~~~

“To anyone who finds this recording, my name is Stephen Eddington. I was once a history teacher back in the old world. I’m traveling with my friends, Logan McCallister… he’s a preacher; Meredith Montgomery… a seer of sorts; and Megan Bishop, a bright and brave young lady who… well… I’ll just say that she’s a special woman, belonging to two worlds, now.

We’ve been running for a long time, trying to survive… just like you, I suppose. We are exhausted—mentally, physically… spiritually. But we haven’t given up yet.

Whoever you are, I hope and pray that you’re still hanging on; that you keep on fighting for as long as you can. Keep on fighting, for each other, for a chance… any chance… to maybe live a life where you don’t have to run any longer.

As for me and my friends, we’ve reached a point where we can no longer run from the monsters in this strange and horrifying new world. We’ve decided to turn around and face them. I’ll spare you the details because by the time you’re hearing this, we will either be dead, or maybe… just maybe… we will have scored a win for humanity, one we so desperately need.” …

~~~

Meredith, Stephen, Logan and Megan cautiously stepped out onto the front porch of the inn just after first light. They could hear the collective low moans of the dead from all around them, but mercifully, Toby kept them far enough back and out of sight for the four of them to reach the roadway.

The older woman turned toward the eastern sky, smiling up at the brilliant display of pink and reddish hues igniting the horizon. She took a deep breath, refusing to look away from the sunrise, refusing to let Toby and his massive horde of monsters steal from her moment of joy inspired by the hand of her Creator.

Logan stepped up beside her and whispered, “He does know how to paint them… doesn’t He?”

She turned to the preacher who winked at her. Meredith smiled, then turned back toward the sun. I want to remember this, she thought. I want to hold this image, right there, in front of my eyes… forever.

“We should go,” Stephen said, ending the moment.

Meredith turned toward him.

Stephen was staring about his twilight-covered surroundings, looking extremely uncomfortable.

Megan had tensed up. She was standing beside Stephen, swinging her head around at every sound the dead made.

“They won’t attack,” Meredith assured them. “They’ll follow, but Toby will keep them away from our route.”

“That’s unnerving,” Stephen said. “So, we’re supposed to travel… with the dead?”

Meredith smiled. “I don’t know if I like the way you put it… but… yes. They’ll be close by, but not too close. Toby’s got them all on a tight leash.”

“And if we should wander off the path?” Megan said, her intense eyes hidden behind her sunglasses.

Meredith smiled at her, relieved that Megan was already feeling like her old, new self—ready for a fight. Whatever Toby had done when he woke her, there didn’t seem to be any lasting effects on the young woman from last night’s attack. “Let’s just try not to think about them and make the most of our time on the road.”

“And don’t get fucking bit in the ass, praise God,” Logan added unapologetically, stepping between them.

Megan shook her head at the big preacher, and snickered.

Stephen looked west, examining the roadway out of Cherry Hill. “Are we really going… all the way back?” He turned to Meredith and raised an eyebrow.

She knew exactly what he meant. “Yes, Stephen. All the way back to the beginning… so it would seem.”

He shook his head and frowned. “I don’t know what’s going to be worse. All these deadheads pushing us toward Toby… or the ghosts waiting to greet us along the way.”

Meredith smiled and teased, “You and I, young man, have had plenty of practice dealing with haunts from the past.”

“You got me there, Meredith.”

She gave him an encouraging nod. “We will endure each painful mile… together.”

“Together,” Stephen agreed.

“Let’s do this, before the sun gets any higher and lights up all those creepy bastards,” Logan said, taking the lead. He slung his shotgun over his shoulder and readjusted his pack while walking. “I don’t wanna look into their dead eyes and feel like breakfast.” The others shuffled with their own gear, then followed the big man, heading west out of town.

