Archive for the ‘walking dead’ Category

~~~

Stephen and Logan sat in two wooden rocking chairs on the small front porch of the inn.

Since his last conversation with Nicole near the roadway, and the way she abruptly departed, Stephen anxiously waited for her to return. He felt Logan’s uneasy presence sitting beside him as the preacher struggled to start a conversation.

The big man leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. He stared out into the darkness just past the road, while taking sideway glances at his friend. “Did you both have a good… chat… before she left?”

Stephen didn’t look at him. “You don’t have to play ‘watchdog’, Logan. She’s already agreed to help us.”

“I know,” he said, trying to appear less on edge. “I’m just… concerned. This has been one strange-ass night so far and I’m hoping-”

“You’re hoping the demon doesn’t come back to snatch me away,” Stephen finished.

Logan laughed lightly. “Well… can you blame me, little brother?”

Stephen turned to him and relaxed. “No, I guess I can’t. I appreciate your concern… and you’re right… all of this is strange. I never imagined sharing any of this—my relationship with a dead girl—with anyone. And now, you all know she’s real, and everything else.”

Logan nodded. “So, you really believed Nicole was all in your head… before? That your guilt created her and that you were…”

“Go ahead,” he said. “You can say it. ‘That I was going insane’?”

The big preacher just stared at him.

Stephen nodded. “Yes. I struggled with what I thought were hallucinations for a long time. Then after a while… I don’t know… she just became as real to me as anyone.”

“And you just accepted that you might be… pardon the pun… off your rocker?”

Stephen laughed. “That about covers it.”

“That must have been difficult.”

“It was, for a while. Believe me, before arriving at the compound, I often thought about telling the others, or just leaving, since that’s what Nicole, or my subconscious mind, was always trying to get me to do. I was always afraid that I might… I don’t know… get worse. And it’s not like I could go see a doctor about it.”

Logan nodded thoughtfully. “What was it then? What made you decide to accept her even if a part of you understood that she wasn’t real?”

“Real or not… I fell in love with her, Logan.” Stephen shifted uncomfortably. “When I gave in and accepted that love… crazy or not… everything got better. I just had to let go with my rational mind, and let it happen… let ‘us’ happen.”

Logan laughed. “I guess we’ve all had to accept a lot of impossible things. Thinking about it now, if our ‘present’ selves could go back in time before The Change and tell our ‘past’ selves everything we’ve seen and experienced… we’d all be considered insane.”

Stephen’s eyebrows shot up at the thought. “Maybe none of this is happening, and we’re all having one hell of a massive hallucination.”

Logan shook his head and smiled. “Wouldn’t that be wonderful. Maybe the two of us aren’t really sitting on this front porch right now talking, because we’re really in some padded room somewhere?”

“Why not?” Stephen added with a smile. “Can you imagine Meredith in one of those one-sleeve crazy jackets?”

Logan laughed. “No, little brother, I can’t. Not unless it had flower patterns or some shit.”

Stephen laughed. “Now that’s crazy.”

The big preacher let out a big yawn and stared out into the darkness. “So, what was easier?” he said.

“Excuse me?”

He nodded toward the road. “Your girlfriend out there. Was it easier on the relationship knowing that you might be crazy, or knowing now that you’re not, and trying to understand what exactly ‘she’ is?”

Stephen shook his head and yawned. “I’m far too tired to wrestle with that one. But… thanks for not calling her a demon, or a monster.”

Logan nodded. “There’s a lot I don’t understand. I’m constantly petitioning my God for guidance since this apocalypse started. I keep telling myself that the Good Book might be missing a chapter or two about surviving a zombie invasion. But then, I think about all the strange stories in there about the flood, and the plagues over Egypt, and the parting of The Red Sea, just to name a few, and think, ‘Shit, could living through all that be any less impossible than this?’”

“That’s a good point.”

“Maybe it doesn’t matter what the circumstances are, or how we perceive them with our limited, rational minds,” Logan continued. “Maybe what matters is how we respond to any and every situation, no matter how impossible it seems.”

“And is that what your God has been trying to tell you?”

Logan smiled. “Yes.”

Stephen turned back toward the road. “Any mention in the Good Book on what to do when you’ve fallen in love with… whatever Nicole is?”

The big preacher laughed. “I can only speculate, little brother. If she’s a demon, that’s one thing. If she’s something else entirely… well… the only thing that comes to mind are the Nephilim.”

“The what?”

“One theory goes that the Nephilim were said to be angelic beings, cast down from heaven with Lucifer after a revolt against the Kingdom of God. They eventually slept with the daughters of men, producing children who became races of giants.”

That’s in the Bible?”

Logan laughed. “Not all that. Most of it is theory based upon a few vague lines scattered across God’s Word. But it was clear that the Nephilim did exist, and that they were around long before we were.”

Stephen shook his head. “I never heard that one in Sunday School.”

“There’s all sorts of interesting stories in the Bible, little brother. Mysteries hidden from the eyes of men since the beginning of time. Maybe all this is in there somewhere, too.”

“Now, you’re starting to sound like Meredith,” Stephen joked.

“I guess I am,” he said with a laugh. “That woman has made quite the impression on me since I’ve come to know her. She seems to have the most insight into all this ‘crazy’… more than the rest of us lunatics do.”

“Amen,” Stephen added with a laugh.

Logan stared at him and finished, “I don’t know what Nicole really is, little brother. But what Meredith said… about Love… she’s not wrong. It never fails. Now, does that count in your crazy situation? I am unqualified to answer that. I often initially react to crazy situations poorly, as you all know.”

Stephen snickered at that.

“But, eventually, when I get quiet enough to hear my Lord’s voice, He, too, reminds me that Love is the greatest mystery of them all. Take that for what’s it worth in your situation, little brother.”

Stephen nodded. “Thanks for sharing that. It helps.”

“You look tired. Why don’t you come inside, and I’ll stand watch for Nicole.”

He nodded. “No. I want to be here when she comes back. Anything could scare her off right now.”

Logan nodded. “Then I’ll stay with you until she does.”

“I’d rather you not,” Stephen said. “Sitting here with me, looks like you’re standing guard.”

“Call it a precaution toward the beginning of an uneasy alliance,” Logan said. “In time, when Nicole has proven trustworthy-”

“Yeah, I get that, Logan,” Stephen interrupted. “But when she comes back, she’ll see that, too, and know we’re still afraid. Whatever she is, Nicole’s been in this world for a long time… and that has always been her experience with our kind.”

“Fear?”

“Yes.”

Logan nodded. “I understand.” He started to rise from the chair. “Maybe I’ll just head in for a spell, get a little prayer time in.”

“Thank you.”

“I will be back though, little brother. Whether we can trust Nicole or not, no one should be left alone in this world for very long. Surely even she can understand that.”

“Sounds fair,” Stephen said. “I just want to wait here a bit longer, by myself, to make her feel comfortable… and let her see that we’ve lowered our guards… just a little… so she can start lowering hers.”

The big preacher nodded. “I’ll be back to check on you in a half-hour.”

“Okay. Thanks.”

As soon as Logan entered the inn, Stephen leaned back in the rocking chair and took a deep breath. “Please come back soon, Nicole,” he whispered. After a few minutes in the cool night air, his heavy eyelids started to fall.

