Archive for the ‘novels’ Category


Note: This short horror story is unrelated to Don’t Feed The Dark.

~~~

Nature’s psychopath raised its voice, letting loose another chorus of thunder, promising terror and destruction with each boisterous note, while slashing at the sky with bolts of razor-sharp light.

Jonathan Sanders, age ten, retreated into the cavern of blankets, as the madman roared by.  The murdered moon offered no comfort; its corpse allowing shifting shadows to linger in the unfamiliar darkness consuming his bedroom.  Jonathan was well aware of what to expect–the man in the closet loved to visit him on nights such as these.

Was that a scratching sound at the closet door?

And so the ritual resumed:  “Mom!  Dad!” As if their names were verbal talismans keeping the monster in check, he called out again.  “Mom!  Dad!  Come in here, quick.”

Footsteps from down the hall. Would they make it this time?

Lightning flashed.  The eyes of his Buzz Lightyear action figure shifted his direction; the coat on the chair grew taller, closer; objects scattered on the floor had moved since the last flash; the doorknob on the closet door–turning ever so slightly–was the only time he trusted his eyes.  Imagination was a liar in the dark.  Jonathan knew this as surely as he knew that the man in the closet was real.

The air felt heavy, oppressive.  Shadows congregated around his bed like vultures predicting their next meal, like pedestrians at the scene of a crime that hasn’t happened yet.

Like a dreadful pause before a predator struck, the silence was unnerving and amplified the guttural, inhuman demand that came from the closet:

Johnny come.  Open door.

He couldn’t tell if the man spoke from the closet or was whispering in his head.  Either way, it always sounded close. 

Closer.

The bedroom door swung open.  Light from the hallway chased off the shadows as his father filled the doorway, the annoyance on his face evident.  “What is it, Son?  The storm?”

No answer.

His father’s shoulders sagged.  “Oh, him again.”

Jonathan nodded.  He’d hoped his mother would follow.  Not tonight.  It was the unbeliever’s turn to placate his son’s fears.  And that was always dangerous.

His mother never concerned herself with the man in the closet.  She understood, in a way only mothers do, how to fight monsters, or at least, how to starve them.  She would come and sing songs, tell stories, make him laugh; and like a magician, she somehow made the fear disappear.  And without the fear, the man in the closet could not stay.

His father played with fire, often challenging the man by threatening to open the closet door.  If his father chose that route again, Jonathan would have to talk him out of it.

“Ok, Johnny, let’s settle this once and for all, okay?”

Oh, that didn’t sound good at all.

“Let’s start with the bed.”  His father bent down to examine the one-foot space beneath the bed.

That was silly.  What monster could fit under there?  Maybe a small one, at best, and nothing to be concerned about.

“Nope.  Nothing under here.”

The lights.  Why does he always forget to turn on the lights?

His father walked the perimeter of the small room, yawning while rubbing sleep from his eyes.

I wonder how much he didn’t see on his “sleepy” patrol.

“Okay, all’s clear.  Just one more place to check.”  His father always ended up at the closet last.  This would seem cruel if Jonathan thought it was deliberate.  Dramatic, maybe, but not deliberate.  His father moved toward the door.

“Don’t do it, Dad,” Jonathan warned.

Even with his back turned, his father’s heavy sigh spoke volumes.  “Come on, Johnny.  There’s nothing in there.  Let me show you and-”

“If there’s nothing in there, then that’s great.  But what’s opening that closet going to prove if you’re wrong?”

“What a strange question, Son.  Isn’t the answer obvious?”

“No.”

“If the closet’s empty and you see that it’s empty, then you’ll know there’s nothing to fear.”

“You said ‘if’.”

His father’s impatience was growing.  “I didn’t mean ‘if’.  ‘When’, Son, that’s what I meant.  Your old dad’s just tired.”

Tired of dealing with his chicken son’s irrational fears.

“It’s still an unnecessary risk,” Jonathan said.

“What the heck are you talking about?”

“If the closet’s empty, than we’re fine.  But if it’s not-”

“If it’s not then your old man’s gonna kick some Boogeyman butt!”

Jonathan gasped.  “Don’t say that!  Don’t ever call him that.  It makes him stronger. Makes him more… monster-like.  He’s just the man in the closet.”

“Son, you’re being silly.  I’m gonna show you how silly, right now.”  His father reached for the door knob.

“He’s way bigger than you, Dad.  So don’t open that door!”

“Keep your voice down!  What’s the matter with you?”

Jonathan couldn’t stop.  “You’re the matter with me.  I call you in to help and you want to let the man out.  How does that make any sense?”

“Son, there’s nothing in there.”

“Then leave nothing alone.”

“Don’t get smart.”

“Then stop being stupid.”

“What did you just say to me?”

“Dad, you want to fight the man, but your tactics suck.  He’s big, powerful, scary-as-hell, and you’re wearing striped pajamas.  Who would you bet on?”

His father looked down at himself and laughed.  “Well, your mom thinks I look pretty scary in these.”

Jonathan giggled.  “That’s the way, Dad.  That’s how you make him go.”

His father sighed again.  “Come on, Johnny, enough is enough.”

Nuts, we almost got out of that one.  Think fast.  “You say the closet’s empty.  How do you know?”

“What?”

“Prove it.”

“That’s what I’m trying to do, Son.  Just let me open the door and you’ll have all the proof needed.”

“No, that’s not a good idea.  Proof is what you show to convince me that he’s not there.  Opening the closet just proves that either you or me is right.  And I know I’m right.”

“You’re letting your fears get the best of you.”

“What if I told you there was a burglar in the house?  Would you go chasing after him or call the police?”

“Well, I would call the police, of course.”

“So I tell you there’s something worse than a burglar in the closet and you want to let him out.  How does that make sense?”

“Okay, Johnny, prove to me then, that your man is in the closet.  Have you seen him?”

Johnny paused.  “No.”

“So he hasn’t stormed out of this closet and say… tried to eat you, or anything like that?”

“That’s not funny, Dad.”

“Come on, Son.  I’m just trying to get you to see how silly this all is.”

Jonathan paused again, his face growing pale.  “Death.  He looks like death.”

His father stared at him for a long moment.  “So, you think that Death is behind this door?”

“Yes.”

“How would you know what Death looks like if you haven’t seen it?”

“I don’t.  That’s what he told me.”

“The man in the closet speaks to you?”

“Yes.”

“Johnny, how can you possibly expect me to believe that?”

Jonathan’s eyes lit up.  “I can prove it.”

His father folded his arms.  “Can you now?  Well, please go ahead and tell me.  I’m all ears.”

“He told me about you and Uncle Jim.”

“Okay, explain?”

“He told me that he remembers you; he remembers the game you and Uncle Jim used to play to scare each other when you were both my age.”

Jonathan’s father remained silent.

“He said that you and Uncle Jim would dare each other to go and open the closet door and call his name when you both did something bad.  But neither of you ever opened the door.  You were both too scared.  The man was always disappointed that you didn’t.  He said he would’ve swallowed both of you up if you had because you tortured Mrs. Henderson’s cat and tossed it in a garbage can and lit fireworks-”

“Johnny, you’re beginning to scare me a little.  Who’s been telling you stories.  Your mom?”

“He also said he tried to get you and Uncle Jim years later when you were at some party.  Said that after you got some girl drunk and had sex with her, he was right there with you both.  Waiting in the dark.  Said he took the girl instead.”

“Johnny, that’s enough!” His father was visibly disturbed.  He and his brother Jim had never told anyone that story.  To this day, the whereabouts of the girl, Samantha Jones, are still unknown.  It was believed she left the party drunk, tried to hitch a ride home and someone picked her up.  His brother swore him to secrecy about that night and said the cops would blame them for her disappearance if they knew what they’d done to her while she slept.

“Johnny, I’m very tired,” his father nearly whispered. “I’m going to open this door now and put an end to all this nonsense.”

“Dad, don’t!  I’m not strong enough.  Let’s just go to your room tonight.  I promise I’ll go right to sleep.  After the storm’s over, the man will just leave.  He always does.”

“Son, you’re getting far too old to be afraid of the Boogeyman.”

“Dad!”

“Oh, stop it!” his father shouted.  “I said it:  Boogeyman, Boogeyman, Boogeyman!  So there!”

“You don’t know what you’ve done!  I’m not strong enough anymore, Dad.”

“Strong enough for what?  To look into an empty closet and get over your irrational fears?  Enough talk.”  His father reached for the door knob, surprised at seeing his own hand shaking, and opened the closet door.

“No, Dad!  You don’t understand. It doesn’t want me… I’m not strong enough to protect you anymore!”

Jonathan’s father looked back from the mouth of the open closet, stared into the face of his son, and saw the truth at last.  Johnny’s terror-filled eyes staring beyond him and into the darkness was all the proof he needed to realize his tragic mistake.

Something groaned from behind him.  Johnny’s father turned slowly, returning instantly to his youth, as a presence within the closet reminded him of every bad thing he’d ever done–reminded him instantly that he had been there, watching, waiting, and now finally, the man in the closet welcomed him home.

~~~

Several hours passed before the police finally departed.  There was still no trace of Jonathan’s father who’d apparently fled the house after scaring the daylights out of his son.  Possible abuse was suspected but quickly ruled out upon examination of the boy.

Jonathan hadn’t spoken a word since his mother found him screaming at the foot of his closet door.  The paramedics had to sedate him in route to the hospital.

To make matters worse, another missing persons report flagged red in the police database matching Mr. Sanders’ name.   An hour earlier, prior to Jonathan’s father disappearing, James Sanders, Jonathan’s uncle, had also mysteriously vanished in the dead of night from three states away.

~~~

“Boogeyman”  Copyright © 2012 Scott Scherr.  All rights reserved.

If you’re new to my blog and want to read something a bit longer, feel free to check out my ongoing serial novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, and tell me what you think: DFTD Chapter 1-1: Demon Night

~~~

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Hello Everyone,

Just a quick update from behind the scenes.

I’m slowly working on the first chapter for DFTD Book 5 (currently untitled), while enjoying some much needed rest. I’m also planning on editing Book 4 over the summer, time permitting.

If you haven’t found out already, I’ve removed the “Updates” tab on the top of the main page and replaced it with the “Other Short Works” tab. This will now be the place where I post links to additional short stories I’ve written that aren’t DFTD related, as well as some dark poetry, etc., that I will update as I post more material.

Also, the newest episode of After The Dark is now available, titled: The Killer Cut (Part One). This is part one of a two part episode featuring our latest special guest, Marcus Dempsey (a.k.a. Russell Bower). I’ll be posting the second part of this intriguing interview as soon as it becomes available.

In case you missed it on the main sticky page, a special thanks goes out to author, Michael Fitzgerald (Rev. Fitz), for featuring Don’t Feed The Dark on his, 31 Days of First Impressions Challenge, which he has now completed. I encourage you all to come on over to Michael’s website and read all about it. Also, Michael is currently writing a fascinating serial novel, titled, Existential Terror and Breakfast. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read so far and it’s definitely worth a read.

Lastly, the latest update link, as well as any additional news, will be posted on the bottom of the sticky post on the main page from now on.

That’s all for now. I’ll check back in a little later.

-Scott

~~~

After the Dark1 (2)

~~~

“Hello everyone, and welcome to another episode of After The Dark. I’m your host, John Ecko, and this is the Don’t Feed The Dark after-show that will attempt to answer your burning questions while we shine a light into some of the darkest corners of this chilling apocalyptic serial to see what we can uncover.

Each episode we will explore a diverse range of topics as we sit down with our featured special guests who have come right out of the pages of this dark serial novel to enlighten us and hopefully give us some additional insights into their characters, as well as what we can expect in the days ahead.

***SPOILER ALERT***

At this time, I must advise you, avid readers, that from here on in, there will be major spoilers discussed. So in the event that you haven’t read the first 38 chapters of Don’t Feed The Dark, I strongly suggest that you don’t continue on with us until after you’ve caught up. Consider yourself warned.”

John enters with his arms wide as the audience rises to their feet and makes a lot of noise.

“So how about that, ladies and gentlemen!” John begins. “We’ve reached the end of another exciting volume in this long, dark saga. Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Four: Phantoms has broken the record for longest book in the series so far, clocking in at over 225,000 words and 62 more online episodes. And I have to say, this book really took a departure from the norm and opened up a lot of new developments to think about.”

The audience voices their approval.

“Well, let me waste no time introducing our next guest. It’s been a long time coming… but hell yes! We finally have none other than Marcus Dempsey, a.k.a. Russell Bower, here on our show today. Please put your hands together and welcome our favorite serial killer!”

Most of the crowd roars their approval. Some boo. Others wisely choose to sit back down, hoping to escape notice.

Marcus walks across the platform dressed in an un-tucked black button-down shirt, jeans, and wearing a pair of dark sunglasses. He ignores the audience as John motions for him to sit in the open chair. Marcus sits and John immediately follows.

When the crowd settles down, John says, “Welcome to the show, Marcus… or would you prefer Russell?”

Marcus half smiles and answers, “Marcus is fine.”

“I think I can speak for all of us here and say that we’re finally glad to snag you for the show. You are certainly a hard man to get a hold of.”

“I’ve had years of practice escaping notice… John.”

“Indeed.” John scoots his chair to the side, creating a little distance between himself and his guest. “You’ll understand if I’d like a little more… space… between us, right Marcus? It’s not everyday I get a chance to interview a serial killer.”

John’s overdramatic motions of discomfort cause the crowd to laugh.

Marcus adds a laugh of his own, which feels more contemptuous than accommodating.

John shifts uncomfortably. “Anyway, it’s good to have you with us, Marcus. I have a shit-load of questions to ask you, so why don’t we just jump right in. Okay?”

“Certainly,” Marcus adds, adjusting his glasses to hide his eyes.

“Is your… friend… with you today?” John asks.

“No. I gave that savage the day off,” Marcus starts. “It probably wouldn’t go well to have him here with all these fine people in attendance.”

The audience laughs… nervously.

John laughs and says, “Well, that puts me at ease. I’m not afraid to admit it. So, let me ask the most obvious question. Why the hell did the author choose to keep you under wraps for so damn long?”

Marcus nods. “That’s a good one. I suspect the author didn’t want me killing off most of the main cast in the first book by leaving me out in the open… especially in this new free-for-all environment.”

“That’s a good point,” John says. “But seriously, why so long?”

“From the author’s perspective, when my story started all the way back in Chapter 1, with the hunting of Janet Schuler, I was one of many characters introduced. At that time, the author wanted to create an impression with the characters, leaving the readers a glimpse into their lives before The Change in the form of mini-stories, and then he wanted to leave us all in a state of uncertainty as to ‘when’ and ‘if’ any of us would return later on. In my case, the author told and completed the story of what happened between predator and prey during that insane night the dead came to visit. With the death of Janet Schuler, the author finished that particular tale, and then wanted the readers to forget about me by getting them engrossed in other character stories, especially when some of them started finding each other, while hiding me in plain sight. The author knew that some readers would forget about me, others wouldn’t suspect the ruse but would still be waiting for me to return, and then still others would have me pegged right away… but would never really know for sure, until the author revealed who I was and how. In all cases, he wanted an insider threat within the group, sitting patiently like a timed explosion, and only the author knew when that bomb would go off.”

“Very interesting,” John says. “And with everything else going on, I can easily see how you’ve been able to escape the reader’s notice for so long. And then what? That bomb goes off with the death of Frank Carman at the end of Book Three?”

“Exactly. Even the readers who long suspected who I was by then, couldn’t see that coming.”

“And so after waiting through three volumes to finally discover who you really were, we get this one long damn chapter which is loaded with… well… everything.”

Marcus laughs. “The author calls Chapter 37, a ‘novella within a novel’. He wanted to reward the patience of the readers by giving them ample make-up time with yours truly… and one hell of a story to go with it. Through the Eyes of a Devil was the very first chapter the author wrote for Book Four, long before the premiere, and he put a lot of thought and time into it, based in part, on things he’s been seeding for a while now… and things yet to come.”

“Fascinating,” John says with a nod. “Before we dig into that awesome tale, I have to ask: How far in advance did the author know when you would be returning? Was your reveal coinciding with Frank’s death planned well in advance?”

“In many instances, the author is just as surprised by events as the readers are since the outline can change rather suddenly. But in this case, yes, Frank’s death was in the works since Marcus was born. Several times, as that moment came closer, the author entertained changing the script to keep Frank alive, only because, like so many readers, the author also fell in love with that character. But it couldn’t be changed. The author had gone through great lengths to keep my character and Frank apart, and for good reason, because Frank always suspected there was something ‘off’ about me. The closer are moment came, the more the author understood that for me to continue to exist with these survivors, one of us had to go. The author knew that keeping Frank alive would have been a betrayal to the story’s intended course, much like if he had chosen to keep Janet Schuler alive, which he debated doing for a while, just to give the readers that predictable plot dynamic between predator and prey teaming up in the apocalypse. So, we had our destined dance together by that river, and I prevailed.”

John shakes his head. “And does our author have your death planned well in advance?”

Marcus smiles. “Nice try. I won’t bite on that one.”

“Well… no offense… but I hope the author puts an end to you soon. I don’t like the thought of you killing any more of my favorite characters.”

The audience laughs.

“I understand completely,” Marcus says. “At least I’m nowhere near any of them right now… well… maybe just one.”

“And we’ll get into that,” John injects. “But first, let’s talk about your story. I found it interesting that we got to revisit specific chapters from back in the first book to get your perspective on events. And then we even got to go back further and find out how you ended up at the Percy Power Plant, and how you came up with your new name. Also, I found it intriguing how you met Amanda Howard, who we might not have met at all if a certain savage had been in charge.”

Marcus nods. “Yes, Amanda was the latest mission, up until my character started having doubts. And then, of course, I met Gina… and that changed everything.”

“Why Gina? What made her so special?”

“I knew right away that there was tremendous potential in her to become something beautiful born of darkness.”

John scowls. “And what the hell does that mean?”

Marcus raises an eyebrow and answers, “I could tell you… but then I’d have to kill you.”

“Next question.”

The audience laughs.

“So, answer me this one: Obviously, you attacked the three scientists because they boasted they could cure the epidemic. And nice twist, by the way, discovering that the woman in the ravine was your handiwork. I guess I’m trying to figure out if you really love this new zombie-infested world, or you just hate the old world more. I get the impression that you might do anything to sabotage efforts in restoring law and order, or anything associated with ‘civilized’. So which is it?”

Marcus sighs. “My character appreciates what this new hostile world has given to everyone still breathing. And that is, a second chance to live without pretense, without fear, and without dipping into the stagnant pool of dead living. Everything else related to the past… all irrelevant now. My character firmly believes that everything that’s happened since The Change is progress… maybe even an evolution of a sort. In any case, he will do his best to interfere with anything attempting to put people back to sleep, content in their automatic lives.”

John nods. “So, we’ll get more into Chapter 37 in our next segment. But let’s talk about your childhood. That was some warped shit. Were you… the serial killer… caused by your awful parents, or were you always a bit… ‘off’?”

Marcus raises an eyebrow. “Yes, I suppose my lovely home life had a little to do with my blood lust. But in truth, I think I was like this long before all that. If anything, my wonderful parents simply accelerated the process.”

“And what process is that?”

“My understanding of the liberating power of death, first for myself, and then for others.”

“And… is that who you mean when you refer to The Lady?

Marcus smiles. “She is my destiny. She is Death… but not in the limited sense that the rest of you see her as.”

John shakes his head and smiles. “Well… I guess we’ll just have to take your word on that one.” He turns and addresses the audience. “And on that note, we’ll have to conclude for the day, folks. But not to worry, our second part of this interview will continue our discussion.” He turns back to Marcus. “I want to thank you for joining us today, Marcus… and for not killing anyone… especially me.”

The audience laughs.

“It was my pleasure,” Marcus says. “And I look forward to sharing more with your lovely audience.” He turns and scans the crowd with a menacing stare.

Many cower down a bit lower in their seats.

John laughs. “Well, we’ll definitely be talking more next time.” He turns to the audience. “For now, if anyone has any burning questions they’d like to ask, please feel free to ask away and we’ll try to answer them, if possible. If not, we’ll see you next time for part two of this discussion. How about a big hand for our special guest.”

The crowd reluctantly puts their hands together.

John stands. “In case anyone missed it. Book Five will be starting August 2017. We hope to see you all back then!”

~~~

Please show your support for Don’t Feed The Dark by voting for it at topwebfiction Just click and vote. Nothing else required. You can vote every seven days to help me keep this series listed.

Thank you,
-Scott

~~~

~~~

***SPOILER ALERT: IF YOU HAVEN’T FINISHED READING DON’T FEED THE DARK, BOOK 4: PHANTOMS, THEN I ENCOURAGE YOU TO STOP READING NOW***

~~~

We’ve reached the end of another crazy story arc. After 227,000 more words and another 62 episodes online (and a 9,000 word finale), Don’t Feed The Dark has moved much closer toward the eventual conclusion of this long tale.

