~~~

She can feel her warm breath rising through the small cavity created by her arms as she exhales upon the desk, trapping the moist air around her face. She begins to stir at the sound of her own snoring. Gina opens her eyes, keeping her head down to avoid being embarrassed. Her teacher, Mr. Eddington, continues to drone on about post-apocalyptic history and how Mankind eliminated the zombie threat.

Gina smiles within her arm cave as artificial light illuminates the small desktop. Words have been written on academic wood, which smells like ancient pencil lead and worn-down erasers:

TONY + GINA
4-EVER

Before she’s called upon to answer a question, betraying her sleepy absence from the subject, Gina slowly raises her head, wiping away ‘spider drool’ with the back of her hand.

Stephen’s wearing his glasses with his shoulder-length hair tied back. He leans against a tall chalkboard in his khakis and dry-cleaned white dress shirt, looking too relaxed to be a real teacher. “And… who can tell me in what year was the McFarlane Initiative established, making it mandatory for all governments to publicly disclose their scattered dead populations?”

Gina lowers her head as Stephen scans the room.

He stops and points to the student to her right. “Yes, go ahead Meredith.”

Gina turns and smiles. Meredith is wearing a new sundress. She is sitting all prim and proper with her back straight, hands folded above the desk, her long hair tied up in an elaborate bun.

“I believe that was finalized in 2014.”

Stephen gives her a blank stare for dramatic effect, then responds, “Correct!”

Meredith looks around the room, feeling proud of herself.

Gina notices the rest of her classmates. They’re all there—all her friends—surrounding her, sitting at their individual desks and looking… Happy?

Dead or alive… doesn’t matter. Gina scans the room. She sees Douglas, Amanda, Greg, Ashley, Nine, Diane… the list goes on. There’s so much love in the room she can hardly stand it.

She looks for Tony but can’t find him. Gina stares back down at her desk and gasps. Someone has crossed out her and Tony’s names in black marker. Written just beneath in red are the words:

BLOOD FOR BLOOD

Before she can register the meaning of the words, her ears are assaulted by the sound of chalk screeching across the chalkboard. Gina looks up and finds Sam, the ex-cop, standing where Stephen was a moment ago. She’s wearing a bloody uniform and staring straight at her.

Gina looks above the cop and notices a message scrawled across the chalkboard in blood:

YOU KILL US. WE KILL YOU. BLOOD FOR BLOOD

Everyone else in the classroom appears to have frozen in place.

“Didn’t see it coming, did you?” Sam says. “Believe me, bitch, I didn’t see it coming either.”

Gina opens her mouth to speak, but nothing comes out.

The door to the classroom suddenly bursts open.

No one moves. Not even Gina can move.

Marcus strolls into the classroom wearing black trousers and a black turtleneck.

He is carrying his machete.

Gina can do nothing but watch as her body fails to respond.

Marcus casually steps behind Samantha and stops.

The former cop shakes her head. “Better watch your back, bitch… and be more mindful about who you call a friend.”

Marcus peeks at Gina from around Sam’s left arm. He winks at her.

Gina wants to scream.

He raises the machete and repeatedly hacks into Sam’s head, sending blood and brains splattering everyone sitting in the first two rows.

No one moves as the former cop’s insides soak their hair and faces.

When Marcus is finished, he steps over Sam’s body, stops, and scans the students in the front row.

Move! Move, you fucking useless bitch! Gina shouts within her own thoughts. Move before he kills them all!

Marcus smiles at her futile struggle. He lifts the bloody machete and points it at Frank, three rows back. “Been there. Done that,” he tells Frank.

Frank falls from his desk as if the bones in his body had just given up.

NO! Gina wants to scream, but the words still won’t come.

Marcus gives her a pouty face, then focuses on the first row. He lifts the machete again and points it at each student, saying, “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe”…

Stephen, Douglas, Diane and Nine all fall over in their seats.

Dead.

Gina manages to close her eyes. I’m… I’m so fucking sorry! she thinks. I should’ve seen it! I should’ve STOPPED IT!

She opens her eyes.

Everyone in the room is now lying on the floor.

Dead.

Gina looks down at her feet and stares into Meredith’s accusing lifeless eyes.

Marcus is standing in front of her desk. He lifts up her chin with one gloved hand, looks her in the eyes, and says, “I will find you again, Gina. I will find you if it takes me mowing down everyone you care about to finish what we started.”

“NO!” she finally lets out.

Marcus smiles like the devil. He releases her chin.

Gina tries to get out from behind the desk but fails.

The killer raises the machete one… last… time.

All she can do is watch the blade fall and stare into the maniac’s blood-thirsty eyes…

