a half-hour.”

“Okay. Thanks.”

As soon as Logan entered the inn, Stephen leaned back in the rocking chair and took a deep breath. “Please come back soon, Nicole,” he whispered. After a few minutes in the cool night air, his heavy eyelids started to fall.

~~~

The half-dead woman tried not to pace as she walked around the common room, occasionally stealing glances at the medium who sat still on the sofa as if meditating.

Meredith laughed lightly with her eyes closed. “I know you have questions, Megan, and I know you believe I’m keeping secrets again… but I do appreciate that you’re keeping them to yourself while I rest.”

Megan stopped behind the couch and muttered under her breath. “Are we befriending the strange-smelling spirit thing? Are we planning on killing it? The hell if I know from one moment to the next.”

“What was that?’

“Nothing,” she said. “I’m just venting my frustrations.”

Meredith took a deep breath. “When I was connected with the entity, I attempted to sneak around inside its thoughts, as deep as I could without being discovered.”

Megan waited.

Meredith kept her eyes closed and frowned. “What I found was very distressing.”

Megan sighed heavily. “Is she dangerous… or not? I just want to know.”

The old medium’s shoulders slumped. “I need time to understand, Megan. Stephen believes that Nicole has overcome the darkness within herself. I have visited that darkness… and it is… well… what I’ve seen is best not discussed in the middle of the night. Better to rest on it and approach matters like this in the light of day.”

“Something frightened you. I can smell it on you,” Megan said.

“Yes, honey. Something has. What’s inside that creature’s thoughts is like an abyss. Stand too close to the edge and one might slip and never return from it. I peered over into it… and it’s nightmarish.”

“Then… then she is dangerous,” Megan said, trying to convince herself.

“She has the potential to be very dangerous,” Meredith corrected. “But I believe Nicole is also aware of it… and she’s trying not to slip back into that abyss, herself.”

“You know this?”

“Yes. I’ve seen it. As dark as it is within her… there is still… light.”

Megan nodded. “Then… she’s like me?”

Meredith opened her eyes and tilted her head to look at the half-dead. “No, honey. She is nothing like you. The darkness within you is but a small fraction of the whole. What I saw inside of Nicole… is that whole… and it’s absolutely terrifying.”

Megan waited.

“The entity is in conflict with itself,” Meredith continued. “That’s how I know that Nicole is telling the truth. What I don’t know is how much control a spark of light in the center of all that darkness, can have.”

Megan just stared. She wanted to inquire further but Meredith turned away.

“I need to rest now, honey. I’ll need everything I can muster on a moment’s notice if… and I do mean ‘if’… things go very badly.”

“You mean if Nicole loses control?”

“Yes.”

Megan considered this as Meredith closed her eyes. She finally said, “That spark you mentioned. That’s Stephen and Nicole, isn’t it? That’s their… love?”

Meredith smiled. “I believe that it is.”

“But you don’t know if it’s enough to overcome the abyss, right?”

“Correct. But… it is not the first time I have underestimated the strength of Love. I have failed to perceive that strength staring into the darkness… before.”

“I don’t understand,” Megan said.

Meredith smiled. “You understand more than you know,” she said. “You are living proof of Love’s strength against the dark.” The medium let out an exhausted sigh. “If only I had known about you, and what you could achieve… well… the past is a prison of regrets if one allows it to be.”

Before the half-dead could inquire further, Logan stepped inside.

She turned. “How is Stephen?”

The big preacher smiled. “All is well, Megan. He waits for the… Nicole… to come back.”

“Alone?” Megan said anxiously, looking past the preacher toward the front porch.

“Relax,” he said with a laugh. “He’ll just tell you what he told me about not looking like we’re waiting for a fight. Stephen believes we need to show trust… and I wasn’t very inviting sitting out there.”

“But… he shouldn’t be by himself,” she pushed. “I’ll go wait with him.”

“You’ll do no such thing,” he said, blocking her path. “But there’s nothing stopping you from being discreet about it.”

She gave him a puzzled look.

He looked over at Meredith who was now lightly snoring. “Looks like someone’s fallen victim to the Sandman.”

Megan turned to the sleeping woman and frowned. “She… she needs her rest.”

“We all do,” Logan said. He looked past her toward the back porch. “I’m going out there to pray for a little while. Since you can’t watch Meredith in here, and Stephen out there, I recommend the window with the clear view of the front porch.” He added a wink.

She smiled, catching on. “Discreet?”

He laughed lightly. “Just offering a practical suggestion.” He walked past her toward the back porch, grabbing his shotgun from beside the grandfather clock.

Megan moved toward the common room window and looked out. Stephen was there, sitting in the chair.

He waits faithfully for his ‘love’ to return.

She was surprised by the sarcasm that accompanied her thought.