We’ve learned many new things from our various characters by visiting the past quite often in Book Four, but hopefully we’ve uncovered some answers while discovering new questions. As with each book in this series so far, I have always strived to dig deeper and give each volume in this series its own character, making it stand out from the previous books. This one was aptly titled “Phantoms” since it dealt strongly with the ghosts from several of our characters’ pasts.

We’ve traveled back in time to discover more about Meredith Montgomery’s involvement with the ever-present mysterious group known as Mother, visiting her as a child at a very special orphanage (which is not an orphanage). We’ve had a glimpse behind the mask of Russell Bower and had a chance to travel with him as we relived various moments right out of Book One, not to mention, we’ve seen more from his estranged childhood. We’ve even had a chance to go back and discover what the infamous “Bad Man”, a.k.a. Walter, and his wife, Helen, were like long before we first met them as Tony Marcuchi’s captors from Book Two (And that chapter was a big surprise on my end for it was never part of the original outline… lol). We’ve had some disturbing glimpses into Gina’s dark actions during the long winter beneath the Wasteland and have experienced her struggles. We even got to read a little about one of our new characters, Logan McCalister, an unorthodox preacher and former gang member.

We’ve met some new people, and we will continue to find out more about them in the days ahead, as well as explore existing storylines surrounding veteran characters… and of course… we will find out what happened when the Shadow Dead returned. Sorry about the cliffhanger ending, but it had to be done. You can count on the very first chapter of Book Five (currently not titled) to pick up right where we’ve left off… and it’s going to be intense. I’ll just throw this one spoiler out there right now: People are going to die in the very first chapter… a lot of people.

So, what can I tell you about Book Five?

Speaking generally (and speculatively), Book Five will be taking place in several new locations throughout Northeast Ohio and it will be giving us a much wider view into the apocalypse since the winter. I’m well aware that Phantoms spent a lot more time delving into our character’s stories, placing the dead, for the most part, in stand-by mode. Book Five will remedy this. I already have a very extensive outline, looking into three different story arcs, that will span the next two books. Everything I’m seeing so far tells me that Book Five’s going to be another huge book. Of course, there’s so much I can’t talk about right now, but I will say that there will be two flashback stories included in the next arc. One will be Dead Dolls (Part 2), which will finish that particular tale. The other, will be looking into the origin of the Shadow Dead (now doesn’t that sound intriguing?). That’s all I can say about that one.

As far as the next couple of months before the premiere, I’ll be posting updates and various other surprises related to our tale. I’ll also be posting some non-DFTD short stories for your enjoyment and whatever else comes to mind. After The Dark will also return during the break and I may have an additional spin-off tale up my sleeve. Time will tell. I will also be using the down time over the summer to edit Book Four in the hopes of having it out in paperback as soon as possible. So if you find any pesky typos I’ve missed, please feel free to point them out.

I want to thank all of you for reading and for encouraging me to keep on with this long tale. If you have any questions about Book Four, or anything else I can clarify or that you’re just curious about, please ask. If it’s within my power to answer your questions, without spoiling stories that haven’t been told yet, I’ll try to do so.

I’ll talk more about the new story arc as we get closer. I hope to see you all back here in August.

-Scott

~~~

~~~

Tony entered the control room with Diane and Nine right behind him. Stephen, Logan and Meredith were all there, still staring in disbelief at one of the strangest members of their community.

Marcus was sitting in a chair with his leg propped up as Dr. Cooper tended to his sprained ankle. When he saw Tony, he attempted to rise, but Coop gave him a stern look, and he simply smiled at the big man instead. “Tony, it’s good to see you,” he said and then laughed. “Sorry I’m late. I got a little held up in those woods the other night.”

Tony let his arms fall to his side, his shoulders falling limp as he let out a big sigh of relief. He laughed and shook his head. “You, my friend, are the best piece of news we’ve had in a while. I would come over there and kiss you if the Doc wasn’t there fixing you up.” He eyes began to tear up. “Damn… it’s just good to see you.”

Marcus looked embarrassed by the big man’s display emotion. “Please, no kissing. I’m in no shape for any foreplay at the moment.”

This made Meredith giggle uncontrollably as she covered her mouth.

Nine jumped up and down like a fan at a football game. “Yes! I knew it! Way to go, Marcus!”

Diane simply smiled and shook her head. “You are just full of surprises,” she said. “Welcome back from the dead.”

Marcus nodded, feeling more thrown off by the hunter’s relief than anyone else’s. “It’s good to be… home,” he said.

Stephen stepped forward to beat the obvious questions, addressing Tony directly. “That night you were all attacked by those red-eyed savages with that fire blazing all around you, our resident hero led them in the opposite direction to allow you a chance to escape.” He looked over at Marcus like a proud father bragging on his son.

Marcus stared at his feet.

“And after getting those beasts to chase him, Marcus ran right off the top of a quarry cliff and managed to survive the fall.”

“Shit!” Nine said.

“Praise God,” Logan chimed in, shaking his head.

Marcus laughed. “I didn’t plan to do that… really. Heroism’s just a short word for stupidity mixed with a bit of luck. Damn tree saved me in the end, or so I’m told. There was a woman who found me all banged up and unconscious. She was the real hero. Anyway, long story short, this woman took care of me. She had a cabin and tended to my wounds until I was fit enough to leave. That’s where I’ve been these past weeks.”

“And this mystery woman,” Tony said, “what happened to her?”

Marcus put on his best sad face. “She… Alison, was her name… she died trying to get me back here. We were attacked by the dead. I was in no shape to help and she fought them off while I hobbled away. She’s the real hero.” Marcus looked away, pretending to wipe tears from his eyes. The sooner they moved away from discussing his captivity the better. Alysa was someone he never wanted to discuss again.

“That poor girl,” Meredith said. “We owe her our thanks for bringing you back to us.”

“Yes,” Stephen said. “Maybe we should go back to where you-”

“I took care of it,” Marcus quickly said. “After the attack, I went back to find her… body… or what was left of it. I buried her before I came back here.”

The room was filled with an uncomfortable silence.

Marcus lifted his head and smiled. “But enough of that. I hear there’s been a lot of changes around here since I’ve been away. Stephen’s been filling me in on all the details.”

Tony frowned. “Then you know what happened to Gina?”

Marcus’s face was stone. “Yes… that’s rather… unfortunate.”

Stephen let out a heavy sigh. “I don’t mean to cut you short, Marcus, but please, tell them what you told us. Tell them what Alison said about the Shadow Dead.”

Marcus nodded. “When I told her where we lived, about this wilderness preserve, she got all distant. So I pressed, because it seemed like she knew about us. That’s when she warned me about the Shadow Dead. She said that they would come for us now that the winter had passed. She wouldn’t tell me anything else, and I was too concerned to get back to push the matter. That’s when we left the cabin.”

“And you believed her?” Tony said.

Marcus gave Tony a grave look and then spoke with no further need to lie. “It’s the one thing she said that I have no doubt about. I believe her warning was valid and we should get the hell out of here.”

Diane looked pleadingly at Tony. “Tell them what we found.”

Tony nodded and looked to Stephen. “We visited the ruins today. That’s why it took so long to get back.” He looked at Marcus. “We found that old tree where Gina was hanging. Someone had stuck Copperfield’s sword in it. We don’t know what to make of it. Diane found no tracks and we didn’t see anything-”

“But we felt like we were being watched,” Nine chimed in.

Tony gave him a stern look and then finished. “Yes, it did feel like that. But we saw nothing to prove that we weren’t just letting our fear get the best of us. That place leaves an impression.”

“It was another warning,” Marcus said, stealing their attention. He smiled and clarified, “I mean, that’s what it seems like to me. Why else would anyone give up the advantage of secrecy to place that sword in the tree… unless they wanted us to find it?”

“Agreed,” Logan added. “Maybe we aren’t the only ones who survived the explosion. Sure sounds like something the old gangs I used to run with might do to let a rival gang know they’ve been… ‘marked’.”

Stephen turned. “‘Marked’?”

Logan explained. “You know, like when an offended group wants to let the other know that payback’s coming. That sword feels an awful lot like someone saying, ‘Blood for blood. Your day is coming’. That kind of thing.”

“It was aimed at Gina,” Tony said. “That’s where we found that sword.”

Everyone’s eyes were suddenly on Stephen.

Well, of course! he thought, as he started pacing across the room. This is the last damn thing we need! If Gina were here, she’d know how to handle this! The Shadow Dead was all she talked about. He already had enough to deal with after the discovery of Nicole’s new diary… and all that it contained. Fortunately, she wasn’t here now to distract him. He turned and looked into all their faces. “Nothing’s changed,” he finally said. “The threat of an attack has always been there, Shadow Dead or otherwise. We were planning on leaving anyway. This just speeds up the time table.” He said to Logan, “The scouting party, are you sure Frederick’s the man for this?”

Logan smiled. “Trust me, Frederick’s been looking for anything he can do to make up for our… misunderstanding… with all those guns pointing around in Cubicle City. He’s a good man, Stephen. Even good people can be led astray. He’s ready to lead that scouting party, and so are the others who want to go with him.”

Stephen nodded. “Well, you vouch for him… that’s good enough for me. Can they be ready to leave in under an hour? I want them out of these woods before nightfall.”

Logan’s eyebrows shot up. “Yes. He’ll want to know why, but given the current situation, I’m sure that will be all the motivation he needs.”

“Good. You tell him the stakes, and then get them moving. We’re going to be following behind in the morning. I just don’t want to lead an entire community out of here without knowing what’s in front of us. You tell Frederick that the mission’s changed. We’re going to be following their scouting route south out of here and that his group is to head for the first Pennsylvania town unless they run into trouble. Either way, they’re to check out the town and then meet back up with us after we get out of the Wasteland. We’ll just have to take our chances out there. I want all of us long gone from this hellish place by noon tomorrow.”

“That’s going to complicate the work topside,” Logan said. “There’s still a lot of provisions to move.”

“We’ll just have to move what we can this afternoon. Essential stuff only. We’ll leave the rest. Can Bear and Barney handle picking up the pace?”

Logan laughed. “Barney’s going to swear me a new asshole… but he’ll be okay.”

“Then it’s settled,” Stephen said. “We’ll take the warnings seriously, double-up the watches tonight, especially around that damn mystery door, and hope that tonight is no different than any other. By this time tomorrow, the Shadow Dead can have this damn place. We’ll be gone.” He looked around the room. “Does anyone have any objections?”

Tony stepped forward. “And what about Gina?”

Stephen sighed. Yes, there’s that. He looked at the big man and said, “There’s nothing we can do for her right now, Tony. With any luck, she’s already clear of these woods.”

“But… she’s alone. Exiled or not, if there’s a real chance that those fuckers are coming back… she has no idea they’re out there.”

“‘If’ they’re out there,” Stephen said. “All we have is a sword in a tree and the words of a stranger, no offence, Marcus. For all we know, if they are planning an attack, it might not be for a while yet. Or, not at all because the Shadow Dead are long gone. Either way, we must look at the bigger picture now. There’s a lot of people who could die here if we don’t get them out. There’s no time to search the woods for her, as much as I want to. If Gina were here, you know she’d agree with me.”

Tony looked like he wanted to object, then shrugged his shoulders. “Of course. You’re right.”

“We’ve got a lot of work to do this afternoon. I’ll need all you’re help to get us ready by the morning,” Stephen said. He looked to Marcus. “And you, just take it easy and rest. You’ve earned it.”

Marcus nodded with a half-hearted smile.

With that, Stephen dismissed them, leaving Marcus, Meredith and Coop in the control room.

“The leg looks good, and I did what I could about the other wounds” Coop said. “Your friend did a good job patching you up. You just need to keep the weight off the leg as much as possible and let it finish healing. Now, let’s have a look at that hand.”

Marcus pulled his bandaged hand away and said, “Not this, Doc. I’ll take care of it.”

Coop and Meredith gave him a puzzled look.

Marcus smiled. “It’s not that bad… trust me. Besides, the wound is a bit… personal.”

Coop shook his head. “Alright then. Just rest, my friend. Sounds like you’ll be doing a bit more hiking tomorrow.”

Marcus nodded. “Thanks, Doc.”

“There’s something different about you, Marcus,” Meredith said.

Marcus smiled at her. “How do you mean?”

“I don’t know… just… different.”

“Maybe all that fresh air outside of this place has added a little color to my face,” he added with a laugh.

Meredith laughed. “Maybe. It’s just good to have you back.”

“Thanks.”

Aren’t you tired of women prying into you lately like a fuckin’ crowbar, boss?

Be still, Marcus thought. We’ve more important things to think about right now.

Sure wish we had a crowbar now, boss… just sayin’.

Since his absence, everything in the compound had changed, and he was still trying to wrap his mind around it all. But Gina was gone… and that was a problem… a very big problem.

He started calculating.

~~~

Logan caught up with Stephen in the hall. “Little brother, I’ve got one more concern to address… and I know you don’t need to hear it… but…”

Stephen stopped. “What is it?”

“With all our eyes aimed outside at this Shadow Dead possibility, it’s easy to forget about the threats from within… and I think you know who I’m talking about.”

Stephen frowned and spit out the name. “Lannister.”

Logan laughed. “You know he’s still a problem. Even though we’ve stripped his power away, just having that little shit around causes division. Short of taping his mouth shut, he’s always going to stir up the pot around here.”

“Yes… I know. Hell, he’s my biggest fan right now… and he lets everybody know it. The community decided to keep him around while I wanted him gone. But it’s irrelevant now. One problem at a time. We’ve got a pretty full plate and-”

“Oh, I completely understand,” Logan clarified. “I just felt it was my responsibility… as your second in command and all… to just point out that snakes like that have a way of taking advantage of stressful situations, like the one were about to enter into, and I’d hate to see him get in the way of a smooth exodus tomorrow morning.” He patted Stephen on the back and finished, “I just wanted to let you know that I’m handling it, so don’t you give it another thought.” Logan started to walk away.

Stephen stared after him. “Logan, should I be worried?”

The preacher laughed. “No worries, little brother. I’ve got your back.”

~~~

Stephen had lost plenty of sleep during the deliberations in deciding Gina’s fate. This was not the case with Carl Lannister. After forming the various committee groups, it took only two days to decide what to do with the former loud-mouth leader of the uprising. Much to Stephen’s surprise and outrage, the community had decided to show leniency toward Lannister and let him serve out his punishment within the community.

After Stephen’s famous speech, Lannister had become the former school teacher’s greatest supporter, telling as many people who would listen how his motivations were only to get Gina removed from leadership, who was the real problem, and that he never had any intentions to hurt anyone. He repeatedly shamed the actions of his man, Sabastian, who acted on his own in his attempt to murder Meredith, while he praised Stephen for his wisdom in showing mercy toward all involved in the uprising.

When Stephen wanted to object to the community’s decision, it was already too late. Lannister’s displays of humility and shame for his actions, his pleading to be allowed to remain and atone for his foolish mistakes, and his endless verbal endorsements for their new leader, made it nearly impossible for Stephen to stand against the community’s decision without looking like a hypocrite for pardoning everyone else except Carl. What made matters worse was when Gina refused to defend herself, Lannister joined in to point fingers at her for forcing his hand and starting the uprising, swearing that he never would’ve done it if he hadn’t feared for the community under such a cruel dictator. Stephen had no choice but to abide by the community’s decision. He had learned two important lessons that day: Lannister knew how to play upon the politics surrounding his leadership, and that Carl excelled in self-preservation.

It was left up to Stephen to decide how best to punish the newly repentant Lannister. So he had decided to publicly humiliate him, assigning him to cleaning toilets, washing dishes after meals, cleaning dirty laundry, sweeping and moping the hallways… anything that would reduce him to the community janitor in everyone’s eyes, hoping that Lannister would cause a stir and show his real face. But the cunning little snake played his part perfectly, gladly accepting his fate with gratitude and false humility while he became the butt of every joke around the community.

Stephen had given up, leaving Lannister under the supervision of Logan’s fallen guard force. This was part of their punishment for following Lannister’s madness. They were assigned to watch his every move and report back if Lannister showed any hint of retaliation. They pushed Lannister hard, mocking him, spitting on him, and occasionally roughing him up when no one else was around. Although Stephen never encouraged this, he never stopped it either, still hoping Lannister might eventually break and show his true intentions, allowing Stephen a chance to expel him from the community.

“Let’s go, shithead!” A bearded man named Wigren snapped at Lannister when he dropped a box of supplies. Wigren, as well as the others charged with watching Carl, had not appreciated becoming this failed uprising leader’s babysitter after all his worthless promises. “Everyone has to pull their weight around here right now… even shitheads like you.”

Carl gave Wigren a nasty look, then smiled. “Of course… I completely understand. Sorry for the delay.”

“Save the ‘kiss-ass’ crap for someone who gives a shit, Lannister. I know who you really are.”

“Anything you say. I’ll get the box.” Lannister bent over to retrieve it.

Wigren placed his boot on Lannister’s ass and pushed, knocking Carl on his face.

Three other fallen guards laughed.

Wigren just stood there, shaking his head in disgust as Lannister slowly got up and picked up the box. “Pathetic,” he said. “And to think I fell for your bullshit. Look at you, groveling to anyone who will care. You’re disgusting, shithead!”

“Anything you say,” Carl said, grinding his teeth. “Where would you like the box?”

“Topside, asshole!” another guard yelled. “We need to get as many of these supplies above before the sun goes down. So shut your pie-hole and get moving! You’re holding up progress.”

Lannister nodded and carried the heavy box toward the hatch where a line of workers formed a relay going all the way up the ladder. He joined the line and started passing supplies while the guards watched and laughed at him.

One day, he thought, maybe not today, or tomorrow… but soon, I’ll get my payback. Keep laughing, assholes. I’ve got my list and I’m taking names.

Lannister remained on the supply relay detail for the remainder of the afternoon. He ended up topside, near the front of the line, moving materials down the narrow path from the hatch to the outdoor staging area. It was the first time he’d been outside since moving down below, and he enjoyed the fresh air, shutting out the snide remarks from other community members in the line, or the constant jabs of the guards who continued to watch him. He knew he was hated by most… but not everyone despised him for his failed attempts at taking over. Some could appreciate what even his misguided uprising set into motion. Gina was still removed from leadership, Stephen was put in charge, and things were still definitely changing for the better.

That was my doing, you ungrateful assholes! I was the one who started the wheels of change and progress… and you should all be thanking me for it!

An hour before sunset, Barney and the biggest man anyone had ever seen, named Bear, were finishing up overseeing the supplies stored at the Relocation Pre-Staging Outpost. The old guard dismissed the workgroup, all except for Lannister.

“You… stay put, asshole,” Barney said. He addressed Lannister’s babysitters. “I’ve got this one. Head on back with the others.”

Lannister, who was a sweaty mess, watched as the guards who were assigned to watch over him nodded to Barney and then smiled at him, whispering among each other like a bunch of school yard bullies planning their next assault. They turned and followed the rest of the work force back toward the hatch.

“So, what I’m supposed to do with you?” Barney asked.

Lannister was sitting on the ground, back up against a tree, as he tried to catch his breath. “Excuse me?” he said. “You told me to wait-”

“Rhetorical question, asshole,” Barney said, shaking his head at Bear.

Bear simply scowled at the little man, his arms folded across his chest.

Lannister averted his eyes and wisely remained silent. Ah… a changing of the guards, he thought. Probably their turn to give me shit and get me in trouble. Not going to work, Eddington. I’ll just take the abuse and use it. One day, when I’ve found my ‘out’, I’ll hold these… abuses… over your head, right before I remove it.

Barney stared at the little man in disgust. He finally said, “Go. Get out of my sight, you piece of shit.”

Lannister sighed and then nodded. He got up and started back toward the hatch.

“Not that way, asshole!” Barney said. “Turn around.”

Carl was confused. He stopped and turned. “Is this the part where you two fuck with me before we head back. Well… go ahead. Do your best. I’m tired and I smell like shit, so please forgive my irritation and impatience toward your immature name-calling and mind fucking.”

Barney laughed and turned to Bear. “Can you believe the nuts on this guy?”

Bear shrugged his shoulders. He was a man of few words.

The old guard clarified. “We’re not here to reward you with another beating… although it might be fun. No… we’ve got different plans for you.”

Lannister’s eyebrows shot up. “Okay… something new to rile me up, then? Well… go ahead. I’ll not resist. Then you boys can go back and have your laugh at my expense later. Just please… get on with it already.”

“Did you not hear me, boy? I said, ‘Go’.” Barney’s face became stone.

