Archive for the ‘Apocalypse’ Category

~~~

At the back of the small inn was a screened-in porch overlooking a vast field with rolling hills. An old wooden fence separated the field from what used to be a garden at the edge of the yard. Now, the garden and the field were slowly being reclaimed by Mother Nature as weeds, wildflowers and tall grass dominated the view.

Meredith sat in a comfy wicker chair staring off into the field. She could almost picture horses running free on that side of the fence… almost. She inhaled deeply and placed her hands within her hoody pockets as the evening quickly approached, delivering a cool breeze. She was grateful for a little alone time without Megan looming over her shoulders like some celebrity’s bodyguard. Meredith smiled thinking about the overprotective young woman who took her assignment very seriously. The half-dead often laid down for a nap after receiving a blood dose, providing the old medium a temporary respite.

Meredith tilted her head back until she heard Megan’s deep breathing coming from the common room. Convinced the young woman was still asleep, Meredith retrieved the folded wad of notebook paper from her hoody pockets and straightened them in her lap.

As she’d done every time she’d examined the handwriting on the notebook paper, Meredith marveled at the two distinctively different handwriting styles, neither resembling Stephen’s handwriting at all. One style was clearly the product of a young woman who had benefitted from a private education and who took pride in each perfected stroke of her pen. The other style, which was more like insane dark scribbles, was clearly the work of someone writing in anger as each stroke was rushed, the tip of the pen pushed down hard on the pages, almost to the point of tearing them.

Stephen had reluctantly given up the pages of Nicole’s notebook two days after leaving the orphanage. Meredith had gone over the pages repeatedly since then trying to understand the entity that had appeared to both Stephen and Logan, in different forms.

Over the past six weeks, there had been very few secrets left unspoken among any of them, but it was Stephen who had been the most guarded about his ‘relationship’ with Nicole, and Meredith still sensed that he was holding something back.

Since entering the cavern beneath the compound, Nicole had not made another appearance. Stephen believed that she’d refused to go down into the cavern with him for fear that Toby or the darkness where she’d come from would reclaim her in that strange place. Once she was unable to stop them from taking the elevator down into the cavern, Nicole had severed her unusual bond with Stephen and apparently fled. Stephen had felt oddly out-of-place for about two weeks, claiming that losing his connection with Nicole was like losing a part of himself on the inside. But he’d recovered and Nicole had not returned. Stephen believed she was gone for good.

Meredith didn’t believe it.

The medium perused the pages. Most of it was written in Nicole’s hand, showing the dead woman’s obsession with her former teacher. And then out of nowhere, the dark bold handwriting would interrupt the ongoing love letter at various points with the vilest, hate-filled words, before returning to Nicole’s romantic fantasies as if nothing had interrupted the flow of her endless love. Meredith didn’t gleam much about the entity from Nicole’s words, but what she did learn was that it appeared that the entity had some kind of split personality. The Nicole persona seemed to deny the existence of the ‘dark’ persona. In fact, there were times in the pages that made it appear as though Nicole’s spiritual body, for lack of a better term, had been hijacked as easily as Nicole had taken control of Stephen’s physical body.

Meredith had addressed this once with Stephen. He’d told her that ‘Nicole’ had been born when the two of them got together. The entity, attracted to Stephen’s pain after accidently killing the girl, had found a new purpose in the form of rescuing Stephen from his guilt. In turn, the entity had developed feelings for him and found a way to reinvent itself by becoming… Nicole. Stephen believed that deep beneath the surface of this illusion of a dead girl who appeared to love him, something dark and sinister waited to devour anything it could the moment Nicole would let it take control. He believed that the notebook showed this very clearly through the different writing styles, as well as the deaths that were all documented in those pages, all made to look like suicides. He also shared that he had experienced this duality himself with Nicole’s sudden dark mood swings when she turned cruel and threatening. He believed that whatever Nicole was before she became the dead girl, he’d seen glimpses of it, but Nicole always regained control of it… this… darkness.

“I know who you really are,” Meredith whispered, putting her hand over one patch of dark words surrounded by Nicole’s flowery paragraphs. She lifted her hand and read them:

...THE MAGGOTS ARE DEAD! THE MAGGOTS ARE DEAD! GHOSTS ROAMING THE LIGHT. BONES OWNED BY THE NIGHT. THEY WALK WITHOUT BREATH IN THE LANDS OF THEIR DEATH. THE MAGGOTS ARE DEAD! THE MAGGOTS ARE DEAD!…

“What are you reading?”

Meredith jumped in her chair. She turned, quickly putting the pages back in her hoody pocket. Megan just stood there, staring at her. “You scared me,” she laughed. “You can be unnervingly quiet when you choose to be.”

“Sorry,” she said. “I didn’t want to disturb you… until I did.”

“Something wrong?”

“No,” she said. “I was going to ask you that.”

Meredith smiled. “Nothing’s wrong. I was just… going over some things in my head.”

“Concerning those old folded pages you keep sneaking peeks at when you think you’re alone?”

Meredith flashed her a crooked smile. “Perhaps. It’s a private matter.”

Megan looked down in Meredith’s lap. “Must be magical papers, too. They always seem to disappear when I’m around.”

“They’re not about you, honey,” Meredith said.

“Oh… I know that. They’re Stephen’s pages. You and Logan talk enough about them.”

Meredith looked irked. “Have you been eavesdropping on our conversations?”

“Yes,” she said. “You both think Stephen’s dangerous because of the woman. The woman who’s there… and not there.”

Meredith raised her eyebrows in surprise. “What do you know about that? Did you ever see her, too? Like Logan?”

Megan shook her head. “No. But I could smell her by that elevator. She smelled… wrong. It made me crazy at the time… but then… so did everything else.”

“That’s interesting, Megan. You sense… the woman… like you sense the dead.”

“That’s because she is dead… when’s she here. When she’s not… she smells like something else.”

Meredith leaned over and put her chin on her hands. “And what do you mean by that?”

Megan shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know exactly. It’s hard to put into words. But when the woman… Stephen calls her Nicole, right?”

Meredith laughed. “Right. Apparently, you eavesdrop a lot.”

Megan continued. “Well, when Nicole is around, she just smells wrong, like the dead, but worse. But the smell lingers when she changes.”

“You mean, when she shape-shifts?”

“Yeah. Something like that. It’s not what I smell after she changes, but in between the changes. That smell lingers… and it’s very, very bad… like Toby.”

“You know what Toby smells like?”

Megan gave her a puzzled look. “Don’t you?”

Meredith laughed. “I don’t sense things the way you do, Megan. I certainly can’t smell the dead, or Toby. I guess my sniffer works differently than yours.”

Megan nodded. “I wish I had that. I smell Logan when he takes the toilet paper and goes outside. Even when he thinks he’s far enough away. Yuk!”

Meredith busted up laughing.

Megan gave her a half-smile. “I’m getting better at the jokes, yes?”

Meredith nodded, calming down and wiping tears from her eyes. “You’re certainly getting the timing down. I didn’t see that coming.”

“Why are you and Logan worried about Stephen so much?” she asked abruptly. “Are you afraid Nicole will find him again?”

“My, oh, my, nothing gets past you does it?”

Megan waited.

Meredith nodded. “Okay. Yes, I fear for Stephen. I’m afraid that Nicole will eventually find him, or Stephen will find a way to bring her here.”

“You think he’s looking for her?”

“I don’t know, honey. Love’s a very strong motivator.”

Megan cocked her head. “So… Nicole loves him and wants to find him. And you’re saying that Stephen loves her, too?”

“Maybe.”

“Then what’s the problem? Isn’t love a good thing?”

Meredith gave her a disbelieving look. “It’s not that simple, honey. Sometimes people confuse emotions for love, when it’s really something… dangerous. You said it yourself, Nicole smells wrong, like Toby. Do you think that’s good for Stephen? For any of us? You know what she made him do in the compound. All those suicides.”

Megan considered this. She waited so long before speaking that Meredith thought she’d drifted off. Finally, she said, “So, if someone smells wrong, then there can be no love? If someone does horrible things… then there’s no coming back from them?”

“Yes, honey,” Meredith said. “What Stephen and Nicole have, or had, it’s… very unhealthy.”

“I don’t agree with you,” Megan said. “I can’t.”

Meredith looked confused. “Honey, do you actually believe that Nicole and Stephen are good for each other? You know that’s… that’s not possible, right?”

Megan looked down at her feet. “I smell wrong, too. Is love not possible for me? After everything I’ve done… all the blood I’ve shed… am I any different from Nicole?”

Meredith was stunned. She didn’t know how to respond.

Megan gazed at her with those dark silver eyes. “Look at me. Really look at me.”

Meredith met her uncomfortable gaze. For the first time it felt like Megan was staring into her.

“I know you care about me, as much as you can. But can you truly love someone… like this?”

The longer she met Megan’s gaze, the more painful it became. She wasn’t staring into the young woman’s gray eyes any longer, but rather, into the gray mist of memory.

“I don’t know what Nicole really is any more than I know what I’ve become,” Megan said. “But we are the same, in some ways. We both are a part of the darkness that’s infected this world. I don’t know what that means either… but I do know that it’s not a place where love can exist.”

Meredith nodded. She attempted to speak but was at a loss for words.

“And If I can come back from that darkness, drawn out by the light of love… then why not Nicole… or whatever she really is? Does love have limitations? And if it does, what good is it in the end?”

Meredith closed her eyes.

“If love can’t bring back anyone, or anything, from the darkness,” Nicole said, “then the darkness has already won… and we’re just lying to ourselves with all this struggle and pain.”

The old medium could feel tears forming. She was responsible for so much darkness unleashed on the world. But nothing as dark as when she failed to heed Love’s call…

~~~

…She couldn’t stop her hands from shaking as she pulled the car up in front of the Patterson house and parked.

“Relax, Meredith. Take a breath. Everything will be alright.” The brown-haired woman with the gentle brown eyes never seemed to run out of smiles. She reached over and placed her hands over Meredith’s and gave them a squeeze. “This is just like the others. I know it’s hard, but you’re doing a wonderful thing for this family.”

Meredith turned and smiled back. She rolled her eyes and took a deep breath. “I’m a nervous wreck. How do you put up with me so well?”

Hannah laughed and pulled her hands away. “I smoke lots of weed after you go to bed… medicinal, of course.”

Meredith broke into giggles. She ran a hand through her long black hair and stared at herself in the rearview mirror. “I look horrible. One look into my face and that family’s going to freak out.”

“You just leave the introductions to me. That’s my part, remember. I’ll start in about how much concentration it takes for you to do your thing while you prepare. You just slip on up to that little girl’s bedroom, and I’ll keep the family calm and collected. Easy-peasy.”

Meredith gave her an incredulous look.

“You know what I mean,” she said with a smile. “I was referring to your discomfort with new people.”

“What if they… you know… start asking too many questions?”

“That’s what I’m here for. Don’t worry, I’ll make sure you have your space. You just… do what you do… and find that girl.”

Meredith’s eyes drifted. “She might not be here. Some of them don’t come back.”

Hannah nodded. “We’ve talked about this. The Patterson family understand this is a long shot. Also, if Emily was still alive…”

“I know. I know. If she were still alive then she wouldn’t be here regardless.”

“That’s right. Are you good, then?”

“I’ll manage,” Meredith said.

Hannah’s phone started buzzing. The younger woman sighed impatiently then checked the number on her flip phone.

“Are you going to answer that?”

Hannah glared at her. “You know I’m not,” she said.

Meredith frowned. “You should talk to him. This might be the last chance before they transfer-”

“And say what, exactly?” Hannah snapped. “You know he just wants to say something mean and spiteful about what a great parent I turned out to be.”

The phone stopped buzzing. Meredith glanced into Hannah’s frowning face.

Hannah took a deep breath and stared out the passenger window with faraway eyes.

Meredith gently put a hand on her shoulder. “He says what he says because deep down, he still cares about you. It’s his way of reaching out.”

“You mean ‘lashing out’, don’t you?” Hannah said. “Come on, Meredith. You know he hates me. He blames me for his father abandoning us… he always has.”

“That’s not true.”

Hannah scoffed. “Oh, yes it is! I swear the only reason he left home was to find the quickest way into as much trouble as he could… just to throw it all back in my face! Now look what he’s become?” She stopped. “I can’t get into this right now, Meredith. You know how much he gets under my skin. We’ve got a job to do.”

Meredith was patient. “It can wait. Emily’s probably gone. But your son, he’s still alive… and trying to reach out to you.”

“He’s a fucking criminal! What can I possibly say after all he’s done?”

“You still love him. I know you do.”

Hannah stopped and slammed a fist against the car door. “Damn it, Meredith! What did I do that was so wrong? I didn’t make his father leave! I did the best I could! There was only the two of us and I couldn’t be the father that he needed! How is that my fault?”

“It’s not your fault.” Meredith pulled the woman over to her and embraced her.

Hannah hugged her fiercely. “He hates you, too. You know that, don’t you?”

Meredith smiled. “He doesn’t hate me. He just hates what I represent. I’m just more ammunition to feed his anger toward you.”

“Same thing.”

“No. He used to talk to me a little before we lost him to all those bad people that led him astray. He’d try to push my buttons for sure, but I just took it and smiled. I think he got tired of wasting his talents, trying to drive me crazy… so we talked instead.”

“Well… that’s more than I ever got. He just comes at me like a shotgun, both barrels loaded to cause the most damage. I made his father go away… then gave him another mother. He hates me for that, too.” She pulled away and looked Meredith in the eyes. “You know he’ll never accept us, don’t you?”

“I know,” Meredith said. “He’s already taken his jabs at me with that… trying to scare me off. I just smiled at him and took the punches.”

“You’re way more patient then I could ever be. I hated the way he treated you before he left. I swear, all he wanted to do was destroy anything good in my life… no matter what!”

“He’s in pain, Hannah. You need to talk to him.”

“I can’t… I won’t!”

Meredith frowned. “After he gets transferred, it’s going to be harder to see him… especially if you turn away now while he’s trying to reach out. He’ll hold that over your head, too. And then the anger will win.”

Hannah nodded. “You know, for someone who doesn’t like to talk to people, you do very well talking to me.”

“That’s because I know you… and I love you. And it’s also because I know you still care about him beneath all that anger, despite everything he’s done.”

“It’s too late, Meredith. What can we possibly achieve… now?”

“You just keep trying. That’s all you can do. Maybe one day he’ll appreciate that you never gave up on him, no matter how much he cuts into you. Maybe then he’ll know that it was his father who left… and not you.”

“Wise words from the medium,” Hannah teased, feeling a little better. “You know he also thinks you’re full of shit, right?”

Meredith laughed. “He thinks everyone is full of shit. He’s got serious trust issues.”

Hannah laughed. “Gets that from his asshole father.”

“I rather enjoy the fact that he sees me as a fraud. Makes me feel less like a freak in his eyes, and just some disappointing replacement.”

Hannah shook her head. “You are the most long-suffering person I know, Meredith Montgomery. How the hell do you stay so nice?”

“It’s my ‘real’ gift,” she teased.

Hannah leaned in and kissed her. “You are a gift… to me.”

Meredith looked away, embarrassed. “Don’t change the subject. You need to talk to him… while you still can.”

“Alright,” she said. “But not tonight. First thing in the morning, okay?”

“I’ll hold you to it.”

“We should get inside, it’s almost time.” Hannah said.

Meredith nodded. “He’s not as bad you think, Hannah. He’s in a lot of trouble, for sure, but deep down… he’s not evil.”

Hannah nodded. “I know. I’m his mother… of course I know that. It’s just… trying to reach him through all that resentment… I don’t begin to know how to climb that damn wall.”

“We’ll figure it out together, okay?”

Hannah smiled. “Okay. You ready? It’s almost three in the morning and that little girl was abducted shortly after.”

Meredith looked over toward the dark Patterson house. Someone pulled back the front curtain, revealing the living room light. Meredith sighed and thought, Emily’s already gone. I don’t need to go in there to figure that out.

“Shit… you already know, don’t you?” Hannah said, seeing the truth clearly on Meredith’s face.

The medium nodded sadly.

“Can you sense her… out here?”

“It’s not the same as when I go to the place it happened… but I can feel her just enough to know that she is here. And we both know what that means.”

“Yeah,” Hannah said, preparing herself to share bad news. “Yeah, we do.”

“Talk to your son,” Meredith pushed. “Promise me.”

“I promise.” Hannah paused. “Now promise me something.”

Meredith turned, puzzled.

Hannah smiled. “Promise me that you’ll love me no matter what.”

“You know I do. Nothing can change that.”

Hannah seemed suddenly distant. “You’re not the only freak in this world, Meredith. What we have… You and I… this world has already judged us for it. They may fear you because of what you can do… but they fear us for what we represent, together.”

Meredith smiled. “I know. And I don’t care what anyone thinks about us.”

“My own son can’t accept what we have. That terrifies me.”

“And we’ll get through that, too, like we always have. Where is this coming from? You’re starting to scare me.”

Hannah laughed. “Sorry. It’s just… it’s just that I never saw this coming. I guess I’m just waiting for the other shoe to drop… eventually.”

“You’re being dramatic. You and I, we’re fine.”

Hannah nodded, coming back. “You’re right. Of course, you’re right. I guess it’s just the guilt talking. You know, I’ve already scared off a husband, alienated a son. The only thing I fear is losing you, too.”

“How on earth could you ever lose me?” Meredith said. “That’s absurd!” Then her eyes went wide. “You’re not going to die on me, are you? Tell me you don’t have some terminal illness you’ve been keeping from me.”

Hannah laughed. “No… nothing like that. But you don’t know everything about me.”

“So, you’re afraid that I’ll eventually learn something from your past that would make me stop loving you?”

“Maybe.”

“Then you’re not half as smart as I’ve given you credit for.”

“Ouch,” Hannah laughed. “I guess I deserved that.”

“You did… now stop scaring me. We are good.”

“You promise?”

Meredith rolled her eyes. “Yes. I promise.”

“Meredith?” …

~~~

… “Meredith?”

The old medium came back. She opened her eyes to find Megan staring, concerned.

“Where did you go just then?” she asked.

Meredith smiled. “Sorry, honey. Your words reminded me of something… of someone I’ve tried very hard not to think about.”

Megan looked away. “Cooper?”

“No… not Coop.”

“I miss him. I don’t feel much. But I feel that. He saved my life.”

Meredith reached over and gently grabbed the young girl’s cold hands. “He saved us both.”

Megan attempted another smile and said, “I’m sorry I made you think about a bad time. I say too much now without thinking about how my words hurt others.”

Meredith smiled. “You didn’t hurt me, honey. The pain was already there. I’ve just never dealt with it. That’s what happens when we run from things within ourselves. Sometimes it catches up with us at the most inopportune times. Understand?”

Megan nodded.

“I was thinking about the last time I saw Hannah.”

“You must have really loved her.”

“Yes,” Meredith smiled. “I still do.”

“Even after… everything?”

“Yes. Even after everything.” Meredith released the girl’s hand and shifted uncomfortably. “But enough about that. Let’s talk about what you said.”

It was Megan’s turn to look uncomfortable. “Never mind that. Like I said, I say too much. I’ll have to relearn how to think before speaking.”

“No,” Meredith said. “You were right. I was wrong.”

Megan waited.

“We’ve all done bad things. We’ve all dealt with our share of darkness, before the world went crazy, and after. That doesn’t mean it’s alright… but like you reminded me… love is much bigger than all we’ve done.”

“I only meant that maybe Nicole… and what she feels for Stephen… might be real… even if everything else about her is not.”

Meredith nodded with a smile. “I like the way you put that, young lady. I will certainly keep that in mind. You’ve given me and Logan so much more to consider. Thank you for that.”

“You’re welcome.”

Megan turned abruptly, throwing her nose up in the air. She smiled. “They’re coming back.”

Meredith laughed. “It tickles me how you can smell when Logan and Stephen are coming. Does that mean they desperately need showers?”

“Maybe Logan,” she said.

Meredith covered her mouth to stop the giggles. “Well, we’ll just keep that between us, okay? Call it some of that ‘thinking before speaking’ stuff.”

Megan smiled and nodded. She got up to head for the front door of the inn.

“Oh, and Megan?”

She turned.

“I love you… more than you will ever know… and I don’t care about the rest.”

Megan’s face turned to stone. “You promise?”

Meredith’s eyebrows shot up. She smiled and finished, “If I’ve learned anything about love over the years, it’s this: When you really love someone… you never have to make it a promise… it never goes away, no matter what.”

Megan’s smile was genuine this time. “I… I love you, Meredith.”

Meredith almost cried… almost. She was grateful when Megan turned and departed before she became a blubbering idiot.

~~~

Chapter 53 will continue on Monday…

Previous Episode 53-1

~~~

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“Chapter 53-2: 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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~~~

Chapter 53 from the final arc of Book Six has begun! I’m expecting it to run eight or nine episodes.

If you’ve been reading Don’t Feed The Dark online and want to help support the cause, the best thing you could do to show your appreciation and let me know you’ve been enjoying this series is to help spread the word so that more readers find out about this long, dark apocalyptic series.

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~~~

~~~

Megan Bishop climbed out of the water and on to the large flat rock near the edge of the pond. She reached down and retrieved her sunglasses from her bag, put them on, and then ran her hands through her wet blond hair.

The curly-haired young man watched her from the water and whistled at the attractive young girl in the blue bikini.

Megan turned, gave her boyfriend an annoying look, then gave him the finger.

“Sexy and sassy,” Lucas Rhodes said with a laugh. “I like it. You sure you don’t want to get into modeling after our senior year? I could see you on all the magazine covers looking just like that.”