~~~

…Gina opened her eyes and slowly started to focus. She was lying on her back, staring up at a dull gray dusty ceiling.

She takes a deep breath and whispers his name like a curse:

“Marcus.”

Gina quickly dismissed the dream.

Where the hell am I?

Her memory slowly started to return. For the last three days since arriving on the island, she’d been assigned to the facility clinic. The medical staff had done a more thorough job of addressing her injuries. Her leg wound had required stiches and she’d developed a chest infection after exerting herself on the mainland. The facility nurses loaded her up with antibiotics, strong pain killers, and then finally relocated her from the clinic and placed her in this room. Her body had shut down to heal as she’d slept most of the last thirty-six hours away, in and out of consciousness, and assaulted by the most disturbing dreams.

Her head felt like fifty pounds as she slowly lifted it off the pillow, using her elbows to sit up in the uncomfortable single-sized bed. She laid back down, regretting it immediately, as pain ripped through her body.

“Shit!” she hissed. “What the fuck did they do to me?”

She turned her head and examined the small, depressing room. Everything was the same dull grey color, including one small table with a build-in drawer. Aside from that, and the bed she was in, the room was bare, dusty, and the air tasted stale. The dim florescent lighting and the lack of windows didn’t help improve her mood. There was one grey rusted metallic door at the other end of the small space. It was closed. Gina frowned. This place reminds me of my old compound room, minus the personal touches. She started to panic a little. Are we underground? The word ‘tomb’ immediately came to mind.

Her memory was sketchy after the helicopter landed on the southern end of the island. From the sky she remembered approaching the island and seeing a large long structure at the center, bordered by trees, a few fields, and a long peninsula bluff at the northern end. She couldn’t remember much else since she could barely keep her eyes open at that point. She’d started feeling sick over the lake, and one of the nurses had injected her with a sedative for the rest of the ride. She was already in and out of consciousness when they carried her off the helicopter in a stretcher and moved her to the clinic.

“So much for the fucking tour,” she thought groggily, attempting to sit up again. This time she was successful, although her body protested every movement. “Fuck me, I must have been worse off than I thought.” She removed the thin blanket covering her and noticed her clothes. She was wearing an all grey uniform that fit and felt like pajamas. “From forest-green coveralls to drab gray sweats,” she said, shaking her head. “I wonder what they wear on Friday nights?” She laughed lightly and then sighed. “What fucking day is it, anyway?” She stared over at the door. “If I manage to get up and find that door locked-”

A knock on the door made her jump.

Before she could respond or decide not to respond, a young woman with short black hair opened the door and entered. She was wearing the same gray uniform, but in the dim lighting, Gina observed that the stranger’s clothing was stained in several places. The woman closed the door, then sat down in front of it, before finally looking up at Gina. The woman’s eyes looked uninviting—hostile even—with a frown to match.

What the fuck is this? Gina thought.

The woman said nothing for several seconds and just continued to stare.

Gina, already annoyed with everything else, finally broke the silence. She locked eyes with the woman and said, “Where I come from, it’s rude to barge into someone’s room uninvited… and even more so when that someone just stares at you without explaining why.”

The woman cocked her head to the side and responded, “I… I did not break protocol. So, what’s the problem?”

To Gina, she sounded younger than she looked. Maybe nineteen… judging by the fucking attitude. Gina smiled, and said, “Your first impression on me, for starters. But I’ll let that slide and pretend it’s not creepy-as-fuck that you’re just sitting there, staring at me. It’s already been a stranger than usual apocalypse.”

