~~~

Gina sat on the aft deck with her back against the lifeline, knees up, her shaking arms wrapped around them as she tried to relax. Her clothes were covered in blood. Her shoulder-length red hair, disheveled with dried up black blood, hung over her intense green eyes, surrounded by a face mask of more blood. She rested her chin on one knee and continued to stare in disbelief at Stephen and Logan who were speaking with the captain of the Carrie-Anne. Her bloody hand axe and pain stick sat next to her on the deck on her right side.

They’re alive, she thought to herself. Stephen, Logan, Meredith…

And at the same time, every recruit she’d been left in charge of, including Julianne…

All dead.

A lone tear streamed down her face. She could feel a flood of emotions attempting to breach her hard exterior. She fought against it and won… barely. She closed her weary eyes and tried to process everything Logan and Stephen had told her since escaping on the vessel, which was now headed toward a cave on the western side of the island to rendezvous with Clementine, Meredith, and…

Megan? She couldn’t wrap her mind around that one. The last time she’d seen that pitiful girl, she was a monster left to rot inside a glass cage.

“Gina?”

She opened her eyes with a start, realizing she’d dozed off. Stephen was kneeling in front of her, his kind eyes looking at her in a way that made her feel… uncomfortable.

He smiled and said, “Sorry. Didn’t mean to startle you.”

She attempted a smile. It felt awkward to do so. “It’s good to see you,” she said. “I’m… I’m still in shock… I think. So much has just happened.” She looked away, feeling too exhausted for words. “Where’s Logan?”

“It’s okay,” Stephen said. “Just rest a bit. Captain Carl has informed us that we can’t enter the cavern until the tides recede. It will probably be another hour. Logan’s keeping an eye on the captain… just to make sure he doesn’t change course.”

“Is there a problem?”

“No,” Stephen said. “Captain Carl just isn’t very happy right now. He only got half the fuel he set out to get and we weren’t part of the… arrangement… that he made with the Red Lady. But in the captain’s defense, he did get us here, loaned us the guns and flares, and if not for that bright-ass spotlight, we might not have made it back to the dock.”

“Clementine,” Gina said. “You can’t trust that bitch. If she’s with Meredith…”

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get there,” Stephen said with a weary sigh. “What Meredith went in there to do… well… I don’t even want to think about it.”

Gina nodded. Logan and Stephen gave her the short version of events leading up to all of them being out here. “This… this Toby. He’s the one running things, then?”

“Yes,” Stephen said. “He’s… shit… I don’t even know where to begin on that one. It’s a long damn story that Meredith needs to tell. So much has happened, Gina. So… damn… much.” He looked away with a heavy sigh.

She laughed weakly. “It’s okay. It can wait. I’m just… I’m just glad you’re here. Last I knew, all of you died at the compound. That’s what that witch, Clementine, led me to believe. That’s why I’m out here now.”

Stephen gave her a puzzled look.

She clarified. “We… Clementine and I… we were planning on going after the Shadow Dead… for what they did.” She looked away and shook her head. “Doesn’t matter now. I don’t even know what’s true anymore.”

“We’ll get to it, Gina. After this mess is finished… we’ll share notes and blow each other’s minds.”

This made Gina laugh. It was a vulnerable laugh. One she hadn’t felt since… Marcus.

No… Russell Bower, she reminded herself. She didn’t even want to approach that topic, not yet, not now. Instead, she asked, “Did… did anyone else make it?”

Stephen gave her a sad look and shook his head. “I don’t know Gina. We’ve been back to the compound and searched the area around it. After a while, I think we were searching for you and Marcus as an excuse to stay in the area as long as we could. We found no one. Did Marcus ever catch up with you? Have you seen him?”

Gina closed her eyes. “Marcus… is dead. The Shadow Dead took him.” And that’s all she would volunteer as she opened her eyes and turned away. “We should stay focused. I’ll… I’ll fill you in later.”

Stephen just stared, disheartened by the news. “Okay,” he finally said. He reached toward a bucket of water sitting beside him and retrieved a sponge. He leaned in to wipe the blood from his friend’s face.

Gina flinched from the sponge and knocked his hand away from her face. “Don’t do that,” she spat.

Stephen looked shocked. “I… I was only trying to help. You’re covered in that black blood.”

“It’s a mark of honor!” she blurted out. She immediately saw young Julianne’s face and almost broke. Gina shook her head and calmed down. “Sorry. Sorry, Stephen. It’s been a… long fucking night. Please… go ahead. Get that shit off my face.”

Stephen hesitated then came back in with the sponge. He carefully wiped the blood away from her eyes, nose and mouth. He felt his throat tighten and stopped when he found Gina’s face beneath all that blood. “I’m the one who should be sorry,” he said. “You’ve been through hell out here. I can tell.”

“I just need a really long shower,” she joked.

“That’s not what I mean.”

She looked at him, her eyes full of sadness. “What’s happened to me is not your fault.”

“Of course, it is. I was the one who exiled you, remember?”

Gina stared at the tears coming down Stephen’s face. She wanted to reach up and wipe them away but stopped herself. She smiled, her own tears flowing now, and said, “You did the right thing.”

He looked confused and ashamed.

“I’m… I’m not well, Stephen. I’ve done horrible things. I was unfit to lead… or to be around any of you.”

“I don’t believe that,” Stephen said.

She smiled. “And nothing I say will convince you otherwise because you always find the best in people. But I’m telling you, I’m fucked-up. Just look at me.”

Stephen did. “I sent you out here… alone. No one should be alone. And I’m responsible for doing that to you.”

She laughed. “Doesn’t matter right now. We can talk about the blame game later. I’m just glad you’re alive.”

Stephen smiled. “Same here. It’s good to see you. I mean that.”

“I know you do, Stephen. And… and if it helps to hear it… then I forgive you for exiling me.”

Stephen nodded. He shoulders sunk and he wept.

Gina could no longer fight back the flood. She reached over for her friend and they embraced.

For the first time in a long time, Gina almost felt… human.