“I know what magazine covers you look at. No thank you.” She blew him a kiss. “Now, stop gawking at me, pervert, and get over here.” Megan spread out across the warm rock, propping herself up with her elbows. She leaned her head back and listened to the leaves swaying overhead. She could see the sun shimmering through the tree canopy. It was a beautiful day… no… a perfect day. Megan smiled and inhaled deeply as the summer sun warmed her skin.

Lucas climbed up on to the rock, splashing like a clumsy dog as he laid down next to her, dripping all over the place.

Well… almost perfect, she thought.

“Did you miss me?” Lucas winked at her.

She rolled her eyes at him. “Can’t you see I was having a moment?”

“Must not have been much of a moment if I wasn’t in it.”

“You’re impossible.”

“What the hell? You said come over… so I came over.”

“Well, you didn’t have to bring half the damn pond up here with you!”

Lucas laughed and rolled on his back. “This feels good. Are you glad we came now?”

“You mean, am I glad we cut class just to go swimming?”

“Exactly.”

“You’re a bad influence, Lucas Rhodes. It’s a wonder I ever kept my grade point average up since we started dating.”

“Stop being a nerd. Look around. We got the whole place to ourselves for once. Isn’t this great?”

She had to admit, the privacy was worth the trouble they’d be in if they were caught. “Yeah… it’s okay.”

“‘Okay’?” he said. “Come on! You’ve been bothering me for weeks for some real alone time. Well… you asked… and I delivered.”

Megan laughed. “You can’t get away with that much cockiness with hair like that.”

Lucas feigned hurt. He grabbed his chest and said, “The things I endure for love.”

“Oh… please!”

He laughed. “Seriously, though, I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be than right here with you… in this place. It’s like… it’s like we’re the only two people in the world… and that’s okay. Know what I mean?”

She smiled at him. Lucas was not very romantic. But occasionally, he said the right words on accident. “Yeah, I know what you mean,” she said. After a pause she added, “Thanks for bringing me out here. I needed this.”

Lucas nodded. “I know. I’ve seen how hard you’ve been hitting the books this year. You deserve a break.”

She leaned over and kissed him on the lips.

“What was that for?”

“For being a better-than-average boyfriend.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Don’t you mean a ‘stellar’ boyfriend?”

“Don’t push it,” she teased. “I’ll give you that ‘stellar’ shit for today. Take it or leave it.”

“I’ll take it,” he said, putting his hands behind his head. “We should spend the night here.”

“You know we can’t. Besides, I’ve got tests-”

“I know. I know. I just wanted to throw it out there. You know, just to let you know that I would, in a heartbeat. I enjoy spending time with you… like this.”

She paused.

He turned and added, “I love you, Megan. I’m not expecting you to say it back. I just didn’t want to waste the perfect moment to say it.”

She smiled. Megan knew that he loved her, but this was the first time that he’d said the words.

“Well… I sort of… like you, too,” she said. “You’re a swell guy.”

“You’re kidding, right? That’s all I get?”

Megan snorted. His astonished face was priceless.

Lucas shook his head. “You’re such an asshole,” he said with a laugh.

“I know,” she said and reached down to take his hand…

~~~

… “Megan?”

The half-dead woman came back to the present. She was sitting at the small kitchen table, staring across at the older woman wearing a blue hoody and jeans, not her usual look. Megan looked into the tired woman’s eyes and then up at her long black hair streaked with gray. It wasn’t often Meredith wore her hair down. It made her look younger, and much older at the same time.

Meredith smiled at her in the gloomy space, the mid-morning sun providing just enough light through the small window above the sink not to hurt Megan’s eyes. “How do you feel?” she asked. She always asked that question afterwards.

Megan sighed. “I feel fine. We could’ve gone longer this time. I was okay.”

“I know you were, honey,” Meredith said, reaching across the table and grabbing the younger woman’s hands. She pretended not to notice how cold they were, but Megan could see it in the woman’s eyes. “We do this according to schedule, you know that,” Meredith said. “That way, when the compulsion comes-”

“I know. I know,” Megan said with annoyance. “That way we’re not… giving into it… but feeding on our terms.”

Meredith released her hands and started putting the syringe back in her small case. “I know you hate this, Megan. Believe me… I know.”

Megan nodded. Meredith was never actually in the memories, but she always felt her presence within her mind when she drifted away. “Did you see it?”

Meredith smiled. “Yes, honey. The pond again, right?”

“You keep telling me to go to a ‘happy place’ when you give me your blood. Somewhere familiar that reminds me of who I was… and not who I am.”

“That’s not what I meant. You know that.”

“I know,” Megan said, slouching back in her chair. “It’s the memory. It makes me feel that way.”

Meredith waited.

“It’s like… it’s like watching a short film from another person’s life. I remember the pond, Lucas, everything that was said, even seeing myself there… but I feel nothing.”

Meredith nodded. “That doesn’t mean anything. Memories are like that. Sometimes we remember moments that feel distant to us because of all the changes between then and now. And we’ve had our share of changes.”

Megan attempted to smile for the older woman’s sake. She thought she was getting better at it. The half-dead woman ran her hands through her long blond hair and then rubbed her pale face. The make-up she applied added a little color to her cheeks, but not much. She noticed her sickly-looking hands then put them in her lap. She was wearing a light sweater and jeans. Even on sunny days she wore heavier clothes, choosing to cover up as much skin as possible. Since she felt neither hot nor cold, it didn’t matter. Over the past six weeks, Megan attempted to look more… human. If nothing else, it made the others feel more comfortable around her. She started wearing perfume each morning to mask the faint rotting smell that was becoming more and more apparent, not so much to her, but in the faces of her friends.

Slowly dying on the inside is fucking disgusting, she often thought, trying to find humor in her condition, but often, when she was alone… it just filled her with a deep sadness—one of the few emotions she could not escape from. That… and the all-consuming rage that she constantly needed to control.

“It’s getting harder and harder to remember things,” Megan confided.

“What’s that, honey?”

“The memories,” Megan continued. “It’s getting more difficult to remember my old life and the people in it. I think it’s because of how I am now… this… detachment I feel. If ‘feeling’ is the right word. I can see myself with Lucas at the pond. I remember laughing that day. Sunlight. The water on my skin. I remember words that were said… words that were supposed to mean something. But it’s all bland to me now… just like the food I eat to slow down the decaying process. The memories, the food, emotions… it’s all tasteless and as dead as all the people in those memories.”

Meredith frowned. “You’re just adjusting, Megan. There’s a part of you that’s different now, but you also long for everything you’ve lost. That’s the human side of you fighting to remain. That’s the side of you we’re battling to keep. And I think you’re making tremendous progress.”

“Am I, Meredith? What if I’m just fighting against the inevitable? What if all I’m doing is slowing down the process? I can’t stop what’s happening to me physically. What if it’s the same with everything else?”

Meredith shook her head. “I won’t believe that. Consider how far you’ve come after we found you in that glass cage. Almost everyone gave up on you then and called you a monster. But look at you now. The young woman sitting across from me is reasoning, remembering, and carrying on conversations like a human being. No monster does that.”

Megan attempted another smile. This time, it felt more genuine.

Meredith laughed. “You’re not the first person to feel ‘different’ from everyone else. Believe me, I’ve spent most of my life in that boat. The challenge for us, Megan, is not to get you to be like everyone else, that’s impossible. You can only be whatever you’re becoming. Some would say that you’re going to be just like the dead eventually. But you and I know different. That’s just the fear talking. You and I know that half of you is still alive and fighting to remain among the living. That’s who you are Megan. Regardless of the rest.”

“You really believe that,” Megan said. “I know you do. I think that’s what’s keeping me fighting, despite my rotting away inside. But we can’t deny that what’s happening to me physically is also happening with my mind. I am forgetting things. And wherever the emotions come from, it’s affecting them, too.”

“Maybe that’s a good thing. I’ve got a lot of memories I’d love to forget.”

“That’s not what I mean.”

Meredith nodded. “Okay. But we’re aware of those challenges so we won’t be blindsided by them, right?”

“I guess so.”

“You’re stronger than this. We’re going to beat it one day at a time and keep Megan with us… and not the monster.”

“But for how long? How long can I still be… me… before the rest of me fails to support it?”

Meredith laughed. “Honey, if you’re asking me how long you have before Megan dies, well, that’s a question all of us face these days. None of us know how long we have left. We’re all in the same predicament, fighting to remain for as long as we can in this sick world. The important thing is living each moment-”

“Living each moment like it’s our last?” Megan finished.

The older woman nodded. “Yes, as cliché as that sounds, it’s still the truth. That’s all any of us really have.”

“Your words give me hope, Meredith,” Megan said. “You may be feeding me your blood to satisfy the monster inside of me, but it’s the hope that’s feeding the rest of me.”

~~~

At a remote intersection of two state highways, in the middle of farmlands and a quarter-mile stretch of scattered ranch homes, a small inn, an ice cream shop, and a gas station—all previous family owned—sat the small town of Cherry Hill, Pennsylvania, just three miles east of the Ohio state line. Less than a mile to the North, Conneaut Creek spanned a large section of land in both states, moving east to west, and providing a significant barrier against the dead wandering south from I-90, which also ran parallel with the creek another two miles farther north.

For the last couple of days, Stephen Eddington and Logan McCalister had been using the creek to travel back and forth across the state lines to forage for supplies while monitoring the activity of the reanimated on both sides of the creek. It had been almost a week since Meredith’s group had seen signs that the dead might be closing in on them. Once they’d crossed into Pennsylvania, it appeared that they’d finally escaped Toby’s relentless eyes, via the dead under his control.

After the past six weeks of constantly moving from place to place in several directions to avoid detection by scattered hordes across the tip of Northeast Ohio, they had all learned how to spot the differences between the wandering dead, as they’d dubbed them, and the reanimated that hunted them in smaller packs, trying to blend in with the rest of their kind like spies. The reanimated under Toby’s control always moved with purpose, whether they operated within a larger horde, or in pairs as Stephen and Logan had discovered. The trick to avoid being discovered was to locate groups of the dead, assume Toby’s zombies were hiding among them, and then re-route the reanimated with ‘audible’ distractions that caused most of dead to follow. The ones who remained behind, not displaying typical ‘dead’ behavior rather than joining the rest, clearly belonged to Toby.

Over the past few weeks this strategy of misdirecting the dead and moving in the opposite direction had been working. Originally thought up by Stephen, the four of them had become very proficient at their jobs. Each time they found a new location to hide Meredith, Megan would stay behind to act as Meredith’s ‘bodyguard’ while Meredith managed Megan’s blood addiction. Stephen and Logan would then go out on patrols searching for the dead while scouting out their next hiding spot, searching homes and smaller downtowns for whatever they needed, including ‘noisemakers’. They had raided several local music shops for hand-held amplifiers, and portable radios from homes and electronic stores. Fortunately, not many survivors were interested in musical hobbies during the apocalypse. However, batteries to supply them were much more difficult to find.

Their strategy had worked until recently.

Toby had figured out what they were doing and had begun to compensate by redirecting the dead to move in opposing directions, forming perimeters with hordes that could close in and surround an area he suspected Meredith might be. This made Stephen and Logan’s misdirection strategy much more challenging since they never knew if they were stepping into one of these surrounded areas designed to be a trap that closed like a fist should they set off an audio distraction in the wrong place at the wrong time. Because of Toby’s expanded searches and traps, Northeast Ohio was getting increasingly dangerous, finally causing them to push east and into Pennsylvania.

No one had been excited about moving farther east and away from potentially locating any scattered survivors from the compound, especially Gina and Marcus, but they’d all agreed that staying in Ohio was becoming too risky.

Meredith was already having a difficult time keeping her mind blocked to avoid Toby finding her while also straining her abilities to keep Megan under control. This kept her from sensing when the dead was near. Fortunately, Megan could sense them, too, which gave them a little early warning. What finally sold them all on heading east was that Meredith believed that Toby’s reach was limited and that she believed he’d have less control over the reanimated if they moved farther east.

Stephen and Logan exited Conneaut Creek near the bridge that crossed the water and headed south, back toward Cherry Hill and the small inn where Meredith and Megan were hiding. They made sure they weren’t being followed along the creek, then crossed over to the north side of the bridge, heading north for a mile to ensure no herds were traveling south from the Interstate. Then they started back south to reunite with the others before losing the afternoon light as evening slowly approached.

The short but stocky preacher with the black scraggly beard and long hair tied back in a ponytail, rubbed the sweat away from the top of his slowly balding head. He wore a backpack with a shotgun slung over his shoulder and a shoulder harness full of shells. He also wore a gun belt with his holstered .45 and a large hunting knife. His sweaty black tank-top did little to hide his muscular and heavily tattooed arms. He looked over at the taller but thinner man in the button-down shirt and jeans, wearing his round-rimmed glasses and shoulder length brown hair that always made him look too young to be a former teacher. Stephen Eddington was struggling with the pack on his back while carrying the extremely obnoxious looking yellow ‘boom box’ they’d discovered in a house on the way back. Stephen also wore a gun belt with a holstered .9mm and a hunting knife.

Logan laughed lightly at his friend. “I told you that ridiculous thing wasn’t worth carrying all the way back, little brother.”

“We’re almost there,” he groaned. “And it’s not ‘ridiculous’. The words you’re looking for is ‘retro cool’.”

“Retro what?” Logan said.

Stephen turned to the preacher and smiled through his sweaty hair. “Don’t you remember MTV?”

“Of course,” Logan said. “But that shit didn’t make me want to lug some large-ass music box around. We had hogs with very loud stereos attached to them… like it was meant to be.”

Stephen laughed. “Too bad you don’t have your bike now. And I don’t care if ‘riding bitch’ on the back isn’t cool… my legs are shot.”

Logan laughed a bit louder. He turned up to the sky and shook his head, “Lord, please forgive my amusing friend for saying things like ‘riding bitch’… he knows not what he says or does.”

“Ha, ha,” Stephen said. “We almost there?”

“Almost. Want me to carry that thing for you?”

“You’ll just throw it in the woods,” Stephen said. “Besides, this thing won’t even need an amplifier. You’ll see. The dead will come running when they hear this thing.”

“Or drop dead… again… with laughter watching you carry it,” Logan added with a smile.

“You want to talk about what’s funny?” Stephen said. “Let’s go back to three weeks ago to that grassy field just south of Conneaut.”

Logan rolled his eyes. “You will never let me forget that, will you?”

Stephen smiled. “Remember the fireworks you found?”

“Yeeesss,” Logan said. “I remember.”

Stephen started snorting. He almost dropped the boom box. He stopped and said, “You lined up all those damn bottle rockets and just stuck them in the grass, like you were aiming them at that horde. I tried to tell you they weren’t supported right, but you set them off anyway.”

“It still got the job done, little brother. Those dead things came our way rather quickly after that.”

Stephen put his hands on his knees as the laughter took hold. “Those damn bottle rockets tipped and launched all over the place. But that one that landed in your beard… my goodness… I think you screamed louder than those rockets, dancing around like Santa Claus on fire!”

Logan stopped and stroked his beard with a frown. “It wasn’t that funny,” he said. “You try wearing a flaming beard and tell me how funny it feels.”

Stephen put a hand over his mouth to calm down. “I swear… some of those damn zombies turned around when they saw you like that! It was some funny shit. They looked all confused by your wild-fire dance.”

Logan smiled, catching the joke. He started laughing much louder. “Wildfire! I got it! Now that was funny!” He started moving again.

Stephen shook his head at him. “I didn’t mean… oh… never mind.” He glanced at the boom box, sighed, then picked it back up and caught up to Logan.

The former school teacher stared up at the tall Pennsylvanian pines bordering both sides of the road and laughed.

“What is it, little brother?”

“I was just thinking. I’ve done more traveling since the apocalypse then I’ve done in a very long time. I’ve never even been out of Ohio.”

Logan stroked his beard and smirked. “And I’ve been all over the damn place… but never like this. Usually the only time we got off our rides and walked was just to get from the parking lot to the bar.”

“Times have certainly changed… and so have we,” Stephen said, inviting a reflective moment of silence. “Do you think we’ll ever find them?”

Logan sighed. “You ask that question at least twice a day. You know that?”

Stephen nodded. “I guess it just helps me remember them. You know, by mentioning them out loud it makes them feel… closer.”

“I’m sure Gina and Marcus are out there surviving the best they can. As are we.”

“Do you think they know what happened at the compound by now?”

“Don’t know. We’ve been through this. First couple of weeks on the run had us searching that area. All we found was a whole lot of heartache. And it’s like Meredith said, if anyone did survive, we should be as far away from them as possible.”

“I know,” Stephen said. “I just… well… I just want to know if anyone else made it out. I just want to know that they’re safe.”

“Me, too, little brother. You’re not the only one feeling a little homesick for our friends.”

“Now that we’ve crossed the state line, I’m starting to feel like we’re completely on our own,” Stephen added. “We can’t keep running forever. At some point we need to stop and figure this all out.”

“We’re doing all we can,” Logan said. “One day at a time… remember?”

“Yeah, I got it,” Stephen said. “I just feel like we’re not gaining any ground with all this hiding. That Toby creature is adapting to everything we do. Maybe… maybe we need a more… permanent solution.”

Logan stopped and turned. “You want to confront Toby?”

Stephen stopped. “Maybe. Or at least start considering the option.”

“To what end, little brother?”

“I don’t know. Maybe we can find a way to take him down by coming at him dead on. I’m sure he wouldn’t expect that.”

Logan nodded. “I would love that… if it were a fair fight. You’ve seen what we’re up against. What could we possibly do against all this crazy shit?”

Stephen shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know yet. I’m still thinking about it.”

The big preacher laughed, took his pack off, and then bent over to retrieve something within. “Well… you let me know when you’ve figured it out and I’ll go charging that windmill with you. Just you, me, and the Lord Almighty.”

Stephen laughed at the windmill reference.

Logan held up a roll of toilet paper. “I’ll need a few minutes. You good here?”

“Yeah,” Stephen said with a smile. “I told you those sardines were bad news.”

“They were in a sealed can,” he defended.

“Ever heard of an expiration date?”

“Bah!” Logan protested. “Those sardines were heavenly. I’d do it again.”

“Tell that to your bowels,” Stephen joked. “Go on, take care of business. I’ll cover the road.”

“Mind if I take that yellow beast with me? I could probably make a good toilet seat out of it.”

Stephen sat down on top of the large boom box and smiled. “No. Get your own damn seat!”

Logan laughed and waved a dismissive hand at the obnoxious looking thing. “Be back in a few minutes.” He stepped across the road on the left and into the woods, headed for a small pine grove.

Stephen took a deep breath and watched the preacher depart. A roll of toilet paper in one hand, the shotgun in the other. He laughed at the image and thought, Will there ever be a time again when we won’t need to arm up just to take a dump?

Something shifted in his peripheral vision off to the right.

Stephen stood up and instinctively drew his sidearm. He held his weapon low and started scanning the forest shadows.

He saw nothing.

Relax, Eddington. We would have heard them long before now. He shook his head and holstered his weapon. Stephen sat back down on the boom box and thought sadly, I don’t know what would have alarmed me more, seeing a deadhead or some fucking deer. It wasn’t the first time any of them had been spooked by the eerie silence of the woods, void of wildlife. Another mystery on the list of mysteries the apocalypse had provided. Stephen scanned the pine trees and wondered what a world without animals would mean in the long run and how that would affect the ecosystem. “I guess after the last can of Spam is gone… we’re all doomed to be vegetarians,” he joked.

Something shifted from behind a tree.

“Shit,” he hissed, standing back up. He looked to the left for Logan.

“Stephen,” a familiar voice whispered on his right.

No… no fucking way!

Eddington turned back.

A young woman with long scraggly brown hair full of leaves, a dirty face, and wearing a dirty blue hoody and jeans stepped out from behind the tree. To Stephen, the woman looked like she’d been living in the woods for a long time.

He drew his weapon and aimed it at her. “Stay back,” he hissed. “Not one more step… Nicole!”

Nicole squatted down and raised her dirty hands submissively as if someone were about to strike her and then she placed one shaky finger over her mouth. “Please,” she whispered. “I’ve been through hell trying to find you. Please, Stephen… don’t call out! Not yet!”

Stephen was torn. Part of him wanted to unload his weapon into the thing’s chest while another part of him was close to tears. Seeing Nicole like this was heartbreaking. “What… what do you want?” he said with less anger. He lowered his weapon slightly.

Nicole put her hands over her face as tears streamed down her filthy cheeks. She was trying to control her emotions. “I… I’m sorry. I’ve… I’ve missed you so very much. And… and talking to you now… I never thought I’d hear your voice again.”

Stephen’s eyes started to water up. He was shaking. Since the underground cavern beneath the orphanage, Stephen had believed she was gone forever. “You… you can’t be here,” he said. “You need to leave… and never come back.” Saying the words hurt him as much as Nicole.

Nicole nodded. “I understand, Stephen. I… I know you’re upset with me. I know I lied to you about a lot of things. But… I still love you. That much has never changed.”

“I don’t know what you are,” he said. “Some kind of demon… or something much worse… doesn’t matter anymore. We’re done. You need to leave.”

To Stephen, Nicole looked horrified. “Please… please don’t send me away! I’ve… I’ve searched so long to find you. I can’t be here, in this strange place, not without you.”

Stephen started to protest, but the words got choked off in his throat.

“I’ve been following you for the past three days… keeping my distance… waiting for a moment to talk to you. Waiting for a chance to explain-”

“Go away!” Stephen hissed through tears. “We’re done, Nicole! Go back. Go back to hell where you belong!”