“Go where?”

“Doesn’t matter to me, just as long as you’re out of my sight in the next two minutes,” Barney looked up at the trees. “Gonna be dark in an hour, so you best get moving.”

Lannister was catching on. He looked around at the forest with anxiety. “You can’t be serious? It’s a trick, right? You tell me to run and then catch me and tell your boss I tried to escape. Well, I’m not doing it.”

Barney rolled his eyes and spoke in a voice reserved for stubborn children. “Look, I get it. You’re trying to behave yourself for fear of looking bad in the eyes of these folks. But what I’m trying to tell you is that you have a few friends that are trying to do right by you, especially considering that a lot of folks are leaving this hell-hole tomorrow morning.”

Lannister got serious. “Explain? What ‘friends’ are you referring to?”

Barney smiled. “I guess ‘friends’ is a bit too generous. Let’s just say that your ‘supporters’, you know, the ones you’ve managed to win over with your present long con, have no interest in leaving this safe little place.” Barney looked to Bear and said, “We don’t want to go either. The grand exodus that the current leadership has in store feels very dangerous. So… after everyone leaves… some of us want to part ways and take this compound for ourselves. Since most of the others who feel the same don’t want the responsibility that goes along with it, they’ve all decided to hand it back to you… assuming you still want to call the plays.”

Lannister smiled. “You can’t be serious? What about the big bad Shadow Dead threat? Aren’t you afraid they’re coming to retake this place?”

Barney laughed. “That’s a bunch of horseshit. You know as well as we do that Gina played that card to keep us all in line. Stephen’s using it now to get us to do what he wants. They’re just a scary little fiction created by management to get us pawns to move around the chessboard. That’s all the Shadow Dead really are. In fact, we don’t think there ever were any damn Shadow Dead. I suspect you know that, too, or else you never would’ve fought so hard to kick Gina out. Tell me I’m wrong.”

“You’re not wrong,” Lannister said. “I’m just surprised that everyone isn’t falling for it.”

“Look,” Barney said with impatience. “This little meeting has been arranged. Your… supporters… approached us and made a strong case to help them keep this place. We know, as well as they know, that Stephen’s going to be leaving a lot of supplies behind in order to rush his exit out of these woods. We’ve already squirreled away a cache of firearms and other supplies that no one knows about… enough to keep things just the way they are. So let them idiots leave to God-knows-where. They’ll probably get themselves killed inside of a week. The rest of us just want to stay here where it’s safe. What’s the matter with you? We thought you’d jump all over this opportunity.”

“Can you blame me for being suspicious?” Lannister said. “Although, it does my heart good knowing that some people here aren’t complete idiots. You’re right, of course. Leaving here would be a death sentence. But I still don’t know what that has to do with me.”

“Asshole or not, you have that natural ability to lead people. You have that devil’s tongue that you’ve been wagging around since the beginning, getting people to buy into whatever bullshit you’re peddling. We’ve seen it. Hell, you’re little uprising proved it. That’s not something any of us left can pull off. We’ll need that golden tongue of yours to keep this place civil after the others depart, or else, we’ll all just be going at each other’s throats. No one wants that. And no one wants to be that, either. You fit the bill. You’re ambitious enough to do right by whoever stays, but you’re smart enough to know who put you there… if you catch my drift.”

Lannister laughed. “I understand completely.” He nodded as he saw the beauty in what was being proposed. “So, if I’m seeing the big picture correctly, my so-called ‘supporters’, sensing Stephen’s urgency to leave, will simply choose to remain. Since Stephen can’t make them leave without looking like that bitch, Gina, Stephen will have to abide by their decision and leave without them. Naturally, me being their prisoner, they will take me with them, thus, keeping me on their leash, while sadly wishing the others ‘good luck’ and carrying on with their exodus.”

Barney nodded. “See… you’ve already figured out the playbook. Stephen can’t make us do anything we don’t want to do. Bear and I will promise to watch over them and we’ll all part ways peacefully. Stephen won’t like it, but there’s nothing he can do to stop it. And that’s where you come in.”

Lannister nodded, anticipating the rest. “So after my convenient ‘escape’, followed by what essentially resembles a ‘strike’ of sorts, I’m to return after the others are long gone and take over management.”

“You got it… if you still want it, that is.”

Lannister stared into the forest. “I assume you have some accommodations for me out here somewhere?”

“We’ve given you a tent and some supplies for a day or two, just long enough for the others to be long gone from these woods. The place we’ve picked out for you is just a half-mile west of here. Just follow the river and you’ll find the campsite… unless you’re afraid of the dark or something.”

“Please,” Lannister said, trying to appear brave. “I’ve nothing to fear in these woods. We’ve been by ourselves out here for a long time now. If I can’t even camp out a night or two, then we have no business staying here to begin with.” He looked at Barney’s weapon. “I assume I’ll be armed, at least.”

“Of course,” Barney said. “We’ve left you a rifle at the campsite. But you need to get your ass over there while you’ve still got light to find it. Besides, we still need to get back and tell the boss man some bull about how you escaped. Stephen won’t like it, but he’s got more important things to worry about then chasing the compound janitor around the fucking woods. Eventually he’ll realize that you saved him the trouble of trying to get rid of you later on, if and when they find some new place to hide.”

“That’s smart,” Lannister said. “Sounds like a solid plan… if you could convince me that any of it was true.”

Barney frowned and gave Bear an impatient sigh. “Told you he wouldn’t bite,” he said to the big man. “Man’s too paranoid or too stupid to see the fucking gift horse.”

Bear shrugged his shoulders again.

Barney tuned back to Lannister. “Look, I’m not going to waste my time convincing you of shit. This is the best play we have, and if you’re too stupid to see that it’s your option as well, then good luck to you. We’re twenty strong right now. In time, we’ll find others who want what we want. And all we want is to live without risking our asses on someone’s misguided notions that the world will get better… that there’s anything better than what we already have. And we’ll protect our right to keep it. But if you think I’m yanking your chain, just head on back like a good little janitor and you can leave with the rest of them fools. It will be too late for you to change your mind when you realize that we are staying… and you won’t be. They’ll probably need an extra pack mule to carry all that shit across the Wasteland anyway. And if you don’t get massacred by the dead, or whatever else is out there, in the end, you’ll still just be Stephen’s bitch. Why don’t you take a moment and let that shit sink in.” Barney turned back to Bear as they began securing the supplies.

Lannister stared at their backs. What if they’re telling the truth? This might be my ‘out’. Makes sense. They’ll need someone like me to lead them. This is obviously not the brain child of these two morons. Others had to be involved to plan something so… brilliant. But what if it’s all bullshit? What if this is some elaborate set-up designed to tempt me into running? Stephen will finally get his reason to be rid of me. The community will never let me come back. Lannister sat back down. His mind was spinning. Think! Reason this through! No… Stephen’s smart, but he’s not devious. Hell, the fucking man wears his damn heart on his sleeve. In good conscience, he’d never be able to pull this off.

He thought about the people he’d seen during his rounds, the ones who nodded to him in the halls and still appreciated him for who he was, and not for what Stephen had reduced him to. Some still went out of their way to speak with him, treating him with the respect he deserved, although he couldn’t remember their names. There were still enough of them who probably felt bad for him, leading the ones who saw Stephen’s plans as madness to make him their obvious choice to lead them. They would be afraid to stay without guidance. They were sheep without a shepherd and they needed someone to tell them what to do while they continued to live oblivious to the horrors waiting above in this decrepit world.

“Okay,” he finally said, standing up. “I’m in.”

Barney turned and smiled. “Good. Now let’s get-”

“But let me make one thing perfectly clear,” Lannister interrupted. “I will not be anyone’s ‘bitch’. Not Stephen’s, and certainly not your bitch. Are we clear on this?”

Barney nodded. “See… that’s why you’re the leader. No one’s looking for someone we can manipulate. Fuck all that. You lead us and keep everything the way it is… and we follow. We all just want to remain fat, dumb and happy. All that ‘big’ decision-making stuff… well… that’s on you.”

“And you’ll follow me without question?”

“As long as you don’t start talking about doing stupid shit that will get us killed, then we’ll follow you,” Barney finished. “Again, none of us want to leave for good reasons. We’re safe. We’ve been safe. And we don’t see the point in risking our lives on a bunch of fucking ‘What-if’s’ out there.”

Lannister laughed and walked up to them confidently. “Then I suppose this is goodbye while I resume with my escape.” He walked in between them. “Excuse me, gentlemen, it’s getting late and I’ve got a campsite to set up.” With that, Lannister headed northwest through the forest, following the sound of the river.

“We’ll send someone tomorrow, after the others are long gone,” Barney called over. “Just lay low until then.”

Lannister didn’t look back. It feels damn good to be appreciated… finally. It’s about time someone saw the value in everything I offer this community. Yeah, we’re small now, but we’ll expand, find more people… and live like kings! He laughed at his good fortune and said out loud, “Fuck Gina! Fuck Stephen! It’s finally time for someone to step up and do this the right way. Good luck dying for your lost causes. At the end of the day, we’ll be safe and you’ll all be fucking dead. Good riddance!”

Barney and Bear watched Lannister disappear into the distance.

“That’s one arrogant dumb-ass,” Barney whispered. “Just look at that peacock fluffing his feathers.”

Bear laughed.

“I assume he accepted your offer?”

They both turned as Logan approached.

“Had to do a bit of selling, but he bit that damn carrot… hard,” Barney laughed.

“Praise God,” Logan said with a laugh, stepping in between them. “Did you leave him enough supplies?”

“Yeah, he’ll be set up for a while,” Barney said. “I wonder how long he’ll sit out there before he realizes he’s become the king of jack-shit.”

“Indeed,” Logan said. “I imagine he’ll be sulking like a child long after we’re gone. Let’s just hope he doesn’t run into any problems out there.”

Barney turned. “You mean them Shadow Dead? They’re not really coming, are they?”

Logan smiled. “That is a mystery we all hope remains unsolved by our departure. I was thinking more about Gina.”

“Shit… I didn’t even consider that.”

Logan patted them both on the back. “Well done, boys. You brought us back some honor that despicable little man stole from us. This will go a long way in helping Stephen trust our boys again… eventually.” He turned and started heading back. “Finish up, and get inside before dark.”

Barney turned and said, “You know, for a preacher, that was a pretty dirty move you came up with.”

Logan turned. “I wasn’t always a preacher, Barney. You know this well.”

“That I do,” Barney said with a laugh. “You gonna tell the boss man what we did?”

“Stephen’s a good man with a lot on his plate. I’ll tell him… eventually.”

“He won’t like it,” Barney said with a sly smile. “Especially if something happens to him out there.”

Logan smiled back. “Yes… he certainly won’t. But the alternative in what that little snake might eventually do to spread his poison again is worth risking Lannister’s life. And that’s why Carl never saw this coming. He knows Stephen’s incapable of carrying out a plan like this. Good men are predictable, to a point, and are dictated by conscience. Unlike lowly preachers who resort to a little devilry to see that a good man’s dream is permitted to proceed without incident.”

“So, what does that make you then, preacher?” Barney teased.

Logan’s smile faltered. “I’m just a man, Barney. Good, bad, or otherwise. If this comes back to bite me… well… may the good Lord have mercy on my struggling soul.”

~~~

Tony stood just outside the hatch, staring into the western twilight sky. This was where he and Gina sat, just before the winter, watching the sunset together, as it had seemed like they’d finally found a moment’s peace from the hell that had been let loose in their world. They had gone through so much separately, just to finally find each other again, against the odds. They had once called this place their new home, back when being together more than compensated for this strange underground refuge, back when there had been a shred of hope within their view. But now… everything was uncertain. They were about to leave these woods, and Gina was out there, alone in the darkness, because he’d put her there.

She’ll come back, expecting to find me, and I’ll be gone. We’ll all be gone and she won’t be able to find us. He hadn’t told anyone that he’d caught up with her after her sentencing, made her promises he couldn’t keep, before handing her a bag of guns.

He closed his eyes and balled his fists. I can’t do this to her again! I’m already responsible for her exile… will I abandon her, too? She’ll come back… I know it. And when she does… God-only-knows what will be here waiting for her.

His decision had already been made down in the control room. He just needed a way to appease his guilt for leaving the community, now, when they needed him most.

She needs me more.

“You shouldn’t be up here alone, Tony.”

He turned, finding Marcus standing within a shadow near the hatch. Tony laughed. “I’ve forgotten how good you are at blending into the dark. I used to find it… unsettling.”

Marcus smiled and stepped out, struggling a little with his leg. “It’s amazing what we get used to these days.” He stood next to Tony and stared into the sky. “I suppose we’ll never take sunsets for granted… not anymore.”

Tony smiled. “You got that right. Each one we get to see now is a damn blessing. How’s the leg?”

“I’ll manage.” He took a moment to admire the view. “The sentries are ready to come up. We doubled the guard, as ordered. Should I have them wait a few minutes, allowing you time to run?”

Tony turned. “Excuse me?”

“That is why you’re up here alone, right? You’re going after her.”

Tony laughed. “I was about to ask you the same question.”

Marcus smiled. “You were right down there. Gina needs us. Or I should say, Gina needs someone to go and make sure she steers clear from here… just in case. We both know she’s quite capable of handling herself against the dead… but these men dressed in shadows… well… they’re something else entirely… and they’re very dangerous.”

“Yes, they are.”

Marcus sighed. “It would be a real disadvantage if you left, considering that only you, Diane, Stephen and Meredith are the only ones here who have fought these creatures… and survived.”

Tony turned. “Are you trying to talk me out of going after her? That’s not going to happen. She needs me.”

“Does she? Does she really need you, Tony?”

Tony was getting angry. “Speak plainly. What are you getting at?’

Marcus raised his hands. “I’m not trying to upset you. I just know that Gina needed to leave this place. There’s a darkness in her. I’m sure you know exactly what I mean.”

Tony said nothing.

“I’ve seen it. You’ve seen it. The others… well… they’ve chosen to look away from it because it’s Gina. But I know it has been eating away at you. Am I wrong?”

Tony looked away. “No. You’re not wrong. That’s why she’s out in those woods right now. I had to… I had to stop her from killing people. I saw it in her eyes when we got back here. She was… dangerous.”

“Of course,” Marcus nodded. “I saw the same signs you did, from a distance. But they were there for anyone who wanted to see them. The premeditated deaths of those men she forced out into the cold was not the first time she desired blood.”

“That’s a bit extreme. I wouldn’t call it-”

“In Andover, after those snipers shot down Greg, I tried to talk her out of it. Even knowing we could’ve escaped, she insisted we kill them all.”

Tony looked confused.

Marcus frowned. “She didn’t tell you about that?”

Tony thought about the note she’d given him, when Gina thought her visit to Micom’s camp might be a one-way ticket. He’d never read it. “What happened?”

“Maybe it’s not my place to talk about it. I just assumed she’d told you.”

“What did she do?”

Marcus sighed. “She wanted blood, Tony. She wanted them to die for what they did to Greg. So we went in and… executed those kids. Sure, they fought back, but we provoked it. Again, I tried to talk her down, but it was too late.”

Tony shook it off. “Well… that was different. They attacked you in the street with snipers. I can’t say that I wouldn’t have done anything different.”

“I watched her gun down a kid… I think his name was Dwayne. He was terrified, trying to get away. Gina unloaded on him and shot him in the face without hesitation. It was… (‘magnificent’ was the word he wanted to say)
shocking. I never knew she was capable of such brutality until that moment.”

Tony didn’t know what to say.

“I only mention that day, because it was the first time I realized how truly frightening she could be… if the darkness within her took over. I imagine those two in the woods faced similar brutality by her hand.”

“What are you trying to do?” Tony asked, obviously shook up. “I’m aware of Gina’s… problems. But that doesn’t matter now. I need to find her and keep her safe.”

“Has it occurred to you that she might want to be alone… to keep the rest of you safe?”

“That’s crazy! She’s not a monster.”

“Tell that to Marvin. You saw what she did to that sick soul.”

Tony shook his head. “Again, they attacked us. Gina may have gone a bit overboard… but she stopped herself.”

“And when she burned down the bad man’s house with Marvin still bleeding out in the basement, would you consider that ‘stopping herself’?”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“She didn’t go back inside to destroy the radio. She set the house on fire. I saw the smoke before we cleared the fields.”

“No… you must have seen something else. She wouldn’t do that.”

“I bet she locked that basement door, just in case poor Marvin smelled the smoke and tried to get out. She wanted that boy dead. That’s where Gina’s head is now. That’s where it’s been for a long time.”

Tony shook his head. “Did you really see the smoke?”

“Why would I make something like that up, Tony?”

“None of it matters,” he said. “It just means she’s a lot worse off than I realized. All the more reason to find her and…”

“She blames you.”

Tony’s eyebrows shot up. “What? What do you mean?”

“You’re the reason she can’t accept what she’s become,” Marcus explained. “You’re… light… for lack of a better word, makes her see all of it… all that darkness inside of her. I think a part of her resents you for it. Another part of her clings to that light, that good, noble soul that you possess which keeps you far from the dark. She loves you for it… but can’t survive in it… not without seeing how dark she’s become.”

“What kind of bullshit is this? You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about!” Tony took a threatening step toward the smaller man.

Again, Marcus raised his hands. He took a step back and said, “Please… just hear me out. I’m trying to tell you that if you love Gina, then you need to stay away… for her sake. Every time you’re around, she’s distracted and feels the overwhelming need to protect you… at all costs. Even if that means excusing the darkness and making you her sole reason for staying alive. She’ll never be able to look at it… and change… as long as you’re there.”

“What kind of fucked-up logic is this? You’re saying that I’m making her worse?”

“In a manner of speaking… yes. She needs to face this darkness on her own terms, without you there to distract her from the truth. As long as she has you, Gina can fool herself into thinking she’s doing good by protecting you… by protecting your goodness… and then justify whatever dark actions she takes by telling herself she does them to save you. Don’t you see?”

Tony calmed down. “So I should just… what… let her go? For her own good?”

“If you love her… then yes.”

“I can’t do that,” Tony said.

Marcus sighed. “You know, I hadn’t really considered it until now, and if you’ll permit me to touch on a sensitive subject, perhaps I can shed some further light on Gina’s… issues.”

“Go on.”

“Well, ever since she was brutally raped that night you two were in Geneva-”

“What the fuck are you talking about?”

Marcus hesitated. “She… she didn’t tell you?”

Tony’s face went pale.

“Oh… fuck… that’s… I didn’t know. I’m sorry, Tony. If she kept that from you… well… there could be a lot more going on inside of her than I realized.”

“Raped?” Tony asked weakly. “You’re telling me that she was…” He started to weep.

“I don’t think she ever intended to tell us–myself and Frank. She was… not herself then, too. She… Gina had a moment where she just let it all out… maybe she finally had to get it all off her chest. I don’t know. But that night you two were separated, shortly before The Change occurred, she was drugged, gang raped, and then left to die, handcuffed naked to a bed. I can’t imagine what that kind of trauma does to someone. Perhaps, it’s the root of all that darkness. Again, I’m so sorry you had to find out from me.”

Tony fell to his knees, broken. “She blames me. I wasn’t there to protect her. That was my only fucking job that night! But I took those fucking drugs, too, and ended up chained in some lunatic’s basement while she was all alone and…”

Marcus bend down and put his hand on Tony’s shoulder. “Perhaps she felt that no one could protect her ever again afterwards. Something like that must change a person… make them dig down deep, and turn to anything that might give them strength… even something dark… if it meant never being vulnerable again. It’s not your fault, Tony. But perhaps that’s another reason you need to stay away. Seeing you, on some level, must bring it all back. The helplessness, the fear… the inability to trust anyone… after that.”

“I tell her that I’ll keep her safe, while all this time she’s been holding back that I failed her while she was raped and left for dead,” Tony said through tears. “I had no idea. She couldn’t even trust me to tell me, after all this time.”

“Perhaps Gina kept it from you, and herself, because she feared that she might hate you for it… or worse… let loose her anger, and all that darkness, on you.”

Tony put a hand on Marcus’s shoulder and pleaded, “You have to go, Marcus. You have to make sure she stays safe. Only you and I understand what she’s going through… but I… I can’t go. You’re right. She must hate me as much as I hate myself right now. God! She needed me that night… and I failed her!”

“Get up, Tony,” Marcus said. “Shake this off, for her sake. You need not fail her again. There will come a time when you two will need to work through this and you need to be ready.”

Tony stood up and wiped the tears from his eyes.

Marcus nodded, offering up a reassuring face. “I’ll go and watch her back. She’s trusts me and you know that I’ve saved her life countless times before.”

“Keep her from the darkness, Marcus,” Tony said. “Just… whatever it takes.”

Marcus smiled. “You have my word, Tony. I will keep her from the darkness… whatever it takes. Now, get inside, and get some rest. These people need you strong right now… as does Gina. You can do right by her by taking care of the people she fought so hard to protect.”

Tony nodded. “Thank you, Marcus.” He took his hand. “I owe you big time for this.”

“You owe me nothing. Gina’s my friend. You are my friend. I will keep her safe.”

Tony walked back to the hatch, desperately trying to collect himself.

Damn, boss! You destroyed him! the other one chimed in. And here I thought a nice blade to the throat would’ve been preferable. But you cut that big piggy up with a sharper blade than we’re presently carrying around. You damn near cut his heart out… from the fucking inside!

I had to make sure he stayed behind, Marcus thought. He would only slow things down now.

Why not just gut the piggy on the way, boss? You coulda’ been finally done with this one.

Because Gina still needs him… alive, he thought, tiring of always having to explain the obvious to such a single-minded nuisance. She’s tethered herself too tightly on Tony’s survival. His death gains us nothing. But his presence also gains us nothing. This is for the best.

Smells like more bullshit, boss. Just another excuse to get out of skinning some of your precious friends.

When Tony descended below, Marcus turned and retrieved his pack from the shadows. He put it on his back and placed some weight on his sprained foot. The pain was considerable, but manageable. He would have to move slowly for a while, but he could catch up with Gina in a few days.

Marcus inhaled deeply, relieved to be back topside and surrounded by night. He smiled and said, “And here I thought even you with your constant need for bloodshed would be much more excited, especially since we finally get some time alone with The Prize.”

You mean… you mean it’s time?

“Yes, savage, it’s time. It’s time for the hunt we’ve been waiting our whole lives for.”

Oh, dear God, YES!!! We’re finally going after the fucking golden goddess! It’s been so damn long, boss. Too long. Tell me, what color will her blood be when it’s all over our hands? I hope it’s warm liquid gold oozing out of every precious slice! Will it be gold, boss?

“It will be glorious, savage. And the Lady will be there to watch and welcome us with open arms as she is pleased by the pleasant aroma of such a worthy sacrifice.”

Here piggy, piggy, piggy! We’re comin’ for you, golden bitch. I hope it fuckin’ rains down gold by the time we’re finished! Here’s to the glorious bloodbath of all fuckin’ bloodbaths!

Marcus smiled and started down the path into the darkness.

It was time for the hunt.

It was time to finally discover what truths were hidden behind Gina’s dying eyes.

