~~~

The bulk of the storm had pushed further east, but the rain continued to fall relentlessly. They exited the rear of the inn with dawn still a couple of hours away from providing relief. They decided to flee across the open fields and hills to the south. Meredith, struggling in a severely weakened state, had detected a massive horde of the reanimated heading down from the north, toward the river, as well as from the roadways entering Cherry Hill to the east and west, leaving them with only the southern option.

Stephen and Logan had grabbed their packs stuffed with essential supplies, their few weapons, and some spare blankets to wrap themselves in. Stephen had to help Meredith walk out into the fields while Logan carried Megan in his arms. The fierce, half-dead felt surprisingly light and vulnerable cradled in the big man’s arms, wrapped up in a thick blanket.

Meredith looked ill and could barely hold on to consciousness after the attack in the common room.

After twenty hard minutes, they were all soaked, stumbling through fields shrouded in darkness, an overcast sky promising more of the same.

Logan led his weary friends into the night. He looked east and could make out the faint outline of distant mountains on the dark horizon. If we get caught out here… in the open… He let the futile thought hang and then stopped and turned back.

Stephen had Meredith’s arm over his shoulder. They were falling behind.

Logan looked down into Megan’s pale and wet face. He felt like he was carrying a corpse. He stared up into the sky, and whispered, “God, help us. We’re not going to make it like this.”

“Stephen,” Meredith said. “Please… I need to stop for a moment.”

Stephen halted, wiping the rain away from his face. “Something wrong?”

The medium looked up toward Logan, and then past him. She frowned. “They’re coming.”

The former school teacher shook his head and laughed. “We can’t catch a break, can we?”

Meredith attempted a smile. “No. We cannot.”

“How long?”

“It’s hard to say,” she said. “It’s just like the rest. It feels like… It feels like they’re right on top of us because there’s so… so many of them.”

Stephen nodded. He turned toward the big preacher. “Logan!”

“What now?” Logan grumbled.

“The dead… they’re in front of us!”

Logan turned and stared south toward the open fields rolling upward into the hills. His eyes widened as he let out an exhausted sigh.

At the edge of the southern horizon, at the crest of the largest hill, he could just make out a long dark line silhouetted by the slightly lighter sky, extending from one side of the hill all the way to the other.

That dark line was moving.

“We’re cut off,” he called back. “My God! I’ve never seen so many of them!”

“We need to head back!” Stephen called out.

“Head back to where?”

Stephen didn’t have an answer.

“I’m sorry, Stephen,” Meredith said. “This is my fault. What I did… what I did announced our presence like an explosion… as far as the darkness is concerned.”

“You did what you had to do,” Stephen said, with a note of bitterness in his tone that Meredith caught. “We’d be dead now if you hadn’t.”

Peek-a-boo, Meredith… I see you.

Meredith closed her eyes. Her shoulders dropped. She silently cursed herself for being too weak to reestablish her mental defenses.

“He’s found me,” she told Stephen.

“Toby?”

“Yes,” she added, staring at the ground.

You’ve been very, very naughty, Toby playfully said in her mind. Then, after a slight pause, he added with surprise, What have you done?

Meredith attempted to ignore him, using what little strength she had left to hide her thoughts from Toby’s prying eyes. She shook her head at Stephen. “We should return to the inn… while we still can.”

“But…”

“It doesn’t matter, Stephen,” she said. “We’ll be surrounded by the dead before dawn.”

~~~

The rain finally stopped. To the east, a sliver of red morning light penetrated the canopy of dark clouds.

Surrounding Cherry Hill, the dead, wearing shredded clothing from a past life hanging loosely on their skeletal, rotting and contorted frames, stood in the twilight like horrendous scarecrows staring obliviously up into the gloomy sky. They filled the streets, nearby yards, the forest and fields—they were everywhere—forming a perimeter around the inn a football field’s length thick, and about half that away from the small structure.

Logan walked laps around the inn’s first floor windows with his shotgun, staring out at the motionless phantoms who seemed preoccupied with the rising sun. It unnerved him to see so many deadheads on all sides, and none of them advancing toward the inn to finish them off. He stepped back into the common room to check on his friends.

Stephen sat in a chair, his handgun in his lap, trying not to move. He couldn’t look at them any longer, staring absently at the obnoxious looking boom box sitting beside him.

Meredith was kneeling beside the half-dead woman who was still unconscious, lying on the couch. She wiped sweat off Megan’s forehead with a towel. Since returning to the inn, Meredith had hardly spoken a word as the dead entered town shortly before the rain had stopped.

There was nothing any of them could do now. Either the dead would advance upon them and kill them, or they wouldn’t.