~~~

The half-dead woman tried not to pace as she walked around the common room, occasionally stealing glances at the medium who sat still on the sofa as if meditating.

Meredith laughed lightly with her eyes closed. “I know you have questions, Megan, and I know you believe I’m keeping secrets again… but I do appreciate that you’re keeping them to yourself while I rest.”

Megan stopped behind the couch and muttered under her breath. “Are we befriending the strange-smelling spirit thing? Are we planning on killing it? The hell if I know from one moment to the next.”

“What was that?’

“Nothing,” she said. “I’m just venting my frustrations.”

Meredith took a deep breath. “When I was connected with the entity, I attempted to sneak around inside its thoughts, as deep as I could without being discovered.”

Megan waited.

Meredith kept her eyes closed and frowned. “What I found was very distressing.”

Megan sighed heavily. “Is she dangerous… or not? I just want to know.”

The old medium’s shoulders slumped. “I need time to understand, Megan. Stephen believes that Nicole has overcome the darkness within herself. I have visited that darkness… and it is… well… what I’ve seen is best not discussed in the middle of the night. Better to rest on it and approach matters like this in the light of day.”

“Something frightened you. I can smell it on you,” Megan said.

“Yes, honey. Something has. What’s inside that creature’s thoughts is like an abyss. Stand too close to the edge and one might slip and never return from it. I peered over into it… and it’s nightmarish.”

“Then… then she is dangerous,” Megan said, trying to convince herself.

“She has the potential to be very dangerous,” Meredith corrected. “But I believe Nicole is also aware of it… and she’s trying not to slip back into that abyss, herself.”

“You know this?”

“Yes. I’ve seen it. As dark as it is within her… there is still… light.”

Megan nodded. “Then… she’s like me?”

Meredith opened her eyes and tilted her head to look at the half-dead. “No, honey. She is nothing like you. The darkness within you is but a small fraction of the whole. What I saw inside of Nicole… is that whole… and it’s absolutely terrifying.”

Megan waited.

“The entity is in conflict with itself,” Meredith continued. “That’s how I know that Nicole is telling the truth. What I don’t know is how much control a spark of light in the center of all that darkness, can have.”

Megan just stared. She wanted to inquire further but Meredith turned away.

“I need to rest now, honey. I’ll need everything I can muster on a moment’s notice if… and I do mean ‘if’… things go very badly.”

“You mean if Nicole loses control?”

“Yes.”

Megan considered this as Meredith closed her eyes. She finally said, “That spark you mentioned. That’s Stephen and Nicole, isn’t it? That’s their… love?”

Meredith smiled. “I believe that it is.”

“But you don’t know if it’s enough to overcome the abyss, right?”

“Correct. But… it is not the first time I have underestimated the strength of Love. I have failed to perceive that strength staring into the darkness… before.”

“I don’t understand,” Megan said.

Meredith smiled. “You understand more than you know,” she said. “You are living proof of Love’s strength against the dark.” The medium let out an exhausted sigh. “If only I had known about you, and what you could achieve… well… the past is a prison of regrets if one allows it to be.”

Before the half-dead could inquire further, Logan stepped inside.

She turned. “How is Stephen?”

The big preacher smiled. “All is well, Megan. He waits for the… Nicole… to come back.”

“Alone?” Megan said anxiously, looking past the preacher toward the front porch.

“Relax,” he said with a laugh. “He’ll just tell you what he told me about not looking like we’re waiting for a fight. Stephen believes we need to show trust… and I wasn’t very inviting sitting out there.”

“But… he shouldn’t be by himself,” she pushed. “I’ll go wait with him.”

“You’ll do no such thing,” he said, blocking her path. “But there’s nothing stopping you from being discreet about it.”

She gave him a puzzled look.

He looked over at Meredith who was now lightly snoring. “Looks like someone’s fallen victim to the Sandman.”

Megan turned to the sleeping woman and frowned. “She… she needs her rest.”

“We all do,” Logan said. He looked past her toward the back porch. “I’m going out there to pray for a little while. Since you can’t watch Meredith in here, and Stephen out there, I recommend the window with the clear view of the front porch.” He added a wink.

She smiled, catching on. “Discreet?”