The woman just continued to stare, immune to jokes.

Gina rolled her eyes. “Okay. Let’s try another tactic to break the ice: What the fuck do you want?”

The young woman tensed up. She looked away as if just being asked the most important question of her life. Finally, she looked back up and said, “My cell has been tasked to oversee your needs… and insure you make it to the meal hall unharmed.”

Gina laughed at the woman’s seriousness. “Are we talking about… breakfast? It is morning, right?”

“Correct.”

“And… there’s some kind of danger involved in getting there?”

“You will be safe,” the arrogant young woman added.

“Okay… now we’re getting somewhere. Let’s try this again. Who are you?”

The woman’s eyes went wide. “I… I know who I am… who I was… and who I will be.”

“What the hell was that?”

The young woman looked equally confused.

“Relax,” Gina said. “I was just asking for your name.”

The woman took a deep breath. “Oh. Okay. I thought… never mind what I thought-”

“I’m Gina. And you are?”

The woman nodded, clearly embarrassed. “I am Julianne.”

“There we go,” Gina said with a smile. “Okay, Julianne. Can you tell me what the hell is going on… aside from seeing me safely to my next meal?”

“You… don’t know?”

Gina laughed. “Clearly neither one of us do. Did that old crow in the red robe send you down here to fetch me? I’ve got a shit-load of questions for her.”

Julianne gasped and stared at the floor. “I do not know which ‘old crow’ you’re referring to. Surely, you do not mean Lady Clementine, especially in such a disrespectful tone.”

Gina sighed. “This is getting us nowhere. Did… Lady Clementine… send you here to take me to her?”

Julianne repeated, “My cell has been tasked to oversee your needs… and insure you make it to the meal hall-”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I got that,” Gina said. “Okay. Baby steps, then. We’ll start with breakfast.” Her eyes lit up. “Do you all have access to hot water here? I’m in desperate need of a shower.”

“Of course.”

Gina clapped her hands once in delight. “Fantastic!”

Julianne just watched her reaction, giving her the strangest look.

Understanding that she was getting nowhere with this very intense young woman, and not understanding anything else, Gina cupped a smile and then sternly said, “Now, Julianne, since your… mission… is to see me safely to breakfast, I have one very serious question to ask. Your answer will determine how we will proceed from here. Are you ready?”

Julianne got tense again. “I am… ready.”