~~~

“Meredith! Megan!” Stephen shouted into the cavern for the fourth time.

Gina stood on the dock, armed with both her weapons. She watched Stephen and Logan search the cavern floor with flashlights while Captain Carl had the siblings shine the spotlight around from the deck of the Carrie-Anne.

“Megan!” Logan shouted, staring up toward the crack at the edge of the cavern. “Meredith! Can you hear us?”

The fiery red head stared up toward the crack in the upper wall where she was informed Meredith, Megan and Clementine had gone. She raised her own voice toward Logan and Stephen, pointing toward the crack. “We should go! Maybe they can’t hear us if they’re on the other side!” She stepped off the dock and started toward the crack.

“No, Gina! Wait!” Stephen cut in front of her. “Meredith warned us that we couldn’t go up there… not without losing our sanity.”

Gina just gave him an uncomprehending look and walked around him.

“Gina!” Stephen protested in vain.

“My ‘sanity’ has been in question for a good long while,” Gina said over her shoulder. “Meredith’s in there somewhere with that evil woman. I’m not going to leave her there!”

Logan and Stephen both caught up with her and gave each other a ‘what the hell’ look.

Gina stopped abruptly, just before the top of the wall where the long crack started.

Someone was lying down just inside the crack.

Gina turned. “Stephen! Your light!”

The former school teacher shined his flashlight toward the crack. His beam struck the startled face of the half-dead, sitting against the wall with Meredith’s head in her lap. The half-dead shielded her eyes with her hands and hissed at them.

Stephen jumped back. “Shit! Megan? Hey… it’s just us.”

Megan crawled out of the crack, taking up a defensive crouch in front of Meredith. She growled and screamed at them, unwilling to let them any closer.

“Something’s wrong,” Logan said as he and Stephen lowered their flashlights. The preacher took a closer look at Megan. She was a filthy, bloody mess. But it was her eyes… those silver eyes… that shook him. They were open so wide that it made the young woman look like some insane alien attempting to take on a female form.

Gina looked past that half-dead at Meredith’s unconscious body. Then she stared at the half-dead and saw blood in her mouth. She tensed up immediately, squaring up toward the monster, and hissed, “What did you do?! Get the fuck away from my friend you dead freak!”

Megan swung her right arm toward Gina as she attempted to move closer.

“Gina!” Stephen said. “What are you doing?”

Gina raised her axe with murder in her eyes. “This fucking thing’s been feeding on our friend!” Believing Meredith was already dead, she advanced toward the creature, preparing to strike it down. “I should have killed you in that cage a long time ago,” she hissed.

Megan growled and swung both her arms toward Gina’s face. She crouched down, preparing to pounce on the enraged woman.

“Gina… STOP! You don’t know what the hell you’re doing!” Stephen grabbed Gina’s arm just before she brought the axe down on Megan’s head.

Gina turned toward him in shock, nearly swinging the Balato at him. “Let go of me! That fucking thing’s killed our friend!”

Logan was there. He wrapped his big arms around Gina and dragged her back.

Stephen let go of Gina and immediately turned to Megan, raising his arms submissively before she attacked. “Megan… it’s me… Stephen.”

A flicker of recognition shown in the half-dead woman’s eyes, enough to cause her to pause.

“Just… relax,” Stephen continued. “We’re you’re friends. We just want to help you help Meredith… okay?”

Megan just stared at the former school teacher, panting and shaking violently. She then grabbed the sides of her head and fell to her knees, screaming.

By now, Gina had broken loose of the big preacher, who just stood in front of her with his hands up. “Just hold on, Gina,” Logan said. “Let Stephen talk to her.”

Gina still held her weapons. For a moment she looked like she was about to attack Logan, then she took a step back and glanced at Stephen. “Get away from that thing!”

Stephen got lower to the ground, his hands still up. “Just… take it easy, Megan.” He noticed there was a piece of flesh ripped out of her left arm. He frowned and said, “What have you done to yourself?”

“Is everything okay,” Logan yelled back.