He laughed lightly. “Just offering a practical suggestion.” He walked past her toward the back porch, grabbing his shotgun from beside the grandfather clock.

Megan moved toward the common room window and looked out. Stephen was there, sitting in the chair.

He waits faithfully for his ‘love’ to return.

She was surprised by the sarcasm that accompanied her thought.

~~~

“Something’s wrong!” Meredith gets up from Emily’s bed and grabs the sides of her head.

Hannah was up immediately, rushing to her in the small bedroom. “What is it? What’s the matter?”

The medium feels the room spinning. The dark images assaulting her mind are frantic, desperate, and incredibly painful. “It’s Emily!” she cries out. “She’s… she’s trying to tell me… oh, God! It’s awful! So much pain! I can barely stand it!”

Hannah grabs hold of Meredith to keep her from collapsing to the floor.

Mrs. Patterson stands up from her chair near the door and gasps, placing her hands over her face, horrified. “What’s the matter with her? What’s wrong with Emily? Is she… is she alright?”

Hannah turns to the distraught woman. “It’s okay,” she lies. “Just calm down. Sometimes the connection is… sometimes it’s just very strong and can cause a bad reaction.”

“‘Bad reaction?’” Mr. Patterson says, putting an arm around his wife’s shoulders. “What kind of scam are you running here? You’re scaring the hell out of everyone!”

Peter, the Patterson’s teenage boy, bolts for the door, then suddenly stops. He turns toward Emily’s closet and just stares at it. His breathing rapidly increases.

“Something’s wrong with Peter,” Grandmother Millie calls over from her wheelchair in the corner of the room. The old woman glares at Hannah. “Whatever that witch is doing… you better stop her!”

Hannah ignores the woman and grabs Meredith’s cheeks. “Come back to me, Meredith. Just look at me… focus… break the connection and come back.”

“I can’t!” she cries out. “Emily won’t… she won’t let go! Something’s terribly wrong! Something-”

“Marge?” Mr. Patterson addresses his wife who has suddenly gone still. “Marge… what’s the matter, honey?”

Before Hannah can turn around, Grandmother Millie screams as Peter jumps on top of her and bites into the old woman’s throat.

“Peter!” Mr. Patterson shouts. “Peter! What the fuck?” He reaches over to grab his son’s shoulders. Mrs. Patterson leaps on top of his back, knocking him to the floor.

“Oh my God!” Hannah whispers. Peter turns and glares at her, his eyes blazing yellow. The boy’s face has gone pale with bulging veins breaching the surface of his skin. She turns and sees that Mrs. Patterson has also changed as she rips into her husband’s shoulder with her teeth.

Hannah turns to Meredith and shouts in her face, “Meredith! Get the fuck out of there! Get out… NOW!” She slaps Meredith hard across the cheek.

Meredith looks startled as if coming out of a dream, disoriented and in shock. She sees Hannah’s terrified face then turns and notices Mrs. Patterson and her boy, covered in blood as they… feed… on their loved ones. “What? What is this?”

Hannah turns and finds a gap between the bloody bodies on the floor. She grabs Meredith’s arm and pulls hard, leading Meredith toward the open bedroom door. “Let’s go! No time!”

Meredith forces her legs to move.

Peter and Mrs. Patterson turn and growl at the fleeing women. Hannah doesn’t look back. She can hear them rising to attack. Hannah forces Meredith in front of her and pushes her out into the hallway.

Meredith turns back.

Hannah is already closing the door from the inside.

“Wait!” Meredith calls out. “What are you-”

“Run, Meredith! Fucking RUN!” Four pale arms grab at Hannah from behind as she slams the door shut.

And then she is gone.

Meredith stands at the door in shock. She can hear monsters shrieking on the other side… the sounds of a violent struggle… Hannah’s screams…

“No!” Meredith calls out. She opens the door. Both beasts are on top of Hannah. Without understanding how or what she is doing, Meredith reaches out toward the monsters with her mind and screams, “NO! GET AWAY FROM HER!”

The yellow-eyed mother and son stop, look back at Meredith, confused, then turn on each other like two wild dogs fighting over a meal.

Full of adrenaline, Meredith grabs Hannah’s legs and pulls her out of the room. She closes the door and kneels beside the bloody woman. One of the monsters has ripped a piece out of her right shoulder.

“Meredith?” Hannah whispers weakly, then coughs up blood. “You need to… you need to leave me.”

“Hell no!” she says, grabbing Hannah’s left arm and placing it over her shoulder. “Help me! Stand up!”

Hannah sluggishly rises to her feet.

Meredith helps the injured woman down the hall, down the stairs, then out the front door and into the horrifying night.

The medium’s mind is immediately assaulted by an overwhelming darkness… a madness… coming from all directions. She starts to get dizzy and confused.

“Meredith,” Hannah whispers. “Almost there. Look up… there’s the car.”

She does. Meredith tries not to focus on what is going on within her, or the screams and sirens blaring from all around the neighborhood. Something has clearly happened, something bad. And it’s not exclusive to the Patterson home. She pushes forward toward the car with everything she has, feeling Hannah shake violently in her arms. Hannah is bleeding all over her, but Meredith tries not to think about that. “Hold on, honey,” she whispers to her love.

Hannah says nothing. She continues to cough violently as the world around them goes insane.

Once in the vehicle, Meredith looks back at the dark Patterson house. There are no monsters storming out after them.

“They’re feeding,” Hannah says. “That’s what… that’s what they were doing after… after ‘it’ happened.”

Meredith quickly examines her. The bleeding from her shoulder has stopped but Hannah feels cold to the touch. Her skin is pale. And her eyes… something is wrong with them.

Hannah coughs. “I’m… I’m burning up inside,” she says. “Feels like my organs are on fire.”

“You’ve lost a lot of blood,” Meredith says, starting the car. “I’m going to take you straight to the hospital.”

“No, Meredith. It’s too late for all that. Just take me home.”

Meredith gets the car moving. “You’re not thinking clearly. You need a doc-”

“Meredith,” Hannah pushes. “Can’t you hear all that chaos? Something… something very bad is happening… and it’s happening everywhere. By morning, there won’t… there won’t be any hospitals.”

Meredith nods nervously. “Well, we’ll manage at home, then. Between the two of us I’m sure we equal one good nurse.” She means that as a joke that falls flat.

Hannah coughs again. “How… how did you… stop them?”

“Excuse me?”

“Mrs. Patterson and her son. They were… they were all over me… then they stopped and turned on each other.”

“I don’t know,” Meredith says. “I just… I just reacted when I saw you lying there.”

“They… they were right about you.” She shakes her head. “Turns out… turns out they were right about all of it.”

“What was that?”

Hannah coughs again. “Meredith, you need to listen to me now… while I’m still… me.”

“Don’t talk like that. You’ll be fine.”

“This is… this is important. No matter what happens, make sure… make sure you remember the code.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Remember, Meredith!” Hannah yells. The exertion makes her cough again. “Promise me?” Hannah raises her bloody left hand and leaves it shaking in the air.

Meredith stares over at it and shakes her head. “Alright, alright! I promise! Just stay calm.” She reaches over with her right hand and runs it over Hannah’s.

“The code! Say it!”

Meredith sighs with frustration and puts her right hand back on the wheel. “061583! Now, just stay still!”

Hannah lowers her hand and attempts a smile. “That’s my girl.” She starts to close her eyes.

“Don’t you dare!” Meredith shouts. “You stay awake!”

“I’m tired, Meredith. I… I hurt all over. I don’t… I don’t have much time left before… before I become… dangerous.”

“Just shut up and let me drive! It’s nuts out here.”

“Meredith?”

“What?”

“When we get home… you’re going to have to kill me.” …