Logan turned to Meredith and asked for the hundredth time. “Any word yet?”

Meredith frowned. “No,” she said. “Ever since we got back, Toby hasn’t said anything to me. I don’t know if he’s expecting us to make the next move… or… if he’s just enjoying himself while we suffer in here.”

“That’s it?” Logan was frustrated. He hated feeling so damn helpless.

She stared at him absently and finished, “Yes, Logan. That’s it.”

The big man stared back out the closest window. “Why are they all just… standing out there? They’re just far enough away to make us think we could make a break for it.”

“That’s Toby’s way of maintaining control over them,” Meredith said. “If they were any closer, the dead would go into a frenzy over our scent and attack.”

“That’s not good,” Logan said, shaking his head. “I wish they’d just come for us… if that’s the plan. This… waiting around to die… is much worse.”

“Toby’s weighing his options,” Meredith said. “When he spoke to me, he seemed genuinely surprised that Sylvia was here… and that I destroyed her.”

This made Stephen look up. He stared over at Meredith, and said, “You mean all this time, Toby had no idea Nic… Sylvia… was hiding among us? How is that possible?”

“I don’t know, Stephen. Sylvia’s been in our world for a long time. Maybe she’s learned how to hide… even from Toby. Or, maybe Toby just never noticed her because he wasn’t looking.”

Stephen laughed lightly. “Just like how you never noticed Nicole when you looked at me?”

She gave him an apologetic glance and said, “Maybe something just like that… yes.”

“Does that mean he’s afraid of us… or rather… you?” Logan said.

Meredith rubbed her tired eyes. “No. I don’t believe he’s afraid. Just caught off guard. Like I said, he’s weighing his options.”

“And those are?”

She sighed at Logan. “He can’t storm this inn to capture me because he knows I’ll use whatever I have left to fight back. He also knows that to do so… would certainly kill me.”

This got their attention.

Meredith turned back to Megan, wiped her forehead again, and finished, “After finding out what I did to Sylvia, now he has to see me as a threat, too. Killing a First One was not what he expected to find after he found us. I believe he’s now considering if leaving me alive, despite his plans for me, is too risky.”

“Shit,” Logan said, staring back out the closest window. “I’m going to check around again. Make sure none of these rotting bastards are sneaking up on us.”

Meredith nodded.

Logan walked into the next room.

“Can Toby hear us… now?” Stephen abruptly asked.

She shook her head. “No. It’s not like before when I didn’t know what he was doing. And I’m… I’m getting stronger with each encounter with him. Strong enough to block him out… but not completely. Not now. He can speak to me directly, but he can’t spy on me… not anymore.”

Stephen nodded. He stared back down at the boom box.

Meredith sensed his heavy and conflicted thoughts. To her, he had the look of a man who needed to grieve, but the shock was still too fresh. “When I asked… Nicole… if she’d told Toby where I was… back in the compound… I was just reaching,” she told him.

He looked back up. “What do you mean?”

She frowned. “Hannah,” she said. “When Nicole chose to appear as her… I… I wanted anyone or anything else to blame for what happened leading up the Shadow Dead attack. Understand?”

Stephen smiled weakly. “Yeah. I think I do.”

“What I’m trying to say,” Meredith continued, “is that when Nicole said she didn’t betray us… I believed her… for whatever that’s worth now.”

“Thanks for that.”

“She also saved my life,” Meredith added. “When Megan… when Sylvia charged at me… Nicole stopped her. If she hadn’t done that, I believe Sylvia’s plan to eliminate me would’ve succeeded.”

Stephen stared at the medium for a long time. He finally said, “Are you trying to make me feel better… or worse?”

Meredith shook her head. “I… I know you’re in pain. I just wanted you to know that I don’t believe Nicole is responsible for what happened last night… and that I believe that it was entirely Sylvia’s doing.”

He looked away, wiping a tear from his eye. “I… I appreciate you saying that. Not that it matters now.”

“It matters,” she corrected. “Nicole may no longer be with us… but how we remember the ones we’ve lost is just as important. I just didn’t want anything to taint your final memory of her.”

He nodded. “We talked on the porch, after our meeting. She reminded me of how she found me waiting to die along the Grand River after the marina attack. That was before we got separated and then Marcus found me, sick as a dog. Remember?”

“Yes,” she smiled. “I was so worried you might not survive the night.”

He nodded. “That’s when she first appeared to me… along that river. The dead had found me, and I was so… defeated. I was ready to give up and Nicole wouldn’t let me. She reminded me of that day when we last spoke… said that she was willing to die on that shore beside me, if I hadn’t got up.”

Meredith waited.