“The blood’s not Meredith’s,” Stephen said. “Looks like she took a bite out of her own arm.” He glanced at the unconscious woman and smiled at Megan. “You carried her all the way back here, didn’t’ you? Then you got… hungry… so damn hungry you hurt yourself instead of turning on Meredith.”

Megan rolled up into a ball, still breathing hard. She was trying to regain control.

Stephen dared to reach out and touch the young woman on the shoulder.

Megan flinched then grabbed Stephen’s wrist.

Shit… not you’ve done it, he thought.

But Megan didn’t lash out. She let go of his wrist and started to weep. “Help… help her… please!” she said, turning to Meredith.

“Okay,” Stephen said, rising to his feet and moving toward Meredith.

Megan let him.

By now, Gina had calmed down. She waited as Stephen examined Meredith. “Well?” she said.

Stephen turned, frowning. “She’s very weak. We need to get her to the-”

A loud crashing sound echoed through the crack in the wall. A gust of stale air exited the crack, blowing Stephen’s hair back.

“What the hell was that?” he whispered.

“Son of a whore!” Captain Carl yelled, getting everyone’s attention. “All of you… get the hell on board… NOW!”

Gina turned toward the frantic captain and said, “What’s the problem?”

In answer, something big fell from the cavern roof and splashed down in the water ten feet from the bow of the Carrie-Anne.

“It’s a bloody cave in!” Carl said. “Get you asses on board! Time to go!”

More rocks from the cavern ceiling started to fall, splashing all around the dock.

“Logan… get Meredith!” Stephen shouted. “I’ll stay with Megan.”

The big preacher nodded, then gave Gina’s hand axe a cautious look. He pointed at her and said. “You fucking behave.”

Gina nodded, lowering her weapons.

Stephen slowly helped the half-dead to her feet. By now, she was shaking so hard Stephen thought she was freezing to death. He gently led her toward the ship.

Gina and Logan reached Meredith.

She knelt and briefly examined her. “Nothing looks broken,” she advised.

The big preacher nodded. He bent down and easily scooped up the older woman, cradling her in his arms.

More rocks splashed down around the ship.

Captain Carl already had the siblings removing mooring lines. He shouted toward the others, “Let’s go! Damn cave’s coming down on us!”

The others cleared the dock and quickly got on board.

While Logan and Gina moved Meredith toward the aft deck, Stephen stopped with Megan, long enough to yell up to the captain, “That’s everyone! We’re not waiting for the fucking Red Lady!”

“Aye,” Carl called down. “You don’t have to tell me twice.”

Captain Carl disappeared into the pilot house, started the engine, and turned the ship around toward the exit.

A rock struck the roof of the pilot house, leaving a decent dent.

“That’s no damn way to treat a lady!” The captain shouted up toward the ceiling.