~~~

…Meredith woke abruptly on the common room couch. She was disoriented. The wind was blowing in through the open front window. The lantern had gone out, making the room a host for shifting shadows as ambient light penetrated the window, projecting the swaying boughs of trees.

One shadow did not move, standing less than five feet in front of her.

She struggled with her old eyes to make out the form.

“Stephen?”

~~~

Next Episode 53-8

Previous Episode 53-6

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 53-7: Love and Loss” Copyright © 2019 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Six: Mother. All Rights Reserved.

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

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

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~~~

Nicole is running beneath the moonless night.

The woods surround her like a thick cloak, shifting from shadow to substance. A trace of ambient light penetrates the forest canopy in intervals, momentarily revealing the tall pine tree forest before darkness swallows everything up again.

It is a mirror for the panic-filled young woman who is desperately trying to maintain… control.

She is blindly pushing through the immaterial brush, imagining that she is out of breath. Low, overhanging branches claw across her dirty face, attempting to snag her disheveled hair and torn clothing—all a futile delusion feeding that she is as real as her surroundings. She is attempting to flee from herself.

WHERE ARE YOU GOING?

Nicole does not answer. She loses all sense of direction in the forest as the darkness closes around her like the hand of a familiar predator. She stops, struggling to maintain form. She is no longer wearing the torn hoody and jeans, but rather, the ripped and bloody tank top and shorts. Her left eye is gone.

“Stop it!” she cries out into the silent forest, shifting back into the dirty homeless image of Nicole as she to attempts to remain in the present.

YOU ARE A DAMN FOOL, the darkness reminds her. COME BACK… OR I WILL COME FORTH!

Nicole grabs the sides of her head and leans up against a tree, as if nature is actually supporting her.

The darkness laughs. The mocking tone is real.

I WILL HAVE THE MAGGOTS, the darkness assures her. I WILL HAVE THEM, AND YOU WILL NO LONGER INTERFERE!

“No!” she screams into the sky in a voice that is also imagined.

I HAVE TOLERATED THIS FICTION BECAUSE IT HAS AMMUSED ME. BUT YOU ARE AS MEANINGLESS AS THE MOMENTS YOUR ILLUSIONS HAVE ENDUCED IN THIS DISGUSTING WORLD FULL OF MAGGOTS. NEITHER YOU, NOR THEY, MATTER. ONLY THE DARKNESS MATTERS. AND IT… IS… HUNGRY!

“You are nothing!” Nicole declares. “I have found my place in this world. You… you attempt to stop me… because you can’t abide in it! The light within it makes you weak… and afraid!”

The darkness scoffs.

YOU ARE NOTHING MORE THAN A TOOL. I HAVE USED YOU TO MANUEVER THROUGH THIS REPULSIVE EXISTANCE BECAUSE IT PLEASES ME TO DO SO.

“That is a lie!” Nicole pushes back. “You are afraid! You have always been afraid!”

PATHETIC! YOU ARE MERELY A FINGER I LEFT EXPOSED IN THE LIGHT OF THIS WORLD TOO LONG. YOU SERVE A PURPOSE, NOTHING MORE. ONCE SEVERED, WHEN THAT PURPOSE IS COMPLETE, YOU… AND YOUR IDEAS OF THIS… LOVE… WILL ROT AWAY TO NOTHING WITH THE REST OF THIS INTOLERABLE WORLD.

“You have used me to hide your fear of this place… and to hide from Him!” Nicole fires back. “But it is I who have become more than just the ‘part’! It is you who have become the finger! It is my love who keeps me in the light,” the finger declares with confidence. “It is our love that held your hand at the edge of the darkness like a trapped and desperate animal trying to free itself from a single digit! But now, it is the opposite! I am becoming the ‘whole’ and it is you who desperately holds me back… with one finger still stubbornly stuck in the darkness. Shall I tug? Shall I pull the rest of you into the light and be done with you?”

DON’T YOU DARE! YOU WOULD… DESTROY US!

“Is that fear I hear in your voice? Perhaps that is the only thing left of you, Sylvia, that is real.”

Before the darkness could protest further, Nicole retreats into her thoughts, toward the place she has found refuge from the monster’s grasp.

WHAT ARE YOU DOING? STOP THAT! STOP IMMEDIATELY!

Nicole smiles as the memories resurface like a sunrise over a permanent night…

~~~

…She returns to when they first met on that desolate beach after her love almost drowned in the Grand River at Fairport Harbor.