A few minutes later, the reanimated started shambling toward the roadway from both sides. It was as if two invisible dams that held them in place had simply collapsed, releasing the flood waters of the dead from the cemetery that was once the town of Cherry Hill.

~~~

… “We’re headed west at dawn, back across the border into Northeast Ohio… and then toward Lake Erie. It’s going to take us a few days to get back to Fairport Harbor. That’s where it all started for some of us. Myself, Meredith, and a fierce and determined red-headed woman named Gina Melborn—we were among the first to pioneer this journey, which has led us to so much love and loss, in equal measure.

Would I take it all back if I could? All that pain and misery? Absolutely not. We have risked all on our fragile and very temporal relationships, understanding that with each new person, with each new light we had let into our hearts—the very real darkness was always present… threatening to extinguish that light. But to have known them, even for a moment, is worth the heartache that remains, echoing within us, until that pain is what keeps them alive… for as long as we’re still around to carry them with us” …

~~~

It took them six long days, pushing west then southwest, until they finally reconnected with the Grand River on the other side of the now deserted City of Painesville. The last time Meredith and Stephen were here, the dead had almost ended their journey at a gun shop before narrowly escaping via the river by boat.

This time, the dead were not hunting them, but providing an eerie chaperone, delivering them up toward the horrors that awaited.

Toby, who had been surprisingly quiet, finally spoke to Meredith when she decided that they continue along the river into Fairport Harbor.

Where are you going, Meredith? You don’t have to go that way. The roads will suffice.

“We are taking our old route,” she told him.

Toby paused. Are you planning to escape using the river? Yes, they fear the water because they do not understand it, but I will force them to follow… and they will. Besides, I have many more surrounding the area. There is no where you can go.

She looked to Stephen, who couldn’t stop staring around the ghost town of Painesville, and then said, “No, Toby. We’re not trying to escape. We are exactly where we want to be. But… we will have one night of peace, away from the sound of your groaning monsters, should the river drown them all out.”

Toby laughed. Alright, Meredith. I will allow you this… indulgence. Go ahead, take the river. I will not send the dead down after you. Pick a place, have your final night of respite, but continue in the morning to the marina without delay.

“Thank you,” Meredith said.

You are welcome, Meredith.

Stephen was staring at her. “Is he… gone?”

“Yes. For now,” she said. “Toby will leave us alone along the river. I suggest we take advantage of our last night to finalize a plan.”

“The day’s keep slipping away,” Megan said, staring down into the river at her reflection. “It’s like… it’s like the closer we get, the faster time moves, pushing us toward the end… just like the dead pushing in behind us.”

Meredith smiled at the introspective young woman. “It would appear that we can’t delay for much longer.”

Stephen stared into the river, then looked downstream. “Nicole and I… we met somewhere along this river. I mean… the second time.”

Logan stepped up beside him and placed a big hand on his shoulder. “You good, little brother?”

“Yes,” he said. “It’s just… this whole area brings back a lot of memories… and emotions.”

He nodded and said, “I understand.” After a moment of silence, he added, “All it does for me, is make me want to piss listening to all that running water.”

After expecting the preacher to say something… meaningful… Megan rolled her eyes and shook her head at him.

Meredith, watching Megan’s reaction to Logan, covered her mouth to keep a nervous fit of the giggles at bay.

Stephen closed his eyes, smiled, and told him, “You have no filter, my friend.”

Logan gave him a wink. “Just trying to lighten the mood.” He looked over at Megan and started unzipping his pants. “Do you mind? I think I’ll drain the main vein right here.”

Megan, realizing what he was about to do, suddenly blushed, covered her sunglasses with her hand, and turned away, rushing toward Meredith.

Stephen started laughing at the embarrassed half-dead. “You did that on purpose,” he accused him.

Logan shrugged his shoulders. “Maybe. Probably.” He laughed. “She’s fun to mess with. Besides, when a man’s gotta go…”

The preacher took a leak in the Grand River.

Stephen turned and started walking off. He repeated over his shoulder with a smile, “No damn filter at all.”

“Screw that,” Logan said. “It just gets in the way of the fucking point… and I’ve had to pee for hours!”

Megan approached the medium, fuming, and whispered, “That… that crude man! He is… pissing… all over Stephen’s moment!”

