Archive for the ‘drama’ Category

~~~

Lady Clementine’s fishing vessel departed Fairport Harbor and was directed northwest toward Mother’s mysterious island. The morning presented calm seas with a warm summer breeze. An indifferent sun started its dying circuit across the day. Aside from the souls on board the solitary vessel, Lake Erie appeared to be just another void in the new world.

The red robed woman led Meredith toward the bow of the vessel where a large beach blanket was spread out over the deck.

“Please,” the robed woman started, waving an old bony hand toward the blanket. “I know it’s not like our late-night conversations in your old room with a flashlight to scare off the monsters… but it’s the best I could do under the circumstances.” The old woman flashed her a smile.

Meredith trembled looking into this woman’s ancient face. My, God! She looks a hundred years old! What have you done to yourself, Clem? She shook off the thought, and looked away from the robed woman, staring down at the blanket. Meredith moved toward the right side, as close to the outer edge of the blanket as she could. Here we go. Stay alert. Expect anything.

Clementine slowly sat down across from her, adjusting the folds of her large red robe around her legs.

Both women sat in silence for a moment, studying each other’s faces, as if peering into portals at the past.

Meredith looked back toward the stern of the boat, turned back, and said, “Should anything happen to my friends on this boat ride…”

Clementine laughed lightly, raising her eyebrows. “My, oh, my! It really is you behind that stranger’s face, isn’t it?” she said. “I was starting to have my doubts—but that old fire behind your eyes…”

Meredith sighed. “My friends?”

“Yes, yes.” Clementine waved a dismissive hand. “Nothing will happen to them. Their needs and comfort are being attended to while we catch up. You’ve nothing to fear from me, Meredith.”

Tell that to our sisters you murdered at the orphanage, she thought.

Clementine could feel her old friend’s accusing eyes, but nothing else. Her attempts to probe Meredith’s mind was like trying to scale Mount Everest with only a spoon. Her smile faltered slightly, then returned. “You are not the woman I expected,” she said. “Not at all like the frightened and confused little girl I remember who despised what she was… and what she was capable of.”

Meredith said nothing, refusing to walk into that verbal trap. She sensed Clementine’s probing immediately. She smiled and said, “I’ve as many questions as you do, Clem… and nothing to hide. Rather than attempting to invade my mind, why don’t you just ask.”

Clem laughed in surprise and lightly clapped her hands. “Indeed! Not what I expected… at all! Shame on me for believing you had neglected your gifts. Clearly, I was wrong. Forgive me, I had to make the attempt.”

“I know what you’re doing,” Meredith said. “Let’s stop pretending we’re two little girls having a sleepover like dear old friends and get down to it. You can keep on poking at me with your abilities, but you won’t gain anything that way.”

Clementine’s face went dark for a moment.

“And there you are,” Meredith said, with a smile. “I don’t need to probe your thoughts to see that you haven’t changed over the years. You are still that unstable girl that I remember.”

The robed woman quickly reeled in her temper and smiled. “So, you do remember. Has your memory been completely restored?”

“Yes.”

Clementine nodded. “Okay, Meredith. I won’t insult you again. Clearly we are both women who have set aside our childish ways… and have become… formidable.”

Meredith had no response to that.

Clementine laughed. “Let’s not do this. I don’t want to fight with you or play games. Believe it or not, a part of me was really looking forward to seeing you again.”

Meredith frowned. “How are you here? And what is your role in all of this? I assume you work for Mother, now… or rather, Toby.”

Clementine gave her old friend an amused look. “I assume you’re blocking him out right now, too… is that correct?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Then we can talk openly with each other. You are much stronger than I ever imagined. I’m a little impressed, but not surprised. Between the new face, which I would love to talk to you about at length, and the immense walls you’ve built up in your mind, it all still reminds me of the girl I once knew.”

Meredith sighed. “How so?”

“While I have embraced my ‘gifts’ and my destiny, all you’ve seemed to achieve with yours is an uncanny ability to hide. I can see why Mother…and Toby… has had a hard time keeping track of you over the years.” She shifted gears. “You know, there is no shame in who we are, Meredith. And now, we don’t have to hide it from the world any longer. That garbage we were taught at the orphanage… about hiding it from the world… that was just a means to keep us under control.”

Meredith stared into Clem’s old face and said, “I’ve paid a heavy price for ‘who’ I am… and so have you, judging by your appearance. Clearly you know this as well as I.”

Clementine nodded. “Yes, there is a price. Always a price. My abilities have taken a heavy toll on these old bones. But it won’t matter for much longer.”

“Why is that?”

Clementine just smiled. “We’ve a long boat ride ahead of us. Let’s try to clear the air, shall we? We both have many questions. I’ll answer what I can… truthfully. And maybe after… we will have cleared up a lot of misunderstandings.”

Meredith took advantage of the opportunity to knock Clem off-balance. “Okay, I’ll go first. Last I knew, you were captured by Mother after slaughtering an orphanage full of young girls. How does one go from an enemy of Mother… to apparently… a position of power?”

Clementine nodded. “Good. Let’s get that awful mess over with. I assume you read the files in Labyrinth Level 1?”

“Yes.”

Clementine shook her head and frowned. “That cavern beneath the orphanage is a very unstable place. You were incredibly fortunate to get out of there in one piece… or… in several pieces. Places like that attack the mind in unspeakable ways. Most people never leave the same way they entered. How did you-”

“The girls,” Meredith pushed. “Why? Why would you do such a horrible thing?”

Clementine’s eyes turned to stone. “Did your files mention that they attacked me, first?”

Meredith shook her head.

“No, of course not,” the robed woman continued. She looked away. “When I found out you were missing… I was… heartbroken.”

“You mean after what you did to Claudia?”

Clementine ignored the shot. “You were my only friend in that despicable place. After Mother snatched you away, I was lost… alone. No one else seemed to care that you were gone, except me. Then, while I was out walking one night, I found you in the fields. I don’t know how you got away, or where you were, but somehow you made it back. But Finch was there. He’d knocked you out, or something. I thought he was our friend, but he was trying to take you back to them! I tried to talk to him, reason with him first… but he wouldn’t listen to me. He threatened me and told me to go back inside.” Clementine looked up into Meredith’s eyes and put on her best performance. “What was I to do? I was afraid! Afraid they’d come after me next for knowing what I knew; afraid to do nothing and just let him take you away again. I already knew what everyone thought of me. Everyone hated me and wanted me gone. It was up to me to save you, Meredith! And I did what I had to do to stop that man!”

Meredith’s face was unreadable. “So… you killed Finch… to save me. Then when everyone else arrived… they saw the perfect opportunity to blame you for everything.”

“Yes!” Clementine said. “That’s exactly what happened, Meredith! I tried to explain what happened. I didn’t mean to kill Finch… I just… took it too far. But they didn’t want to listen. Miss Evans brought men with guns. They would’ve shot me down, if not for you. Then… then the girls all turned on me, too! They all let their hate for me out and came at me. What was I supposed to do? I was afraid… and so… well, you know the rest.”

“I don’t believe you,” Meredith said, with no emotion. “I believe that’s the story you’ve been telling yourself all these years to justify what you did, and maybe, you’ve come to believe it.”

Clementine just stared. She was surprised Meredith’s rejection hurt as much as it did. She balled up her fists beneath her robe and closed her eyes, trying to keep her composure. She opened them and finally said, “It doesn’t matter what you believe, Meredith. I just wanted you to hear it from me… and not from some cold words written down in a report that sealed my fate and ended my childhood.”

Meredith nodded. “And after all that death… what happened?”

Clementine looked around the small bow, breathing in the fresh air. She smiled and said, “While you were hiding from your destiny, living out your lie of a life under a dead’s girl’s name, I spent what was left of my youth in a dark room, smaller than the bow of this ship, at the end of a long, forgotten underground hallway. I was continuously drugged to keep my mind dull, poked and prodded by scientists who did everything short of dissecting me to figure out what made me tick, and then eventually just left alone to rot in the darkness.”

“That’s… that’s awful.”

Clementine nodded absently, then stared past Meredith into the gently rolling waves. “You say you don’t believe my story. So be it. It really doesn’t matter. I’m not seeking your forgiveness. You weren’t even conscious… so what the hell do you know.” She turned to Meredith with an angry gleam in her eye. “I paid for what I did to those girls, to Finch… and then some. And all of it to protect you. But I was just a frightened girl with the ability to do monstrous things to people. I didn’t understand… I didn’t have anyone to help me understand. You were my only friend, Meredith, and you were long gone, too.” She turned away and sighed. “After Mother branded me ‘Monster’, and they no longer saw a terrified child… well… let me just say that once a human being is no longer seen as one, it becomes very easy to dispose of conscience, like throwing away some worn out pair of socks. That’s how they became… as they performed ‘monstrous’ things on me.”

Meredith felt surprisingly sad. “I… I didn’t know that part. I’m very sorry that happened to you. Even after what you did… no one deserves that.”

“Thank you.” Clementine wiped a surprising bit of moisture from the corner of her left eye and stared at it. She laughed. “That was… much harder to talk about then I imagined.” She stared at Meredith. “But I’m glad I got to share that with you. It’s one less burden on my chest.”

“What did you mean when you said, ‘lie of a life under a dead girl’s name’?”

Clementine nodded. “Yes, good idea. Let’s move on from this dreary subject. I was referring to your little magic trick, of course. You know, the one where you left your body, escaped Mother’s highly secure facility, and then ended up in the body you presently wear.”

“You called it a ‘lie’,” Meredith clarified.

Clementine gave her a pained expression. “Surely, you’ve figured it out by now, haven’t you?”

Meredith frowned. “I know that Hannah… that she… worked for Mother.”

The robed woman pretended to care. “The short of it, Meredith, is that they found you eventually, then placed someone they could trust to keep an eye on you after you left the dead child’s home.”

Meredith looked away and nodded.

“It wasn’t until your abilities reemerged that they were able to locate you. Mother had already spent a great deal of time and resources establishing that network to monitor… people like us.”

“I thought I was free,” Meredith said, remembering her haunted past. “I was foolish to believe that. After I… became the brain-dead girl… after I became Michelle… I embraced it—almost believed it, too. It was wonderful to be loved, to have a mother, even if she wasn’t my own.”

Clementine nodded. “A wonderful lie, indeed. I can’t blame you for holding on to it for as long as you could.”

Meredith looked at her. “It didn’t last. I couldn’t pretend to be Michelle any more than her mother could pretend to love this strange girl wearing her dead child’s face. I think we both needed it for a while, but the strain, the distance was always there. She knew. Call it a mother’s intuition… I don’t know. But Michelle’s mother sensed there was something ‘off’ about her little girl. We kept up the farce for as long as we could… but then my abilities started to come back.”

Clementine leaned in. “And in all that time you spent wearing this face, you remembered nothing… from before?”

“For the most part, yes. What I did remember were scattered images that made little sense, like waking up from some strange dream that quickly fades. I knew who I was beneath this face, but so much of my life was hidden in the dark.”

Clementine leaned back. “And when your abilities resurfaced, I assume the strain between you and your new family got worse.”

“I didn’t let it get that far,” Meredith said. “I was a legal adult by then. I went away… and never came back. Many lonely years past… until I met Hannah.” She stopped, as a whirlwind of emotions attempted to overwhelm her. “Even now, knowing what I know about her, I still want to believe that what we had together… was real on some level.”

Clementine’s face turned to stone. “It was all bullshit, Meredith,” she said coldly.

Meredith gave her a hateful glance.

“I’m just being honest with you. The sooner you understand how… diabolical… Mother was and stop putting your emotions out there as an easy target, the stronger you will be.”

“You mean, so I can become a cold and heartless killer… like you?”

“Hannah was a tool, just as much as you were… as was I. Mother didn’t care about any of us. I wasn’t involved with anything that happened to you during those years, Meredith, but I’ve read your file, too.”

“You keep speaking of Mother in the past tense,” Meredith said.

Clementine smiled. “A lot has changed, Meredith, in the years you’ve been away. In fact, it was your escape that started quite a shitstorm back then, so I’ve come to understand.”

Meredith waited.

Clementine sighed. “The past is such a heavy burden, don’t you think? We carry so much, you and me. It’s refreshing to have someone to talk to about all of this, someone who can understand.”

“There is a lot I still don’t understand,” Meredith confessed.

Clementine laughed. “Well, I’ll try to fill you in.” The robed woman tilted her head toward the partly cloudy sky, closed her eyes, and continued. “I spent so much time in that dark room that it’s still difficult for me, after all this time, to adjust… out here.”

“What you went through sounds unbearable.”

She opened her eyes and smiled. “I wasn’t completely honest with you, Meredith. I wasn’t entirely alone in the darkness. Toby was there. He spoke with me often after I was locked up. Something he hadn’t done since before you showed up at that orphanage and ruined everything.”

Meredith didn’t know how to respond to that.

“I don’t blame you… not anymore. I was just a young and confused girl back then. I hated you for how much Toby favored you over me. I was the special one before you came along. I was the one who was supposed to achieve great things under his guidance. But that was all bullshit, too. Just like the life Forrester and Finch set up for you under the dead girl’s name. All they wanted was to keep you as far away from Mother as they could. No one had our best interests in mind, Meredith. No one really cared about a couple of freak girls.”

“Someone was looking out for you,” Meredith corrected. “It would appear that you’ve done rather well for yourself.”

Clementine laughed and shook her head. “Appearances are certainly deceiving. Yes, yes, I’m… respected… these days. But it wasn’t always like this. After the old regime lost control, Toby was furious. When you disappeared, it set the organization into a tailspin. Apparently, there were doubters within the fold who were just looking for an opportunity to rise out of the shadows and… change… the direction Mother was headed in. There was quite a few who did not desire to serve Toby’s interests.”

Meredith raised an eyebrow. “Are you saying that Mother was dealing with its own insurrection?”

“Something like that. Those fools. They had no idea what they’d unearthed. All they saw was power. But they had no idea what they were meddling with… or who. When they’d discovered the first doorway into the darkness that you and I are well-acquainted with, they thought they’d tapped into some other dimension, believing that if they could find a way to simply step through it… that they would tap into a whole new world of resources beyond anyone’s comprehension.”

“You’re saying that Mother had no idea they were opening Pandora’s Box?”

“No. They knew what they were doing was dangerous. What I’m saying is that those idiots decided to redefine what that ‘box’ was… and that they were the ones who were still in control when they opened it.”

Meredith nodded. “And then they discovered… Toby.”

“Yes,” Clementine said. “And when that happened, he promised them everything they sought… and more, and they bought into it like greedy little children with their hands caught in the cookie jar.”

“I think I’m starting to understand,” Meredith said. “When Toby entered the picture, not all in Mother were on board. Is that what you’re saying?”

Clementine smiled. “Yes. And while the unbelievers conspired in silence to break away from the organization, Toby was aware of it, but it was manageable. It wasn’t until you got away that it became a problem. The dissenters became vocal and many left Mother. Some who had already been active in causing that rift to widen, were working from within to close that box. Some like your Dr. Forrester and Finch…”

Meredith’s eyes went wide.

“So, after you slipped through Mother’s fingers, that’s when Toby forced some… organizational changes. Mother had grown weak and conflicted from within. This put Toby’s plans in jeopardy since he still needed these fools to work together to support his cause.”

“And that’s where you come in,” Meredith said.

“Yes, Meredith. That’s when I became… valuable again. Mother had become a bunch of bickering children, in Toby’s eyes. He needed something to unite them again before Mother fell apart and ruined everything. Since he couldn’t entice them any longer with false promises of power and wealth, he resorted to the oldest tactic in the book to get them back in line.”

Meredith frowned. “Fear.”

Clementine stared into her lap. “I remember Toby whispering to me in the dark about what was happening. Near the end of my incarceration, we had spent a lot of time together. He’d been preparing me for a while, telling me that my time was finally at hand.” She looked up and gave Meredith a chilling glance. “And I had grown very powerful in that little dark room, Meredith. Toby had shown me so much. He’d taught me many things about myself… and what I could do. He’d taken a confused and angry child and tempered that anger into an efficient weapon… to serve Mother’s true cause.”

Meredith sighed heavily. “What did you do, Clem?”

“I remember one despicable man who was charge during my imprisonment. His name was Bawl. He’d been the one responsible for losing you, and as punishment for failing Toby, he’d been assigned to babysit me. Well, this Mr. Bawl, had gone above and beyond his duties overseeing the experiments… Let’s just say that he was a bit too enthusiastic when it came time to make me suffer. I’ll spare you the details of what that evil man did to this frightened child and just say that I screamed a lot back then.”

Meredith shifted uncomfortably.

“Toby sent Bawl to fetch me from that dirty dark cell for the last time.” She was staring into Meredith’s eyes with a devilish look. “I was… more physically mature by then… and not a little girl. Bawl often exploited that, too. Anyway, he was the first I got to test my strength on. I did things to that man’s mind that made what I did to Finch look tame.”

“So, after he let you out… you killed this Mr. Bawl?”

“Actually,” Clementine said, leaning back. “He’s still alive today… well… if you could call it alive. What was left of the man, after I finished with him, is still breathing in that dark little room I left him in. I sometimes visit him when I’m in an exceptionally foul mood.”

Meredith didn’t dare comment further on Mr. Bawl.

“I won’t bore you with the rest,” Clementine said. “After I was released, I spent the next few years under Toby’s guidance making changes from within the organization. I made ‘examples’ out of many of them. Converted others back to the cause. And hunted down as many of the traitors as I could. In the years to follow, we created scriptures to replace procedures; invented the Ama-Eskua, which you know as The Shadow Dead, who were originally intended to be an intimidation tactic to enforce sacred laws but have since turned into a den of disgusting assassins.”

Meredith glared and said, “So, you are responsible for the attack on the compound!”

Clementine laughed. “Really, Meredith? Don’t try to pin that on me. If you hadn’t been there, hiding, Toby never would have sanctioned the attack in the first place.”

Meredith’s fire quickly dissipated.

Clementine continued, “We gave Mother a dogmatic sense of ‘purpose’ rather than a scientific quest for ‘knowledge’ and a corrupted greed for ‘power’. We re-emphasized the importance of the Lions, which Mother had nearly forgotten. You remember the Lions, don’t you, Meredith?”

Meredith wouldn’t look her in the eye.

“Everyone now had a purpose and a place in the organization. We prepared for what was coming, rather than what we could take. You were either a ‘Candidate’ or ‘Fodder’ when the Lions came. And you would prove yourself worthy of Toby’s new world… and his gracious gift of life… by giving over to the pending darkness.” She stopped there to let her old friend process.

Meredith shook her head. “It sounds like you did a wonderful job of making a sinister group of human beings a whole hell of a lot worse; turned them into a bunch of religious zealots supporting a monster’s cause.”

Clementine just smiled. “It’s all rubbish, of course.”

Meredith was shocked by her response. “Come again?”

“All of it,” Clementine said. “It’s all nonsense. Just more tactics to maintain control. We needed them to remain loyal… no matter what. When ‘The Change’ finally arrived, and we always knew it was coming thanks to Toby and what he did with you over ‘there’, it only cemented all that dogma and elevated the fear to a whole new level of devotion.” The robed woman rolled her eyes and shook her head. “What a waste. So much time. So much effort. And for what? Just to get you, the chosen one, where you are right now… so Toby can finally cross over into our world, The Final Lion, and dispose of us all.”

“I’m confused,” Meredith said. “Don’t you… want this?”

Clementine sighed. “Before… The Change… I almost believed in what me and Toby were doing together. I thought I was back in his good graces, and that we were changing the world… together. He used to lie to me during all the hard work I did getting Mother back on track, saying, ‘Well, done, Clem. You’ve come a long way to achieving the world I always wanted for you… and your kind. I think I will stay in the darkness… and let you continue the good work in my absence.’”

“He actually said that to you?”

She shook her head, then frowned at her friend. “I was the biggest fool of all. He used me to keep everyone doing exactly what he needed them to do, but he also had to keep me in line, too… until he could get you ready to bring him back.”

“I don’t understand.”

Clementine shook her head at her as if dealing with a child. “Everything you’ve been through, Meredith, has been a test… one, long damn trial… to get you strong enough to finish this mess that you and Toby started together. Everything has been leading up to this moment. For me, it’s the damn orphanage all over again.”

Meredith let Clem’s words sink in. “Are you saying that Toby’s been… that he’s been overseeing everything that’s happened to me and my friends… since the beginning?”

“Consider every event that’s forced you to open your mind, lower your walls, and caused you to use your abilities. And each time you have, you’ve only grown stronger for the next time… and the time after that…”

“No,” Meredith said. “I won’t believe that! I can’t believe that he’s been orchestrating everything—my whole life—just to get me back to that beach in the middle of the darkness…. I won’t!”

“I’m as shocked as you are, Meredith. He’s manipulated us both… perfectly. I only started to see the truth after your damn Lions finally came into our world. We were ready for it, too. We had protocols in place, cell groups, hell… we even knew to chain ourselves up at the first sight of the rain before the storm… But none us really believed The Change would happen. It was always there, to motivate us, to unite us… but it was never supposed to happen. After that, I knew everything Toby told me was a lie. And the moment I deliver you to him, my purpose is finished.”

Meredith was at a loss for words.

Clementine took in a deep breath and let her shoulders slouch. “Again, I don’t blame you for all this. I know what he made you do. But honestly, after The Change happened, and people at random turned into vessels for these… creatures, I was hoping you were one of them. That’s when Mother lost you again… in the middle of all that chaos… until you arrived at the compound and used the old code that Hannah gave you. But I think, Toby knew exactly where you were the whole time. He kept it concealed from me, from all of us, until then.”

“But… why?”

“Because Mother would have done everything in its power, while we still had the power to choose, to kill you.”

Meredith nodded. “I understand. I have thought about ending my own life, to finish all this.” She looked at her old friend and sighed. “So, why not kill me now? Or is that what you’ve yet to tell me? Are my friends and I going to mysteriously drown in this lake before we reach Toby’s island?”

“I wish it were that simple, Meredith,” Clementine said. “But it’s too late for all that. Yes, I could dispose of you now, but Toby would destroy us all immediately. As long as you live Mother still has a purpose… as do I.”

“He spoke of another… like me. He said that if we fought back and he was forced to eliminate me, he would just have to wait until the other was ready. After I saw you at the marina, I just assumed he meant you.”

For the first time Clementine looked confused.

“You didn’t know?”

She frowned. “For as much as Toby has told me, there is just as much he keeps from me. But I can assure you, I am not the one he was speaking of. As strong as I’ve become, I have never been, nor will I ever be, what you are in Toby’s eyes.” She said the last bit with a touch of scorn. “Thank you for sharing that with me. You could’ve kept that to yourself.”

“Maybe you’ll remember that and consider sparing my friends on your boat. I tried to get them to stay behind, but they wouldn’t leave me.”

“I commend their devotion. Foolish, but admirable.” Clementine nodded. “I will allow them to leave… if you wish.”

“And Gina?”

“If she chooses to go, then I won’t stop her. Gina is not my prisoner. I found her in the woods. She was injured and my people took care of her.” After a deliberate pause, she added, “Gina chose to come back with us.”

“I find that very hard to believe.”

“You can ask her yourself when we arrive.”

Meredith paused, then said, “So, if I’m not to be murdered in route to this island, and Toby has no further use for you after I… fulfill my purpose… then why do I still feel like I’m missing something?”

Clementine smiled. “You always were smart… much smarter than I. But don’t let it get to your head, because if you haven’t heard, I can make heads pop like balloons.”

“Is that supposed to be funny?”

Clementine slowly stood to stretch her legs.

Meredith did the same.

The old robed woman looked directly ahead, toward the island which was still miles out of view. “I was hoping our conversation, despite whether or not we could ever be friends again, would at least bear fruit… enough to form an alliance.”

Meredith stared dumbfounded at the old woman’s robe blowing in the breeze. Her initial response was to charge the vile thing, grab her around the waist and knock them both into the lake… killing two birds at once. Instead, she said, “To what end?”

Clementine turned back. She wore an exhausted expression on her face that reminded Meredith of one she wore many times. “No tricks, Meredith. I’ve had time to consider this meeting, to dread it even, but the outcome has always been the same. There’s only one thing either of us can do now. We need each other.”

I was doing just fine without you, Meredith thought, but kept her mouth shut. “Need each other for what?”

Clementine smiled weakly. “To eliminate Toby.”