The Carrie-Anne made a break for the exit while the cavern continued to come down around them.

~~~

The first traces of dawn brought much welcomed light over the eastern horizon.

The Carrie-Anne drifted with a southerly current a quarter mile from the western side island. They all stood on the aft deck watching what remained of the large Mother installation collapse into the caverns beneath it, creating what looked like a huge crater in its place. Several avalanches of rock and dirt rolled down from the center of the island sending debris into the lake on all sides.

Gina frowned as she watched the northern cliff crack away and descend into the water. Goodbye, Julianne, she thought. You died well.

“What do you suppose caused all that?” Logan said.

“The caverns were unstable to begin with,” Stephen said. “Just like the one beneath the orphanage. Remember when we saw the walls move in that place?”

Logan nodded.

“Orphanage?” Gina said.

Stephen laughed. “Add that to the list of long stories to tell.”

Gina smiled absently, still staring at the crumbling island. “I imagine Clementine or Meredith had something to do with this.”

“Or Toby,” Stephen added.

Gina just gave him a blank stare. She turned to check on Meredith, glancing suspiciously at the grey-eyed monster who refused to leave the unconscious woman’s side. Megan held on to Meredith’s hand with her head tucked in between her legs. She was rocking back and forth trying to remain calm.

“She always like that?” Gina said.

“No,” Logan said. “Believe it or not… that young lady damn near made a complete comeback on the human side of things.”

Gina turned to the big preacher. “That’s impossible. She’s dead.”

“Not dead,” Stephen corrected. “Half dead.”

“Whatever.” Gina dismissed the matter and knelt on the other side of Meredith. “This isn’t like before when she used her powers. She’s barely breathing.” She looked up at Stephen. “What the hell did she get herself into in there?”

Stephen didn’t know how to answer that question without opening a can of a thousand more questions. He shook his head and said, “All I know is that she came back here to finish this… at great risk to herself.”

“What do you mean, ‘finish this’?”

“He means… he means that I came back here… to send Toby back to where he belongs.”

They all turned, startled by Meredith’s weak reply.

Gina smiled. “Welcome back.”

Meredith looked up into those green eyes, her eyes tearing up. She raised an old hand and touched Gina’s cheek. “It does my heart good… good to see you again, Gina.”

Gina wiped fresh tears away with the back of her dirty hand. “What crazy shit did you do this time, woman?”

Meredith smiled. “I came… we came… at the enemy directly. And since… since I’m here and not… not still over there… I guess my crazy plan… worked.”

Stephen was there. “Clementine? Is she…”

Meredith shook her head. “I don’t… I don’t know, Stephen. But I think… Toby… finished her off.”

“And Toby?” Logan added.

She smiled weakly at the big preacher and said, “I do believe ‘our’ God provided me a way out… before… before things got bad.”

“Praise Jesus!” Logan said.

She turned to Stephen. “I had a little help. Sylvia and Nicole were with me.”

Stephen’s eyes went wide. “Should I even ask how you managed that?”

Meredith laughed. “No… I’m too tired to explain it. But… but just know that without Nicole’s help… I would have failed. I suspected that it might… that it might require a spirit… to defeat a spirit… in Elsewhere. Turns out… turns out I was correct. Toby’s gone. Nicole and Sylvia defeated him… and dragged him back into the darkness… permanently.”

Stephen wiped a tear from his eye. “Nicole… is gone, then?”

Meredith gave him a sad look.

Stephen nodded.

Gina looked completely confused.

Meredith locked eyes with her and said, “I’m sorry you were…. you were all alone here… with that evil woman.”

Gina nodded, and looked away. “And I’m sorry I trusted her. I was so desperate for anything to hold on to after I found out about the compound… and that snake took advantage of my pain and grief.”

Meredith frowned. “I’m sorry… sorry you had to… find out what happened that way. It must have been… must have been awful.”

Gina nodded. “Yes. But finding you, Stephen and Logan out here… I thought everyone was gone.”

Meredith grabbed Gina’s hand and smiled. “And I thought you were gone, too. If you know what I mean.”

Gina just stared, not knowing how to respond to that.

Megan lifted her head and noticed Meredith. She tried to speak, but had trouble forming words. The young half-dead let go of Meredith’s hand and grabbed her own head.

Meredith smiled at her. “What’s the matter, honey?”

“I think… I think she was in the cavern too long,” Stephen said. “Looks like she carried you all the way back through the dark… and paid the price.”

Meredith nodded, smiling proudly at the young woman. “So, you’re the reason… I’m on this ship… and not dead in that cave.”

Megan stared at her.

“Well, of course you did… you did all that. You’re such… such a brave young woman,” Meredith said. “I’m so very proud of you, Megan. You’ve come a long… a long way.”

Gina stared at the dead woman and swore she saw tears in her eyes. “What’s wrong with her… I mean… besides the obvious?”

Meredith frowned at Gina’s harshness. “You try entering a realm of madness and see how well you fair afterwards, Gina.”

Gina remained silent.

Meredith reached a shaky hand toward Megan, and then touched her forehead. The old medium closed her eyes tight, muttered something under her breath, and then opened her eyes, retracting her hand.

Megan smiled at the older woman. Her mind was clear now. “Mer… Meredith?” the young woman said through tears.

“That’s right… honey. I’m here. I’m here. I’ve taken that madness… that madness away from your thoughts. You should be… be fine now.”

And surprisingly, Megan was.

“How did you do that?” Stephen said.

Meredith smiled in response. “Harder to explain than to perform. I just knew… I just knew what to do.” The older woman suddenly stared straight up into the sky as if discovering some awful, wonderful truth just beyond the clouds. Her face looked distant.

“What’s wrong?” Gina asked. “Something’s different… isn’t it?”

Meredith turned to her and smiled. “Yes, Gina. Everything’s different now. She took in everyone else and said, “Listen… listen to me now. I haven’t much time left.”

“What’s that mean?” Megan said, clearly terrified.

The others came in close.

She smiled at them all and said, “I’m not even… not even supposed to be here. When I left this body, it was with the understanding… that I couldn’t come back. And yet… somehow… I’m here, and not here at the same time.”

“I don’t understand?” Stephen said, concerned.

“I was… away… for too long, and I can feel it. My mind was left exposed in that horrible cave, and… and there’s not much left… It’s time for me to rest.”

“NO!” Megan said, shaking her head fiercely. “You can’t go!”

Meredith smiled at her and said, “You dragged me out of that dark cave… and gave me a chance… to come back… one last time… to be with my family. Thank you for that, Megan.”

Megan grabbed Meredith’s hand and looked away.

Stephen was in tears. “I… I don’t understand. You’re here. You seem… well.”

“It’s this body, Stephen. It’s failing fast. Without the mind… the body can’t survive long.”

Stephen didn’t know what to say.

“So… whatever’s happened… now you’re… dying?” Gina asked.

Meredith stared at her and finally said, “Yes, honey. There’s no way around it. I can feel it. My time is very short now. I shouldn’t even be here… but somehow… I am.”

Logan smiled. “Sounds like God did you one last favor.”

She looked at the big preacher and smiled. “Perhaps… perhaps He did.” Meredith caught the sun peeking up over the horizon. She turned to Megan, “Please… help me up, honey. I don’t want to miss this.”

Megan helped the old medium sit up as she leaned back against the lifelines.