“Anyway, she couldn’t understand why I would choose to remain with you when it seemed like such a death sentence, because of Toby.”

Meredith laughed and looked around. “Obviously, she might have been on to something.”

Stephen continued. “I told her that I was going to see this through with you, no matter what. That’s when she brought up that first day we met, and the sacrifice she was willing to make then, even though she didn’t understand it at the time. Nicole said that maybe, because of that day, it took all this time for her to finally understand what it meant to love someone enough to sacrifice your own life…” He looked down, as fresh tears streamed from his eyes. “She didn’t think we had a chance to survive, and she agreed to help us, anyway… even if it meant her own death.” He looked back up and smiled at her. “I guess we now know that she meant it.”

Meredith smiled back and nodded. “Yes, she did. And that’s something, Stephen. That’s something you should always remember about Nicole… no matter what anyone says.”

He nodded, wiping the tears from his eyes. He took a deep breath and said, “I’ve been sitting her thinking ever since we go back.”

“About what?”

“About our chances of winning.”

Meredith nodded. “Considering everything that’s happened… up to now… what do you think our chances are, Stephen?”

“I never liked all this running,” he admitted. “I always saw something like this eventually happening—getting caught. Despite the odds against us, I’ve always thought we should confront Toby.”

Meredith raised her eyebrows. “You still believe that… even now?”

“Absolutely,” he said. “But it doesn’t matter if I, or Logan, or even Megan believed it. That always came down to you.”

“To me?”

“Yes,” he said. “You’re the only one in this whole damn world who has a chance at stopping all this… I’ve always believed that.”

She stared at him for a long time. Finally, she carefully said, “And if it meant losing more people we care about to stop Toby… is that price worth it… to win?”

“Yes,” he said without hesitation.

This surprised her.

He continued, “We’ve already lost so many…” He struggled not to break down. “Running from this monster hasn’t gained us anything. I say we go right at that nasty sonofabitch responsible for it all… while we can still draw breath.”

She was still staring at him. “So… if there’s a chance to stop Toby… even if it’s a small one… you believe we should sacrifice everything… and take it?”

“Yes,” he said. “While the choice is still ours to make.”

Meredith smiled warmly at him, then looked to Megan. “I wish I had a fraction of your faith in me, Stephen.” She wiped more sweat from the half-dead’s face. “I can’t lose any of you… I won’t. And I would never bet on me… not with all your precious lives.”

Stephen didn’t know how to respond to that.

She turned and finished, “But maybe we do have a chance. Maybe we do… now.”

He raised an eyebrow in surprise. Before he could inquire further, Meredith raised a finger to her mouth, to signal that something was happening.

Clever woman, Toby said. I don’t know how you did it… how you killed Sylvia. I wish you would let me in, so I could find out.

Meredith didn’t respond.

I know you can hear me. Don’t feel like talking? That’s okay. Just listen then. I assume my display outside has already gotten your attention.

Logan entered the room and stopped.

Stephen waved the big preacher over and then placed a finger to his own mouth to signal him to stay quiet.

Meredith looked at him, pointed to her head, and said, “He’s… here.”

Logan understood.

Toby continued. I needed to ponder a few things. I apologize for the delay. I assume the others are with you. Please feel free to speak on my behalf. I want my terms to be perfectly clear.

“Terms?” Meredith said.

Yes. You have two options. Either you resist and I let the dead loose and you can all die horrible deaths… or… you can surrender.

Meredith looked to the others and frowned. “He wants us to… surrender.”

Stephen and Logan shot each other a quick glance, then turned back to the medium.

She held up her hand.

I sincerely hope you choose option number two, Meredith. But know this: I will dispose of you here and now. This is not a bluff.

“Why would we surrender?” she told him. “We are all aware of your plans for me… and for this world. You know I’m prepared to die to stop that from happening… we all are.”

Toby laughed lightly. Such misplaced heroics. Admirable, perhaps. But honesty, I find it tedious at best. You overestimate your own value, Meredith. I’ve told you before that I am patient, and that I would find another to carry out my plans… eventually. As it turns out, you are not the only one left who is… special.

Meredith turned toward to the others and started relaying Toby’s side of the conversation. She focused on Toby and smiled. “Now that sounds like a bluff,” she told him. “You may be ready to kill us all… but as far as finding another to replace me, I don’t believe you.”

After a slight pause, Toby continued. It doesn’t concern me what you believe. I have found another. But it might take me another year or two to make this one ready and strong enough to finish what you and I started together. I would prefer not to delay my plans any further due to some of my… children… left roaming around in your world without parental guidance. Thus… the reason you are still alive.