~~~

Chapter 54 will continue on Friday…

Previous Episode 54-4

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 54-5: Treachery” Copyright © 2019 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Six: Mother. All Rights Reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission by the author.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

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~~~

A gusting wind coming off the lake violently rustled Gina’s shoulder-length red hair. She lifted her face toward the noonday sun, closed her eyes, and let the warm breeze strike her cheeks. She felt nothing inside—nothing she would allow. The loss of too many people she cared about was not something she could afford to let invade her thoughts or allow the grief to come out.

An old wound started to itch. She lifted her hand and traced the narrow scar that started just beneath her right eye, extending downward to the bottom of her cheek.

Some fucking ‘badge’.

She absently dropped her hand, opened her eyes, and stared down from the edge of the steep cliff, overlooking the strong lake currents as wave after wave crashed against the rocky northern shore of the island. She felt like that stony shore as the hell of this world continued to assault her heart with all that cold indifferent darkness.

She slowly turned in her dull gray uniform and caught a glimpse of the red-robed woman approaching from the other end of the peninsula field behind her. She grimaced in pain while turning around but hid it as best she could. After three weeks on the island, she still felt tightness in her chest where Alysa’s arrow had struck her. The wound in her left thigh was all healed while the missing piece of her right big toe had become a permanent annoyance when she leaned forward too much on that leg.

Gina placed the baseball bat sized wooden stick, shaped like a slithering snake, out in front for support. She stabbed the grass with her makeshift cane and stepped away from the cliff and into the field, using the stick to reduce her weight on the right side.

“You know, there are several fantastic overlooks much closer to the training facility,” Lady Clementine said with annoyance, surprising Gina with how fast the old woman had closed the distance between them.

Gina stopped. “I like this spot. No one bothers me out here.”

Clementine removed her red hood, smiled at her guest, then stared down at Gina’s cane and frowned. “Why do you still have that? And what possessed you to choose the Balato for a training weapon? You do remember what I told you about it, right?”

Gina examined the stick with a look of satisfaction on her face. “Yes. You told me the Ama-Eskua only use this to inflict pain on their recruits… and that it’s not considered a weapon.” She glanced over at Clementine with her intense green eyes, flashing a wicked little smile, and finished, “The pain part sounded perfect.”

“You misunderstand. The Balato is considered a lowly instrument… an insult. The Ama-Eskua are already displeased with your presence here, and your new approach toward training the recruits. Why make things worse?”

Gina’s face grew hard. “And yet they remain absent while this fucking island falls apart. If all I thought it took was an insult or two to get their attention and finally force them out of hiding, then I’d be carrying a much bigger stick.”

Clementine put a hand to her mouth to hide her amusement. “I like your spirit, Gina. What you’ve done with the recruits, turning them around and giving them purpose, has not escaped my notice, either. I’m just sorry I haven’t been around much to help.”

“How goes your negotiations?”

The old woman sighed and placed her hands to her hips. “They are stubborn and resistant to change, although the state of the world now demands that we all change.”

Gina shook her head. “Sounds like those Ama-Assholes are unwilling to yield control of this place, even though they do nothing with the power but hide away in their dark corner of the facility. Why do you tolerate them? Can’t you just… I don’t… take back control? I still remember what you did to that horde on the mainland, parting them for the convoy to pass.”

Clementine flashed a weak smile. “If you mean take back control by force, then yes, I could. But what would that accomplish? We would still be divided and achieve nothing.”

“Then let me go talk to them,” Gina pushed, and not for the first time.

Clementine frowned. “Do you think they find me a feeble old woman they can push around? And that you could handle these delicate talks so much better than me?”

“I didn’t mean-”

“The only reason the Ama-Eskua have not come out of their sanctum on the north end of the facility and personally dealt with you is because they’re smart enough to realize what I would do to them. They know you are my responsibility, and an attack against you, would be the same as a direct assault on me.”

Gina wisely kept her mouth shut and nodded.

Clementine walked toward the overlook and shook her head. “Sorry, Gina. I don’t mean to be cross. Nothing is as I’d hoped when I came back here. And I shouldn’t be surprised, considering all the political tension and bickering I left behind when I last departed this place. I just never thought everything would escalate so fast after The Change. I assumed the Lions would reunite us and make us stronger. But it has done the opposite.”

Gina stared at the old woman, searching her mind for anything encouraging to say. “The recruits will fight for Mother. In fact, I think they’ve been itching for one for a long time. They understand what it means to have their hope dragged through the mud and put on display to be humiliated in front of this merciless world.”

Clementine turned.

“That is how they feel about the current state of Mother. They came here for something better, after this new world shit all over them, and they don’t like what has happened any more than we do.”

“What have you told them, Gina?”

“The truth.”

Clementine looked like she was about to protest, then stopped, and let out a heavy sigh. She nodded. “Why not,” she said with resignation. “Perhaps before the end, the recruits will be all that’s left of Mother’s ideals.”

“Is it that bad?”

Clementine looked away. “The Ama-Eskua, the once powerful right arm of Mother, is in turmoil. They do not own up to what the Shadow Dead have done. To do so would mean admitting weakness… in an Order that punishes the weak and honors the strong. So, they do nothing. Meanwhile, everyone else sees it. The workers, the regular militia, the recruits… they’re all expressing doubt where there was once only hope.”

Gina grew concerned. “You don’t sound very optimistic.”

“I am not, Gina. I’m afraid to take over by force, which would make me as wrong as the Order, as I muddy Mother’s name further by making it a dictatorship.” She looked at Gina with a sad, faraway expression. “But I’m also afraid to do nothing and idly watch the rest of Mother collapse.”

Gina nodded, stepping up beside the tired woman. “What… what can I do to help?”

Clementine turned and smiled. “You are doing more than enough, Gina. You have already provided me with a spark of light in a very dark place.” She shook her head in frustration. “I never should’ve left. I was called upon to lead, but I was selfish and wanted to live my life away from the politics of governing.”

“You can’t blame yourself,” Gina said. “You’re just one person. I’m sure you would’ve done the best you could in the governing capacity, but in the end, it wouldn’t have been enough.” She paused and frowned. “When I was reluctantly put in charge of my group, I had nothing but the best of intentions. I wanted to protect them, make them strong. But I failed miserably because I wasn’t leading a group of clones who thought and felt like me. I never even considered what others thought… not really. I suspect you would’ve had the same issues if you’d stayed.”

Clementine shot her a sideways glance, careful not to let Gina see the brief smirk on her face. Like a well-trained actor responding to the next verbal cue, she said submissively, “Thanks for sharing that, Gina. I carry a very extensive load on my shoulders, perhaps too much. I’m just… exhausted… and need to approach matters with a fresh perspective. Please forgive my moment of weakness.”

“There’s nothing to forgive,” Gina said. “We all have our less-than-stellar moments. Well, myself excluded, of course.” She added a smile.

Clementine laughed hard. She placed a hand on Gina’s shoulder and said, “I am glad you’re here, Gina. This would all be so much more difficult without a friend around.”

She smiled at the old woman, feeling surprisingly comforted by Clementine’s presence. This immediately made her put her guards back up as Gina got tense and took a step away from the robed woman.

So much has changed… and keeps changing, she thought. This woman, and this organization, was my enemy… and now… I’m not certain who my real enemies are… or my friends.

She thought of Marcus and the Shadow Dead and felt some of her doubts dissolve.

“What is it?” Clementine said, noticing Gina’s distant expression.

She turned and shook off her thoughts. “Nothing. I’m just… well… I’m still blown away with how I ended up here.”

The old woman laughed. “I have often felt that way. If I’ve learned to trust in anything, it’s this: Nothing is ever what it appears to be… especially these days.”

Gina nodded wholeheartedly.

“I have to leave the island,” Clementine abruptly said.

“What?”

The old woman sighed. “I’ve been wrestling with this since last night. I believe my presence here, as far as the Ama-Eskua is concerned, is keeping them restless and defensive. We’ve reached a stalemate in our negotiations and I need to attempt another approach.”

“So, you’re just going to leave!” Gina was up in arms. “How does that help our situation?”

“Don’t get me wrong, Gina. I’m only talking about a boat ride across the pond and back,” she said. “I’ve received word that Alysa has spoken with the Shadow Dead… and that they wish set up a meeting with the Order.”

Gina laughed in disbelief. “You’ve got to be shitting me! Are you telling me that they now want to come back to the Order? After everything those murderers have done in Mother’s name?”

Clementine gave her a grave face. “No, Gina. They do not seek an alliance. The Shadow Dead believe they are now what’s left of the real Ama-Eskua. According to the message I’ve received, they wish to discuss terms of surrender.”

Gina was shocked. “Is the Order aware of this?”

“Yes. That’s why I’m going to meet with Alysa. She is loyal to the Shadow Dead, but she is also loyal to me, acting as my ambassador.”

“Sounds like a great way to get you somewhere exposed so they can eliminate you,” Gina said.

Clementine smiled. “Yes, I am aware of the risks. But I believe the Shadow Dead intend me no harm. In fact, I believe they wish to align themselves with me to force the Order into submission.”

Gina threw her stick to the ground. “That’s bullshit! You know you can do that, right?”

“Gina,” the old woman added patiently, “what I know is that I need another option to force the Ama-Eskua toward giving up power without confronting them personally. I have no intention of joining the Shadow Dead.”

“Then, why are you leaving?”

“Remember what I just said about appearances?”

Gina nodded.

“If the Order knows that I’m going to meet with the Shadow Dead, it will force them to the negotiation table. I have no right to confront the Order, but the Shadow Dead have a legitimate claim. The Order will want to know what ‘deal’ they’ve offered me, fearing that I might support the Shadow Dead as a ‘back door’ opportunity to strip the Order of their power. Then after the Order has surrendered, I can confront the Shadow Dead directly for their crimes against Mother.”

Gina shook her head. “For someone who isn’t a fan of all that political nonsense, you sure have a head for it.”

Clementine smiled. “I never said I wasn’t good at it.”

“But you’re not really joining them, right?”

“Absolutely not, Gina. I only want to cast the appearance of such of a move. When I return, I expect the Order to approach me with a counter proposal to give up authority if they are permitted to remain Mother’s Hand.”

Gina laughed. “So, you’re playing one side against the other… and giving none of them what they really want.”

Clementine’s face turned serious. “I am only concerned with what is good for Mother. The Shadow Dead are traitors. The Order is out of line and need to return to their rightful place. I’m out of options. This move, albeit risky, is the wisest and least destructive move I can make to restore balance.”

“And if your ‘bluff’ doesn’t work?”

Clementine gave her an uncomfortable glance. “If this doesn’t work, Gina… If the Order sees right through my gambit, they might be encouraged to take advantage of my absence to make sure I cannot safely make it back to the island.”

Gina caught the unspoken concern. “The Order will eliminate anyone left loyal to Mother. Which means they’ll be coming for me, and my recruits.”

“Yes, Gina. If my ruse fails, then that is a real possibility. Once they kill everyone still loyal to what Mother once was… they can keep me from getting back to the island… unless I really do have the support of the Shadow Dead.”

Gina’s shoulders sank. “And there’s no other way?”

Clementine shook her head sadly. “No, Gina. I don’t believe there is… and I’m sorry to put you in this predicament. Of course, should you consider the risk to your own life too great, you may return with me to the mainland, and I would completely understand. That’s why I came out here to tell you before I left.”

Gina considered this. “And… the recruits? What would happen to them after both of us were gone?”

Clementine sighed. “Honestly, Gina, I don’t know. Best case scenario: Perhaps the Ama-Eskua would spare their lives and have them return to whatever was being done to them before.”

“Judging by your face, I don’t think you believe that,” Gina said.

The old woman shook her head. “It is more likely that they will eliminate them, Gina. Especially after what you’ve done with them… and I mean that in a good way.”

Gina closed her eyes and balled her fists. “So, I really don’t have a choice.”

“Of course, you do, child. They are not your responsibility. None of this chaos is. If you wish to leave, then I encourage it. But it will have to be now, before I set events into motion.”

“I’m staying,” Gina said.

Clementine gave her an astonished look.

“What kind of leader… what kind of person… would I be if I abandoned them just to save my worthless ass? Honestly, I’m running out of closet space for all my dark shit.” She shook her head. “No. Abandoning the recruits is something I can’t do.”

“Do you understand what will happen should the Order decide to attack? If any of you survive, it will not be pleasant. What they’ll do to you afterwards, will make the Balato look tame.”

Gina laughed exhaustedly. “I understand perfectly… and I’m still staying.”

Clementine gave Gina a proud look. “You are a very honorable person, Gina Melborn… and a hell of a good leader. I find it difficult to believe that anyone could ever exile the young, brave woman standing before me now.”

Gina averted her eyes. “Well… thanks for your vote of confidence. That means something to me. But… I’ve done some vile fucking shit, too. Perhaps this is a chance for me to break even.” She added a weak smile.