~~~

Midnight.

Diane continued to scan the surrounding darkness just outside the hatch door. The crescent moon hanging in a mostly clear sky provided some ambient light. She hadn’t decided if they possessed the advantage of higher ground, as she kept her eyes on the dark terrain below, or if the moonlight simply lit them up, their silhouettes giving away their position to anything watching for them.

Tony, Nine and Bear sat near the unlit small bonfire erected toward the top of the small path, the only clear route of approach, should the surrounding shadows come to life and attack. Everyone was armed up and waiting for the long night to be done.

The bonfire was Tony’s suggestion, remembering how they stood their ground on the rooftop in Andover when they had believed that Shadow Dead were coming. They had lit several bonfires surrounding the diner in the hope that the working theory still held, and that these deranged men dressed in monster attire did not like being exposed in the light. Perhaps this was their only real advantage in stopping them. Tony would light the fire as a last resort, not wanting to reveal their position until necessary.

Nine got up and joined Diane. “You’re missing out on some sensational conversation,” he whispered sarcastically. “That Bear guy hardly speaks anyway, but I swear Tony’s entered into a contest with him to see who speaks the fewest words. He’s been unusually gloomy all evening.”

“It’s probably because they want to hear our enemy coming long before we see them, Mr. Chatty Kathy,” she whispered back. “Let’s just finish our watch while we pretend we’ll actually get some sleep later.”

“Do you think what Marcus’s friend said is legit? Are they coming?”

Diane sighed. “Yes… I think it’s just a matter of time. Let’s just hope it’s not tonight.” She then frowned. “I’d say ask that strange man yourself what he thinks, but Marcus was in too big a hurry to leave us as soon as he got back.”

“He’s looking for Gina. Someone should be, right?” Nine said.

“Yeah… but he seemed a little too eager to volunteer for the job,” Diane added suspiciously. “I mean, I’m glad he’s okay. But that guy always gave me the creeps.”

Nine laughed. “You just hate it when he sneaks up on you and you never hear him coming. That must drive the hunter in you bonkers.”

“That and he’s always staring like he’s trying to read my damn mind, asking questions and throwing around that shit-eating grin.”

“Marcus is just curious like that. You’re not exactly the most open person, you know,” Nine said. “It took a book of failed conversations before you finally gave in to my charms.”

Diane snorted. “Please… you’re anything but charming. You pestered me so much that I had to talk to you.”

Nine smiled. “Yes… and I annoyed my way right into your heart.”

She smiled and shook her head. “You just keep telling yourself that.”

Something in the darkness from down the path moved as the rustling of leaves gave it away.

Tony and Bear were on their feet immediately, guns raised.

Diane and Nine moved in beside them.

Tony lifted his finger to his mouth, signaling for silence, as they all listened to the darkness.

They heard more movement followed by what sounded like… moans.

Diane moved up next to Tony’s ear and whispered, “Sounds like something… dead.”

Tony nodded in agreement. He tried to peer into the darkness at the end of the path but could see nothing. He turned to Nine. “Light the fire. Now!”

Nine bend down and lit an entire box of matches. He tossed it into the small bonfire which was saturated in cooking grease.

The others moved to the side of the blaze as the fire lit up the surrounding night.

Tony looked down at the base of the path and saw them… five dead things standing in front of the trees.

“Shit!” Tony cursed. “Watch out for more of them!” None of the dead were moving up the path yet. “As soon as they see the flames, they’ll be coming up!”

Diane stared at them through her rifle scope. “They’re… they’re tied to the trees!”

“What the fuck?” Nine said.

Tony turned toward her, his face revealing something horrifying familiar. “Do you… do you recognize them?”

Diane peered through the scope and shook. “My God,” she whispered. “It’s… Frederick!” She scanned the tortured faces of the suspended dead until identifying the entire scouting party. “It’s all of them, Tony!”

“They’re here,” Tony advised.

Those two words filled them with a stomach dropping dread, like the realization that every terrifying nightmare had just been confirmed real.

“Everyone back up, slowly,” Tony managed. “Watch everything. Stay in the light. Something moves up that path… light it up immediately.”

Diane desperately tried to keep her arms still as she continued to scan the shadows for movement. Then she spotted something in her scope that she’d overlooked initially. Something much smaller, standing directly ahead of the suspended corpses at the very bottom of the narrow path. She gasped and looked away, almost dropping her rifle.

“What is it?” Nine asked.

Diane’s face had paled. She looked like she was going to be sick. “It’s… it’s a pole… sticking in the ground at the base of the path! There’s a… there’s a head mounted on it!”

Tony looked like Diane had just stabbed him in the chest. “Is it… is it Gina?”

She tried to speak but forgot to breath.

“Answer me!” Tony said.

She violently shook her head. “Oh, God… no… I… I think it’s… Carl Lannister!”

The night suddenly erupted with the horrific cries of a thousand maniacs, rising up from all around them in the darkness.

(TO BE CONTINUED…)

~~~

Don’t Feed The Dark will return with Book Five in August, 2017…

Previous Episode 38-5

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 38-6: Healing” Copyright © 2017 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Four: Phantoms. 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.

~~~

After checking in with the topside camp, or what Stephen referred to as the “Relocation Pre-Staging Outpost”, Tony, Diane and Nine started their perimeter patrol. The outpost was a daylight operation, involving the gradual packing and moving of essential supplies from their underground compound and staging them above for the community’s exodus out of the Wasteland. The planning for the first official scouting party out of the wilderness preserve to investigate possible resettlement locations was already underway. It was decided that they would look to the southwest, just past the Pennsylvania border, at some of the smaller towns located near the Allegheny National Forest, believing that the dead might have migrated away from the mountains. The scouting party was set to leave in three days.

Tony led them west along the northwestern portion of the winding river for a quarter-mile, then south, and then finally back east along the southern perimeter to complete the northern loop along the nerve-wrecking eastern side of the wilderness preserve, which took them through a portion of the burnt forest, until finishing back at the river near the collapsed waterfall cave, which once served as the originally entrance into the compound. From here, the river wound its way east toward ground zero, where Micom, the insane robotic god, had detonated.

No one had ventured that far east since Gina had led a group before the winter storms to explore the ruins from a distance, wanting to verify that the camp of Micom and Micolad, was destroyed. The explosion had obliterated the camp, killing everything dead or alive in those eastern woods. The greatest evidence of this was the charred trees which continued to stand like dead sentinels, and a lasting testament to the madness which had occurred in that sadistic camp.

Nine shifted uncomfortably as he stared up at the dead trees. He hated being this far east and had heard the stories of everything that had happened prior to him joining the community.

Diane took up her usual hawk-like pose, holding her rifle at the low-ready, while checking the ground for any signs of recent dead, or living, activity.

Tony stood at the bank of the large polluted pool, now filled with large rocks from a landslide caused by the cave collapse, as well as numerous burnt tree limbs deposited by the explosion. He remembered this place and how he’d first seen the Shadow Dead lining up and disappearing into the cave, which was not recognizable anymore. The once majestic waterfall had been reduced to a sickly smaller version of brown dripping sludge left over from the winter’s melting ice. As unlikely as it was, Gina had insisted on including the devastated waterfall in the patrols, making sure nothing ever tried to dig its way in. Perhaps she had feared the numerous bodies of the dead, which were now as burnt as the rest of the woods and left buried beneath the pool by all the debris, or maybe it was her nightmares of the dead re-animating beneath the water and finding their way into the tunnel just outside the control room door… either way, she made sure that the collapsed cave and the pool continued to be monitored.

“Stop looking at them if it bothers you so much,” Diane snapped, shaking her head at Nine who continued to stare at the trees as if expecting them to come back to life.

“They’re fucking creepy,” he said, turning the collar up on his jean jacket as a chill seized him. “I’d heard the stories about what went down out here… you know… Shadow Dead thingys plus yellow-eyed monsters and crazy machines that went ‘Boom’… but it was always easy to laugh that shit off. It’s seeing these damn trees that really make all those stories seem… real. It’s like this place really is…”

“What?” she said. Diane stared into Nine’s white face and smiled. “Oh, come on! Do you really think these woods are haunted?”

“Well… don’t you?” he said. “I mean… you were out here. You saw those Shadow Dead dudes. Don’t you feel it?”

Diane frowned. She looked up at the dead trees and said, “I find them… comforting.”

Nine laughed. “‘Comforting’? Really? You’ll forgive me if I don’t hold your hand all romantic-like while you connect with nature on a stroll through the apocalyptic forest.”

“That’s not what I mean, dip-shit,” she said. “I stare up at those dead trees and take comfort in knowing that if they look like ‘that’… than nothing else survived either. There was a lot of bad shit in these woods. That bomb took care of it.”

“Well… not me. I’m just glad it’s still green on our side of the forest.”

Diane turned toward Tony and stared at this back. “Just be glad you weren’t here. Some of us saw way too much of that bad shit. Some of us more than others.” She turned back to Nine. “I lost a few friends that day. Good hunters, too.”

Nine looked away. “Sorry… I forget sometimes.” He looked back up at the trees and sighed. “You know, now that you mention it, they are rather… comforting… in a creepy-as-fuck kind of way.” He looked back to Diane, his eyes going wide. “Just for future reference, please tell me that you’re not the kind of girl that likes to get all freaky in graveyards and shit?”

“What?” she said, not appreciating the shift in topic.

“I mean… I’m not totally against the idea… if that’s your thing and all-”

“Nine.”

“Yes, my angel.”

“Stop talking now.”

“Right.” He nodded with a smile and forced himself to stop staring at the trees as he moved a little closer to Diane. “I’m just saying that if you-”

She shot him a look.

“Sorry… nerves and all… I’ll just… you know… stop talking now.”

“That’s a great idea,” she said. Diane looked back at Tony who stood like a statue before the river. “Tony? Are you okay?”

He turned and smiled weakly. “Sorry… got a little lost in thought. This place brings it all back.”

She smiled and nodded. “I get it. Want to head back?”

Tony looked east, up river. “Not yet. We’ve got plenty of daylight left.”

“What are you thinking?” she said.

“Let’s go in a bit further and see what’s out there.”

“You mean… out there?” Nine said, staring east.

“Is there a problem?” Tony asked.

“No… it’s just that… well… everyone knows those woods are all haunted and shit.”

Tony’s eyebrows shot up. “‘Haunted’?” He smiled, amused.

Diane hit Nine with her elbow and shook her head. “Don’t mind him,” she said. “He doesn’t get out much.”

“Yeah,” Nine laughed and shot Diane a ‘what-the-hell’ look while rubbing his shoulder. “Too many horror movies on weekends for me. This place just makes me think of… you know… all of them put together.”

Tony laughed. “I get it.” He looked up at the trees. “I’ve been out in these woods several times and have seen some shit I wish I could ‘un-see’.” He smiled at Nine with a wink. “Haunted is as good a word as any for this place. I’m sure there’s plenty of ghosts still lurking these woods. Let’s go.” He started east along the river.

“You’re a moron,” Diane said, shaking her head. “‘Horror movies’? Really?”

“What?” he said, raising his arms. “He was kidding about the ghosts… right?”

Diane started after Tony.

Nine looked confused. “Okay… okay… off we go into the creepy-ass woods. Sure, sounds awesome!” he said to her back. “I can’t think of anything better I’d love to do… no… this works for me.”

“You coming, or do you need to change your shorts first?” she said, without turning around.

Nine laughed. “Oh… that’s good.” He hurried to catch up. “Just got burned in the burnt forest. Perfect. I think you hurt my feelings a little with that one.”

“Aw, poor baby,” Diane teased.

“It’s alright,” he said. “I forgive you. But I think a kiss is in order, you know, just to make sure my bruised ego is still intact.”

“Sorry, not in the mood right now,” she said. “But… should we find a graveyard out here… well…” She squeezed his ass.

Nine gave her a surprised look, nearly tripping over a tree root. He saw her smile and said, “You are evil, you know that?”

She laughed. “Just trying to get your mind off these big, bad scary woods, Scooby-Doo.”

Nine shook his head and laughed. “Well… first damn ghost we see, and I don’t care what color sheet it’s wearing, I’m heading back to the Mystery Machine… and your ass is walking home.”

~~~

They reached the western edge of the obliterated camp by noon, stopping before a large drop-off where the outer chain-link fence used to be.

“Woah,” Nine whispered, staring across into what remained of the dead camp.

The drop-off was actually the outer edge of a large crater where most of the camp had collapsed on top of the underground level of tunnels, and rooms beneath. The large domes which once served as housing surrounding the outer-most perimeter were charred black and disfigured, melted into strange shapes or completely blown to pieces, scattered around the camp. Toward the center of the camp, the large hangars had also collapsed, obstructing their view beyond, as piles of metal and wood lay in large black piles of hazardous debris.

Tony let out a heavy sigh. “This was as far as we got when we came here last. Gina took one look at this mess and I watched her face go pale as every horrible thing that happened to her and Frank must have flashed through her mind. I think she wanted to get closer, but there really wasn’t time and I’ll be the first to admit it… we were still scared shitless of this place. As you can see, the explosion was effective in destroying everything.” He pointed down into the crater. “Somewhere under all that mess, Gina and Frank were tortured in some hidden facility beneath. That was main reason we came back here. Myself, Gina and Marcus survived the blast by hiding in a tunnel toward the south. I think we were damn lucky that we were already at the farthest edge of the camp. But it was reasonable to assume that others might have survived by hiding underground… well… until we came and saw all this.”

Diane shook her head at the devastation. “Why? Why would they destroy their own camp?”

“Who knows for sure,” Tony said. “Maybe when Charlie showed up with his dead army, they knew they’d lost control and wanted to hide all their fucking secrets. You’re talking about a bunch of fanatics who were out here worshipping a metal god which dictated who lived and died… and who was sacrificed… in the hopes that more psychos dressed in monster suits wouldn’t just come in and eat them. Why would anyone choose to live like that? That’s the real damn question. In any case, we were satisfied by what we saw and headed back. But Gina always wanted to return and make sure this place stayed dead. Or maybe she wanted to uncover some of those secrets.”

“Like why that bomb conveniently blew up everything except the bunker we’ve been calling home?” Diane said.

“Yeah,” Tony said. “Or if our mystery door led to other places like this one, hidden beneath the ground. Again, too many secrets and mysteries left unresolved.”

“And so here we are, the lucky ones who get to play ‘hide and seek’ within the crater, hoping that we don’t fall into some underground hell,” Nine said, looking very pale.

Tony grabbed the young man’s shoulder and said, “Relax. We’re not going to get too close. Just a quick look past those destroyed hangars… you know… just to be sure the damage was complete. This place was loaded with underground tunnels. I’ve personally been inside two of them, so I know there’s a chance that if anyone else found their way out through one, like I did…”

“Then there’s always a chance they could’ve crawled their way back in,” Diane finished. “And we want to make sure they’re not alive and well, plotting our demise on the other side of this twisted place.”

Tony nodded. “Something like that. I think Gina’s main concern was that we never saw any more of those Shadow Dead fuckers… and it was always possible that they might have come back to hide here.”

“Underground?” she asked.

Tony’s grave face answered her question. “Again, just a quick look, and we’re out of here. Last thing we need it so start relocating our camp just to get attacked because we didn’t look hard enough in our backyard first. This dead place would still make a great staging area for those sick fucks wearing masks. If they’re still hiding out in these woods at all.”

“And if we find them,” Nine said, “what then? You know there’s only three of us, right?”

Tony smiled. “We’ve got the daylight on our side. These things like the dark. I don’t think they like being exposed. Besides, if I really thought they were still out here… well… we wouldn’t be here now, because they’d sure-as-shit already know that we’re here.”

“That’s fucking comforting,” Nine laughed. “So why don’t we just walk the crater and call it a day? Do we really need to go down there?”

“Tony wants a closer look and a chance at solving some of those mysteries,” Diane said, giving the big man a suspicious glance.

Tony’s eyes were far away. He finally said, “I owe it to Gina to take this place as seriously as she did. Everyone else thinks she wasted a lot of time, keeping us on edge at the threat of a Shadow Dead attack that never came. It was probably the one thing that made it easy for the community to kick her out when the opportunity arrived,” he added with a bitter tone. “The truth is, we were never attacked, and have been living fat beneath the ground while God-only-knows what the rest of the world is going through. We’ve seen a small taste of that. Most of the community have never had to worry, because Gina kept it from them. It worked against her in the end… but she still did her best to keep these… people… safe. Stephen’s doing a great job in her absence… and we need his type of leadership now. But I don’t blame Gina for keeping us ready, even if it kept us in that hole for too long. But now that she’s been kicked out, I need to know that it all meant something. That all her effort wasn’t in vain.” He looked at the two of them and finished, “I brought you two with me because I’m sure you feel the same way I do.”

Nine chimed in, “Yeah… that was all bullshit. Gina may have been a bit of a hard-ass, but I always felt she was protecting us. Keeping us on edge was just her way of keeping us alive. I don’t fault her for that. She deserved better.”

“Agreed,” Diane said. “There may come a time when all those complainers might wish Gina was still among us… especially if we’re caught with our complacent pants down.”

“And that’s why we’re here,” Tony said. “To make sure we don’t forget that there are still horrors in this world trying to kill us… even if they’re not here at the moment.” He looked down into the crater. “If she were here now, Gina would be ready for anything down there. As for myself, I just want something… anything… to take back and show these fools that Gina was right.” He took a deep breath. “Even if she was wrong about a great many other things.”

Diane and Nine left that alone.

Nine quickly changed the subject. “So… let’s go down there and get some answers… or maybe we’ll get lucky and find an extra-crispy Shadow Dead souvenir corpse that we can haul back. Then, Tony, you can say, ‘Look, Fuckers, this is why Gina needs to be here’.”

Tony and Diane both laughed. “I like you’re line of thinking and your enthusiasm” Tony said. “But I’d settle for one of those extra-crispy cow-head helmets… less to carry back.” He added a wink. “Let’s do this. In and out. Nothing stupid.”

Diane looked to Nine and repeated, “Yeah… nothing stupid.”

“What? Me? Stupid? I’d never think of it,” he said with a smile.

They carefully descended into the crater and walked across a former war zone between the living and the dead, being mindful of every step. As they maneuvered through and around debris and charred corpses, the real concern was falling through the ground level and into the collapsed cavern below. Fortunately, they made it to the center of the dead camp without incident.

Everywhere he looked, Tony was reminded of the chaos of the battle between Charlie’s dead army and Micom’s fanatical minions. He tried not to stare too long at the remains of so much death and destruction. The explosion, followed by a winter’s worth of decay, had successfully diminished the contorted shapes of bodies that were almost unrecognizable. Wood, steel, flesh and ash had all merged into one catastrophic scene as the eyes could not process the scale of so much destruction.

Tony stopped them briefly before the remains of the large hangars when he realized that they were standing in the former assembly area, where the maniac machine, Micolad, once stood on a raised platform, issuing out decrees of life and death to a defeated remnant of humanity. All that remained now was a cleared out large black patch of earth, slightly deeper than the surrounding ground—the lack of anything organic or inorganic—a clear sign of the absolute destruction which occurred in this assumed sacred area at ground zero… the legacy of Micom and Micolad, reduced to dust, ash, and nothingness. Just as it always was.

Sam would have loved to see this, Tony thought sadly.

They found a small path through the demolished hangars, being mindful of every nerve-wrecking blind spot and shadow that could hide a potential attack, until they safely made it through to the eastern side of the camp.

“Now that is some creepy shit,” Nine remarked as all three of them stopped short before the large object that dominated their view.

Surrounded on all sides by more remains of the hangars, stood a charred black willow tree, it’s entire upper half had been blown away leaving a jagged spire of black decaying wood, standing defiantly against the explosion which had ripped most of the life right out of it. Rooted deep within the earth, Mother Nature had apparently made her stand against the destructive power of man, refusing to give up its original place long before Micom, Micolad, or any of the other abominations which had manifested since The Change. But the large tree had paid a price for its defiance, now just a sickening shell of its former woodland majesty, as the dying tree now stood as a symbolic landmark of what was slowly happening to everything living in a dying world. Stripped of its former identity, it too, had become an abomination, refusing to die… or perhaps it had… but was returning to join a horde of another kind.

For Tony, this tree had been poisoned long before the explosion. All he saw was his love, chained to the tree, slowly dying, as he had nearly lost his mind with rage trying to get to Gina in time as Charlie’s horde had moved in to claim her. He and Marcus had fought hard in that place… while the cursed willow held Gina tightly.

“That’s… that’s very sad,” Diane said, in an unusually softer tone while staring at that sick wood. “It’s like it tried to hold on… and now… it’s just slowly rotting away. It would’ve been better if the explosion had knocked it down.”

“Fuck that tree. That’s where I found her,” Tony said, dismissing Diane’s sentiment. “Those sick fucks beat the life out of her, tied Gina half-naked to it, and were about to inject her and turn her into one of those poor souls we’ve found fastened to several of the trees surrounding the wilderness preserve.”

“So what the fuck?” Nine said. “We’re these losers worshipping that tree, too? What kind of sick Wiccan/Robot/Zombie worshipping religion did they practice here? Never mind… I don’t want to know.”

Diane pointed toward the base of the willow. “What’s that? Something’s sticking out of the tree.”

They moved in closer, clearing the debris field, until they were standing before the willow.

Nine stood a healthy twenty feet back, not caring if they made fun of him for it. The tree terrified him.

Tony and Diane moved in to investigate the object sticking out of the tree. Tony recognized it and froze. A blackened blade with a mangled hilt was sticking into the tree, approximately in the spot he pictured Gina’s heart would have been, if she were still hanging there.

“That’s Copperfield’s sword,” he said. “He was Micom’s right-hand man. Marcus and Gina killed that little bastard right here. Gina took the sword and used it to fight off the dead when we headed south. It shouldn’t be here, sticking in that fucking tree.”

Diane had already lost interest in the sword as she started studying the ash and dirt surrounding the tree.

“What is it?” Tony asked.

Diane gave him a puzzled look. “I’m not sure,” she said. “Sometimes it’s the absence of tracks that give tracks away. Looks old now, but definitely since the thaw… but if I had to guess… someone was here, and then brushed at the ash to hide it. It’s the way the ash sits different than the rest that gives it away.

“Are you sure?” he asked.

Diane shook her head. “No. I could just be letting this place make me paranoid.”

Tony frowned. “I’d trust your paranoid interpretation of signs, there are not, any day, hunter,” he said. Tony looked again at the sword. He was beginning to get a real bad feeling, the kind you get that makes your stomach drop right before death arrives. “We came her for answers and found more fucking mysteries. It’s time to go.”

“Oh, Christ yes!” Nine chimed in. “There’s too many dead eyes staring at me. Can’t you feel it?”

They both turned to the young man.

“He’s right,” Diane said. “Something feels ‘off’ here. Especially with this tree.”

Nine’s started to pace nervously. “Shit, girl. You’re not supposed to agree with me! Now I know this fucking place is haunted.”

“Let’s go,” Tony said. “Haunted or not, we’ll discuss it once we get the fuck out of this crater and back on our side of the woods.”