He is in mourning… there is so much pain within him. The monster of guilt has slowly consumed him piece at a time. She is drawn by the pain, by the darkness which possesses him.

“Thank you, Nicole,” Stephen declares to the sky. “Thank you for carrying me all this way.” She watches his face change as the sunlight strikes it. The light is warm… inviting. But it is not the sunlight. Somehow, she feels something rising to the surface within this tortured soul. Something so incredibly powerful… and yet, gentle… defying the dark.

“I love you, Nicole,” Stephen says, referring to a young dead woman’s words which have somehow made her… alive.

It is… inspiring.

She watches as the dead exit the nearby woods and begin sniffing at the air.

Stephen closes his eyes. He is exhausted, and yet, his face is peaceful. He has the look of a man who is prepared to die, so as long as the moment which empowers him lasts.

The entity is moved so deeply by this display before the end. She reaches out to him, daring to expose herself in the light. “Stephen, you have to come with me now,” she says.

It is apparent that he does not believe what he is hearing.

“STEPHEN!” she shouts.

He turns and sees her. She is Nicole, and not just the words of a dead girl… she is real.

She appears before him as the one he has made real from those pages in a diary. Her long brown hair flows down her bare shoulders in the wind. Her sky-blue strapless dress makes her look like a goddess in his eyes. He believes the woman is beautiful… she can feel it radiating from his gentle and bewildered eyes.

Before she is overwhelmed in the moment, and the dead overtake him, she says, “If you love me, Stephen, please… get up and come with me.” She even holds out her hand toward him, although he cannot touch her.

“What?” He is afraid now; The darkness within him resists. “What?! No!”

Nicole frowns and says, “Please don’t do this to me again. I can’t let you lie here as those savages take you from me… not after all I’ve done… not after how far I’ve come to get you back!” At first, she plays the part… but then the part becomes so much more.

The dead have found him. They start toward Stephen on legs which are too slow to keep up with their intense hunger.

“You’re not real,” he says. “I’m… I’m making this happen somehow.”

“Yes… yes… you’re right,” Nicole says in the moment. “But that’s hardly important right now. Stephen! They’ve found you! GET UP!”

Stephen closes his eyes. “I’ve lost my mind. I’m insane… that’s what this is.”

Nicole looks past him at the shambling corpses who are closing the distance. She sits down beside him. “Look at me!”

Stephen opens his eyes.

“Alive, dead, in your head… doesn’t matter right now, my love. What matters is that you come with me… now… or I’m going to stay right here and let those things get me, too.”

Yes! She sincerely believes she will do it. What is this… love… that I would give so much? she wonders.

“No! You can’t be here!” he says. “I can’t watch you die again!”

She smiles and says, “Ditto.”

She can see that he is awestruck by the young woman, whether she is real or not.

“We’re out of time. Either I die here with you, or you choose to live another day… with me. We’re doing this together, one way or the other.”

Nicole can see it in his eyes! She can feel it! The warmth… the love which pours forth from this damaged soul that makes him come to life in her presence. They are both reborn in that moment. They have become infants, crawling into something entirely foreign to them both… but oh, so, beautiful.

It is enough. Stephen rises from the sand.

Love compels him to remain in the light before the dead send him into the dark… and it invites her to stay, should she choose to stop resisting it…

~~~

…ENOUGH! I ONCE FOUND YOUR CURIOUSITY TOWARD THIS MAGGOT ENTERTAINING AS WELL AS OPPORTUNISTIC. BUT IT HAS BECOME NAUSEATING! NOW, STOP WHATEVER YOU’RE DOING! DO YOU HEAR ME?

Nicole continues to pull Sylvia into the light of memory…

~~~

…She watches as Stephen paces around the bench in front of the Harpersfield school. He keeps looking toward the neighborhood houses anxiously, then stops and tries to relax. “Marcus has it all wrong,” he says. “This place is heaven compared to where we’ve been and none of the others know how to process it. That’s all.”

He sits down on the bench, places the handgun on his lap and welcomes a cool autumn breeze.

“I love it, too, Stephen,” she says, taking advantage of the moment to appear to him. “You can just feel a place like this making all the senses come alive at once.”

Stephen looks up and follows the voice to the bench directly across from him.

“I was hoping you’d come,” he tells her.

Nicole smiles generously at the comment. She is surprised by her own appearance—a reflection from her love’s nostalgic thoughts on simpler times. She’s wearing a long blue and white flowered sundress which hugs her every curve just right—not too revealing at the neckline, but just enough to allow the imagination to appreciate a chance to wonder. Her long brown hair is elegantly braided into one single ponytail which hangs casually over her right shoulder. She wears a long brimmed hat high atop her head which matches her dress perfectly. She feels elegant… almost regal. And the way he looks at her… makes her feel beautiful.

“This place suits you,” he tells her. “You look lovely today.”

“Why thank you, kind sir,” she teases with a wink. “How have you been, my love?”

“You know more than anyone. Since I can’t seem to stop whatever this is from happening, I guess that means I’m in real trouble.”