Clementine laughed. “Perhaps.”

“When will you leave?”

“Late this evening. I’ll meet up with Alysa on the coast in the morning.”

“Sounds like I need to let you prepare… and I’ve some preparing to do, too.”

“Good luck, Gina. I will return as expeditiously as possible.”

“Good luck to you, too,” Gina said. “Hopefully your plan works and we’ll all still be around to greet you when you return.” Gina picked up the Balato and started back.

Clementine watched her depart, gleaming like a proud parent. When Gina was far enough away, the old woman’s smile faded. “You’re getting to good at this, old girl,” she whispered to herself.

Clementine had no intention of sailing off to meet Alysa or the Shadow Dead. The only ruse planned was the one she just pulled on the determined red-headed warrior.

She was still leaving on the boat to the mainland.

Toby had used the ‘carrot’.

Clementine had turned the carrot into a ‘catalyst’.

The old woman had a lot to do before she departed.

Meredith would arrive at the marina in the morning.

~~~

Gina entered the crowded meal hall with Julianne at her side. No one noticed them standing just inside the door. Julianne was about to say something, but Gina held her arm. “Hold on,” she whispered.

The young Ama-Eskua recruit flashed her a puzzled look, then relaxed when she noticed Gina’s smile. She took a respectful step behind her leader, then stood at the ready, her hands behind her and within easy reach of the Balato strapped across her back.

The sounds of laughter and relaxed conversations among the men and women, young and old, wearing their clean gray uniforms was refreshing. The red-headed leader just soaked it all in. Over the past few weeks, She’d caught bits and pieces of stories about their lives from before—who they once were, where they’d come from, their dreams, old romances, ancient jokes passed on and modified to fit their present circumstances, and the people they’d lost. She appreciated all of it.

Since Gina took over, bringing all the recruits together, they no longer saw each other as enemies, or cared about who were Candidates and who were the Fodder. They knew each other, now.

She turned to Julianne, who looked on with a face of stone to hide what she felt. Well, Gina thought. Most of them have lowered their shields. With some, old habits die hard. She was referring to the young warrior, as well as herself.

Julianne caught her staring.

Gina laughed lightly. “They train hard, Julianne. But they need to decompress, too. Without it… what we’re doing is all for nothing.”

“They are… vulnerable… like this,” Julianne said.

Gina had worked with the young woman to get her to open up more. “You’re right, they are. But believe it or not, there will come a time when we’ll need to learn how to be… vulnerable… again.”

Julianne just stared at her. “When will that be?”

Gina leaned in and said, “When the fighting is finished.”

Julianne laughed, believing Gina had just told a joke. “That’s ridiculous.”

Gina just stared sadly at the young woman. She really believes I’m joking. She looked at the rest. I hope it isn’t a joke. If we can’t look toward something better… beyond all this death and violence… then we might as well go back to killing each other and get it over with. She smiled at the thought. Now I sound like Stephen. Took long enough for me to finally get it. She shook all thoughts aside and raised her own shield. She nodded to Julianne.

Julianne nodded back. She stepped forward, turning her attention on the recruits. “What the hell is wrong with all of you!” she yelled. “On your damn feet! Lady Gina is present!”

Gina rolled her eyes. She hated the name, but after several failed attempts to get them to stop, she finally gave up, preferring ‘Lady Gina’ to ‘Ma’am’ or even ‘Sir’.

The recruits stopped talking, turned, and then noticed Gina standing in the shadow of the cafeteria doorway.

A chorus of metal chairs screeched across the linoleum as the recruits rushed to stand at attention in front of their tables.

Here we go, Gina thought, stepping forward. She placed her own hands behind her back and scanned the recruits with a look of satisfaction across her face. Except for the twelve recruits currently on rounds, patrolling the training facility in pairs, everyone else was present for lunch. Gina had pushed for meals to be shared together, sleep at the same times, and that they all trained together. She would not allow room for factions or division of any kind. They needed to be one.

That’s forty in here, another twelve on watch, plus myself and Julianne. Fifty-four total. It’s not an army… but it’s what we have. After Gina’s quick assessment, she smiled at them and said, “At ease. Please, sit down and finish eating.”

The recruits relaxed and sat back down.

Gina spotted the bearded older recruit, Hugh.

He squirmed under her intense gaze. Even after Gina had assured him that she’d forgiven his attempt on her life, Hugh continued to tread lightly around her.

And she constantly enjoyed picking on him.

“Hugh.”

“Yes, Lady Gina.”

“Who are you?” she said.

He raised his chin up proudly. “I am Hugh Marten.”

“Who were you?”

He smiled and said, “I was… an electrician… back in the day.”

Gina smiled back and raised an eyebrow. “And who will you be?”

Hugh nodded. “I will be a man of peace, serving my brothers and sisters. I will be a man of action, guarding their backs with my own life… when peace is not enough.”

Gina nodded. “Good answer,” she said with a wink.

Hugh relaxed… a little.

With Julianne’s help, Gina had modified the ancient Ama-Eskua mantra to turn them away from believing that killing was the first call to action. The young recruit had taught her as much as Gina could absorb about Ama-Eskua doctrine and beliefs, often causing Gina to raise the ‘bullshit’ flag on the Order’s cold and calculated approaches to death, while she tried to uphold the more ‘honorable’ traditions with the recruits. Initially, every time Gina had amended an Ama-Eskua doctrine, Julianne had fought her round and round on the matter until Gina’s stubbornness prevailed. Eventually, Julianne started to understand Gina’s ‘vision’ as evidenced by her positive effect on the recruits. She still struggled every time Gina made a change, but she was getting much better at adapting. Gina had commended her for her bravery and strength in accepting all her changes (and especially for putting up with her fiery temper during combat training) and she had promoted her to second-in-command.

Julianne, in a rare moment of emotion, had been overcome by the honor as Gina had watched the young warrior’s eyes water up… briefly. Of course, neither of them had spoken of it again.

Gina led Julianne out of the cafeteria and into the maze of hallways, headed toward the former Kill Room. Among many changes Gina had made, when the recruits were authorized to train again in the gymnasium sized death space, she insisted that the Kill Room’s name be changed. After some deliberation and a whole hell of a lot of resistance from Julianne, Gina renamed the room, the KAR, which was short for “Kick Ass Room”.

They entered the KAR and Gina smiled with satisfaction.

Aside from the oldest blood stains on the floor, the rest of the room had been cleaned up. All the weapons had been removed and stored in an armory. Along several walls were racks of Balatos used for combat training. Aside from Gina, the three original Ama-Eskua recruits, and watch-standers, no one else was authorized to be armed outside the KAR.

They crossed the training room, exiting a door on the north side, and stepped out onto the upper balcony of the ghost town hub—the remains of Mother’s headquarters.

Gina noticed two recruits on watch below. One was the ponytailed Ama-Eskua who Julianne had fought with the pipe.

The young man noticed them, scowled at Gina, then nodded briefly at Julianne. He then walked off with the other recruit.

Gina smiled. “Kyle doesn’t think much of me, does he?”

Julianne shrugged her shoulders. “I think he’s preoccupied with too many thoughts about himself to think about anything else.”

Gina laughed. “Did you just crack a joke, Julianne?”

“That depends. Was it funny?” She smiled this time.

The red-head laughed a little harder. “Julianne, I think you’re finally tapping into your ‘human’ side. I was starting to think that you didn’t possess one.”

Julianne looked puzzled by the comment.

“Never mind,” Gina said. She looked across the large hub toward a thick metal door on the other side. “Why have they not approached us, Julianne?” she said. “I’m starting to believe there is no Order.”

Julianne stared at the large door. “That’s the main entrance to their sanctum. For as long as I’ve been here, no one’s ever entered that door. And no one’s ever exited. It’s primarily used for ceremonial purposes, like when a recruit becomes Ama-Eskua.”

Gina nodded. “I understand all that… but where the hell are they?”

Julianne smiled. “I’m sure they’ve been watching us. If the Ama-Eskua wish not to be seen… then we will not see them.”

Gina mulled this over. “And if they decide to attack us, would they use this door or come at us from another way?”

Julianne had already been briefed on Gina and Clementine’s earlier discussion. “Does Lady Clementine really believe that the Order will strike after she’s left the island?”

“It’s possible.”

Julianne stared at the large door with a frown. Her face was a mask of conflicting emotions. She finally nodded with a sigh. “Yes, they could choose to use this entrance. Coming at us through here would be a tactical advantage. This door is close enough to our weapons to cut us off, and far enough away from our quarters to slip in undetected.”

Gina nodded. “I was thinking the same thing. If you were them, what move would you make first?”

Julianne stared at her. “I would attempt to locate your isolation room, Gina, and then slit your throat in your sleep.”

Gina unconsciously reached for her neck. “Go on,” she said.

“Then, I would create a diversion causing chaos, attempting to scatter our ranks in the confusion, as I’d pick us off one by one.”

Gina shook her head and laughed. “That’s comforting.” She watched Kyle and the second recruit exit the hub. “I want to triple the sentries in this area, and around the other entrances.”

“Consider it done.”

“I think it’s time to retrieve the weapons again. From here on out, I want everyone armed.”

Julianne seemed pleased. She nodded.

Gina could not look away from the large locked door. “This evening, you and I are going to discuss alternative strategies to defend this place… or attack the sanctum directly.”

The Ama-Eskua recruit became very quiet.

Gina turned. “What’s the matter?”

Julianne’s face was stone. “If the Order chooses to attack… in full force… we all will die.”

~~~

Next Episode 54-5

Previous Episode 54-3

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 54-4: Treachery” Copyright © 2019 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Six: Mother. All Rights Reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission by the author.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

~~~

The knock on her door was expected this time.

Gina was sitting on the edge of her uncomfortable bed, looking over some notes she’d scribbled and placed on the small table she had moved there. After the incident in the Kill Room, she’d showered, ate, and then got some remedial rest after overexerting herself.

She tried her best to appear strong and in control, but on the inside, she still felt like shit. I can’t believe I agreed to this, she thought. I’m going to blame it on an overlooked head injury.

Gina waited for a second knock, but there wasn’t one.

She smiled at the door, and then took a slow sip from her coffee cup. “Come in,” she finally called out.

The door to her small isolation room opened. Julianne entered, closed the door, then sat down in front of it. She kept her eyes averted and stared off toward the floor.

Gina studied the young woman over the top of her coffee cup. Julianne was still wearing her bloody clothes with a few more stains added. Give me a fucking break, she thought, rolling her eyes. She put the cup down and then pretended to mull over her notes on the pages she’d removed from the blank file Clementine had provided her upon request. She stared absently at some irrelevant doodles, wanting the young recruit to feel as uncomfortable as possible as she waited by the door. After Gina was finished stalling, she put the papers back in the file and closed it. Then without looking at her, she said, “Did you bring what I asked?”

The young Ama-Eskua recruit looked up with a look of disgust on her face. “Yes,” she said.

Gina finally looked over at the woman, noticed her empty-handed, and said, “Well?”

“I… I left it in the hall.”

Gina raised an eyebrow. “You… left it in the hall?”

“Yes.”

Gina laughed lightly. “I can see that we have resumed our fruitless discussion from earlier.”

Julianne wasn’t laughing.

“Okay,” Gina said. “And… why is it in the hall?”

“Because I didn’t want to bring you any further dishonor by bringing that… thing… into your personal space.”

Gina smiled. “Oh, I think we are well past the point of worrying about things that bring ‘dishonor’. If you and your recruits haven’t figured that out yet… then we will have a lot more work ahead of us.”

Julianne just gave her a confused look.

“Bring the fucking stick to me, please.”

With reluctance, Julianne stood up, stepped back out into the hall, then returned carrying a strange stick, curved like a snake, and about the length of a baseball bat. She held it out in front of her like it was a snake. “May I approach?” she asked.

“Yes,” Gina said. “Please, join me by the table.” She pointed to the opposite side of the small table. “I’m sorry about the lack of chairs. I’ve put a request in, but apparently it’s easier to get a cup of coffee around here than a fucking fold-up chair.”

Julianne approached the small table then stopped. “And… this?”

Gina shook her head. “Just give it to me.”

Julianne looked relieved when Gina took the stick from her hand. She sat down in front of the small table and kept her eyes down.

Gina placed the stick in her lap and studied it. “This is the same one I used on that big bitch?”

“Yes. The very same,” Julianne said. “May I ask a question?”

“If it will clear the air and help get that ‘I just shit my pants’ look off your face, then yes. Ask away.”

Again, the young recruit failed to find the humor. “Why did you have me bring that here?”

Gina laughed. “Of all the things you could have asked, like, ‘Who put this bitch in charge?’, this is what you want to ask?”

“Yes,” Julianne said. “I would not dare question Lady Clementine’s decisions. She has explained your position to us all… and that is enough.”

“Spoken like a good little soldier,” Gina said, bouncing one end of the curved bat in her hand.

Julianne stared at it like Gina had just insulted her mother.

“It’s my understanding that this is called the Balato, correct?”

“That is correct.”

“And it’s used for… punishment purposes?”

Julianne looked her in the eyes. “The Balato is a training device used to inflict pain. When an Ama-Eskua recruit falls into disgrace, he or she is taken to the Kill Room where the Ama-Eskua warriors form a circle around the accused, strip them of their clothes, and then complete their humiliation by… beating them with… that. It is also the first tool used on recruits before they are allowed to train with weapons. It is to teach them what it means to feel pain if they are expected to inflict it. Aside from that… the Balato is not considered a weapon.”

“That’s interesting,” Gina said, staring at the stick. “A bit fucking disturbing… but interesting. And oddly appropriate.”

“How so?”

Gina’s face lost all humor. “What I saw earlier today… what you all did in that fucking Kill Room… made me feel the way you feel when you look at this stick.” She held it up for emphasis.

Julianne frowned but said nothing.

Gina laid the Balato down on the bed. “I will carry this around while we train to remind you all that until I decide otherwise… none of you are fit to pick up a ‘real’ weapon. Is that clear?”

Julianne looked away and nodded. “Yes. I understand.”

“Do you?”

“I understand that your presence here was a test all along. A test none of us were ready to pass. That is all I need to know.”

“Violence is all any of you know!” Gina pushed. “And that’s fucked up! So, we’re going to change that.”

Julianne glanced up.

Gina leaned in. “Between your Ama-Eskua and whatever fucked-up, culty, Candidate crap that came after… it’s still the same. All of you are just weapons. But because you can’t seem to think—or were never allowed to think for yourselves—you’ve all become as worthless as this fucking stick!”

Julianne’s eyes were on fire.

Gina could see it. She smiled. “Oh, I know. I know. Everything inside of you just wants to jump up and ram this fucking thing down my throat for insulting you. Am I right?”

Julianne calmed down and averted her eyes.

“Doesn’t matter,” Gina said, leaning back. “You’ve all learned how to kill without conscience—without consequences. It’s fucking hardwired into your damn brains! Well, I’m here to tell you, that’s some fucking bullshit! None of you get to take a life as easily as you do… and not pay for it!”

“I… I don’t understand this… teaching,” Julianne said.

“And we’re going to work on that.”

The young woman nodded.

“From here on out,” Gina started, “there will be no more fucking alarms going off to send you all into a blood frenzy. The Kill Room—horrible fucking name, by the way—is off limits, which includes all the weapons within it. Are we clear?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, it gets better, Julianne. Get ready to squirm. Those nasty fucking bloody rags you are all so proud of… will be removed and burned. I expect all of you to be in fresh grays by tomorrow. And if I see one fucking blood stain on anyone, I will beat the living tar out of whoever I see it on with this stick, and then make them change their clothes after. Are we still clear?”

Julianne was trembling. Her fists were in tight balls. But she managed to hiss, “Yes.”

“Look at me,” Gina demanded.

The young recruit made eye contact.

Gina pointed to her scar. “If I’m recalling correctly, you seemed very proud of my face disfiguration, as if it were something to brag about.”

Julianne’s eyebrows went up. “I… I never meant that.”

“I know what you meant,” Gina said with a sigh. She lowered her hand. “Now’s the time to be silent and listen.”

Julianne nodded.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s blood stains on clothing or a fucking scar. None of that is anything to be proud of. If anything, the marks we bear should sober us the fuck up and let us know how very close to death we came. Understand?”

Again, Julianne nodded.

Gina pointed to her chest. “The real scars that matter are in here, Julianne.” She then pointed to her temple. “And in here.” She put her hand down. “Every time we’re forced to take a life, that memory should haunt the hell out of us, and the heaviness in our hearts lets us know that we’ve lost a bit of ourselves every time we’re forced to kill. We become a little less. Understand?”

Julianne looked confused. “Are… are you saying that it’s wrong to kill our enemies?”

“It’s always wrong to kill.”

The young recruit stared down at her hands, clearly having difficulty grasping Gina’s words.

“But when we must,” Gina continued, “we live with the lives we’ve taken. And maybe, we learn from it and find another way to avoid it the next time.”

Julianne looked back up. “I… I think I understand. I will reflect on this.”

“You do that,” Gina said, leaning back and running a hand through her hair. “Moving on. We will no longer be separate cells… but one. Has that also been explained to you?”

“Yes.”

“No more killing, Julianne,” Gina said. “I mean it. I am holding you accountable for this. Make them understand… or that shame will be yours, as well as mine, to bear.”

“I will… make them understand. Will there be anything else?”

“Yes,” Gina said. “You and I will be spending a lot of time together so whatever you have to do to swallow that offended pride of yours… then do it.”

Julianne nodded, then waited for clarification.

“I’ve seen you fight. You’re going to teach me as much of that shit as I can absorb. And when we’re not training together, you will be teaching me everything about the Ama-Eskua. Clear?”

“Yes. But… I am not worthy of this honor.”

Gina laughed. “You’re all I’ve got, Julianne. I may be coming down hard on you right now… but that doesn’t mean that I don’t like you.”

“‘Like’… me?” Julianne said the word as if tasting it on her tongue for the first time.

“Never mind that,” Gina said. “Maybe you’ll figure it out later. Point is, we have a real enemy out there to prepare for. The Shadow Dead. They used to be Ama-Eskua, so I want to know how many enemy thinks.”

Julianne smiled this time. “This I understand.” Her face suddenly changed. “You mentioned preparing for the Shadow Dead. I assume you mean we will train to stand against them.”

“Correct.”

“But… how will we train without the use of weapons?”

Gina smiled like an idiot, then raised up the Balato. “I understand that as much as these things are despised around here… there’s a whole storeroom full of them.”

Julianne looked shocked. “You can’t possibly mean-”

“That’s exactly what I mean,” Gina finished. “Everyone will train with these until I say otherwise.”

This time the young recruit sighed with frustration, letting her shoulders drop.

“You don’t have to like it, Julianne. But this will happen.”

Julianne closed her eyes and nodded.

Gina ran her fingers along the curves of the wooden stick and smiled. “So, am I correct to assume that if we brought these into battle against the Shadow Dead that they would be extremely offended?”

“With certainty,” Julianne said. “They might also consider us a joke.”

“Good. That means that while they’re busy being bent-out-of-shape or amused, they won’t be at the top of their game.”

Julianne just stared.

“How about the rest of the Ama-Eskua? Think training with these will get their attention, too?”

“I am not qualified to speak for the Order.”

“But you can speculate, can’t you?”

Julianne nodded. “I suspect that the Order would be most displeased.”

Gina scoffed. “And yet none of them gave a shit about any of you after The Change. They’d let you all kill each other off and not bat an eye. How does that sit with you, former Ama-Eskua recruit?”

Julianne’s face was stone. “I am… unfit… to judge the Order.”

“Fine,” Gina said. “I’ll stop with the uncomfortable questions.”

“Thank you,” Julianne said.

“Can I trust you, Julianne?”

The question made the young recruit’s back stiffen up. She glared back.

Gina laughed, holding out her hands. “I’ll take that as a ‘yes’.” She leaned in and lowered her voice. “Truth is, I don’t know who to trust right now. At least with you, there’s loyalty, even if you might be on the wrong damn side.”

“What does that mean?”

“Doesn’t matter. I know that you will not betray the confidence of your Order, or Lady Clementine, so I assume you will not betray mine.”

“You assume correctly,” Julianne said firmly.

“Good,” Gina said. “Between you and I… I do not trust the Ama-Eskua or your Lady Clementine. I believe something very bad is happening in this dark place and I will endeavor to figure that out.”

Julianne wisely remained silent.

Gina smiled to lighten the mood. “But enough of that dark conspiracy talk. For the moment, I will deal with all of you. Have you any questions for me?”

“Why did you… interfere… with the ‘big bitch’ when she moved to eliminate the Fodder?”

Gina scowled at her so intensely that Julianne expected to be struck by the Balato.

“New rule,” Gina hissed. “No one says another damn word about fucking ‘Candidates’ or ‘Fodder’. Is that understood?”

“Yes. I will make everyone aware.”

Gina calmed down and took a breath. She stopped when she felt Julianne’s eyes lingering. She looked up and raised her eyebrows. “You’re still waiting for an answer? Why I ‘interfered’?”

“Yes.”

Gina sighed. “Tell you what, ask yourself why you ‘didn’t’ interfere. Because if I still need to answer your question in a few days… I’m gonna start swinging this stick around until all your fucking heads have been adjusted. Are we clear?”

“Yes,” Julianne said.

“Anymore stupid fucking questions?”

“No.”

“Good,” Gina said. “Now, go take off those disgusting clothes, discover the meaning of a shower, and have yourself and the others looking presentable by tomorrow morning.”

“As you wish.” Julianne got up and promptly exited the room.