~~~

Two hours later, they reached the topside camp. They’d spoken very little about what they’d discovered, wanting only distance between themselves and that dead place. Also, Tony wanted to make sure they weren’t followed back as he and Diane deliberately altered their course several times in an attempt to throw off any potential pursuers and hide their tracks. Imagined or not, their visit into the eastern portion of the Wasteland had left them all uneasy.

“Now, don’t go blabbing to anyone about haunted woods, swords sticking in trees, or any other damn thing,” he said specifically to Nine. “We don’t need to scare people if-”

“Tony,” Diane interrupted, pointing in the direction of one of the armed sentries coming out to greet them from the topside camp. It was one of Logan’s men, Barney.

The old guard came out, puffing for air and holding a tree to catch his breath.

“Take it easy, Barney,” Tony said. “What’s the matter?”

“Stephen told me to fetch you as soon as you came back… and you all took your sweet damn time about it, too. Anyway, he wanted me to tell you the news, all ‘ASAP’ and shit, so here I am. Haven’t run like that in years, so you make sure you tell that bugger that you saw me running when I found you-”

“Barney,” Tony broke in. “The news?”

“Shit… sorry. Yeah, he wanted me to tell you that your boy, Marcus, is back. Looked like he fought the devil or something, but he’s alive. Showed up a couple hours ago. They’re waiting for you in the control room.”

Tony’s eyes lit up. He turned and found Diane and Nine’s equally surprised smiles.

~~~

Next Episode 38-6

Previous Episode 38-4

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 38-5: Healing” Copyright © 2017 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Four: Phantoms. 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.

~~~

Stephen sat at the control room console, half-heartedly listening to the radio static on low volume. Part of him hoped he would hear Gina’s voice on the air so he could answer up and tell her to come back and that this whole nasty affair of exiling their former leader could be remedied. “It was all just a big misunderstanding… one whopper of a mistake,” he whispered to the silence.

After this morning, Stephen had diplomatically tried to distance himself as much as he could from the community, feeling like he’d had to perform their dirty work. He knew it wasn’t their fault, but he couldn’t help feeling anger toward them. He may have been their newly elected leader, but Gina was his friend. He’d spent the remainder of the day dodging the endless gripes and concerns of his people, wanting only time to process and accept what he’d done… what he’d had to do. A one point he’d hidden in Gina’s storeroom cell, sitting on her cot, and reminiscing on their early days together. Logan was a big help, sensing Stephen’s inner turmoil, as he’d tried to keep the community distracted while addressing all their constant wants and needs directly, allowing Stephen a reprieve.

Now, with another long day put to rest, Stephen was able to escape to the one place within the compound that very few people felt comfortable; the one place where he had found solace in the company of his imaginary relationship in a room full of ghosts where the walls still told frightening stories of days few people wanted to remember.

“I miss you, Nicole,” he said, hoping another return visit to their familiar hideaway would bring her back. It had been weeks since he’d seen her, and now, with another one of his friends gone, Stephen only felt the amplified loneliness which remained. “I’m sorry that I hurt you… that I scared you away. But if you’re still out there… please come back to me… please.” He leaned forward on the console and put his head in his hands, allowing himself a vulnerable moment to silently weep. “Some leader I’m turning out to be,” he laughed. “I bet Gina never spent her evenings wallowing in self-pity.” He knew he had to move on, but tonight, for one damn evening, he would allow the grief to stay. Tomorrow, he would ‘man up’ and move forward.

“Stephen… I’m here.” Nicole’s voice was like a soothing salve over his heart.

He turned to his left and saw the beautiful brown-haired woman sitting as close to him as the confines of their limited physical relationship would allow. Her hair was tied back. She was dressed in a black blazer and slacks, almost as if she’d just come back from a business meeting… or a funeral. She looked much paler than he remembered–more dead than alive. She had dark circles around her eyes caused by lack of sleep and too many tears. Her long frown was etched in place.

“It’s good to see you,” he said, dismissing her grim appearance. “I thought I’d lost you.”

At last, she smiled. It warmed his heart immediately. “I couldn’t stay away,” she said. “I tried… but you’ve been in so much pain… I had to come back.”

Stephen sat up. He wanted to reach over and embrace her. “Why did you leave? I never wanted you to go.”

She gave him a thoughtful look. “When you gave that speech, I felt like you were trying to bury me… bury us… and move on. I thought I was holding you back from what you really wanted. So I stayed away. But I’ve always been here, watching from a distance. At first, I didn’t understand. Then I realized that I couldn’t leave because of you… you wouldn’t let me go.”

Stephen shook his head. “When I thought you were gone, I threw myself into this role of leadership… tried to stop thinking about you. I had to. I forced myself to stay busy… distracted… because you were always there with me when I was alone. I could hardly stand it.”

“I know,” she smiled. “God… I know. I could feel it.”

“Then… why?”

Nicole looked away. “I was… angry. Angry that I couldn’t leave. Angry that you sent me away. Angry that I couldn’t be the woman you needed me to be… that we couldn’t make love or even touch each other. I… wanted to hurt you. But I was only hurting myself. I felt betrayed. And then I felt that I betrayed you, too.”

“I love you,” he said through tears. “To hell with what happened before. I was angry at first. But when you left- I was wrong for being mad at you. I understand now that you were just trying to spare me from Lannister’s mess… that you wanted me to go away with you.”

Nicole started to cry. She nodded fiercely and said, “Yes… that was… everything. I regret what I did… how I kept things from you… but I was greedy. I wanted you to myself. I wanted us to be free of all this… chaos. And you promised we would leave…”

Stephen moved in closer. He wanted to kiss her. “I know I disappointed you. But now, I intend to fulfill that promise.”

Nicole’s eyes lit up briefly. “But… you… you’re their leader now. How can you-”

“We’re getting out of here, Nicole.” He longed for her in that moment more than he longed for anything.

Suddenly, her appearance changed. She was no longer dressed in mourning. Her hair flowed wildly down her bare shoulders as she looked down to find herself dressed in revealing black lingerie, her chest barely contained within the tight confines of a transparent brassiere. Her loins were on fire as she knew that she’d be completely naked next. He’d never allowed her to appear before him in such a seductive fashion. He was literally undressing her with his eyes.

She stood up and backed away, feeling the intensity of his gaze, the desire for her physically was too much for her to bear. She wanted him as much as he wanted her and she felt like she would implode if she didn’t reclaim control and cool down. “Wait!” she said, cupping her hands over her now bare breasts. “Stop, Stephen! You know we can’t do… this!”

He stood up and took a step closer before realizing what was happening. “Shit! Did… did I do that?”

Immediately, Nicole’s appearance changed. She was now wearing a conservative blue sundress. She looked flush in the face and tried to steady her breathing. She turned away and said, “I can’t be that for you. As much as I want it to happen.”

“I’m sorry,” he muttered. “You’re right. Shit… what was I thinking?”

“I think that’s obvious,” she laughed, trying to disarm the moment.

Stephen averted his eyes and laughed. “Wow,” was all he could say. “I guess I really missed you.”

She turned and walked toward him, now that the fire was dying out. “It’s… okay. I just don’t want you to be disappointed.”

He gave her a serious look. “You could never disappoint me. I love you, Nicole.”

“And I, you, my love, but look at us? We can’t ‘do’ that… and I know how badly you desire it.”

“Forgive me,” he said. “I was… overwhelmed. I saw you again and just forgot about all those limitations. It’s okay. Now that you’re back, it doesn’t matter.”

“But it does, Stephen,” she said in frustration. “It always will. When we leave here, it might be alright for a
little while, but then something like this will happen… again. You’ll long to touch me… and can’t.”

“But-”

“Hear me out.” She started pacing. “You’ll want… need to reach out to me… physically… and I’m afraid that when you do, when you won’t be able to stop yourself, I’ll simply disappear… and that’s the moment I’ll become less real to you. And the more it happens, the more I’ll become less. Then you’ll meet a real woman someday, like that bitch, Olivia, and I’ll simply fade out of existence.”

“Olivia? What does she have to do with anything?”

“Doesn’t matter! You’re not hearing me!” She walked up close to Stephen, leaned in until their noses nearly touched, and said, “This is it. This is as close as we can be. You want to touch me now, I know you do… but you can’t. And that’s it!”

Stephen smiled. “It’s enough.”

“Really?”

“Yes,” he said confidently. “I’ve been a mess without you. I’d accept all these… sexual frustration moments… over your absence. I’ve missed you that much. I miss our times together… our talks… that’s the intimacy that makes us… us.”

Nicole let out a heavy sigh and relaxed. She shook her head and said, “You drive me insane, Stephen Eddington. You know just what to say when I’m being so… dramatic.”

“Even though I can’t hold you right now, in my heart, I know we both feel that embrace. And that for me, is as real as the physical. People spend their entire lives in a ‘physical’ relationship and never get any closer to real love. But you and I, we’ve crossed that barrier long ago.”

Her face lit up and she started to weep.

He loved her more in that moment than at any other time. “Don’t you feel it?”

“Yes,” she admitted. “Yes… of course… you’re right. I’ve been behaving foolishly.”

“We’re leaving this place… together.”

She looked into his eyes and knew that he meant it. “I’m ready. When, my love?”

He stepped back and raised his arms excitedly. “I’m the leader now,” he said. “Everything’s already happening!”

Nicole looked confused. “What do you mean?”

“We’re all getting the hell out of this hole in the ground… together!”

Her face turned to stone. “When you say ‘we’ you mean the community?”

“Yes! Yes! It’s happening, Nicole! I’ve got them all on the same page and we’re going to relocate topside… find a new life… and live it!”

“But… what about us?”

“That’s what I’m talking about.” Stephen now looked confused. “Once we find a place to exist as a real society again, you and I will be free to be together. We’ll find us a nice, cozy home, away from the rest-”

“They will always need you,” she interrupted. “They will suck you dry with their constant demands for your time and protection, bombard you with their persistent whining and complaints until you’re so spread thin caring for these… these pathetic creatures… that I will wish them all dead after they’re finally done using you!”

Stephen was shocked speechless. It had been a long time since he’d seen her so angry. “How… how can you be so… selfish?”

“Selfish? Selfish!” she shouted. Nicole started pacing as her appearance began to change. “I’ve done nothing but wait patiently for these leeches to finally leave us alone and give us a moment’s peace!” She was now wearing jean shorts and a familiar ripped and bloody white tank top. “‘Help me, Stephen’,” she mocked in a whiny voice. She thought of Olivia and the others–every one of them she’d managed to convince that killing themselves was the solution. But every time she got rid of one, another creature would take its place. ‘Protect me from the big, bad monsters, Stephen’, ‘Hold me, Stephen, and tell me that everything will be alright and that I’m not a worthless little girl who’s afraid of her own fucking shadow’!”

Stephen took a step back as bloody scratches appeared on her legs arms and face. “Nicole… what are you doing?”

She couldn’t stop as the rage took over. “‘Save me, Stephen, fuck me, Stephen, blah, blah, blah…’ First, it’s your long suffering guilt; then your idol worship of that red-headed bitch; next, my insufferable mother; and now, all these needy, greedy babies that have to hold your hand to fucking breathe… and I’m the selfish one?”

“Nicole… stop this!” He watched as her face grew pale, her left eye suddenly sunk in, leaving a dark, empty pit where the eye used to be.

She turned away from him and tried to regain control… unsuccessfully. “You know what the worst thing is, my love? It’s not the sharing… hell… I understand all that. Who can compete with the living, especially when you’re just some dead girl with a god-damn crush that won’t go away! No… the worst thing is all that fucking down time I spend waiting for you to come to your senses and return to me! There’s nothing worse than being reminded of how fucking dead you are, and it really hits home when you’re ignored by the one you love! When you leave me and run to all of them… those fucking living, breathing pieces-of-shit who never thought highly of you until I made you strong! I sit around in the suffocating darkness, like some convenient little guidance counselor waiting for you to take me back out of that hellish closet where I can pretend to be special again. Because being special is the only consolation prize after the one you love sticks a fucking knife in your damn eye!” She whirled around to face him.

Stephen looked away from the ghastly apparition of Nicole, the knife sticking out of her left eye, completing the image of the woman he’d murdered long ago. “No! Don’t do this to me… not again!” He tripped over his chair and landed on the floor, hands raised defensively against a nightmare.

“How does this appearance suit you, my love? Can you still love me like this? If you want the real fucking deal… well… this is it, in all my last-fucking-breath glory! You remember me, like this, don’t you?”

“Stop it!”

“This is me, my love! This is the last time I had a real damn chance competing for your precious time! Hell, I was even flattered that you came to look for me that night at the school, when you still thought I was alive! Now that meant something!”

Stephen covered his face with his hands. He was sobbing as the monster ripped open the old wounds of guilt.

“Look at me!” she shouted. “Look at me and love me like this… if you can!”

Stephen shook his head.

“LOOK AT ME!”

He forced himself to look. Stephen fought off the urge to cringe and turn away. He understood this now, understood the face of his arch enemy… and had already defeated it. “I… I will love you… no matter what you do to me or how you choose to appear to me. But this… this is not you… this is all me… my guilt.”

“You promised!” she shouted. Nicole ripped the knife out of her eye and held it threateningly over him.

Stephen refused to look away. “I love you, Nicole… but I love them, too. I’m sorry you’re not alive… and I’m sorry I killed you… but I won’t abandon them… and no matter what this is, or what we are… I won’t abandon you, either. Hate me if you must, but this has to stop… right now. This is not you… this is me.”

Nicole hesitated, stared at the knife, and then dropped it. The shame was immediate. She remained in the bloody white tank top and jean shorts but the wounds on her flesh faded, her left eye returned, as did the color to her face, offering the illusion of alive. She was fighting the tempest within, but the sight of her love cowering on the floor was too much. “Stephen… I’m… so angry with you. I… I’m just so tired of waiting. I want us to leave together, just the two of us. I don’t understand why you won’t go away with me, right now.”

Stephen remained on the floor. He was emotionally and mentally drained. “Because in order to atone for my sins, I have to do my part, Nicole. I deserved to die that night at the school, not you. It was my life that was squandered and a mess before The Change, while yours was just beginning. I took that from you.”

“Then why do you take it from me now?” she asked. “You love me, and you owe me… but you won’t give me your whole heart. Is it because I’m dead?”

Stephen laughed at the irony. “No, my love. It’s because I’m alive. I’ve a debt to pay, for as long as I still draw breath.”

She shook her head. “That’s bullshit!”

“No, it’s the truth. I love a dead woman who I owe my life. Not a day goes by that I don’t realize how much your death and you staying with me, has saved me. But my life’s not worth anything to you or me if I don’t try to help as many people as I can. What kind of man would I be if I turned my back on the living, especially when there’s so few of us left? What would I possibly have left to give to you… to us… if allowed myself to die inside?”

Nicole turned away. “I fucking hate you sometimes, especially when you’re right.”

“We will have our time, Nicole… but I have to do this. I have to lead these people to safety and do my part. Only then will I feel worthy enough for your love. Can’t you see that?”

She turned and looked at him sadly. “You’ve always been worthy. It’s the world and those who still live in it that keep you from seeing yourself the way I see you.”

“I read your words… they were… inspiring,” he said. “I told myself that I would strive to be the man you wrote so fondly of. Everything I do now is toward that end.”

“Oh, so I have only myself to blame for not being able to have you all to myself? Just because I wrote that naïve shit in a diary?”

“In a way… yes.”

“Fuck you. We burned that damn book, remember?”

“Yes we did,” Stephen said. “We burned up that fictional man you dreamed up… and I’ve been striving to become the real thing for you ever since. So, in a way, I’m trying to be as ‘alive’ in the world your words created, as much as you are trying to be ‘alive’ in mine.”

“It’s not the same and you know it.”

“I know that I love you the best way I understand how. And I know that it’s real, just as I know your love for me is real. The rest will work itself out. We’ll find a way to breach the barriers together, because love doesn’t abide by any rules that bind the living or the dead. You know this. I know it.”

She turned. Her face was a mixture of longing and loathing. “I hate that I love you… right now, anyway,” she said and smiled.