“Does seeing me bother you that much?” she asks.

“No… no… it’s not that. God, I wish you were really sitting there. It’s just… well… madness.”

“It’s been said that love is like madness.” She smiles. “Perhaps our love is so strong that nothing can sever the bond between us. Maybe I’m not a figment of your imagination. Maybe I simply come when you summon me in your heart. Have you ever thought of that?”

“It would be so wonderful if I could believe that.”

“Give it a try sometime, my love. Believing is all that’s required.”

“I wish it were that easy.”

“Let me put it another way,” she says. “People love God but they’ve never even seen him. They can feel him speaking to their hearts and minds… but the rest is an act of faith. No one calls them crazy.”

“But I see you and hear you when no one else can. What does that say about me?”

She smiles again. “It says that you love me. I don’t care if anyone else sees us, my love. Why should you, especially when forced every day to believe what was once called impossible. When dead people are chasing you in the so-called real world, do you deny their existence? Is it such a stretch to believe that one dead girl would choose to love you from another world instead?”

Stephen laughs. “I don’t know if it’s really you thinking and expressing that or if it’s my own twisted reasoning manifesting through you.”

Nicole is genuinely hurt by the comment. This ‘love’ has made me vulnerable to a wide array of strange and wonderful emotions, she thinks. “Well, I guess you won’t mind if I just leave then since you insist on killing me all over again.”

“I’m sorry. Whether you’re in my head or not, I shouldn’t treat you that way. I guess your reaction is just my mind’s way of owning up to the guilt.”

“You’re still doing it.” She tosses her hands in the air. “How about you just pretend I’m real so we can have an enjoyable conversation that isn’t all about you.”

“Fair enough. When I last saw you, in the backseat of the Lincoln, you really scared the hell out of me. I… I’ve never seen you that way before.”

Nicole frowns. “That was her fault. She makes me very… angry. I’m sorry if I frightened you and I’ll try not to let it happen again.”

Stephen quickly changes the subject. “If I could go back and change things, I think I’d start in a place like this.”

She smiles. “Would you take me with you?”

“Absolutely.”

“What about your wife and your job?”

“You mean the woman who never loved me and the job that became me? For you… for this… I’d walk away from all of it.”

“I believe you really mean that, my love. It’s so good to see you like this at last. I always knew you could be free.”…

~~~

…Sylvia laughs. YOU HAVE CLEARLY BEEN IN THIS WORLD FOR TOO LONG. YOU ARE VEXED BY ERRATIC EMOTIONS AND TRIVIAL MATTERS. IT IS VERY SAD WHAT YOU CHOOSE TO BELIEVE IN NOW.

Nicole refuses to let the darkness distract her. “And yet, even you know ‘sadness’. I wonder what other emotions you might allow inside if you did not deny your curiosity toward them.

THAT IS FOOLISHNESS. THIS ‘LOVE’ THAT YOUR MEMORIES HAVE LABELED ‘POWERFUL’ IS JUST AN ANNOYING LITTLE BOX THAT HOUSES ALL THESE PETTY THOUGHTS AND EMOTIONS. IT IS YOU WHO ALLOW YOURSELF TO BE DISTRACTED.

Nicole forces the darkness away. She is thinking about the last time she saw her love alone. Right after exposing herself to what he calls his ‘family’, in the roadway outside of the inn…

~~~

…“Well, all things considered,” he says, “I think that went rather well.”

“They are afraid of me,” Nicole says, still appearing before him in the dirty hoody. She places her hands in her pockets and looks down at the ground. “Nothing ever changes.”

“I was once afraid,” he reminds her.

She looks up at him and finds that precious, inviting smile. Nicole is immediately warm within.

“But over time, you helped me get past my fear… and that’s what allowed me to… love you.”

She is smiling from ear to ear. Do not elevate your hopes, she thinks. He speaks about before, when you convinced him to embrace the madness that he believed created you. Nicole sighs. “And what about now, Stephen? You know, in part, what I am… or, at least what I am not. You know enough to understand that I’m not a product of your damaged mind. And you know the awful things that I’ve done… and what I’m capable of. Where does that leave us… now?”

Stephen looks away and considers this. He turns back and says, “Much like your strange ability to shift shapes, you have transformed from madness to monster.”

She nods. “And… and that is it, then? I’m the monster who has done monstrous things?”

Stephen laughs. “It should be that simple,” he says. “But has there been anything about our… relationship… that’s been simple?”

Nicole laughs. “No… I suppose not. We have overcome much together.”

“And I am still indebted to you for saving me… from myself,” he adds. “I wouldn’t be here without you, Nicole. I have not forgotten that.”

She looks away.

Stephen sighs and stares toward the moonless sky. “I have missed you so much,” he admits.

She looks at him.

“There’s just… I don’t know… something missing, a deep, dark void in me when I can’t feel your presence. Maybe Logan’s right. Maybe you have bewitched me.”

“So, I am both a monster… and a witch?” Nicole teases. “Clearly you overestimate my abilities.”

“You know what I mean,” he says. He turns and steps up close, as close as he can, and says. “Even now, I long to touch you, to hold you in my arms and tell you that we will get through whatever this is. But I can’t.”

Nicole is suddenly uncomfortable with how close he stands to her. She takes an unconscious step back. “Monster or madness, it always seems to come back to the physical between us.”

“That’s not at all what I meant,” he clarifies. “It’s this… longing… for you that I’m talking about. I want to be with you, and it goes beyond the need to touch you.” He shakes his head and finishes, “I love you, Nicole. Monster, madness, witch… I don’t care. None of that changes the way I feel for you.”

Nicole is shocked.

Stephen turns. “But there’s obviously so much you’ve kept from me. I understand, in part, but now that it’s there… I feel like… I feel like I can’t trust you.”