~~~

The old woman in the red robe watched the recruit leave Gina’s room. She raised her withered hand to turn off the monitor to the hidden camera.

Clementine leaned back in the rusty control room chair and folded her hands in her lap.

Okay, that fire’s been lit, she thought. That should keep the mouthy bitch adequately distracted and out of my hair for a spell.

She stared at the one-monitor station in front of her, along with the small console beneath it. This was the only station she’d become acquainted with over the years. She smiled at the efficient controls. One large black dial, turned clockwise, clicking through various isolation room cameras within the training facility. Each click had a number designation attached to a specific room. All she needed to do was match the room number with the numbered room on the large map above her head to identify the occupant.

In this case, she didn’t need it. She knew this isolation room well. Gina wasn’t the first angry young woman to occupy it. Alysa had once sulked in this very room.

Oh, my temperamental pawns! she thought with bemusement.

Clementine scanned to her left along the console until she found three illuminated switches, each marked with old scotch tape labels beneath them. In black marker, a red illuminated switch read: AUTO. A second green illuminated switch was marked: MANUAL. And the third illuminated switch, which was flashing red, was marked: ALARM.

Clementine reached for the MANUAL button and clicked it. It turned red. She then clicked the AUTO button back on. It turned green. This was the original configuration she’d found it in this morning before switching it to manual mode to generate the Kill Room alarm. She reached for the flashing red ALARM button, let her finger playfully hover above the switch, and then laughed lightly, removing her hand. “Now, Clem, don’t you go putting that auto-god back online, you naughty ‘ole girl. There’s been enough bloodshed… for the moment.” She left the automated alarm in standby mode, honoring Gina’s request to silence it.

The old woman stood up and started walking with her hands clasped together behind her back. She opened a door in the wall, then stepped out of the hidden room which emptied into the main hub. Headquarters was in ruins, and everyone in charge of operations was either dead or long gone. Clementine continued her stroll through the wreckage, thinking about events in recent years that had culminated toward necessary changes that she had either influenced or directly caused.

“This is nothing more than a hall of ghosts now,” she whispered, staring up from the bottom of the hub to where she and Gina had stood earlier. “I wonder what they have to say,” she said with a smile. Clementine looked around. “Any of you ghosts have something you’d like to add? I still remember all your dull, terrified faces before the end. Perhaps you’d like to betray a secret or two… hmm? No takers? I didn’t think so.” She laughed, amused with herself.

Clementine had murdered most of them—from right down here—during the busiest part of the day.

She sighed at the indifferent silence. As much as she had enjoyed bringing that obsolete regime to a close, there was no one left who could appreciate all she’d done… for Mother. The old woman was beginning to lose patience. He knows that I hate this place… that this is where everything ended for me… my usefulness. Clementine balled her fists, wanting a target—any target—to lash out at. She could feel the ghosts… gloating.

On the island, Toby only spoke with her in this dead hub… and he always made her wait.

Perhaps he’s hoping the dead will finally show up and devour me for all my sins? she thought. Clementine stopped, looked up, and corrected, “Of course, they never were my sins, were they, Toby?”

No answer.

That fucker! If I were the ‘chosen one’… he’d never make me wait like this!

She stopped abruptly. She could feel him, attempting to dig beneath the barriers of her mind.

Hello, my child.

Clementine said nothing.

I am so delighted that you have finally come home… where you belong.

The old woman laughed. “I’ve spent more years here in a cage than anywhere else on this fucking island. You have a strange notion of ‘home’, Toby.”

Come now, my child. Let’s not fight. I have missed you.

“Why did you summon me? You know I despise this island?”

Yes, but having you here brings me comfort. You have been away for far too long, my child.

Clementine rolled her eyes. “Must you continue to call me your ‘child’? These tired bones and withered flesh feel like I’ve lived two lifetimes in it. I have not been a ‘child’ for a very long time.”

Toby laughed inside her head. Oh, my child, we have come a long way together. The time is nigh. Soon, we will be together, and I will reward you for all your sacrifices.

A part of her, the needy misunderstood girl within, wanted to believe him. For many years, Clementine had sought Toby’s approval and love… but now… it was all a joke.

She sighed and said, “What do you want from me?”

Aside from spending time with my daughter… must I need another reason?

Clementine closed her eyes. Her ancient flesh started to tremble. Deep inside of her, in the place she kept guarded from Toby’s prying eyes, she wanted to scream and light the world on fire until everything burned. She maintained her calm, opened her eyes, and said, “I have brought you a carrot to entice the ‘daughter’ that you truly seek. If I had known much sooner that Meredith was alive-”

If you had known you would have destroyed her, my child. You may hide your thoughts from me, but your emotions speak loud and clear. I have shown you much over the years… but not all. And for good reason. Must I now explain myself?

She could sense Toby’s impatience and dared not push. “My apologies,” she said. “I am… grateful.”

There’s the girl I remember. You have always been my favorite.

“Hah!” Clementine could not stop herself. “That is such bullshit!”

Toby’s silence was nerve-wrecking. You have always doubted my love for you. You never needed to compare your gifts with anyone else, but you could not get past it. You have become so strong and powerful… and yet… so very volatile… and petty.

The old woman started to sulk.

No matter. I have tolerated your insolence, like a good father. In time, you will come to appreciate everything I withheld from you… and why. Toby shifted gears. I am close to finding Meredith. When I do, I will require your… ‘carrot’.

“What do you require from me?”

When the time comes, I want you to meet with her. I want you to embrace your lost sister and put an end to all this foolish behavior. I need her to do what you cannot. And I need for you to finally accept your limitations, my child. Can you do this for me?

Clementine knew this was not a question… but a warning. “Yes. I can do what must be done… as I’ve always done. I have made many sacrifices for you, Toby. What you ask now is a trivial matter in comparison.”

That is good to hear, my child. I will hold you to it.

“Will there be anything else? Something more that I can do for you… that she cannot?”

I will let you know… when you need to know, my child. We’ll talk again soon.

Toby abruptly severed their connection, leaving her alone and discarded.

Clementine’s face turned dark as she battled against the building inferno within.

Patience, old girl, she reminded herself, slowly stepping away from the edge. Don’t you dare let him upset you. Not now. Just stay focused. It’s time to move on with the next phase of the plan. Everything is moving forward exactly as expected.

Clementine smiled and crossed the dead hub toward the north end of the facility.

~~~

Next Episode 54-4

Previous Episode 54-2

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 54-3: Treachery” Copyright © 2019 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Six: Mother. All Rights Reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission by the author.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

~~~

Gina struggled to keep up with Julianne and her recruits as they raced out of the cafeteria and into the labyrinth of long dull gray hallways. The alarm continued to assault her ears as they turned left down one hall, then right down another. She attempted several times to call out to Julianne when it seemed like they were about to leave her behind, causing Gina to panic after she’d lost sight of them around another corner. But Julianne stayed between her recruits and Gina, slowing down long enough to urge Gina to move her ass with erratic hand gestures.

“Fuck this,” she said, running out of breath and sweating more than usual. “What the hell did you get me into, you old bitch?”

Gina turned another corner and almost ran into the young Ama-Eskua recruit.

“We’re almost there, Gina,” she said. “I’m sorry for the urgency, but we need to reach the weapons first.”

Before she could ask a fucking thing, Julianne was already moving again, headed toward two large steel double doors at the end of the hall.

By the time Gina reached the doors, her insides were on fire. She stopped long enough to catch her breath, grateful for the adrenaline that coursed through her, but understanding that she’d pay for the overexertion later.

The blaring alarm mercifully stopped.

Gina turned to look behind her. She could hear frantic footfalls slapping against the tiles, coming toward her from a few hallways back.

What fresh hell is this? she thought.

Gina pushed herself through the double doors and stepped into a large gymnasium-sized room. A handful of long florescent lights, many of the others had long burned out, barely lit up the large space. Dust particles floated in the dull beams of light, adding another room not well-maintained. The air smelled of death and stale piss. The once-polished hardwood floors were stained red. Some looked fresh.

She found Julianne and the recruits sifting through piles of scattered weapons. Gina looked along the walls and found a handful of weapons still mounted, but most were laying on the floor.

“What the fuck is this?” she called out to Julianne.

By now, most of the recruits had selected their weapons. They were on their feet, assuming attack stances, and staring just past Gina, toward whoever was approaching from the other side of the door.

“Gina!” Julianne hissed, picking up a hand axe. “You need to stand clear! The others know not to involve you but standing in the way could easily confuse them!”

Gina threw her arms into the air in frustration and hobbled away from the doors and over to the closest wall for support. “Alright… fuck all of you, then!” she grumbled under her breath.

Before she gathered her bearings, the double doors burst open. Three surprised young men, two younger women, and one middle-aged woman, all wearing bloody grays, stood there, staring at Julianne’s armed recruits.

“Shit!” the older woman hissed and shook her head. Then she saw Gina standing off to the side and said, “I’m too old for this shit.”

Gina smiled, finding the defeated woman’s comment amusing, in light of the situation.

“NOW!” Julianne screamed.

All humor left her body as Gina watched Julianne’s entire cell group charge the unarmed second group, weapons raised, and yelling like lunatics.

Before Gina could register what was happening, the bearded man, Hugh, approached the older woman, who held her hands up submissively. Then he plunged a long sword into the chest of the woman, who let out a tortured scream, then fell on her knees. Huge pulled the sword out of the dead woman, then sliced her head clean off.

What the fuck?! Gina put her hands to her mouth and froze.

The rest of Julianne’s cell made quick work of the others. Some had tried to flee while the ones with the most blood on their clothing had tried to fight back barehanded. They were all pierced, torn, or hacked up within thirty seconds.

Julianne, who stood in the center of the massacre, had bloodied her axe, driving it directly into the face of one man, and then down into the skull of another. She moved so fast that Gina had a hard time believing she’d just murdered two men.

All of their clothes were bloody (bloodier). Their weapons dripped crimson. Their blood-splattered faces did nothing to hide the savageness in their eyes.

Even Connie had managed an ‘assist’ by stabbing a woman in the back, providing Nick and easy finish as he sliced the young woman’s throat open.

What horrified Gina the most was watching Connie’s reaction when she noticed a small patch of the woman’s blood on her left shoulder. Connie’s eyes went wide with delight as she showed the others her first… badge.

Gina turned toward the wall, disgusted and badly shook up. She needed a moment to process what just happened… and why.

“I’d like to wake the fuck up now,” she whispered to the indifferent wall.

Someone put a hand on her left shoulder.

Gina flinched.

“It’s okay,” Julianne said. “It’s just me. We’ve eliminated the Fodder.”

Gina glared at the young Ama-Eskua recruit. “The fucking ‘Fodder’? Get your damn murderous hands off me!”

Julianne retracted her hand and stepped back, stunned.

The rest of the cell stared at Gina, equally shocked by her reaction.

Hugh looked to Julianne and said, “Who is this? Why does this woman scold us with her condemning eyes when we did nothing wrong?”

Julianne just stared at Gina, her face an unreadable mask.

Gina balled her fists at the sound of Hugh’s whining voice. She turned to the rest of them, failing to stay calm. She pointed at the bloody mess surrounding the recruits. “They were all unarmed! I don’t know what the fuck is wrong with all of you and why you’re killing each other… but you clearly had them! There was no fucking need for this… slaughter!”

All the recruits were grumbling now. They looked to Julianne as if waiting for her to grant them permission to kill Gina, too.

“Enough!” Julianne barked at her recruits. “Now is not the time for this!” She looked at Gina and finished, “For any of this!”

Gina just stared back defiantly.

Julianne pointed her bloody axe toward the carnage. “This was not the whole cell. Until we locate the others-”

From the other end of the large room, another set of doors violently opened. Eight more Mother maniacs dressed in bloody gray stormed into the Kill Room. They came in screaming, armed with whatever make-shift weapons they were able to scrounge up. Some were carrying torn off table legs, others had shards of glass, and a couple had long steel pipes ripped from walls.

Julianne’s group looked terrified and less sure of themselves now that the enemy was armed.

“Attack!” Julianne screamed, stepping out in front with her hand axe up. She somehow managed to deflect a steel pipe coming down toward the top of her head as steel struck steel. The axe head snapped off the handle, but Julianne never hesitated. She stepped inside her taller attacker and thrust the jagged wooden handle up into an older man’s chin. The man fell dead instantly.

The others, now motivated by Julianne’s boldness, stepped up to meet the attacking cell with fierce screams as they raised their weapons to defend themselves.

Three of Julianne’s people went down as an intense young man, his dark hair tied back in a ponytail, whirled his steel pipe around in the air as though it were as light as a broomstick. His clothing was the bloodiest of the group. He plunged his pipe through a man’s throat, then turned right around and bashed a short girl’s head in. The last one was Nick.

Nick swung his sword in a sideways arc at the young pipe wielder’s neck. The young man easily ducked beneath the clumsy assault, then knocked Nick off his feet by putting the pipe between his moving legs. Nick fell forward on his face and the young man jammed the pipe through the base of his exposed neck. Nick flailed for a moment like a fish out of water, then ceased to move.

Gina didn’t know what to do. All around her, recruits on both sides were dropping in bloody piles. She watched as Julianne, who had seized a pipe from her latest kill, confronted the ponytailed pipe wielder. The two of them clashed violently as steel struck steel. They moved so quickly and aggressively, countering each other’s attacks, that it became clear that the ponytailed young man must have been one of the last three Ama-Eskua recruits that Julianne had mentioned.

Do something, Gina! she desperately thought. Do something before they all fucking kill each other!

So far, none of them had paid her any mind as Gina stood near the back wall, watching the massacre. She felt like she’d become invisible—the last rays of sanity blocked out by all that blood and madness.

If not for her injuries, Gina could’ve handled her own against most of these inexperienced attackers with their odd assortment of weapons. But she had no idea whose side to back since Julianne’s group had been the first to murder the unarmed group.

“This is fucking insane!” she shouted over the yelling, blood-crazed maniacs. “Just fucking stop this!”

No one was listening.

Gina turned and saw young Connie. A bigger girl had forced her into a corner. Connie still had her knife as she held it out at the bigger girl, slashing at the air in front of her.

The bigger girl, who had picked up a black spear from the cache of scattered weapons, was clearly toying with her as she poked the tip of the spear at Connie’s exposed legs, enjoying watching the young girl cry out.

Gina made eye contact with Hugh, and yelled, “Hey! Connie’s in trouble!” she pointed behind the bearded man.

Hugh turned, saw Connie, and then… walked away.

“What the fuck?” Gina yelled at him. By then, Hugh was already engaged in another fight.

And then she noticed the others in Julianne’s cell. Some were clearly aware that Connie was in trouble, but they, too, dismissed the situation, glancing briefly toward the big girl with the spear, before finding another fight to throw themselves into.

The big girl had relaxed too much, allowing Connie to lunge and land a lucky slash across her left forearm. This only infuriated the big girl as she moved in to finish her off. With a monstrous scream, the big girl raised her spear toward Connie’s face. She stepped back, preparing her final thrust, and… staggered to the left, as she was struck in the side of the head. The big girl, more surprised by the blow, shook her head, then turned toward her new attacker.

Gina was already coming at her again as the strange wooden bat-like object she’d picked up connected with the top of the big girl’s nose, breaking it instantly.

The big girl dropped to her knees, grabbing at her bloody face.

Gina brought her weapon back for a third strike. “Move again… and I’ll finish you,” she promised.

The big girl looked into the red-head woman’s fierce green eyes and knew that she meant it. The big girl fell over, gripping her face from the intense pain.

Gina turned to Connie.

Connie gave her a pained expression and shook her head. “What have you done?” she accused.