She started to weep. “I… I can’t!” she cried. “I’m broken, Stephen! When you left me… I fought. I fought against the monster within me, the rage that wanted to destroy you, and all your kind. I just kept thinking about us… and it got me through it! Don’t you see? Our love helped me defeat it!”

“I don’t care,” Stephen said. “I don’t love you,” he lied. “Now… just go away… please.”

“They’ve been watching you, Stephen,” she said. “They’ve been lying to you… talking about you behind your back.”

“What are you talking about?”

“They don’t trust you. They hate what we had and now… they think you’re just like me.”

Stephen shook his head. “Stop trying to poison me with your conniving words. You’re just trying to worm you way back into my life… trying to control me again.”

“No, Stephen. It’s not like that anymore. I’m free now. I’m free to love you because what we have was strong enough… strong enough for me to break free of the darkness!”

Stephen was at a loss.

“Don’t you see, my love? We can be together now. I’ve been running from that darkness trying to find you, knowing that if I did, nothing could ever pull me back into that cold, black void. We need each other, my love. We belong together. As I once helped you get free of the darkness… I need you now, to help me stay free.”

“I can’t listen to you anymore,” he said. “Just… just go away.”

“Give me a chance… just one chance to explain. Please… I’ll leave now… just meet me tonight. Find a way to escape their distrustful eyes and I’ll come to you and explain everything.”

“And if I don’t want to see you ever again, and don’t meet you… will you go away and never come back?” Stephen said.

Nicole looked struck. She wiped tears from her eyes and attempted to smile. She nodded and said, “Okay, Stephen. If you don’t meet me tonight… then… then I’ll go away. I promise. But please, please consider meeting with me. We’ve been through so much together. You owe me that.”

“I don’t you anything,” he said coldly. “Now… go away.”

“Don’t tell them, Stephen. If you tell them I’m here… they’ll never trust you again. They’ll treat you like they treat me. They don’t understand us, my love. No one can. Meet me at the ice cream shop. I’ll be there all night.”

Stephen just stared at the fragile, mess of a woman, who was no woman at all. He closed his eyes and whispered, “Just leave me alone.”

“What was that, little brother?”

Stephen opened his eyes.

Nicole was gone.

He turned around. Logan was staring at him. He had a look in his eyes that made Stephen uncomfortable. “How long were you standing there?”

The big preacher raised an eyebrow. “I’ve got a better question. Why are you standing there, shaking like you’ve just seen a damn ghost with your gun drawn?”

He didn’t see her this time, he thought. Stephen laughed nervously and holstered his weapon. “Sorry,” he said. “I thought I heard something in the woods. I guess it freaked me out pretty good.”

“What exactly freaked you out, Stephen?”

“You know… I thought I heard deadheads creeping around out there.”

“And… did you see anything?”

“No. Like I said, the woods just freaked me out. Sometimes you imagine things that aren’t there. You know how it is now.”

Logan nodded and stared out into the forest. “Yeah, the woods are damn creepy now.” He turned back. “Sometimes you imagine things that aren’t there… and then sometimes, when you think you’re imagining things… turns out something’s there after all.”

Stephen gave him a strange look.

“Did you… imagine anything else, Little brother? Anything at all?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It’s just a question. You look rattled.”

“I’m okay,” he lied. “Let’s just get back.”

Logan waited, staring at Stephen for what felt like an eternity.

Stephen put his gear back on, trying to ignore the preacher’s heavy gaze. He finally picked up his boom box and smiled. “Ready?”

Logan smiled and nodded. “Yeah. I guess it was nothing after all… right?”

“Right,” Stephen said with annoyance. “I’m just jumpy and need rest. Hell, we both do.”

Logan put his pack back on. “You’re right. The sooner we get back and get rested up, the more things will make sense. Sometimes a little rest puts things in the proper perspective, know what I mean, Stephen?”

“Sure,” he said, not appreciating the back-door interrogation. “It will be getting dark in an hour. I don’t want to be out here then.” He started walking, not bothering to wait for Logan.

The big preacher stared after his friend for a moment. He looked back toward the darkening woods then took a deep breath, and sighed. He whispered a prayer to God, and then moved to catch up with Stephen.

~~~

Next Episode 53-2

Previous Episode 52-12

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 53-1: 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.

~~~

“Holy shit, Orosco!” Nine said. “Where the hell have you been?”

James Orosco removed his bulletproof vest and sat down at the fire across from Tony. He glanced at Nine with a big shit-eating grin, then to Diane—his gaze lingering with concern on her missing arm. Then he smiled at Tony and then finally turned to the older man he did not recognize.

“That’s Sergeant Hash,” Tony said. “He’s one of the good guys.”

The seven armed men with Orosco kept their distance, forming a small perimeter around the top of the hill.

Orosco laughed, feeling emotionally overwhelmed. “Damn,” he started. “When my people spotted your group at that gas station and returned with descriptions… I had to see for myself.”

“You knew it was us?” Tony said.

Orosco shook his head. “No… no, I didn’t. Hell, I thought they were describing ghosts. After discovering what happened to the underground compound, I wanted to believe every time we came across survivors that I might recognize faces… and then I never did.”

“You were at the compound?” Diane said.

Orosco nodded. “A few weeks back. We found the camp destroyed. It looked like that massacre Gina had always been warning us about.” He gazed at the ground. “I guess I should’ve been listening instead of giving her so much grief, especially… you know… when the group split due to all those unpleasant circumstances.” He gave Tony a haunted look. “Shadow Dead?”

“Yes,” Tony said. “They struck us about month after the Lunatics hit your peninsula camp.”

Orosco’s eyes went wide. “You know about that? About them?

“Let’s back up.” Tony examined the black man. Orosco’s short hair had started going gray. His face had a few more wrinkles. It seemed like the man had aged five years since he’d last saw him. We probably look the same to him, he thought. If things keep going the way they are, we’ll all be senior citizens in the next ten years.

“The Shadow Dead hit us hard. Must have been about…” Tony paused, then looked to Nine.

“Roughly six weeks ago,” Nine said.

Tony looked as surprised as Orosco. “Damn, I guess it has been awhile. Anyway, we barely made it out alive. There was a few more of us back then.”

Orosco nodded. “I know the feeling.”

“We made our way south to find you at the peninsula camp. That’s when we found out what happened to your group.”

“Yeah,” Orosco said sadly. “Those… Lunatics… blindsided us. They struck at night when everyone was sleeping and started killing people immediately. They took out our sentries like they weren’t even there.” The black man sighed heavily and closed his eyes. “You saw the bonfire?”

“Yes,” Tony said. “I’m… sorry.”

“Well, then you know the rest,” Orosco said, wiping a tear away from the corner of his eye. “They treated us like animals… it was damn awful.” He looked up at Tony with a look he recognized immediately: Guilt. “I never should’ve led them out there, Tony. We were… overconfident. We had no idea how bad everything had become topside. Winter had been bad enough… and then the attack.”

“Well, we didn’t fare any better, my friend,” Tony said gently. “Clearly none of us were ready for what this sick world threw at us after that long winter.”

Orosco nodded. A heavy silence settled around the fire as everyone took a moment to remember the departed.

Nine shifted uncomfortably and said, “We did the math, Orosco. We knew that a handful of your group survived so we decided to follow you.”

Orosco gave the young man a strange look. “Follow me? You mean-”

“Yeah,” Tony said, shaking his head. “We went after the Lunatics who attacked you. We thought they took the rest of you back to a town called New Cleveland. Of course, we didn’t know anything about that place at the time.”

“You know about New Cleveland, too?”

“That’s where we’ve been the last two weeks,” Hash said. “We just escaped… barely.”

Orosco was shaking his head. “So, you went after them to rescue us… and got captured instead?”

“Long story,” Tony said with a laugh. “But something along those lines.”

“Where the hell were you?” Diane said. “We thought you were dead… blown up in some storehouse in New Cleveland.”

“And if you weren’t captured by the Lunatics, why didn’t you and whoever was left come north for help?” Tony said. “I know we weren’t… together… but you know we wouldn’t have turned you away.”

Orosco nodded with a faraway look. “There were only five of us left after the Lunatic attack.” He balled his fists up in shame and anger. “They… they kept me and the others alive to… watch the fires… the ‘festivities’ as that sick bitch put it.”

“That’s horrible,” Nine said.

“You’re talking about Briana,” Tony said. “Face-painted gunslinger with the long black hair?”

Orosco nodded.

“And after?” Diane said. “Why didn’t they kill the rest of you?”

Orosco shook his head. “She saw how much pain we were in. I think she only intended to burn a few of us and then take the rest with them… but… she got carried away and killed almost everyone. They made a damn party out of it!” Orosco settled down. “After they were finished, that… Briana… lined the rest of us up along the beach the next morning. I think she intended on gunning us down and then changed her mind. Get this, she actually told us that because of her hangover, she didn’t feel like shooting us that morning.”

“Sounds like her,” Diane said.

“Then what happened?” Tony asked.

Orosco shrugged his shoulders. “We stood on the beach for a good long hour, contemplating taking our chances in the lake… assuming the couple of Lunatics they’d left on the beach didn’t shoot us in the water. But the thought of drowning didn’t seem like an answer… so we waited… and waited. Then, the two on the beach were called away. They gave us a smile, waved, and then… left.”

“They just left you there?” Nine said.

“Yeah. Apparently, we weren’t worth the bother. So, she took her murderous group and left us on that beach. I just remember that they seemed in a hurry… like they were late for something. Honestly, at the time, we didn’t care. We didn’t care about much after that… except for revenge.” Orosco looked away.

The others waited patiently.

Orosco sighed heavily, then continued. “We had a stash of weapons nearby, in case of emergencies. There was no question in anyone’s mind what we wanted to do at the time. All of us were filled with so much rage and grief. So, we armed up and started after them.” He paused then continued. “I think that was when the rest of us died. The moment we gave in to all that anger and hate… we just… well… we just weren’t thinking straight any longer. It’s hard to explain unless you’ve been there, Tony.”

Tony smiled weakly and glanced at the others. “I think we understand, Orosco. More than you know.”

He nodded at the big man and continued. “We tracked them for a little while, starting west, then ran into some trouble with the dead as a herd of the reanimated pushed us farther south. Then we lost the trail… and lost ourselves when the anger that fueled us finally gave out. We ended up too far south as it turned out.” He gave them all a grave look. “We were wandering a while, foraging what we could from towns on the east side of a place called Mosquito Creek and trying to get our bearings back. That’s when we started finding all these small towns that looked like a wave of violence had just come crashing through. At first, we thought it was those Lunatics… but no humans could account for the brutality left behind in those towns. There was so much blood… and not one body. It was eerie as hell. And then we started hearing them at night, moving in small packs, hitting up towns just ahead of us.” Orosco’s eyes went wide. “I have to warn all of you right now! Go nowhere near Mosquito Creek! That place… my God… there were so many of those yellow-eyed monsters there. I had no idea the dead could gather in such a large number!”

“We’ve encountered them, too,” Diane said. “While we were tracking the Lunatics near Orwell, we traveled south, bordering the west side of Mosquito Creek… and saw them.”

“They looked like they were all dormant,” Tony said.

“Not on the east side,” Orosco said. “They were very active, feeding on whoever they could find in those smaller towns. Those were some of the most frightening evenings I’d ever spent anywhere. The roads between those towns were not safe… not even for the reanimated dead. The horde we were ahead of never ventured down there… it’s like they knew to stay away. Creepy stuff.”

“What did you do?” Tony said.

“We started to travel further east, into the state forests beyond the Pennsylvania border. Then we saw more of those yellow-eyed monsters. From there, we started pushing northeast toward the mountains.

“Shit!” Nine said. “How many of these things are there? We guessed there were at least five-thousand at Mosquito Creek.”

Orosco nodded. “There’s more and more coming from all over the place. It’s like they’re been drawn here by something.”

“Or someone,” Hash said. “The Alpha.”

“What’s that?”

“Apparently one of the dead is leading those fuckers,” Tony said. “I’m sure you’ve noticed… they’re getting smarter.”

“Have you seen this… Alpha?”

“No,” Nine said. “We’ve just heard stories circulating through New Cleveland. And the asshole running the joint has an arrangement with this Alpha. He sends truckloads of the living out to Mosquito Creek, and in exchange, the dead leave New Cleveland alone.”

“That’s sadistic as hell,” Orosco said. “Who would make such a foolish deal with the dead and expect them to keep their end of the deal?”

“Calls himself Candyman, leader of New Cleveland,” Tony said. “Though I expect that’s over. That massive army we’ve been talking about, they just attacked New Cleveland.”

Orosco looked stunned. “So… the dead are moving out of Mosquito Creek?”

“Looks that way,” Tony said.

Orosco stood up. “We need to get back. My people need to know about this.”

“Your people?” Nine said. He looked back at the armed men. “I don’t recognize your traveling companions. Which ‘people’ are you referring to?”

The black man laughed. “There’s so much to explain… so little time.” He sat back down. “When we crossed into Pennsylvania, we found another army… but not of the dead sort.” He laughed. “I should say, they found us. Anyway, long story short, this army was relocating from the mountains to a secondary camp already established in Ohio.”

“Woah, slow down,” Tony said. “Army? Are you talking about the military?”

“No… not exactly,” Orosco said. “Though we do have some ex-military with us.”

“Who exactly is ‘Us’?” Diane said.

Orosco smiled. “When I said I found the compound destroyed a few weeks back, that was when I was finally allowed to bring a group out to retrieve the rest of you… and that’s when I thought you’d all perished.” He couldn’t stop smiling. “But now, I’m sitting here with old friends… who are not ghosts after all. Did anyone else make it out?”

“Gina and Marcus weren’t there when the Shadow Dead attacked,” Tony said.

Orosco gave him a puzzled look.

“That’s a long story, too,” Tony said with an exhausted laugh. “We obviously have a lot of catching up to do.”

“Indeed,” the black man said. “The only reason we’re even out this far south is we’ve been monitoring the patterns of the reanimated. Just recently, they all started moving in large herds toward the south, and we’ve been following them to find out why. Usually, when they behave like this, it’s because something major has happened elsewhere, causing them to shift directions. When one herd moves, it attracts the rest until they all start moving.”

Nine’s eyes lit up. “It’s the explosions!”

Orosco waited.

“We used dynamite to cause a diversion in town, around dawn.”

“Yeah, then someone blew something else up after we got out,” Hash said.

Orosco nodded. “Yes, we heard the second explosion, that’s how we ended up here. But the reanimated have been slowly moving south for the past three days… long before your dynamite.”

They all gave him a puzzled look.

The black man nodded with a smile. “That’s about how we feel. None of us know what’s causing them to move… just that they’re moving south.”

“You think they’re joining ranks out at Mosquito Creek?” Nine said.

“Not likely. As we all know, the dead don’t mix well.’

“Great,” Diane said. “Another damn mystery.”

“One that can wait,” Orosco said. “First things first. Let’s get you somewhere safe where you can rest, eat, and heal.”

“Where might that be?” Tony said, his trepidation easily apparent.

Orosco gazed into their distrustful faces and laughed. “You all have the same look we had when they found us out in PA. We didn’t trust anybody but each other.”

“Who are ‘they’?” Diane said.

Orosco smiled. “Do you all still trust me?” he asked.

“Of course,” Tony said.

“Then I would ask you to hold off on your questions until we get there.”

“And where is ‘there’?” Hash pushed.

Orosco turned to the good sergeant and answered, “I can’t tell you that… not yet.”

“That doesn’t sound inviting at all,” Nine said.

“Trust me,” Orsoco said. “When you see what’s happening, you’ll understand. My people, my new people, have good reasons for enforcing secrecy.”

“Then why does it feel like we haven’t been approved for membership into your secret society?” Tony said.

“It’s not like that, Tony. Believe me, if it were up to me alone, I’d tell you anything you want to know.”

“But it’s not up to you,” Diane added suspiciously.

Orosco frowned. “No. I’m just one of many voices with a say in what happens in our community.” He looked straight at Tony and finished, “And that’s something I’ve always wholeheartedly supported… as you well know, Tony.”

Tony nodded. “Okay. I’m too damn tired to play ‘twenty questions’. Just let us have a minute to make a decision.”

“A decision?”

“Yeah,” he said. “I’m with you, brother, on the whole ‘everyone has a voice’ thing. That’s what we’ve been doing since we’ve been out here. No offence, but after what we’ve just been through in the last ‘community’ of people, you’ll understand if we are a little apprehensive about your new secretive group.”

“Of course,” Orosco said, he started to fidget nervously. “Talk it over. I know you’ve been through a lot and I’m asking a lot now. Just… please… we need to leave this area as soon as possible.”

Tony nodded and stared at his old friend.

“Oh… right,” Orosco said. He stood up and stepped away from the fire to give them a moment alone.

Tony took in the exhausted faces of his friends and smiled. “So, what do you think?”

“It’s Orosco, Tony,” Nine said. “He wouldn’t steer us wrong. If he’s being secretive there’s probably a damn good reason.”

Tony nodded. “Agreed.” He looked over at the hunter.

She sighed. “Something’s off about all this. It’s great that Orosco’s alive… but how the hell did he find us out here? It all just seems too… coincidental. Maybe I’m just being overly paranoid.”

“I know I’m the new guy here,” Hash said. “Far be it from me to question your friends. It’s clear that you all have history together. But… from an outsider’s perspective, I’m with the hunter on this one. The way these guys are dressed and armed, how they carry themselves—they mean business. Whoever’s running this operation, and you better damn well believe that somebody’s calling the shots, if I didn’t know any better I’d say they came out here specifically to retrieve us.”

Tony gave him an irritated look and then stared at the others with an unbelieving laugh. “Have we all changed so much that we’re now willing to question our own? It’s Orosco. We went through hell to find him and the others, and now, now that we know they’re safe… what… we’re going to treat him like another bad guy?”

Hash raised his arms in surrender. “Just making an observation. You all decide what’s best. I trust the rest of you with my life, if it comes down to that. Just know, friend or not, Orosco’s not playing it entirely straight. I’d bet real money on that, if it mattered.”

Tony nodded. “Okay. Let’s fish a bit more first.”

They all agreed.

Orosco came back over. “All good?”

Tony laughed. “We need to know something, Orosco. You can’t tell us where we’re going, and you haven’t told us much about what happened after these people found you in Pennsylvania. How about telling us a little about who they are?”

Orosco frowned. “I really want to, Tony. Believe me, I do. I just… it’s not up to me.”

“Well, that’s not good enough.” Tony was getting angry. “We come all the way out here to find you, get all mixed up in that fucked-up Lunatic town because we thought you were there, and then here you come just strolling up on us at the end of it all, talking about some new group of people. It’s too much. We need assurances.”

“You have my word, Tony,” Orosco said. “I can vouch for them.”

“But you can’t tell us anything about them?”

“Correct.”

“That’s bullshit.” Tony shook his head. “It’s good to see you, and we’re glad you’re alright. But we need time… on our terms. You want us to trust you, but your ‘group’ won’t trust us. You know us, Orosco. Can’t you speak on our behalf and get them to tell us something about who they are?”

Orosco hesitated. He looked back at the ring of armed men, then sat back down. He lowered his voice. “This is bigger than you and I and everything we’ve been through, Tony.”

“What are you talking about?”

“This… apocalypse! There’s a whole lot at stake… more than we ever knew. This group has clued me in on that fact… and it’s mind boggling.”

“Well then, fill us in.” Diane said.

“Yeah,” Nine said. “We’ve been out of the loop a while and didn’t get the memo.”

Orosco shook his head. “These people, they understand what’s at stake. That’s why all the secrecy. They’re watching for infiltrators from the other side.”

“‘The other side’?” Tony said. “What… you mean Mother?”

“The stakes are much bigger than that, Tony,” Orosco said. “Mosquito Creek, New Cleveland, The Shadow Dead… the underground bunker… and so much more… it’s all tied in to the bigger picture.”

“Well… paint if for us,” Tony said.

“I can’t. Not until they know you’re not… infected.”

“Infected?” Nine laughed. “I think it’s pretty damn clear we’re not infected.”

“I’m talking about the half-deads,” Orosco clarified. “Like the others, they’re getting smarter, too. And they know how to hide among the living.”

“Like Taven,” Diane said.

“Where did you hear that name?” Orosco said.

“You know him?” Tony said.

Orosco hesitated again. “Let’s just say, if there’s a ‘most wanted’ top ten list, that name is on it.”

“Shit,” Nine said. “I’m not liking the sound of this.”

“So, you’ve seen him?” Orosco said.

“He tricked us,” Tony said. “He pretended to help us escape, but I think he was just paving the way for that horde out at Mosquito Creek to take over New Cleveland. That’s where Taven was when we last saw him.”

Orosco nodded. “That’s a development my people will be most interested in.”

“Why?” Tony pushed.

“Because… because we are in some deep fucking shit, Tony. The kind of shit I wouldn’t have believed in before the dead came back. Shit I’m still struggling to wrap my mind around all of it.”

“You’re scaring me, Orosco,” Tony said. “If your people are on the side of the living, we have that in common. Isn’t that enough?”

“No,” Orosco said. “It’s not… not anymore.”

Tony leaned in and said, “Tell me why you’re really here?”

Orosco was caught off-guard. “I told you. We-”

“Bullshit. You knew it was us at that gas station.”

Orosco closed his eyes and sighed. “Yeah. I knew. Ever since we found the compound destroyed, we’ve been looking for… survivors.”

“Why are these people looking for us?” Tony pushed.