~~~

“Something’s wrong!” Meredith gets up from Emily’s bed and grabs the sides of her head.

Hannah was up immediately, rushing to her in the small bedroom. “What is it? What’s the matter?”

The medium feels the room spinning. The dark images assaulting her mind are frantic, desperate, and incredibly painful. “It’s Emily!” she cries out. “She’s… she’s trying to tell me… oh, God! It’s awful! So much pain! I can barely stand it!”

Hannah grabs hold of Meredith to keep her from collapsing to the floor.

Mrs. Patterson stands up from her chair near the door and gasps, placing her hands over her face, horrified. “What’s the matter with her? What’s wrong with Emily? Is she… is she alright?”

Hannah turns to the distraught woman. “It’s okay,” she lies. “Just calm down. Sometimes the connection is… sometimes it’s just very strong and can cause a bad reaction.”

“‘Bad reaction?’” Mr. Patterson says, putting an arm around his wife’s shoulders. “What kind of scam are you running here? You’re scaring the hell out of everyone!”

Peter, the Patterson’s teenage boy, bolts for the door, then suddenly stops. He turns toward Emily’s closet and just stares at it. His breathing rapidly increases.

“Something’s wrong with Peter,” Grandmother Millie calls over from her wheelchair in the corner of the room. The old woman glares at Hannah. “Whatever that witch is doing… you better stop her!”

Hannah ignores the woman and grabs Meredith’s cheeks. “Come back to me, Meredith. Just look at me… focus… break the connection and come back.”

“I can’t!” she cries out. “Emily won’t… she won’t let go! Something’s terribly wrong! Something-”

“Marge?” Mr. Patterson addresses his wife who has suddenly gone still. “Marge… what’s the matter, honey?”

Before Hannah can turn around, Grandmother Millie screams as Peter jumps on top of her and bites into the old woman’s throat.

“Peter!” Mr. Patterson shouts. “Peter! What the fuck?” He reaches over to grab his son’s shoulders. Mrs. Patterson leaps on top of his back, knocking him to the floor.

“Oh my God!” Hannah whispers. Peter turns and glares at her, his eyes blazing yellow. The boy’s face has gone pale with bulging veins breaching the surface of his skin. She turns and sees that Mrs. Patterson has also changed as she rips into her husband’s shoulder with her teeth.

Hannah turns to Meredith and shouts in her face, “Meredith! Get the fuck out of there! Get out… NOW!” She slaps Meredith hard across the cheek.

Meredith looks startled as if coming out of a dream, disoriented and in shock. She sees Hannah’s terrified face then turns and notices Mrs. Patterson and her boy, covered in blood as they… feed… on their loved ones. “What? What is this?”

Hannah turns and finds a gap between the bloody bodies on the floor. She grabs Meredith’s arm and pulls hard, leading Meredith toward the open bedroom door. “Let’s go! No time!”

Meredith forces her legs to move.

Peter and Mrs. Patterson turn and growl at the fleeing women. Hannah doesn’t look back. She can hear them rising to attack. Hannah forces Meredith in front of her and pushes her out into the hallway.

Meredith turns back.

Hannah is already closing the door from the inside.

“Wait!” Meredith calls out. “What are you-”

“Run, Meredith! Fucking RUN!” Four pale arms grab at Hannah from behind as she slams the door shut.

And then she is gone.

Meredith stands at the door in shock. She can hear monsters shrieking on the other side… the sounds of a violent struggle… Hannah’s screams…

“No!” Meredith calls out. She opens the door. Both beasts are on top of Hannah. Without understanding how or what she is doing, Meredith reaches out toward the monsters with her mind and screams, “NO! GET AWAY FROM HER!”