Before Gina could register the girl’s strange reaction to just saving her life, Connie put her knife up to her own throat.

“No! Wait! Connie, NO!”

Too late.

The young girl slit her own throat. As she choked to death in her own blood, Connie stared down at her gray uniform and… smiled.

Gina’s arms went slack as she dropped her weapon and just stared at the girl.

She didn’t see her attacker, Hugh, coming up from behind, raising his sword to finish her off.

Before Hugh could do so, a voice boomed throughout the Kill Room, “All of you… STOP IMMEDIATELY!”

Everyone turned to see a hooded woman in a long red robe appear to float into the center of the room.

Weapons struck the ground as everyone on both sides turned and dropped to one knee, including the Ama-Eskua recruits.

Gina just turned and frowned at the old hag. “It’s about damn time you showed up,” she said exhaustedly.

Lady Clementine glanced at Gina, then examined the mess, shaking her head. She took a deep breath, then said, “The next weapon raised, on either side… I’ll make sure that person is buried with it,” she hissed.

All the recruits averted their gazes, staring submissively toward the bloody ground.

The Kill Room became so quiet that Gina almost missed the murderous screams… almost.

Lady Clementine, her ancient face buried in the darkness within her hood, kept her hands beneath her robe and stood still for what felt like an eternity.

Even Gina wisely remained silent.

She finally spoke. “All of you will report to isolation,” she commanded. “There you will remain… until I decide what to do with you.” Her last words were loaded with contempt. “NOW!”

Acting as if her words were like a grenade just thrown into the room, all the recruits scattered, rushing toward the exit doors.

Gina turned back toward Connie’s corpse, wiping frustrated tears from her eyes.

Clementine waited until the two of them were alone, then removed her hood and sighed. “I’m sorry for all of this, Gina,” she said. “I only wish I could have been here much sooner… to stop it.”

Gina turned and stared at the old crow. “Why the hell did you leave me here with these… animals? And what the hell are you teaching them in this God-forsaken place?”

Clementine shook her head sadly, then slowly approached her. “A lot has happened here since I’ve been away, Gina. I am only just finding out the extent of it.”

“What does that mean?”

For the first time, Gina saw something in the old woman’s eyes that made her uncomfortable.

Uncertainty.

“If you’re able, Gina. We’ve much to discuss,” she said. Clementine stared around the Kill Room in disgust. “But not in this place.”

“What the hell is going on here, Clementine?” Gina pushed.

The old woman frowned. “That, Gina, is the very question I’ve been seeking to answer ever since we arrived.”

~~~

Gina stood on an upper level balcony, next to Clementine, overlooking the lower levels beneath them. Everything was in ruins. There had been multiple fires at some point, as evidenced by several large black stains imprinted on the walls and the ash remains of scattered furniture laying like victims on the ground floor. There were blood stains everywhere. Trash and dust had collected in piles all throughout the large middle-section of the facility.
As Clementine had explained it, the large open-area central hub of the massive Mother facility was laid out like a mall with multiple floors for various offices, laboratories, classrooms and a command center. But now, anything resembling the once active ‘Headquarters’ of Mother had been obliterated.

“How long has it been like this?” Gina nearly whispered.

Clementine sighed. “From what I could gather, most of the chaos occurred after The Change.”

Gina turned to her. ‘You mean, this all happened when your people started to turn? I don’t understand. I thought Mother was aware of what was coming.”

The old woman nodded. “Mother was aware, and the threat was contained.” She nodded toward the ruins below and finished. “This happened after. When most of us were sent out to our assigned cells… the ones who were left in charge… they are responsible for this.”

Gina turned back to the deserted hub. “So, all of Mother’s ‘big wigs’ functioned out of this place?”

“In a manner of speaking… yes.”

“Judging by the looks of your ‘Headquarters’, along with the training facility, this place has been falling apart for quite some time,”

Clementine nodded with a frown. “I would appear so.”

Gina turned. “Tell me about those recruits. Why are they killing each other? Is that Mother’s idea of ‘training’?”

Clementine paused. She rubbed her temples with tired old hands. “Forgive me, Gina. I know you require answers. I’m… I’m still processing what’s happened, myself. This place was nothing like this when I left. Apparently, I’ve been away for too long.”

Gina shook her head in frustration. “You talked me into coming out here. I believed we were coming back to get help to deal with the Shadow Dead and restore order out on the mainland. And then I get here… and everything’s a fucking mess in your own damn house!”

“I’m… sorry, Gina. I’m as disappointed as you… and honestly… a little terrified.”

Gina waited.

Clementine continued. “Everything we’ve built here has fallen apart… and I don’t understand how this all happened. Not yet. We were supposed to be a beacon of light for what was left of the world. But then I come here and discover that the light has been snuffed out.”

“Why did you leave me with those recruits?”

“I wanted you to meet them since they would be the ones to help us defeat the Shadow Dead.” Clementine shook her head. “These… recruits… are not the ones I remember.”

“You’re talking about the Ama-Eskua?”

“Yes. But apparently, there are no more Ama-Eskua recruits. Instead, what was once a proud and honorable warrior class, has become a disgusting den for refugees.”

“How could you not know about all this? How could you let this happen?”

Clementine looked away. “There is only one way this could have happened without my knowledge. The remaining Ama-Eskua Order, who was left to oversee and secure Mother’s affairs, has seized power instead.”

“So… they’ve done all this?”

Clementine raised an eyebrow. “A bold, unexpected move for sure. But yes, considering the circumstances and the absence of senior authority after The Change occurred… the Ama-Eskua could not have picked a better time to betray Mother.”

Gina shook her head in shock. She laughed and said, “So, let me get this straight. We came back here to raise your damn army to fight the Shadow Dead, a rebellious sect of the Ama-Eskua Order, only to find out that the Shadow Dead has… what… taken control of the Ama-Eskua?”

“I wouldn’t take it that far, Gina,” Clementine said. “But after everything I’ve seen here, I wouldn’t rule it out, either. Everything Mother stands for… everything noble… has been neglected and distorted. I haven’t even begun to dig beneath the surface yet. But apparently, the Ama-Eskua has forsaken the training facility and left it in chaos. Those… recruits… have been operating under archaic practices that were banned long ago… but have somehow been reestablished.”

“Are you talking about Candidates and Fodder?”

“No, actually. That was doctrine that has come to light since The Change… or the Lions. But it was meant for good, and not to be used as an excuse for violence.” Clementine placed her hands gently on Gina’s shoulders and said, “Gina… I feel like I’ve let you down, and for that, I’m truly sorry. Mother’s house has become a den of liars and thieves since I was here last. Until I get some solid answers… I don’t know who to trust. That’s why I’ve been absent for the last few days. I’ve been trying to speak with the Order on the northern end of the facility… but have met resistance.”

“Sounds like it’s time to leave,” Gina said, pulling away from the old woman. “Come back and find me when you’ve all figured your shit out. Until then, I’ll go hunt the Shadow Dead on my own.”

“Please… don’t give up on me, Gina. I would ask that you consider staying.”

“Why the hell would I do that?”

Clementine nodded. “Yes, the recruits you were meant to meet… are no longer with us. But that doesn’t mean we should forsake them like the Ama-Eskua has apparently done. You’ve seen how they live. They are operating off a bad program stuck in some murderous loop.”

“It’s all fucking Lord of the Flies as far as they’re all concerned. I think it’s time you get some new recruits.”

“Or some better leadership,” Clementine said, letting her gaze linger on the red-headed woman.

“Why the hell are you staring at me like that? Are you suggesting what I think you’re suggesting?”

“Once I figure out this mess, and believe me, Gina, I will, I’m going to need some help getting Mother back to where it belongs.”

“Fuck no!” Gina said. “Absolutely not! I’m not going to be your next fucking Donovan!”

Clementine’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “How do you know that name?”

“I’ve seen some of your finer ‘recruits’ in action,” Gina said. “In fact, it was one of your damn cell groups, led by that very asshole, that executed a good friend of mine for just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And I won’t even get into what you all do to pregnant woman in your cell groups.”

Clementine shook her head and sighed. “As I’ve told you before, Gina. Many have gone off on their own under Mother’s good name, perverting the cause. The Shadow Dead, that lunatic Micom, and if you’ve encountered the traitor, Donovan… well… I can only imagine the heinous things he’s done to your people, and to his own cell. All of this, along with whatever is happening in the Ama-Eskua Order presently, just demonstrates how much I need someone like you to help me get things right again.”

“And what about you?” Gina said. “You talk about the others, conveniently excusing what they’ve done by saying they acted alone, and not under Mother’s direction. But how do I know you aren’t just like them, blowing smoke up my ass?”

Clementine smiled. “I guess you don’t, Gina. And your assessment is both wise and understandable, especially under the circumstances.”

Gina did not expect Clementine to give up so fast.

The old woman nodded. “You’re right, of course. Mother’s reputation has been soiled at this point, and you’ve every right to be suspicious of me, too.” Clementine’s eyes started to water up. She looked away and finished, “I’m sorry. This has been a trialing past few days. This is not your problem. I brought you here to help you, and instead, I’m the one who needs the help. I will arrange a helicopter to fly you back to the airport, with enough supplies to get you back on your feet.”

“And… and what will you do?”

Clementine smiled. “I will do whatever I can, Gina. Whatever I must… to relight the beacon that Mother is supposed to be.”

“And the recruits? What happens to them?”

“I don’t know, Gina. I haven’t gotten that far yet.”

Gina nodded. “Well, I’m sorry for what’s happened here, for what’s it’s worth.”

“Thank you, Gina. I just wish I could fly all of you out of this place. But the recruits’ minds are… unstable. It would be negligent of Mother to just release them into the world, in their current state.”

Gina looked concerned. She thought of Julianne. “What does that mean? Are they… prisoners?”

“No, Gina. Just… dangerous. You’ve seen it for yourself. They have been operating without a moral compass for some time.” She gave Gina a long deliberate look and finished, “Sometimes, the darkness, when allowed to dwell for too long, unchecked… well… it can make good people do very bad things.”

Gina just stared.

Clementine smiled weakly, speaking more to herself. “In time, I’m sure I can undo the damage that’s been done to them.”

“And if you can’t?”

“You just let me worry about that. We need to get you out of this place. Once your safely gone, I’ll have one less concern on my plate and-”

“I’ll help you,” Gina said.

“What was that?”

“You’re recruits,” Gina said, already regretting her decision. “I want to help them… get out of the dark.”

Clementine feigned surprise. “May I ask, why the sudden change of heart?”

Gina looked away. “I know what it’s like to be without the moral compass you mentioned. And if they can’t be helped… then I’m forced to wonder what that says about me.”

Clementine just nodded. “Thank you, Gina. I’ve every confidence that if anyone can help them… it’s you.”

The exhausted red-head averted her eyes.

“Anything you need,” Clementine continued. “just say the word… and I will make sure it happens.”

Gina let out a weak laugh, looked into the old woman’s eyes, and said, “For starters, I’ll need coffee… and lots of it.”

~~~

Next Episode 54-3

Previous Episode 54-1

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 54-2: Treachery” Copyright © 2019 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Six: Mother. All Rights Reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission by the author.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

~~~

Hey, everyone. Just a quick check in for the month of October. We are now into the final chapter of Book Six, Mother. I’m looking forward to completing this very challenging volume with all of you. There’s been so much happening in this book with a lot of surprises that even I didn’t see coming… lol. I am currently writing like a madman to get this final chapter completed. I’m estimating eight episodes with a finale set for Halloween night (and that’s fitting since I started Book Six on Halloween last year). I think that even if this runs over eight episodes, I’ll still post the finale on Halloween and just post extra episodes to get us there.

Judging by what’s coming out in the writing, it looks like each of these final episodes are going to be what I call ‘mega episodes’, which means they might all run significantly longer than usual.

Speaking of long, Book Six has officially become the new longest book in this series (gee… surprise, surprise), already clocking in at over 260,000 words.

Aside from that, and everything else that I can’t tell you, I’m still planning on jumping right into Book Seven as soon as this volume is complete. As far as a Book Seven release date, all I can say at the moment is that it will probably be Spring 2020. But I’ll know more on that later.

For now, I hope you enjoy this last chapter and thanks for sticking with me through this incredibly long saga into The Dark.

-Scott

~~~

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~~~

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

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

TONY + GINA
4-EVER

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

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

Gina lowers her head as Stephen scans the room.

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

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

“I believe that was finalized in 2014.”

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

Meredith looks around the room, feeling proud of herself.

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

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

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

BLOOD FOR BLOOD

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

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

YOU KILL US. WE KILL YOU. BLOOD FOR BLOOD

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

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

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

The door to the classroom suddenly bursts open.

No one moves. Not even Gina can move.

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

He is carrying his machete.

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

Marcus casually steps behind Samantha and stops.

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

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

Gina wants to scream.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dead.

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

She opens her eyes.

Everyone in the room is now lying on the floor.

Dead.

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

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

“NO!” she finally lets out.

Marcus smiles like the devil. He releases her chin.

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

The killer raises the machete one… last… time.

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

~~~

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

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

“Marcus.”

Gina quickly dismissed the dream.

Where the hell am I?

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

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

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

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

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

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

A knock on the door made her jump.

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

What the fuck is this? Gina thought.

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

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

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

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

The woman just continued to stare, immune to jokes.

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

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

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

“Correct.”

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

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

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

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

“What the hell was that?”

The young woman looked equally confused.

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

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

“I’m Gina. And you are?”

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

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

“You… don’t know?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

Julianne didn’t answer.

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

Again, she said nothing.

Gina stopped.

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

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

Julianne looked around nervously. “That is correct.”

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

“You wouldn’t!”

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

“I don’t understand the question.”

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

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

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

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

Gina just shook her head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recruits.

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

“No coffee, I assume.”

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

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

“May I ask a question, first?”

“Yeah, go ahead.”

“Your scar. How did you get that?”

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

“And the woman? Did you defeat her?”

Gina frowned at her. “She’s dead.”

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

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

The young woman just stared.

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

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

“The ‘Lions’?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“‘Tested’?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Julianne had no response.

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

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

Julianne nodded, giving him permission to speak.

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

“What’s your name?” Gina said.

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

“I’m Gina, Hugh. Nice to meet you.”

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s fucking horrible,” Gina said.

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

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

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

“Then what did you do?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s your name?” Gina pushed.

“Connie. My name’s Connie.”

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

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

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

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

Gina nodded.

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

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

Connie smiled back.

“What happened to your family?” Gina said.

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

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

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

“And the symbol?” Gina pushed.

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

The others started to nod.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Connie nodded and stared back down into her soup.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They all looked at her in silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

Next Episode 54-2

Previous Episode 53-11

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 54-1: Treachery” Copyright © 2019 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Six: Mother. All Rights Reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission by the author.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

~~~

It’s been a couple of months since my last update. Been busy writing. Well, we’ve just finished Chapter 53, which turned out to be another long one clocking in at over 48,000 words (second longest chapter in the entire series). I swear, every chapter is starting to feel like its own novella… lol. Anyway, the grand total for Book Six at this point is 240,000 words plus. By the conclusion of this book I suspect that Book Six will take over as the new longest book in the series (and that seems to be the trend since Book Three).

I apologize for another brief delay before posting the final chapter. As I’ve said above, each one of these chapters is feeling like its own story within a story and it takes a lot out of me to plan, plot and write each chapter. Rather than rush to meet online deadlines, I would rather take a couple of weeks and make sure everything’s right… especially for the Book Six finale.

There has been a whole lot happening in this book. I always knew this volume was going to be the most challenging to tackle in this series since I dubbed this one as the ‘Origin Story’. But now, the end of this part of the journey is almost upon us and I’m excited to see what comes out in the finale chapter. Writing this book has brought out all kinds of surprises I didn’t see coming, as well as paving the way for the final two books that are pending. I love it when this story takes on a life of it’s own and catches me off-guard. Those surprises along the way reinvigorate me every time, motivating me to explore new paths rather than forcing the story to stay within the confines of a plotline. I am delighted by what has been revealed to me in this book.

Well, obviously I can’t talk about anything that’s happening in the final chapter, but I can tell you that it will not end with a cliffhanger going in to Book Seven. No, this will wrap up the second long leg in this journey, clearing the way for the final two-book run to the finish line.

As far as what happens after… Book Seven is already in the planning stages and I intend on jumping right into the writing of it following the conclusion of Book Six. It will still be titled, Book Seven: The Prophet… a that’s all I can say right now. I also know the title for the last book in this long series, but I’m going to keep that to myself for a while.

Chapter 54: Treachery, will start on Monday, October 7th. If I can have it my way, I would love to post the final episode on Halloween since Book Six premiered on Halloween last year. Man this has been a long book… lol. Time will tell ;)

Well, that’s all I’ve got for now. As always, thanks for reading, and I look forward to jumping into the conclusion of Book Six with you in a couple of weeks.

~~~

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~~~

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

Meredith turned toward him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You got me there, Meredith.”

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

“Together,” Stephen agreed.

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

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

~~~

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you,” Meredith said.

You are welcome, Meredith.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The preacher took a leak in the Grand River.

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

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

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

Meredith almost fell over from laughing so hard.

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

Toby is the enemy.

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meredith and Stephen were openly weeping.

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

~~~

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

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

~~~

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

Meredith smiled at him then examined the boathouse loft.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She turned and smiled at him.

Stephen’s eyes looked glazed over.

She nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And after?” she pushed.

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen smiled and nodded.

“What can we do to help?” Megan said.

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

“Like hell you will!” Logan objected.

Megan was up on her feet. “No!”

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

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

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

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

“We stand together,” Stephen added.

“Yes. Together,” Megan echoed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Me, too,” Megan said.

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

The others agreed whole heartedly.

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

“Then it’s settled,” Logan said.

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

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

Megan just stared, causing Meredith to look away.

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

“Find Gina,” she said.

They all looked confused.

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

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

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

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

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

The others paused, looking confused.

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

Most of it.

~~~

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

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

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

Failures.

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

He nodded, then stared back at the ship graveyard.

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

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

“Just like before,” Stephen whispered.

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

They all looked at her.

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

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

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

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

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

They all gave her a puzzled look.

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

“Is anyone on board?” Stephen asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

Next Episode 54-1

Previous Episode 53-10

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 53-11: Love and Loss” Copyright © 2019 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Six: Mother. All Rights Reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission by the author.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

~~~

“Megan?” Meredith whispered, kneeling beside the couch. “Megan, honey… are you… are you alright?”

Stephen stood directly behind Meredith. To him, Megan looked like a corpse with its eyes still open. The thought gave him the chills. A part of him wondered if the girl’s eyes would suddenly turn and find him, followed by a smile to let him know that Nicole was still in there… somewhere. He turned away, feeling guilty for the thought.