Orosco met his intense gaze. “They want Meredith, Tony. They’re looking for Meredith.”

Tony leaned back. The distrust on his face was evident.

“Come on, my man! Don’t look at me like that.”

“She didn’t make it out with us,” Tony said. “Most of us were topside for the attack. Meredith was below. You’ve been to the compound. You’d know more than we do at this point.”

“So, you haven’t heard from her?”

Tony shook his head. “If I didn’t believe she was already dead, I wouldn’t tell you a fucking thing,” Tony said. “What’s happened to you?”

“It’s not what you think, Tony. Come back with us and you’ll understand, too.”

“I don’t know, Tony,” Nine said. “Sounds like someone’s been drinking too much of the Kool-Aid.”

“Agreed,” Diane said. “We should leave.”

Hash didn’t say a word. He was watching the soldiers like a hawk. They started staring back at Orosco.

Orosco laughed. “It’s good to see all of you,” he said. “I really mean that. And I appreciate everything you went through to try and find us. But everything’s different now. And we’re running out of time.”

“Just tell us who your group is and why they want Meredith so badly,” Tony said. “Or we walk away.”

“Everyone wants Meredith… and that’s a big damn problem.”

“I have no idea what that means,” Tony said.

Orosco leaned in and whispered, “She’s alive, Tony. She made it out. And from what we determined, she wasn’t alone.”

They all looked shocked by the news.

“How?” Tony said.

Orosco smiled. “She used the door, Tony. She used that fucking mystery door.”

Tony’s eyes went wide with understanding.

“Alright,” came a calm but stern voice from behind them. One of the soldiers, a tall man wearing a dark ballcap flipped backwards atop his wavy brown shoulder-length hair, came over. He stroked his mustache and sighed. “We tried this your way, Orosco. You said they’d come willingly if I let you speak to them first.”

“And they will,” Orosco snapped. “They just need to know… something… anything!”

“And we’ve discussed this,” the man said, sitting down next to the black man. “After they check out, they can know everything. But not before. You know the rules.”

Orosco nodded and sighed.

“And who might you be?” Tony said, addressing the man.

The man gave Tony a probing look, then answered, “Not that it matters. But you can call me, Cole.”

“Sorry for the ruse, Tony,” Orosco said. “But everything is still okay. These people are the good guys.”

Tony stared at his friend a moment longer then turned his attention to the ballcap soldier. “Are you the leader of this group?”

The man laughed. “Hardly. I just run security operations. In this case, a retrieval operation.”

“So, I’m guessing the whole ‘leaving with you willingly’ is the only option,” Hash said with a laugh. “Man, when you’re right, you’re right. I need a damn drink.”

The man smiled at the good sergeant. “You ex-military?”

“Something like that.”

“Excellent,” the man said. “When you all check out, we could use another good head over in security. Assuming you’re interested.”

Hash shrugged his shoulders. “I’ll check my schedule and get back to you.”

The soldier, attempting to seem less threatening by laying his rifle across his lap, scanned all their faces then rested his gaze on Tony. “Look. I know you all are tired. I know you’ve been through hell and back. But as your friend pointed out, you have no idea what’s coming.”

“And your ‘group’ does?” Tony said. He laughed. “Why is it every time we come across survivors out here that it constantly feels like we’re playing another card game with our lives? I suppose your secret group is holding all the damn cards?”

The man laughed. “No, Tony. We don’t have very many cards left. However, we do understand the game that’s being played.”

“Great… more games.”

Cole laughed. “Are you a religious man, Tony?”

Tony found the timing of the question funny. He laughed. “Not that it’s any of your damn business, but recently, I’ve been coming around.”

“So, you believe in God?”

“I thought I just made that clear.”

“And… do you believe in demons?”

“The living or the dead kind? We’ve encountered both.”

“I’m being serious,” Cole said. “Do you believe in the possibility that demonic forces have, and could still be, influencing affairs on our planet?”

Tony shook his head. “That is too damn heavy a question for my tired ass mind to wrestle with at the moment. Let’s put the cookies on the bottom shelf and let me ask a simple question.”

The soldier smiled. “Okay. You can ask.”

“Who the hell are you people?”

Cole looked to Orosco. “Your friend is relentless.”

Orosco smiled. “That he is. That he is.”

“He isn’t going to understand yet… if I tell him,” Cole said.

“Neither did I when you all told me, remember?”

“That’s a good point.” Cole turned back and said, “If I answer you this, will you come back with us willingly and let my people explain the rest?”

Tony stared at the man. “Doesn’t sound like we have a choice, do we?”

Cole smiled. “I’ll answer the first question. I prefer not to have to answer the latter.”

Tony glanced at the others.

They all just shrugged their shoulders.

Tony looked back at the soldier and said, “Okay. But only because I still trust the man sitting next to you. Although, that trust hinges on what happens after.”

“Fair enough,” Cole said. He sighed and then scanned their tired faces. “I’ll need for you all to keep an open mind before I tell you who we are, because you’re not going to like it.”

“No promises,” Tony said.

Cole laughed. “Orosco was correct. We are an army, but we’re not military. You can call us anything you want after we’ve had a chance to explain ourselves. We started off as the organization you’ve come to know as… Mother.” Cole paused, letting their shock sink in. He finished, “We are what’s left of the real Mother.”

~~~

Darkness settled over the remains of New Cleveland like a thick gauze over a bloody wound. The generators had all gone out. A few slowly dying fires spread across town provided the only illumination. Most of the town’s citizens had been consumed before dusk.

The dead filled every available space in New Cleveland, lying in the praying (preying) position on their knees, faces bowed down and resting in their bloody hands, their backs rising and falling rapidly but slowing down as they went into dormant mode—bellies full.

Outside the city—in the fields, forests and suburbs surrounding New Cleveland—thousands of the dead continued to feed on the bodies relocated outside the city walls. By dawn, they, too, would all be hibernating until called once more by the blood.

A lanky, middle-aged dead man hunched over until his long arms touched the ground, the back of his hands dragging across the dirt, shambled through the marketplace, toward Candyman’s courtyard. The man, standing upright, was almost seven feet tall. He was pale, bald, and resembled a scarecrow in his torn coveralls which hung loose over his body. The man’s blue veins bulged beneath his pale skin. His eyes were a blazing yellow fire. His long, bony arms and legs extended from a much smaller frame and made him look less like a former farmer, and more like some exaggerated cartoon of a man turned beast.

Or the boogeyman.

Taven waited in the center of the courtyard, unnerved by the pack of wild animals that surrounded him and wanted to tear the silver-eyed monster apart. He still wore his dark sunglasses. He held a rope over one shoulder. Attached to the other end was a sack that he’d dragged all the way from the lake. Something barely living moaned in pain from within the sack, teetering in and out of consciousness.

Between what was in the sack and the offensive dead thing in the glasses, the yellow-eyed monsters howled and screamed at him, barely able to keep from ripping them both apart. It wasn’t the blood-lust that drove them to want to kill the strange man in the bathrobe… but a deep hatred toward this half-dead thing that was not like the rest of them… or like the blood bags which they fed upon. To the yellow-eyed beasts, Taven simply smelled… wrong… and that scent drove them wild with a need to destroy it.

But something stronger than their hate, stronger than their compulsion to feed, held them back.

Taven waited patiently. He understood why he was there more than these beasts did.

The tall man, known as Alpha, entered the courtyard, causing the savages to all fall silent as they stared absently at the one who commanded them. The man approached Taven with the same disgust on his face, stopping five feet from the silver-eyed abomination as if he considered him contagious. He stood up straight, lifting his long arms off the ground and revealing his bloody knuckles. The one known as Alpha towered above Taven, breathing rapidly and glaring down at him with those intense yellow eyes.

Taven smiled up at him. “It’s time,” he said. “One kingdom falls. One kingdom rises to replace it. All is as it’s supposed to be… all in its time… all in its ‘when’.”

Alpha cocked its head at the strange speaking creature. He then raised one long arm and pointed at the sack behind him.

Taven laughed. “Yes!” he hissed with delight. “Yes! Yes! It’s time for change! It’s time for all things to change!” Taven turned toward the sack and bent down. He loosened the ropes holding the sack closed and opened it, revealing the half-burned body he’d retrieved from the water.

Alpha stared at the thing lying on the ground that was barely alive. The smell of charred flesh and lake water assaulted him. But then he caught the scent of something much deeper—beneath the skin, blood and bones. Alpha could almost taste the vile darkness of the soul within the damaged carcass. He turned toward Taven with an expressionless face and then pointed at him, then back down toward the burnt mass of flesh.

“Yessss,” Taven hissed. “You know what I know, don’t you? You can sense it! You can trust Taven. Taven has found one who will please you. A gift from Taven. A gift of change… and change comes for us all… even you.” Taven pointed back at Alpha, mockingly.

The thing called Alpha had no response.

“Soon Paradise will come… and all will be as it should be!” Taven turned toward the body in the sack and kicked it three times until a woman’s voice shrieked in pain.

The woman with singed long black hair opened her eyes wide, saw the dead all around her, then tried to move.

Briana could feel the burnt remains of her long leather trench tearing at the skin around her shoulders and back. The coat had helped her survive the explosions on the dock when she was propelled through the air and into the water… but not without a cost.

More than two-thirds of her body had been severely burned by the blast. She couldn’t feel most of it—but what she did feel tearing into her charred flesh was a pain that dominated all else.

Briana squirmed on her back. She couldn’t stop screaming. The more she moved, the worse it became. The Lunatic gunslinger lifted her burnt arms toward her face and stared in horror at her hands.

She still held both blackened guns in two badly burned hands. Metal and flesh had merged around the pistol grips, permanently welding the guns to her flesh. Briana was no longer screaming. She was laughing… laughing from the overwhelming pain the assaulted her body… laughing as she welcomed death that would not come as her mind snapped.

The dead stared down at the damaged woman with no emotion, only hunger.

Taven gave her a curious glance, then turned to Alpha. “She’s not long in this life. The pain will finish its job. We should begin, yes?”

Alpha turned to him and nodded.

Taven turned back toward Briana and smiled, revealing his razor-sharp rotting teeth. He managed to catch the insane woman’s attention. “You don’t begin to understand what real pain is, blood-bag… but you will.”

Briana started laughing again as she waved her useless guns into the air, trying to pull triggers that no longer functioned with unrecognizable fingers.

Taven shook his head sadly as the woman started to pass, the pain too much for her body to endure. He opened his mouth wide and bit down into her neck.

Briana screamed… then stopped… staring off into a space that only the dead could perceive.

Taven got up and waited.

Briana stopped struggling for breath.

Moments later, her eyes began to change as the yellow fire consumed her.

Taven turned toward Alpha. “Now,” he said. “Now is her ‘when’. Now is your ‘when’.”

Alpha pushed Taven aside and knelt beside the dead woman.

Briana started to twitch involuntarily.

Alpha reached down to touch the wound on Briana’s neck. He retrieved two bloody fingers. He stared at the blood for a moment, then gazed into the dead thing’s yellow eyes.

Alpha’s eyes suddenly went from fiery yellow… to blood red.

Taven stepped back in awe. He had never seen the Transformation. Very few ever had.

Briana stopped moving as her yellow, hate-filled eyes changed once more, turning red.

Taven had known that some of his kind could do this… but to see it for himself! He felt humbled. The Alpha had remained alive for a very long time because no one ever knew where to find it… or what it looked like. The Transformation was why.

Suddenly, the tall shell that housed the Alpha collapsed into a rotting pile.

The thing once known as Briana, leader of the Lunatics, started to rise.

Taven laughed excitedly and clapped. “As I’ve seen… so it comes to pass! Welcome! Welcome to the one who was once the Alpha! Welcome to the flesh once called Briana! Welcome to the Paradise that comes! Welcome to the New Age!”

The creature once referred to as Alpha turned its new head toward the dead… and smiled.

~~~

Next Episode 53-1

Previous Episode 52-11

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 52-12: Sodom” 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.

~~~

Well, we’re one episode away from reaching the end of the second arc in what’s turning out to be another long book in this series… lol. To date, we’ve already clocked in over 190,000 words for Book Six with one final ‘Mother’ arc to delve into.

At this time, I’ve decided to take a short summer break before jumping back into the final arc of Book Six. There’s quite a lot of story left to cover in this last arc and I need the time to get it ready. The New Cleveland arc will conclude on Friday. Book Six: Mother will finish with the final arc, starting Monday, August 19th.

As for what’s coming down in the final arc, we will be returning to Meredith, Stephen, Logan and Megan, six weeks after we heard from them last. This will catch up their timeline with the New Cleveland arc. As far as what’s been happening with them, they’ve been on the move trying to keep Meredith hidden from Toby’s dark forces out to find her. I can’t mention much more without stepping into spoiler territory, but there will be an included backstory showing us Meredith’s relationship with Frank Carman.

On the other side of this final arc, we will also find out what happened to Gina after she flew away on a helicopter to join Clementine out on that Mother-run island.

Beyond the conclusion of Book Six, I’m going to jump right in to writing Book Seven, which is titled, The Prophet. Can’t say much about that right now, except that Book Seven is the first of two final books that will finish this long series. More on that later.

On a side note, if you haven’t heard already, The Walking Dead comic book series just finished recently. The reason I bring this up is that when you’re writing a story as long as my series has become, you look to similar stories that have run a while as a sort of ‘benchmark’ for how others have ended their long apocalypse tales to gauge the readers’ reactions to said endings.

I’m not going to spoil the plot details on how Robert Kirkman ended his series, but it was interesting how he approached it. Apparently, he knew how his story was going to end for some time now, and he chose to surprise the readers with it by keeping the final issue a secret. Kirkman felt that, like the many characters in his story that had surprising deaths, the conclusion of The Walking Dead comic book series should be just as surprising.

I’m torn about how he ended his series like that. Part of me gets it, while another part of me thinks he cheated by not announcing the end of his series. To me, by doing what he did, he went around the building expectation that comes with the ending of a story, especially a long one, by abruptly surprising his readers with it.

Anyway, this just got me thinking about the ending of my series, which I will be staring in the face starting in the next book. It got me thinking about how difficult it’s going to be to satisfy reader expectations for something this big that’s run as long as it has. One thing I will definitely not be doing is surprising you with some sudden ending. You will know in advance when the end is near. I can promise you that right now. As far as expectations go, whether it’s the readers or my own, I will endeavor to end Don’t Feed The Dark in the way it started… with the characters’ stories being the most important part of this long, dark tale. Aside from that, I’m not going to worry about expectations. I’ve never hit a point in the writing of this tale where I felt that I had run out of story and had to make up ‘filler’ just to keep it going. In fact, I had no idea that Don’t Feed The Dark would run this long… but it has… and that’s because the story has brought me this far, and I trust that the story, along with the characters, will carry us all along to the intended conclusion.

But now, as I start to write the conclusion of Book Six, I can feel the end finally coming. I strongly suspect that these last two books will pour out of me, driving me toward the finish line. For me, this story is already finished, somewhere in the back of my head or in some mystery ‘Elsewhere’ land where stories come from… lol. It’s my job to keep on retrieving it from that mysterious place and get us all there.

Well, that’s enough of my wondering wanderings about endings and expectations. I just wanted to share those thoughts I’ve been having. I’m looking forward to jumping in to the last two books of this series and finishing this long journey with all of you. But first, we need to finish Book Six… and it will be a game changer.

More to come.

-Scott.

~~~

~~~

Candyman’s cramped and dark tunnel led them north, beneath the courtyard and exited directly beneath the main boardwalk which ran along the southern portion of the lake.

The leader of New Cleveland pushed the second concealed hatch open and stepped out beneath the tight space beneath the boardwalk. He crawled out of the way to let the others up and stared down toward the beach. An old dock stood at the edge of the lake. The dock extended out into the lake, then narrowed, becoming a bridge, which had collapsed a third of the way across the lake. Back when the former amusement park was bursting at the seams with attendance, a long bridge was constructed that ran directly across the center of the lake. Now, the decrepit bridge spanned a third of the lake before reaching a point where the rest of it had collapsed.

Briana crawled over next to him. “Sonofabitch,” she said, staring out at the beach. “How many more secrets do you have up your sleeve?”

He smiled. “I’ve learned a long time ago that if you want to keep a secret in this town, you don’t tell a soul… except for maybe a dead man or two.”

“What?”

“Never mind.”

Briana shook her head. “Someone sleeps with a whore and doesn’t tell his wife, that’s one thing. But these are some big fucking secrets. The explosives, the sound system, the secret passageways… you had to have help putting this all together. That’s a lot of mouths to keep quiet.”

Candyman laughed. “Yes, Briana. You are correct.” He turned to her and said, “The Murder Shops.”

Her eyes went wide with understanding. “That’s why we leave them alone,” she said. “I’ve always wondered why we treat that part of town like they’re all so damn special. Those sick fuckers helped you set this all up, didn’t they?”

“The men and women in charge of those… operations… understand the importance of keeping secrets. A lot of them were with me from the beginning. When they approached me about setting up the Murder Shops, I saw an opportunity to get what I wanted out of the deal. So, we came to a mutual understanding: I kept their secrets and let them run their businesses without interference, and they helped me with all this, including keeping quiet about it.”

Briana shook her head. “Is there anyone you haven’t made some sort of deal with in this town?”

“Running a town is an intricate affair,” he said. “As a leader, you make deals all the time that you hope are mutually beneficial. That way, your position remains secure.”

“Obviously, the fucking dead no longer feel that way.”

Candyman nodded. “Yes. That was unavoidable. I’d hoped we would have come up with a better solution before all this… but obviously the appetites of the deceased have far exceeded our arrangement.”

Briana looked back at her ten Lunatics staring back at the hatch nervously. “So, what now? It won’t be long before the dead find your secret tunnel.”

Candyman smiled and pointed toward the dock. “Get me to the bridge. We’re crossing the lake.”

Briana looked back toward the dock in surprise. “That’s the big plan? You do know that bridge is collapsed, right?”

“We just need to reach one end. That should put us safely out of the blast radius.”

Her eyes went wide as he flashed the remote he was still holding. Seeing it up close, she realized it was a remote detonator. “Got it,” she said. She silently readied her men with hand signals.

They nodded and stepped out beneath the boardwalk and down toward the sand to secure the beach. After a few moments they signaled an ‘All Clear’.

“Time to go,” she told him.

Candyman nodded. “There is a boat tied off at the end of the bridge. It’s big enough for our party. We can wait out what happens next from there.”

Briana nodded.

Forming a tight circle around their leader, the Lunatics led Candyman onto the large dock.

Several of the men stopped and started pointing frantically back toward the boardwalk.

Briana and Candyman turned.

“Holy shit!” Briana hissed.

All along the old boardwalk, which extended the length of the southern shore, yellow-eyed men, women and children in various states of decay were lined up like some massive wall of the dead, gazing silently across the beach toward their location.

“What are they doing?” Briana whispered, drawing her guns. “They’re just… standing there… like fucking sightseers! Why are they not attacking?”

Candyman gave the long line of the dead a puzzled look. They were waiting for us, he thought, and the thought disturbed him to the core. “Doesn’t matter,” he said. “Get me to the end of the bridge. Let them stare all they want.”

Briana nodded and signaled her men to guard the rear. She accompanied Candyman across the old bridge, staring back constantly at the waiting horde. “Your damn boat better be there,” she said. “I don’t like this. The dead don’t behave this way… ever. It’s like…”

“It’s like someone or something is holding them back,” Candyman finished.

She stared at him and nodded. “Yeah. That’s exactly what it’s like.”

Candyman placed the detonator in his other hand. He wiped sweat off his free hand and tried not to look back at the dead. Something’s not right, he thought. They shouldn’t know where we are. They should all be racing toward the courtyard.

“There’s more coming!” one of the Lunatics shouted.

Briana and Candyman turned.

There were more coming. Lots more. They weren’t running toward the docks, screaming and howling like savages… but rather… walking… in silence… filling the entire beach behind them.

“Fuck me,” Briana said. “I’ve never seen so many in one place. Why are they… why are they acting like that?”

The dead continued to fill the beach. None of them approached the dock. They just stopped in the sand, waiting for the rest to fall in rank next to each other like some massive dead army awaiting orders.

Candyman stared. For the first time in a long time, he didn’t feel in control. “Doesn’t matter,” he said. “We’re far enough away.” He raised the remote.

“Wait!” Briana called out.

He gave her an anxious, annoyed glance, wiping sweat from his brow.

“You said the dynamite at the theater came from town, right?” she said.

“Yes, we’ve covered this.”

“So… so, that means this Taven guy, the one Tony was talking about, he had access to it.”

“Okay. So, he found some of it that was left over and gave it to Tony. Is there a point coming?”

Briana gave him a sharp look. “For a smart guy, you really aren’t connecting the dots very well at the moment.” She stared back at the beach as the actions of the dead were causing her mind to itch in a place she couldn’t quite reach.

He waited.

“What if Taven didn’t find it… what if it he knew where you planted it?”

“That’s impossible. The explosives were well hidden, beneath the courtyard.”

“In tunnels like the one we just used?”

Candyman ignored her. He raised the remote. “I don’t know what you’re getting at, but we’ve no more time. If the dead get any closer-”

“That’s it!” she cried out. “That’s fucking it! They’re not getting any closer! Don’t you get it?”

Candyman stared at the face-painted woman as if she’d lost her damn mind.

“If Taven knows where the explosives are planted then that means your secrets aren’t so secret… and you have a leak in your plan!”

“Impossible!”

“Don’t press anything!” she said. “This isn’t right! Nothing about this feels right!” She pointed toward the dead and finished, “They don’t act like that! They should be storming this fucking bridge right now!”

Candyman gave her a long look, then gazed out at the silent dead horde.

“Enough talk,” he said.

Briana’s eyes went wide as she finally reached the itch in her mind.

Candyman reached for the detonator switch.

She looked down at the old bridge planks. “Fuck… me…” she hissed.

Candyman flipped the detonator switch with a devious little smile.

I’m in control.

The bridge and dock erupted in a series of massive explosions sending wood, flesh and water up into the air.