Meredith almost fell over from laughing so hard.

She was immediately reminded of something Gina had told her once that Douglas had shared with her:

“Laughter is a manifestation of temporary insanity. That’s why there’s always room to laugh, no matter how fucked up the circumstances get. Insanity doesn’t play by the rules or act in accordance with expected behavior.”

Meredith smiled. Some ghosts know when to return when we need them the most, she thought.

~~~

… “Our extended family has been scattered again. Many have died or are presumed dead. For all we know, the four of us, and Gina… may be all that’s left.

Whoever you are, listening to my mixed-tape ramblings, I hope you’re not alone. I hope you have people you care about as much as we care about our own. If you do, I hope you protect them with all that you have. In this dead world, that’s all we have left… and nothing else matters, not even our own lives, if it means saving them.

The one who’s in control of all this madness—he calls himself Toby—he has Gina… and he presently has us… but not for long. I don’t know what Toby is. Demon? Spirit? Satan, himself? Your guess is as good as mine. But I do know that Toby is evil personified, and it wants to destroy everything about us. Mark that name, should we fail. Understand that it is this… entity… who has assaulted our world.

Toby is the enemy.

We’re being escorted by the dead all the way to the lake. I know, sounds crazy, doesn’t it? There’s a boat waiting to take us across… to take us to the monster’s island.

I’m sick to my stomach just thinking about going back. We’ve lost good people along that route… family. It’s going to be hard to revisit those painful days.” …

~~~

By mid-afternoon, Megan held them up along the narrowing river, pointing out an object up ahead that looked out of place against the natural terrain.

Stephen squinted toward the object, then looked immediately to Meredith.

She nodded toward him, already wiping fresh tears away from her cheeks.

“Some kind of small boat?” Logan suggested, staring at what looked like a vessel’s mast sticking up at an angle.

“No, Logan,” Stephen said, solemnly. “That’s no boat.”

~~~

Everyone stood quietly before the crooked driftwood cross, marking a small pile of stones beside the river. Ashley Dermont’s grave had remained surprisingly undisturbed after all this time.

Stephen stood beside Meredith with a comforting arm around her shoulder.

The old medium just stared at the cross. She was at a loss for words.

Logan stepped forward, head bowed, hands folded in the front. He cleared his throat and said, “Dear, Heavenly Father, we thank you for your grace and safe passage, just as you have granted this young woman safe passage into your eternal kingdom. As we stand here, gathered before this memorial to all those who have gone on ahead of us, we carry them, all of them, in our hearts and minds, as they travel forth before us, granting us courage for the days ahead, by their sacrifices.”

Megan stared at the big preacher. Her face was stone, concealing the many emotions that threatened to unravel her.

Logan continued, “We thank you, Heavenly Father, for watching over our beloved friend, Ashley, and for leading us here… to remind us all what is at stake. May we find comfort and resolve to do what is required by your grace and strength, and through the memories of those we have lost.” He paused, closing his eyes.

Meredith and Stephen were openly weeping.

The preacher finished. “‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.’”

~~~

… “I wish I could tell you that everything’s going to be alright, that we’re not terrified at the prospect of what we’re about to face. But we are. I’m sure we will be second-guessing our decision constantly as we tremble with each step forward. I’ve tried my best to put on the bravest face I can… for Meredith’s sake. But I’m deathly afraid.