The yellow-eyed mother and son stop, look back at Meredith, confused, then turn on each other like two wild dogs fighting over a meal.

Full of adrenaline, Meredith grabs Hannah’s legs and pulls her out of the room. She closes the door and kneels beside the bloody woman. One of the monsters has ripped a piece out of her right shoulder.

“Meredith?” Hannah whispers weakly, then coughs up blood. “You need to… you need to leave me.”

“Hell no!” she says, grabbing Hannah’s left arm and placing it over her shoulder. “Help me! Stand up!”

Hannah sluggishly rises to her feet.

Meredith helps the injured woman down the hall, down the stairs, then out the front door and into the horrifying night.

The medium’s mind is immediately assaulted by an overwhelming darkness… a madness… coming from all directions. She starts to get dizzy and confused.

“Meredith,” Hannah whispers. “Almost there. Look up… there’s the car.”

She does. Meredith tries not to focus on what is going on within her, or the screams and sirens blaring from all around the neighborhood. Something has clearly happened, something bad. And it’s not exclusive to the Patterson home. She pushes forward toward the car with everything she has, feeling Hannah shake violently in her arms. Hannah is bleeding all over her, but Meredith tries not to think about that. “Hold on, honey,” she whispers to her love.

Hannah says nothing. She continues to cough violently as the world around them goes insane.

Once in the vehicle, Meredith looks back at the dark Patterson house. There are no monsters storming out after them.

“They’re feeding,” Hannah says. “That’s what… that’s what they were doing after… after ‘it’ happened.”

Meredith quickly examines her. The bleeding from her shoulder has stopped but Hannah feels cold to the touch. Her skin is pale. And her eyes… something is wrong with them.

Hannah coughs. “I’m… I’m burning up inside,” she says. “Feels like my organs are on fire.”

“You’ve lost a lot of blood,” Meredith says, starting the car. “I’m going to take you straight to the hospital.”

“No, Meredith. It’s too late for all that. Just take me home.”

Meredith gets the car moving. “You’re not thinking clearly. You need a doc-”

“Meredith,” Hannah pushes. “Can’t you hear all that chaos? Something… something very bad is happening… and it’s happening everywhere. By morning, there won’t… there won’t be any hospitals.”

Meredith nods nervously. “Well, we’ll manage at home, then. Between the two of us I’m sure we equal one good nurse.” She means that as a joke that falls flat.

Hannah coughs again. “How… how did you… stop them?”

“Excuse me?”

“Mrs. Patterson and her son. They were… they were all over me… then they stopped and turned on each other.”

“I don’t know,” Meredith says. “I just… I just reacted when I saw you lying there.”

“They… they were right about you.” She shakes her head. “Turns out… turns out they were right about all of it.”

“What was that?”

Hannah coughs again. “Meredith, you need to listen to me now… while I’m still… me.”

“Don’t talk like that. You’ll be fine.”

“This is… this is important. No matter what happens, make sure… make sure you remember the code.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Remember, Meredith!” Hannah yells. The exertion makes her cough again. “Promise me?” Hannah raises her bloody left hand and leaves it shaking in the air.

Meredith stares over at it and shakes her head. “Alright, alright! I promise! Just stay calm.” She reaches over with her right hand and runs it over Hannah’s.

“The code! Say it!”

Meredith sighs with frustration and puts her right hand back on the wheel. “061583! Now, just stay still!”

Hannah lowers her hand and attempts a smile. “That’s my girl.” She starts to close her eyes.

“Don’t you dare!” Meredith shouts. “You stay awake!”

“I’m tired, Meredith. I… I hurt all over. I don’t… I don’t have much time left before… before I become… dangerous.”

“Just shut up and let me drive! It’s nuts out here.”

“Meredith?”

“What?”

“When we get home… you’re going to have to kill me.” …

~~~

…Meredith woke abruptly on the common room couch. She was disoriented. The wind was blowing in through the open front window. The lantern had gone out, making the room a host for shifting shadows as ambient light penetrated the window, projecting the swaying boughs of trees.

One shadow did not move, standing less than five feet in front of her.

She struggled with her old eyes to make out the form.

“Stephen?”

~~~

Next Episode 53-8

Previous Episode 53-6

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 53-7: 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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