~~~

Tony, Diane, Nine and Hash exited the woods north of New Cleveland and spent the remainder of the day pushing their exhausted bodies northeast, following a maze of backroads to avoid scattered hordes of the reanimated that had been drawn south away from the Interstate after the most recent explosions coming from that hellish town.

No one had much to say about the explosions, but Tony suspected Taven. No one said much of anything after Nadia’s death. No one knew what to say.

Each of them struggled with every step to unburden themselves of their heavy hearts and troubled thoughts, separately trying to process their own nightmarish experiences and conflicted emotions. New Cleveland had permanently changed them, leaving wounds that would never completely heal and scars upon their souls that would serve as reminders of the people they had become… and all they had lost.

Near dusk they discovered an old gas station in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by neglected farmlands. After scavenging some stale chips from a vending machine, along with a case of bottled water from a back office and a few other essentials, they cleaned themselves up, changed into some clean coveralls they’d found in a maintenance garage locker, and then put their backs to the station and continued northeast along a two-lane strip of monotonous black top that cut through the middle of flatlands… and silence.

Fifteen minutes later they spotted a grassy knoll at the center of a large field surrounded by a secure wooden fence. They agreed to set up camp for the evening up on the hill. After gathering wood for a small fire, they finally stopped moving and collapsed around the flames.

The good sergeant handed out the chips and water and everyone ate as the last of the fading light faded from the western sky.

“You know,” Hash started, breaking the heavy silence, “I was half tempted to have a cup of that ancient coffee we left sitting in that moldy pot at the gas station. Hell, it probably tastes about the same as when they first brewed it.”

Nine looked up. “I’ve always wondered about that,” he said. “What is it about gas stations and coffee? Is it some long-running tradition to brew one pot at dawn that every patron partakes from? Because I swear that it’s the same damn bottomless pot before closing time.”

Hash laughed. “You know, you may be on to something there. Perhaps it’s like some ancient tribal tradition where only the bravest warriors filling their cars up before battle, go and drink that burnt shit to prove their strength.”

Nine smiled. “Yeah… and that’s when they receive strong visions from that all-powerful God of Java who rewards your sacrifice of assaulting your taste buds to that nasty old shit with that week’s winning lottery numbers.”

Hash pointed at him and laughed. “That’s it!”

Their shared joke quickly fell flat as the black hole of silence sucked the words away.

The good sergeant looked over at Tony who seemed lost in a trance, staring into the fire, and tried again. “So, now that we’re liberated, and we clearly have no fucking clue where we ended up, what’s the plan?”

Tony looked at him, his face expressionless. “Plan?” the big man said. “I don’t know. I’m tired. I’m tired of coming up with plans.” He leaned back on his arms and yawned. “I just want to sit here in peace until I pass out by this fire. Then sleep for a real long time. How’s that for a plan?”

Hash raised his eyebrows. “Sounds like we should go back for that coffee.”

Nine snickered. He turned to Diane and lost all humor. The hunter hadn’t said a word since they left the woods. Every time he’d approached her to talk, she’d given him a look that clearly said, ‘Back off’. Now, she appeared a thousand miles away in thought as she poked the ground between her feet with a stick. “You okay?” he dared to ask.

She didn’t look at him. Instead, she took a deep breath and announced, “I’m not sorry for Nadia. Deep down I know that I should be… but I’m not.”

The others looked at her and waited.

“I really thought she was my friend… that we’d… bonded. I was a fool for lowering my guard and letting that woman get close. I should’ve known better… and we all paid the price for it.”

“It’s not your fault,” Tony said. “We take a risk on people. If we never did… none of us would be sitting together now.”

She looked at him and then around at the others. “You must all think I’m a monster for what I did.”

“No,” Nine said. “You’re not a monster.”

Diane looked at him. “I murdered that woman. You all saw me do it. What else could I be?”

Nine frowned. “I know you. I know who you really are. We’ve bled together. It’s that fucking town… it made us… it made us forget who we were.”

Tony sighed. “We’ve all done some very unpleasant things, Diane. We’ve done things we never thought we could do—things we would’ve despised in others.”

“And what… that makes it okay, now?”

“Of course not,” Tony said. “I’m not going to lie to you and tell you that the road back will be easy. It won’t. We’re all going to be wrestling with ourselves for a very long time.”

Diane shook her head. “Then what’s the point to any of this? If places like New Cleveland are just going to bring the worst out of us… then maybe we’ve already been out in this shit for far too long. What happens next time we find people in another town like that? What if everyone is like that now?”

“It’s not all bad yet,” Hash said. “Believe me, I’ve been running with the wrong people for a long time and I started to think like you… like there wasn’t anything else but to be ‘bad’ in a world gone bad. But I was wrong. Your people showed me that.”

Diane turned to him with tears streaming down her face. “But what I did was fucking evil. I know it. I’ve been with good people… and I still did such an evil thing. How is that possible unless I’m as bad as the rest?”

“The difference, Diane, is that you know what you did was wrong, and you’re suffering for it,” Tony said. “You say you don’t regret killing Nadia. I think that’s just the anger talking. But deep down, after all this emotional mess within us finally clears, we’re all going to suffer for our actions. That’s why we’re still the good guys.”

“And then what?” she said. “What am I supposed to do after that?”

“You live with it,” Hash said. “You live with it and never forget what you did. Then you use that pain and disgust in yourself to turn around and go the other direction… and never be that person again.”

She nodded.

Nine put a hand on her shoulder.

She turned and saw no judgment in his eyes… just compassion. Nine was weeping. She smiled at him.

“I’m sorry I don’t have something profound to say to ease your pain,” he said. “These two are better at words like that. I just crack jokes… and occasionally a really good one.”

She laughed.

“But I do know that I love you. I’ve seen you at your best… and now your worst… and nothing’s changed for me.”

She reached over and took his hand.

“I do know that we’ve been through some heavy shit in that town… and lost so much,” he continued. “And it’s going to be just like what Tony and Hash said. But you and I… we’re going to make it.”

“How do you know?” she said.

Nine smiled and answered with confidence, “Because I know ‘Us’. Together we always beat the odds. And you and I make up a number that can’t be defeated. You know me. So, you know I don’t bullshit when it comes to numbers.”

Diane reached over and kissed him. “Thank you,” she said. She turned to Tony and Hash and nodded at them both. “You guys mean everything to me. I can’t do this shit anymore… but you all keep reminding me that I can still hope that shit will change… and then I won’t have to. That’s what keeps me holding on.”

Tony smiled. “It’s the same for me.”

“Well hell, you all are getting me all choked up. It’s embarrassing. A grown fucking man weeping like a little bitch,” Hash said rubbing his eyes. “It’s a good thing it’s the apocalypse or else I’d never hear the end of it.”

Nine laughed. He stared back into Diane’s eyes and promised, “You’re going to be okay. We all are.”

She nodded and let out a heavy sigh. “Yeah. Eventually.”

“That’s good enough,” Tony said. “It has to be. For now, we’ll just try our best to go the other direction.” He nodded at Hash with a smile.

Hash winked back.

“Did you all happen to notice that none of us picked up a single blunt instrument from the garage at the gas station?” Nine said. “What do you think that means?”

Tony laughed. “It either means we’re really fucking tired and it’s made us careless since we’re all fucking unarmed out here… or… we’ve all just lost the taste for killing anything… dead or alive.”

“Wouldn’t it be nice if we never had to arm up again?” Nine said.

Diane laughed at herself. “You know, it’s not like me, of all people, to not be armed. I’m usually the first to bring it up… but not now.”

Hash nodded. “Maybe we can just take our chances tonight and have one fucking evening of peace. We can arm up for war again tomorrow.”

“Yeah,” Tony agreed. “Tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow,” Diane echoed.

“Fuck yeah! Tomorrow!” Nine added.

Hash laughed at the enthusiastic young man and then stared over at Tony’s lighter face. “Feeling better?”

“A little,” Tony admitted. “These guys always bring me back from the edge.”

Hash nodded, then froze, staring past the big man and down the hill. “Fuck me,” he hissed. “I don’t believe this shit.”

“What? What is it?” Tony said.

The good sergeant was motioning them to get low as he attempted to put out the fire. “There’s movement down there,” he whispered. “And I’m not talking about the dead kind of movement.”

“Shit!” Diane hissed, spinning around. “Lunatics?”

“You’ve got to be kidding me! Now? Really?” Nine was getting frantic.

“Hash,” Tony said, surprisingly calm. “leave the fire alone and sit back down.”

“Pardon?”

“I’m not doing it,” Tony said. He refused to get down. “We said, ‘Tomorrow’. I don’t care who they are… I’m going to sit here and enjoy this fire with my friends. Fuck the rest.”

His stance was like stone causing the others to calm down.

“He’s right,” Diane said, getting back up and sitting down. “Fuck it. We’re unarmed anyway.”

Nine laughed nervously then sat back down. “Alright. We’re really doing this?”

Hash sat back down as well. “I’m too fucking tired for this, anyway. Every muscle in me aches.”

“You still see them?” Tony said, refusing to turn.

“Yep. They’re coming up the hill,” Hash said. “All ‘sneaky’ like.”

“How many?” Diane said.

“Don’t know,” Hash said. “Enough to not be scared of us.”

“Armed?” she asked.

Hash shrugged his shoulders.

“Shit. What do you want to do? Offer them stale chips?” Nine said.

Tony closed his eyes. “Nothing. We will do nothing. Let them come.”

Moments later they all heard movement coming up through the grass on all sides. They were surrounded.

Tony kept his eyes closed and took a deep breath. God, he silently prayed. I don’t know if you’re still there or if you’ve left this world a long time ago. But if you are, all I ask is for one damn night with no violence. I’m spent. Please… just one damn night, and I promise you, I’ll never return to violence ever again.

When the intruders reached the top of the knoll, they stopped.

“I don’t know who you are,” Tony announced, his eyes still shut tight. “But me and my friends are not armed. We’re just trying to enjoy one night of peace. We have nothing of value, but you’re welcome to share our fire.”

Several armed men stepped up around the fire dressed in body armor.

Tony couldn’t see it, but Nine’s eyes went wide as one man stepped up behind Tony. Nine started grinning like an idiot as he shook Diane’s shoulder in excitement.

Diane stared at the man in shock.

Sergeant Hash glanced around at what appeared to be soldiers, then back at Nine and Diane. He was confused.

“Tony?” the man said. “Tony… is that you?”

Tony opened his eyes. He spun around at the man with the familiar voice, also wearing body armor, and smiled with tears filling his eyes. “Sonofabitch,” he said. “We’ve been looking for you… for a long time.”

The black man looked as stunned as the rest. He smiled a toothy smile and lowered his rifle.

Tony rose to his feet. “It’s damn good to see you… Orosco.”

Thank you, God.

~~~

Next Episode 52-12

Previous Episode 52-10

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 52-11: Sodom” 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.

~~~

“Wake up!” The voice came from what sounded like the end of a long tunnel. Someone slapped her hard across the cheek. Diane opened her eyes. She attempted to focus. Wendy was hovering over her… no… not Wendy… something much worse.

“Nadia?” she whispered.

The tall blond smiled down at her. Nadia’s hair was a mess. Her make-up looked smeared and she was wearing a grey hoodie over a torn blue dress. “I thought I was too late,” she said, quickly wiping tears from her face with the back of a shaky hand.

Diane tried to speak.

“Just give it a minute,” Nadia said. “I’ve injected you with enough adrenaline to counter the sedatives that I’m surprised your fucking heart hasn’t exploded.”

The joke was lost on Diane. She tried to lift her head but failed. “Where… where are my friends?” she managed.

“They’re here,” she said. “They’re alright. They need a few minutes to recover… same as you.”

“Diane?” It was Tony. He sounded hungover. “You okay?”

She turned toward his voice. The big man was lying on his side, slowly attempting to sit up. “I’m here,” she said. “Hash?”

“I’m here,” Hash said from her opposite side. “My head feels like it’s on fire… but I’ll live.”

The fog was starting to clear in Diane’s mind. She stared up into Nadia’s face and said, “You killed my friend.”

Nadia shook her head. “I… I had to. She… she was infected and almost-”

“No,” Diane said. “You killed my friend when you betrayed us.”

Nadia tensed up and looked away from Diane’s cold stare. She nodded. “Yeah… I fucked up. But… but I’m here now. I came back because… because I knew I fucked everything up.”

“Get away from me,” Diane hissed. “I fucking hate you.”

Nadia looked like she’d been struck in the face. “Okay. I deserve that. But not now. First, you need to let me help you get out of here. Everything’s gone to shit topside. The streets are filled with the dead… and they’re butchering everyone.” The tall blond stood up and offered Diane her hand.

Diane reluctantly took it. Her legs felt wobbly, but she managed to stand and regain her balance. The hunter looked over at the body lying on the floor.

What used to be Wendy was turned over on her side, back facing, lying still in a puddle of blood from the gunshot wound to the side of the head.

The hunter closed her eyes. I’m so sorry. I’m so… fucking sorry.

Nadia was helping Tony to his feet. “We’re fortunate,” she started. “Once Candyman left the lab he took everyone that was left down here with him. I don’t think he realizes that New Cleveland is lost. There’s too much pride in that man. He’ll need to see it all for himself. Hopefully the dead finish them all off.”

“What the hell is happening up there?” Tony said.

Nadia gave him a look that spoke volumes. To Tony, she had the face of someone who was unable to process the level of nightmares let loose above. She shook her head. “I don’t really know. They just… they attacked and came over the walls like a flood. There’s so many of them. They’re killing… and eating people. I’ve never seen so many of these things before.”

Hash laughed, starting to rise. “I need a damn drink. This sounds like the end of a very bad day.”

Tony was attempting to clear his head. He looked over at his dead friend on the ground. No time for grieving, he thought. We get out of this town, you can hate yourself later. He looked to Diane. “Can you still fight, hunter? Sounds like we’re going to need all we have left to get out of here.”

Diane didn’t turn. She simply nodded. “And what about Nine and Joe?”

Tony didn’t know how to answer that.

Hash bailed him out. “This is war, Diane. Not our fucking war, but war nonetheless. Whatever’s happening topside sounds like the fucking battleground… and we’re clearly outnumbered. We’re not going to do Nine any favors wandering around up there, trying to find him.”

Again, Diane refused to turn away from Wendy. She nodded absently.

Hash turned to the attractive blond with the long legs. “I assume there’s a way out from down here. I seem to remember that clowned-faced bitch hinting at it when she tucked tail and ran with that Candy asshole.”

Nadia nodded. “Yes. There’s an access tunnel that runs beneath the wall. It’s hidden from the outside. We should be okay once we find it.”

Diane turned and glared at the woman. “You mean, you’ve known about this tunnel the entire time… and you said nothing?”

Nadia shook her head. “It’s not like that, Diane. If the dead hadn’t attacked, this place would’ve been heavily guarded. There’s no way we would have had a chance to use it… until now.”

“That’s convenient,” Diane hissed, taking a few steps toward the woman. “You arrive just in time, acting like you had a change of heart and came to rescue us. Truth is, once you knew Candyman evacuated the lab, you were going for the tunnel to save your own pathetic life!”

“That’s not true!” Nadia shot back.

“Bullshit!” Diane continued. “You probably got halfway down the tunnel, then realized you couldn’t make it out there for five minutes alone, then you came back for us. Isn’t that why you’re really here now?”

Nadia was about to speak then stopped.

Tony interrupted. “Look,” he said. “You two work this shit out later. We need to leave before the dead find this place.” He turned to Diane and added a little more sternly, “I need you to put this shit aside… for now. Can you do that?”

She glared at him. “Yes.” The hunter backed off.

The sound of a door slamming from up the hall coming from just outside the open laboratory door captured their attention.

“Shit!” Nadia hissed. “There’s not supposed to be anyone down here.”

“Give me your gun,” Tony said.

Nadia handed him the handgun. She backed up toward the closest wall and pulled out a small knife from her hoodie pocket.

Diane recognized the blade. It was her make-shift knife from the trailer.

They could hear resounding footfalls echoing down the hall—the sound of running—headed right toward them.

“Candyman… he must have… shit… he must have made it back!” Nadia said. “If Briana’s with him…”

“Be quiet,” Diane hissed, looking for something she could use as a weapon.

Hash started to do the same.

Tony raised the handgun toward the open door. Are we ever going to catch a break? The big man steadied himself to make another kill, silently vowing to himself that if they made it out of this alive, he’d never kill again.

A young man, out of breath, appeared in the doorway. He saw the raised gun and held up his hands. “Wait! Don’t shoot!”

Tony quickly lowered the gun, taking his finger off the trigger. “Fuck me,” he said, then laughed.

Nine lowered his hands, slumped his shoulders in relief, and smiled. “Damn, Tony. Are you trying to make me shit myself? With that smeared face-paint, you looked like the biggest fucking Lunatic I’ve ever seen—figuratively and literally.”

The big man walked over the young man, grabbed him by the shoulders, and then swallowed him up in a bear hug.

“Good to see you, too, big guy,” Nine said, trying to breathe.

Tony released him and nodded.

Diane covered her mouth, overcome with emotion. She launched herself toward the young man.

Nine saw her and started to weep. He stepped into the room and caught the hunter. They hugged each other fiercely.

“Well, shit,” Hash said with a nod and a smile. “Isn’t that something.”

Tony turned to the sergeant and smiled. “Yeah… that is something.” The big man’s eyes started to water up as he watched his two friends embrace. Guess we caught that break after all.

Nine finally let her go and stared into the hunter’s face. “You… you okay?”

She nodded. “I am now. Where’s Joe?”

Nine’s sad face spoke volumes. He shook his head as tears streamed down his cheeks. “I couldn’t… she’s… They strung her up from that rollercoaster… Herbie, too…. I saw them… I… I thought you’d all be up there… it was… it was fucking awful.”

Diane started to cry. She put her hand gently over his lips. “Okay,” she said. “Come here.”

Nine buried his face into her shoulder.

The hunter placed her hand on the back of his head and gently stroked his hair. “It’s okay,” she whispered in his ear. “I’m here. I’m here.”

Tony turned away, allowing them a moment.

Hash gave him a confused look.

He came over and said. “There was a little girl who was with Nine. Her was name was Joe.”

Hash nodded respectfully as he pieced together the rest. “Ah, shit… really? He’s killing kids now?” he said. “That’s… that’s a damn shame.” The good sergeant wiped a tear from his own eye. “Sorry,” he said. “I’ve been down here too long. It’s turned me into an emotional mess.” He looked down at his ridiculous pajamas and finished, “I already look the damn part.”

Tony laughed and put a hand on Hash’s soldier. “It’s good to have you back,” he said. “We’ve all been through hell. A little emotion can be expected.”

The good sergeant nodded.

Nadia came over to the two men. “We should leave,” she said. “Before anyone else we don’t want to see wanders down here.”

Tony nodded. He turned to the couple. “I hate to break this up… but we need to get out of here.”

Nine and Diane parted. The young man smiled at Diane and whispered, “I love you.”

“And I love you,” she quickly responded.

Nine turned to Tony. “There’s a way out from here,” he said.

“That’s what we’ve gathered,” Tony said. “Taven?”

Nine frowned. “He tricked us. That crazy fucker never intended to help.”

Tony nodded.

“Did you know? Did you know he was… a half-dead?”

“Yes,” Tony admitted.

Nine raised his eyebrows in surprise.

“We’ll talk about that later,” Tony said.

“Where’s Wendy?”

Diane gently turned his head toward the body.

“No,” Nine whispered. “Fuck!”

“The plan fell apart,” Tony said. “I’ll fill you in later. Right now, we need to leave.”

Nine shook his head. “There’s a lot of people dying in town. The dead are everywhere.”

From somewhere farther off, and above them, they all heard more sounds.

“We need to leave,” Nadia was pacing frantically. “That could be a Lunatic patrol!”

Tony’s face changed. He looked pale. “How did you get down here?” he asked Nine.

There’s a ladder at the back of Harper’s Run, I climbed it to the top and to the access door which leads right under the ride… and down here.”

“Did anyone see you?”

“No,” Nine said. “There’s hardly any Lunatics left up there. Everyone’s just trying to stay alive.” Then his face changed. “Shit!”

“What is it?” Tony said.

“It’s the dead. They’re… smarter now. I don’t know how… but they are. I’ve seen them do things we’ve never seen before.”

The sounds were getting closer.

“Did they see you?” Hash said.

“No… I was careful. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t… watching.”

“What do you mean ‘watching’?” Diane said.

Nine shook his head. “I don’t know. Maybe I’m just being paranoid, but they are smarter. Maybe they were watching to see what I’d do… and lead them in here.”

Tony looked surprised. “If they can do that…”

“…then I’m sure climbing ladders isn’t that much of a stretch,” Nine finished.

Tony nodded. “Let’s move!”

Nadia led the way as the others followed her out of the lab and down a short hallway that opened up at an intersection. She turned to the left. “Down to the right is where Candyman and Briana would’ve gone. It leads directly beneath town, near Candyman’s courtyard.”