At least we have each other. I can’t imagine facing the monsters in this world… alone.” …

~~~

“It feels… smaller,” Stephen remarked, then turned to Meredith. “And surprisingly little has changed.”

Meredith smiled at him then examined the boathouse loft.

Other than one shattered window and some obvious weather damage in the area in front of it, the loft still resembled a small recreation room with three large dusty sofas surrounding the same old Zenith console television which dominated the center of the room. Farther back were various other items covered with tarps and an old CB radio hidden way in the back.

The antique refrigerator still captured immediately attention as Logan opened the door, was assaulted by the rotting smell within, then quickly closed it. “Think I’ll skip dinner,” he said. He eyeballed a multi-colored striped couch and smiled. “Looks like something I’d have at my old place.”

Megan stared at the hideous couch, then at Logan. “Why am I not surprised?”

“Bah!” Logan said, waving a dismissive hand at her. “It ‘ain’t much to look at, but I bet it’s super comfortable. I call the couch.” The big preacher plopped down on the old sofa, causing the springs beneath to squeak.

“Was that you, old man, or the couch?” Megan teased.

He laughed, then stared at the others. “Girl’s got jokes now.”

Meredith cupped a smile. She located her spot from before in the center of another sofa. She sheepishly sat down, half-expecting to be thrown back into the past the moment she got comfortable. The old medium felt how tired she was as soon as she was off her feet. She closed her eyes, took a long, deliberate breath, then opened them. Meredith smiled as the time machine of memory brought them all back. She could see Douglas, spread out on that ridiculous striped couch, the weight of the world in his hard but compassionate eyes. Meredith could feel the strong and determined red-head sitting on one side of her; the inquisitive and funny young Ashley on the other. Amanda was already passed out on another sofa. She could see Gregory and Marcus, tinkering with the old radio in the back of the room—Greg was always tinkering with something. Meredith turned toward a window and frowned. Where Megan was now standing, she could see Frank, perched in another one of his stand-off spots, always keeping his distance and shutting everyone out. Only she understood his pain and loss, but Frank had forced her out, too, choosing to suffer in his own private way. She turned from the window and found obnoxious Charlie, always pacing, always unsettled, staring around at everyone in the room like they were idiots… and she… the queen of the idiots. Meredith laughed lightly at the thought.

“You see them, too, don’t you?” Stephen said, sitting down beside her.

She turned and smiled at him.

Stephen’s eyes looked glazed over.

She nodded.

“In this place,” he said, still staring at old friends who were long gone, “I feel like the ghost.”

“You and me, both, Stephen,” she whispered, wiping another round of tears from her eyes. “You and me, both.”

“Is… something wrong?” Megan said. She came over and sat down on the other side of Meredith.

She turned to the half-dead woman and smiled. “No, honey. We’re just…”

“We’re sharing the room with old friends,” Stephen finished.

Megan just stared at them, then nodded. “So… what happens now?”

Logan sat up, realizing he’d almost nodded off. He let out a monster yawn.

Meredith laughed. “Well… obviously… we need to rest. This place offered us a rare moment to do that before. I believe we should take advantage of it again.”

“And after?” she pushed.

Meredith looked away. Her eyes looked distant. “Tomorrow morning, we’ll arrive at the marina. After that… we will do what we must.”

“Doesn’t sound like much of a plan,” Logan said. “We’ve been going at this for days and all I feel like we’ve done is rule out all the ways to get ourselves killed.” He sighed heavily and finished, “Nothing we can come up with will work without your insight into all the damn scenarios we can’t perceive… or understand. You’re holding back, Meredith, and I want to know why.”

They were all looking at her now. Meredith could feel the weight of their stares. She laughed nervously and said, “I suggest you petition your God, Logan. We will need His help.”

“I’ve been praying ever since Cherry Hill,” Logan said with a smile. “Trust me, our God will be there.”