He started to laugh uncontrollably.

“What’s so funny?”

“And here I was thinking I was the ‘intense’ one tonight.”

Her anger lifted as she caught the joke. Nicole’s face erupted with laughter. “Is this the part where I say, ‘Wow’?”

They both shared another round of laughter.

Stephen finally settled down, looked her in the eyes, and asked, “So, are you staying this time?”

She nodded. “Yes. And you’re not leaving?”

He nodded.

“Well, then there’s only one thing left to do… since you’re still lying there,” she said, raising her eyebrows.

Stephen raised his suspiciously. “What are thinking?”

“You said love doesn’t play by the rules… well… maybe we can make up a few of our own.”

“I’m listening.”

She let loose a wicked smile. “Take your pants off.”

“Excuse me?”

“I’m feeling like we wasted an opportunity earlier to get a little… creative… in the physical sense.”

“How so?”

She removed her tank top and then covered her breasts with a playful giggle. “The damn rules say we can’t touch each other, but I suspect we could get around that.”

~~~

After having the strangest five minutes of sex that never happened, Stephen and Nicole shared an awkward goodnight and he departed the control room. On his way to his bed, he tried to process the encounter, but all Stephen felt afterwards was emptiness, which led to shame. On one hand, it all felt so real… she was there… but ‘in’ the other hand… well… was their sexual experimentation any different from a perverse fantasy induced by a more elaborate version of porn? He felt foolish, regretting that they had tried to cheat the physical limitations of their relationship… and now, he felt they were something less because of it.

He shook off his dark thoughts, chalking it up to exhaustion. He didn’t bother undressing and simply crawled into his cot and closed his heavy eye lids…

~~~

…Nicole opened her eyes and wanted to scream. She got up from the cot and pushed Stephen’s tired flesh out of Cubicle City and down the silent halls until she reached the storeroom where her diary was hidden. She was grateful that she hadn’t seen anyone, too tired to pretend that she was him, too upset to patiently put up with all their constant demands.

FUCK ALL OF YOU! HE… IS… MINE!

Nicole retrieved the diary from her hiding place within the vent, sat down in the fold-up chair, and started scribbling frantically…

It didn’t work! What the hell was I thinking? What would my darling dead mother think of her pathetic dead daughter now, I wonder? I can already hear her mocking voice: “Look at you! Whoring yourself out like the sticky pages of a dirty magazine hidden under a teenage boy’s mattress! Did you really think you could get Stephen to love you by reducing yourself to that? PATHETIC!”…

Nicole threw the diary across the small space and let out a frustrated growl. She tried to calm down but she wanted to destroy something… she wanted to destroy all of these worthless, living, leeches who had become so fucking important that he wouldn’t leave them… that he couldn’t.

“He will never leave these maggots because they’re alive… and I’m not.” A deep, dark depression started to replace the anger. She hated herself. She hated them. She hated… him!

Nicole lifted Stephen’s arms and stared at his fragile flesh. I can do all this! But I can’t ever be… THIS! Not anymore… because I’m dead! She balled Stephen’s right hand into a fist and wanted to strike the nearest wall repeatedly until that fist turned into a bloody stump of blood and shattered bones. But she restrained herself. She knew that the pain she couldn’t feel in that hand would wake him up… and then what? What would become of them after that? If Stephen knew that she could control him while he slept… Nicole cringed at the thought.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said despondently. “I’m losing him. I’m losing him to the living. It’s just a matter of time and he’ll get tired of playing games with dead girls who can’t love… who can’t touch or even make love that isn’t something demeaning!” She started to weep with tears that weren’t even her own.

Pathetic.

She got up and retrieved the diary with borrowed hands and sat back down. She started writing again…

I love him. That much is real… that much is mine. But I don’t believe it’s enough. It will never be enough because, like me, my love is dead….

She stopped and stared at the words, feeling the cold truth sink in. She continued writing…

I believe him when he says that we’ll be together eventually. I believe he means that… right now. But I just don’t know what to do. What happens when we’re finally alone and forced to face the fact that we will never be able to be anything… real? What happens when we long for each other in the night and we can’t…

…TAKE IT! TAKE HIS FLESH AND DESTROY IT! IT’S NOT YOUR DEATH THAT KEEPS YOUR LOVE APART, IT’S HIS LIFE! SO TAKE IT… AND YOU WILL BE TOGETHER…

…touch each other? Do we simply let our passion burn away into the void between us and keep pretending that our relationship is without limits? What if there’s another way? Would I… would we… have the courage to take it that far for the sake of protecting our love?…

Nicole stopped writing. What was she thinking? No! I couldn’t! That would be… but… maybe it would solve all our problems. Wouldn’t it? She allowed the strange new idea, the horrible idea, to become tangible in her mind until it filled her with hope. She had no idea why it took her this long to see it… but now… it made sense. If she couldn’t be with Stephen, then perhaps he could be with her.

Could we love each other… in the dark place? Is that possible?

She lifted the pen to her eyes, studied the sharpness of the tip, knew immediately where to stick it in Stephen’s frail flesh, especially a certain artery in his neck that would cause him to bleed out quickly… with the least amount of pain.

Why not? If it meant that we could finally be together… then why the hell not? And… ‘they’ would never be able to reach him again! He would be exclusively… mine.

The more Nicole entertained the idea, the more it made sense. She’d been going about this all wrong from the start. Instead of convincing them, like Olivia and the others, into taking their own worthless lives, why not just take Stephen away from this horrible place.

Nicole placed the pen to Stephen’s throat. Her hand shook. She tried to keep it steady. She closed her eyes and tried not to imagine Stephen waking up from the pain as he bled out on the floor. He would call out, but he would be dead before anyone could save him. No. That wasn’t right. She was saving him. They would only be trying to keep him here, among the pending dead. “I do this… I do this for us, my love… so we can finally be together. I know you’ll understand. It doesn’t matter where we are… just as long as we can be-”

Someone was there, standing behind her. Nicole could immediately sense it. She lowered the pen and spun around.

“No!” she cried out. “You can’t be here!”

The apparition of Stephen Eddington, dressed all in black, stood before her. He was frowning at her. His intense eyes bore through stolen flesh, staring straight at her… nakedness… exposing what she really was, trapped in between Stephen’s body and his perceived form of Nicole Howard, when he was awake.

The Stephen apparition pointed toward the ground.

Nicole could feel it… she could feel what she was… the darkness, oh, that horrifying darkness, beneath the Stephen-shell she was currently losing control of, beneath the illusion of the dead girl that Stephen imagined her to be. She felt exposed–formless, black and empty…

“NO!” she shouted, backing away. “I won’t! I won’t accept that! I am not…THAT! Go away! You can’t be here! You’re not real!”

The Stephen-thing cocked its head to the side with an unreadable expression. It then pointed straight at her, like a sword piercing through all illusions.

Nicole backed away. It was happening again. She was staring to see it… see herself for what she truly was… and it was more than she could bear. “No! Go away! GO AWAY!” She closed her eyes and refused to look at him… at it. “I will open my eyes, and you will be gone! Do you hear me?”

The Stephen-thing did not respond. It never did.

Nicole waited. She retreated deeper into Stephen’s flesh, refusing to look at what the monstrous version of Stephen always tried to reveal, refused to accept any of it, until it all went away. She opened her eyes, knowing that it would be gone, and found herself staring into darkness.

She was no longer in Stephen’s flesh, no longer wearing Nicole’s mask…. She was surrounded by the black, cold place where she’d first come from… back to what she truly was.

“NOOOOOOO!” she cried out from the void. “You can’t keep me here! I won’t stay! I WON’T STAY!!!…

~~~

Stephen woke abruptly, lifting his head and banging it into the bottom of a metal fold-up chair. “Fuck!” he cried out, grabbing his forehead. He pushed the chair away, realizing that he wasn’t in his cot. He looked around at the unfamiliar room. “What the hell?” When his disorientation lifted, Stephen deduced that he was in one of the compound storerooms. He slowly got to his feet. “How did I get here?” Before he could consider this further, he felt a throbbing pain in his throat. He lifted a hand and wiped blood away from a small puncture wound. Fortunately, it wasn’t deep. He laughed uncomfortably and then noticed a red spiral notebook laying on the floor. Looking for any explanation he could find, or just waiting to wake up from this strange dream, Stephen bent down and retrieved the notebook. Written on the cover in neat black ink was a title. He read the words, and then dropped the notebook as if realizing he was holding a venomous snake for the first time.

“This isn’t happening,” he said, backing away from the notebook until he found the chair. He collapsed into it, continuing to stare at the notebook. “This is some fucked-up dream. Has to be.” But he knew it wasn’t. Stephen closed his eyes and tried to calm down. The words on the cover of the notebook were screaming in his head; the implications, too terrifying to consider:

A Higher Education: The Continuing Tales of My Rebirth

~~~

Next Episode 38-5

Previous Episode

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 38-4: Healing” Copyright © 2017 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Four: Phantoms. 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.

~~~

Voices.

She can hear their cold, detached voices talking about her as if she’s not in the room. The hum of indifferent machines hooked up to various places on her body make her feel less human. Her hands and feet are strapped to the gurney. She is blindfolded. Megan knows she’s in some sort of operating room, but that’s all she knows.

They have poked and prodded her with needles, taking blood out of her body, injecting fluids in. She’s knows that these sadistic voices belong to the enemy… and that they only care about her baby.

One of them, she suspects he’s some kind of doctor, is back between her legs, reaching within her again with his gloved callous fingers. She tries to resist the invasion of her body, but the powerful sedatives have destroyed her ability to fight back.

Get out! Leave my child alone!

They don’t hear her desperate thoughts. They ignore her silent tears escaping the blindfold. Megan has never felt so helpless.

Lucas is dead! They… They killed him!

She tries to remember the rest but her mind is mush. She knows in her heart that she is alone now.

“We’re running out of time,” the male doctor says. “Prep her for Phase Two.”

The other voice is female. Megan assumes she is a nurse. “But the specimen is far too early. We’re supposed to wait until she’s near full term-”

“I know the situation,” the evil doctor interrupts. “We’ve been discovered. The plan has changed. There’s no time to wait. Inject her and let’s get this over with. If it dies with the infected carrier, the research will still be valid.”

The nurse seems hesitant. “It’s damn wasteful… and you know it. You know how long we’ve been waiting for this one.”

“Just do it! There’s no time!”

Infected carrier! Megan’s mind screams. They’re talking about me!

She can’t move. She can’t resist.

The needle is injected into her arm. She can feel her insides starting to burn immediately.

No!

Megan feels the virus invading her blood stream… changing her from mother to monster.

NO!

“Watch the eyes, now,” the doctor says. “If the specimen doesn’t grant the carrier immunity… we’ll see it first in her eyes.”

The nurse sighs heavily. “It’s happening.”

“What? Already?”

“We need to move her… now,” she says.

“Shit! We need to check the specimen first and find out if it survives the transformation.”

Megan feels a cold glob of goo on her belly, followed by a gadget pressing against her stomach. She’s familiar with the process. They’re performing an ultra-sound.

“Well?” the doctor asks impatiently.

“Hold on,” the nurse says.

Megan feels the infection coursing through her body. It reaches her brain. She struggles against it but the madness is almost immediate. She starts to struggle violently against her restraints.

“Fuck!” the nurse says. “She’s just like the others. The infection is attacking the specimen from the inside. The carrier has rejected the child… it’s… it’s like her body is consuming itself.”

“It’s happening,” the doctor confirms. “She’s bleeding down here.”

Megan no longer comprehends their words. She can only smell the blood from the miscarriage, driving her insane with…

~~~

…hunger.

Megan’s eyes shot open. She immediately rolled off the mattress, screaming, as she stood up and started swinging her arms defensively at the air, howling at demons only she could see.

“Megan!” Meredith shouted through the glass. “It’s alright, honey! You’re just having a nightmare!”

The young woman stared across at Meredith. She was breathing heavily, trying to regain control. At first, she saw the older woman and wanted to ram the glass, but then… she remembered.

I’m not a monster! she shouted in her thoughts, pushing back against her infected brain. I’M NOT A MONSTER! Megan fell to her knees and grabbed the sides of her head. Her thoughts turned to Lucas, and then to her dead child. She screamed again, but this time, it wasn’t a monstrous wail… but one coming from deep grief.

Meredith touched the glass with both her hands. She wanted to race in there and hold her. “Just hang on, Megan! It will pass! I know it hurts to remember all those awful things… but you need to remember… you need the pain to help you fight it… to help you fight what’s going on inside of you.”

“I… I don’t want to fight… I want to die! Please… just let me die!”

“I can’t do that, honey,” Meredith said. “We need you to fight… come back to us, Megan!”

Megan pounded on the ground with her fists. Her insides were on fire… a constant consuming fire that wanted to burn the rest of her humanity away, forever. “I’m… so… HUNGRY!!!”

Meredith closed her eyes. She hated herself for saying the rest, but using the girl’s pain, now that her memory was returning, was the only thing keeping Megan from giving in. “Remember your child, Megan. Remember that the fire consumed your child… it killed your child!”

“NO!!!” Megan screamed. “I don’t… I don’t want to… remember! I just want to-”

“Fight it, Megan! Fight the monster within! Remember what it did to your baby!”

Megan howled in frustration. She remembered. She remembered that her own body betrayed her and that it killed… she… had consumed her own child before it ever had a chance to be born.

“NO! I won’t! I won’t let you… take me, too!” she said.

“That’s it, Megan!” Meredith encouraged. “Fight it! Fight the hunger! Fight it with all you have left… do it for your child! Do it for Lucas! You need to live… for them!”

After several agonizing seconds of intense rage, fueling the infection’s fire at war within her, Megan finally calmed down. Her breathing stabilized, and then she passed out on the floor.

“This is too much,” Coop said from behind Meredith. “How can you watch this girl suffer?”

Meredith didn’t turn around. She continued to stare at Megan, her heart bleeding for her. “She needs the suffering right now,” she said. “It’s all she has of who she was. She needs to feel it, accept it, and then forge it into a weapon.”

“To what end?”

Meredith turned, tears streaming down her face. “She needs it to fight her way back to us.”

Coop frowned and nodded. “And you? How long can you suffer with her?”

Meredith smiled, wiping the tears away. “As long as she needs me to.”

Coop moved in and wrapped his arms around the exhausted woman.

Meredith collapsed into his embrance and wept. She was mentally and emotionally drained.

“Okay, okay,” he said. “That’s enough for this round. You need to get some rest. Doctor’s orders.”

“She’s going to make it, Coop,” she said. “We just have to… we just need to keep on believing… even if she doesn’t.”

Coop wisely remained silent. He stared into the glass cage at the tormented half-dead woman. My God, he thought. If that were me in there, I’d want to eat a bullet to get of this hell. If that girl ever gets all of it back… all of those memories of what happened to her… and what she truly is… Finally, he said, “If… excuse me… when Megan comes back, she’s going to need a damn good reason to keep on breathing now… if that’s what we can call it.”

Meredith looked into his face. “And we’ll help her find it, Coop. We will.”

He smiled half-heartedly. “Of course, you’re right.”

She gave him a look. “She’s close. I’ve been inside this mind before… I know how it feels. She can come back from this. Don’t you dare give up now.”

Coop laughed. “And face the wrath of Meredith Montgomery? I wouldn’t dream of it.”

She hit him lightly in the shoulder and then grabbed his cheeks. “I almost lost you. For that… I’m… I’m so sorry.”

“Can it,” he said, pulling away. “That wasn’t your fault. We both did what we had to do to protect that girl. I’d do it again, too.”

She smiled. “You would, too. That’s how you made a believer out of me.”

“Come again?”

“You’re a good, kind, and patient man, Arnold. You have a big heart in a cold world. That’s make you extremely rare.”

“Stop it.”

“That’s how you won me over. That’s why I love you.”

He sighed nervously, took a step back, and said, “Well… then I guess I better get on with it, then. Before I tick you off and you change your high opinion of me tomorrow.”

“What are you up to, Coop?”

He removed a small case from his lab coat and got down on one knee.

Meredith gasped. “What… what are you doing?”

“Just let me do this,” he said. “Before I lose my nerve.”

She nodded.

He opened the small case, revealing a ring. “Meredith Montgomery, I love you. If I’ve learned anything worthwhile in this crazy new world, it’s that time is something we aren’t allowed to waste anymore, second guessing our hearts. What we have is now, this moment, not the next one, and I want as much of you in this moment as I can get. Call me greedy, I don’t care. Marry me… or else.”

Meredith put her hands to her mouth. She knelt down in front of Coop and laughed. “You have such a way with words. How could I dare refuse?” She kissed him and said, “Yes, Arnold Cooper, I will marry you.”

Coop’s face lit up as he put the ring on her finger. “That was harder to do than open-heart surgery,” he confessed.

“But long overdue,” she said with a smile. “I love you.” She looked at the diamond ring. “Where do you ever find this?”

“I’ve been holding on to this since Andover. Turns out they had a little jewelry shop in town. I left the shop owner an I.O.U. note.” He gave her a wink.

Meredith laughed. “You’re just full of surprises.”

He smiled. “I guess it’s convenient that we have a live-in preacher. What are the odds?”

She laughed. “I’d say that you and I… we’ve overcome the odds quite nicely.”

They kissed again and then held each other tightly. And in that moment, a very bright light blinded the eyes of a very dark world.

~~~

Next Episode 38-4

Previous Episode 38-2

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 38-3: Healing” Copyright © 2017 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Four: Phantoms. 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.

~~~

Since her arrest three weeks ago, Gina had been confined to a guarded storeroom where she was provided a cot and sparse furnishings while the community decided what to do with her. Aside from her visits with Stephen, Gina was not permitted to see anyone else, leaving her with far too much time to feel the small space closing in around her. Her new number one enemy, since Gina constantly needed something to fight against, was herself.

The knock on the door rescued her from her troubled thoughts.

“Come in,” she said, standing up and straightening her clothes.

Stephen stuck his head in the door. “Did I wake you?”

Gina relaxed and sat back down on her cot. “No, of course not. Sleep’s not a big fan of mine these days. Come in.” She motioned toward the fold-up chair.

Stephen entered the store room and closed the door behind him. He sat down in the chair and crossed his legs, trying to get comfortable in the squeaky seat. After shifting around a bit, he finally folded his hands across his lap and smiled at her.

Gina laughed at him. “You’re wound up awfully tight this evening… and you suck at hiding it.”

Stephen shook his head. “Yeah… I’d make a lousy poker player.”

Gina crossed her legs and scooted back against the wall. “So… two visits in a single day. What’s the occasion?”

“Can’t a friend just stop by and say ‘Hello’?” Stephen laughed.

Gina shook her head. “Normally, yes. But I know how damn busy you are. You should be sleeping.”

Stephen took a deep breath and sighed. “I can’t stall them anymore, Gina… not unless you defend yourself or give me anything I can tell the community to persuade them to change their minds.”

Gina gave her friend a deep smile. “I know. I love you for standing up for me, Stephen, I really do. But I think it’s time to face the inevitable.”

Stephen shook his head. “It doesn’t have to go down like this. I can talk to them, buy you some more time-”

“You and I both know that they were only waiting for my wounds to heal, or else I’d be gone already. It’s been three weeks–more than enough time to get my strength back.”

“Yeah, but, I… need your help. They all know that I’ve been picking your brain every night on tactical matters.” Stephen was desperately reaching. “I could tell them that your counsel is invaluable and that I need to keep you here to apprise me of what the world is like ‘out there’.”

Gina laughed. “You don’t need me anymore, Stephen. I’ve told you all I know. You’re doing just fine. In fact, you’re a far better leader than I ever was.”

“Don’t say that.”

“It’s true. Just look at how much you’ve accomplished already. You’ve brought these people together and are actually working ‘together’ to solve problems for the first time. I think you’re a natural.”

Stephen looked away.

“Oh, don’t do that,” Gina pushed. “Look, I’ve had nothing but time in here to think about everything. I’ve examined and re-examined my own actions so damn much that I can hardly stand myself any longer. But when I look at you, and what you’re building, I take some comfort in knowing that I helped get you here. That gives me hope.”

“You did a whole hell of a lot more than just ‘get me here’, Gina. These people don’t know– they will never know– how much you sacrificed to get all of us here. I was there and I remember.”

They exchanged smiles followed by a moment of nostalgic silence like two old veterans of the apocalypse.

Gina finally said, “I thought about what you said to the community–about needing more than just surviving in this horrific world, and you were right. The best I could do was try to keep everyone safe by hiding them beneath this rock… and it wasn’t enough. But you, you’re going to lead them into living again. That’s important… that’s everything.” Gina looked away in shame. “I couldn’t do that. Hell, I can’t even figure out how to live with myself.”