Meredith smiled at the rising sun. “That’s… that’s so beautiful.” She turned, looking long into all their faces. “I’ m… I’m so grateful,” she said through tears. “To look at you all… one last time. To share… to share one last moment… with the ones that I love.” She finished on Logan and said, “I am… blessed.”

Logan nodded with a smile. He quickly turned toward the lake to hide his own tears.

Gina didn’t know what to say. Part of her was glad to be sitting here, sharing in her old friend’s final moments. Another part of her was furious. To come all this way, and be reunited, just to lose her in the end. “This is fucking bullshit,” she spat, feeling her stone exterior crumble, just like the dying island behind them. “I just got you back.”

Meredith nodded. “I know. But at least we’re together… right now. I will settle for that.”

“That’s not good enough,” Gina said coldly. “I can’t… I can’t go through this again… not with you.” Her tears flowed freely now. Gina shook her head. While Meredith was grateful for God’s generosity, Gina just wanted to shake her fist at the sky and curse His name. In the end, her grief triumphed over her anger… and she just wept.

Meredith smiled at her. “Remember the tears, Gina? Always remember what it means to shed them, and tremble at the thought of ever descending to a place inside where there are no more tears.”

Gina nodded with a smile. “I remember. Tears are gold.”

Meredith nodded. “Just like refreshing drops of gold… raining down on a warm summer day. My goodness, I’m surprised I still remember that.”

The two of them exchanged a long look between friends where no words had a place.

Meredith looked away abruptly and said, “It’s almost… almost time to leave.”

“Take me with you,” Megan said. “You can’t… you can’t leave me here. I won’t let you.”

“You can’t go with me, honey. You need to live. You need to live… for me.”

Megan hesitated than finally nodded.

Meredith’s gaze lingered on the young half-dead, her eyebrows going up as she saw something within her that surprised the old medium. “Now I understand,” she said, smiling at the girl. “I should have seen it.”

“What was that?” Megan said.

“Again, Megan… fight for your place in this world. You must. Understand?”

“Yes.”

“I love you… so very much.”

“And I… and I love you.” Megan got up before she lost control and destroyed… everything. She rushed toward the bow of the vessel, releasing her sorrow on the morning with sobs and screams.

“She’s is so much pain,” Stephen said.

“Look after her, Stephen. You and Logan both. She will need you now… more than ever.”

Both men nodded.

Logan, looking uncomfortable, said, “I’ll go up front, make sure… make sure she’s okay.” He stopped and said to Meredith, “It’s been an honor fighting the good fight with you. May God continue to grant you peace and guidance on your journey, both here, and hereafter.”

Meredith nodded with a smile and said, “Thank you, Logan. May He continue to be with us all.”

“Amen.” Logan walked away to catch up with Megan.

Meredith sighed heavily and smiled at her two oldest friends.

Stephen was a weeping mess. He tried to calm down. “This isn’t right. You deserve better than this… after all you’ve done.”

“I’ve done enough,” the old medium said, leaving the comment open-ended. “It’s alright, Stephen. I’m at peace with this. I’m tired. Tired down to my very bones. My part is done. It’s up to you now to make things better again. Make all the sacrifices that came before mean something. There isn’t anyone better I can think of who can lift up humanity and lead us into something better… make us all better than what we were before.”

Stephen was humbled. “I… I will try my best.”

Meredith smiled. “Just hearing you say that fills me with hope. Thank you, Stephen for that… and for believing in me when no one else did. You are a good friend.”

The former school teacher wiped tears from his face, reached over, and hugged Meredith.

Meredith laughed lightly and whispered in his ear, “You will be alright. Lead them into hope, Stephen. Lead them all into hope.”

Stephen broke his embrace and nodded.

“I’d like a moment alone with Gina,” Meredith said.

Stephen nodded and rose to his feet. “I’ll… I’ll be nearby. Just holler if you need anything.”

Meredith nodded, watching the distraught young man depart. She turned to Gina who was sitting on her knees, staring into oblivion. “You okay?”

Gina nodded. “I guess I’ll have to be.”

Meredith glanced at her blood-stained clothing, then back into Gina’s sad and disconnected green eyes. “I’ve not given up on you, honey. I know you’ve had… hard choices to make. And you will continue to face harder choices down the road.”

Gina looked into the medium’s eyes and said, “I have… so much blood on my hands, Meredith. Sometimes… sometimes I don’t know if I’m any better than the evil people thriving in this world. I’m so full of hate and anger… and that coldness you once called me out on.”

“Yes, but you’re…. but you’re aware. And I know that you’ll… that you’ll find your way back… even if it means traveling through the fire to do so.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

“You will,” Meredith said. “That fire will make you stronger, and this world, these people, will need your strength before this is all over.”

Gina had no response to that. She shook her head and said, “Why do all the good people keep dying… all the ones who belong in this world—who are absolutely essential? Me… I’m just another monster who probably needs to be put down before I cause some real damage.”

“You are more than you know, Gina. I see it in you… even if you can’t right now. You will find your way back. I believe in you.”

Gina started to weep, letting her shoulders drop. “I hope your right.”

“I am,” Meredith said. “Now, I have to tell you something… something very important. It won’t make much sense to you right now… but after your caught up to speed… you will have to decide what to do with this.”

“I don’t like the sound of this at all.”

Meredith shook her head. “I’ve carried this burden long enough. I’m running out of time and… and I can’t carry it any longer. I’d meant to handle this… but things got crazy… and then things got really crazy. Unfortunately, someone must know… and it has to be you.”

“Okay.”

“Come closer.”

Gina did.

Meredith leaned in and whispered in her ear. As she did so, Gina’s eyes went wide with horror. She tried to pull away, but Meredith grabbed her hands, keeping her close, until she was finished.

Gina pulled away from Meredith, staring into her eyes with shock and resentment. “Why would you tell me something like that?”

“Because someone has to know,” Meredith said. “Someone who can look this particular ‘monster’ in the eyes… and not flinch.”

Gina shook her head. “It’s too much!”

“I trust your judgment on this matter,” Meredith said. “I chose to keep it to myself… for too long. And then time ran out. I don’t know if that was the right call or not… but now I’ve told you. You will have to… have to consider this carefully… as I have… and then decide what to do about it.”

Gina nodded.

“Gina!”

She looked up. Meredith’s eyes were going wide. “What? What’s wrong?”

The old medium reached out her hands.

Gina took them in her own. Meredith’s grip was surprisingly strong.

“It’s time,” Meredith said. “I… I can see myself! Soaring above the clouds! Soaring higher… higher… it’s so beautiful up here, Gina! So…”

Gina felt Meredith’s grip on her hands go limp. She stared into Meredith’s eyes. For a moment she was there… and then…

“Meredith?” Gina said through sobs.

Stephen turned and met Gina’s horrified gaze. “Logan! Megan!” he called out.

The old medium went limp and fell forward. Gina caught her in her arms and held her.

They were all coming now.

But it was finished.

“Meredith,” Gina whispered through tears. She held on to her old friend so tightly that if she let go now… “Meredith,” she repeated, “rest now… you’ve earned it.” Her last words nearly destroyed her.

“I… I love you.”