Meredith relayed Toby’s words and then silently considered them.

Yes, I sense you believe me now, don’t you, Meredith?

The medium remained quiet.

Doesn’t matter. Let me get to the point and remind you why it’s important that we finish our work together. Whether I’m there or not, my influence will remain, as will those loyal to my purposes. However, there are some who have already devised their own designs for your world that are contrary to mine… and much more… primitive.

“What does that mean?” she said.

Toby laughed. You still don’t see the big picture, Meredith. I’ve told you before, the world you know is finished. The only choice you have is to bring me across so that I can rule that darkness… before everything erupts into chaos.

Meredith relayed, then shook her head. “You would eliminate all of us.”

Yes… eventually. But not for many years to come. Until then, the existence of your species still serves a purpose under my dominion. But… without me there… now… Mankind will die off very, very quickly.

“Explain that.”

No.

“Then you might as well kill us now,” she said.

You need to understand, Meredith. Having me there increases the life expectancy of your kind. It’s simple math… really. Mankind can die off now without me… or… gain a few years with me in it. Much like your present situation. You can die now, or, buy yourselves a little more of that precious commodity you call ‘time’ by surrendering and returning west.

“West?”

Yes. I want you to head back to the beginning… back to Fairport Harbor.

“The… marina?”

There you go. I’ll have another boat sent to you… one that doesn’t go ‘boom’ this time. As we once spent time together on an island in the darkness, I find it fitting that we will be reunited on another island in the light.

Meredith hesitated.

Your reluctance is amusing, Meredith. It’s as if my gracious invitation or my mercy shown to your people now, not to mention, toward your entire race, wasn’t enough to persuade you. Must I entice you further?

She refused to answer.

I have her. Your precious Gina. She’s currently a guest on my island.

Meredith gasped.

And I dare you to accuse me of bluffing. Go ahead. I’ll make you all wait there while I deliver… pieces… for confirmation.

“Just… hold on,” she said. Meredith was trembling.

“What is it?” Stephen said. “What’s wrong?”

“He has Gina,” she said.

“What? You mean… on his damn island?” Logan said.

She nodded. Meredith closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Doesn’t matter,” she said sadly. “Our lives… and hers… we’re all expendable.”

Meredith was about to speak to Toby.

“Wait!” Stephen said.

She turned.

“Ask it… ask Toby for time to… to think about it.”

Both Logan and Meredith gave him a confused look.

“You know the score, little brother. Toby can’t get Meredith… no matter what… or who… we have to sacrifice.”

Meredith looked away with a nod. “He’s right, Stephen. Better to die here then-”

“Unless we can beat him!” Stephen interrupted. “I’m not saying we should surrender… just… stall. Tell him we surrender… tell him anything… buy us some time to talk about this.”

She stared into the school teacher’s eyes and saw a spark she wasn’t used to seeing.

He still believes in me, she thought. Meredith smiled wearily and nodded. “Okay.”

Stephen relaxed.

“Toby,” she said. “We… we’re exhausted and not thinking clearly. We need a little time to-”

Of course, he interrupted. I am well-aware of your physical limitations, and the journey ahead of you. Agree to my surrender… immediately… and I’ll give you until the next sunrise to rest, pack, and be on your way. But don’t test my patience any further. If you are not on the western road by sunrise… I will release the dead to feed on your bones.

Meredith looked to Megan, then said, “We… we have an injured member of our group. She’s not fit to travel. We may need more-”

Is the half-dead worth more than a whole life? Leave her behind.

“I will not!” Meredith pushed back.

Toby laughed. Oh, Meredith. Your compassion for the hybrid is amusing. As if I haven’t shown enough patience, I will now offer you a gift.

Meredith tensed up. “What does that mean?”

The hybrid is only… asleep. I will wake her for you.

Meredith’s eyes went wide. She stared at Megan. “No! You can’t!”

It’s already done. You can thank me when you arrive. Rest now… if you can.

Toby was gone.

Megan started to twitch, then went into a full-blown seizure.

“Oh, God!” Meredith screamed, rushing toward the girl. “Help me!”

Logan and Stephen came over.

Megan was shaking so violently she nearly fell off the couch.

“Hold her down!” Meredith said.

“What’s wrong?” Stephen said.

She turned, her face pale as a ghost. “Toby’s waking her up!”

“What’s that mean?” Logan said.

Meredith was bordering hysterical as all three of them struggled to hold Megan down. “It means, he’s woken up whatever darkness is still left inside of her!”

Megan suddenly went limp.

The half-dead’s eyes opened wide.

~~~

Next Episode 53-10

Previous Episode 53-8

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 53-9: 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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