Gina, clearly enjoying the young woman’s discomfort and confusion, asked, “At breakfast… will there be coffee?”

~~~

After exiting the depressing gray room, Gina followed the strange girl down several long hallways in silence. Every surface was layered in dust. She noticed several more doors like her own on their way to the meal hall. Gina frowned at the dull overhead lighting which only made the oppressive gray walls stand out. She looked at Julianne, getting a better glimpse of the girl’s appearance. The dark stains she noticed earlier on her uniform looked like faded blood stains.

“I’m assuming this is some sort of berthing wing… or a damn prison cell block,” Gina half joked.

Julianne, who was constantly stealing sideway glances behind her as if Gina might attack her from behind at any moment, answered, “This is where we all go to rest and reflect after training. Everyone has an isolation room… and most respect the sanctity of them.”

Gina laughed. “‘Isolation rooms’? So… this is a prison block. Sounds like solitary confinement.”

The young woman turned, again, missing Gina’s humor. “You are correct. Not about the prison part, but about the rooms. We are free to move about the training facility, understanding that combat may occur at any time.”

Gina was reminded of the old blood stains. “Is that how you got your nice gray uniform all dirty?”

Julianne didn’t answer.

“Is that your blood… or someone else’s?”

Again, she said nothing.

Gina stopped.

The young woman turned. “We need to keep moving.”

“You said you and your cell were assigned to get me to the meal hall safely.”

Julianne looked around nervously. “That is correct.”

“What’s going on in this place, Julianne? And if you ignore another one of my questions, I’ll start running down these sad-ass hallways, banging on every door I see and yelling, while I make you chase me.”

“You wouldn’t!”

Gina smiled. “I probably wouldn’t get far with my injuries… but that would be on you, too.”

Julianne looked frustrated. She looked around again, then said, “Fine. We are not accustomed to… outsiders… here. Your presence has caused a lot of confusion. But you are Lady Clementine’s guest.”

“Am I still a ‘guest’, Julianne?” Gina challenged.

The young woman didn’t know what to say. “I… I don’t know what I’m allowed to speak with you about. Frankly, up until now, I thought you were some sort of test to see how I’d respond to something… unusual.”

“What do you mean?”

Julianne gave her a grave look. “I was starting to believe I was sent to you… so you could make an attempt on my life.” She then looked at Gina’s clean clothes in disgust and finished, “Since meeting you, nothing I’ve seen or heard is threatening in any way.”

Gina caught the girl’s insult. “Oh, I see. Because I’m not wearing bloody rags like you… I’m some… what… scared little VIP tourist?”

“I don’t understand the question.”

“Of course, you don’t,” Gina said, sighing in frustration. “You and I don’t even speak the same damn language.”

Again, Julianne looked confused. “Please,” she said. “It isn’t safe to remain in the halls for too long. Anything bad could happen.”

Gina laughed. “And that kind of shit, right there, is what I’m talking about. What the hell is happening in this place? And whose blood is that on your clothes?”

Julianne took a deep breath. “This is not blood,” she finally said. “These are combat badges.”

Gina just shook her head.

“I don’t expect you to understand what that means. But you asked… and I have answered the best I can.”

The fiery red-head gave her a menacing glance. “Speak down to me again like this is my first day in the fucking apocalypse, you little brat, and I’ll slap that cocky look right off your damn face,” she growled.

This time, Julianne looked surprised. She straightened her back, raised her chin respectfully, and smiled. “My apologies. I have… miscalculated. I can now see in your eyes what the rest of your appearance did not show me. Perhaps that was my lesson all along.”

Gina reigned in her temper. “Okay. Will breakfast include a civil discussion with anyone who can answer my questions?”

The young girl flashed her a nervous smile. “For both our sakes, I certainly hope so.”

Gina laughed. “Now that was funny. Perhaps I’ve misjudged you, too.”

“The blood is not my own,” she clarified. “And it lets the others know that this is also not my… first day.” She added a weak smile.

“Got it,” Gina said. “That just created a lot more questions, but I won’t make you suffer any longer. Get me to the damn chow hall before you sweat to death. Maybe your Lady Clementine will be there to explain what the hell I’m doing here.”

“Thank you… Gina.” The young woman turned back, quickened her pace slightly, and Gina followed.

Gina stared at the young woman’s blood-stained back and thought, This whole bizarre encounter reminds me of something. She almost had it—a word—on the edge of her already crowded thoughts that made the connection.

Then Gina’s eyes went wide as she remembered the infected girl, Megan. Specifically, she thought about reading the young pregnant woman’s diary. The word she was looking for struck her immediately:

Recruits.

~~~

Gina stepped into the training facility meal hall, which was nothing special and resembled every school cafeteria she’d ever been in. This place was a bit cleaner but still carried a very old, abandoned feel about it… like her room and the halls. More depressing gray walls surrounded several long tables placed together to form rows. There were no windows. Gina was beginning to believe that windows and primary colors were strictly forbidden on this bleak island.

She had expected the rest of Julianne’s cell group to be more teenagers, like Megan’s old group she’d described in her diary. What she found instead was an odd mix of teenagers to middle-aged men and women, all sitting quietly in their gray uniforms huddled around one table. Some had more blood stains on their clothing while others had nothing. No one had as many stains as Julianne.

Including her escort, there were nine total. The rest of the meal hall was deserted.

Julianne motioned toward a seat at the end of their table. As Gina sat, the young woman sat down across from her. The others pretended not to notice the new arrival.