She nodded. “That’s comforting.” She took them all in. “I’ve been building my strength back up since we left Pennsylvania. I should be ready to confront Toby with all that I possess, when the time comes,” she said. “I don’t know if it will be enough to stop him… but I feel less afraid now.” She smiled at Stephen. “And more encouraged that I am up to the task.”

Stephen smiled and nodded.

“What can we do to help?” Megan said.

And now comes the hard part, Meredith thought, staring at the girl. She had been working out her own plan ever since Cherry Hill, one she kept to herself. “Tonight, we enjoy each other’s company… and rest. Tomorrow, we say goodbye. I’ll be going to the marina… alone.”

“Like hell you will!” Logan objected.

Megan was up on her feet. “No!”

Before she could calm them down, Stephen put a hand on her shoulder.

She turned and saw a fierce and uncompromising determination in his eyes. “Meredith,” he said, calmly. “There is no way we will let you face Toby alone. None of us could live with that.”

She was about to protest, then stopped. She glanced into all their faces and found the hard look of warriors before a great battle, and then being told to retreat. She laughed. “My goodness. I’ve already lost my first fight.”

“You may feel responsible for Toby,” Logan said. “But you’re not. You’re also not responsible for our lives. This is a choice we’ve all made.”

“We stand together,” Stephen added.

“Yes. Together,” Megan echoed.

Meredith nodded through tears. “I… I had to try. I thought… I thought maybe if I could spare the rest of you… then… then it would easier.”

“What… easier if you failed?” Stephen said.

She nodded. “Yes. At least, you would all be safe.”

“But for how long?” Logan said. “Toby will come for us, eventually. Fail or succeed… we do it now… together.”

“We might all die tomorrow,” Meredith said. “I’m not being pessimistic… just realistic.”

“We were all prepared to die in Cherry Hill,” Stephen reminded her. “Nothing has changed. If we die… we’ll die fighting… we’ll die together. I can live with that.”

“Me, too,” Megan said.

“Well… I’m not keen on the dying part,” Logan added. “We’ll cross that bridge should it come. But I’ll be damned if I stand by and let you attempt this alone. Living with that shame would be far worse than dying tomorrow.”

The others agreed whole heartedly.

Meredith nodded and smiled. “Okay, then. We do this together. Honestly… From a selfish standpoint, I feel a little relieved.”

“Then it’s settled,” Logan said.

“So, what will you do?” Megan said. She turned to Stephen and then back to Meredith. “Has your… secret weapon… revealed itself to you, yet?”

The old medium’s face was unreadable. “All I can say is that I believe we have a chance now. Please don’t ask me what that means. It would be difficult to explain.”

Megan just stared, causing Meredith to look away.

“What can we do… to aide you in that ‘chance’?” Stephen said.

“Find Gina,” she said.

They all looked confused.

“Toby called her his ‘guest’, not his prisoner,” Meredith clarified. “Maybe that was just a play on words, but I don’t believe so. I sensed that he tipped his hand a little and told us more than he intended. The fact that he mentioned her at all felt desperate… like he really needed me back… now… despite his claims on there being another like me.”

“So, was that all bullshit?” Stephen said. “And how do we even know if he’s telling the truth about Gina?”

“I believed him when he said there was someone else, but he also said that it would take time for that someone else to be ready. Again, he said too much. I believe he’s desperate to have me back and revealing that he had Gina, which I also sensed was true, or telling me about this other ‘me’, both felt like he was running out of options… other than just killing me.”

“And the fact that he couldn’t just overpower you at the inn, kill the rest of us off, and then drag you back… that’s also telling,” Logan said.

“Yes. That says he respects my strength enough now to take me seriously. But back to Gina. Unless she’s locked up in some dungeon, which I don’t believe is the case, she might have some limited freedom on this island. She might know where Toby is… Toby’s body.”

The others paused, looking confused.

Meredith pulled them in close… and told them her plan.

Most of it.