Logan stood directly behind the couch with the shotgun at the ready but not aimed at Megan directly. He was obviously uncomfortable at the prospect of shooting the girl should something else other than Megan reveal itself.

“Megan?” Meredith repeated louder. She looked at the girl’s slowly rising chest. She’s barely breathing! Oh, dear, God… please… please let her be okay.

All at once, Megan drew in a large breath, making her cough and everyone else jump. The half-dead slowly sat up, stared around at the strange faces observing her until the disorientation lifted. She made eye contact with the medium.

“Megan?” Meredith said with a smile. “We’re all here, honey. Just relax.”

Megan nodded.

Meredith couldn’t tell if she recognized them, or if it was even Megan staring back at her.

The half-dead young woman attempted a broken smile, then gave up, putting her hands over her mouth instead. She started to shake lightly, her eyes watering up. “I… I tried to kill you!” she exclaimed. She stared around at the others. “I tried to kill… all of you!”

Stephen shook his head. “It wasn’t you, Megan. It was… it was Sylvia.”

She nodded at him as tears fell down her cheeks. She turned back to Meredith. “I’m… I’m so sorry.”

“How much do you remember?” she said.

Megan’s horrified eyes answered the question.

“Oh, you poor child,” Meredith said, reaching over to embrace her.

The moment Megan was in Meredith’s arms, she started to sob loudly. “I’m so… so… sorry!” she cried, collapsing in the embrace.

“It’s alright, honey,” Meredith said through tears. “It wasn’t your fault… none of it. Just… just let it all out now. We’re just… we’re just grateful you’re still with us.”

She looked up at the ceiling. Thank you, God. I owe you another one.

Stephen stepped back, choking up over Megan’s unchecked display of grief. He looked up at Logan.

The big preacher had lowered the shotgun, letting his broad shoulders slouch.

At first, Stephen thought he was praying.

Logan was staring down at Megan… crying.

~~~

Half-an-hour later, Stephen and Logan started patrolling the perimeter to keep an eye on the dead, allowing Meredith time to give Megan another blood dose.

When Meredith was finished, Megan was much calmer. The half-dead woman sat on the couch with a blanket wrapped around her shoulders while Meredith sat beside her, watching her like a mother hen. She brought Megan up to speed with everything that had happened after she went dormant.

“So, we’re going to give up, then?” Megan asked.

“No,” Meredith said. “We’ve only agreed to Toby’s surrender to buy us some time.”

“Time for what?”

The old medium smiled. “Stephen seems to believe that I have some secret weapon at my disposal to take down all the monsters.”

“Well… don’t you?”

Meredith couldn’t tell if she was joking. “If I do, honey, I’ll be sure to let you all know.”

“So… we’re going to fight.”

“Yes,” Meredith said with a weary nod. “It appears that we will certainly try.”

Megan nodded. “And… we have from now until we arrive on Toby’s island, or whatever, to come up with a plan?”

“Yes.”

Megan waited for more but got nothing. “Will your secret weapon reveal itself to you by then?”

Meredith laughed. “I sure hope so… I really do.” She shifted gears. “How are you feeling?”

“Better.” Megan started to tense up. “Stephen’s right. We should fight.”

Meredith smiled. “Yes. He seems to have uncovered his own special weapon.”

The half-dead waited.

“His newly found optimism in the face of… well… everything.”

“Stephen’s a good man. I like him a lot,” Megan blurted out, then immediately stared down at her hands.

“What is it?” Meredith pushed.

Megan looked resistant, then relaxed. “When I… when I was watching him on the porch waiting for Nicole… I felt… jealous.”

Meredith’s eyebrows shot up. She smiled. “Really?”

Megan glared at her. “Don’t you dare say a word!”

“I won’t, honey. Go on.”

“I’ve… I’ve had feelings for him. At first, I didn’t know what they were. But when Nicole came back… I started to understand. Not that I would ever do anything about it… but… they were there… these feelings.” She said the last with contempt.

“It’s alright, Megan. He is a handsome young man.”

“Don’t tease.”

“Alright.”

“Anyway, I think that’s how… that’s how Sylvia got inside of me. She must have sensed I had strong feelings for him… and when I started feeling guilty about it… she tricked me.”

“What do you mean?”

Megan gave her the saddest look. “I was watching Stephen from the window, then I turned away because I heard… I heard a child cry out.”

Meredith frowned.

“And then… and then I saw… Lucas… my Lucas… standing just outside another window. He was staring at me… holding our child.”

“Oh… I’m so sorry you had to go through that,” Meredith said.

Megan looked away and nodded, wiping a tear from the corner of her eye. “You see… I started feeling guilty for… being jealous over Stephen… and it made me think of Lucas… and then my feelings… got intense… and confusing.”

Meredith nodded, grabbing the half-dead’s cold hand. “I think I understand. Nicole had mentioned something about strong emotions associated with our memories… and that the strongest ones were how she was able to take on forms.” Then she stopped and said, “She did say that she couldn’t connect with you like that. Curious.”

“Yes,” Megan said. “I was thinking the same thing. I believe Sylvia hid the truth from her and discovered these emotions within me when Nicole was talking to the rest of you. And then Sylvia used them against me. While manipulating Nicole, Sylvia was plotting against us all along-” She stopped herself, shaking her head.

“What is it?”

Megan turned. “When I saw them, in the window, I went outside and followed Lucas and our baby across the road… and that’s when it happened. She took control of me… and I felt… sick inside. There was so much darkness. I sensed Sylvia’s plan. She wanted to take possession of me to kill you and Logan… and then offer me up to Nicole—my body—in order to tempt Nicole back on her side.”

Meredith nodded. “I think I’m starting to see where this is headed.”

Megan nodded. “Sylvia hoped that by giving Nicole her own flesh, that she would be overjoyed by the ‘gift’ of a… physical relationship.” Megan shifted uncomfortably, considering what that would entail.

“And Stephen would run away with Nicole because she was a real girl now,” Meredith said. “Sylvia, of course, would continue to pull Nicole’s strings from the shadows… and everyone would’ve appeared to have received what they wanted.”

“Yes. Something like that.”

Meredith shook her head. “And… what would’ve happened to you?”

Megan shrugged her shoulders, stared down at the floor, and said, “No more Megan. I was half gone already. I’m sure it wouldn’t have taken much to push the rest of me out.”

Meredith grabbed her by the chin and turned her face to look at her. “I don’t believe that for a minute,” she said sternly. “I believe it was because of you… and Nicole… fighting somewhere inside of you, that Sylvia’s plans were ruined.”

Megan smiled. “You really believe that. I can tell.”

“Absolutely!” Meredith smiled, letting go of her chin. “Sylvia underestimated you and Nicole. Clearly, that creature didn’t have a clue what love was all about. I don’t want to hear any more talk about you being something less than anyone else. Are we clear, young lady?”

She nodded, staring at the old woman with deep affection. Then she frowned as if remembering something awful. “I felt everyone’s… pain… when Sylvia was shifting. The memories she stole from your minds is very fuzzy now… but the emotions… the grief… I still feel it.”

Meredith tensed up and looked away.

Megan pushed. “You carry so much sadness in you, Meredith…. about Hannah.

“Yes,” she said. “I know. Let’s not go there, alright?”

“Look at me,” Megan said.

Meredith turned to find Megan crying. “What is it, honey?”

“You carry so much pain,” Megan said. “I’m surprised you can bear it. But the heaviest load is about Hannah.”

Meredith nodded, wiping away the young girl’s tears.

“I want to know what happened,” Megan said.

“You know that awful story already,” Meredith said. “My Hannah died.”

“You’ve only told a part of the story… but there’s more. I can feel it.”

Meredith was growing increasingly uncomfortable. “You need not concern yourself with my pain, Megan. It’s mine to bear… not yours.”

“It’s mine now, too,” Megan corrected.

Meredith looked into the sad girl’s eyes. She put a hand gently on Megan’s cheek. “I’m sorry… I’m sorry you had to go through that, too.”

“Just… tell me. Let me help you… as you’ve helped me.”

The old medium let out a heavy sigh. “Okay. But after… we never talk about it again. Okay?”

Megan nodded, wiping fresh tears from her eyes.

Meredith leaned back on the couch. “I’ve never told anyone this before,” she realized. “Not this part.”

“Your secrets are safe with me,” Megan assured her.

Meredith nodded. She reluctantly went back into her tortured memory and started speaking.

She retold the story about the Patterson family, about Emily, and how she and Hannah had gone over to their home for a consultation on the night of The Change. She talked about what happened in the Patterson home, how Hannah got bit. She talked about the car ride home and Hannah’s secret code.

Meredith took another deep breath, looked into Megan’s expectant eyes, and then told her the rest of it…

~~~

…Meredith opened the door to their small first floor apartment, flicked on the hallway light, and then laid Hannah down on the couch.

“Keep… keep the lights out,” Hannah whispered. She was shivering and sweating, attempting to cover her eyes with her hands.

“What was that?” Meredith quickly closed the front door and locked it.

“Hurts… the light… hurts my eyes.”

Meredith was breathing hard. She stared at the front of Hannah’s bloody shirt, only then aware of the blood on her own hands. Still in shock, the medium started wiping the blood off on her already crimson-covered sun dress. “Okay… okay,” she said, turning the hallway light off.

“That’s… better.”

The parking lot lights provided just enough light through the living room window for Meredith to move about the apartment long enough to turn on the dull kitchen light above the sink. She hastily gathered first-aid supplies. “I’ll be right there,” she called over to Hannah. “You just stay awake.”

Hannah didn’t respond.

Meredith’s hands were shaking badly as she scrambled for the supplies. She tried to steady her nerves. “The drive over was insane,” she said. “So many people… so many people running in the roadway. They weren’t even watching for cars, just running like that… I almost hit someone.”

She rushed back to the living room. Hannah looked like she was asleep.

Or dead.

She shook the thought away and sat down beside her on the edge of the couch, placing a blanket over her. “Wake up,” she said, shaking Hannah’s shoulders.

Hannah opened her eyes and Meredith gasped.

The artificial lights from outside illuminated her face and her dark silver eyes.

Meredith suddenly coughed and felt her stomach turn. Keep it together. She needs you to… keep it together, she reminded herself.

Hannah attempted a smile and coughed up blood. “I’m… I’m a mess. I can see it… see it in your face.”

“You’ll be fine,” Meredith said, forcing herself to look away from those dark mercury eyes. She attended Hannah’s shoulder.

“You don’t look… don’t look well, either,” Hannah remarked.

“I’m just in shock,” Meredith said. “We both are.”

Hannah frowned, her eyes drifting. “I can feel it… I can feel myself… dying on the inside. It’s like… it’s like I’m on fire, Meredith. It hurt so bad at first… but now, it’s like… it’s like I don’t feel anything.”

“You just keep talking and stay with me,” Meredith said, refusing to respond to Hannah’s delirious remarks. “No more dying talk, okay?”

Hannah attempted another smile. “I love you, Meredith.”

“And I love you… now… just focus on getting better.” She cleaned and wrapped Hannah’s shoulder.

“I’m cold,” Hannah said. “Can’t stop… can’t stop shaking.”

Meredith nodded. “After I call the hospital, I’ll pour you a bath.”

“You can’t stay here, Meredith. They’ll find you.”

“We’re okay. I haven’t heard anything outside since we got here.”

“Get away from me!” Hannah suddenly cried out, swinging her cold arms at Meredith’s face.

“What are you-” One of Hannah’s fists struck her in the mouth, causing her lip to bleed.

Hannah saw the blood and growled at her, reaching out for Meredith’s neck.

Meredith grabbed her cold pale arms. “Stop it! Stop it, Hannah!”

Hannah’s arms went limp. She started to weep. “What… what was I doing? I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!”

“It’s okay,” Meredith said, placing her arms beneath the blanket. She felt nauseous and got up. “I’m… I’m going to make that call now. Please just relax.”

Hannah started sobbing uncontrollably, putting her hands over her face.

Meredith needed to move. She felt weak and her head felt heavy. She wiped sweat from her brow. What’s wrong with me? Fever? Now? Get it together, girl! She went for the phone in the kitchen. It was dead.

Meredith closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Just… just get her in the bath,” she told herself. “You can do this. One step at a time.” She went back to the living room. Hannah was no longer on the couch. She looked around the dark living room.

“Hannah?” she called out nervously.

From down the hall, toward their bedroom, she heard Hannah laugh like a small child. “Come and find me, Meredith!” she called out.

What… what is this? Meredith felt dizzy and grabbed the back of the couch before she fell over. She took another deep breath and waited for her stomach to settle. “Hannah?” she called out. “You shouldn’t be moving around with your injuries.”

Hannah laughed again, causing the hairs on Meredith’s arms to stand.

The medium forced herself down the dark hall and then stopped when she made out Hannah’s shape, rolled up in a ball at the end of the hall. She was rocking.

Hannah looked over at her and laughed again. Then she stated to sob. “I’m sorry… sorry… Meredith. I’m… I’m not well. You shouldn’t be here… I shouldn’t be here… I can’t stand it… I can’t stand you seeing me… like this!”

Meredith swallowed hard and nodded in the dark. “Everything’s fine. You’re sick. Let me get you into the bathroom, okay? A nice warm bath will help you relax.”

“Okay. But I… I can’t move. I’m afraid. How did I… how did I get down here, Meredith?”

Meredith didn’t know what to say. She started toward her.

“Help me, Meredith. Help me get out… help me get out of the dark. The dark! The Dark! THE DARK!” She screamed the last, then started laughing hysterically.

Meredith nearly vomited and fell to one knee. She quickly wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, then stood up, using the wall for support. “I’m coming, honey. Just… just hold on.”

“Not looking good, Meredith,” Hannah said, and started rocking again. “Come closer… so I can eat you.”

Meredith stopped. “What did you say?”

Hannah started sobbing again. “My, God, Meredith! These thoughts I’m having…” She started slapping her forehead.

“Stop that!”

“These thoughts… they’re so… vile… angry… I’m so hungry, Meredith. I can taste it in my mouth… all that blood… ALL THAT BLOOD!”

Meredith started to reach down toward her, then stopped. She turned to her right, toward the bathroom door, and then reached for the light switch.

The bathroom light came on, causing Hannah to shriek.

Meredith turned.

Hannah was standing right in front of her, shielding her eyes. She’d never even heard the woman rise.

Meredith grabbed the distracted woman and pulled her into the bathroom.

“It hurts, Meredith! Turn it off! TURN IF OFF!”

“Not yet, honey,” Meredith said. “Just… just keep your eyes shut and focus on me.”

The pain seemed to bring the woman back from the brink. She nodded, breathing heavily. “Okay… okay, Meredith.”

Meredith had to grab the bathroom sink to steady herself as another dizzy spell struck her. She took a deep breath and then assisted Hannah out of her bloody clothes. She then helped her sit down in the bathtub and started the water.

Hannah kept her eyes shut tight. “I’m… I’m sorry, Meredith. I don’t know what… what’s wrong with me.”

“How’s the water? Too hot?”

“No… it’s fine.”

As the tub filled, Meredith grabbed a washcloth, soaked it, then put it over Hannah’s eyes. “Just keep this right there, Okay?”

Hannah nodded. “You’re too good to me, Meredith.”

Meredith got down on her knees with another washcloth. She felt a little better now that she wasn’t standing. The medium reached over and started wiping the blood from Hannah’s body. “How’s that? Feel a little better?”

“Yes,” Hannah said, starting to relax. “Thank you.”

Meredith’s eyes felt heavy listening to the steady drone of the bath water. She forced them open, turned off the water, and then washed the side of Hannah’s face with the washcloth.

“I want to look at you, Meredith,” she said. “Can you… can you turn the lights back out?”

“I can’t do that right now, honey. Sorry.”

Meredith watched Hannah’s face droop, her lips puffing up into a pout. “I SAID TURN OFF THE MOTHER-FUCKING LIGHTS, BITCH!” she suddenly exploded, sitting up, splashing water, and causing Meredith to fall back.

Meredith stared at her in shock. “What? Just… just calm down… please.” She felt like vomiting again.

Hannah appeared to calm down, placing the washcloth back over her eyes. She started to weep again, then laugh, then back to weeping. “This is… this is too much!” she balled. “I’m… I’m not feeling too good, Meredith. You need to do it… do it before it’s too late.”

Meredith started crying, overwhelmed by everything. “Do what, honey? I don’t understand you right now.”

With as much stability as Hannah could muster, she turned toward Meredith’s voice, holding the cloth over her eyes, and said, “You need to finish this. You need to kill me.”

“No!” Meredith shouted back, finally giving in to a little madness herself. “Stop saying that! I won’t do it! I WON’T!”

“Fine,” Hannah said, lying back down in the water. “I warned you.”

Meredith wiped the tears from her eyes and tried to regain control. I feel… I feel so sick! I can’t… I can’t keep dealing with this. We both need help.

“Meredith?” Hannah said in a surprisingly pleasant voice.

“Yes? Are you okay now?”

“I’m okay. But you need to turn out the light.”

“I can’t do that. I need to see you in here.”

She heard Hannah sigh with frustration. “Alright… but you’re making me very, very angry.”

“What… what does that mean?”

Hannah laughed lightly. “It means… honey,” she spat the last word, “that as soon as the lights go out… I’m going to kill you… so… very… fucking slow.”

Meredith put her hands over her mouth. “You don’t mean that,” she said. “That’s the… fever… talking.”

Hannah laughed. “‘Fever’? That’s classic, Meredith. That’s cute. Fucking fever. Are you really that fucking stupid?”

Meredith winced at Hannah’s harshness. She tried to ignore it.

“You better get out of here… while you still can.” Hannah started laughing again.

To Meredith, she sounded like an insane person. It took all she had to stand back up. Her legs felt heavy and slow. “You just… just relax, honey,” she said, sweating profusely from standing. “I’m going to get myself an aspirin and some wat-”

Something made a loud ‘popping’ sound from outside.

The bathroom light went out.

Oh, dear, God! Meredith thought, feeling disoriented in the dark bathroom. The power must have gone out in the neighborhood!

“That’s sooooo much better!” Hannah hissed. For a moment, in the darkness, Meredith believed something else was in the bathroom with them… something terrifying.

“Ha… Hannah? Just… sit still now,” Meredith managed. She was feeling her way toward the bathroom door. “Just… wait until the lights come back on, honey. Don’t want you… don’t want you to fall and get hurt, okay?”

“Where are you, Meredith?” Hannah said in a playful voice. “I can hear you… I can hear you moving around in the dark.”