“Is there anything in particular you’d like to eat?” Julianne said. “The kitchen is well-stocked… but it’s been self-service ever since The Change.”

“No coffee, I assume.”

“What creature comforts we had are long gone. As you can imagine, it’s very difficult getting regular shipments of anything these days.”

Gina nodded and stared into the faces of the rest of this motley crew. “I’ll pass on the meal for now.” She looked back at Julianne. “Why don’t you tell me about yourself. How did you… and the rest of your group end up here?”

“May I ask a question, first?”

“Yeah, go ahead.”

“Your scar. How did you get that?”

Gina reached up toward her right eye. “A young woman with most of her mind gone came at me with a knife. This was the result.”

“And the woman? Did you defeat her?”

Gina frowned at her. “She’s dead.”

Julianne lifted her chin and nodded. “A noble scar. A battle wound. I would be proud to bear such a mark.”

Gina shook her head at her, not relishing reliving the memory, especially since it had been Marcus who had saved her. “Whatever you say. It’s a ‘badge’ I could live without.”

The young woman just stared.

“And what about you?” Gina redirected. “How are you here?”

Julianne nodded. “Of course.” She took a deep breath and said, “I was here, training… when the Lions came.”

“The ‘Lions’?”

“Yes. Outsiders like yourself have come to know it as The Change. The Lions came and devoured the people, leaving only Candidates and Fodder and their wake.”

Gina shook her head, remembering the strange flier she’d found in Megan’s diary. “I’ll leave that can of worms alone for now. So, you were here when it all went south. How many people did you lose?”

Julianne frowned. “I was in my room when the screams started. I thought it was just another challenge, until one of those… creatures… stormed into my room and tried to bite into me.”

“What happened? Did you bite that thing first?” Gina joked.

Julianne looked confused by Gina’s joke. “I made it into the hallway. Everything was in chaos. I managed to find a few other Ama-Eskua recruits. We armed ourselves and went after the beasts, room by room, until the situation was under control.” She looked down at her hands and finished, “There were only three of us recruits left after the attack.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Gina said. “Things were rough all over the place back then. It’s a wonder any of us survived at all.”

Julianne nodded, clearly wanting to get away from the subject. She turned to the others. “These are recruits Mother found after The Change. They were tested and the faithful were brought here.”

“‘Tested’?”

Julianne gave Gina an impatient glance as if sharing news everyone should already know. “Everyone who was not devoured by the Lions… is tested… to discover if they are worthy of their lives.”

Gina didn’t know what to make of that strange comment. “And then… what… they’re brought here to train as Ama-Eskua?”

“Oh, no,” Julianne said firmly. “The Ama-Eskua have not taken on new students for quite some time.” She looked at the others. “These are the Chosen. They, as well as I, train and fight to find out if we are worthy to be called Candidates or if we’re reserved for Fodder.”

Gina mulled this over. “So, are you telling me that Mother believes that The Change was not a ‘random’ event on the population? That somehow, those of us who didn’t turn into those yellow-eyed freaks, were chosen on purpose?”

Julianne seemed perplexed by the question. She shrugged her shoulders and said, “We are either worthy of the ‘gift’ or we are not. It has always been this way.”

Gina leaned back in her chair. “This is crazy. Who decides who is worthy when we’ve all been given a second chance… all of us who didn’t turn into blood-craving monsters?”

Julianne had no response.

Gina shook her head and turned toward the group. She locked in one of the oldest looking. A heavy-set man with curly black hair and a beard pretended not to be listening as he sipped on a cup. “What about you? You look old enough to be some of these kid’s father? How did you end up here?”

The man, realizing Gina was speaking to him, nearly choked on his drink. He turned to Julianne.

Julianne nodded, giving him permission to speak.

The man put his cup down and smiled. “I’m just lucky I guess.”

“What’s your name?” Gina said.

“Name’s Howard, but everyone calls me Hugh.”

“I’m Gina, Hugh. Nice to meet you.”

“Likewise. And… if you don’t mind me saying so… you are the prettiest thing I’ve seen since arriving on this rock. No disrespect intended.”

