Archive for the ‘drama’ Category

~~~

…Meredith is back in the grassy endless field. The storm is much louder. The winds are howling fiercely. The sky is frightening; dark ominous thunderheads hover so close as though they will fall upon her at any moment. The rain is falling erratically as gusts of wind spit it into her face.

“Meredith!”

She spins around—child and woman, past and present—wiping rain from her eyes.

It’s the young man, Toby… or what’s left of him. A thin, pale figure stands directly in front of her. His deteriorated shirt has been blown away by the wind exposing his frail frame. She can see his rib cage penetrating ancient flesh. The dead skin around his face is stretched thin. Most of his black hair is gone. His eyes are sunken in so deep that she thinks they’re gone. He raises a bony arm toward her and like before, he speaks without moving his lips. He speaks within her mind. But this time, Toby isn’t interested in leading her to the man behind the curtain, to the older version of himself strapped into machines behind the basement doll cabinets. The time for playing with dolls is over. “You are remembering,” he says.

“You’re not real!” she attempts to shout, unable to project her frightened child voice over the deafening wind. “You’re just a bad dream stuck in my head!”

The decrepit Toby flashes a black, rotting smile. “That would be easier for you, wouldn’t it, Meredith? To believe that I’m just some personified version of your darker self? That the evil released upon your pathetic little world begins and ends with you?”

“It’s the truth!” she shouts back.

“It’s the truth you desire so very badly that you’ve almost convinced yourself of it. But it’s just another lie, a way for your mind to stay hidden from me—a last line of defense against the inevitable.”

“No!” She shakes her head, hoping to wake from this dream, no longer a dream.

Toby points behind her, amused. “Watch it now. The truth comes for you… and it’s very hungry.”

As before, the emerald lion roars. It sounds like it is all around her.

She turns just as it pounces toward her with its sickening, hateful yellow fire for eyes.

Meredith screams and ducks down.

The lion bolts past her and jumps on Toby.

Meredith turns back.

Two more lions have joined the first, attacking from behind Toby.

She tries to move but her body feels like a large immovable stone. Meredith can only watch in horror as the three emerald lions rip what’s left of Toby to pieces. And while they do so, he is… laughing.

She screams but no sound escapes her mouth.

Each lion snatches a piece from the carcass and they run off, forgetting all about her.

Meredith senses something behind her.

She turns around and discovers the little porcelain doll with the head too big for her small body, standing in the grass. It speaks to her through frantic images assaulting her mind.

“What do you mean?” she shouts at the doll. “What do you want to show me? I don’t understand!”

Suddenly, the little doll’s facial expression changes into a sinister scowl. Like before, it opens its mouth, revealing bloody razors for teeth. She tries to move away but she can’t.

The doll’s face begins to crack like an egg. Pieces fall away until the true face beneath reveals itself.

Meredith tries to scream again.

It is now her face.

This time, she can hear it, whispering in her mind from the void. It speaks in multiple voices, threatening to drive her insane. It is Toby’s voice. It is the voice of her younger self. It is the voice of the old medium—all overlapping—but it is also the voice of the dark and awful truth. “It’s time, Meredith. It’s time to remember the rest. It’s time to remember all of it!”

And then it comes, like a thick, black tidal wave, crashing down on the shores of her fragile mind until she nearly drowns in a cold indifferent sea of remembrance…

~~~

… “Where… where am I?” Meredith’s thirteen-year-old voice sounds strange in her own ears. She realizes the reason very quickly as her senses strive to catch up. She isn’t hearing her own voice, not with her ears, but within her own mind. Everything around her is black, according to her useless eyes. She can’t even feel her arms when she attempts to move them. She imagines them moving in the darkness. “I’m here… and I’m not here,” the present version of herself deduces… assuming it is the present.

“Welcome back, Meredith.” It is another voice in her thoughts, but a child’s voice. “Do you know who I am?” the child asks.

“Toby?”

“Yes.”

“Where are we?” she asks. “I can’t see anything… I can’t feel or sense anything at all.”

“You know where we are, silly,” the child-like Toby teases. “Stop trying to be old… this is no place for old ladies. Kids only, remember?”

Of course, she does. Without understanding how, Meredith slips into her former self, becoming thirteen again, and allowing the missing memories to play out.

“That’s the way,” Toby says. “You can’t see me yet, not here, not like this.”

“Where are we?” she asks, embracing the child part of herself who is terrified of the darkness, but finds comfort in the boy’s voice. She is not alone.

“All the grown-up doctors, scientists, and blah, blah, blah, far from here, found this place. They called it something stupid… I forget what… doesn’t matter. They don’t understand it, but I do… and so will you.”

Meredith laughs at Toby’s words. It is a giddy laugh in response to the language of youth.

“Think of this place as a playground,” Toby says. “The biggest playground in the world… in the whole universe!”

Young Meredith snorts within the dark. “Some playground! I can’t even see it!”

“But you will,” Toby insists. “I’ll show it to you. But you have to keep it secret.”

“Like a secret club house?”

“Exactly like that,” Toby says with a laugh. “See! You get it already!”

“Show it to me, then,” she says. “Show it to me, now, or I’m going back.” She has no idea how to carry out the threat, but at thirteen, the stubborn power of a pout she imagines she’s flashing reinforces the threat.

“Okay, okay,” Toby says with a laugh. “Just don’t go. We had to meet first, is all. If I showed you too much all at once… it would blow your mind.”

The bragging young man has made an immediate impression. “I’m ready,” she insists. “Show me!”

“Okay,” Toby says. “But first, tell me where you want to go.”

“What?”

“The playground, silly. Tell me where you want it to be.”

“You can do that?”

“We can do anything in here, Meredith. Pick a place… any place. Maybe somewhere that always made you feel safe, or somewhere you’ve always wanted to-”

“The ocean,” she interrupts. “I’ve never been to the beach.”

“You’ve never seen the ocean? Really? That’s sad.”

“Can you take us there or not?” she whines.

“Fine, fine,” he says. “Close your eyes.”

“Why? I can’t see anything?”

“Just… do it, okay? I want to surprise you.”

In her mind, Meredith pictures herself closing her eyes.

“They closed?” Toby asks.

“You know they are.”

“Okay. I’m going to count to three. One… Two…

~~~

… Meredith can hear the screech of seagulls in the distance swallowed up by the rush of waves crashing against the shore. A warm gust of air strikes her face, blowing sand across her tightly closed eyes. The smell of salt water fills her nostrils. Sunlight penetrates her closed eyelids like someone slowly turning up a light in a dark room.

The young girl opens her eyes, breathing in warm ocean air as if it were the first time she’d drawn a breath. She is sitting on a large sand dune surrounded by tall reeds swaying in the ocean breeze. She shoves her hands into the soft white sand and laughs in disbelief. The ocean waves crash again against the shore somewhere in front of her. She can see it through the shifting reeds like an infinite blue line marking off the edge of the world. She follows that lavish blush line, realizing that it moves three-quarters of the way around her until disappearing behind a mountain.

“This is an island!” She marvels at the sound of her own bewildered voice. It is as real as everything else around her.

She slowly rises to her feet while the wind rustles her sundress at the base, revealing far too much leg. She starts to straighten her dress to avoid the inappropriate, then laughs at herself, realizing that she is miles away from anyone who would care. Her long black unbraided hair flows in all directions like a pile of lively snakes on her head. She laughs at that, too, imagining what Miss Evans might say at such an unseemly sight.

There is a vast white sand beach below her.

Someone is there, too far away to see clearly, but she knows it’s Toby. He appears to be building something in the sand.

Toby turns and sees her. He waves a beckoning arm toward her.

She smiles and starts climbing down the large dune. She has no idea where her shoes went but forgets about them as her feet sink within the warm sand, the mound slowly shifting beneath her feet, aiding in her momentum and excitement to reach the inviting beach.

As she approaches the young boy, Meredith is immediately drawn to what it is he is building. The sand sculpture towers above the boy. At first, she assumes it is a massive sand castle. But it looks nothing like a castle. She steps closer, walking in a wider arc to get a better view, and then stops. Her heart begins to race, her chest grows tight.

It is a lion.

“Don’t be afraid,” the young boy says, coming toward her. “It’s not like the scary green ones. Nothing can harm us here.”

Meredith looks toward the boy. He is neither the decomposing teen in the football jersey from her terrifying dreams, nor the older man strapped into the strange machines within the secret room behind the doll cabinets. Toby is much younger now. Perhaps ten. His shaggy, short and thick black hair blows atop his head. He is lean and a bit tall for his age, giving him a lanky appearance. Toby is shirtless, wearing red swim trunks. To Meredith, his tan complexion makes him look like he’s always been here. His deep blue eyes, as fathomless as the ocean, and his playful and excitable face, make him appear like a long-time adventurer in this kingdom of Sand and Sun.

If he were a bit older, she might consider him… cute… in a scruffy sort of way. She immediately blushes at the thought.

“You okay?” he asks.

“What?” she says.

Toby smiles. “The lion… if it frightens you… I could change it.”

“Oh, that,” she says, returning her attention to the sand sculpture. It looks exactly like one of the emerald lions from her dreams, minus the terrifying yellow eyes. “No,” she says. “It’s okay. It’s just sand. I was just shocked to see it.” She tries to put on a brave face, but its massive size, perfectly fit to scale, clearly upsets her.

“I made it for us,” Toby explains. “I thought… you know… by seeing it like this… we wouldn’t have to be afraid anymore.”

She gives him a puzzled look.

Toby smiles, then picks up two long sticks from the sand. “Maybe we could make a game out of it? You know, like we were-”

“Lion hunters?” she finishes, putting her hands to her hips.

Toby smiles, then rubs his head, embarrassed. “Something like that.” He hands her one of the sticks. “It might be fun.”

She stares at the stick in Toby’s hand. “You want me to… attack the sand lion… is that it?”

“Well… when you put it like that… it does sound lame.”

“You’re such a boy.”

“Forget it,” he says, dropping the sticks. He turns away. “I just thought it would cool. But I guess we could make a doll house or something girlie like that… won’t be as much fun but-”

Toby turns as Meredith picks up one of the sticks and then charges the sand lion with the stick raised over her head. She yells something unintelligible, then strikes the lion in the head, causing it to fall off in a clump.

The young boy stares at the headless lion, then falls to the sand, laughing. He points to her holding the stick like some Samurai warrior in a dress, then points to the headless lion. “That was… that was awesome!” he says between fits of laughter.

Meredith starts to giggle at the absurdity of what she’d just done. She stares at the headless lion, puts her hand to her mouth, and says, “I just broke your lion.”

This just makes Toby laugh harder.

She, too, loses it, then falls to the sand beside Toby, laughing uncontrollably.

After a few moments, Toby turns to her and says, “That was fun. I think you and I are going to get along legendary.”

She raises an eyebrow at him. “Legendary?”

“Yeah… I mean… I just watched you slay a lion!”

Meredith smiles. “I guess I did, didn’t I? I never did that before, sand lion or not.”

“Did you have fun?”

She crosses her legs in the sand and straightens her dress over her knees. “You know what… I think I did.”

“What to help me make another one?”

She stares into the excitable boy’s eyes, and nods. “Sure. But… how much time do we have?”

Toby gives her a strange look. “Time? Wow, you really don’t get this place, new girl.”

“I only just arrived… remember?”

“Fair enough.” The sandy boy stood to his feet. “Time doesn’t matter here, Meredith.”

“What does that even mean?”

Toby flashes her a clever smile. “You said you’ve never been to the beach before, right?”

“Yeah… but-”

“Then what are you waiting for?” He starts to walk toward the water.

“Where are you going?” Meredith gets to her feet.

Before she can inquire further, the young boy rushes toward the water, waving his arms like a complete idiot, and then jumps into the crashing waves. He shouts for her to come in.

Meredith looks at her dress, then shakes her head toward the foolish boy. She calls out, “I don’t even have a swim suit, you buffoon!”

He points at her from the waves and laughs.

Meredith’s eyes go wide as she looks down at her dress again. She is now wearing a modest one-piece swim suit made from the same material as her sundress.

“How?” she says, then immediately crosses her arms in front of her chest, realizing that the new suit fits snuggly over her slowly developing body.

“Come on!” Toby yells. “The water is awesome!”

Feeling foolish, and a bit too exposed in her new suit, Meredith shakes her head and rushes toward the water. “This is insane!” she says, stopping at the shore line and watching Toby dive into the waves. She is too excited to care about what she doesn’t understand about this crazy day. She laughs and lets the child within embrace the insanity, and then jumps into the ocean waves.

~~~

Meredith sits before the small camp fire as Toby absently tosses a piece of driftwood into it. She is mesmerized by the evening sun descending through the base of scattered clouds. To her young imaginative mind, the sun is setting the clouds ablaze on its way toward the ocean. The clouds’ bases have changed to brilliant red and orange.

A gust of wind blows her tangled hair across her face. She fights the temptation to fix it, then pulls her legs in, wrapping her arms around her sundress (no longer a bathing suit), covering her lower legs from the cool but comfortable evening breeze. Meredith is oblivious to the probing stare of the boy.

“You act as though you’ve never seen one of them either,” Toby says, breaking the silence.

Meredith smiles at him. “I’ve seen sunsets… but never like this. They’re so much different over the water.”

Toby turns to look at the dull reddish orb. “I suppose you’re right. I’ve seen so many here that I forget how beautiful they are.” He turns back to the girl. “This one’s different, though. I’m seeing it the way you do. Maybe sunsets, like everything else here, are better when you’re not alone.”