“You did just fine, Gina. We’ve all made mistakes. But I remember when we were out on the open road, running for our lives. It was your strength that helped us get here.”

Gina nodded, wiping tears from her eyes. “My… mistakes… are inexcusable. I justified anything and everything in the name of ‘survival’… and became a murderer.”

Stephen didn’t know what to say.

“Remember those snipers who killed Greg?”

Stephen nodded.

“You and Meredith were the only ones who saw the evil in what we were doing. That was my decision… and I crossed the line.”

“But you were just defending us,” Stephen said. “They fired first and-”

“They were kids, Stephen,” Gina said, looking up, her eyes haunted by memories. “We killed a few misguided teens who had been brainwashed by that Donovan asshole. I didn’t even take a second to consider my actions. I saw red and wanted blood. I would’ve shot that pregnant girl, Megan, too, if Frank hadn’t been there to stop me. That’s why I left you all in Andover and tried to save her… and save myself.”

Stephen had never heard Gina admit that before. Frank had never spoken of it.

Gina looked away. “I’m going to tell you the most important thing I’ve learned about being a leader, Stephen. And you will have to learn it, too… or it will destroy you.”

Stephen waited.

Gina looked up. “When you lose people, and you will, you’ll have to find some way to live with it and move on. If you don’t, it will infect your heart, turn it black, until you’re either drowning in guilt… or you shut down completely and become cold… as I did.” She took a deep breath. “Promise me, Stephen, that you will never do what I did. Learn from my example. Find a way to accept responsibility for the people who die under your command… but don’t die with them.”

Stephen nodded. He thought about Nicole and how much he’d suffered after killing her.

Gina could see it. She reached over and took his trembling hands in hers. “It made you stronger… even if you don’t understand it.”

“What was that?”

“Amanda’s daughter,” she said. Gina was stunned when Stephen had announced Nicole’s death to the community. Since then, she’d connected most of the dots and Stephen had told her the rest on his daily visits to her cell. “I never had a clue what was happening with you and Amanda. That had to be hell keeping the truth from her all that time.”

“I wanted to tell her… but I was a coward,” Stephen said. “Amanda found out anyway and tried to kill me in Jefferson… but she saved me instead.” He’d told Gina about Nicole’s diary, and why he’d kept it–the guilt and the peace it gave him reading her words. Gina hadn’t judged him. She’d listened patiently as he’d told her about the pain and the eventual confrontation with Amanda when she’d somehow acquired the diary. She’s sensed that there was more, but she didn’t press. Stephen refused to tell her about his visits with Nicole since her death… and how much he loved the dead girl. Some things were just not meant to be shared with the living.

“But she did find out,” Gina said. “And it must have given Amanda some closure before the end… you know… just to discover what finally happened to her daughter.”

Stephen looked at his shoes and nodded.

“And then she saved you… hell… probably saved herself, too. We all know how much Amanda struggled to get free of the bottle. Amanda died a hero. That’s says a lot these days. How many of us can claim that?”

Stephen looked up.

Gina smiled. “Point is, you’ve suffered enough over that’s girl’s death, and it’s made you the person you are today. In a twisted sense, Nicole’s death probably saved you and Amanda both.”

“I never thought of it that way,” Stephen said. “You’re right, though. Nicole did save me… a part of her has remained with me all this time.” He had to stop there before he said too much. Stephen straightened himself in the chair and said, “I promise, Gina. I won’t let the guilt win. I’ve learned that much… from Nicole.”

Gina smiled and squeezed his hands before letting go and leaning back against the wall.

“Now, promise me something.”

“If I can,” she said.

Stephen continued. “I know you’re in a dark place, but you’re the strongest person I know. I’ve seen it. Promise me that you won’t give up. Keep fighting, Gina.”

Gina looked up and flashed a familiar defiant smile. “Fighting is the one thing I’m good at. I promise.”

Stephen laughed, reached over, and gave Gina a hug.

She could feel her walls tumbling the longer her emotions were exposed. Damn you, Stephen! I can’t let you break me… not now. This dark bitch is the only thing keeping me alive. She pulled away with a smile, quickly drying her eyes with the back of her hand.

Stephen freely let his own tears fall.

“Get it together, you big baby,” Gina teased. “You can’t let your people see you crying over a prisoner.”

“I’ll get them to change their minds,” Stephen said. “Just help me, help you… please.”

Gina smiled at her old friend. “You’ve already helped me, Stephen. Now get out of here and let me have one more good night of sleep under a roof.” She stood up before he could protest further.

Stephen nodded, standing. “Well, I’ll see you tomorrow then.”

She nodded. “Goodnight, Stephen. Thanks for always believing in me… it means a lot.”

Stephen smiled. “Just say the word. I’ll go grab the others and we’ll head back out, like the old days when…” He stopped abruptly realizing that besides the two of them, Meredith was the last of their original group.

Gina could see it in his eyes. She touched his cheek and said, “We’ve made it this far… but the cost was too high. I think about that every day. And that’s my burden to bear.”

Stephen frowned. “And now I’m losing you, too.”

“I’m already lost. But I promise… I’ll try to find my way again.” She smiled. “This is for the best. I can’t be here anymore. Not now.”

“And what about, Tony?”

She couldn’t–wouldn’t–talk about that.

Gina forced a smile. “Goodnight, Stephen.”

Sensing he’d crossed a line, Stephen nodded. “Goodnight… and… sorry.”

She nodded and walked him to the door.

Stephen gave her a final smile and exited.

When she was alone again, Gina fought the urge to rip her hair out and scream. She collapsed against the back of the door, rolled her knees up to her chest, and reached down deep into the darkness, until the assault of raw emotions were once again safely submerged beneath a calm, black sea.

~~~

It was the longest night of her life. Gina desperately needed sleep, but every time her eyes closed she dreamt of the monster who hunted down her friends and butchered them while she watched helplessly. In every nightmare, the beast arrived unexpectedly, always flashing its devious smile at her while she tried to shout… tried to move toward them… to protect them… but failed. In every dark and disturbing scene, the dead thing with hate-filled yellow fire for eyes, ripped them apart and devoured them–Stephen, Diane, Nine, Meredith… Tony. At the end of each dream, Gina woke violently from her cot, sweaty, gasping for air, as the monster would turn toward her after each slaughter, its pale and bloody face void of compassion, numb to its own sickening need to feed, and then it would crawl toward her–laughing–its long red hair drenched in blood as Gina realized that she was the monster.

The light knock at her door caused her to jump.

Is it time already? she thought, dreading the coming day. It felt too early for morning, but then again, day and night lost all meaning down here, regulated only by the automated lights set to perform the illusion.

Gina got out of her cot with relief, ran her hands through her hair, and took a long deep breath to steady her nerves. Let’s get this over with. The sooner they’re all rid of me the better. As she approached the door, she put her head down to avoid catching a glimpse of her wretched self in the small mirror on the wall. She opened the door and froze.

Meredith was standing there with a medical bag held protectively across her chest. She immediately frowned when she saw the scowl on Gina’s face. “You don’t have to say anything,” she quickly said. “I’m here to change your bandages and check on your wounds… as ordered. Dr. Cooper couldn’t make it today.” After taking a deep breath and looking away, Meredith finished, “May I… come in?”

Gina was too much in shock by the appearance of her old friend to let the useless anger take over. She hadn’t seen Meredith in months but the older woman looked like she’d aged ten years. Before a fresh wave of erratic emotions overwhelmed her, Gina closed her eyes, turned and left the door open as she walked back to her cot.

“I’ll take that as a ‘yes’,” Meredith said raising her eyebrows. She entered the room and closed the door behind her.

Gina sat down on the edge of her cot like a good patient and stared at her feet.

Meredith sat down in the fold-up chair and dropped the medical bag in front of her. She opened the bag and cleared her throat. “So… I guess we should just start. Are you experiencing any new pain from-”

“You shouldn’t be here,” Gina cut in, refusing to look at the woman.

Meredith stopped and took another breath. She leaned back in her chair, folded her arms across her chest, and stared at her. To her, the once fiery redhead looked exhausted–‘faded’ was a better word. Gina looked like a worn-out, spread-thin version of her former self. “Well… you shouldn’t be here either,” she snapped back, surprising herself.

Gina looked up and was surprised to find anger in her former friend’s eyes.

“I’m sitting here, trying my best not to get emotional,” Meredith said. “Part of me wants to reach over and hold you in my arms and never let go while I cry like the foolish woman that I am.”

Gina said nothing.

“Another part of me wants to come over there and punch your lights out!” Meredith’s voice cracked a little as she tried to keep control, quickly wiping a tear from her eye.

Gina smiled at the frustrated woman, and let out a nervous laugh. “‘Punch your lights out’?” she said. “Did you really just say that?”

Meredith let out a nervous giggle and then covered her mouth. “I… I guess I did just say that.”

Gina felt tears fill her eyes as she stared at Meredith. She was losing control, and for once, it wasn’t a bad thing.

“I’m sorry,” Gina said, the words spewing forth from a vulnerable place she hadn’t felt in… well… forever. “I’ve been such a horrible bitch to you… and you almost died… and I’ve been… so angry… and I almost lost you…”

Meredith was there immediately, sitting beside her friend, her arms wrapped around her like a warm blanket in the middle of an emotional blizzard.

Gina turned in toward Meredith’s shoulder and buried her face there. She started to sob and fiercely embraced her friend, feeling all of it… the pain, the regret, the incredible loneliness… the love.

Meredith held her and refused to let go. She was smiling and crying and laughing. “You just… you just let those tears come, honey. Meredith’s here now. Just let them come… let those refreshing drops of gold fall.”

Gina pulled back to look into her friend’s face. She put a hand along Meredith’s tear-streaked cheek, savoring that precious smile, and said, “I’ve needed you for so long. I’ve been so lost… and cold… like you tried to warn me about. I don’t know what to do? I’ve done so many horrible things…”

Meredith nodded, and gently brushed back Gina’s hair from her face. “I know, honey. I know. But the fact that you see it now, too… that means something. That means everything. It’s going to be alright, now.”

“It’s too late. I’ve done things that can’t be undone. And now I have to leave.” Gina gently pulled free and reached out for Meredith’s hand.

The older woman held it and tried to regain her composure. “We’ll work this out. I’ll… I’ll talk to Stephen and we’ll find a way to-”

“I have to leave, Meredith.”

Meredith looked into those beautiful green pools and saw so much deep sadness. “No. That won’t happen. It can’t.”

“It’s the price for my crimes… and they are… crimes. I’ve murdered people. I’ve hurt the ones I care about. I’ve lost… my self-respect. I wouldn’t stay even if I could. I can’t look at them. I can’t look into all their faces knowing what I’ve done to them, seeing it reflected back at me in their eyes.”

Meredith opened her mouth to protest, but didn’t know what to say. Finally she said, “Well… then I’ll come with you.”

Gina smiled. “You would, too. But I can’t allow that. You’re too precious to me and I won’t allow anyone I love to suffer for my sins. I’ve done enough damage.” She finished, “I need to go away, as much as this community needs to see me leave. For now, anyway. I need to figure it all out… and find my way back, if that’s possible.”

Meredith shook her head. “But… where will you go? What will you do? You’ll be all alone! None of us can make it alone.”

“I’ll be okay. I’ll find a place, a safe place. I need to do this, Meredith.”

Meredith started to cry again. “But I just got you back! Oh, you can’t leave me now… please… stay with us.”

“It’s not up to me,” Gina said. “Stephen’s tried, but I won’t help him. I don’t deserve to be here, and until I do, I need to go away. That’s it.”

Meredith stared long and hard. She could tell that there was nothing she could say to persuade Gina to change her mind. She was decided. “Then… you go do what you have to do. But you come back. Are you hearing me? If you don’t, I’ll hunt you down and drag you back here. Are we clear?”

Gina laughed. “Very clear. Now, let’s stop wasting what time we have left and why don’t you tell me what’s been happening with you. We have some catching up to do.”

Meredith laughed. “That’s an understatement.” She rose to her feet, getting excited. “Well, let’s start with some really good news for a change. Something I know will make you feel better about ending up here in the first place.”

“Did that persistent doctor finally wear you down?” Gina said with a wink.

Meredith looked flustered. “What? Oh… no… I wasn’t talking about that.”

“You sure?” Gina pressed. “You do have a certain ‘glow’ about you that I don’t remember.”

“Well… sure… Cooper’s been a great help… and a dear friend. But-”

“I bet he has.”

Meredith put her arms to her hips and gave Gina a playful scowl. “Now you just stop teasing me, Miss Matchmaker, or I won’t tell you the great news.”

Gina leaned back with a laugh. “Okay, okay. I haven’t seen you this excited since we found that disgusting boxcar in the woods. Must be good.”

“Better,” Meredith said. She started to pace. Finally she stopped, placed her hands over her mouth and stared at Gina.

“Just tell me already,” Gina laughed.

“It’s about Megan!”

Gina’s smile quickly faded.

“She’s coming back to us, Gina! After all this time… she’s finally coming back.”

“What does that even mean?”

Meredith knelt down beside her and whispered, “As you probably heard, three weeks ago she started speaking again… just an occasional word or two… but now it’s so much more.”

Gina felt like throwing up. She was immediately reminded of the sick man she’d met on the boat a thousand years ago–the grey-eyed crazy man who kept his infected daughter locked up in the ship’s cabin. And then she remembered the fanatic, Ezekiel, from Harpersfield.

Meredith saw the look in Gina’s eyes. “No, it’s not like that, Gina. She’s really coming back. Megan’s starting to remember.”

“Remember?”

Meredith smiled. “Megan’s starting to remember who she is again. She’s asking questions and actually starting to communicate with us.”

“You mean… who she was,” Gina corrected.

Meredith gave her a confused look.

Gina tried to be sensitive to her friend’s optimism, but nothing could change the truth. “Meredith, I’m excited to hear the news… really… I am. But you still have to remember that Megan will never be the same person again.”

“I don’t believe that,” Meredith became defensive. “You haven’t seen the progress she’s made… you haven’t seen how far she’s come from that savage animal she once was. I’m telling you, Gina, Megan’s fighting… and she’s coming back to us.”

“But, Meredith,” Gina said, “she’s still dead.”

~~~

The morning was surprisingly warm. It felt good to be back outside and away from the gloomy underground facility. Gina stared up at the trees. She could see new leaves beginning to reveal themselves on what was left of the Wasteland woods which that hadn’t been scorched by the bomb.

A warm breeze struck her face. Gina closed her eyes and breathed in deep. They need this, she thought. All of them need this. Winter’s been a brutal bitch.

Stephen stepped over beside her and brought her back to reality. “It’s time, Gina.” He paused with a heavy sigh and finished, “I have to make this official.”

She looked at her old friend and smiled. “I’ll be okay, Stephen. This is not your fault. Let’s get this over with.”

Stephen nodded.

They turned together.

They were standing in a small clearing near the narrow pass that led up to the topside entrance into the compound. All the representatives of the various committees that Stephen helped to form were in attendance, as well as Logan, Diane, Nine… and Tony. In Meredith’s stead, Dr. Cooper was there with an apologetic look on his face. They’d said their goodbyes in the cell, Meredith explaining that she didn’t trust herself to go topside right now. Gina was grateful that her old friend wasn’t there, believing Meredith would be balling by now… as would she if Gina had to see it. There were also two armed guards standing on either side of Gina and Stephen, reminding Gina of her prisoner status.

Everyone was there to bear witness to Gina’s punishment. They stood in a half-circle before her as Gina refused to stare into their eyes for too long.

“I really hate my job today,” Stephen muttered under his breath for only Gina to hear.

She smiled nervously and stared at her feet.

Stephen cleared his throat and stepped forward, placing his hands behind his back to hide his shot nerves. “We are all gathered here today to carry out sentencing for Gina Melborn, guilty of murdering two of our own.” He paused and took a deep breath. “As your leader, it is my responsibility to guide us toward the future… and a future without justice, without holding one accountable for crimes committed against us… is a future without law and order where chaos prevails. We can’t have that if we want to move forward and reclaim our civilized lives.” He turned to face Gina, trying to hide his pain, as he performed his duty. “Gina Melborn, do you have any final words in your defense before the community passes sentence?”

Gina looked up and met Stephen’s pleading gaze. Sorry, Stephen, she thought. I’m so sorry you had to be the one to do this. She smiled briefly for his benefit and then her face turned to stone. “No, I have nothing to say in my defense. I plead guilty to the charges.”

Stephen was clearly disappointed. He turned back to the community and said, “Does anyone have anything they want to add before sentencing?”

“Yeah!” Nine shouted, while Diane tried to calm him down. “This is all bullshit! Gina deserves better than this!”

No one said a word.

Stephen had made it clear an hour before sentencing that there would be no time for goodbyes once the deed was done. Gina had caught them in the hall, saying her goodbyes to Nine and Diane before exiting. Diane had told her to stay strong, and in a rare display of emotion from the hunter, Diane had embraced her. Nine had been an emotional wreck telling her that he felt like he was losing his big sister. Gina had consoled him as best she could without losing it herself, until Diane had taken over and pulled the distraught teen away. Gina had watched them depart down the hall with a smile, watching the young couple hold each other close. They love each other… very much, she’d thought, taking some comfort in that. She’d looked for Tony then. But he hadn’t come to say goodbye.

Nine caught Gina’s pleading stare and regained control. “That’s all I wanted to say,” he finished, stepping back into the crowd.

Gina dared a glance at Tony.

He refused to look at her.

He looks terrible, she thought, noticing his frail frame. Tony looked like he hadn’t eaten in days. He was clearly in pain and exhausted. They’ve all been hiding the truth from me. He’s hurting… bad. She forced herself to look away before her emotions overwhelmed her.

Stephen turned back to Gina. “Gina Melborn,” he said, trying to sound as official as he could, despite his own emotional turmoil. “It has been decided that you are to be… exiled… immediately for your crimes. From this day forth, you are no longer a member of our community.” He forced himself to spew out the rest. “If you are seen here again, for any reason, you will be arrested as an enemy and dealt with as such. We have provided you with a pack of provisions to see you on your way… but you are never to return to these woods. Do you understand the terms of your punishment?”

The word struck her harder than she expected:

Exiled.

For the first time, the gravity of her situation was finally taking hold. I’ll never see any of them again. I will be… alone.

“Do you understand the terms of your punishment?” Stephen repeated.

She couldn’t look at him… any of them… without bursting into tears. “Yes,” she finally said. “I… I understand.”

“Goodbye, Gina… and good luck,” Stephen said. He turned away before he lost his composure and joined the community.

One of the guards dropped a backpack by her feet and then they stepped away from her and also joined the others, making her feel completely naked, standing there alone.

They all turned and started back up the path toward the compound entrance.

Gina refused to look up, refused to move until they were all gone. She closed her eyes tight and listened to their shuffling feet, wondering if this was the last time she’d ever hear sounds of the living again. If I watch them leave… I’ll lose it. Have to stay strong now. I have to get through this and move on… somehow.

When all she could hear was the lonely sound of the wind blowing through the trees, she finally opened her eyes. For a moment, she saw Tony standing there to greet her with open arms. But then realized her longing had created a momentary mirage out of the tree she focused on.

Her heart sank immediately. I am alone. She quickly wiped fresh tears from her eyes and grabbed the pack by her feet. I need to get the fuck out of here before I die right here! She strapped on the pack, turned, and stopped, staring into the ominous forest before her. Where do I go? She had not considered this until now.

Unable to shake Tony from her tortured thoughts, she remembered him telling her of his original route into the wilderness preserve, and how he came in from the west and followed the river in. She decided to start there.

As she neared the river, she remembered that hellish winter night when she’d escorted Tyler and Brannigan out here to die… by her hand. It’s fitting that I’m wearing their shoes now. Were they as terrified by the prospect of being exiled as I am now? I didn’t even give them a chance. Her shame was immediate. She fought it off as best she could.

Gina reached the bank of the river and felt better. The ice was almost gone. She watched the vibrant rush of the river downstream and started to turn west. She stopped and looked across the river, to the north. That’s where I ordered them to go. Made them piss their pants with ghost stories of the Shadow Dead out there to the north until I knew they’d fight me… and fight for their lives… giving me an excuse to murder them. Gina saw a narrow gap in the stream where she could cross. That’s where I belong. Go north, Gina. Find your fucking Shadow Dead, or wait until they find you… if they’re even still out there at all. That’s what you really deserve. She shook off her dark thoughts and realized that even she was too cowardly to face that fate… alone. Hell, stay out here long enough, maybe you’ll be just like them. Maybe you are what’s left of the Shadow Dead for as brutal as you’ve become. She shook her head and spoke out loud to the river. “No. I’m not that far gone… yet.” She continued to stare across the river into the northern woods, half expecting all the ghosts from the people she’d slain, living or dead, to step out of the trees and come for her. She shivered at the thought, turning her back toward the haunted forest.