Gina laughed. “None taken. What’s your story, Hugh?”

Hugh took another sip from his cup. “I was with a group trying to get out of Cleveland. That place was insane. The dead were everywhere. We found a high-rise to hide in. Everything was going okay until we made it to the third floor, then it was like the dead were just waiting there for us. We were overrun in seconds. Made it to the roof and barricaded the door. We were up there for days, slowly dying, while those monsters just kept trying to get at us. They were never gonna stop.” He put his cup down and stared off toward the wall. “My group… well… we started losing our shit up on that rooftop. We were so hungry and thirsty and… and fucking desperate… pardon my language.”

“That’s okay,” Gina said. “I can’t think of a better time period that deserves some choice fucking profanity… and often.”

Hugh nodded appreciatively. “Anyway, we all stared having the craziest fucking thoughts. The days were the worst. That sun just beat down on us, cooking our brains and trying to kill us off before the dead had a chance. I still remember when Patty, this good-looking blond, she just decided to walk on over to the edge. She looked back at me, smiled, and then just… jumped right off.”

“That’s fucking horrible,” Gina said.

“That wasn’t the worst of it. People started turning on each other. Someone said something about a lottery to decide who we should kill… to survive.” He wouldn’t elaborate. “Things just got worse from there. The dead were never going away. Next thing I knew, a fight broke out and I thought that was it for all of us. I started looking around the edge of the roof for some way down or across… fuck… I didn’t know. That’s when I saw this rope tied off to this pipe about ten feet below me. I swear it wasn’t there before! Anyway, it went all the way down to a second roof on another section of the building. I turned to say something and watched this man just throw another over the side of the roof. It was insane! I don’t know what came over me. I didn’t say shit. I just started climbing down that rope.”

“You just left them up there to kill each other?” Gina said, astonished.

“If I’d said anything, they all would’ve fought each other for the rope, probably would’ve knocked it loose. So… I let them all duke it out and started climbing. I didn’t make it halfway down before I heard the dead finally knock that rooftop door open. I think all that fighting just got them riled up. I made it to the lower roof and was able to get out from there.”

“Then what did you do?”

Hugh looked surprised by the question. “I fucking ran! Never looked back. I didn’t make it two blocks before I ran into this strange fellow, talking about Mother’s Salvation and being a potential Candidate. He said, ‘Congratulations. You’ve passed the test.’ I didn’t know what the hell he was going on about, but he told me about this place and that I’d be safe from the ‘Lions devouring the world’. Asked me to come with him… so I did!” Hugh looked around, sighing heavily. “Been here ever since.”

Gina was stunned. “And how long was that?”

Hugh shrugged his shoulders. “I’m not sure anymore. I know I arrived before the winter. It’s easy to lose track of time down in this place.”

Gina just nodded, thinking about her time going crazy down in the compound.

“Something similar happened to me,” a young man with long brown hair said. “My name’s Nick. I was with a small group near Medina. We found an elementary school in the middle of this devastated neighborhood. The school looked out-of-place and undamaged. It reminded me of when you see news footage after a tornado strikes down, tearing everything to pieces in its path… and then there’s like one house that somehow survived it. It was just like that. We needed somewhere to hide for the night and the school seemed perfect. We set up for the evening on the second floor. Shortly after, we heard explosions going off beneath us. When we checked it out, every exit had been blown up. There was so much debris, we couldn’t get out. The dead came quick after that, attracted by the explosions. We started to panic and ran back up to the second floor. The dead surrounded that school in minutes. While the others were scrambling to find a way out, and making all kinds of noise doing it, I got as far away from them as I could. Someone had spray-painted red arrows along the walls. I thought that was strange, so I followed the arrows… and found an access ladder leading up to a hatch to the roof. By then, the dead were coming in through the first-floor windows. There were screams coming from everywhere. I was so terrified. Part of me wanted to go back and help them, but I couldn’t. I was afraid they’d lead the dead right to the access ladder, so I went up there, shut the hatch behind me, and just stayed quiet while those monsters tore the rest of them to pieces.” The young man’s shoulder’s slouched. “They never found me… the dead, or my group. Hours later, when I finally worked up the nerve to head back down into the school, the dead had moved on… and I was the only survivor. After that, I ran into this creepy guy, sitting at a desk in one of the classrooms. Told me I’d passed some test and a lot of stuff like Hugh mentioned… Long story short, now I’m here because I hid on that rooftop.”