“You’re just full of information we could’ve used before, aren’t you?” Diane accused.

Nadia ignored the shot. “The other hall leads to more cells, like the one Hash was in.”

“I know,” Nine said. “That’s the way I came in. There’s a staircase at the back end of that hall that led me down here. Those cells are full of the dead. I assumed those are the ones they use in the Race?”

Nadia nodded. “Yes.”

“And where we’re going, is that where they bring them in from outside?” he asked.

“Some of them,” Nadia said. “Others were made that way by Candyman’s… experiments.”

“This just keeps getting better,” Diane said. “So, what don’t you know?”

The sounds were getting closer.

“Sounds like whoever that is,” Nine said. “It’s coming from the stairs.”

“How far is it to the exit?” Tony said.

“Not far,” Nadia said. “Five minutes. After that, we’ll be outside the walls… and that’s the end of all that I know.”

“Understand,” Tony said. He kept looking behind them as the sounds grew closer. “We need to step it up. I don’t want to be here when whoever that is gets here.”

They picked up the pace and entered a smaller, darker tunnel.

“This might have been some old ventilation shaft,” Nadia said. “But that’s just my guess. It looks like there used to be some kind of large fan mounted at the end of this thing. It’s gone now, but the brackets are still there on a metal grating in front of the exit. It’s not secure anymore and all we’ll need to do is push it open.”

They reached the grating covering the exit hole just as the sounds behind them reached their level.

“They’re in the lab,” Hash said.

Tony stepped up to the grating, gripped the rusted mesh, and then pushed against it. The grating popped out of position. He turned it to the side and led the others outside.

“Careful,” he whispered. “We don’t know where we are… and where they are.”

The others nodded.

Tony put the grating back over the exit hole and then looked around. They appeared to be in an old dried-up riverbed, about fifty feet beneath the western wall. The riverbed was covered by thick vegetation on both sides and ample tree cover from above.

“It’s some kind of forest,” Nine said.

“We should follow the riverbed,” Diane suggested. “Looks like it will take us right into woods undetected and keep us from making too much sound.”

Tony agreed. He led them into the riverbed which ran northwest and south outside the western wall. They went northwest as the old riverbed started to curve away from the former amusement park and continued deeper into the neighboring forest.

A half an hour later, the riverbed entered a valley with slowly rising ridges on both sides. The opted for the higher ground and scaled the ridge to their left until reaching a plateau at the top and finally getting their first clear glimpse through the trees at the old serpent-looking coaster rising above the tree line. They could see several tendrils of black smoke rising with the old coaster as if that dragon had been set on fire. There was a steady breeze blowing from the direction of town. They could smell the ashes of New Cleveland.

“That should eventually put out the fires,” Hash said. “Probably won’t be much left of all those plywood palaces and trailers. Just all those amusement park relics from before.”

“Agreed,” Tony said, staring at the top curve of the sea serpent slithering up over the trees, just like on the first day they had approached New Cleveland.

They took a moment to rest and silently celebrate their hard-fought freedom and mourn the deaths of their friends.

Maybe it was the breeze, or their imaginations, but they all heard what sounded like faint, muffled screams, riding on the wind, like the voices of the slain, forever trapped in that town—new phantoms now haunting the ghost attractions of Geauga Lake for the second time.

Hash sat down next to Tony and let out a heavy sigh.

Diane and Nine sat across from them, looking equally exhausted.

“Was it just me,” Nine started, “or did anyone else hear music? I could’ve sworn I heard an old Johnny Cash song about twenty minutes ago?”

They all gave him a strange look, too tired for Nine’s jokes.

“Never mind,” he said.

Nadia prudently separated herself from their group and sat down on a ledge at the edge of the plateau, affording a breathtaking, yet terrifying view of the forest to their north. To her, it filled her with dread of the unknown. She refused to look back toward the place she’d considered home for so very long, not wanting to risk feeding the panic that threatened her now. She felt lost and out of her element… and very much alone.

“There probably wasn’t more than five-hundred of them actually in town,” Nine said. “It seemed like a lot more of the dead when they were mixed in with the crowds. But once the living population dwindled, you could tell that most of those yellow-eyed monsters stayed outside. I never would’ve made it off the streets otherwise.”

Tony shook his head in disbelief. “We saw more than five-thousand of those things out at Mosquito Creek… and it only took five-hundred to take down one town.”

“That’s some smart fucking warfare,” Hash said. “The ability to use your numbers to overwhelm the enemy from a distance and get them to use up their ammunition from the walls… without ever having to invade with but a fraction of your forces.” He shook his head. “I remember how clever those bastards were back at the power plant when they attacked. If they’ve evolved since then, and with the numbers they have now… well… the living is going to be hard pressed to survive anywhere. We’ll be lucky if the species survives another winter if those things move on from New Cleveland.”

“They will go dormant again,” Tony said. “After they get fat on New Cleveland, they’ll go back to sleep, or hibernate, or whatever the fuck that is… just like what we saw them doing at Mosquito Creek.”

“Until the next time, or the next town?” Nine said.

Tony shook his head sadly. “Yeah. Something like that.”

Diane stared over at the tall blond and then excused herself. She sat down next to Nadia and gazed out over the vast forest.

Nadia shifted uncomfortably at the heavy silence between them. “So,” she finally said. “Is this the part where you all vote on whether to take me with you to wherever you’re going, or just kill me for exposing your plans to Candyman?” She’d meant it as a joke that became less funny when she considered how acute how observation may have been. “Again, I’d like to point out that I did come back for all of you,” she finished.

Diane didn’t say a word.

“I’m sorry… about your friend. I wish I’d been able to get there sooner. But I had to wait until Candyman left. You do understand that, right?”

“Why did you take my knife?”

Nadia found the question strange. “Okay,” she said. “That was out of nowhere.”

Diane turned and stared. “Did you take it when you took my map and showed it to Candyman? Was it some kind of trophy for fooling the dumb gimp girl into trusting you?”

“No!” she said defensively. “No… I wouldn’t do that!” Nadia retrieved the blade and held in her lap. She stared down at it and shook her head, struggling to find the words. She glanced over at Diane’s jacket and said, “I guess it’s like that jacket your man gave you. After I did what I did… I felt ashamed. I felt weak. I never intended to tell him anything… but he knew I was hiding something… and I was afraid. After I told him your plan, I was afraid for you and thought I’d never see you again. So… I took the knife to remember you.”

“Because you love me,” Diane said flatly, turning away.

Nadia stared at her, stricken by her cold words. “Yes,” she said. “Is that so hard to believe?”

“You don’t betray the ones you love.”

“I told you… I was afraid-”

“Better to die for someone you care about it then take trinkets to feed your selfish affections. Were you just going to stare at that silly thing, like you’re doing now, and remember our shopping day together… and forget that you got me killed?”

“I… I don’t know what to say,” Nadia said. She held out the knife to her. “Here. Take it.”

Diane reached over and took the knife. “You know what I see when I look at this horrible thing?”

Nadia remained quiet.

“I’m reminded of that cruel man who dehumanized me and terrorized me and how badly I wanted to kill him every damn night.” She looked over at Nadia. “Did you two arrange that whole rape scene just to get me to confide in you?”

Nadia refused to answer.

Diane looked away. “That’s what I thought.” She looked over at Nine. He was staring absently down at his feet. “I’ve never seen him in so much pain,” she told her. “That girl, Joe, meant a lot to him.”

Nadia looked over at Nine.

“That little girl’s death is on your hands, too” Diane said. “Herbie, Wendy, Joe… is there anyone else you’ve killed today with your lies?”

Nadia sighed. “I know you hate me for what I did. I hate myself for what I did. I just hope… I don’t know… that maybe… you can forgive me someday. Maybe I can make up for-”

Diane turned and quickly stabbed the woman three times with the blade, twice in the chest and once in the throat, retracting the knife like a viper after striking.

Nadia turned in shock, grabbed at her throat, and started to gasp for air.

The others were stunned by Diane’s unexpected violence. By the time they got up to stop her, it was over.

Nadia reached over for Diane’s shoulder.

The hunter shrugged her off.

Nadia fell forward and off the ledge, rolling down the ravine.

Diane watched the woman fall. She lifted the make-shift blade and tossed it off the ledge. “I don’t forgive you,” she whispered.

Before the others could say anything, multiple explosions coming from New Cleveland captured everyone’s attention.

~~~

Next Episode 52-11

Previous Episode 52-9

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 52-10: Sodom” 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.

~~~

The trek from the rear of Ollie’s Oasis, heading north and away from the marketplace district and into the amusement park ruins just south of the lake, was absolutely terrifying. Nine led the group of shocked New Cleveland citizens into the aftermath of an area that looked like it had been ripped apart and gutted by the savage dead. Every trailer and plywood constructed shop door had been partially torn from hinges or removed entirely. Windows had been shattered. Bloody footprints ranging from bare feet to boots and sneakers were scattered around every entrance, staining every porch like wild muddy animal tracks after a storm. Trails of blood exited every shop, leading into the center of streets where thicker pools of blood lay congealing in the late morning sun. There were no bodies left behind, at least, nothing resembling human corpses. Arms, limbs, organs, heads… all were scattered everywhere like unwanted leftovers tossed out after feasting.

They had been fortunate to slip through this ravaged area undetected while bombarded by screams from fresh kills, sporadic gunfire and the raging howls of the dead coming from adjacent streets. Nine could see trails of black smoke spiraling up toward the sky as parts of New Cleveland burned indifferently.

When they cleared the last street, ducking in between two blood covered trailers, the survivors stepped down into a small field of waist-high tall grass and weeds hiding various rusted amusement park debris where only the imagined screams from the long deceased could reach their ears.

Nine squinting at every disfigured shape in between swaying reeds, expecting it to move, and then discovering another rusted attraction. They’d passed an ancient bumper car, an overturned rollercoaster chair, and a disturbing clown caricature statue that was missing half its face, revealing an exaggerated smile full of dirty teeth. The statue had a hand raised, appearing to wave between the blowing weeds —its smile made it look insane. In its other hand was an old sign, barely legible, which read: ALL YOU CAN EAT FRIDAYS! COME ON DOWN TO BOBO’S BARBECUE PIT AND EAT AND LAUGH ‘TILL YOUR STOMACH’S BURST!

Nine let out a nervous laugh, “That’s fucked-up,” he muttered, leading the others away from the disturbingly appropriate clown.

The lake came into view. Nine started for the shore, then motioned for everyone to get down.

Fred grabbed his wife’s hand and pulled the nervous woman down behind Nine.

Greta looked around, shaking constantly.

Harold, John and Missy squatted in the grass.

Asshole Mike took up the rear, looking back anxiously. “What are we waiting for?” he said. “You got us out here… let’s move it!”

Nine glared at the man and then pointed toward the lake.

Two dead women and a teenage boy were crouched down on the beach, their backs turned. They were eating someone.

Greta covered her mouth. “I think I’m going to be sick,” she whispered.

Harold gave her a stern look.

Nine studied the area around the yellow-eyed trio. There were no other dead things around. He turned and motioned the others to come in close. “We’re fortunate the wind is at our backs and those things are… preoccupied,” he said. “We should back up and stay in the field, then cut left and-”

“Fuck all that,” Asshole Mike said. “I’m not going back there. Everyone knows this place is full of… you know… spirits and shit.”

“We’re surround by the dead and your worried about Halloween stories?” Nine said.

“Look!” Fred hissed, pointing toward the beach.

They all turned.

The two women and the teenager were gone… and so was their meal.

“Where did they go?” Greta asked frantically. “Are they… do they know we’re here?”

“Calm down,” Nine said. “They’re probably heading up the beach to catch up with their-”

To their right, the tall grass started to shake. Something howled nearby in a gravely feminine voice.

They’re headed back toward town, Nine thought. That was too close. He signaled the others to remain still. Nine looked back toward the shore. He spotted a rowboat turned over and sitting near a small broken dock off to their left. The boat looked old as dirt, but undamaged. Shit, we could use that to get out on the lake and follow the shore up to Harper’s Run. It’s gotta be safer than what we’re doing.

Before Nine could point out the boat, everything went to hell.

“Run!” Asshole Mike shouted, standing up.

All three zombies stopped and started hissing nearby.

Fucking idiot! They were almost past us!

The reeds shook violently as all three zombies stormed toward them, howling and growling.

The New Cleveland survivors started to panic. They all got up and started bolting in different directions.

“Wait!” Nine yelled. “Head for the shore! There’s a boat!”

Too late.

Fred and his Wife got so turned around that instead of running away from the dead… they turned right toward them. A woman with long grey hair wearing what looked like a torn nightgown jumped on Greta’s back. The woman’s eyes blazed yellow, her veins bulging on the surface of her pale skin. It bit into the back of Greta’s neck, causing her to scream and fall forward, disappearing into the reeds. Before Fred reached his wife, the monster splattered Greta’s blood across his face. Nine could hear Greta making choking sounds as the zombie woman bit into her face.

Before Fred had time to register what just happened, the teenage boy pulled him to the ground. Fred screamed in agony.

“Fuck!” Nine said, backing up toward the beach while trying to locate the others in the tall grass. The third zombie was still unaccounted for.

I can’t tell who’s who!

Harold, John and Missy had bolted to the left, running parallel to the beach but losing each other in the field overgrowth.

Nine wanted to call out, but the other two zombies were feeding on the older couple right near his position.

Then there was more movement… a lot more movement… coming from town. The tall grass came alive with the terrifying screams of the dead as they turned toward the fleeing survivors. Nine listened in horror as Harold, John and Missy were hunted down and slaughtered.

It’s too late for them, Nine thought. They drew the dead away from the beach. You have to go! Move your ass!

A new sound caught his attention from behind him. Nine turned. “Sonabitch!” he hissed.

Asshole Mike had just flipped the old rowboat over. He was pushing it into the lake.

He fucking saw it, too! He saw the boat and then caused a panic… just so he could lure the dead toward us while he stole it!

Nine balled up his fists and started toward the beach.

The reeds exploded off to his right as the grey-haired woman and the teenage boy were racing toward the rowboat. The third zombie, a woman with short black hair wearing a ripped bloody blouse came out of the grass from Nine’s left.

Nine ducked back down before they saw him.

Asshole Mike was already in the lake crawling into the boat. He was ten feet away from shore.

He’s going to make it, Nine thought, shaking his head.

The three zombies stopped at the shoreline and then stared down at the water. They started hissing at the missed meal in the boat.

Mike was now in the rowboat, twenty feet from the shore. Out of breath, he still had time to point and laugh in the zombie’s faces when he realized they wouldn’t enter the water. “Fuck you, pricks!” he shouted at them. “I beat you! I fucking beat you!”

The woman with gray hair cocked her head at the mocking man.

“Go on!” Mike yelled at it, reaching down and retrieving an oar that was attached to the interior of the boat. “Go find someone else to munch on you hideous looking bitch!”

Nine turned away. Time to go. At least the dead are distracted by that piece of shit. He decided to stay near the shore, just inside of the tall grass as he turned west. He suddenly stopped to the sound of a large splash behind him.

“Hey! Stop that! What the hell are you doing?” Mike yelled.

Nine turned back and raised his eyebrows in surprise.

The two dead women and the teen had moved to the broken dock. They were tearing off pieces of wood and throwing them out at the rowboat. Some of the pieces were large as they splashed near the small vessel, causing Asshole Mike to move about and nearly drop his oar in the water.

They’re trying to knock him out of the boat! Nine thought. He was initially awed by the dead’s cleverness, which quickly turned to fear. They’re starting to reason. What else can these scary bastards do now?

Mike was struck in the head by a long piece of wood. Every time he tried to row the boat away, he had to raise his hands to deflect more flying debris. “Cut it the fuck out!” he yelled, wiping blood off the side of his face.

The sight of Mike’s blood just made the monsters more crazed and determined, as they continued to throw pieces of wood while screeching toward their floating meal.

Mike made a fatal error. The rowboat started to spin the wrong direction due to his jerky movements. He stood up and attempted to turn around too fast and started to lose his balance.

The dead waited in anticipation for the man to fall into the water, but Mike regained his balance and instead of falling over the side, he stepped forward, falling to his knees at the bow of the boat. The impact was too much for the old boat to take as Mike’s left knee penetrated the bottom of the vessel. “Shit!” he hissed. While trying to remove his knee, his whole leg fell through the bottom instead. The rowboat quickly filled with water.

The dead seemed excited… if that was still possible. They were waving their hands at the small boat and jumping around at the water’s edge in some sort of… Victory dance?

Nine watched as Asshole Mike tried to pull himself up into the boat, but the hole just got worse. His other leg fell through the bottom as more pieces of the old vessel started collapsing in on itself. Mike fell completely through the bottom of the boat and struggled to stay above water as more pieces of the rowboat broke off on top of him. That’s when Nine realized that the boat was going to drag him beneath.

“Help… Help me!” Mike desperately cried. He may have escaped the dead’s reach… but not the depths of the lake as the frantic man reached for anything to stay afloat and found nothing.

The three dead things stood on the shore and watched the flailing man slowly drown.

I should help him, a voice within Nine protested. He thought about Joe hanging from the rollercoaster and dismissed the voice. Instead, the young man watched from the tall grass, along with the dead on the shore, as the desperate man started sinking with the boat wreckage, coughing and gasping for air.

Either Asshole Mike couldn’t swim, or he couldn’t escape the sinking rowboat. He went underwater three times… and never resurfaced after the third time.

Nine stared at the dead who were staring out at the last of Mike’s air bubbles striking the surface. They were either contemplating entering the water to retrieve the remains, or they were waiting for the lake current to provide it for them. That was when Nine became aware of his own sickening, satisfying smile.

I wonder if the dead feed off the act of dying as much as the blood itself? he thought with a chill, realizing that he had just enjoyed watching Asshole Mike drown to death.

Nine turned away in disgust and pushed west through the tall grass.

~~~

“Diane!” Sergeant Hash managed to shout. “Get away from her! She’s not… she’s not Wendy anymore!” Hash tried to move but fell over, his limbs becoming lead. The exertion pushed him over the edge as the sedative was on the verge of knocking him out.

Tony struggled to move toward Diane but fell sideways in a clumsy mess. He reached over and tried to grab the hunter’s foot but missed. The big man opened his mouth to speak but started to black out.

Diane stared at the young woman. She couldn’t move.

Wendy started to convulse violently. She started scratching at the air as if a thousand invisible demons were assaulting her mind. Wendy opened her mouth and let out a gut-wrenching scream.

The scream of the dead.

Diane tried to pull herself away from the poor girl. “Wendy,” she whispered as a tear fell from the corner of her eye. “Wendy… I’m so… I’m so sorry.” Diane fell on her side. She felt the entire room spin. Her eyes started to close. Every time she managed to partially open them, she could see Wendy, panting like a rabid dog with drool dripping down from the corners of her mouth as she leaned forward, hunched over and crawling… crawling toward her.

Wendy stared at her with those dead eyes.

Diane found no recognition in them.

Only hunger.

Diane let her eyes close and gave up fighting. She let out a deep cry and slammed her fist on the ground, failing to stay conscious.

This is how it ends, she thought. My God! This is unbearable! Please… please God… let it be quick.

She could hear Wendy approach… growling… panting… gone.

From behind them, someone was frantically attempting to unlock the lab door.

Wendy grabbed at her feet and pulled until she was on top of the hunter.

At least you’re not here, my love, Diane thought. I couldn’t stand to watch you die… not like this. And you won’t have to see what happens next.

Diane felt the probing hands of her dead friend reaching toward her neck.

Those cold hands.

The door to the lab opened.

Footsteps.

Wendy had Diane’s throat in her hands.

The hunter refused to open her eyes.

Wendy opened her mouth to feed.

A single gunshot resounded in the lab.

Diane felt Wendy’s hands relax… and then depart her throat.

Can’t… do it… can’t fight it… anymore.

The hunter lost consciousness…

~~~

Briana loaded her handguns with the remaining rounds from her pockets. The six-cylinder revolvers were still hot, but her fingers moved with such practiced efficiency that she barely noticed the burn marks on the tips of her fingers. Her sweaty black hair hung over her face, sticking to the smeared white paint on her cheeks.

She stared out from the second-floor balcony of Candyman’s trailer, into the courtyard. Her remaining ten Lunatics formed a horseshoe pattern in front of the trailer. They were all armed with assault rifles aimed out toward the courtyard, ready to destroy anything that moved into the area.

Briana stared at the blood-soaked ground enclosed by the glorified trailer park. The front of every trailer was splattered red like a bad paint job or some prank on Hell Night. Except this was not a prank… and that was not red paint.

“Relax,” came the foolish man’s voice from behind her. “Everything is under control.”

Briana turned. Candyman was sitting on the edge of his ridiculously large bed wearing a turtleneck and sipping on a glass of vodka. He simply sat there staring at one of his stupid city scene paintings on the wall.

Briana could still hear the screams of the living mixed with the howls of the dead riding on the warm breeze that offered no relief. “We shouldn’t be here,” she said. “The only reason we’re not dead yet is because those yellow-eyed assholes hit this area first.”

“We will be fine,” he assured her in his ‘way too calm’ voice. “Clearly the numbers of the dead were greatly exaggerated.”

Briana laughed and shook her head. “Are you trying to convince me… or yourself?”

“I don’t appreciate your tone.”

“Okay,” she said, staring back out at the courtyard. She didn’t like what she wasn’t hearing anymore. The sound of Lunatic gunfire throughout the town had diminished. Now, there was only the occasional gunshot resounding around New Cleveland, which sounded more like the last worthless efforts of scattered Lunatics either firing their final rounds into the dead before being consumed… or ending their own lives. “New Cleveland’s lost,” Briana announced, more to herself than anything else. Surprisingly, the admission didn’t bother her too much.