~~~

Captain Carl turned off the engine, making sure the aft end of the Carrie-Anne remained pointed toward the rising sun. After offering his inadequate condolences, he’d provided them a large blanket from his cabin, some rope, and then respectfully stood beside the siblings just outside the pilot house. All three of them lowered their heads in silence as the rolling waves splashed against the sides of the vessel.

The others stood in silence around Meredith’s body, now wrapped up in a blanket—the rope holding it in place around her frail frame.

It had been Stephen who had suggested a ‘burial at sea’, and the others had agreed.

If not for the waves and the wind, the silence left in the wake of so much grief would have been too much for any of them to handle.

Even Logan, who usually provided words of comfort, had very little to say.

And everyone understood.

Meredith would’ve wanted it this way.

No torturous goodbyes. Just… ‘until we meet again’.

For Meredith Montgomery, the thin line between this life, and the next, was something she was well-acquainted with.

And by association, they all knew that Meredith wasn’t gone… not really.

In her own words, she might have said…

“I am here, and I am not here.”

They each spoke briefly and shared what their hearts could handle.

When it was time, Stephen and Gina carried the body toward the side of the ship. Captain Carl had removed a section of the lifeline so they could finish. They gently swung Meredith’s body toward the opening and let go.

They all winced at the finality of the splash.

And then it was done.

Megan collapsed on the deck.

Logan knelt beside her and held her.

Stephen put an arm around Gina’s shoulders as they both watched their old friend’s body drift into the shimmering wake of the Carrie-Anne—the new morning light igniting the surface of the deep with majestic pink and red hues. They waited there until Meredith’s body disappeared between the swells which carried her to peace.