Meredith could hear Hannah splashing water. She was attempting to crawl out of the tub.

“Hannah! I mean it! Don’t move. You’ll… you’ll slip and make your wounds worse!”

Hannah laughed like a maniac. More splashing. Meredith could hear Hannah’s hands slap the wet linoleum.

By now, Meredith felt so ill she could barely reach the door, let alone manage Hannah. “What are you… what are you doing?” She reached up above her head for the doorknob.

“I’m coming for you, Meredith,” Hannah said in a low growl. “I’m so… so… fucking… HUNGRY!”

“Stop it!” Meredith cried. She found the doorknob. “I’ll be back, honey. Just… just… I’ll be back real soon.”

“Where are you going? Don’t leave me like this!”

Meredith pushed open the door and stepped into the hall.

Hannah was completely out of the tub now, splashing and slapping the floor on all fours trying to reach Meredith.”

“DON’T YOU DARE LEAVE ME, YOU FUCKING BITCH!” she shrieked.

Meredith was sobbing by the time she slammed the bathroom door shut. She collapsed in front of the door, placing her weight against it, as Hannah reached up from the other side, turned the knob, and attempted to push it open.

“LET ME OUT! LET ME THE FUCK OUT, MEREDITH!” Hannah violently pushed against the door as it repeatedly slammed Meredith in the back.

Considering her condition, Hannah was surprisingly strong, but she still couldn’t push the door open. Meredith extended her legs across the hall, using the opposite wall to brace herself. “Just… just lie back down, Hannah. Please. I need some time to… I need to rest a little… Just, please stop.”

Suddenly, Hannah stopped.

Meredith could hear her weeping on the other side of the door. The medium closed her eyes and shook her head in the darkness. I can’t stand this. This is too much. Too much! What’s wrong with my Hannah? What’s wrong with everything?

“I’m sorry, Meredith,” the sick woman sobbed. “I don’t mean to be like this! I don’t want… I don’t want to hurt you. I just can’t control it!”

Meredith was about to fall unconscious. She’d never felt so ill in all her life. “Hannah, honey,” she called through the door. “Just lie down and go to sleep. Maybe you’ll feel better after you’ve rested. More in control.”

“You think so?” the sick woman called. She sounded like a frightened child.

“Yes,” Meredith lied. “Get some sleep, and everything will be better.”

“Can I come out there, Meredith? I don’t want to be alone right now.”

Meredith bit her hand then slammed it against the hall carpet in frustration. “I know you don’t, honey. Believe me, I want you out here with me… but you’re not well.”

Silence.

“You’re not well, but it’s not your fault,” Meredith corrected. “Just get some rest. I’ll be right here with you the whole time. Okay?”

More silence.

Meredith grew concerned. “Hannah? Can you hear me?” What if she’s hurt? What if she’s exerted herself and passed out? She could be lying naked in a pool of water and blood! She turned and reached up for the doorknob. “Honey? Talk to me? Are you okay?”

Still no answer.

Meredith frowned at the doorknob and then forced herself to let it go. She swallowed hard, wiping sweat off her brow, and said, “Honey, I can’t let you out. I can’t open this door… for both of our sakes.”

Something hard struck the door, causing Meredith to flinch.

“Fucking cunt!” Hannah hissed. “I’ll get you! You just wait. I’ll get you to open this door and then I’ll rip your throat out with my fucking teeth!”

“Stop,” Meredith whispered. She felt so helpless and alone.

“And after I rip your fucking throat open, I’m going to feed on your corpse and bathe in your blood… oh… you better believe that, cunt!”

Meredith closed her eyes. Physically and emotionally, she had nothing left.

“You still there, bitch? You better be. Because as soon as you leave this door, I’m going to bust out of here and kill you. Do you hear me, cunt? I’M GONNA KILL YOU!”

Meredith lost consciousness, passing out against the bathroom door.

~~~

The sound of someone barging in through the front door caused Meredith to stir. She slowly opened her eyes, relieved that she could see within the gloomy apartment. It was morning.

“Hey!” someone called, headed toward the kitchen. “Anyone in here?”

Meredith recognized the voice. It’s was Hannah’s son.

“Over… over here,” she attempted to call out. She felt weak.

She could hear him approach. Meredith looked up at a big man with a mess of dark brown hair and an unshaven face. He was wearing what looked like coveralls. She stared down at the man’s right hand. He was holding a gun.

The man stopped just in front of the Meredith and crouched down. “You look like shit,” he said.

She attempted a smile. “Good to see you, too… Frank.”

“Where is she?”

Meredith looked into Hannah’s son’s eyes and started to cry. “She’s… she’s hurt, Frank.”

Frank closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “Let’s try this again. Where is she?”

“Bathroom.”

Frank stared at the door, then back down at Meredith. “Move,” he said coldly.

“You can’t go in there.”

“And why the hell not?”

Meredith hesitated. “She’s… she’s sick.”

“Hurt or sick… which is it?” Frank was losing patience. “You know what… never mind.” The big man got up and banged on the door. “Hannah! Open the damn door!” He’d stopped calling her Mother years ago.

“Don’t go in there!” Meredith pleaded.

“Frank?” a weak voice called out from the other side. “Frank… is that you?”

Frank Carman stared down at Meredith. “What the hell is going on?”

“She’s… she’s been bitten,” she confessed, through tears. “There’s something wrong with her. She’s… Hannah’s dangerous.”

Frank stared at the medium for what felt like an eternity, his thoughts and emotions guarded.

“Open the door, Frankie,” Hannah called through the door. “Open the door… and give your mother… give your mother a hug.” Hannah started pounding on the door.

Frank stared at the bathroom door. He’d become a stone.

Meredith shook her head. “I don’t know… I don’t know what to do, Frank” she whispered, putting her hands over her face. “All I know… all I know is that you can’t open that door.”

“Why?” he said.

“FRANK!” Hannah screeched. “Open this fucking door, you worthless shit! For once, do something right and open this MOTHER-FUCKING DOOR RIGHT NOW!” Hanna started banging her head against the door, repeatedly.

This just made Meredith weep. “Hannah! Stop it!” she cried.

Frank was visibly shaken. “That’s not my mother,” he whispered. He stepped away from the door until his back hit the wall. “How long?” he asked. “How long has she… has she been like this?”

“It happened last night,” Meredith said. “Phone’s dead. I couldn’t… I couldn’t call for help.”

“There’s no help coming” Frank said, still staring at the bathroom door. “It’s a fucking mess out there. People are… people are fucking turning on each other and killing each other. I barely made it here.”

“Is that why you… is that why you have the gun?” Meredith said.

Frank looked down at the .45 in his hand as if realizing he still held it.

“How… how did you get out?” Meredith pushed. “Did you… did you hurt anyone?”

He turned to her and raised an eyebrow. “You’re kidding, right? The world’s gone insane overnight and that’s what you want to ask? Nothing ever changes around here.” He started pacing down the hall.

“Why are you not in jail, Frank?”

He turned back. “It’s nice to see you, too… Mother.”

“Don’t call me that!”

“You’ll have to excuse me if I don’t feel like playing twenty questions with my infected mother’s lesbian lover right now,” he said. “I need a minute to think this through.”

“Why are… why you free, Frank?”

He glared at her and said, “I threw a cop off a fucking rooftop and stole her fucking gun. There… you happy now?”

Meredith was about to protest the joke but restrained herself. She watched Frank stop at the end of the hall and lean up against it. He ran a hand through his messy hair and sighed heavily. For a moment she swore he wiped a tear from his eye.

She tried to rise but couldn’t. “Frank,” she said. “Help me.”

He turned and came over. “What’s wrong with you?”

“I’m… I’m sick. Just sick. Help me up… but keep the door blocked.”

Frank helped the medium get to her feet.

“Frankie! Let me out. Let me out! LET… ME… OUT!” Hannah started pounding on the door again.

“We need to get her help, Frank,” Meredith said, wiping tears from her eyes. “I couldn’t… I couldn’t do it by myself… but together-”

“She’s gone,” Frank said.

Meredith stared up at him in disbelief. “What do you mean she’s… what the hell are you talking about?”

Frank closed his eyes. “I mean… whatever’s behind this door… is not my mother anymore.”

Meredith shook her head violently. “You don’t know what you’re talking about!” she said. “That’s my Hannah!”

“They’re eating people, Meredith. That’s what happens when they get… infected.”

“No,” Meredith said. “Not Hannah! She hasn’t hurt anyone!”

“Then why are you so damn afraid to open this door?”

Meredith didn’t want to answer. She pointed a finger in his face. “Look!” she said, displaying a rare moment of anger. “That’s your mother in there! I don’t care what you think of her, but we need to help her now… do you understand me?”

Frank nodded and frowned. “Yes… I understand better than you do.” He raised the gun.

“No!” she threatened. “You will not!”

“She’s gone, Meredith. I’ve been out there since last night. I’ve seen what this… disease… is doing to people.”

“I don’t care! We’re not… killing her!”

“Then open the door and see what happens,” Frank said. The look he gave her was unreadable. But she could still see the pain behind his eyes. “I don’t like this anymore than you do.”

“We’ll just wait,” Meredith reasoned.

“For what? For my mother to get worse?”

She didn’t have an answer.

“Just open the door, Meredith,” Frank gently said. “For both our sakes.”

Meredith nodded, then put her ear to the door. “Hannah, honey, it’s me. Frank’s here. We want to come in and help you but you… you have to settle down, okay?”

There was no response from the other side of the door.

“Stand back,” Frank said, raising his handgun.

“Don’t!” Meredith hissed.

Frank gave her a stern look. “If my mother’s on the other side of this door… then I won’t need to use this.”

Before Meredith could protest further, Frank pulled the door open. His eyes went wide as he backed away in horror. “Fuck me!” he said.

Meredith quickly stepped in front of him and stared into the dark bathroom. She placed her hand over her mouth to stifle a scream.

Hannah was sitting up against the bathtub, naked, covered in blood. She was holding her right forearm in her left hand after gnawing it off at the elbow with her teeth. The disturbed woman looked up at them with a bloody mouth. “I… I couldn’t stop… stop myself,” she said. “So… so hungry. I…” Hannah suddenly started laughing like a maniac.

Meredith fell to her knees. “Hannah,” she cried. “What have you done to yourself?”

She found no recognition in those insane silver orbs. Hannah continued to laugh hysterically.

Before Meredith could crawl toward her, Frank pulled Meredith away from the door and closed it.

“Let me in!” the medium protested, fighting to get free from Frank as he pulled her down the hall. “She… she needs me! Let go!”

Frank let her loose near the living room sofa and said, “Stop it! Just… just fucking STOP!” he shouted.

Meredith stared at him; her eyes full of tears. “I… I can’t stop seeing it! My, God! What would possess her to-” She buried her face in her hands.

Frank was struggling to breathe. He started pacing in front of the hall, wiping sweat from his face. “Go… go change into some fucking clothes without blood all over them,” he told her. “Those… fucking things outside catch a whiff of you, we’ll never make it two blocks.”

“What are you going to do?” she said.

“The power plant,” he said, ignoring her question. “I heard some emergency broadcast about the power plant taking refugees. We need to get there… now.”

Meredith nodded. “Of course,” she said, getting up. “We can take Hannah there. They’ll have… they’ll have medical personnel who can help her.”

“Yeah, okay,” Frank said. “Just… just please… change your clothes. We need to get the hell out of here.”

Meredith got up and headed into their small bedroom. She picked out a clean sundress for herself and started looking for something Hannah could wear.

The gunshot made her drop everything.

No… NO… NO!

Meredith raced toward the bathroom.

Frank was sitting on the floor before the open bathroom door, his head buried in his arms.

The gun still in his hand.

Meredith stared at him, then into the bathroom.

Hannah was dead.

“What… what have you…” She was in shock.

“Get dressed,” he said. “We need to go. Those monsters will have heard the gunshot.”

“WHAT DID YOU DO?” She screamed at him.

Frank glared at her with more intensity then he’d intended, and growled, “I did what you couldn’t!” He stood up, wiping tears from his eyes. “I did what had to be done!”

“You… you’re a damn monster!” she screamed at his back.

He stopped, looked over his shoulder and said, “Yeah… I am. World’s full of them now. You have to be a monster to fight monsters… because that’s what it takes.” He said nothing else.

Meredith stared into the bathroom at her dead lover. She no longer felt ill but blamed it on the shock. I’m so sorry, Hannah. I failed you!

“Hurry up,” Frank called back from the kitchen. “We don’t leave soon, we’ll be dead, too.”

Meredith walked back to her bedroom, removed the top blanket from the bed, then returned to the bathroom and placed the blanket gently over Hannah’s body. “I love you… always,” she whispered.

Meredith walked out of the bathroom and quickly changed out of her blood-soaked clothes.

Neither she nor Frank spoke another word as they headed outside, into the hellish morning full of monsters and death. They traveled north toward the Percy Power Plant…

~~~

…Meredith was weeping in Megan’s arms. “I couldn’t do it!” she said. “Hannah needed me… but I couldn’t! I let her turn into that horrible creature… because I was a coward!”

“Don’t say that,” Megan said. “You’re not a coward. You were just afraid. No one should have had to go through what you did… and you did the best you could.”

“I failed!” Meredith sobbed. “She was so… so far gone! And then Frank… oh, God! He never should’ve had to do suffer that! Her son had to do what I should’ve… He was already a mess… Frank. He never should’ve had to do that! And now… and now he’s gone, too!”

Megan held the older woman tightly as tears streamed down her own face. “It’s okay,” she said. “You’ll feel better now. You’ll feel better because you finally told someone.”

Meredith raised her head and looked into Megan’s eyes. “Thank you,” she said. “I don’t know what I’d do if I lost you, too.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Megan said, offering a crooked smile.

Meredith stared into those silver eyes, those beautiful silver eyes, and said, “You saved me, Megan. When I found you in that glass cage… it was like… it was like seeing Hannah all over again. You were just like she was… almost.”

“Is that why you never gave up on me? You thought you could do for me what you couldn’t do for Hannah?”

“It started that way,” Meredith said. “But then… I came to love you. The more you came back… the more I loved you… like the daughter I never had. A daughter me and Hannah might have had one day.”

Megan started crying again. “I was… I wanted to die in that cage… but you never gave up on me. I couldn’t protect my child… I never even knew if I’d had a son or a daughter. I was so… lost… angry… and fucking crazy. But you never gave up on me.”

Meredith smiled through tears and ran her hand through the young woman’s hair. “I lost Hannah the way I was losing you. But this time… this time… I knew more… I was stronger. And I knew I could help you. And then you helped me! You were so much stronger than you ever knew. I only had to help you see it… and you did.”

Megan nodded and said, “Hannah would be so proud of you. You can let her go now… because she knows. She knows how much you loved her… because I’ve always felt that same love you’ve shown me.”

Meredith nodded. “Thank you, honey. That means so much coming from you. And I’m so very proud of you.”

They embraced, holding on to each other for a very long time. Love had come, to replace what each of them had lost. Love had pardoned them both, finally granting Meredith and Megan freedom from the painful prisons of the past.

~~~

Logan and Stephen sat silently on the back porch of the inn staring out into the rolling hills to the south. Standing in the tall weeds, at the crest of the first hill, hundreds of dead things stared up into the sky, moaning in unrelenting hunger toward their unseen god who held temporary control over them. Beyond the first wave, in the rising background of hills beyond, a thousand more stood eerily still… waiting…

Logan bent over in his chair, resting his chin in his hands. He let out a heavy sigh and said, “I can’t stand looking at those horrible things standing there like that. It’s like… it’s like they know we’re here… and they want us so very badly… but some strange sound our ears can’t register is holding them back.”

Stephen nodded, looking away from the dead. “I’m trying not to think about it. And these are just the ones we can see out in the open. I can’t imagine how many more are spread out around town and in the forest.”

“If Toby’s trying to make a point, he’s made it,” Logan said, looking away from the hills. He turned to Stephen. “I can’t even imagine what kind of power, or force, it takes to control so many of them. And all this from some creature who isn’t physically in our world yet. It’s… overwhelming.”

“Megan seems to be alright,” Stephen said, changing the subject. “Those two have been talking for a while.”

Logan shook his head. “I can’t stand watching the whole giving-her-blood thing. Every time I almost forget that girl’s… well… not entirely like us, the blood brings it all back and I’m reminded that Megan’s drawn to it… like those creepy bastards out there.”

“And yet… she doesn’t want to kill us for it,” Stephen reminded him. “That says a lot.”

Logan laughed. “It sure does. I’m glad that girl’s on our side.”

Stephen stared down at his boom box and smiled. “At least I still have this thing.”

Logan laughed, looking down at the ridiculous yellow radio. “What are you planning on doing with that now? You gonna ask the dead for song requests?”

Stephen rolled his eyes. “Even if that we’re an option, I’ve only got Garth Brooks. I think that would just get them riled up faster.”

Logan snickered. “Maybe we could go place it out in the hills and let them stare at it for a while as an experiment. I want to be the one who’s discovered how to make the dead laugh.”

Stephen shook his head, reaching into his shirt pocket. “Actually, I thought we might have a more practical use for this thing, considering where we’re headed.”

Logan waited.

Stephen retrieved a second cassette tape from his shirt pocket. It was a blank tape, still wrapped in the original plastic packaging.

“You’ve been holding out on us. Mr. ‘Garth Brooks Only’,” the preacher joked.

The former school teacher smiled. “I’ve been holding on to this for a while. Never knew why… until now.”

Logan stared at the tape and teased, “You gonna make a ‘mixed tape’ for all your new zombie friends out there?”

Stephen gave him a serious look. “I thought we should… you know… maybe record a message… a warning… for anyone who finds it just in case this ends up being a one-way trip for us.”

Logan nodded. “Good idea. I now officially take back everything bad I said about that silly radio.”

Stephen laughed then finished, “You want to help? Maybe say a few words to the world we may be leaving behind? A prayer or something?”

Logan gave his friend a thoughtful look and said, “Sounds like you’ve given this some thought.”

“I have.”

“You should do it, little brother. I think we would all agree that whatever you had to say, would speak for us all.”

Stephen nodded. “Okay. I’ll do it.”

Logan got up to give him some privacy. “I’m going to check on the girls. You just holler if those dead things start moving.”

Stephen stared out into the hills. “Oh, you’ll hear me, alright.”

Logan put a big hand on the school teacher’s shoulder and said, “God bless you, Stephen. May He continue to guide your heart and mind and grant your tongue His grace to say what needs said… in Jesus’ name, amen.”

Stephen gave him a grateful look and nodded.

Logan stepped back into the inn.

When he was alone, Stephen picked up the boom box and placed it on a table in front of him. He unwrapped the blank cassette tape and inserted it into the player.

He stared out once more into the vast sea of dead things that were once people, and whispered, “This is for all of you, too. I’m sorry you ended up this way. May you someday find peace from all your suffering.”

Stephen found the ‘record’ button on the player and pressed it…