“That’s not the kind of talk I expect from the head of my security force,” Candyman cautioned. “Put your fear in check before the men see it on your ridiculous face.”

Briana turned back and laughed. “Come on! Seriously? Can’t you hear the obvious? Hell… even the screams of the living are starting to die down. Pretty soon all we’re going to hear is the dead chomping down on a bunch of corpses like a bunch of feral dogs roaming the streets. New Cleveland’s full of ghosts and monsters now. We need to get back into that fucking tunnel and get the hell out of here.”

Candyman glared at her from the bed. After evacuating the lab with thirty men, they emerged from the secret tunnel beneath an unused trailer with a hatch build into the floor, several blocks from the courtyard. The tunnels were the primary means Candyman used to get around town unseen, but it was also the unofficial escape route. After fighting their way through packs of the dead and losing two thirds of their forces in the process, they finally arrived at Candyman’s courtyard and secured the area. “I’m not giving up my damn town!” he snapped at her. “So, get you head on straight and do your fucking job!”

“The town’s gone!” she fired back. “We’re probably all that’s left. How long do you think it’s going to take for those men outside to figure that out and bail on us?”

“They wouldn’t dare,” he said.

She smiled. “If I’m considering it… then I know they are, too.”

Candyman stood up. “You leave. I’ll have you executed. When order is restored, there will be nowhere you can hide that I won’t find you… eventually.”

Briana aimed her guns at him. “I could just shoot you dead right now. No one downstairs will say anything. And there won’t be anything left of your body by sundown in the way of evidence. Those critters like to eat as they go, if you haven’t noticed.”

Candyman continued to stare at her with an intensity that Briana still found unnerving. “I want you to remember who led us out of that fucking mess Downtown when we were all alone in that prison. The odds were against us then, too. No one gave a damn about us when the world fell apart… they just left us to rot… remember?”

“Yeah,” she said, lowering her guns. “I remember.”

“And who got us out?”

“You did.”

“That’s right,” he said. “When we fought our way out of the prison, when several of the other inmates wanted to just run, I went back to free the rest of you in Women’s Detention. I was the one who kept the others from losing their shit.”

Briana looked away.

“If not for me, you would’ve rotted away in a cell like forgotten leftovers in the back of the fridge with the dead hovering around your cage. Do you think this chaos is any different?”

She nodded. “Okay. I hear you. But what do we do now?”

Candyman smiled. “Do you really think I haven’t prepared a contingency plan for something like this? Knowing how fragile our arrangement is with those monsters out at Mosquito Creek, do you really believe I haven’t planned for this?”

Briana gave him a curious look.

“Why do you think I wanted us to come here… hmm?” he said.

She shook her head. “I don’t know. I thought it was stupid at the time. There’s several places we could’ve gone that are easier to defend.”

Candyman smiled. “Consider what we’ve learned from earlier this morning.”

Briana rolled her eyes. “Let’s not. Why don’t you just speak plainly for once.”

“Okay,” he said. “I’ll put it another way. Was the dynamite used to blow up the theater smuggled in from outside… or was it already here?”

She raised her eyebrows.

“That’s right,” he said. “Now, where do you suppose the rest of that dynamite is?”

Briana was catching on. She looked down and smiled. “That’s why we came back here!”

“Yes,” he said with a smile, taking a sip from his drink. “I’ve rigged the courtyard with enough explosives to blow up half of New Cleveland—everything on the south side of the lake.”

She nodded with a smile. “That’s why you didn’t run. You want to blow those fuckers up and solve our Mosquito Creek problem… permanently.”

“Yes,” he said. “Losing half the town is a hefty price to pay… but we can rebuild again… and make this place better.” He stepped up to a large painting on the wall beside his bed. It was a picture of several dogs playing poker in a smoke-filled casino. Candyman grabbed the sides of the painting and removed it from the wall, revealing a safe with a combination dial. He started turning the dial. “I’ve been aware of certain threats since the beginning. Long before our arrangement with those monsters attacking the town, I had another arrangement… with the Shadow Dead. They’re the reason we have this town… and they’ve never given up control of it. I’ve always known they’ve been here, watching from the shadows, and reporting back to their masters. So… when our original scavenger parties discovered a rather large supply of explosives in a mine, I took advantage of it.” There was a loud click. Candyman opened the safe.

Briana stepped inside for a better view. She could see what looked like some large lit-up stereo. Candyman picked up a remote control sitting on top of it.

Briana nodded. “You originally thought the Shadow Dead were coming back… and you were ready to blow up half the town if they invaded.”

“Yes, and when they didn’t come back… I let my guard down.” Candyman turned with the remote.

“That’s why that Alysa bitch freaked you out so much,” Briana said. “You thought they were finally coming back and she was their first spy.”

“No, not the first. I’m certain of it. But Alysa confirmed that they were here all along.”

Briana laughed. “So, this ‘explosive’ plan of yours has become a ‘kill two birds’ scenario, is that right?”

“Precisely,” he said. “I’ve since considered the possibility that Mosquito Creek would violate the truce, regardless of our deal. And if they did, I imagined something like this happening. So, now… we’ll purge the town of Mosquito Creek and the fucking Shadow Dead infiltrators in one big… Ka-Boom.”

“But… the dead are everywhere. How are you going to get them all to come here?”

Candyman smiled, pointed the remote at the stereo, and then clicked a button. Moments later, the sound of trumpets started blaring from the elaborate sound system.

“What the fuck?” Briana said, turning back toward the balcony. From all around the courtyard, from beneath every trailer, the same song with a trumpets intro started blaring.

The Lunatics below stared around in confusion.

“It’s Ring of Fire, Candyman said with a wicked smile as the voice of Johnny Cash resounded across the courtyard. “Appropriate, don’t you think?”

Briana looked around in alarm. “Shit,” she said. “A little warning would’ve been nice.”

“Time to go,” Candyman said.

“Go? Go fucking where?”

“Signal your men to come in. We haven’t much time. The song’s not that long and I expect the dead will arrive before the finale.” Candyman started downstairs.

Briana stared at the man in shock, then looked down at her Lunatics from the balcony.

They all gave her confused shrugs.

She shook her head at them and then waved them inside.

Downstairs, Candyman was dancing to the chorus of the song, his vodka glass in one hand, the remote in the other. He stepped up to the coffee table in front of his favorite chair and then pushed it forward with one foot until the tacky ‘70’s style area rug beneath was clear.

Briana and the others stood near the door watching the courtyard and Candyman. They could all hear the rising screams of the dead drowning out the song. They were coming.

“What the fuck are we doing?” Briana said, trying to stay calm and failing.

Candyman threw his vodka glass against the wall, then grabbed a corner of the carpet and rolled it back, revealing a hatch door leading beneath the trailer. He reached for a handle and then pulled up the hatch revealing a rope ladder descending into the darkness. He turned back and said. “I’d understand if you wanted to stay and hear the rest of the song… it’s a classic… but I recommend you stop standing there and follow me.”

“Follow you where?” Briana said, her head spinning from the doorway back to Candyman. By the sound of it, the dead would storm the courtyard in minutes.

Candyman smiled. “Come and see. There’s not really any time to explain.” He disappeared into the hatch.

Briana and her men followed the leader of New Cleveland into the darkness. The last Lunatic closed the hatch behind him.

~~~

Next Episode 52-10

Previous Episode 52-8

~~~

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 :)

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 52-9: Sodom” 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.

~~~

Nine had never seen anything like it. The dead started pouring over the top of the walls like flood water. The scattered Lunatics who had stood their ground along the perimeter were overwhelmed in moments. The sound of frantic rifle fire was replaced by horrendous screams as the yellow-eyed demons violently ripped into the face-painted soldiers, tearing their limbs from their bodies and feasting on the remains like wild dogs fighting over unattended turkeys on Thanksgiving. While the first rank of the dead fed on the soldiers, the second, third, and fourth ranks spilling over the walls stormed toward the crowded streets.

And more kept coming over the walls.

Panicked citizens went insane with fear as they trampled over one another, screaming and shouting, but having nowhere to run due to the large crowds congesting the streets.

Nine had made it as far as the eastern end of the marketplace district when the gunfire started. He’d been driven by an irrational compulsion to locate Diane, but had no idea where to begin, so he’d searched every face in the crowd, hoping he’d see her… or any of his friends.

When the dead arrived, he was turned back around by the frenzied crowd running north and west to get away from the main entrance into New Cleveland from the south.

After clearing the walls, the yellow-eyed beasts invaded the town, seeming to strike out at the living from everywhere.

Nine did all he could just to stay afloat in the center of the manic crowd.

The dead were not only slaughtering unfortunate citizens caught at the outer edges of the crowd, but they were also using the crowd as concealment to avoid being shot down by Lunatics high up on the coaster. The blood-thirsty savages maneuvered in smaller packs, moving in and out among the sheep and disappearing down alleyways and barging into storefronts.

Nine was shoved and assaulted repeatedly by terrified citizens just trying to get away and was pushed into an alley by the scattering crowd. He was knocked down in front of a trailer as several feet kicked him in the face, stepped on his hands and legs—someone even jumped on his back. The young man, with the wind knocked out of him, had managed to roll beneath the trailer crawlspace. As he attempted to breathe, Nine saw frantic feet running by, as well as filthy and bloody bare feet accompanied by the raw inhuman groans of hunger as the dead lashed out at the living. He watched bodies fall in bloody heaps as more citizens trampled over the corpses to get away. Nine moved as far back beneath the small trailer as he could.

A woman suddenly fell in front of the trailer, turned, and saw Nine hiding. To Nine she looked half-dead already. The woman’s face was bloody. Patches of her long brown hair had been ripped out. But it was her eyes—her large bulging eyes—that captured the woman’s terrifying plight from the dead. Nine had a chilling thought: All our eyes will look like that before the end of the day… recording each of our unspoken horror stories as we lie dead in our own blood.

Nine waved a shaky hand toward the woman. “Come on!” he whispered. “Get in here before they see you!”

The woman seemed unresponsive at first, on the verge of either crying or screaming… or both. Then she started to crawl beneath the trailer.

Nine reached out his hands to her. “Come on! Hurry!”

The woman reached for his hands.

Something grabbed the woman’s legs and forcefully dragged her out from beneath the trailer.

Nine could do nothing but listen to the woman’s chilling screams as three dead savages tore the woman to pieces in front of the trailer. Two ran off after the crowd and one stayed behind to feed, slowly dragging the woman’s corpse behind it.

Nine could see the woman’s eyes before she was gutted.

Her dead, horrific eyes.

The screams from the living mixed with the cries of the dead continued. They were too much. Nine closed his eyes and covered his ears, bringing his legs up to his chest beneath the small space like a frightened child.

He started to wonder what story his dead eyes would tell by the end of that bloody day.

~~~

“What the fuck are you talking about, Brianna? ‘Leave the city’? I will do no such thing!” Candyman was irate.

The Lunatic leader was frantic. “You don’t get it! You haven’t seen what’s happening up there! It’s a fucking blood-fest!”

Candyman collected himself and ran a hand through his slicked-back hair. “Accompany me to my trailer,” he told her.

Briana laughed. “You’re fucking kidding, right? Have you not-”

“Say one more word about abandoning your post… or suggesting I do the same… and I’ll have your fucking head. Are we clear?”

Briana raised an eyebrow and put her hands to her hips. “Okay… but we could get out right now-”

“Are we clear?” Candyman’s face left no room for debate.

The Lunatic gunslinger threw her hands in the air. “Fine! You wanna go see the show for yourself? Let’s go, then.”

“How many men do we have available?”

“As many as you still have down here,” she answered, leading Candyman and his two Lunatic escorts out of the lab.

Briana turned back and stared at the sedated prisoners lying on the floor and barely hanging on to consciousness. “Want me to execute them?”

Candyman turned back, stared into their faces, and then frowned like a sulking child robbed of his playtime. “No,” he said. “Just leave them here and lock the door.” He smiled and finished, “They’re dead already.”

~~~

They’re dead already.

Sergeant Hash could still hear Candyman’s final words echoing through his skull long after the madman departed. Every part of him wanted to give up—just close his eyes and embrace a permanent sleep. But he refused to give the prick the final words… even if they were true.

Move, you soft little bitch! After everything you’ve been through down here, a fucking sleeping pill’s going to be your end? I don’t think so.

It took incredible effort, but the tortured man sat up. He focused on his fading friends.

“Hey,” he meant to shout, but it came out as a whisper. “Hey! Wake the fuck up!” A little louder that time.

He saw the big man stir from the prone position and turn his head. “Still here,” Tony whispered.

Hash nodded. He looked at Diane.

She’d managed to maintain a kneeling position, resting her head on the floor. She raised her only hand… slightly… but enough to let him know that she, too, was not done yet.

“Good on both of you,” Hash said. “Now keep your damn eyes open. If we die… you want to look Death in the eyes. Remember that.”

He looked over at Wendy. She was still sitting up, her head tilted forward and resting on her chest. The girl hadn’t said a word or moved since receiving the sedative. “Hey! Wendy! Get up! You don’t get to check out… not after you just murdered a man in cold blood.”

His words struck hard, as intended. Wendy partially opened her eyes.

“There you go,” he said. “Welcome back. Now… stay awake. You don’t get to sleep that guilty conscience away. Trust me… I’ve been trying for years.”

Wendy opened her mouth to speak but nothing came out.

“It’s okay,” Hash said, shaking his head to fight the tidal wave of exhaustion multiplied by the sedative. “You don’t have to say anything, little lady. Just… just try to hold on.”

She was staring at him now. Her eyes revealed a defeated young woman who was ready to die. Hash knew that faraway stare very well. He’d seen the same on so many survivors’ faces the first few months after escaping the power plant.

They’re dead already.

The words reminded him of how very little time they had left.

One of them was going to turn. It didn’t matter who. But it did matter that they face it… together.

Tony and Diane understood this as much as he did. But the young woman… she was checking out early.

“Wendy,” he said, noticing the girl starting to slip away again.

She opened her eyes.

“You asked if God can forgive you… for what you’ve done. Well, I can’t speak for the Big Man… but I forgive you.”

She continued to stare.

Hash closed his eyes and then forced them back open. “I’ve killed a lot of people… and I’ve been paying for it ever since. But you… It’s not too late for you. You still feel that horrible rotting pain in your heart from a single regrettable action. You’re already paying for what you’ve done… suffering for it… But you can still turn this around.”

“I forgive… forgive you, Wendy,” Tony said.

“Me, too,” Diane said.

“See?” Hash said, with a laugh. “If they can forgive you, and I can forgive you… then all you have to do is forgive yourself.”

Wendy closed her eyes.

“And I bet,” Hash continued, “that the Big Man has already forgiven you. You just don’t feel… forgiven… not yet. But you will.”

Hash stopped. Shit, maybe I needed to hear that, too.

“Wendy?” Tony said. “Stay with us.”

The young woman’s eyes stayed closed.

Diane managed to turn herself around She attempted to kick the girl next to her, but only brushed against her shoe. “Wake up,” she said.

Nothing.

Diane tried to kick her again. She hit Wendy in the leg.

Wendy’s eyes shot open.

They were black as night.

~~~

Nine had no idea how he was still alive. He just continued to keep moving, following the closest path of the dead that had stormed through the alleyways leaving a massacre of blood and screams in their wake. He’d pushed down each narrow street until the alarming sounds of fleeing citizens approached, and then he’d rushed into whatever broken down doorways were closest and hid within structures already ravaged by the dead until the sounds of panic were replaced by more screams. He waited in agony as the yellow-eyed monsters hunted the living, selfishly grateful that it wasn’t him each time.

Every sound threatened to betray his position. From the frantic footfalls of the living trying to pull together in small groups, to the moans and groans of the savage dead consuming the flesh of the slain—even his own rapid heartbeat threatened to give him away at every turn.

He cut through destroyed buildings, exited shattered windows, sprinted down exposed alleys until reaching the next structure, barely avoiding notice each time as the dead spread their violence and bloodshed all over New Cleveland with a fresh coat of fatal crimson.

At one point, he’d hid between two large tractor trailers as a horde of the dead rushed past his position, dragging ripped apart corpses behind them like game hunters collecting their spoils. Nine noticed this trend throughout the town. The dead would slaughter and claim their kills while the rest continued to hunt, leaving nothing behind.

They won’t let them turn, Nine had thought. They’re devouring them as soon as the living go down… or they’re ripping them to pieces… to save for later. The thought chilled him to the core. He’d seen this pattern again and again out in the world. The yellow-eyed haters never wasted anything… and their appetite for human flesh bordered gluttony and was the reason why they hunted and consumed continuously until they were full, and finally went dormant.

Nine’s last thought motived him to move with more urgency: How long does it take to fill the bellies of five-thousand monsters?

After pressing his luck for over an hour, Nine found himself at the back door of Ollie’s Oasis. The door was wide open.

Wendy?

The move was futile. She had to be long gone by now, captured… or dead already. But he had to know. Besides, he was exhausted and Nine needed somewhere he could rest for longer than a few minutes while he tried to figure out his next move.

The weary young man rushed toward the back door, waiting to be jumped by the dead at any moment. He made it inside and quickly closed the door. Before turning, he shook his head at his own stupidity and slowly opened the door, leaving it the way he found it.

Keep it looking like they’ve already hit the place, dumbass, he scolded himself.

He turned around. The backroom of Ollie’s was a mess. Barrels were overturned, shelves tipped over, and the stale smell of beer permeated the air. He stepped forward into the gloomy space as light from outside spilled in from the open door and between cracks in the walls, helping him to identify the shadows lurking all around him. So far, the bar was empty.

When he exited the backroom and entered the bar, he was astounded by the brutality and destructive level of the savages. The long bar counter had been completely tipped over. There were broken bottles and glass scattered across the floor. Bloody tables and chairs were overturned and shattered. The walls were streaked in blood. Toward the back, the dancefloor looked like someone had splattered mutilated human organs all over it.

But again, no bodies.

The horror show made Nine gag and cover his mouth.

A lot of people died in here, he thought. They thought they were hiding… and then became lunch.

Nine fell to one knee. He felt faint, fatigued, and overwhelmed by a sudden wave of hopelessness. “We’re all going to die in this All-You-Can-Eat buffet,” he whispered without his usual humor.

From one of the back corners of the bar, he heard something shift from behind what looked like a pile of overturned tables.

Nine saw a broken bottle and grabbed it. He slowly rose to his feet and stared into the dark corner. If that’s even one of those fucking things… I’m dead. “Who’s… Who’s in here?” he dared to raise his voice.

No response.

From outside he heard a muffled woman’s scream from close by, causing him to duck.

A chair fell over making him jump.

He turned back toward the dark corner. “Whoever’s back there, you better speak up and let me know you’re human… or I’m gonna light this bar up right before I leave.”

“Alright,” someone hissed, raising their hands from behind a table. It was a man’s voice. “We just had to make sure… make sure you were… one of us.”

Nine raised the bottle threateningly. “Who is ‘we’?”

A man, along with three other men, and two women stood up from a makeshift hiding space from the back of the bar. The first man continued to speak, “We… we were just hiding. Please… either get the hell out of here… or come back and join us.”

A woman spoke up in a terrified voice. “They’re going to see you standing there… or smell you… or whatever they do… and then they’ll find us, too.”

Nine considered the woman’s words, lowering the bottle. “Were you all here when they attacked this place?”

“No,” another man said. “We just came in like you and saw the door open. We thought they might not come back in here… you know… a second time.”

Nine nodded, still trying to make out the figures in the back of the bar. “Any of you armed?”

“Hell, no,” a third man said. “Only Lunatics have weapons. All we’ve got is our wits.”

Nine thought he recognized the third man’s voice.

“Did you leave the door open?” the second woman asked. “If they see it closed, they’ll know someone’s in here. That’s what they’ve been doing to mark off the places they’ve already searched.”

“They’re smart,” the first man said, “and organized. No one’s ever seen the dead act like this before.”

Nine nodded. “I agree. They’re even cleaning up as they go… taking the dead with them to make sure they don’t leave anyone infected behind.”

“That’s well and good, but how about you stop flapping your jaws out in the open, and either leave or get the hell out.” The third man again.

Nine frowned. He now knew who that voice belonged to.

“Mike?” he said. “Mike from the casino?”

At first the man didn’t answer.

“I know the sound of your asshole voice anywhere,” Nine continued. “That’s you, isn’t it?”

“Fuck… me,” Asshole Mike said. “Of all the people I could get stuck with… this damn day just went from bad to worse.”

Nine didn’t move. He felt his hand get tighter around the bottle neck. “She’s dead… but I don’t suppose that surprises you.”

“Huh?” Mike said. The others standing around him were getting anxious as Nine watched him make calming gestures with his hands. “As usual, I don’t have a fucking clue what you’re talking about?”

“Joe!” Nine snapped, no longer caring how loud he was getting. “You know… the girl you turned in… the one hanging from your fucking roller coaster!”

“Look,” said the first man. “Please… you’re being too loud. I don’t know what beef you have with this guy. But we’re just trying to stay alive here.”

The first woman started to weep. “They’re going to hear you,” she said through tears, making Nine settle down.

He looked around the bar and shook his head. Stay cool, he thought to himself. They’re right. You’re going to get them all killed if you don’t calm down. “Okay,” Nine said, returning to a milder voice. “Sorry. I’m coming over.”

“Hurry,” the first woman said. They were all waving him back anxiously… except Asshole Mike.