And then they wept for their great loss.

~~~

A few hours later, Gina and Stephen were standing on the upper pilot house deck, staring across at the mainland as the Captain made his final approach toward Fairport Harbor Marina.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this place,” Gina remarked, sighing heavily.

“Yeah,” Stephen added. “Meredith took us down the river before we crossed. We even stayed the night at the boathouse… remember that place?”

Gina smiled. “Yes. God… that feels like such a long time ago.”

“Too many ghosts on that journey,” Stephen said.

She looked at him and nodded.

Stephen stared toward the empty marina. “I don’t have a clue where to go once we set foot on the shore. It’s a little terrifying.”

“We’ll find a way,” Gina said. “We always have.”

“You can always stay on board the Carrie-Anne,” Captain Carl said from behind them. The bald, one-eyed captain joined them, lighting up his pipe.

They turned.

“Come again, Captain?” Stephen said.

“I’m just saying… the invite’s out there… for all of you.” He stared at the marina. “Not much left on the mainland anyway. You could stay on board, join my crew, and I’ll count it toward paying off your debt.”

Stephen laughed. “Or… you could still join us.”

“Nah. Not for me. I belong on the sea.” He pointed his pipe toward the mainland. “Too much death and pain over there. Out here, on the water, it’s not as bad as all that. The sea is merciful… in her own way.”

There was an awkward moment of silence.

Carl continued, “Again, I’m sorry for your loss. I buried my wife out here… in the same way.”

Stephen was surprised by the captain’s openness. “I’m sorry to hear that. Was it… after?”

“No,” he said. “She died to cancer… long before all this… mess.”

“I’m sorry for your loss, captain,” Gina said.

Carl nodded, looking uncomfortable. “Her name was Carrie-Anne… imagine that. Part of her… I believe… never really left. I swear, she’s still here sometimes. Not so much before as after… but I can hear her voice in the wind on certain nights when the seas are quiet.”

“The world is much quieter these days,” Stephen added. “Sometimes… I can hear those voices, too. Even on the mainland.”

Gina simply nodded in agreement.

This made Carl laugh. “I suppose the ghosts outnumber us these days. Perhaps, we’re the minority now.”

“Perhaps,” Gina said absently.

Carl, looking for an exit from the conversation, turned and said, “Well… good luck to all of you. I’m heading inside to make the final approach. Once you’re all on the ground, I’ll be leaving. You have until then to decide if you want to join me… or continue to take your chances in that vast graveyard over there.”

“Comforting thought,” Stephen said.

Carl laughed. “Either way… I can tell you’re all good people. Good people don’t last long these days, certainly never long enough to pay off debts, but good people make for good company, too. I’ll take that as down payment on your debt, Stephen. Hopefully, next time we meet, we can square away the difference… with interest, of course.”

Stephen laughed. “Okay. Thanks for the loan, Captain. And… for everything else. Perhaps you’re a good man, too.”

The captain waved off the compliment. “Bah… don’t be spreading that around! Bad for business.” He winked at them both, then turned for the pilot house.

Gina shook her head at the captain and said, “He’s a strange one… but I like the man.”

Stephen laughed. “Yeah… me, too.” He turned and looked back down on the aft deck. Logan was still down there with Megan. She’d crawled into a ball and was resting against the big man’s shoulder. He smiled at them and thought, Logan’s really growing fond of that girl. He frowned at Gina and finished, We’re all she has left. I don’t know if Gina will ever be able to accept her… and she won’t be the only one. He shook off the troubling thought. “One day at a time,” he said out loud.

“What was that?” Gina said.

Stephen looked at her. “I was just thinking, as soon as we step on that dock, it’s going to be like starting over again. I’m grateful that we’re still alive to do so… but it’s…”

“Scary as hell?” Gina finished.

“Something like that.”

Gina turned back toward the docks. They were close enough now to make out details. She could see the large hangars off to the right. Directly behind the marina, the dilapidated houses and businesses that made up the northern end of Fairport Harbor rose up above the docks like old bones from the past. Every dark window resembled hollowed-out eyes on ancient skulls.

Well… at least I’m not alone this time, she thought with a shudder. I can’t do ‘alone’… not anymore.

“Gina, you’re not alone,” Stephen said, as if reading her thoughts. “And that’s how we face everything… scary.”

She smiled at him, a lone tear streaming down her scarred cheek.

~~~

Gina, Stephen, Logan and Megan stepped out on the dock. Logan was carrying a backpack with three-days provisions and an assault rifle.

Captain Carl gave them a farewell nod from the deck of the Carrie-Anne, and said, “I wish I could do more. But that’s all I can spare.”

“You’ve done enough, Captain,” Stephen said. “Thank you.”

Captain Carl puffed on his pipe and turned, yelling at the siblings to take in the mooring lines.

They all turned toward the empty docks.

“May God grant us His grace to see us through… whatever happens next,” Logan prayed.

Suddenly, twenty armed men wearing body armor stormed out of the closest buildings and swarmed the docks, guns raised.

“Shit!” Captain Carl shouted from his ship, ordering the siblings to arm up.

Logan already had his rifle raised, standing in front of Megan protectively.

Surprisingly, the young half-dead, did nothing. There was no fight left in her now that Meredith was gone.

Gina raised her hand axe and Balato, stepping in front of the group.

The soldiers had the dock surrounded in moments.

“Drop the weapons! This is your only warning!” a tall man with a mustache and dark hair, wearing a ball cap flipped backwards commanded. The man, noticing Megan, added, “Step away from the hybrid!”

Logan aimed his rifle at the man and refused to move.

Stephen stepped beside him, to form a human barrier in front of Megan.

Gina, ignoring all the guns aimed at her, took a threatening step toward the one calling the shots.

“That’s close enough!” the ball cap soldier said.

“You fire one round at my friends… and I will kill you where you stand,” Gina promised.

The man laughed disbelievingly, and said, “Clearly your math skills are a little rusty. With a word, my men will mow you all down.”