Gina was shaking her head. “You could’ve gone back, before it was too late, and helped some of them get to that roof access… but you kept it to yourself. That’s pretty fucking shitty, Nick.”

“Like I said, I was terrified,” Nick defended. “All I could think about was saving my own ass. You would’ve done the same if you’d been in my shoes.”

“No,” Gina corrected. “I would not have done the same thing.”

The young man turned away from Gina’s intense gaze.

Gina noticed a small, sad looking young girl staring into a bowl of soup. She can’t be any older than sixteen, Gina thought. “What about you?”

The girl looked up into Gina’s probing gaze and froze. “Excuse me?”

“What’s your name?” Gina pushed.

“Connie. My name’s Connie.”

“Nice to meet you, Connie. I’m Gina. How did you end up here?”

Connie stared into the faces of her group, looking for anyone to bail her out.

“Go on, Connie,” Hugh said gently. “Answer the nice lady’s question.”

Connie nodded and frowned. She looked to Gina. “I was… I was with my family about a month ago. It was me and my mom and dad, and Cody—that was my brother.”

Gina nodded.

“It was getting late and we hadn’t found anywhere to crash. Cody saw this big Greyhound bus up on an overpass. It looked like it had been in an accident because the front tires of the bus were hanging over the side. My dad checked it out and it looked safe, if we stayed near the back. We didn’t dare stay out after dark… not where we were. So, we locked ourselves in the bus and huddled together as quietly as we could. Mom and Cody fell asleep as soon as they laid down across the seats. Dad and I were in the seat across from them. He was staring out the window keeping watch. I had laid down with my head in his lap. We were so tired.” She stopped to wipe tears off her face with the back of her hand. “Sorry. I know I’m supposed to be stronger than this.”

“You will be,” Julianne told her with a confident nod.

Connie smiled back.

“What happened to your family?” Gina said.

Connie stared back down at her bowl. “We fell asleep. A horde of the dead were traveling over the overpass really late. I don’t know how they knew we were there, but they did. We heard them pushing against the back of the bus. Dad started to panic and yelled at us to move toward the front. The bus shifted and slipped forward farther over the edge of the overpass. While Mom and Cody tried to help throw luggage toward the rear entrance of the bus, I just… I just froze. I could see them outside… all their angry, bloody faces, pressed up against the windows. I looked up to keep from staring at those crazy faces and I saw the emergency hatch exiting the top of the bus. There were words written there above this strange symbol.”

She had Gina’s complete attention. “What did the words say?”

“The words said, ‘Open, if you want to live’.”

“And the symbol?” Gina pushed.

Connie stared at the others and they encouraged her to continue. She said, “It’s the one we’ve all seen. The eye with three points surrounding it… The Eye of Mother.”

The others started to nod.

Gina was shocked. “What did you do, Connie?”

“I got my dad’s attention and showed him the hatch. He yelled at my mother to grab Cody. Next thing I knew, he had it open and was lifting me up to the roof.” She sighed heavily and continued. “They ran out of time. I crawled on top of the bus and the dead broke in through the rear door. I shouted down to them and my dad told me to run. He told me to run and not to look back. I lost sight of my family when they were forced toward the front of the bus. I felt the bus shift again. The dead were inside, and I wanted to scream at them… but I couldn’t. I didn’t want them to find me. I heard Mom and Cody scream… then Dad. I felt the bus moving again and I jumped off the side and rolled beneath an abandoned car… so the dead wouldn’t find me. And then I heard the bus make this awful squealing sound… and then it was… gone. Moments later I heard it crash on the highway below. The dead started jumping over the overpass to chase after it.” Connie stopped to wipe more tears from her face. “I stayed under that car until morning. I thought the dead would get me, too. But they didn’t. Eventually, daylight came, and everything got real quiet. The dead were gone… and so were my family… just like that.”