~~~

… “I’ve reached the end of my ramblings. Going to attempt a final night of sleep… if that’s possible. To whoever is listening to these words, maybe the battle is long over by the time you’re hearing this. Maybe several years have passed and the dead are long gone. Maybe all traces of that terrible time we have come to know as The Change is foreign to you. I would certainly like to believe this… especially if we succeed… but at the expense of our lives.

I take some small comfort in this possibility… and choose to believe it.

I’m left wondering: Will there be a place in history for us, long after our task is complete? Will we be recorded as heroes? Martyrs?

Failures.

It will be enough to just have a history… and a species still around to remember it.

On a final note, should this mission cost us our lives to give the rest of you a chance at some kind of normal life, then this will all be worth it in the end. I do hope my friends and I are still around to see it.

Pray for us, pray for each other. Love one another while you still can. I hope that after our task is complete, win or lose, that the rest of you remember everything we’ve already lost… and turn it around somehow, even in this dark, upside world, and find a damn way to keep on loving each other. That’s all I have that’s really worth saying. Good luck to us all.”

~~~

The trip along the river in the morning was tense. Meredith and Stephen expected the dead to storm out of every abandoned building in Fairport Harbor. Logan and Megan were unnerved by the silence, feeling like eyes unseen were always watching them.

When they reached the badly weathered boardwalk, Stephen stopped and pointed toward the first of the boat carcasses left rotting away in the harbor. Many of the original sabotaged vessels had been overturned by the elements, leaving what was left of them buried beneath the river. A small handful of badly burned boats had been pushed up against the shoreline, where they looked like dead fish out of water.

“They remind me of us,” Stephen remarked. “Banged up, ripped apart, burned alive and full of holes… and yet, some of them have managed to stay afloat or crawl to shore.”

Meredith stared at what was left of the decrepit ships. “No, Stephen. Not like us. If anything, they resemble what ‘alone’ looks like.” She turned to him and smiled. “We never had to face that horror.”

He nodded, then stared back at the ship graveyard.

“Well… I sure hope none of these were the boat we came to find?” Logan said.

Meredith shook her head. “No. These were all sank on purpose at the beginning to force survivors toward the marina… and false hope. That’s where Toby’s boat will be.”

“Just like before,” Stephen whispered.

“Great,” Megan added sourly, staring up at the deserted shops and businesses that lined both sides of the river. Every shattered window and open doorway felt as though monsters lurked just within the shadows. “This place smells… dead.”

They all looked at her.

“Sorry,” she said, with a crooked smile. Megan suddenly stopped. Her eyes locked in on a tall gate in front of several large hangars off to the right. “I don’t want to go that way,” she said, taking a step back. “It smells very bad over there.”

Stephen and Meredith stared at the old gate and the hangars beyond, each remembering the attack when those large hangar doors opened, letting the hungry dead out. They could still hear the screams…

“We will go around,” Meredith said. “Nothing good came out of going in there.”

Logan was standing right up near the gate. “That three-pronged symbol… it’s painted in red all over the hangar doors.”

Meredith sighed. “Never mind that, now,” she said. “Those were primarily intended for me to find. The rest of it… doesn’t matter.”

They all gave her a puzzled look.

She didn’t want to elaborate, but finished, “Those symbols were always meant to make me… remember.”

The tired old medium led them away from the hangars with relief, and up into Fairport Harbor, around the hangars, and toward the marina.

~~~

They all stood at the edge of the only pier that still moored a boat.

A long white and beige vessel faced them on the starboard side, looking too clean and out of place in the worn-down marina. From the aft of the vessel to midships, the interior of the boat was completely exposed to the elements. From there, stairs descended into what they all assumed was a cabin area, and another flight of steps ascended toward the small pilot house which loomed over the bow.

“Looks like a charter boat for extended fishing trips,” Logan remarked. The preacher squinted and examined the dark windows surrounding the pilot house for movement, but he couldn’t make out anything.

“Is anyone on board?” Stephen asked.

As if hearing his question, a strange figure appeared above deck, stepping up from the cabin area, wearing a large red robe.

“I don’t like this,” Megan said, sniffing at the air. She took a step back.

Meredith raised her hand toward the robed stranger. “Hello!” she called out. “We’re… we’re here!”

The red-robbed stranger turned its hooded head toward the voice. Then it moved to a plank midships and crossed over to the pier.

Before Meredith and the others could speak, the robbed figure removed its hood, revealing an old woman with long white hair with a few strands of black.

Meredith’s eyes went wide. “No!” she whispered in disbelief. “This isn’t possible!”

Clementine stared at Meredith for what felt like an eternity, and then finally smiled. “Hello, old friend,” she said. “It’s been a very, very long time.”

~~~

Next Episode 54-1

Previous Episode 53-10

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 53-11: 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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