Gina flashed the man a devious smile, gripping her weapons tight. “And you mistake me with someone who gives a shit about dying. I die daily. You better hope your men can aim those things before I cut your throat open.”

By now, Captain Carl, and the siblings were all armed, aiming their rifles at the soldiers from the deck of the Carrie-Anne. He shouted down to them, “Stand down! Or this will end bloody!”

The ball cap soldier sighed at the new guns and stared at Gina. “Lower your weapons. Step away from the hybrid. I will not say it again.”

“Come one step near that girl, and you’re dead,” Gina pushed defiantly.

This surprised both Logan and Stephen.

“Cole!” One of the soldiers behind the ball cap man said. A second man with a blond flattop and a scruffy beard stepped up beside him and placed his arm on the ball cap man’s rifle, pushing it down and away from Gina’s face.

Cole looked over confused.

“Sonofabitch!” the other man said, staring at the bloody woman with red hair. “Gina? Is that you?”

Gina stared at the blond-haired man. Her face softened as recognition slowly set in. “Sergeant… Hash?”

Hash laughed nervously. “You still remember me. That’s good.” He turned to Cole. “There’s no threat here, Cole. These are friends. I know this woman.”

Cole was staring at the guns on deck. He looked at Hash and frowned. “You better be right,” he said. Cole lowered his weapon and signaled his men to do the same. Then he addressed Gina. “Now… please lower your weapons… all of them. If you are who this man says you are… then I’m about to be your new best friend.”

Gina looked confused. She stared at Hash.

“Please… Gina. It’s alright now. They didn’t know who was on that ship… and they had to be sure you weren’t the enemy.”

Gina, choosing to gamble on a man she hadn’t seen since the beginning of all this madness, took a deep breath, and lowered her weapons. She turned to Logan and nodded.

Logan reluctantly lowered his rifle but refused to step away from Megan.

Captain Carl and his crew lowered their weapons as well.

“Sergeant,” Gina said. “I don’t know what you’re mixed up with here. But I remember you were a decent man… and I’m trusting you.”

Hash laughed. “Well I’ll be damned! I never thought I’d see you again!” He turned to Cole. “Call them. Call them now.”

Cole reluctantly nodded, then pulled out a hand-held radio and keyed it up. “Area’s secure. Let them through.”

Within a minute, voices were coming from the behind the armed men, urging to get through.

Hash just smiled at Gina, like an idiot, shaking his head.

Gina was still trying to process Hash being here when she looked up and saw Nine, Diane and…

“Tony?”

Nine caught sight of them on the dock and started hooting and hollering. “They’re fucking alive! You see that shit, Diane!”

The one-armed woman, although much more reserved, was grinning from ear to ear.

Gina was locked in on the big man storming down the dock. Her heart started to race, her emotions… teetering toward overload as her mind failed to keep up.

Tony saw her. Tears were streaming down his face. “Gina!”

“Tony,” she whispered, falling to her knees and dropping her weapons. She was about to pass out, then two big arms wrapped themselves around her and she was in Tony’s arms. She stared into his tired face and placed a hand on his cheek to make sure he was real.

“I’m here,” he said through tears. “I’m here.”

Gina collapsed in his arms and wept. She wept long and hard.

Nine and Diane reached the pier and embraced their old friends.

Orosco was the last to reach them. The black man was grinning and laughing and crying.

Stephen saw him. “Orosco?”

The black man grabbed Stephen’s shoulders and drew him in for a hug.

Stephen was completely in shock as he stared around the dock surrounded by armed strangers… and his friends. He couldn’t stop the tears from falling. He managed to get out. “How… how did you…”

“Wait,” Orosco said, fumbling with an inside shirt pocket. “You’re gonna love this.”

The black man pulled out an object that Stephen recognized immediately.

Orosco flashed him a toothy grin. “We found it, Stephen. We found your… mixed tape.”

Stephen laughed long and hard.

Tears of grief, and the fear that had first greeted them on that dock, had been suspended. In that moment, joy was triumphant.

Megan stood back, overwhelmed by the unexpected jubilation. She understood what this all meant, even though she was on the outside looking in. She looked back at the lake and smiled. If Meredith had been here, she would’ve been overjoyed, too. And that brought the half-dead woman a little peace.

Meredith was gone, and the ripples of that loss would soon be felt by them all.

But in that moment on the dock, ‘Alone’ had suffered a major defeat.

~~~

Don’t Feed The Dark will return Spring 2020 with Book Seven: The Prophet.

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 54-13: 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. carvome says:

    “Gina, Stephen, Logan and Meredith stepped out on the dock”: should be Megan.
    Nice chapter by the ways!

    Like

    • sscherr says:

      I think I’m subconsciously trying to keep Meredith with us… lol. Thanks for the catch. Fixed. Glad you enjoyed this extremely long chapter and finale. More to come ;)

      Like

  2. alikolino says:

    She’s is so much pain,” Stephen said

    *in

    I’m glad this arc is ending positively.

    Like

  3. Anonymous says:

    well done, excited for the next book

    Like

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