“I had a feeling you’d come this way.”

Gina nearly fell back into the river when she looked up and saw Tony standing in front of her. For a moment, she simply stared at the ragged looking man she loved, not believing he was there at all.

“Are… are you real?” she finally said.

Tony stepped up, unslinging a pack from his shoulder. “I had to leave quickly and take over the perimeter patrol in order to get these and catch up to you in time.” He crouched down and opened the large pack revealing a shotgun, three handguns and extra ammunition. “The perks of being in charge of security now,” he said with a half-hearted smile. “I wasn’t going to let them send you away unarmed.”

Gina continued to stare at him. She crossed her arms across her chest, struggling for words.

Tony looked down at the pack. “I tried to get what I could from the armory. Hope this is…” He stopped. Tony’s shoulders fell as he took a deep breath, trying to maintain control. The big man started to weep. “What have I done, Gina? I didn’t want this to happen… please… can you forgive me?” He finally looked up into her eyes. Tony had the eyes of a man who had spent the last several weeks punishing himself for turning her in. “I had to stop you. I didn’t know how else to do it. I knew what you did… what you were about to do… again. They would’ve killed you… or you would’ve killed everyone. So I… stopped you.”

Gina put her hands to her face and let out an agonizing sob. Her feet gave way beneath her as she fell to her knees in front of him. “Forgive you?” she sobbed. “My God, Tony. You didn’t do anything… I did it… I killed those men… I had no idea that you knew… that you… always knew. I love you… and I put you through so much misery… covering for my fucking sins!”

“I don’t care what you did,” he said. “Not anymore. I can’t lose you like this… I won’t. I never should have turned on you… and put you in this position… I’m so fucking sorry.”

Gina reached for him, grabbed his face gently in her hands, and said, “There’s nothing to forgive, Tony. You’re a good and decent man. This was something you never should’ve had to handle… to hide… for me. I did this. I killed people and justified it. And I was so fucking wrong! You did the right thing… the only thing. And I’m grateful that you did it… really.”

Tony tried to speak through tears.

She reached over and embraced him fiercely.

“I forgive you, Tony,” she whispered in his ear. “Not because you did anything… but because you need to hear it. You need to stop this now. Take care of yourself… for me. I can’t bear to see you like this. I won’t make it out there if I know you’re in pain. Please… promise me, you’ll take care of yourself.”

“I… I promise,” he said.

“You know I have to go.”

“I know,” he said.

“And you know I can’t allow you to come with me.”

She felt him tighten up and then he finally relaxed. “I know.”

She smiled and looked into his eyes. “I’ll get better… I’ll… figure this out. When I do… when I can stand to look at myself in the mirror again… I’ll come back for you… okay?”

“They won’t let you come back. So… I’ll leave… I don’t care,” he said. “You just go and work it out and I’ll be waiting. I’ll come here every day, to the river, and when you’re ready, you just meet me here and we’ll go. Fuck everything else.”

“I don’t know how long, Tony,” she said. “I’m pretty fucked up. But I will find you… okay?”

“Okay,” he tried to regain control, breaking free of her embrace. “Okay. I get it. If you get lost out there, you go find Orosco. They’ll take you in and you can contact me that way. Just… just don’t be alone too long. That’s not going to help.”

She gave him a puzzled look. “Orosco?”

“I left a map in the pack. He told me where he was going when he left… when he asked me to come. I know where it is and I put it on the map. Just go find him and heal. They don’t have to know about any of this.”

“Okay,” she said. “If it gets too rough out there… I’ll go find Orosco. Just don’t go chasing after me and get yourself killed. I need you to be here… to be alive… when I’m ready to come back. You’re the only good thing in my life and I need you.”

He nodded. “I’ve waited this long. I can wait a bit longer.”

She got up and wiped the tears away. “Thanks for coming… and for the weapons.”

He shrugged it off. “Just stay safe, Gina. I love you too damn much to see you like this… just… just work it out and come home to me.”

“I will,” she said with a smile. “Now get out of here before I can’t leave.”

He stood up and looked west along the river. “Where do you think you’ll go?”

“Anywhere… Everywhere!” she said. “Maybe I’ll find a cozy little cabin and just sleep in for the next hundred years.”

Tony smiled. “Sounds lovely. You find that cabin and come get me.”

“You got it.”

“All you ever had to do was ask,” he said.

“What was that?”

“When we were at Herpies. Your dream of running away with me… If you’d asked… I would’ve gone. It was a good dream.”

She laughed through tears and said, “Yeah… maybe it was.”

“It still can be,” he said. “Someday.”

“Someday it is, then,” she finished. Gina put on her pack.

Tony handed her the weapons pack and kissed her passionately. When he finished, he said, “All of this, all of this darkness will pass and we’ll go follow that dream. Just you and I. Hold on to that and we’ll get there… okay?”

“Deal,” she said. “Now let me go before we end up getting naughty on the forest floor.”

Tony laughed. “Agreed. I don’t think either of us are up to that right now.”

She pointed in his face. “Yeah… but it’s gonna happen next time I see you… so work on that stamina.”

“You got it. I love you, Gina. Always.”

She smiled and grazed his cheek with her hand. “And I love you. See you soon.”

“See you soon.” Tony stepped back and nodded. He turned without another word, allowing Gina a chance to do the same.

She started west along the river, praying that Tony would not follow. She didn’t think she could keep lying for much longer about coming back. “I love you, Tony, with all my heart,” she whispered to herself. “But I won’t share this darkness with you any longer. It’s a part of me now… and you deserve better than that.”

She continued following the river, another Wasteland phantom disappearing into the wilderness.

~~~

Next Episode 38-3

Previous Episode 38-1

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 38-2: Healing” Copyright © 2017 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Four: Phantoms. 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.

~~~

Stephen entered Cubicle City and stopped to enjoy the silence. Most of the lights were in dim mode to allow the illusion of evening, helping most of the tired community get some much needed rest. In the three weeks since he had assumed leadership, Stephen had created several small committees who were assigned various projects designed to give everyone a voice and a purpose in the eventual relocation of their group. He had received overwhelming support and had discovered a whole new level of unified strength in this band of survivors, who were once on the verge of tearing each other apart a short time ago.

Among some of the major committee groups were: Resettlement and Recovery–a group dedicated to preparing the community for mass exodus by accounting for all vital supplies and figuring out how to distribute those supplies among the survivors when the time came to move out. They were also in charge of planning out future missions to scout out locations, such as nearby neighborhoods and farmlands, for possible resettlement. They used whatever local road and topography maps they could get their hands on, as well as first-hand knowledge from survivors who had once lived or visited various locations, to make long-term assessments of surrounding areas.

Another group called Search, Rescue and Growth, was in charge of figuring out where other survivors might have fled, well beyond the wilderness preserve, to outlast the long grueling winter and the dead. They made plans and discussed possible scenarios to approach other groups of survivors, and how to safely assess if they were hostile, friendly, or the unpredictable “desperate”, which could fall either way.

Logan, who was no longer in charge of security, was appointed the task of rounding up as much information about each survivor’s families, in order to put together profiles with the eventual intent to locate missing members, dead or alive, and offer closure or happy reunions. He named the group: The Ministry of Hope.

There was even a group entirely devoted to the welfare and morale of the community, called, Operation Laughter, which met weekly to discuss fun recreational activities to help the survivors get their minds off their troubles and ‘loosen up’ when time allowed.

Stephen’s primary purpose for the committees was to give every man and woman an important task, hoping to get everyone on the same optimistic page and start thinking about their future. So far, it was working. He met twice a week with representatives of each group to discuss and vote on various issues, which destroyed the old “inner circle” way of leadership that often felt exclusive, and instead, let everyone have a seat at the decision-making table. He also insisted that each group have a name, whether he picked one or each committee did. Stephen believed that by giving groups ‘titles’, it made them official, adding a permanent position of importance to every issue.

The exhausted new leader sighed as he quickly checked the shadows surrounding him, hoping for any sign of Nicole. Since his public admission of the accidental killing of the girl, Stephen had not seen or heard from her. In order not to freak out about it, the former history teacher had jumped head-first into his awesome new responsibility, hoping that Nicole would return when circumstances quieted down.

Nicole? I know you’re still there. Why are you hiding?

Yes. He knew it… felt it. Nicole was too much a part of who he was now. Stephen would know if she was really gone, the same way anyone would know if the sun was ripped from the sky.

I’m not mad at you anymore. Please… just come back. He closed his eyes and shook his head to clear his thoughts. I love you, Nicole, but I can’t keep doing this. These people need me to lead them.

Stephen continued on and found Logan in his usual pre-bedtime spot, praying to his God before the prayer wall in the back of Cubicle City.

While he waited for the big preacher to finish, Stephen gawked at the wall, marveling at how much it had evolved since Logan took over as head of The Ministry of Hope. Where there was once just fading pictures of missing loved ones, now, the wall was covered with every piece of information Logan had acquired from the survivors. He placed everything up on that wall, from hand-scribbled notes to detailed descriptions of the last whereabouts of loved ones. Logan treated all of it as sacred and prayed for God’s help every evening to lead him in eventually finding them all.

Stephen stood back and smiled at the big man who continued to wear his infamous black tank-top (he often wondered if the man owned any other shirt), with his old hate tattoos branded across his arms, which Stephen hardly noticed anymore. In the last three weeks Stephen had relied upon his new second-in-command heavily, getting to know the man on a more personal level than before. In some ways, Logan reminded him of his optimistic old friend, Greg, whose faith in God had never wavered. But as he watched Logan, knelt down before the wall of fragile dreams, face pressed to the floor and fervently whispering to God, Stephen realized that the difference between Greg and Logan’s faith was that while Greg’s simplistic beliefs made him the easy-going man that he was, Logan’s faith was quite different. The big man before him approached God with such intensity at times, reminding him of a soldier before going into battle.

Logan slowly got up from his knees and wiped tears from his eyes. “Thank you, Jesus,” he whispered before the prayer wall, raising his arms in praise.

“I get exhausted just watching you pray,” Stephen said stepping up beside him. He looked up at the pictures on the wall. “If we find just one of them… it will all be worth it.”

Logan put a big arm around Stephen’s shoulders and shook them lightly. “That’s the spirit, little brother!” he said with a heart-felt laugh. “Praise God! Just one, we give you thanks! But I’m gonna be greedy and ask for as many as you can give us back!”

“Amen,” Stephen said with a smile.

Logan turned toward a couple of fold-up chairs and motioned Stephen to sit with him.

They both sat down, feeling the weight of another busy but satisfying day.

“What brings you out here to see me so late, Stephen? Can’t sleep?”

Stephen frowned. “It’s Gina. Tomorrow’s the day… and I can’t do anything to stop it.”

Logan nodded. “You’ve done all you can, little brother. Gina’s fate is in God’s hands now. I’ve been praying really hard for her to come back from that dark place… and she will… but it’s a tough climb out of that pit. Believe me… I’ve been there.”

Stephen had stalled for as long as possible, hoping the newly discovered spirit of the community would allow Gina a place among them. But the better things became, the more they placed the blame for everything that had gone wrong, including Carl Lannister’s rebellion, on the often distant, harsh, and war-minded dictatorship of their former leader. Many felt that her secret execution of two of their own had crossed the line and the community remained firm in their final decision on the matter.

“She doesn’t even fight it,” Stephen said. “It’s hard to defend someone who is so eager to be punished. It’s like she’s already gone–like she died that day Tony turned her in.”

Logan shook his head. “It’s a hard thing, little brother, to hear the truth about what we are, what we’ve become. It really hits home when the ones closest to us become the mirrors of that truth.” He shifted gears. “How is Tony holding up?”

“He’s managing in his own way,” Stephen said. “When I refused to let him step away entirely and asked him to take over as head of Security, he accepted it and threw all he had left into it. He’s outside everyday making sure the perimeter is secure while we have the topside camp operational during the daylight hours. But in truth, I think he’s just distancing himself from the whole matter. He still refuses to visit her.”

“Tony is a man of conscience,” Logan said. “It’s very hard to do what is right when it hurts the ones we love. I’ll keep praying for him, too.”

Stephen nodded with a frown.

“I never did thank you for… taking away that burden,” Logan said. “It was very thoughtful of you to assign security matters to someone else. I never realized the load it was until it was lifted.”

Stephen looked into the big man’s humble eyes and saw a glimpse of the memory that still haunted him. “I know you still struggle with it, Logan. But you did the right thing. Shooting Sabastian saved lives.”

Logan nodded. “Yes… but it’s not a thing I wish to ever repeat. When you kill a man, right or wrong, you live with it. It becomes a part of you. Taking a life never leaves you. You can only learn from it and become… better… or it swallows you whole.” He placed a hand on Stephen’s shoulder.

Stephen nodded, understanding that the preacher’s words were as much for him, too. “I live with Nicole’s death every day. In fact, it has made me… better. I’d like to think so, anyway.”

“That was a brave thing you did, telling the community. You shared your soul with them. That’s why they love you, Stephen. You’re a good and honest man who cares for these people… and they feel it in everything you’re doing.”

“What am I really doing, Logan?” Stephen asked. “I talk to Gina every night. She’s told me about the horrors they’ve seen ‘out there’. She tells me that she worries for me and doesn’t want me to go through the hell she went through trying to keep everyone safe. What if we finally leave this place and I lead them all to their deaths because of some naïve notions that there’s something better than this?”

Logan smiled. “Because you already know, little brother. Your faith has opened your eyes.”

“What does that even mean?”

“I know you struggle with God. That you have a hard time giving in to an ‘all-loving’ deity when the world looks like it has been abandoned. But that doesn’t mean he’s stopped believing in you. Look around, little brother. You have turned the tide and stopped these people from becoming… monsters. God has chosen you to lead these people, not because you are some skilled warrior who will fight their battles for them, but because you can help them see what the real battle is… and that’s the darkness within… and show them how to win their own battles. You love them and they love you for it. That’s how we survive down here now. And that’s how we will survive out there, no matter what dark and dire circumstances await.”

“And if we get slaughtered the moment we leave these woods… what does that say about us? About love?”

Logan laughed. “It’s says that we held our ground, Stephen. That we stood for something greater than all the darkness out there. It says that we refused to let the evil forces at work in the world make us cower and hide in a hole any longer, snuffing out the light and love this new world desperately needs… that it’s always needed. When we leave here, we will leave together, and that is what our God has left us to do… the only thing left there is to do… and that’s how we will find our way in the dark. You’re eyes have been opened down here. Mine were opened from a jail cell in my former life when I once worked as an agent of the darkness. Love trumps all and as long as we fight for each other… we will find our way. God will guide our every step as long as we keep on loving each other.”

Stephen stared at the big man, admiring his conviction. “I wish I had a tenth of your faith… I really do.”

“You have more faith than you know, little brother. Your compassion for these people is the evidence of that faith. You will lead us to whatever end awaits, arming us anew with a sense of community we’ve almost lost down here. Trust in yourself. God has given you his favor with these people. He will be there at every step of the way as long as we hold true.”

“And if I lead them straight to the gates of hell, what then?”

Logan laughed long and hard. “Then I’m sure we will have this discussion again as we turn and feed off the compassion of our family as we march confidently through the flames! Praise God!”

Stephen shook his head with a smile. “There’s just no reasoning with you when you get like this. Perhaps when we find ourselves surrounded by a hungry horde of yellow-eyed demons, they’ll smell the aroma of love and just lose their appetites.”

“Now we’re talking, little brother!” Logan laughed. “‘Lose their appetites on love’… now that’s a keeper!”

“Does the word ‘sarcasm’ hold any meaning to you at all?” Stephen laughed.

Logan settled down. “We’ll be alright. And if not… well… we can always hope those yellow-eyed bastards choke on all that love we’re carrying around.”

“You’re impossible… but I like the sound of that.” Stephen started laughing, causing Logan to erupt into more laughter.

Stephen finally calmed down and got up. “Well… if anything good comes from being this tired all the time it’s that everything starts get a lot funnier by the end of the day.”

“That’s the damn truth.” Logan got up. “Off to bed?”

“Soon,” Stephen said. “Got one more visit to make and then I’ll try to pass out for a few hours.”

Logan caught Stephen off guard with another one of his bear hugs. “Thanks for making me laugh, little brother… and for everything you’re doing for these people, praise God.”

“Same to you,” Stephen tried to get out, feeling crushed by the big man who finally let him go. Stephen collected himself with a laugh. He then looked at Logan and said, “I don’t know if I could’ve made it through the past few weeks without your help. I mean that.” He looked around briefly again for Nicole. “I’ve learned one thing really fast about leadership. It’s an incredibly lonely position sometimes. But having your help reminds me that I’m not alone.

Logan looked embarrassed. He said, “Well… you’re not alone. We will all strive to do our best to help you carry that burden, little brother.”

Stephen stared at the big man feeling his throat tighten up. He was about to speak but then just nodded.

Logan nodded back with a smile.

He turned to go, “Goodnight, Preacher. Don’t forget to find your own bed. It scares the locals when they find you snoring out by the wall in the mornings.”

Logan laughed. “Will do. Goodnight, Stephen.”

Stephen walked off.

Logan sat back down, feeling the weight of his heavy frame collapse into the squeaky fold-up chair. He closed his eyes and started praying silently.

From where she stood in a shadowed corner beside the prayer wall, Nicole waited for Stephen to depart before stepping out into the dim light to look at the praying man. She was wearing one of Stephen’s favorite sundresses, the same one she wore when they talked together outside the school in Harpersfield. She longed for those days when they had an abundance of time alone together with none of these pathetic creatures stealing him away at every moment. She had wanted to appear to him tonight and let Stephen know she was alright. But she was still upset. Nicole was angry that he’d spoken publicly about her death and that he’d lied to her about leaving this horrible place together when all along he wanted to stay. She was upset with herself for holding things back from the man she loved, especially about Lannister’s plans to take over. She’d overheard Lannister’s men talking about it on one of her nightly excursions in Stephen’s body, which were not as frequent, now that he was so fucking busy taking care of these… people. But mainly, she was upset that she couldn’t reach out and touch the man that she loved, and that no matter what he said, she knew that Stephen understood that it created distance between them, restricting the love they could have for each other. This made her furious… uncontrollable at times… and it frightened her. That was why she’d chosen to stay away. Lately, she’d gone from wanting to make love to him… to just wanting to reach out and… destroy him.

Nicole looked at Logan and hissed, “You’re all pathetic little creatures that deserve what’s coming next!”

Logan continued to pray quietly, unaware of the ghost girl who wanted to rip his throat out.

She looked at the worthless man with his worthless prayers and said, “Maybe I’ll get inside your head, too, like Olivia and all the rest of them, and get you to end your own meaningless existence!” She knew that she could, too. Nicole could see the darkness in each of them–and exploit it when it served her.

“But not you… not yet… my love would be all alone, surrounded by these ungrateful creatures if I took you from him,” she said to Logan. “But when he doesn’t need you anymore… when he only needs me, I will take care of you! I will take care of all of you worthless dumb animals!”

She could feel the anger trying to consume her again. Nicole closed her eyes and calmed down. She shook her head at the preacher and started walking away.

“I know you’re there,” Logan said.

Nicole stopped, turning with alarm.

Logan was still praying. His back was to her. He hadn’t moved.

That’s impossible! She waited to see if the preacher was just talking to his vain God again.

Logan opened his eyes, took a deep breath, and said, “I know you’ve been here all this time. Just like you were there when the Lord Jesus rescued me in that jail cell and turned me toward the light.”

Nicole didn’t move. She started to panic. He’s not talking to me! If he were, than that would mean…

“I just wanted to thank you, as crazy as that sounds,” Logan continued. “If not for you on that long night, I never would’ve found my way… never would’ve realized how close I was to my own destruction. I never would’ve turned from the darkness.”

Nicole waited.

“I know you now. I know what you are… and my God will put an end to you… and others like you.”

Something stirred from deep within her, making her want to jump out of her skin and lash out at the big man with such ferocity. Leave. Now! He’s not talking to you! He’s just a crazy man speaking to the shadows… they all do that… the ones like him.

But Nicole had to know. She took a step toward the preacher and said, “You… you say you know me. Then who am I?”

Logan did not respond.

Nicole frowned. See. It’s just crazy talk. He’s not talking to you. Stop being foolish. Nicole turned and walked away, disappearing into the closest shadow.

Logan turned in Nicole’s direction, and for a moment, he swore he saw it– the same shadowy man he’d seen in the alley the night something had tricked him into believing that he’d murdered the Asian busboy, Brian Cheng.

~~~

Next Episode 38-2

Previous Episode 37-15

~~~

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“Chapter 38-1: Healing” Copyright © 2017 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Four: Phantoms. 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.