She gives him a strange look. “What do you mean? Didn’t we both just get here today?”

Toby laughs. “You still don’t get it. That’s okay, though. You’ll catch on.”

“Catch on to what?”

“After a while, you realize that things like ‘today’ and ‘tomorrow’ don’t really matter here. You just start losing yourself in the moment… and then none of the rest matters.”

“I don’t get you, Toby.”

He laughs. “That’s alright. I’m just grateful that you’re here. It’s nice to finally share this with someone.”

“And what is ‘this’?”

“It’s magic! This whole place is. We can be whatever we want to be here—do whatever we want.”

She laughs. “Like turning my sundress into a swim suit? Nice trick, by the way.”

“That wasn’t me. You did that all by yourself.”

“How did I do that?”

Toby shrugs his shoulders. “I don’t know. I think you really wanted to swim and then you just… changed your clothes so that you could. Sometimes it’s that easy here.”

“So, I thought about it… and then it just happened?”

“Something like that. Happens to me all the time. How do you think I made that sand lion so fast?”

“You… just thought about it… and it happened?”

“Yep. Just wait. In the morning I’ll show you all kinds of cool stuff we can do here. Just name it and we’ll create our very own adventures.”

“But… don’t we have to head back? Miss Evans will be upset if I’m not back soon.”

Toby shakes his head. “There you go again. ‘Soon’, ‘tomorrow’, ‘yesterday’, blah… blah… blah! None of that matters so you can’t be late for anything, or early. There’s just now… and we have plenty of that. The rest of it… all that ‘time’ junk… doesn’t matter. Think about it this way: In everything new we’re about to do together, treat it like we just arrived.”

“But we’ve been here for hours… or at least… it feels that way,” Meredith says. “I’ve had so much fun today, by the way.”

“Me, too.”

“And we’ve only just got here?”

“Exactly! Remember all those cool places you traveled to when you were young? Those days when you just lost track of time and didn’t realize how late it was until some adult came along and ruined it by saying, ‘It’s time to go, Meredith’?”

Meredith considers Toby’s words. She frowns and says, “I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere that I wasn’t in a hurry to leave.”

“Aww, that’s sad. There’s never been one place? Not one?”

“Well, there was this park when I was really young. I was having so much fun, then… it was just like you said, someone came along and ruined it.”

“Well, here, no one’s ever going to tell you to leave when you’re having that much fun.”

“Because we just arrived,” she adds excitedly.

“Yep.”

“But… what will we eat? Drink? There’s not even a bed here and I’m not sleeping all night in the sand!”

“Who said anything about sleeping out here?” Toby laughs. He pointed behind her. “We’ll sleep in the big old lighthouse behind you!”

Meredith turns around. Her jaw drops immediately. Further down the beach, about a half a mile, there was a peninsula of land she’d never noticed before. A tall lighthouse stood on the end of it.

She turns to Toby, her eyes as wide as saucers. “Did you-”

Toby claps his hands together. “You should see your face! Of course, I didn’t. I’m not that good. In all your excitement you just never noticed it before.”

Meredith gives him a skeptical look. “I don’t believe you. I would’ve noticed ‘that’!”

“You’d be surprised at what you overlook in this place. Trust me, I do it all the time.”

“But a lighthouse! That’s hard to miss.”

“And yet… there it is. And I bet you’ve never even been inside one, let alone slept in one before.”

She leans in and whispers, “We can do that?”

“Of course!”

“Can we… can we go all the way to the top?”

“We can even turn on the light… if you want,” he adds with a sly smile.

Meredith nods excitedly.

“Then let’s go,” Toby says, rising to his feet. “I bet we can find something to eat and drink in there, too. And if not, we’ll make pizza.”

“Pepperoni?”

He laughs. “Any kind you want. Though, I can’t stand the smell of anchovies. You want that, you’re eating outside.”

“Okay,” she smiles. “No anchovies.”

Toby rises to his feet and offers her his hand. “Shall we embark on one more adventure for the evening?”

She holds out her hand and lets the surprisingly strong boy help her to her feet. “Let’s do it!”

Together they stroll along the shore line, tossing rocks into the surf.

Meredith starts thinking about sea shells along the way.

Half way to the lighthouse, she finds a large conch shell sticking out of the wet sand. It was just the very one she imagined.

~~~

Meredith wakes to the sound of gulls screeching just outside the glass enclosure at the top of the lighthouse. She lies there a moment on her back, watching the flock of sea scavengers floating in playful circles around the glass, peeking in at the strange girl turned lighthouse keeper. She stretches atop her sleeping bag, kicking an empty pizza box out of her way and knocking over an empty bottle of cola in the process. Meredith sits up and laughs at the mess surrounding the large lantern. There are several bottles of cola—some full, most empty and laying on their sides; three empty pizza boxes (they had been hungry); and the melted remains of a quart of chocolate ice cream—all surrounding their makeshift camp near one side of the large light.

It was Meredith’s idea to have their sleepover party at the very top of the lighthouse. Toby had let her turn it on, as promised. And they had simply turned it off when it was time for their party.

They had talked long into the night about everything and anything their childish minds could come up with beneath a majestic star-filled canopy that Meredith had never seen the likes of. At one point, they’d tried to count them, giving up to giggles mixed with far too much caffeine, somewhere around fifty.

She smiles and turns to the empty sleeping bag to her right. “Now where have you gone off to?” she whispers, shaking her head. Meredith stands up and walks toward the glass facing their beach. She is blown away by the view as half of the island reveals itself below, the coastline seeming to stretch on forever in this strange and wonder-filled place. Meredith puts her face to the glass and stares down at the small figure in the sand near the base of the lighthouse. From way up here, Toby is just an off-colored grain in the middle of the vast sand box. She shakes her head again. He’s obviously building another sand creation. “What will it be today, I wonder?” She remembers to correct herself. “Sorry… what will it be now… in the only moment there is?”

Meredith yawns, then chugs a half bottle of warm cola. She straightens her dress, rubs sleep from her eyes, then proceeds down the spiral staircase to the bottom of the lighthouse. Along the way, she drags her hand lightly against the cool smooth stones, trying to imagine what it was like to build this from the ground up, one circular layer of stones at a time until it finally touched the sky.

On the ground floor, there is a small multi-purpose room serving as bedroom, kitchen and living room for the absent lighthouse keeper. The décor of the humble space reminds Meredith of the inside of a seafood restaurant. There are no pictures or personal items left behind. It’s as though there never was a lighthouse keeper.

She pushes out on a large oak door, letting in the fresh, invigorating light. A warm breeze brushes against her hair, like a mother’s caress. The smell of the ocean, like the aftershave of a favorite relative ruining the surprise visit every time, greets her at the start of this day.

Meredith skips down the wet, sandy shoreline, challenging the waves to tag her feet.

By the time she reaches Toby, all her good cheer and excitement is gone.

He is building another sand lion.

She stops twenty feet behind the distracted young man. Even without gazing into his face, Toby’s intensity is clearly felt. He digs into the wet sand, attacking it with an almost desperate need to finish. For a second, Meredith believes he’s trying to dig his way beneath this island—the lion is just a cover.

“Found you!” she says, playfully.

Toby turns, startled. His sandy face looks irritated, but for only a moment.

Her smile begins to fade. “Did I… am I disturbing you?”

The young man recovers immediately. He smiles, then says, “Of course not. You just surprised me, is all.” He rises to his feet, shaking off the wet sand. “Did you sleep well?”

“Like a rock,” she says. “Hearing the waves coming in and going back out again before I passed out was so peaceful.”

Toby nods absently, scratching his head to shake out the sand. “Yeah… well… now that you’re here… do you want to help me finish this one?”

Meredith stares past the boy at the sand lion. She is amazed at the amount of detail in the horrible beast’s face. Its deep sandy eyes and scowl surrounded by its fiery mane seem to be tearing into her. Even its teeth seem life like as the lion’s upper lip is curled up on one side, revealing its barely veiled ferocity.

“Not really,” she’s quick to say. “It frightens me. Why another lion? Why not anything else?”

Toby stares at her as if she’s the biggest idiot. His face softens as he turns toward the lion. “You have no idea how many nights these lions haunted my dreams,” he says. “You were only in the field twice. I was there, trapped, dying over and over again as the emerald beasts taunted me before hunting me down in the tall grass night after night. I thought I’d never get out of that horrible field.” He turns back and smiles. “But then you came along and distracted them long enough for me to get away… to get back here.”

Meredith struggles to remember the details of first meeting Toby, the older version of him in the football jersey. She scratches her head. “You… you tricked me. I remember now. You were trying to warm me about the man behind the curtain… but that was you all along! You wanted me to find you in the secret room, behind the doll cabinets.”

Toby looks confused. “I don’t recall that,” he says. “I’m not calling you a liar, I just don’t remember everything from… before. It’s all in pieces. The longer you’re in this place the harder it is to keep it all straight.” He turns back to the lion. “But I remember them. I will never forget all the sickening things they did to me, how they tortured and tormented me before devouring me alive.” Toby closes his eyes and tries to remain calm. Without looking back, he finishes, “I make these lions now to face my fears and get stronger on the inside, just in case a day comes when they find me again.”

“They can do that?” Meredith is alarmed. “They can find this place?”

“I strive to teach myself how to use the magic of this place to defeat them all. So far, I’ve only ever been able to create them like this. But if I can make one for real… maybe I can learn from it, how to fight it, maybe even how to become one.”

“That’s insane!” Meredith shakes her head. “You should just leave it alone, Toby! If those monsters find you, we’ll just… we’ll go to the lighthouse and wait for them to leave. They can’t get in there if we don’t let them.”

He turns and laughs. “I love your spirit, Meredith. But they are stronger than a hundred lighthouses. I… we… need to be ready to face them should they show up here and ruin our… Paradise.”

Meredith smiles. “‘Paradise’… I like that.”

“As do I, Meredith. That’s why I’m so desperate to protect what we have here. I’m more afraid of what they might do to you, then to me. Even now, I fear that just by telling you about them, you’ll leave me here alone.”

“No, I won’t.” Meredith is shocked by her own admission.

He looks surprised. “You mean that?”

The young girl laughs. “I said it, didn’t I?”

“Then you’ll help me… with the lions?”

“What can I do?”

“More than you know,” Toby says. “I felt it when we met in that field. You’re strong… like them.” He turns toward the lion and points at it. “I think, with your help, we can beat them.”

Meredith sighs in disgust. “Me, strong? I’m just a terrified little girl.”

Toby flops down in the sand and waves his hands in her face with a laugh.

Meredith frowns. “Why are you laughing at me?”

“I don’t know very many terrified little girls who can do what you can do.”

“I don’t understand.”

He points behind her, at the lighthouse. “Who do you think made that?”

She turns in disbelief. “No way! You said it was already-”

“I told you it was there because you weren’t ready to hear the truth. I simply planted the idea in your head… and you made it. Just like the swimsuit and the sea shell you found. Just like the pizza we ate last night, and the ice cream.”

“Stop it!” She folds her arms across her chest. “Now you’re just teasing me. You and I know that I can’t do those things.”

Toby looks like he’s about to speak then stops. He shakes his head with a laugh, then says, “I’ve been here for a long, long time, Meredith.” He turns his head toward the lion. “That’s all I can make.” He turns back. “But you… you’re special. You can do so many things, and you’ve only just arrived.”

Meredith was visibly upset. “Don’t call me that! I’m not ‘special’. Every time someone has called me that, bad things have followed.”

Toby got serious. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything by it. I only meant that in this place… you’re the one who brings the magic.”

She turns away and stares out into the ocean. “I don’t want to talk about this anymore. You’re ruining our fun with all this talk about me being special… and those stupid lions. Make it go away or I’m going home!”

Suddenly, they’re both blasted with sand.

Toby shuffles to his feet, rubbing his eyes. “What… what did you do?”

She spins around, wiping sand from her hair and face.

The sand lion is gone.

“Why did you do that?” Toby is part amazed, part angry.

“I didn’t do anything,” she defends.

“You… you blew it up!” Toby says. “I saw it!”

“But I…” She stops, remembering her last angry thought. She was so upset that she just wanted the lion gone… and she made it happen. “I’m sorry, Toby. I was just… angry.”

Toby starts to laugh. “It’s okay,” he says. “I can build another. But can you understand now? Can you see how strong you are?”

“I just destroyed a pile of sand like a spoiled brat. Nothing more. That doesn’t make me strong.”

“I was right! We can do this,” Toby says. “I know it! We can beat them!” He turns to her, pleading, “Will you help me?”

Something in the sad boy’s eyes resonates within her. He needs this, she thinks. He needs a victory over the monsters that have hurt him. That’s the only way Toby can be free. She frowns. “I’ll… try to help,” she says.

Toby jumps excitably up and down in the sand like a… boy. “Alright!” he yells.

“But not now,” she says.

He calms down, looking a bit dejected.

“If this place is like you said, then it doesn’t matter when we focus on the silly lions, right? Today, tomorrow, next month… it’s all one big fat moment, remember? We’ve just arrived, haven’t we?”

Toby frowns and nods his head. “Yep. When you’re right, you’re right.”

Meredith lets loose a clever smile and says, “Then right now… I want to have more fun.”

Toby laughs and bows dramatically. “Anything you say. Fun it is!”