Gina’s eyes watered up. “Damn… I’m so sorry.”

“I would’ve died under that car if the man hadn’t found me. He told me to not be afraid and reached his hand under the car to help me. When he got me out, I was… I was real messed up. The man, he patted me on the head and said, ‘You did well, child. You held on to Mother’s gift.’ I didn’t understand what he meant, not then. All I knew was that my family was dead, and I did nothing.”

“You saved yourself,” Hugh said. “That’s how you ended up here, too. So, don’t beat yourself up about it. Mother is proud of you… we all are.”

Connie sheepishly smiled at the others who gave her encouraging nods. “Thanks, guys,” she told them. “And praise be to Mother for her precious gift of life.”

“Well said,” Julianne added. “You can relax now. I believe Gina’s heard enough. It was very brave of you to tell that story.”

Connie nodded and stared back down into her soup.

Gina just stared at the depressing kid. She finally snapped out of it and said to all of them, “I saw it, too. Mother’s symbol. It was spray-painted on a bunch of hangar doors. My group was after a boat at a marina. The hangars were a trap filled with the dead. They came after us and killed my friend, Doug.”

“Is that how you ended up here?” Hugh asked. “Did you make it to the boat, and leave the others behind?”

Gina just stared at Hugh in disgust. “You know what. Julianne was right. I have heard enough.”

Hugh saw the disapproval in Gina’s eyes and immediately looked away.

“Did we… offend you, Gina?” Julianne said, noticing Gina’s displeasure.

Gina shook her head and laughed. “You’re all here… alive… because you climbed over your own people to save yourselves.”

“Is… Is this wrong?” Julianne looked confused. “The way you talk makes it sound like you don’t believe we are Candidates?”

Gina sighed and let it go. “It doesn’t matter what I think. And I’ve no room to judge any of you for doing what you had to do to survive. I’ve done some despicable things that I’m not proud of.”

“But you are here, Gina,” Julianne said. “You are among the Chosen. You are a potential Candidate, too.”

“I don’t know what the hell that means,” Gina said. She was getting tired. “I’ve just become really good at surviving. That doesn’t mean I’m worthy to be alive, chosen, or that my life’s some damn gift to protect. It just means that I’m still here, when a lot of other good people that I used to know are gone. And they deserved to be here.”

They all looked at her in silence.

Gina stared into their wide-eyed faces. They don’t understand a fucking word I’m saying. Mother’s gone and put a big fucking band-aid over their selfish actions… and then made a damn religion out of it!

Before anyone else could speak, a loud buzzing alarm started to go off, blaring throughout the entire training facility.

“Fuck!” Gina said, startled. “What the hell is that?”

Julianne was already on her feet, motioning toward the others. “Ready yourselves immediately!” she barked at them.

They all stood up and came to attention. “We are ready,” they all responded together.

“Julianne… what is this?” Gina was staring all about the cafeteria. “Are we under attack?”

Julianne smiled at her. “Yes, Gina,” she said calmly. “Enough talk. We need to move now. Are you able?”

Gina nodded. “I’ll figure it out. Where the hell are we going?”

Julianne’s smile was gone. “We need to make it to the weapons… in the Kill Room.”

~~~

Next Episode 54-2

Previous Episode 53-11

~~~

If you’re enjoying Don’t Feed The Dark so far, please consider voting for it on Top Web Fiction and Top Site List by clicking the links below. This will help increase its visibility and draw in more potential readers. No registration is required. Thanks for your support and for reading :)

Vote for DFTD at topwebfiction

Vote for DFTD at Top Site List

__________________________________________
“Chapter 54-1: Treachery” 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.

Comments
  1. alikolino says:

    Gina quickly dismissed the dream.

    Where the hell I am?
    *Where the hell am I?

    Like

Leave a Reply to alikolino Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s