~~~

Next Episode 53-11

Previous Episode 53-9

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 53-10: Love and Loss” Copyright © 2019 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Six: Mother. All Rights Reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission by the author.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

~~~

The bulk of the storm had pushed further east, but the rain continued to fall relentlessly. They exited the rear of the inn with dawn still a couple of hours away from providing relief. They decided to flee across the open fields and hills to the south. Meredith, struggling in a severely weakened state, had detected a massive horde of the reanimated heading down from the north, toward the river, as well as from the roadways entering Cherry Hill to the east and west, leaving them with only the southern option.

Stephen and Logan had grabbed their packs stuffed with essential supplies, their few weapons, and some spare blankets to wrap themselves in. Stephen had to help Meredith walk out into the fields while Logan carried Megan in his arms. The fierce, half-dead felt surprisingly light and vulnerable cradled in the big man’s arms, wrapped up in a thick blanket.

Meredith looked ill and could barely hold on to consciousness after the attack in the common room.

After twenty hard minutes, they were all soaked, stumbling through fields shrouded in darkness, an overcast sky promising more of the same.

Logan led his weary friends into the night. He looked east and could make out the faint outline of distant mountains on the dark horizon. If we get caught out here… in the open… He let the futile thought hang and then stopped and turned back.

Stephen had Meredith’s arm over his shoulder. They were falling behind.

Logan looked down into Megan’s pale and wet face. He felt like he was carrying a corpse. He stared up into the sky, and whispered, “God, help us. We’re not going to make it like this.”

“Stephen,” Meredith said. “Please… I need to stop for a moment.”

Stephen halted, wiping the rain away from his face. “Something wrong?”

The medium looked up toward Logan, and then past him. She frowned. “They’re coming.”

The former school teacher shook his head and laughed. “We can’t catch a break, can we?”

Meredith attempted a smile. “No. We cannot.”

“How long?”

“It’s hard to say,” she said. “It’s just like the rest. It feels like… It feels like they’re right on top of us because there’s so… so many of them.”

Stephen nodded. He turned toward the big preacher. “Logan!”

“What now?” Logan grumbled.

“The dead… they’re in front of us!”

Logan turned and stared south toward the open fields rolling upward into the hills. His eyes widened as he let out an exhausted sigh.

At the edge of the southern horizon, at the crest of the largest hill, he could just make out a long dark line silhouetted by the slightly lighter sky, extending from one side of the hill all the way to the other.

That dark line was moving.

“We’re cut off,” he called back. “My God! I’ve never seen so many of them!”

“We need to head back!” Stephen called out.

“Head back to where?”

Stephen didn’t have an answer.

“I’m sorry, Stephen,” Meredith said. “This is my fault. What I did… what I did announced our presence like an explosion… as far as the darkness is concerned.”

“You did what you had to do,” Stephen said, with a note of bitterness in his tone that Meredith caught. “We’d be dead now if you hadn’t.”

Peek-a-boo, Meredith… I see you.

Meredith closed her eyes. Her shoulders dropped. She silently cursed herself for being too weak to reestablish her mental defenses.

“He’s found me,” she told Stephen.

“Toby?”

“Yes,” she added, staring at the ground.

You’ve been very, very naughty, Toby playfully said in her mind. Then, after a slight pause, he added with surprise, What have you done?

Meredith attempted to ignore him, using what little strength she had left to hide her thoughts from Toby’s prying eyes. She shook her head at Stephen. “We should return to the inn… while we still can.”

“But…”

“It doesn’t matter, Stephen,” she said. “We’ll be surrounded by the dead before dawn.”

~~~

The rain finally stopped. To the east, a sliver of red morning light penetrated the canopy of dark clouds.

Surrounding Cherry Hill, the dead, wearing shredded clothing from a past life hanging loosely on their skeletal, rotting and contorted frames, stood in the twilight like horrendous scarecrows staring obliviously up into the gloomy sky. They filled the streets, nearby yards, the forest and fields—they were everywhere—forming a perimeter around the inn a football field’s length thick, and about half that away from the small structure.

Logan walked laps around the inn’s first floor windows with his shotgun, staring out at the motionless phantoms who seemed preoccupied with the rising sun. It unnerved him to see so many deadheads on all sides, and none of them advancing toward the inn to finish them off. He stepped back into the common room to check on his friends.

Stephen sat in a chair, his handgun in his lap, trying not to move. He couldn’t look at them any longer, staring absently at the obnoxious looking boom box sitting beside him.

Meredith was kneeling beside the half-dead woman who was still unconscious, lying on the couch. She wiped sweat off Megan’s forehead with a towel. Since returning to the inn, Meredith had hardly spoken a word as the dead entered town shortly before the rain had stopped.

There was nothing any of them could do now. Either the dead would advance upon them and kill them, or they wouldn’t.

Logan turned to Meredith and asked for the hundredth time. “Any word yet?”

Meredith frowned. “No,” she said. “Ever since we got back, Toby hasn’t said anything to me. I don’t know if he’s expecting us to make the next move… or… if he’s just enjoying himself while we suffer in here.”

“That’s it?” Logan was frustrated. He hated feeling so damn helpless.

She stared at him absently and finished, “Yes, Logan. That’s it.”

The big man stared back out the closest window. “Why are they all just… standing out there? They’re just far enough away to make us think we could make a break for it.”

“That’s Toby’s way of maintaining control over them,” Meredith said. “If they were any closer, the dead would go into a frenzy over our scent and attack.”

“That’s not good,” Logan said, shaking his head. “I wish they’d just come for us… if that’s the plan. This… waiting around to die… is much worse.”

“Toby’s weighing his options,” Meredith said. “When he spoke to me, he seemed genuinely surprised that Sylvia was here… and that I destroyed her.”

This made Stephen look up. He stared over at Meredith, and said, “You mean all this time, Toby had no idea Nic… Sylvia… was hiding among us? How is that possible?”

“I don’t know, Stephen. Sylvia’s been in our world for a long time. Maybe she’s learned how to hide… even from Toby. Or, maybe Toby just never noticed her because he wasn’t looking.”

Stephen laughed lightly. “Just like how you never noticed Nicole when you looked at me?”

She gave him an apologetic glance and said, “Maybe something just like that… yes.”

“Does that mean he’s afraid of us… or rather… you?” Logan said.

Meredith rubbed her tired eyes. “No. I don’t believe he’s afraid. Just caught off guard. Like I said, he’s weighing his options.”

“And those are?”

She sighed at Logan. “He can’t storm this inn to capture me because he knows I’ll use whatever I have left to fight back. He also knows that to do so… would certainly kill me.”

This got their attention.

Meredith turned back to Megan, wiped her forehead again, and finished, “After finding out what I did to Sylvia, now he has to see me as a threat, too. Killing a First One was not what he expected to find after he found us. I believe he’s now considering if leaving me alive, despite his plans for me, is too risky.”

“Shit,” Logan said, staring back out the closest window. “I’m going to check around again. Make sure none of these rotting bastards are sneaking up on us.”

Meredith nodded.

Logan walked into the next room.

“Can Toby hear us… now?” Stephen abruptly asked.

She shook her head. “No. It’s not like before when I didn’t know what he was doing. And I’m… I’m getting stronger with each encounter with him. Strong enough to block him out… but not completely. Not now. He can speak to me directly, but he can’t spy on me… not anymore.”

Stephen nodded. He stared back down at the boom box.

Meredith sensed his heavy and conflicted thoughts. To her, he had the look of a man who needed to grieve, but the shock was still too fresh. “When I asked… Nicole… if she’d told Toby where I was… back in the compound… I was just reaching,” she told him.

He looked back up. “What do you mean?”

She frowned. “Hannah,” she said. “When Nicole chose to appear as her… I… I wanted anyone or anything else to blame for what happened leading up the Shadow Dead attack. Understand?”

Stephen smiled weakly. “Yeah. I think I do.”

“What I’m trying to say,” Meredith continued, “is that when Nicole said she didn’t betray us… I believed her… for whatever that’s worth now.”

“Thanks for that.”

“She also saved my life,” Meredith added. “When Megan… when Sylvia charged at me… Nicole stopped her. If she hadn’t done that, I believe Sylvia’s plan to eliminate me would’ve succeeded.”

Stephen stared at the medium for a long time. He finally said, “Are you trying to make me feel better… or worse?”

Meredith shook her head. “I… I know you’re in pain. I just wanted you to know that I don’t believe Nicole is responsible for what happened last night… and that I believe that it was entirely Sylvia’s doing.”

He looked away, wiping a tear from his eye. “I… I appreciate you saying that. Not that it matters now.”

“It matters,” she corrected. “Nicole may no longer be with us… but how we remember the ones we’ve lost is just as important. I just didn’t want anything to taint your final memory of her.”

He nodded. “We talked on the porch, after our meeting. She reminded me of how she found me waiting to die along the Grand River after the marina attack. That was before we got separated and then Marcus found me, sick as a dog. Remember?”

“Yes,” she smiled. “I was so worried you might not survive the night.”

He nodded. “That’s when she first appeared to me… along that river. The dead had found me, and I was so… defeated. I was ready to give up and Nicole wouldn’t let me. She reminded me of that day when we last spoke… said that she was willing to die on that shore beside me, if I hadn’t got up.”

Meredith waited.

“Anyway, she couldn’t understand why I would choose to remain with you when it seemed like such a death sentence, because of Toby.”

Meredith laughed and looked around. “Obviously, she might have been on to something.”

Stephen continued. “I told her that I was going to see this through with you, no matter what. That’s when she brought up that first day we met, and the sacrifice she was willing to make then, even though she didn’t understand it at the time. Nicole said that maybe, because of that day, it took all this time for her to finally understand what it meant to love someone enough to sacrifice your own life…” He looked down, as fresh tears streamed from his eyes. “She didn’t think we had a chance to survive, and she agreed to help us, anyway… even if it meant her own death.” He looked back up and smiled at her. “I guess we now know that she meant it.”

Meredith smiled back and nodded. “Yes, she did. And that’s something, Stephen. That’s something you should always remember about Nicole… no matter what anyone says.”

He nodded, wiping the tears from his eyes. He took a deep breath and said, “I’ve been sitting her thinking ever since we go back.”

“About what?”

“About our chances of winning.”

Meredith nodded. “Considering everything that’s happened… up to now… what do you think our chances are, Stephen?”

“I never liked all this running,” he admitted. “I always saw something like this eventually happening—getting caught. Despite the odds against us, I’ve always thought we should confront Toby.”

Meredith raised her eyebrows. “You still believe that… even now?”

“Absolutely,” he said. “But it doesn’t matter if I, or Logan, or even Megan believed it. That always came down to you.”

“To me?”

“Yes,” he said. “You’re the only one in this whole damn world who has a chance at stopping all this… I’ve always believed that.”

She stared at him for a long time. Finally, she carefully said, “And if it meant losing more people we care about to stop Toby… is that price worth it… to win?”

“Yes,” he said without hesitation.

This surprised her.

He continued, “We’ve already lost so many…” He struggled not to break down. “Running from this monster hasn’t gained us anything. I say we go right at that nasty sonofabitch responsible for it all… while we can still draw breath.”

She was still staring at him. “So… if there’s a chance to stop Toby… even if it’s a small one… you believe we should sacrifice everything… and take it?”

“Yes,” he said. “While the choice is still ours to make.”

Meredith smiled warmly at him, then looked to Megan. “I wish I had a fraction of your faith in me, Stephen.” She wiped more sweat from the half-dead’s face. “I can’t lose any of you… I won’t. And I would never bet on me… not with all your precious lives.”

Stephen didn’t know how to respond to that.

She turned and finished, “But maybe we do have a chance. Maybe we do… now.”

He raised an eyebrow in surprise. Before he could inquire further, Meredith raised a finger to her mouth, to signal that something was happening.

Clever woman, Toby said. I don’t know how you did it… how you killed Sylvia. I wish you would let me in, so I could find out.

Meredith didn’t respond.

I know you can hear me. Don’t feel like talking? That’s okay. Just listen then. I assume my display outside has already gotten your attention.

Logan entered the room and stopped.

Stephen waved the big preacher over and then placed a finger to his own mouth to signal him to stay quiet.

Meredith looked at him, pointed to her head, and said, “He’s… here.”

Logan understood.

Toby continued. I needed to ponder a few things. I apologize for the delay. I assume the others are with you. Please feel free to speak on my behalf. I want my terms to be perfectly clear.

“Terms?” Meredith said.

Yes. You have two options. Either you resist and I let the dead loose and you can all die horrible deaths… or… you can surrender.

Meredith looked to the others and frowned. “He wants us to… surrender.”

Stephen and Logan shot each other a quick glance, then turned back to the medium.

She held up her hand.

I sincerely hope you choose option number two, Meredith. But know this: I will dispose of you here and now. This is not a bluff.

“Why would we surrender?” she told him. “We are all aware of your plans for me… and for this world. You know I’m prepared to die to stop that from happening… we all are.”

Toby laughed lightly. Such misplaced heroics. Admirable, perhaps. But honesty, I find it tedious at best. You overestimate your own value, Meredith. I’ve told you before that I am patient, and that I would find another to carry out my plans… eventually. As it turns out, you are not the only one left who is… special.

Meredith turned toward to the others and started relaying Toby’s side of the conversation. She focused on Toby and smiled. “Now that sounds like a bluff,” she told him. “You may be ready to kill us all… but as far as finding another to replace me, I don’t believe you.”

After a slight pause, Toby continued. It doesn’t concern me what you believe. I have found another. But it might take me another year or two to make this one ready and strong enough to finish what you and I started together. I would prefer not to delay my plans any further due to some of my… children… left roaming around in your world without parental guidance. Thus… the reason you are still alive.

Meredith relayed Toby’s words and then silently considered them.

Yes, I sense you believe me now, don’t you, Meredith?

The medium remained quiet.

Doesn’t matter. Let me get to the point and remind you why it’s important that we finish our work together. Whether I’m there or not, my influence will remain, as will those loyal to my purposes. However, there are some who have already devised their own designs for your world that are contrary to mine… and much more… primitive.

“What does that mean?” she said.

Toby laughed. You still don’t see the big picture, Meredith. I’ve told you before, the world you know is finished. The only choice you have is to bring me across so that I can rule that darkness… before everything erupts into chaos.

Meredith relayed, then shook her head. “You would eliminate all of us.”

Yes… eventually. But not for many years to come. Until then, the existence of your species still serves a purpose under my dominion. But… without me there… now… Mankind will die off very, very quickly.

“Explain that.”

No.

“Then you might as well kill us now,” she said.

You need to understand, Meredith. Having me there increases the life expectancy of your kind. It’s simple math… really. Mankind can die off now without me… or… gain a few years with me in it. Much like your present situation. You can die now, or, buy yourselves a little more of that precious commodity you call ‘time’ by surrendering and returning west.

“West?”

Yes. I want you to head back to the beginning… back to Fairport Harbor.

“The… marina?”

There you go. I’ll have another boat sent to you… one that doesn’t go ‘boom’ this time. As we once spent time together on an island in the darkness, I find it fitting that we will be reunited on another island in the light.

Meredith hesitated.

Your reluctance is amusing, Meredith. It’s as if my gracious invitation or my mercy shown to your people now, not to mention, toward your entire race, wasn’t enough to persuade you. Must I entice you further?

She refused to answer.

I have her. Your precious Gina. She’s currently a guest on my island.

Meredith gasped.

And I dare you to accuse me of bluffing. Go ahead. I’ll make you all wait there while I deliver… pieces… for confirmation.

“Just… hold on,” she said. Meredith was trembling.

“What is it?” Stephen said. “What’s wrong?”

“He has Gina,” she said.

“What? You mean… on his damn island?” Logan said.

She nodded. Meredith closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Doesn’t matter,” she said sadly. “Our lives… and hers… we’re all expendable.”

Meredith was about to speak to Toby.

“Wait!” Stephen said.

She turned.

“Ask it… ask Toby for time to… to think about it.”

Both Logan and Meredith gave him a confused look.

“You know the score, little brother. Toby can’t get Meredith… no matter what… or who… we have to sacrifice.”

Meredith looked away with a nod. “He’s right, Stephen. Better to die here then-”

“Unless we can beat him!” Stephen interrupted. “I’m not saying we should surrender… just… stall. Tell him we surrender… tell him anything… buy us some time to talk about this.”

She stared into the school teacher’s eyes and saw a spark she wasn’t used to seeing.

He still believes in me, she thought. Meredith smiled wearily and nodded. “Okay.”

Stephen relaxed.

“Toby,” she said. “We… we’re exhausted and not thinking clearly. We need a little time to-”

Of course, he interrupted. I am well-aware of your physical limitations, and the journey ahead of you. Agree to my surrender… immediately… and I’ll give you until the next sunrise to rest, pack, and be on your way. But don’t test my patience any further. If you are not on the western road by sunrise… I will release the dead to feed on your bones.

Meredith looked to Megan, then said, “We… we have an injured member of our group. She’s not fit to travel. We may need more-”

Is the half-dead worth more than a whole life? Leave her behind.

“I will not!” Meredith pushed back.

Toby laughed. Oh, Meredith. Your compassion for the hybrid is amusing. As if I haven’t shown enough patience, I will now offer you a gift.

Meredith tensed up. “What does that mean?”

The hybrid is only… asleep. I will wake her for you.

Meredith’s eyes went wide. She stared at Megan. “No! You can’t!”

It’s already done. You can thank me when you arrive. Rest now… if you can.

Toby was gone.

Megan started to twitch, then went into a full-blown seizure.

“Oh, God!” Meredith screamed, rushing toward the girl. “Help me!”

Logan and Stephen came over.

Megan was shaking so violently she nearly fell off the couch.

“Hold her down!” Meredith said.

“What’s wrong?” Stephen said.

She turned, her face pale as a ghost. “Toby’s waking her up!”

“What’s that mean?” Logan said.

Meredith was bordering hysterical as all three of them struggled to hold Megan down. “It means, he’s woken up whatever darkness is still left inside of her!”

Megan suddenly went limp.

The half-dead’s eyes opened wide.

~~~

Next Episode 53-10

Previous Episode 53-8

~~~

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“Chapter 53-9: Love and Loss” Copyright © 2019 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Six: Mother. All Rights Reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission by the author.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.