~~~

Chapter 49 will continue next Wednesday…

Previous Episode 49-5

~~~

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 49-6: Lions in the Dark” 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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~~~

Thanks for all your votes last week. I’ll be posting Wednesday’s episode early. Probably around nine o’clock this evening.

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.

Here’s an easy way to do so:

Please consider voting for DFTD over at topwebfiction No registration is required. just click and vote. You can vote for DFTD every seven days to help keep it listed.

Anything you can do to help me get Don’t Feed The Dark to the readers is appreciated. Be sure to spread the word on all your social media sites as well.

Thanks again for all your support and for reading.

-Scott

~~~

~~~

Stephen stared at Meredith—his look of surprise equaling the look of anguish on the old medium’s face. Finally, he said, “You mean your Hannah?”

“Who the hell is Hannah?” Logan asked, managing to keep himself from pacing and finally sitting back down at the table.

Stephen raised a hand to the preacher. “In a minute Logan. This is… new.”

Meredith continued to stare at her hands. They were shaking. A tear streamed down her cheek as she forced herself to continue. “I’ve not spoken to anyone about this. Not Gina… not even Coop. It’s a hard thing to admit when someone you… when someone you loved… betrays you.” She looked at them both and settled her gaze on Logan. “Hannah was my soul mate. We’d met in nursing school and… and she was there for me when I went through a rough stage with my… abilities. She was always on my side and so supportive, no matter what. I truly loved her with all that I was.” She shifted uncomfortably. “This is… this is very difficult to talk about. When Coop came along, I was able to suppress it all… and I just stopped thinking about it, hoping I would never have to think about it again. ‘What did it matter,’ I told myself. She was gone. So, I went into a state of denial. Then things changed rapidly down in that compound and I had more pressing issues to think about.” She slammed her hand on the table, in a rare display of emotion. “It simply didn’t happen! She wouldn’t do that to me!”

Stephen placed a hand over Meredith’s shaking fist. “I’m sorry, Meredith. You don’t have to relive this.”

She shook her head. “No, no. I need to get this out. No more secrets.” She looked at the weary school teacher and continued. “Her and I… Hannah was always doing things, little things, to make me laugh. Once, I went through a real dark spell, and she found me balling my eyes out, alone in our dark apartment.” Meredith raised her left hand flat, palm down, and smiled. “She’d come up with a secret handshake. It was just one of those childish little things… but it worked. She’d raised her left hand, just like this. Then, I ran my right hand over it like one hand sharpening the other—that’s how she described it.” Meredith raised her right hand to demonstrate. “Then she’d said, ‘Now, all we need’s a code.’ I didn’t know what she was babbling on about… she was always like that. So, I just played along, wiping the silly tears off my face. I’d said, ‘Code? Code for what?’. Then she shook her head like I was the one acting like the idiot.” Meredith laughed. “She’d said, ‘I know! How about the day we met? It was June 15th, 1983. We’ll use that.’ Of course, she had me so confused by then I forgot all about what made me so upset in the first place.” She glanced at Logan and laughed again, shaking her head.

Logan smiled, but remained silent as the older woman fell down the rabbit hole of some happier time.

Then her face grew grave. She left her right hand out, palm down, and just stared at it. “Before The Change claimed my Hannah, there was a moment before everything went… insane… where she insisted that I remember… that I always remember that code. Mind you, I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about. Everything was going crazy, and here she was, adamant that I remember that silly darn handshake. She yelled in my face, ‘Remember, Meredith! Promise me!’ So, I promised her whatever she wanted, just to shut her up. Then she’d said, ‘The code! Say it!’.” Meredith lowered her hand and stared down at the table. “So, I did. Sixth month, fifteenth day, and eighty-three for the year: 061583… just like the first time she’d come up with it on that day I was a weeping mess on our apartment floor.”

Logan and Stephen shared an astonished glance.

“You mean… that was the code?” Stephen said.

Meredith nodded. “I knew immediately what to do when I saw that box outside the compound door. The right hand inserted… then the code… just like how Hannah had been getting me to do that very same thing every time circumstances were at their worst. I had no idea she’d been preparing me all along… for the day I would really need it.”

“Shit,” Logan said, shaking his head in disbelief. “So… that would mean-”

“That would mean that my Hannah had been watching over me on Mother’s behalf ever since those monsters put us together,” Meredith finished.

Stephen, remembering to breathe, finally exhaled deeply. He ran a nervous hand through his hair. “So, she reminded you of the code the night everything went crazy… and that was when Hannah…”

Meredith looked up at him. “Yes. That was shortly before Hannah died,” Meredith said, volunteering nothing else.

The heavy silence that followed was broken by a gust of wind whistling through one of the shattered den windows.

Meredith straightened her back, brought her shaking hands back together on the table, and continued. “There’s something else I’ve not told anyone else about.”

She had their complete attention.

Meredith glanced at them, then stared down at her hands. “I don’t remember what happened to me after the summer of 73’, when I was knocked out in this orphanage basement. But it was the winter of 1974 when I finally… started remembering again.” She stared at Stephen. “You asked me how I escaped Mother. Truth is, I never escaped. But I can tell you how I didn’t end up like those poor girls in the cavern, or much worse.”

Stephen waited.

She stared at them both and smiled. “I died.”

~~~

Logan laughed abruptly, believing Meredith had just told a strange joke to lighten the mood.

Stephen wasn’t laughing.

Meredith looked at her old friend and said, “I remember sitting in that old boathouse near the marina, getting ready to tell you all about my abilities for the first time. You had that same look on your face, Stephen.”

“You mean the one when I’d just figured out how to accept that the dead were really roaming my world and I’d finally managed to right my upside-down ship for the first time while bracing myself for another devastating wave against all that I understood as fact? That face?”

“Yes,” she said with a sympathetic smile. “That’s the one.”

Logan calmed down. “Wait… she’s not kidding?”

Stephen unconsciously gripped the rounded ledge of the table with both hands. “I guess I have to ask… would exactly do you mean, ‘You died’?”

Meredith sighed. “I believe I said something back then along the lines of things that were hard to believe being so much more believable now. All I can do, in this room, at this time, is repeat the sentiment.” She gave them both a hard look, then continued. “Here’s the truth, swallow it as you will: Meredith Montgomery, age thirteen, died in the winter of 1974 in, what I assume, some Mother laboratory. The woman you see before you today was actually Michelle Brogan, clinically declared brain dead at age twelve after falling through a lake of ice and drowning—resurrected in the winter of 1974 at the age of fifteen… as me.”

Silence.

Meredith started rubbing her temples. She refused to look into their faces. “Wow. Now that I’ve said it out loud for the first time, it does sound quite strange. I’ve lived in this body for so long with what I’m still capable of doing, that it’s easy to forget how extraordinary it all truly is.”

“I assume we’re talking about some sort of identity theft situation,” Logan said. “Someone helped you escape Mother, someone from the inside, and then with the right forged documents, you became this… Michelle… person.”

“No, Logan,” Stephen said. “That’s not what she’s saying.”

“Well, that’s what I’m saying!” Logan was clearly upset. “Because if you expect me to add in all that ‘dead’ stuff, then what I’m hearing is rubbish!”

“I don’t know if it’s being in this house, or away from the compound that blocked my abilities, thinking about Hannah, or a combination of it all, or none of it—but I’m remembering things, thoughts really, from before I first surfaced in some dead girl’s bedroom many years ago. I remember a conversation with Dr. Forrester in a dark place—no, a secret place—that she called, Elsewhere. It felt like a dream, but it wasn’t.” Meredith’s eyebrows crunched up as she struggled to piece the fragments together. “I’ve recalled bits and pieces of that conversation throughout the years, but it’s all coming clear now. Like some fog finally lifting.”

“So, it was Dr. Forrester who… helped you escape?” Stephen said, trying to choose the right words to calm Logan down.

“Yes,” she nodded. “I don’t understand how she did it. I probably never will. But whatever Mother was using her research for, and why they needed me, Forrester somehow turned the tables on them, and used her research to get me away from them. In fact, she insisted that I stay hidden from Mother for as long as I could.” Her face grew grave. “And that they would be looking for me… and that it would be bad if they ever found me.” She stared at Stephen, the terror evident in her eyes. “And that they would make me do bad things!”

“You’re safe with us, Meredith,” Stephen said. “Even if it’s like you said and Mother’s been tracking you for a long time now, you’ve managed to stay out of their grasp.”

“Have I, Stephen? Have I really? Every new circumstance we face seems to be putting me one step closer to giving Mother exactly what it wants. I still don’t know what I did down in that cavern that allowed us to escape, but I can’t help but feel like I did exactly what Mother wanted.”

“How’s that?” Logan said.

She turned to the preacher. “What if I was supposed to go down there, beyond the confines of that electrified field, just so I could tap into my abilities again? What if everything that happened down there was another test designed to push the limits of what I could do?”

“You’re saying that Mother set the whole thing up?” Stephen said. “Like another experiment?”

“I wouldn’t put it past Mother to try it,” she said.

“But you said that this entity, or Toby, or whatever it is, was drawing us down there,” Logan said. “You said that we didn’t have a choice.”

“Yes, I did say that. And at first, I believed it. But then everything changed in the cavern. I was sure I understood… but after we exited Labyrinth Level 1… I don’t remember anything.”

“You saved us, Meredith,” Stephen reminded her. “Then you collapsed, and Megan carried you out.”

“Yes. But why can’t I remember what happened?”

He had no answer.

Meredith pointed to the side of her head. “What if I blocked it out of my memory to keep it from myself?” she proposed. “What if that’s what was done to me in that missing year back in the summer of 73’? Maybe Mother did something to my brain and can turn my head off as easily as a light switch, then make me do awful things with my own abilities, and then just flip the switch back on afterwards without me knowing what I did, or who made me do it?”

Logan sighed. “That’s a whole lot of ‘what ifs’,” he said.

She shook her head in frustration. “Yes. But now you must understand why I second guess my every move? She nodded toward the windows. “For all I know, I’m controlling the dead outside… and I don’t even know it.”

“You can do that?” Logan said.

“I’ve seen her summon the dead,” Stephen said. “Back at the waterfall cave, she brought them to fight the Shadow Dead. They can also sense her like she can sense them. And as you’ve seen her do with Megan, she can also, in a manner of speaking, put them to sleep.”

“Dormant,” Meredith corrected. “I can make them go dormant.”

“Then why don’t you do that with those freaks outside so we can get out of here?” Logan suggested.

Stephen shook his head. “For Meredith to do that with a horde that size, it could kill her, or worse—she could lose control and… become a savage herself.”

Meredith nodded. “That’s one way to put it. Yes, I could try that. With Megan it was easier because she was just one person… but with a horde like the one outside, there are risks.”

“I don’t want to see that again, Meredith,” Stephen said. “Every time you reach out to the dead on such a massive scale, I swear, you lose a part of yourself.”

She smiled at his genuine concern and keen understanding. “Well, I don’t think it’s worth the risk this time. Like I said, Toby has already warned me what would happen if we ventured outside. Can you imagine what might happen if I start tampering with the dead he put there?”

“I thought you weren’t sure that Toby was even real,” Logan said. “Which is it?”

She nodded. “Exactly, Logan! Am I going against Toby… or going against myself? Who’s to say what will happen in either case?”

“Good point,” he conceded. “I guess I should just be grateful they haven’t stormed the house yet.”

Stephen rubbed his chin. “Okay. Let’s just work with what we know. Assuming that this Toby, or Mother manipulating you under the guise of Toby, is pulling the strings, then we are exactly where we’re supposed to be.”

“That’s a chilling thought,” Meredith said. “But yes. It seems clear that this is where Toby wants us.”

“Agreed,” Logan said.

“Then what’s the enemy’s next move? If we can figure that out, then maybe we can counter, and do something unexpected.”

Meredith’s shoulders sank. “Since I seem to be Mother’s prize lab rat, and perhaps the source of all our problems, I would suggest taking Logan’s gun and putting a bullet in my skull.”

“That’s not an option, Meredith,” Stephen firmly said.

She shook her head. “Sorry. I’m just… I feel responsible for all this. If none of you were anywhere around me, perhaps more of our friends would still be alive today.”

“Speaking on behalf of all of us you’ve saved, I strongly disagree,” Stephen said. “Mother is responsible.”

She smiled. “Thanks for that.”

Logan threw his hands into the air and said, “You know, her idea’s not a bad one.”

“Excuse me?” Stephen said.

“You heard what she said. She already died once, then came back as someone else, like some damn body snatcher. Maybe she could just wave her magic wand and do it again.”

“You’re being an ass,” Stephen said.

“I am… and I’m running out of patience with all of… this!” He waved his hand around the room, then at Meredith, and finally toward the dead outside. “There’s only so much my damn brain can take!” He stood up and started pacing again. He turned to Meredith. “Look, I appreciate your honesty, even if it’s at the last fucking hour… but shit! All of this is insane!”

“I’m telling you all that I know, Logan,” she said patiently. “I didn’t say it would be easy to believe.”

“Fair enough… and I believe you believe it. But what can we possibly do against an adversary that might very well be sitting at this table with us… by your very own admission?”

“Logan!” Stephen said, standing up. “That’s enough!”

“He’s right, Stephen. I don’t even trust me right now.”