Nine reached the corner and shot Mike a menacing look.

The card shark just frowned and nodded his head.

“Hey,” the first man said, gaining Nine’s attention. He was an older man with grey hair. “What’s it like out there? Are they… are they moving away from this area?”

Nine shook his head. “They’re everywhere. I barely made it here.”

The older man looked to a short plump woman with brown hair tied up in a bun and whispered, “Relax.” He then went back to Nine. “My name’s Fred, this is my wife, Greta. We’re merchants that just arrived two days ago.”

“Sorry for your bad timing,” Nine said.

“Yeah,” Fred said. “Anyway, we ran into Harold, John and Missy in the middle of all this madness.” He pointed to two middle-aged men and a tall blond-haired woman who looked like a soccer mom. “And I guess you already know Mike.”

Nine glared at the card shark then looked away. “Yeah. We’re acquainted.”

“Anyway, we were trying to get back to our vehicles at the south gate but it’s a slaughterhouse down there. So, we ran… and somehow made it here. We’ve been hiding out, waiting for the dead to move on.”

Nine looked at their ridiculous hiding spot. They’d turned two bigger tables on their sides, leaving a rectangular crawl space behind them, and piled debris around them. “How long do you intend to wait here?”

“You heard the man,” Asshole Mike said. “After the dead are done in this area, we’ll make our next move.”

“Which is?”

They all looked at each other with uncertainty.

“That’s what I thought,” Nine said. “Look, you can’t stay here. They’ll figure out you’re here eventually.”

Fred sighed. “We’ve been out of New Cleveland more than most around here… me and Greta… and we’ve seen all sorts of strange shit out there, including a handful of these yellow-eyed devils. But they’ve never acted like this before.”

Nine nodded. “I… me and my people… we’ve seen them acting differently on our way here. I think they’ve evolving and getting smarter. The ones we encountered even had a woman zombie leading them.”

“Bullshit,” Mike said.

The sound of distant gunfire caught their attention.

Fred continued, “This woman zombie… are you talking about the ‘Alpha’ we’ve heard about?”

Nine shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know anything about that. The woman, her name was Helen, she’s dead now—I mean, dead for real. But she was leading them at the time… if that’s what you want to call it. Anyway, they were acting a lot smarter back then. Who knows what they’re capable of now.”

Fred nodded. “So… they won’t just leave when they’ve… eaten? They usually keep moving after they feed. At least, the ones we’ve come across.”

“I don’t think they have any intention of leaving,” Nine said. “That’s an army out there. They’ll probably make this place the next spot they go dormant in… after they’ve eaten everyone in this damn town.”

“What… what do we do then?” the blond woman said.

“We can’t stay here, hiding behind a few flimsy tables,” Nine said. The smell of that piss-poor beer spilled all over the back room is what’s keeping them away for now… but they will catch your scent, eventually. We need to keep moving and find a way out of here.”

“No,” Mike said. “We’re better off staying put. The dead have already been here. I say we just wait this out. Candyman’s going to restore order. You’ll see.”

Nine ignored him. He focused on Fred. “You’ve been out there. So have I. Don’t listen to this institutionalized prick. He’s already responsible for the death of a young girl… a friend of mine. I’m telling you, if you stay, you’re all going to die in this shitty bar. New Cleveland is gone.”

Fred nodded. “He’s right,” he told the others. “We should get out of here.”

The others looked split on what to do.

Nine shook his head. “I’m headed for the Harper’s Run,” he told them. “There’s an access door at the top, leading below the ride. I’m almost certain there’s an exit out of town down there. If nothing else, it’s probably safer getting underground then staying up here. I remember a ladder they used to bring us back down after the Run.”

“Can we get to it?” another man asked.

“Hell, no, we can’t get to it!” Mike protested. “This guy’s going to get us killed! Harper’s Run is a death trap! We’d have to cut back through the casino pavilion to reach it… and that’s completely exposed.”

“We can move up around the lake, follow the shoreline, and come at Harper’s Run directly from the east,” Nine said. “All we have to do is go north and get the hell off these streets and into the fields on the other side.”

“It’s suicide!” Mike said. “This fucker’s trying to get us killed so he can take our spot! There’s nothing at Harper’s Run but death! That door he mentioned… I know it… it leads down to Candyman’s secret lab! It’s heavily guarded and full of monsters!”

“Did you just say something about a lab?” Nine asked.

“Yeah… I know things… more than I should… but that’s Candyman’s lab under that damn ride. We’ve no business messing around down there.”

Nine smiled. How about that. This asshole might have just told me where my friends are.

“Fuck your damn spot, you can have it!” Nine hissed. “You just don’t want to die alone, which is what you’re asking these people to do by staying here with you. Maybe you should stay here. When the dead find you, that might buy the rest of us a little time to get away.”

Mike was about to speak, then remained silent, running out of argument.

“Give us a minute,” Fred implored.

Nine nodded.

The others stepped aside and were talking among themselves.

Asshole Mike remained where he was. He was glaring at Nine.

Nine leaned in and said, “I don’t know if you intended on getting that girl strung up on that fucking coaster, and if I thought you did, I’d shove this glass into your throat right now.”

Mike shifted uncomfortably, looking over at the others.

“All I know is that you killed that little girl. That’s on you, you fucking worthless piece of shit!” Nine hissed. “Say one more word to scare these people into staying here, and I’ll throw you the fuck outside for bait.”

“You wouldn’t dare,” Mike said. “You’re not that kind of person. You’re the kind of moron that gets himself entered into a death race to save a worthless girl’s life. You’ve got some kind of stupid hero complex or something. Regardless, people like you can’t hurt people like me… and live with themselves afterwards.”

Nine smiled like the devil. “Push me, and we’ll see if you’re right. You want to bet on it, asshole? Go ahead. But I swear to you, say one more word to keep these people here, and I will drag your ass outside, then stab you in the leg so you can’t run. The dead will hear you scream, because that’s what bitches like you do, and when they’re munching on your flesh, we’ll use your death to get away.” Nine stood back and smiled. “I guess that would make you the hero, sacrificing his life to save the rest of us. I like the irony in that.”

They others were coming back. Mike could already tell what they’d decided. He shook his head at Nine. His face was beat red. “You’re going to get us all killed,” he hissed.

“Hopefully, just you,” he said with a wink.

~~~

Next Episode 52-9

Previous Episode 52-7

~~~

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 52-8: Sodom” 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.

~~~

Mid-morning in New Cleveland. For ten long life-altering seconds, not one disgruntled citizen exchanged an angry word among the mobs that had been forming since the explosion. No one was pushing or shoving another in frustration. There were no tears brought on by uncertainty or from the loss of loved ones arrested or now hanging high above their heads. There were no outspoken voices in the streets—once whispers in the alleys—spreading fear and discontent. And there was certainly no shopping being conducted in the busy marketplace district. Business-as-usual had just been obliterated.

From one crowded corner to the next, heads turned in all directions, looking toward the sky as if it were about to collapse upon their heads. The most terrifying sound anyone had ever heard echoed down the streets.

New Cleveland went suddenly silent for ten chilling seconds.

When the chorus of more than five-thousand yellow-eyed haters of Mankind ceased, New Cleveland fell into chaos. Citizens started running everywhere, seeking shelter from what could only be described as… The End.

In the middle of the panicked crowd, Nine was nearly trampled to death as he managed to get to his feet and was pushed forward for several blocks and then off toward the right of the street, where he was slammed against a closed storefront wall. He managed to crawl into the front door alcove, avoiding being swept back up into the rushing crowd and overwhelmed by the raging river of terrified humanity.

He looked around for the Lunatic patrol that had attempted to seize him before the audible nightmare, but they were gone. He raised his head and noticed several Lunatics up in their phone booth sized lookout stations, high up on the rollercoaster, scanning the walls of New Cleveland with binoculars. Several of them were shouting across to other stations. Lunatics were frantically moving along the makeshift bridges built along the tracks, relaying communications via messengers. From what he could observe, it was clear the panic had reached them, too.

Nine was still in shock. His body was banged up, bloodied and bruised from the manic crowd. His mind and heart felt useless. The beyond exhausted young man sat down in the alcove and closed his eyes, putting his hands over his face. He wanted to sleep and escape to a different dream in which his friends were not captured or dead and Diane would be there lying beside him, far from this horrible place, when he finally awoke.

Diane.

Nine opened his eyes. He didn’t care about the crowds, the Lunatic patrols, or the approaching monsters from Mosquito Creek. “I’ll find you,” he whispered. “I’m coming.” He forced his heavy limbs to move, rose to his feet, and found a break in the crowd. Nine stepped into the moving mass of citizens and pushed his weary legs to keep up, searching desperately for anything that might help him find Diane.

Don’t think about the rest, he thought. Put it away. Put all the damn pain away. Nothing else matters until you find her… or until someone or something finally kills you.

~~~

One Lunatic approached him with the syringe while the second kept his rifle raised. Tony yanked hard on the handcuffs binding his arms behind his back and to the ring along the wall. He stared at the first Lunatic and promised, “You come any closer with that thing and I’ll bite your fucking face off!”

The Lunatic holding the syringe stopped and looked back at Candyman.

The leader of new Cleveland sighed impatiently from his chair and rolled his eyes. “Aim the gun at the woman next to him,” he ordered.

The Lunatic holding the rifle aimed at Diane.

Tony turned to her and saw the fear and frustration in the hunter’s eyes.

“Now,” Candyman continued, as if instructing children, “if Tony doesn’t cooperate, shoot his friend.”

Diane turned to the one holding the syringe. “Stay the fuck away from him, asshole!” She tugged on the handcuffs binding her one arm to the ring.

“Diane,” Tony said calmly. “It’s okay.” He relaxed and glared at the Lunatic holding the syringe. “Do it,” he said. “Just lower the damn gun from my friend.”

She turned to him. “No… this isn’t okay!” She glared at Candyman. “You’re a fucking coward! Big man playing games! If your people saw you like this, they’d remove you immediately for the monster that you are!”

Candyman laughed. “Perhaps,” he admitted. “But don’t underestimate the power of a good illusion. Those… sheep… feel safe here. They feel protected. You might be surprised at how much they’d be willing to tolerate as long as they could remain within these walls.”

“Diane, look at me.”

She turned to Tony.

He smiled. “You’re one of the bravest people I’ve ever met. It’s been an honor fighting alongside you. I mean that.”

The Lunatic approached Tony’s right arm and injected him with the syringe.

Tony winced and closed his eyes as he felt the fluid enter his veins.

Tears started streaming down the hunter’s eyes. “This is bullshit!” she hissed.

The Lunatic stepped away to retrieve another syringe.

Tony opened his eyes. “I’m sorry I kept the truth from you about Taven. I’m sorry I didn’t trust you.”

“It’s okay,” she said, forcing a smile. “We’ve all made some bad calls in this place.”

The Lunatic returned with another syringe. It was Diane’s turn.

She didn’t fight it.

“I trusted Nadia,” she continued, keeping her eyes on the big man. “She gave us up.”

The Lunatic injected her with the syringe.

“You didn’t do anything wrong,” Tony assured her. “You took a chance on someone, someone who’s help we needed. I would’ve done the same. If we don’t try to trust people in this damaged world… well… then what’s the fucking point, right?”

She nodded, letting more tears fall.

“That was… touching,” Candyman mocked. “In your defense, Diane, Nadia is one of the best actors I know. She almost had me convinced once that she actually cared about me.”

Diane turned to the despicable man. “Go fuck yourself,” she said. “You’re going to get what’s coming. Maybe not today… but you will.”

Candyman’s face changed.

“You might manage to survive for a while, surrounded by your bullshit empire, but you’ve already lost anything that matters,” Tony added, refusing to look at the man.

“Well, that’s enlightening, coming from someone who will die in this room,” Candyman said.

“Yeah, but you’re going to die alone,” Tony said. He turned and smiled at the man. “There’s nothing worse than that.”

Candyman shot him a puzzled look.

The Lunatic with the syringe just injected Sergeant Hash. He put up no fight. He was staring at the pompous man in the chair. “I tried to tell him, Tony,” he said. “Trust me, this prick’s afraid of his own damn shadow… or the things hiding within them.”

Candyman turned to the good sergeant.

Hash winked at him with a smile.

Candyman wasn’t smiling.

Wendy had no reaction when the Lunatic approached her with the last syringe and injected her. She didn’t even look up as she stared despondently at the floor.

“You okay?” Tony asked her.

“No, Tony,” she said, slowly meeting his gaze. “I feel like… I feel like I’m already dead.”

The Lunatics returned to their leader. He whispered something to them, and they stepped back along the wall behind him. “Now,” he said. “We wait and see what happens!”

Tony took a deep breath. He scanned the exhausted faces of his friends. He closed his eyes for a moment and was startled to discover how hard he had to struggle to open them again.

~~~

The Lunatic leader stood on the upper level of the parking garage staring north over the wall. She held a pair of binoculars to her eyes and searched the area beyond an overgrown field that stretched out for a quarter mile, and into the outskirts of the abandoned suburbs. Briana waited impatiently for reports from the lookouts up on the coaster for any signs of movement in those dead neighborhoods. So far, aside from hearing what sounded like a massive build-up of the dead, no one had seen a fucking thing.

She lowered the binos and handed them to one of the twenty Lunatics arming up on the garage roof. “This is bullshit,” she hissed.

“Something, Boss?” the Lunatic taking the binos said.

Briana shook her head and stared at the face-painted man, making him avert his gaze immediately. “I said this is BULLSHIT!” she spat in his face. “Someone’s playing games with us out there, trying to get us all riled up.”

“Could be,” the man said. “What are you orders?”

Briana stared back out at the deceptively quiet rooftops and empty streets. “I should go the fuck out there and flush out whoever’s fucking with us,” she said. “This is probably some elaborate set-up designed to freak us the fuck out and get us unhinged.” She looked back at the Lunatic. “Are you freaked the fuck out, soldier?” she teased.

“No… I mean… maybe a little,” the man said.

Briana smiled at him. “Good answer, asshole. We should all be a little on edge… but not too much. Just tell the men to stay sharp. If anyone sees anything moving down there, especially in that open field, light ‘em up.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” the Lunatic said with a smile.

“Not get the fuck out of my face.”

The Lunatic departed with relief.

Briana sighed heavily, then reached into her leather coat and retrieved a cigarette. She lit it up and then stared back toward the houses.

With her cigarette hanging from her mouth, the Lunatic leader drew both her handguns, lightning fast, and aimed at the rooftops. She pretending to shoot each house. “Phew! Phew! Phew!” she whispered, sounding like a small child to amuse herself.

The other Lunatics watched her out of the corner of their eyes while setting up their weapons. They were accustomed to her crazy antics and gained confidence by the woman’s unaffected demeanor.

Briana lowered her aim toward the field. “Come on,” she whispered. “Please… something fucking move out there… anything!”

But there was nothing.

She smiled, blowing a puff of smoke out of her nose. “This if fucking stupid,” she said, holstering her guns. “Someone’s playing games,” she repeated to herself. Briana raised a gloved hand to retrieve her cigarette and stopped. Her hand was shaking. She quickly lowered it and then glared back toward the others to see if they were watching.

Not one Lunatic was staring.

She laughed and turned back toward the field. Calm down, bitch, she thought. Don’t let them see how fucking unnerved you are. She grabbed the cigarette from her mouth and tossed it over the roof. She immediately lit up another one.

The sound of two M-60 machine guns erupted from the south.

Briana dropped her cigarette and drew her guns.

All the Lunatics stopped and stared toward the southern entrance.

“It’s the front gate!” someone stated. “That’s the big guns!”

“No shit, moron,” she hissed, pushing her way through the Lunatics to the southern edge of the parking garage roof. She could see nothing. They were too far north.

Suddenly, other guns were going off to the east, near the woods at the edge of the lake.

More gunfire sounded to the west.

The rooftop Lunatics were coming undone.

“Keep your shit together, shitbags!” she ordered. Briana turned back to the north and pointed. “I want every one of you watching that fucking field to the north! So, get your heads out of you asses, grow a pair, and watch the fucking perim-”

Before she could finish, Briana gazed north into the field and gasped.

A moment before, she was staring at an empty field. Now… there were hundreds of them—men, women, children—sprinting across the field and toward the northern wall. They were already half-way across the field.

“What the fuck!” she whispered. She’d never seen so many of the yellow-eyed bastards all at once… or this organized. The beasts were not running scattered… but in single file rows to hide their numbers, hovering low in the tall grass to make themselves smaller targets.

They timed that shit perfectly! she thought. It’s like they waited… waited until we looked away… waited until we focused south… then charged!

From elsewhere along the north wall, gunfire was already going off.

Every time one of the savages went down, two more seemed to come out of the tall grass to replace it.

The dead would reach the wall in less than twenty seconds.

Where the fuck did they all just come from? The Lunatic leader was gripping the holsters of her handguns too tightly, causing her hands to shake.

Briana turned toward the rooftop Lunatics who had not moved. “What are you waiting for? Get over here and kill those dead fuckers!” she shouted at her confused and terrified soldiers. She raised her guns at them. “Don’t make me repeat myself! I’ll give you something to be afraid of fuckers! Do you hear me? Now get over here and kill something! Do it… DO IT NOW!”

~~~

“Tony!” Diane yelled.

The big man had just fallen over. He was sweating profusely, forcing himself to take big breaths. Tony struggled to keep his eyes open and attempted to get back up. “FUCK YOU!” he shouted into the air.

Candyman was laughing and applauding from his chair. “Bravo, Tony! Bravo! I must confess, the sedative dosage for your specific cocktail was doubled on my request. Damn! That shit would’ve knocked out a horse by now.”

Diane turned toward Candyman and shouted, “You’re fucking dead!” She yanked so hard on her restraint she nearly dislocated her shoulder attempting to reach the seated leader of New Cleveland. Suddenly, she felt dizzy. Her eyes started to close involuntarily. “Mother fuck-” She fell over, hanging from her chain.

“Stay awake, Diane!” Tony shouted. “Stay awake!”

The hunter shook her head violently and then bit herself in the arm. The pain ripped through her and make her scream… but it helped her fight the effects of the sedative a little longer.

Candyman stood up and laughed. “This is far more entertaining than I imagined.” He stared over at the good sergeant and then back over at Wendy. Both were still feeling no effects from their injections. “Looks like we have a couple of winners!” Candyman announced in his game-show voice. “It would appear that Tony and Diane have not been infected! Unless, of course, I’ve mixed sedatives in with this particular strain.”

Tony set his murderous gaze on Candyman. “You’re out of your fucking mind!” he shouted. The big man managed to sit up, let loose a frustrated cry, and then yanked against his restraints so hard that it looked like the ring on the wall was about to come loose.

Both Lunatics behind Candyman stepped up beside their leader, about to raise their weapons.

Candyman waved them off. “Relax, gentlemen,” he said. “You have to admire the man’s determination. Damn! Now I understand how you became the Champion of New Cleveland!”

“Fuck you… monster,” Tony spat, and then fell back down. The extra exertion on his system was catching up with him as the sedative started to win.

“Stay with me, Tony,” Diane said. “Just… stay…with…” She started to pass out.

Sergeant Hash nearly fell forward on his face. “Shit,” he hissed. “You’ll need to do better than that, asshole. I’ve had stronger drinks fail to take me down.”

Wendy started to nod off. She put up no fight.

Candyman nodded with satisfaction. “Yes… yes… I do believe the sedatives are working all the way around.” He turned toward one of the Lunatics and finished, “Now… hurry up and release the slack on their chains. I want them to be able to reach each other… especially when the lucky one turns.”

The Lunatic moved over to a winch along the wall and unlocked a lever. The sound of chains running slack through the rings behind them roused them all back to the edge of consciousness.

Tony and Diane both tried to move but it took all they had just to stay awake.

“Don’t bother trying to fight it, my friends,” Candyman said. “We’re almost there. Once you all go under, we should find out which one of you feels the effects of something much stronger than the sedative. In all our research, the only thing we’ve managed to do is slow down the infection rate by the heavy use of sedatives. But in all cases, the infection eventually wins.” He stood up. “One of you will turn and tear the others to pieces. I’m looking forward to sharing that experience with you… well… not the being ‘eaten alive’ part. Just know that I will be here to watch the look of shock and fear cross your faces when one of your own comes to end your pitiful existences. I can’t imagine who it will be worse for: The one who turns and then devours his or her friends… or being devoured. Either way, I shall enjoy this moment. And as you betrayed my trust… I will watch as your trust in each other is equally betrayed.” Candyman watched as all four contestants struggled to hold on. He shook his head and finished, “Now… as they say at the end of the final round-”

Just then, Briana burst into the room, looking terrified and out of breath. She was about to speak and then noticed the four prisoners on the floor.

“Briana?” he said, trying to stay calm. “Have you ever heard of knocking before entering a fucking room?”

She gave the leader of New Cleveland a disbelieving look. “I would’ve sent a messenger… but I need every gun I have… so I came myself. From the looks of it, you don’t have a clue what’s going on topside, do you?”

Candyman sighed and glared at her. “Can’t you see I’m in the middle of something? I said no interruptions until-”

“The fucking town’s under attack!” she said. “Haven’t you heard the fucking gunfire?”

“Excuse me?”

Briana stepped forward. “It’s Mosquito Creek… they’re here.”

Candyman’s face changed. “What do you mean ‘they’re here’?”

Briana shook her head impatiently and shouted, “All of them! And they’ve just breached the fucking city walls!”

~~~

Next Episode 52-8

Previous Episode 52-6

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 52-7: Sodom” 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.