“I see,” she says, with regret. “You feel I’ve kept the truth from you to spare us… but now that the truth about me, is out…”

“I don’t know, Nicole,” he says. “I don’t know if we can ever be… like we were. And that’s the part that scares me.”

She stares at her feet. “I understand. I’ve done more damage than I realize. What would you have me do? Just tell, and I’ll do it.”

“I forgive you,” he abruptly says.

Nicole looks up, trembling. “You… forgive me?”

“Yes. That doesn’t mean everything you’ve done is excusable… but… I believe you suffer for it. And I believe we’ve both suffered enough.”

Nicole waits.

Stephen stares toward the inn. “I’ve listened to my friends talk about how dangerous you are. They’ve considered trying to confront you and understand the risks in doing so. But I also believe they don’t want to do that, if it’s avoidable.”

“As do I,” Nicole says. “I’ve done enough… damage.”

“This might be another chance for us, Nicole,” he says. “Maybe it’s just me blindly hoping… maybe I want that second chance so bad that I’m oblivious to the danger they speak of.”

Nicole doesn’t know how to respond.

“I do know that I… still love you.”

She is moved to tears. Nicole covers her mouth with her hands and stares into her love’s eyes. “Just… tell me… tell me what I can do? I’ll do anything… for us.”

Stephen frowns and says, “I don’t want to listen to my friends talk about hurting you to protect themselves. I fear for them… and I fear for you. I am so damn glad you found me out here… and at the same time… it makes me bitter. There is so much at stake now. So much more than just the two of us. Surely you’ve always known this.”

Nicole nods exhaustedly. “Yes. I can’t deny it any longer. That was why I always wanted to steal you away from all of it. I’ve always known what is coming.”

“Then you know I can’t run from it any longer. None of us can.”

She nods. “Yes. I see that now. They may see me as ‘dangerous’. But in truth, the woman you travel with is far more dangerous than I.”

“Because Toby searches for her?”

“Yes.”

“And he… terrifies you?”

“Yes. We all share that in common.”

“And do you really believe confronting him is a lost cause?”

Nicole pauses for a moment and then says, “Yes. I believe that.”

Stephen looks away and nods, shuffling his feet.

“But,” she adds with a smile, “I’ve clearly been wrong before.”

He smiles back. “I don’t want you to leave.”

“Really?”

“Yes,” he says. “But I can’t trust you to not be… reckless.”

“What does that mean?”

“I don’t want to wake up one morning to discover another diary and read about all the horrible things you did, using my body.”

She nods. “Yes, I appreciate your mistrust. I promise you. I will never do that to you again.”

He smiles. “You also need to stop trying to talk me into leaving with you. I don’t know what happens next, but I will see to Meredith’s safety and keep her far from Toby’s reach until we either turn and face that monster, or we simply run ourselves into a corner. I can’t be that man who selfishly turns his back on what’s left of our world, not while this threat looms over everything, just to preserve whatever you and I can have for as long as possible. I can’t… and I won’t.”

Nicole stares for a long time before speaking. “Even if it means your death?”

“Yes. Even if it means death.”

She nods. “This is the second time I have seen you prepared to die.”

He waits.

“I was prepared to die with you on that beach when I first appeared to you. Remember?”

Stephen smiles. “Yes.”

“I don’t know that I could have… but the thought of doing so, as strange as it was to consider, moved me in ways I can’t explain. I just couldn’t let you die on that beach… alone.”

He smiles.

She nods with a laugh, staring up toward the dark sky. “Maybe that was a sign back then of things to come. Maybe that was what I was always meant to do… for you… if need be. Maybe it’s taken all this time to finally see just how much love, when it’s real, may require.”

“I don’t understand.”

She looks at him. “Maybe it doesn’t matter that we can’t defeat Toby. Maybe it only matters that I wait with you again, just like when I sat down beside you on that beach while the dead approached, and sacrifice myself… so that my love will not die alone.”

Stephen laughs. “Well, let’s just hope it doesn’t come down to that.”

“But I would,” she says with confidence. “I want you to know that.”

He stares into her eyes for what feels like an eternity. “Please stay. Help us, however you can. And when it’s all over… I’ll gladly leave with you.”

Nicole is stunned. “You mean-”

“I mean, just you and I, Nicole. We’ll go live that life together. Find some cabin or whatever and spend the rest of our days loving each other as best we can.”

“But… what about your family?”

He shakes his head. “I believe Meredith, Logan and Megan would accept us… but I can’t speak for anyone else we might find afterwards when what’s left of us try to rebuild. I don’t want to put you through that. If we eventually… win… I think we deserve whatever we can get from what’s left… together.”

Tears stream down Nicole’s cheeks. She nods. “Okay. I will… I will help you.”

Stephen is relieved. He is also moved to tears as he wipes his eyes with the back of his hand. “That is… that is great news.” He is smiling.

She smiles back.

NO!

Nicole stumbles back a step.

“Are you okay?”

“I’m… I’m fine,” she lies. “I just got a little dizzy-”

I… SAID… NO!

“You don’t look okay,” Stephen says.

Nicole is sweating. She places a hand on her forehead. She is having a difficult time maintaining form as she begins to shimmer.

“What’s happening?” Stephen is concerned.

“It’s okay,” she says. “I’m just… exhausted. I need time to rest. I’m afraid our meeting at the inn has taken a toll on me. A little time to rest and process everything we’ve talked about… and I’ll be okay. Can I meet you back here later?”

“Sure,” he says wearily. “You are coming back, right?”

“Absolutely. I just need… I’ll be back in a few hours.”

Before Stephen can say anything else, Nicole walks across the street and into the darkness. She refuses to look back at Stephen. She can’t risk it. Please… just don’t follow me, she thinks. Not now.