Stephen turned to her. “That’s bullshit! If Mother’s succeeding at anything, then it’s driving a wedge between us with all this paranoia and suspicion! Toby is real. And so are you! I don’t care if you were somewhere else, frigging Elsewhere, then died, came back, changed your damn name from Meredith to Michelle to Hannah Montana, then back to Meredith… none of that matters to me! I know you! And you are still the woman I remember. Nothing’s changed. So, the sooner we get over all these things we can’t possibly wrap our minds around, the better! We can get out of this mess. I know it! But we can’t if we don’t do it together.” He gave Logan a challenging glance. “Together, yes?”

Logan raised his eyebrows in surprise, then laughed. “I’m remembering now why you were elected as the leader of our little community.”

“As am I,” Meredith said with a smile.

“Then we’re on the same page?” Stephen put his hands to his hips.

“I’m in, little brother,” Logan said. Then he turned to Meredith. “Sorry. I got a little… overwhelmed.”

“Understandable,” she said. Then she stared up at Stephen proudly. “What do you want to do?”

Stephen, feeling a little embarrassed, sat back down. “Like I said, we figure out the enemy’s next play and then counter with something unexpected.”

“Any suggestions?” Logan said.

He stared toward the back of the den. “The enemy clearly wants Meredith. We can’t let that happen. And the only way to ensure that, is to get all of us away from this place and take matters back into our own hands. That just leaves getting past the dead outside. I don’t know about the rest of you, but compared to everything I just heard, that sounds like something I can wrap my head around.”

Logan sat back down. “Alright, little brother. I’m with you there.”

Meredith nodded. “Sounds delightful. I would love more than anything to never see these walls again.”

“That just leaves the ‘how’,” Logan said. He turned to Meredith. “So, we step outside, and Toby sends the dead in to dissuade us, correct?”

“Correct.”

Logan nodded. “Fighting our way through that horde doesn’t sound like a winning move, although, with Megan up and running, we’d stand a better chance.”

“Going back the way we came seems like a death sentence as well,” Stephen threw in. He looked to Meredith. “Anything in your bag of tricks that could help us?”

The old woman was staring at Logan. She finally snapped out of it. “What? Sorry. I was just thinking about something Logan said earlier.”

Logan laughed. “Well, I know it wasn’t asking my God to part that sea of the dead outside so we could just walk on through, but I can assure you, I have asked already.”

She smiled. “No… but you did give me an idea.” Meredith looked to Megan. “I need some time to think it through carefully before I bring up what might be a…very unexpected move.”

Stephen looked intrigued. “Do tell.”

“Not yet,” she said. “Let’s wait until Megan comes back. Besides, I’m doing all I can to… camouflage my thoughts with so many other ones, just in case someone else might be listening.”

“Toby?” Stephen said.

Meredith nodded.

“Okay,” Logan said. “Let’s get some sleep. Fresh minds and eyes might be just the thing we need to conquer this problem. I suggest we take shifts while one of us watches out for Megan and our friends outside.”

Just the mention of sleep made them all aware of just how exhausted they were.

“I’ll take the first watch,” Meredith insisted. “My mind’s too much of a battlefield right now for sleep.”

“You sure?” Stephen said, betraying himself with a long yawn.

She laughed. “I got this. Go on. Both of you have been up since before the Shadow Dead attack.”

“You don’t have to tell me twice,” Logan said with a laugh. He was already looking for a place on the floor to collapse on.

Stephen gave Meredith a final glance. “Be careful,” he said. “Wake me in a couple of hours. Let the big guy sleep. If anything happens… and I mean anything… wake me up immediately.”

She nodded.

Stephen crawled beneath one of the round tables and was out in two minutes.

Meredith waited until both men were lying on the floor like snoring corpses. She then checked on Megan, and then returned to her chair.

Buried beneath a jungle of random thoughts she used to hide her true thoughts, the old medium considered her wild plan carefully. She thought again about what Logan had said that spawned the idea:

“…She already died once, then came back as someone else, like some damn body snatcher…”

Body Snatcher.

Meredith, where are you? Why are you trying to hide from me? Toby broke through her jumble of thoughts like a gusting wind scattering paper. Whatever you’re trying to do… just stop… it won’t work.

Meredith tried to ignore the invasion, but Toby was persistent.

Doesn’t matter what you’re hiding, I’ll find out eventually. We’ve more pressing matters to deal with right now.

Meredith addressed him and thought, What lies am I to believe this time… hmm? Are you here to make me doubt myself some more?

Toby laughed. Oh… that’s right… you’re still caught up in the whole ‘Is this entity real or am I being controlled by Mother’ nonsense. Well, I assure you, after the gift I’m about to give you, all your questions will be answered.

What does that mean?

Toby laughed again. Come with me and find out, Meredith. I’m ready to show you the rest… and help you fill in those tedious blanks in your memory.

Meredith closed her eyes and shook her head. You’re a liar.

Am I? According to you, I may not even exist… and if that’s the case… you can only lie to yourself.

Stop twisting my words around! she fired back. I’m not interested in anything you have to say!

That’s okay, Meredith. You will understand in a little while. By the way, while we’ve been speaking, you’ve fallen asleep in your chair. Apparently, you’ve placed so much effort into fighting against me that you’ve left yourself wide open for an attack against the enemy of fatigue.

Before Meredith can wake, Toby’s already pulled her deeper into the depths of sleep.

Let me go!

Again, she is greeted by condescending laughter. Not yet, Meredith. Not until I grant you the gift I’ve promised. The gift of Truth… like you’ve always wanted.

She opens her eyes. Meredith is surrounded by darkness. She tries to move but can’t feel her own body. She is floating in the dark. Meredith tries to speak but her words are devoured by shadow.

Sweet dreams, Meredith, Toby mocks. I’ll see you soon… and then you’ll remember everything!

Meredith surrenders to the darkness and closes her eyes…

~~~

Next Episode 49-6

Previous Episode 49-4

~~~

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

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 49-5: Lions in the Dark” 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.

~~~

Thanks for all your votes last week. The first arc of Book Six, Revelations, is now complete. I’m already jumping right into the next arc titled, To Market. It should be a much smaller arc slated for three chapters, taking us back to New Cleveland for the conclusion of that story. DFTD will continue on Wednesday.

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.

Here’s an easy way to do so:

Please consider voting for DFTD over at topwebfiction No registration is required. just click and vote. You can vote for DFTD every seven days to help keep it listed.

Anything you can do to help me get Don’t Feed The Dark to the readers is appreciated. Be sure to spread the word on all your social media sites as well.

Thanks again for all your support and for reading.

-Scott

~~~

~~~

The large den at the back of the house, once a converted classroom for young gifted girls who no longer had a place in a world which feared them, now stood abandoned, decrepit and hollow, much like the dead minds subjected to Mother’s lies who were once taught here. Nightfall descended upon the orphanage like a huge sea beast, swallowing the house whole. They could no longer see the dead from the large den windows, but Meredith had assured them that they were all still there, surrounding the house, doing whatever monsters did when concealed within the darkness. Lamplight from two oil lanterns retrieved from the attic filled the large space with dull light, scattering elongated shadows across the partially caved-in ceiling, as eerie shadows danced and shifted indifferently with the flickering of two small flames.

Once full bookshelves that dominated the room with the appearance of knowledge, now stood bare, broken and infested with ancient cobwebs and dust—even the arachnids had died off long ago. More broken glass littered the rotting floorboards. A few scraps of crumbled paper debris occasionally blew across the darkness as a light, steady breeze blew in from one of the shattered windows facing the rear of the house.

Meredith, Logan and Stephen sat at one of the four round tables centered before a large cracked and dusty chalkboard, sharing a silent meal of cold canned goods recovered from the kitchen pantry. Megan, still in dormant mode, was lying across a second table, resting on an attic couch pillow and covered in an old quilt. She had not moved since collapsing in the clinic. Meredith had assured them that the half-dead was alright, but that she would be out for hours after her partially dead systems had been tricked into a hibernation-like state while her body reset itself from devouring the living. This was something else that her former fiancé had been researching before his death—something else that died with Cooper that Meredith could not explain, or even cared enough to guess about.

“Just add it to the list of many things Meredith doesn’t have answers to!” she’d told them crossly, ending that brief discussion.

The exhausted older woman forced the stale, cold raviolis and peas down her throat more out of necessity than hunger. Just being in this ancient room brought back memories of the inquisitive young faces she’d sat with once, all eager to understand their place in a now-deceased world, while finding comfort in the company of misfits like themselves.

I’m the last one, she thought sadly. Even our brainwashing former headmaster is long gone. She stared bitterly at the lifeless chalkboard and for a moment that obsolete question appeared mockingly within the dust:

WHAT IS AT THE END OF THE ROAD?

She snorted at the question, as dead as everything else from a world which could once afford such questioning, a world that existed in the illusion that time was something anyone had to waste on such pointless ponderings.

“Something funny?” Stephen said. “Or is that crunched-up face just the result of this wonderful meal?”

She turned to the former school teacher and forced a smile. “It’s this place that leaves the only bad taste in my mouth,” she said. “I sat here, at this very table, while that dead woman, Miss Evans, filled our impressionable and naïve minds full of lies. I was only thirteen. No relatives, no friends, no place where I belonged, and the world had rejected our kind long before… well… long before that world died. I remember sitting in here feeling vulnerable, and yet, accepted for the first time in my life.”

“That’s how it works,” Logan chimed in, using his spoon to scrape the last ravioli from his can. He popped it into his mouth and then wiped his beard with the back of his hand. He belched proudly. “Excuse me,” he added with a laugh.

Stephen shook his head. “Well, it’s good to see that bad manners have survived the apocalypse.”

Logan gave him a wink.

“What did you mean?” Meredith pressed. “How does what work?”

Logan put the can down. “Sorry, I thought it was obvious.” He absently waved his hand about the room. “This place, everything about it, Mother or not, it’s just another cult when you get right down to it.”

Meredith laughed and rolled her eyes. “I’m sure you understand by now that Mother is a bit more than just a cult.”

“Same principle,” he continued. “Always starts the same way: Recruiters go out, find the lost, the broken—anyone at the bottom of the barrel—the disgruntled, the lonely, the depressed and suicidal. Then they’re given things they never had before: Sense of purpose, of belonging, something to believe in—and that right there is powerful. Once they catch someone and reel him in, they take him to some place just like this. Somewhere remote and off-the-grid, keep him busy with chores and various tasks so they don’t have time to second guess anything while pumping them full of bullshit in rooms just like this one. The younger the better, but the broken will suffice.”

Meredith smiled. “Sounds like you’re speaking from experience. You do realize that you could just as easily apply your theory to modern day Christianity, right? What makes this orphanage any different than a church, by your reasoning?”

Stephen slapped his forehead. “Don’t get him started, Meredith, you’ll regret it.”

Logan laughed and pointed his spoon at her. “Ah… I love sceptics! As much as I’d enjoy getting into that very discussion with you, I strongly suspect that for you and me, it would be a lengthy one… and we’ve already got quite a few things to discuss as it is.”

Meredith shifted uncomfortably.

“I will address the first part, though,” he said, leaning over the table with his tattooed arms and folding his hands together. “The Brotherhood of One.”

Meredith looked confused. “What’s that?”

“It’s the name of the biker group Logan led before he found God,” Stephen said.

“Ah… yes,” Meredith said. “Okay.”

Logan gave Stephen an amused look, then returned to Meredith. “Stephen’s just trying to put it politely. It’s the name of the criminal hate group I was primarily responsible for back in my ignorance… and it was a cult. We recruited, we distracted, and we certainly pumped up the brethren with something very bad to believe in.”

“Yes, the name threw me, but I remember hearing about your sermons denouncing your former life,” Meredith said. “And I see your point.”

Logan studied Meredith’s face, and finished, “I bring it up now to point out the underlying difference between a cult from anything else worth a damn. While Love aims to bring Mankind together, a cult’s only purpose is to keep us all apart… separated. That’s the only point I want to make. Mother is nothing more than another dirty cult, and I’m sorry you were exposed to this… madness… especially at such a young age.” He leaned back in his chair. “I’m too damn tired to debate the finer points of God’s love with you, but I suspect you’ve seen your share of that, too.”

Meredith smiled, thinking fondly of Gregory and her own personal pleas to God. “You may be right, Logan.” She left it at that.

“What’s that make us, then?” Stephen said, intending to lighten the mood with a joke.

“Verdict’s still out on that one,” Logan said with a wink. “I guess that will depend on where we end up after all this running is finished.”

“You believe that day will ever come?” Meredith said.

“As surely as I believe in my God above,” Logan said. “It has to… or what’s the point in all this running? We’re not on Mother’s hamster wheel, no matter how it feels right now. Eventually, God’s gonna set things straight, and there’s going to be a reckoning.”

“Amen,” Stephen said.

Meredith raised her eyebrows to him bemused.

“What? I may not be on board with all this man’s ‘God’ stuff, but he’s certainly preaching on the side of hope… and that’s something I can wrap my mind around. I have to.”

“Well said, brother,” Logan added with a nod.

Meredith looked over at Megan, then stared dejectedly down at her old hands. “I don’t know what I believe anymore,” she admitted. “My life’s been layered in mysteries I can’t comprehend no matter how hard I try. Every time another layer is peeled back, there’s just many more layers shrouded in darkness. Between all this death out here and all the death plaguing my mind, I find it difficult to believe in a loving God, hope, or anything else promising an end to all this… darkness.” She sighed heavily. “Forgive my grim mood. I’ve just very tired. I’m worried about Megan. I’m worried about the two of you. I’m worried about the dead outside storming into this place at any moment. But mostly, I’m worried about what it will mean if there’s ever any real light shed upon my black, full-of-holes memories.”

Logan nodded. “You carry an extensive load, Meredith. Perhaps it’s time to stop bearing it alone.”

Meredith laughed. “Everyone knows no one likes the girl with all the baggage, right?”

This made Logan chuckle. He placed his muscular arms behind his head and stretched.

“Seriously, Meredith,” Stephen started. “Why don’t you begin unloading what you do know and let us help you carry the rest. Like Logan said earlier, it’s time to lay our cards out on the table.”

“I don’t even know where to begin?” she said.

“Start with this creepy-ass cult compound,” Logan suggested. “Since we’re currently trapped here by dark forces we clearly don’t understand, it seems fitting, don’t you think?”

“And after?” she said.

“After what?” Logan countered.

“After I bear my soul and share what I know… and what I don’t… will I still remain the Wasteland Witch in your eyes? Will you be able to see me as a friend trying my best to save you… despite what I am and how much it goes against what you believe?”

Logan was caught off-guard by the question.

Meredith looked around and sneered. “You may be right about this place being a cult, at the heart of it. And maybe they did some incredibly horrible things to me while I was here, things I’m still trying to sort through, things I may still be influenced by. But I am trying to find the light in all this darkness that surrounds my life. Just as you strive to find your way out of your darkness each and every day. Am I correct?”

Logan considered her words. “Yes,” he said. “You are correct. I’ve sworn to turn away from a hate-filled life, but it still tries to claim me as one of its own. That is my burden… my shame… to bear.”

Meredith nodded. “Then don’t hate me for what I am. Don’t hate Megan for what she is. And don’t hate either of us for discovering how much more that will mean when the truth comes out. You don’t have to understand us, but your fear…”

Logan raised a hand and nodded. “Yes, Meredith. I hear you loud and clear. I can’t promise you that fear will not tempt me to fail, but I can promise you that I will seek my Lord Jesus Christ to help me face it, and the many things that I will certainly fail to understand.” He looked at Megan. “I have wanted to hate her for what she is.” He turned back. “As I have wanted to hate you, as well. But I know, deep down, that I’m wrong about both of you. My Lord speaks to my heart clearly on this matter. You two are not part of the problem, but as much victims as the rest of us.”

“So… ‘we’ are a part of ‘us’ then?” she said. “Because fear would try to convince you otherwise.”

Logan smiled. “Yes. ‘We’ most certainly is ‘us’.”

Stephen laughed. “Sounds like we needed to break down our little cults-of-one before we could finally arrive here. It’s ironic, don’t you think, considering where we are right now, in this place, and how far we’ve come? There’s so few of us left in the world and we still have so much farther to go. From the amount of separation we’ve all strived to achieve from one another back in that old brainwashed society to now… and we still struggle with coming together.”

Meredith and Logan stared at Stephen and nodded.

“You should write that on the chalkboard,” Meredith teased. “It’s definitely worth pondering in any of Miss Evans’ classes.”

“How’s that?” Stephen said.

Meredith shook her exhausted head, then stared around the room. “Yes. Maybe I should start in this very room and then explain the rest of what happened to me here.”

“We’re all ears, Meredith,” Logan encouraged. “No one’s going to judge you tonight… but I can’t speak for tomorrow,” he teased with a wink.

She laughed. “You sounded a little like someone else I knew, in a boathouse, a thousand years ago, right before the last time I had to open my mouth.”

Stephen smiled. “Douglas?”

“The one and only,” she said. She stared thoughtfully at them both and then took a deep breath. “When I was thirteen-years-old, back in the summer of 1973, a very nice man named Michael Finch (all of us girls just called him Finch) drove me to this house for the first time…”

~~~

She told them about her experiences at the orphanage. From her strange dreams of the young man named Toby and the emerald lions up in that claustrophobic bedroom to her strained friendship with a disturbed young girl named, Clementine. She detailed daily life with the other gifted girls. Meredith spoke of her hushed conversations with Finch, the interrogations of Dr. Candice Forrester, and Miss Evans’ teachings. She told them about the dolls in the basement, especially about the one who called itself, Toby. She finished with how she found the secret room behind the doll cabinet, discovering the four comatose patients, and finding Forrester there…

“… After Forrester injected me, my world went dark… and I’ve been trying to piece the rest together ever since,” she finished.

Logan and Stephen were shocked.

Meredith looked down at her open hands. “Those files we discovered in the Observation Room were the first hints of what happened here after I was whisked away from this house. Apparently, Clem finally lost control of her dark abilities, and her temper, and did some very horrible things to the girls who still lived here. Shortly after, it looked like they shut this place down. I’d never returned, as far as I know, and I just assumed Mother took me to where all those other missing girls went.”

“You’re talking about the girls in the cavern,” Stephen whispered. “The ones with no eyes. That’s why you asked what they were wearing.”

Meredith wiped a tear from her eye. “Yes. I suspected they were all brought down to that horrible place after I read about it in those files. Whatever experiments were conducted down in that cavern failed, and those girls… those poor gifted girls… they never made it out of there alive.”

“And you had no memory of being brought there?” Logan said.

She looked at the preacher. “I thought so, at first, but I don’t believe I was brought there. I think they had other plans for me. There was something mentioned in those files about another location. I think I might have been transported there.”

“And you don’t remember anything else that happened to you after finding that secret basement room?” Stephen asked. “I mean, how did you manage to escape Mother all those years ago?”

Meredith frowned. She knew this would be the hardest part to talk about. She raised the palm of her right hand. “Remember when we found the tunnel behind the waterfall cave?”

“Yes,” Stephen said. Then his eyes went wide. “Yes! That’s right! We were trapped at that door! You stuck your hand in that box and then punched in some code.”

She nodded sadly, lowering her hand. “That was the day I knew that I had never escaped Mother. That was also the day I decided to keep quiet… about everything.”

Logan looked confused.

Stephen filled him in. “It was right before we discovered the compound. We were trapped by the dead. There was this security door with a code box. It required hand identification and a numerical code. Meredith slipped her hand into it and typed in the code. The door opened right up.”

Logan stared at Meredith, one eyebrow raised. But he remained silent.

She nodded. “Yes. That was the beginning of all those Mother-collaboration rumors that started to spread about me like wildfire. But for me, that was when I knew that Mother had played me all along. I was never free. I had never escaped the watchful eye of that diabolical organization. They just let me go about my life as if I really had control of it. But the truth was… they wanted us there, or rather… me. Just like when the time came for the Shadow Dead attack. That was when Mother had decided it was time for me to leave the compound… and find that awful cavern.”

Stephen sat back in his chair, mind blown. He ran his fingers through his hair. “So… the compound was just another controlled experiment, like the marina?”

“I believe so,” she said. “Except that I was the experiment under control. I don’t believe that was the initial plan for the compound we’ve been living in all winter, but when everything went bad topside with Charlie’s horde, the explosion, and everything else that happened on that horrible day, Mother improvised. I believe they granted me access to the compound… to keep me safe. Everything else that place became for us was incidental… allowable… as long as they had me where they wanted me. Mother couldn’t have planned for a better prison to keep my abilities in check while using the rest of you to watch my every action.”

“But how could they possibly know where you’d be in all that chaos? That you would make it to that compound door behind the waterfall cave?” Logan said. “Even Mother’s not that good.”

Meredith shook her head. “I don’t know. Maybe they realized I was in the Shadow Dead cave and orchestrated events to make sure I found that compound door from there. I always found it a little puzzling that we only had to face two Shadow Dead warriors when the crack at the back of the cave opened up. They could’ve swarmed the place, killed us all… but they didn’t.”

“Those two Shadow Dead came to retrieve you,” Stephen said. “They easily could’ve killed the rest of us, but didn’t want to risk losing you in a massive attack.”

Meredith nodded. “It’s very possible. I was vulnerable after going… supernova… that day. They could’ve easily handled me. But then Frank showed up when he did and messed up their plans.”

“So, they cleared out of the compound—the Shadow Dead, Taven and his group of children-stealing madmen, and whoever else was already there—then granted you access, and let you all have the compound instead,” Logan said, shaking his head. “And all right before the massive explosion that scorched the woods, but miraculously left the compound intact.” He stood up and started pacing, shaking his head. “Hell, we’ve all been played.”

Stephen closed his eyes. “They could’ve seized the compound any time they wanted. They knew exactly how to hit us, where to sneak in undetected, and then made sure you had a way to get out.”

Meredith looked at him and shook her head. “I didn’t know how to open that mystery door until moments before you arrived, Stephen. I hope you believe that. I never would’ve let all those people die by keeping that from you.”

“What was that?” Logan turned.

Stephen stared at her.

She nodded. “Go ahead, tell him. No more secrets.”

“Right before the Shadow Dead pinned us down in that clinic hallway, Meredith gave me the password phrase that opened the mystery door. It activated on a verbal command.”

‘The Lions are sleeping, but we always stand guard’,” she said. “It was part of a mantra that was spoken by the girls in this very room. I told you both in the basement that I was hearing from Toby in my thoughts, and I also just got done telling you that he spoke to me through that doll when I was thirteen. He spoke to me in the compound clinic and provided me that code… right when we needed it.”

“You mean, when Mother needed you to tell us it,” Logan snapped.

Meredith looked away. “Yes.”

Logan laughed and started pacing again. He looked like he wanted to throw something… hard. “I thought those Shadow Dead were holding back near the end. They clearly had us beat. It all makes sense now. They let us have that hallway just long enough for you to get out of the clinic, then they moved in on us like a closing fist!”

Meredith refused to look at the angry preacher. He had every right to be upset. “At this point, I’m still not convinced that there really is a Toby at all. For all I know, this Toby persona is just part of what Mother did to me to make me feel less responsible… while they speak directly to me, under the guise of some powerful entity, while they manipulate my every move, leaving me nothing but more doubt in whether I’m really helping us… or hindering us.” She looked at them both. “Can you start to understand why I kept my secrets? Ever since the compound, I’ve known that Mother has been aware of me all these years. Anything I did, anything I said, could inadvertently be Mother using me to get you all killed. I thought it best to seclude myself and try to figure it all out.”

Logan calmed down and nodded. “Of course. Sorry… I’m just tired of feeling like some damn puppet on strings.”

She nodded.

“Let’s go back to the compound door after Charlie’s attack. The one behind the waterfall cave.” Stephen said. “I can see how they might have your hand geometry on file for the reader. But how did you know what to punch in? Did Toby speak to you then, too? Did he tell you the numerical code?”

Meredith looked into his face, her sad eyes haunted by the mistrust of her own broken memories. “No. It was Hannah who told me that code.”

~~~

Next Episode 49-5

Previous Episode 49-3

~~~

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 49-4: Lions in the Dark” 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.

~~~

Thanks for all your votes last week. Chapter 49, Lions in the Dark is almost finished and will run ten or eleven episodes, completing this arc (yeah… another long chapter… surprise!). Chapter 49 will continue on Wednesday.

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.

Here’s an easy way to do so:

Please consider voting for DFTD over at topwebfiction No registration is required. just click and vote. You can vote for DFTD every seven days to help keep it listed.

Anything you can do to help me get Don’t Feed The Dark to the readers is appreciated. Be sure to spread the word on all your social media sites as well.

Thanks again for all your support and for reading.

-Scott

~~~

~~~

Just a quick update.

Well, I almost pulled it off before my work schedule increased. Chapter 49: Lions in the Dark is nearly completed. I’ve got just a handful of scenes left to write and this arc is finished. It turned into another long one. This current chapter will run ten or eleven episodes. Tons of spoilers in this chapter so I’m not going to say anything… lol.

I’ve already begun the ground work for the next arc which will be titled, Part XI: To Market. We will be headed back to New Cleveland to find out the fate of Tony, Nine, Diane, Mark, Wendy, and Sergeant Hash to complete that storyline. It’s gonna be another wild ride… lol. It’s slated for three chapters.

I’ve done the math. Episode seven of the current chapter will mark 1,000,000 plus words posted online. I’m working on something special for that week. I look forward to celebrating this huge milestone with all of you.

Aside from that, I’ve put plans for the DFTD Timeline on hold for now. What I have done is placed a new chapter index tab at the top of the page for all of you to have a better way to ‘bookmark’ where you are while reading with a more detailed chapter listing. You can still scroll down using the sidebar, but I just wanted another place to locate chapters, including all the current Spin-Off stories placed where I believe they fit into the storyline best. Also, from this new chapter index tab, you’ll be able to peek at what I have planned for future arcs and where I’m currently at in the writing.

That’s it for now, I look forward to hearing from you all in the comments. As always, thanks for reading and for faithfully voting each week at topwebfiction for my story and sharing it on your social media platforms to help others find this story.

See you Wednesday,
-Scott

~~~~

~~~

They escorted Megan to the house clinic. Broken glass crunched beneath their feet. The long bed that Meredith remembered had been removed. Cabinet doors hung open on partially ripped off hinges. All the medical equipment was gone. Aside from a filthy unraveled roll of gauze and a handful of scattered wooden tongue depressors, the rest of the clinic was stripped bare of anything useful.

Meredith looked discouraged.

“The attic was the only room we’d found that appeared untouched. Just a bunch of old stuff up there, anyway,” Stephen said. “When Mother’s goons cleared this place out, they probably didn’t give a shit about the garage sale items stored up there. That stuff’s probably been collecting dust long before they started using this house. Sorry, Meredith.”

She nodded, then glanced at Megan.

The young woman looked much worse. She sat down against the wall where and old ripped and faded eye chart still hung. She was resting her head in her arms, staring at the floor, and trying to keep her breathing calm.

She’s weak, Meredith thought. Poor girl’s trying her best to control it… but the hunger’s stronger than she is in this state. Meredith looked toward the back of the clinic where the office door stood open. Dr. Candice Forrester’s bare large oak desk dominated the view. She walked toward the office.

“Nothing in there… except for that whale of a desk,” Logan said. “They probably couldn’t figure out how to get it out of that office without tearing down a wall. Come to think of it… makes me wonder how they got the damn thing in there to begin with.”

She had to check anyway. “Just give me a minute,” she said, stepping into the office.

Meredith checked all the drawers in the large desk. Many were left open or completely removed. Nothing… and more nothing. She was feeling desperation kick in and considered exploring the attic. Meredith sat down in Forrester’s chair, surprised that it was still intact. Sitting down reminded her how exhausted they all were as she sank into the comfortable torn leather seat and almost passed out. She shook her head awake and leaned across the desk. She stared down at the spot where the other chair once stood, imagining a timid, younger version of herself sitting there, hands in lap, eyes staring down sheepishly, as the doctor probed her with question after question. What was that woman up to here? she thought. Did she screen all the girls coming in before deciding if they met Mother’s requirements? Was Forrester responsible for sending them below, never to be seen or heard from again? Meredith shook her head sadly, closing her eyes to shut out partial memories with too many gaps in them. She had honestly liked the doctor who had always seemed out of place at the orphanage. Forrester had tried to make her feel comfortable. Looking back in retrospect, Candice, as she liked Meredith to call her, was just another professional liar serving Mother’s agenda, and in this case, preying on naïve children with special abilities. Where did I go when that woman injected me in the secret room? Where did Forrester take me? Was I down in that cavern, too? And if so, how am I still alive today? More blanks in her memory but Meredith sensed that she’d been removed from this place entirely, at some point, along with those four comatose patients. The cavern should’ve triggered something, sparked some horrific experience repressed inside her head. But there had been nothing.

Meredith shook her head. “No. I wasn’t down there,” she said. “They had other plans for this special girl,” she spat bitterly. “Elsewhere,” she whispered, not knowing why.

Stephen stepped into the office, out of breath and sweaty.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

He then smiled and said, “I went back to the kitchen. We’d found some food in the cabinets, can goods mainly, and some rotting leftovers in the fridge… but it got me thinking. A house like this, with all you girls living in it. There had to be a first-aid kit or two stationed around here.”

Meredith’s eyes lit up. She stood. “Now that you mention it,” she said. “I believe there was one on the wall between the refrigerator and-”

“And the oven,” he finished with a smile. He held up his hand, revealing a syringe, still sealed in its plastic bag. “I guess they missed the kit… or didn’t care. Either way, it was fully stocked.”

She came out from around the large desk and almost danced her way to Stephen before giving him a big hug. “Oh, thank you! Thank you!”

“No problem,” he said, laughing. “Now, are you going to tell us what you’re planning to do with it?”

Meredith looked around the windowless office and said, “This will have to do. Bring Megan in here. She’ll need to be contained for what comes next. Back in the compound, Cooper and I had the glass cell to do this in… but out here… it’s risky.”

Stephen frowned, staring at the syringe. He started to catch on. “Are you going to do what I think you’re going to do, Meredith? And if so, how long were you and the good doctor feeding that girl blood right under our noses?”

Meredith looked away. “I’m… I’m sorry, Stephen. We tried everything else to keep the nourishment down. It only worked for a little while, but her body… her reanimated body… just kept rejecting it. It drove Coop nuts trying to figure it out, but it eluded him. Something within the dead, something that I believe is not from our world, just requires them to ingest blood. All I know is that when we started to include small dosages of blood, along with whatever food we could get into her, it seemed to balance out whatever was causing her system to shut down.”

Stephen glared at Meredith, shook his head, and then looked back out the office doorway. Logan was talking to Megan, trying to keep the young woman distracted. He smiled at the two of them. “He’s coming around. Logan’s starting to see Megan more, and the monster less.” He turned back to Meredith. “You do realize that if anyone in the compound had suspected what you and Dr. Cooper had been doing, and had come to me with it, I probably would’ve had to put a bullet in her brain. I don’t even know if Logan’s going to understand what you’re about to do. I don’t know that I do, either.”

Meredith looked shocked.

“You and Coop were supposed to be proving that she was capable of coming back, not feeding her like some captured vampire. How did you know you weren’t making her worse, dangling that blood carrot around like rewarding some dog for learning a new trick?”

Meredith sighed. “I know you’re upset, Stephen, and I should’ve come to you about it.”

“Yes, you damn well should have.”

“But we tried everything else, nothing was working until we… compromised. And she was getting better after we started what Coop called… blood treatments.”

“That’s insane,” he said. “And Cooper was on board with this?”

“No, he wasn’t. Not initially. But I… I was persuasive. In truth, he thought the same way you did until he saw Megan’s recovery increase significantly after I started giving her the treatments.”

“And that’s what you’re going to do now? Draw your own blood and then… what… just give it to her?”

“Just enough to help her for now. Think of what she’s going through as an addiction, if that helps.”

Stephen shook his head. “So, you’re going to treat that addiction by giving her controlled dosages of the drugs?”

“In a manner of speaking… yes.”

“That seems very, very dangerous, Meredith. You know what blood does to these things.”

“Yes,” she said. “I am aware of the risks. That’s why she needs to be contained.”

“In case you feed her your blood and she turns on you, right?”

Meredith paused and then said, “I’m not going to hide this any longer, Stephen. I already feel bad for keeping it from you this long. But… there is a risk that the hunger could overwhelm her when the blood is introduced. Back in the compound clinic, we could observe her safely from the other side of the glass. In the early trials, she tried to attack me through the glass when she got a taste of my blood. We always talked her down… eventually.”

Stephen laughed. “I’m not liking this… at all.”

“We don’t have any options, Stephen. Look at her out there. She’s trying not to cave, but if she doesn’t get a… well… a fix… soon, she’s going to lose control.”

“So, she’s not really getting better at all. Is that what you’re telling me?”

“No. She is. Megan’s going through longer periods without needing to feed. That’s what it was like in the clinic before the Shadow Dead attacked. I believe she’s building up her resistance—If that’s what it is—and she’ll be able to go from several hours to perhaps days without the blood.”

“But she’ll always need it, Meredith.”

This time she had nothing to say. Finally, she conceded, “Perhaps. But maybe, after we start rebuilding our world and rising out of the ashes of this one, we’ll grow as a community and someone, somewhere, will find an acceptable substitute for Megan and others like her—some kind of synthetic blood. I don’t know. All I do know is that Megan is fighting back and trying her best to reclaim her humanity, even though her body is slowly rotting away. That’s something unique with the ones inflicted with the ‘Silver Sickness’. They’re only partially dead. So, for now, we feed the dead parts of her that we don’t understand with the only substance that seems to work, while the living parts of her can still ingest nourishment the regular way.”

Stephen glanced back out at Megan. “The dead currently outnumber the living. I hope that changes eventually if we ever hope to ‘rebuild’ anything. But for now, I suppose that we’re the ones with irregular eating habits.”

Meredith smirked, not appreciating the joke. “She can beat this, Stephen. But not without help… and for right now… not without blood.”

Stephen turned and closed his eyes with a heavy sigh. He gave her an exhausted glance and said, “So, we do this your way and risk her losing her shit, or, we do nothing and risk her losing her shit anyway. Sounds like we don’t have a lot of choices.”

“You could always put that bullet in her head.”

Stephen and Meredith turned to find Logan in the doorway.

The big preacher smiled. “Your voices carry in this empty old place.”

Meredith looked past the big preacher, toward Megan who remained in the other room. She had her head down either pretending to not overhear the conversation, or too feverish to notice. Meredith glared at Logan. “And you don’t approve of what I’m doing, of course,” she said with a sneer. “You would rather shoot that monster dead.”

“No,” he said. “I’m growing rather fond of that young lady out there. She’s putting up a helluva fight and I intend to keep helping her fight that good fight… for as long as it takes.” He then returned her gaze with an equally intense one. “As for what you and the doctor did, that’s between you and God to work out.”

This surprised both Stephen and Meredith.

Logan nodded back out toward clinic. “It’s Megan who suggested the bullet. Sent me to tell you, too.”

Meredith was stunned.

Logan finished, staring directly at Meredith. “That brave woman out there would rather die on her own terms, fighting this so-called ‘addiction’, then risk going for your throat after tasting your blood… again.”

Meredith stared at the girl like a proud mother on the verge of making the toughest decision of her life.

Megan refused to look up and meet her gaze.

Meredith’s throat tensed up as she wiped tears from her eyes. She looked at the others. “And that’s why we have to try.”

Stephen nodded reluctantly. “Okay. We try. But you’re not doing it alone.”

“No,” Meredith said. “The risk is too high. This is on me. I should do it alone.”

Logan drew the handgun from the holster on his side, catching Meredith’s look of disgust. “We’re not discussing this any further if we’re doing this damnable thing. I’ll be praying fervently that it works. But if she attacks, may God grant me the strength to fulfill that girl’s final request.”

~~~

Megan reluctantly let them lead her into Dr. Forrester’s office. Part of her wanted to overpower them, which she could still do in her weakened state, and then run away from the house—anything to keep from slaughtering her friends. But she kept picturing herself reaching the wall of the dead outside and giving in to the madness that would immediately overwhelm her. The only difference would be that she’d end up among the horde eventually attacking her friends anyway as she was consumed completely by that hunger fire, which would destroy her final hold on humanity.

It was Logan’s firm stare that made her give in. In his eyes she could clearly see that he meant business. Either this worked, or he would put an end to all her suffering right here and now. She found great comfort in Logan’s face. It gave her a glimpse of the man he was before his God had claimed him. There was hatred in those eyes—a hatred that would not hesitate to blow her brains out the moment she went savage. She knew the preacher had denounced this hatred, but he could no more escape his darkness then she could escape her own. The best either of them could do was control it… and in this case… should her monster reveal itself, Logan’s monster would be there to finish it.

Before entering the office, she turned to the big preacher and said, “You do… do what you have to do. Don’t… don’t hesitate. I forgive you… for whatever happens next. But don’t you dare… don’t you dare hesitate if I… lose control. That, I can’t… I won’t forgive. Understand?”

Logan looked toward the others uncomfortably.

Stephen couldn’t stop fidgeting.

Meredith refused to look him in the eyes.

He turned back to Megan, nodded, and then smiled. “May God grant you strength, little lady, to resist the wiles of the enemy and defeat them all on your terms, in Jesus’ name.”

She grabbed his gun wrist firmly and said, “And if your God decides to not help me today…”

He frowned. “God is here either way, Megan. To stay your violence… or to make mine necessary. Let’s leave it at that.”

She nodded, releasing her grip on the preacher, and then entered the office.

Stephen nervously led her to a fold up chair they’d found in another room. He repositioned it in front of the large oak desk and said, “Please… sit here, Megan.”

She sat down.

Stephen knelt beside her. “Is there… is there anything I can get you? Anything to make you more comfortable about all this?”

To the young half-dead woman, Stephen sounded like a reluctant prison guard escorting a prisoner to sit before the final death-row meal was served. She smiled at him and said, “I’m okay. Thank you.”

Stephen nodded with a heavy sigh then stood up and walked with Meredith to the other side of the desk.

Logan remained directly behind Megan, standing in the doorway with his hands in his pockets. He looked miserable, sweating profusely, as he prayed quietly to his God.

Meredith met the girl’s gaze and was surprised to find her smiling.

Megan laughed lightly and said, “It’s alright, Meredith. Don’t look so worried.”

Meredith took a deep breath and tried her best to smile back. She sat down in Forrester’s chair and folded her hands across the large desk. She tried to shut out Stephen’s nervous movements to her right, and the foreboding Logan in the doorway. She focused entirely on the brave young woman. “You know,” she said. “I once sat where you did, in this very office. I was very young. I felt like I’d done something wrong in school and was sent to see the principal.”

Megan laughed. “Did that… did that happen a lot to you in school? I can’t… I can’t picture you as much of a hellraiser.”

“Well, let’s just say, because of my… odd behavior… I was often misunderstood.”

“They were… afraid of you,” Megan said. “I get that.”

Meredith smiled. “Yes, I imagine you do.”

“Sucks being… being different.”

The old woman nodded. “Most of the time… yes. But then, occasionally, you get to meet someone as remarkably different as yourself, someone that reminds you that you’re not alone in this world, and then you realize that being different can also be very beautiful.”

Megan’s eyes started to water up. She nodded. “I guess that’s… that’s true. Thanks for… thanks for trying to remind me of that. Hearing it is… is one thing… but you always made me… made me see it. Even… even back in that glass prison… when I… when I was very ugly… you looked at me that way. Eventually… I started to see it… I started to see it, too.” The young woman looked away and wiped frustrated tears from her eyes. She was shaking violently and trying to control it. “We should… we should do this. I’m started to… it’s starting to get very difficult.”

“Okay,” Meredith said, quickly wiping fresh tears off her own cheeks. “Okay,” she repeated.

“Maybe we should restrain her…” Stephen started.

“No, Stephen,” she said. “That will only increase her potential aggression. That never worked in the compound. She needs… Megan needs to know that the choice is hers.”

Megan raised her eyes and stared at the older woman.

“It’s going to be alright, honey. Just… just stay focused on me. Always on me. We’ll get through this together, alright?”

Megan nodded, but it took considerable effort to do so.

Logan tensed up in the doorway. He lowered his gun arm, letting his hand hang near the holstered weapon. He was twitching his fingers but trying not to appear threatening. He would not draw the weapon until the last possible moment. Both for Megan’s sake, and Meredith’s.

Stephen was standing near the drawer where they’d staged the syringe and the old coffee cup they’d recovered from the kitchen. He’d suggested drawing the blood prior and just leaving it in the cup on the desk, like feeding a stray wild animal locked inside the office. Meredith had shot that idea down, convinced that she needed to be present to calm the girl down. Also, Megan needed to see that the blood was being given to her freely, and it was her hope that by participating in the entire process, the young half-dead woman would understand that the violence wasn’t necessary. And then, of course, the blood needed to be given to her immediately… while it was still warm… but she kept that to herself to spare Stephen.

Back in the compound clinic, she and Coop had figured out that the blood and the violence were closely connected, but Cooper had only started theorizing about it before his death. He had believed it was something akin to wolves on a hunt. Without the ‘kill’ the blood lost most of its vitality, or appeal, like a food source being stripped of its nutritional value… whatever that meant to the dead. Coop had believed the key to bringing Megan back was to find a way to ‘interrupt’ this relationship between the hunger and the source. But it had eluded him.

Meredith, however, understood this connection better than most… and the risks associated with opening her mind to reach into Megan’s. At the time she was either unwilling or unprepared to test Cooper’s theories by restoring her abilities and becoming the freak again. Besides, there had always been the risk that by doing so, the dead would sense her and storm the compound.

Stephen stared nervously at the drawer. His only job was to retrieve the cup, place it on the table, and then hand the syringe to Meredith… and do it quickly… when the older woman gave him the visual cue.

Meredith kept her eyes on Megan’s. She knew what she had to do now, even with the horde surrounding the orphanage, even though she risked becoming ill the moment she entered that diseased place within her mind, she still had to try and reach into Megan’s thoughts and find a way to interrupt that connection to the violence.

“We’re going to do this now, Megan,” Meredith said. “I know it’s going to be hard, but you have to stay with me, alright? Don’t give in to the hunger. I’m going to help you with all that darkness. I’m going to be right there with you in ways I can’t explain. But you’ll know.”

Megan managed a weak smile, then continued to shake.

They were almost out of time.

Meredith rolled up her right sleeve, keeping her eyes firmly on the girl.

That was the cue.

Stephen reached for the drawer and retrieved the coffee cup and placed it on the table.

Logan immediately drew the handgun and took a step back.

Stephen handed Meredith the syringe.

Megan saw the syringe and began to shake so badly it looked like she was about to go into seizures if she didn’t lunge across the desk.

Logan raised the handgun and aimed it at the back of Megan’s head. “Dear Lord,” he prayed. “grant her peace. Grant us both your perfect peace.”

“Eyes on me!” Meredith said, drawing the girl’s attention away from the syringe and back on her face. “Stay focused on me, honey. This part will be the hardest.”

Megan’s sweat dripped down her pale face. Her large silver eyes looked like they were about to pop out of her head. She gripped the bottom of her chair with both hands in a desperate attempt to remain seated. Her fingers bled black from gripping the chair so fiercely.

Meredith knew she would have to be quick. The moment she stuck the needle in her arm and the blood oozed into the narrow cylinder, Megan would lose all control in seconds. There would not be another chance at this. She would have to assault her way into Megan’s primal thoughts and attempt to locate something—anything—to disrupt that murderous drive brought on by the intense hunger. If she could find it, Meredith might be able to block out that compulsion in Megan’s mind, much like how she, herself, blocked the dead from invading her own thoughts, and then teach her how to manage it. It could work, Coop! she thought. I might be able to interrupt that connection to the violence… permanently! The implications were mind-boggling. The risk was significant. The Silver Sickness she’d felt at the church in Harpersfield had almost destroyed her. And she would have to open herself up to Megan, with no defenses in place. If this doesn’t work… She shut the useless thought out immediately. There was no room in her mind for doubts. There couldn’t be.

God… please… help us, she thought.

“I need you close your eyes, honey. Just try to hold on.”

Megan closed her eyes.

Meredith took a final breath then stuck the needle into her arm. The blood started to fill the syringe.

Megan smelled it immediately and opened her eyes. She started jumping up and down in the fold-up chair but managed to stay seated, maintaining her death grip.

Logan put his finger on the trigger of the gun and turned to stone within.

When the syringe was full, Meredith removed it and handed it to Stephen. He immediately held it over the coffee cup and started to extract the crimson fluid.

Megan started screaming.

Logan took a step closer, trying to maintain his aim on the struggling half-dead woman.

Meredith leaned in toward Megan across the desk and pushed her way into Megan’s mind with so much force that she thought both hers and Megan’s heads would explode.

Megan stopped screaming. Megan stopped convulsing.

Outside the orphanage, the horde stopped. As one they all turned to stare at the house.

Megan remained motionless in the chair. She was staring at Meredith, perhaps beyond the old medium.

Then Meredith violently fell back into the chair, gripping the sides of her head. She started to shake violently and scream.

“Shit!” Stephen said.

“What’s happening?” Logan called out.

“I don’t fucking know!”

Distracted by what was happening to Meredith, Logan stepped further into the room. He lowered the gun slightly, not knowing who to point it at.

Megan stood up and lunged over the desk.

“Shit!” Logan called out, turning the gun back toward Megan.

“WAIT!” Stephen yelled, holding up his hand toward Logan.

Megan snatched up the coffee cup in both hands and poured it down her throat so fast it sounded like she was choking on the blood. When she was finished, the girl collapsed, spread eagle on the desk, knocking the bloody cup to the floor.

At the same time, Meredith went limp in the chair.

From outside, the dead lingered a moment more, then turned their gazes away from the house.

“Is she okay?” Logan asked.

Stephen lightly slapped Meredith across the cheek. “Meredith! You in there!”

The older woman opened her eyes, causing Stephen to step back. She sat up sluggishly and asked in a raspy voice, “Megan?”

“She’s still with us,” Logan said, observing that she was still breathing. “What did you do?”

“Are you okay? Did it work?” Stephen asked.

Meredith frowned, looking away in disgust. “Just… just give me a second.”

Stephen backed off.

“Well?” Logan asked impatiently, eager to holster his gun.

She looked at them both and started to weep. “It was too much,” she said. “Too much pain. Too much sickness. It nearly overwhelmed me. I was able to shut out the sickness… but it was close.” She looked to Stephen and said, “I had no choice. I had to do it. Had to reach out to the ones… outside… reached into their decayed minds because they were easier to manage. I found their memories, the bloody ones… I saw how each of them died and I… used them all.”

Stephen frowned. “You weren’t able to stop her,” he said. “So, you fed her… violence.”

She looked at Stephen, disappointed with herself. “I had to. She… it was too much. Their kind is too much! So… I tricked Megan. Made her focus on the blood in that cup.”

“While she fed on the memories of the dead outside, and all their kills,” Stephen finished.

Meredith looked away and wept.

Stephen turned to Logan.

“I don’t understand,” the big preacher said. “Whatever she did, it worked… didn’t it?”

“No,” Stephen finished. “It didn’t work.” He looked to Megan. “All she did was buy us some more time. Megan’s gone dormant.”

“What does that even mean?” Logan said.

“It means that Megan’s going to wake up and believe she just slaughtered a whole lot of people in a blood bath she didn’t participate in. I’ve seen this before. When the yellow-eyed haters attacked us in Jefferson, Meredith shut them all down by feeding them memories of the slain—at the moments of their deaths—from the very minds of the predators themselves.”

Logan stared at Megan. “Are you telling me that when she wakes up, Megan’s going to be full on memories of victims as if she just had an extra-large Thanksgiving meal… and what… she just had a nap afterwards?”

Meredith flinched at the cold analogy.

“Well, I would’ve put it more delicately than that… but yes,” Stephen finished, kneeling beside Meredith to console her friend.

Logan sighed, shaking her head at Megan. “So, instead of weaning off this poor girl’s addiction, we just pumped her up with so much death that she overdosed.”

“Yes,” Meredith chimed in. “That’s exactly what I did. But it was the only way to stop her.”

“And what do we tell her when she wakes up with all those horrible fucking memories? Hmm?” Logan was clearly upset. “How is she going to live with all that?”

Meredith was about to speak, then stopped. She stared at Megan’s dormant frail frame and silently cursed herself. I failed, Coop! I couldn’t find it. I couldn’t sever the connection. Too much pain and darkness. Too much! She shook her head, closed her eyes, and said, “I don’t know what to tell her, Logan. I just don’t know.”

~~~

Next Episode 49-4

Previous Episode 49-2

~~~

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“Chapter 49-3: Lions in the Dark” 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.

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~~~

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~~~

~~~

Walking through the silent remains of the old home was much more painful then Meredith wanted to admit. She could still picture the girls all moving about, performing various evening chores before sitting down to dinner together in the massive dining room. Every room was stripped bare, left broken—like the decaying bones of an abode where the walls still echoed with young voices that had no idea what the future held for them outside those walls, but in here, they had each other. And that was still something special, lies or not.

Meredith could still feel the buzzing in her mind as they approached the basement door. It was much fainter now, but it was what first compelled her toward that dark secret place when she was younger. An overwhelming panic mixed with nausea struck her as she crept toward that old forbidden door—memory reminding her that, like some addict in the worst stages of withdrawal, she had needed to come down here. But it was mostly out of fear, when she’d broken off her friendship with Clem, that had last pushed her down those steps, hoping she could hide from the deranged young girl… and return to the creepy little doll with the sad, dark eyes.

Logan lit an old lantern he’d found among the antiques left behind in the attic. He turned to Meredith, a look of trepidation painted on his face. “I don’t know what went on in this house but coming up in this basement almost made me want to turn around and head back down into that cavern. It was terrifying wandering around down there in the dark, all disoriented, and… I swore it felt like that darkness was thick… like it had substance that we had to push through until we found these steps up into the daylight.”

“I couldn’t breathe,” Stephen added. “I think the silence was the worst.” He looked to Logan and Megan, then back to Meredith, and finished, “I don’t know if it was just my imagination, but I thought I heard voices beneath that silence. Not loud enough to hear what they were saying, but just enough to know that we weren’t alone. It was damn creepy. You sure you want to go down there?”

“I need to,” Meredith said. “Everything in my memory ended in that basement, so long ago. I’m hoping I might remember more than I do now… something vital.”

“You going to tell us what’s down there?” Logan said. “And what the hell is happening now, that’s got a horde of zombies surrounding this place?”

She smiled at the suspicious preacher and said, “Let me finish this, Logan. If I can fill in a few more blanks, then perhaps the things I’ve stayed secretive about won’t feel like such a secret from me.”

“Fair enough.” Logan opened the old door. It moaned on rusted hinges like a very bad joke. He laughed and looked to Stephen. “Another door, little brother. Want to go first?”

“We’ve already experienced this horror show. At least we have a little light this time,” he said.

“Wait!” It was Megan.

They all turned to the half-dead young woman. She was fidgeting and sweating so much it looked like she was suffocating in her own skin. “I… I can’t. I can’t go down there. It’s too much!”

Meredith put a hand on her shoulder. “It’s okay, honey. I know you’re trying to be brave for us. But you’ve done enough, and you’ve come so far. This isn’t something you can protect me from.” She took the rest of them in. “None of you need to do this with me. These are my ghosts to face.”

“I… I can guard the landing,” Megan offered shamefully. “That… basement… is too much like what’s going on inside my head. It’s like the darkness inside of me has been turned inside-out down there. But up here, I’m starting to feel closer to… normal? If I still qualify for that.”

Meredith thought about the girl’s words and frowned. All this time below ground, hidden behind that electrified field, I never once considered that what was keeping my abilities shut out might also be keeping Megan trapped in that savage shell. Maybe all she ever needed to get stronger was to get back up here, where she came from, and away from those all those dark labs and compounds where she was… changed. What was my oasis from the world above… became her prison. “That’s fine, honey,” Meredith said, turning away to wipe frustrated tears off her face. “You’ve done enough. Stay here and watch our backs.” The old medium shut her eyes and shook her head. There was nothing to be done about it now. She’d already lost Coop. Perhaps that was the price for her selfish need to stay below ground and maintain her own illusion of ‘normality’ while forcing this poor girl to stay the monster.

“Meredith?” Stephen said.

“It’s nothing,” she said, shaking the regrets away. “I’m fine.”

Logan sighed heavily. “If Megan’s staying up here, maybe I’ll just-”

“We’re with you,” Stephen said, staring down the big preacher who looked a little disappointed. “No one should go down there alone.”

Logan reluctantly nodded. “Yeah… what he said.” He then laughed and shook his head.

Meredith smiled at them. “Thank you both. I know I haven’t been forthcoming about this place… and I intend to change that. But your fear is valid. I’m doing all I can to keep from shaking so I don’t fall down these steps.”

Logan moved toward the landing, using the lantern light to extinguish some of the shadows. “Let’s get this over with.”

Meredith followed the preacher and Stephen took up the rear as they descended the creaky old steps into the dark basement like ghost hunters approaching the source of evil which still resided in this long dead place.

When they reached the bottom, Meredith led them to the right, toward the room with the old half-circle of toys with the doll cases. She did everything she could to reinforce her mental defenses, expecting the darkness itself to attack her mind. When they entered the cold, empty space, she was relieved. Except for an old water-stained carpet, all the toys were gone. The only thing that remained was the wall of old doll cabinets—all of which were empty.

She sighed heavily. “It’s all gone,” she said. “Even the dolls are gone.”

“Dolls?” Stephen asked.

“Yes. This used to be a playroom. At least, I think it was. Don’t ask me why it was hidden away in the basement, but there used to be a bunch of toys down here.” She pointed at the cabinets. “And in those cabinets were four dolls. When I first found them, I thought they were staring right at me.”

“Great,” Logan said, staring around at the shadows near their feet. “A room full of creepy dolls that are currently missing. If I see one running around like Chucky, you and our gracious Lord above, will have to forgive me when I shit myself.”

Stephen laughed nervously. “A room full of abandoned toys ruled by old dolls. Anything else we need to know about this increasingly terrifying basement, Meredith?”

The old medium was staring at the first doll case, which was a hidden door left partially open. She found the etching of the small Mother symbol and felt a chill. “Did you… is that where you came out?” she asked them.

Logan and Stephen turned toward the first cabinet. Logan shined the lantern on it.

“Shit,” Stephen said. “I guess that is. We just fumbled around in the dark until we found the staircase. We had no idea how we managed it. We could’ve crawled out of there.”

“You asked about the basement, Stephen,” Meredith said, dropping her voice to a near whisper. She bent down and pointed out the symbol. “There was a doctor who frequented this place who kept four patients strapped into beds. This was where she hid them. They were hooked up to machines and appeared to be asleep. I remember cables on the floor. I believe they were connected, somehow, to the four dolls in those cabinets. I was just a child when I was led to this secret room, but it left quite an impression on me. Back then, it was like walking into some mad scientist’s secret laboratory. Looking back at it now, I don’t know if they were asleep at all. They could’ve been sick… or dead. I’m not certain, but I think one of them grabbed my arm… and I think it was Toby.”

Logan shook his head. “You mean… there’s bodies down here, too! Oh, this is getting better and better. Can we leave now?”

“I have to believe they’re long gone, like everything else in this place,” Meredith said. “But maybe there’s something left behind… anything… to help me make sense of it all.”

“Other than a secret door in the floor hidden within a secret room in a basement full of creepy ass dolls?” Stephen asked.

Meredith smiled. “Something like that.”

Logan tugged nervously on his beard and stepped forward through the doll case door, muttering under his breath about ghost dolls and dead men in a world full of zombies. He was half praying, half cursing that if they ever got out of this place, he’d build a church with no basement… praise, God… amen!

Meredith and Stephen followed.

As expected, the large room was empty. There were no bodies, no machines… even the back office that Meredith remembered a surprised Dr. Forrester storming out of, was completely bare. The only thing that remained was a large metal closed hatch sitting alone in the back corner of the room.

“That’s it,” Stephen said. “We came up through there and closed that damn thing behind us.”

While the others’ attention was focused on the hatch, Meredith just stared about the room. She shook her head in frustration like stepping into a vault and finding it empty. They left nothing! Robbed me of my memory and anything else that could connect what happened to me in here! She stared at the hatch. Except for that.

Stephen and Logan knelt on either side of the hatch. Logan tested it to make sure it was still secure while Stephen lowered an ear, half expecting to hear monsters coming up from the darkness.

“It appears that we managed to lock this thing,” Logan said. “Fortunately, it wasn’t locked on the trip up.”

“Of course, it wasn’t,” Meredith said dejectedly, tossing her arms in the air. “That was his plan all along.”

Stephen turned. “You mean this… Toby… right?”

“Yes. Toby,” she said, crouching down next to them. “This was always where he wanted us to end up. I’m sure of it.”

“It didn’t seem that way down in that cavern,” Stephen said. “If you hadn’t… you know…”

“Gone all supernova?” Meredith finished with a smile.

“Exactly,” he said. “If you hadn’t used your abilities down there, we wouldn’t have made it to the ladder. Whatever was happening to all of us, we were-”

“We were royally screwed,” Logan finished. “That madness, or whatever it was, had us, Meredith. We were done.”

“Yes,” she said, “until I conveniently opened myself up to that madness, expending myself in the process, just in time to allow us a window to escape.”

“You believe this Toby arranged that, too?” Stephen asked.

She slumped to her knees. “I don’t know what to believe now. I feel like I’ve been betrayed by my own mind, and what I can remember is like pieces to a very old puzzle. I don’t even remember what I did down in that cavern… just that I woke up here.”

Logan started to stand. “Well, let’s get out of this oppressive basement and maybe we can help you put those pieces together.”

“There’s just one thing I need to tell you now,” she said. “Whatever this entity is that’s been manipulating us. I believe it’s responsible for everything that’s happened leading up to the Shadow Dead attack.” She paused and let out a heavy sigh. “I’ve been hearing Toby’s voice in my mind since the attack… since before then…and I’ve been fighting against his trespasses in my head ever since. The reason I’ve kept it to myself is that it’s been really difficult to determine if I’m really hearing from this creature… or if I’m going crazy.”

Stephen looked to Logan then nodded to Meredith. “Are you still hearing his voice… in this place?”

“When I first woke up, I heard him say that if we tried to leave this house, he’d send the dead to finish us off.”

“Shit, that might have been good to know.” Logan couldn’t hide his frustration with her.

“You have to understand,” Meredith defended. “I’m not sure if it’s Toby or if it’s just some subconscious part of myself… or my faulty memory… that I’m finally tapping into.” She stared pleadingly into the preacher’s eyes. “Can you understand why I hesitate to talk, Logan? I’ve been treated with scorn and suspicion most of my life for what I can do… and for being different… for being feared for those differences. It wasn’t that long ago that I was kept under house arrest for my association with Mother, and one of your own men tried to murder me for being the Wasteland Witch.”

“Yes… but we’re past that, now,” he said.

“Are we?” she challenged. “What if am going insane? What if I’m not hearing from Toby at all… or I never have? What if it’s all in my mind? What if Toby is nothing more than a character that I’ve created to process this dark side of my mind, full of holes, just so I can live with it? For all I know, I’ve been doing it since I was thirteen, managing to block it all out for a long time, and it’s now come back.”

Logan had no response.

Stephen stepped in. “But you’ve already mentioned this entity… even the research files we’ve discovered confirm that.”

“Yes,” she said. “But what if my connection to this entity has only made my abilities worse? Rather than communicating with something, what if I’ve been changed by it, instead? When I was in this basement for the last time, I was injected with something that knocked me out, and then whisked away to God-only-knows where. There are huge gaps in my memory where I have no accounting for where I was. Who knows what’s been done to me, and for how long?” She started to wipe frustrated tears from her eyes. “For all I know, I’m Toby… and I brought the dead here to surround this house. And all the files below could just as easily be talking about me and what I did after I was abducted.”

Stephen shook his head. “No. I can’t believe that. There’s a whole lot I don’t understand about this crazy new world, or about what you can do, or where it came from, but I do know you. And you have a good heart. This Toby is real, and just like the dead that you have a connection with, Toby has also found a way to exploit that.”

“I hope you’re right, Stephen, I really do,” she said. “I’ve been claiming for so long that my silence on matters… and my secrets… have been to protect the people I care about from the evil plaguing this world. But sometimes, especially now, I wonder if I’ve just been trying to protect you all from… me.”

Logan looked increasingly uncomfortable. “Again, let’s get back into the light. This dark place is ripe for dire thoughts.”

“He’s right, Meredith,” Stephen said. “I think being down here is just that darkness that Megan sensed, feeding off our doubts as easily as the dead feeding on our flesh.” He looked around and finished, “We’ll work this out together… whatever this all is… and you’ll know, as I do, that you’re not the cause of it all. Okay?”

She nodded. “Thank you. Thank you both.”

“Just one more thing,” Logan injected.

Meredith waited.

“You will tell us, insanity or not, if this Toby has anything else to say, right?”

The old medium laughed. “I will. Promise.”

“That’s good enough for me,” he said. “Let’s get upstairs and promise each other that we’ll forget this house even has a basement… Lord willing, of course.”

~~~

Megan was relieved when her friends finally returned from the terrifying basement. She’d spent most of her time peeking out windows at the dead. Every time she did so, she immediately felt a fresh wave of savageness attempting to rip away at her identity and causing her to lose control. It was becoming more and more intense—the hunger, the call to return to her base self. But she pushed it back, each time… barely. Aside from being in such close proximity to the horde outside, she couldn’t deny the fact that at some point very soon, she would have to feed. The longer she went without, the more urgent the need for blood became. In her rational mind, or what was left of it, she couldn’t understand the need, the compulsion, that drove her to consuming flesh. She’d pictured herself devouring human remains, hoping to feed her repulsion, rather than her addiction. But as her hunger intensified, such imaginings only made the need stronger. She remembered the bloody image of herself, in the broken mirror, and how shocking it was to see the monster staring back at her. She tried to keep the image firmly set in her mind as the hunger grew worse. She started to shake. She started to sweat. Her insides were on fire. She could hear her own voice screaming in her thoughts like a primitive beast. But she still managed to resist.

This is not me. This is not who I am. The desperate mantra had echoed in her thoughts when the primitive stopped screaming. She needed the others to get back soon so she could feed… NO!… so, she could stay distracted, encouraged. If anything was becoming increasingly clear to her, it was that she could not remain alone, not for very long, not if she wanted to remain human.

She’d stolen one more peek at the dead outside.

Men, women, children—didn’t matter. They were all lost souls, ripped from life or forced from places of rest from beneath the ground, all here now, to roam the graveyards that dominated the surface, in search of whatever light remained. They wandered about the fields and yard surrounding the orphanage, waiting to be let off their leashes so they could extinguish the light from within the house and darken another small corner of this dying world… forever.

They aren’t alone, either, Megan thought sadly. Even the dead can’t make it alone.

Meredith was the first up the stairwell. She didn’t make it half way before almost stumbling forward, knocked off-balance by the intense mental anguish she sensed emanating from the young woman near the landing. An immediate wave of nausea struck her next. At first, what she sensed felt so much like the dead attacking, that she almost turned and pushed Stephen back down the stairs. She quickly shut her mind down before she was overwhelmed by Megan, and then fought through her own physical discomfort and finished climbing the stairs.

“Oh, you poor child,” she said, clearly seeing Megan’s pain as the half-dead girl shook but tried to maintain her composure.

“I’m… I’m okay,” she lied.

When Stephen and Logan cleared the landing, they took one glance at Megan and stepped back.

By now, Megan was more embarrassed than hungry. “I said, I’m okay. I’m… I’m not going to hurt anyone.” She slammed her fist against the wall in frustration and tried to calm down. “Doesn’t matter how much I clean the blood off, fix my hair, put on new clothes, I’m still some fucking ugly monster!”

“No, no,” Meredith said, reaching out to embrace the girl.

Megan collapsed into the older woman’s arms and started to weep.

Stephen felt for her, but maintained his distance, feeling shame for doing so. He forced himself to step forward and placed a hand on the trembling girl’s shoulder. “It’s okay, Megan. We’re here for you.” He still felt like an asshole when the girl turned her face to look at him, and he nearly pulled his hand away, thinking she would bite it. Will we always be afraid of her? he wondered. Even if Megan, and others like her, battle back from the brink and beat this thing, won’t they always be… dangerous? For a split second, the question felt prophetic, like stepping into the uncertain future and discovering Megan’s fate. He frowned and opened his heart to the girl. It’s not fair. The dead and the living have it easier than she does. They will both hate her equally—for not committing one way or the other.

Logan stood still, whispering fervently to his God on Megan’s behalf.

Meredith could feel the young woman burning up in her arms. She was a sweaty mess. I’m a darn fool, she thought. Lowered my guard because she was acting so… normal. I never should have left her alone. Regardless, she knew what had to be done now. She and Coop had seen this before, when all other forms of nourishment had failed. Even feeding the girl intravenously after sedating her had only delayed the inevitable. And they’d done the unspeakable, when everything else had failed, in a desperate attempt to keep Megan… alive?

Meredith frowned. Seems like I’m going to have to spill all my dirty secrets today, she thought. Sorry, Coop. I know you were always against it. She turned to Stephen and Logan. “Did you have a chance to explore the entire house when I was out?”

Stephen was caught off-guard by the question. “Yeah. We searched the rooms to make sure there weren’t any surprises waiting for us. Keep in mind we weren’t looking for secret rooms.”

“Did you find the clinic?”

“Yes,” Logan said. “The old eyechart on the wall gave it away. Not much left of it though.”

“Were there any medical supplies left?” Meredith said.

Logan and Stephen simply looked at each other.

“We weren’t that thorough,” Logan admitted. “When the dead showed up, we were a little preoccupied. The clinic’s a mess, stuff scattered across the floor, but there might be something left.”

“We need to get Megan there… now,” she said.

“Is she hurt?” Stephen said.

Meredith frowned at him. “We need a syringe.”

~~~

Next Episode 49-3

Previous Episode 49-1

~~~

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“Chapter 49-2: Lions in the Dark” 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.