She was caught off guard by the sudden resistance within her the moment she agreed to join Stephen’s cause. The darkness has not pushed back with such force in a very long time…

~~~

…WELCOME BACK, MAGGOT LOVER.

Nicole is staring at the front of the inn from directly across the street at the edge of the dark. Alarmed, she says, “Why are we here?”

WHILE YOU WERE DISTRACTED, I BROUGHT US BACK… TO FINISH WHAT YOU’VE FAILED TO DO.

Stephen is alone on the front porch, leaning back in a rocking chair.

He has fallen asleep.

“No! Turn around! I won’t do this! You can’t make me do this!”

The darkness laughs. WHILE YOU’VE SPENT A GREAT MANY DAYS PREOCCUPIED BY YOUR OBSESSION WITH THIS PATHETIC CREATURE, I’VE BEEN BUSY PIECING TOGETHER MY OWN AGENDA. BUT THANKS TO YOU, STANDING IN SUCH CLOSE PROXIMITY TO THOSE WORTHLESS FOOLS, WHILE YOU DISTRACTED THEM WITH YOUR POINTLESS WORDS, I HAVE GATHERED EVERYTHING I NEED FOR WHAT I WILL PERFORM NOW.

“I promised! I told him I wouldn’t-”

YOU STILL SEEM TO THINK THAT YOU’RE THE ONE IN CONTROL. WELL… WE SHALL SOON FIND OUT… LITTLE FINGER. NOW, BE STILL. YOU MAY BE PLESEANTLY SURPRISED BY THE OUTCOME AND COME TO APPRECIATE YOUR POSITION, FINALLY LEARNING YOUR PLACE.

The darkness moves across the roadway toward the inn.

Nicole is powerless to stop it.

~~~

Next Episode 53-7

Previous Episode 53-5

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 53-6: Love and Loss” Copyright © 2019 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Six: Mother. All Rights Reserved.

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

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

~~~

Sorry for no updates in August. Too busy writing and trying to stay ahead so my posts remain on time. Looks like Chapter 53 will run at least 10 episodes. If everything goes according to the current plan, Book Six will conclude with the next chapter, titled, Treachery. Chapter 53 will continue on Friday…

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

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~~~

~~~

“My apologies. My… appearance… has caused you discomfort.”

Meredith stared in shock at the entity wearing Hannah’s favorite sundress, one that she wore often on their evening walks together. She looks and even sounds like my Hannah, Meredith thought. “It’s… it’s alright,” she said. “I was caught by surprise, is all. It’s not often the past stares back at you.”

Hannah flashed her a smile. She looked to Stephen and then back at all of them. “It doesn’t always work, but when I make a connection with someone new, it’s usually the strongest memories of people that I’m drawn to. They are the most detailed and easiest to emulate. Unfortunately, these vivid memories are also surrounded by pain and regret and are of loved ones who have passed.”

“Who do you see, Meredith?” Logan said.

She smiled at him. “I see… I see Hannah. And you?”

Logan frowned. A skinny young man with slicked back hair, wearing a leather jacket over a concert t-shirt stared back at him. “It’s something pretending to be Jonas.”

Meredith turned to Stephen.

“Nicole,” he said with a smile. “Always Nicole.”

“This is extraordinary,” she said to the entity. “Do you have access to the personalities and thoughts of the people you appear as… through our memories of them?”

“Sometimes,” Hannah said. “The stronger the connection a person has with someone, the easier it is for me to form accurately, completing the appearance.”

“That’s fascinating,” Meredith said.

“It’s disturbing,” Logan added. He could no longer look at his dead nephew.

Jonas frowned at the big preacher, then said to them all, “Again, I apologize for any pain that I’m causing by appearing to all of you wearing these faces. There was a time when I did this frequently, but only to hide in your world, or in an act of desperation as when I had to appear as Logan’s nephew near that awful cavern.” Jonas looked back at the preacher. “I regret that action… and I’m sorry.”

Logan nodded, but refused to look at it.

Nicole looked to the man she loved and said, “Since finding Stephen, I have strived to ‘become’ rather than ‘appear’.” She turned to the rest and finished, “And never have I appeared to three at once. The odds are against it. This is as strange for me as it is for all of you.”

Megan sniffed at the air in the area of the creature.

Nicole stared at the half-dead girl. “I cannot connect with the girl, not in the way I can with the rest of you… and yet… we are connected.” She turned to Meredith puzzled, “How does the girl continue to function like a human when there’s so much darkness within her?”

“Her name is Megan. What do you mean?” Meredith said.

Megan turned, not appreciating being the topic of conversation she couldn’t hear.

“Her kind normally don’t last this long. I’m surprised she hasn’t tried to kill you all. She is… unusual.”

Meredith relayed to the half-dead what Nicole said.

Megan crossed her arms in front of her chest and looked in the direction she detected the entity to be, giving the shape-shifting creature a cold, dark stare.

Nicole laughed. “She even acts… human. It’s as if I’ve offended her.”

Meredith relayed this as well.

“You have… and you still are,” Megan said in response.

Nicole smiled sheepishly. “Sorry.”

“She is sorry, Megan,” Meredith said, amused.

Megan turned to the medium and whispered, “She smells stupid, too.”

Meredith hid her smile behind her hand.

Nicole turned to Stephen. “Why am I here? This was clearly a mistake.”

“You’re here because I asked Stephen to invite you,” Meredith said.

Hannah turned back to Meredith. “To what end? Is this some sort of trick? If so, you will find me a whole lot less amusing if you intend me harm.”

Logan shifted at the veiled threat.

Meredith raised her hands submissively. “No tricks. I was hoping we might meet to establish some sort of… understanding.”

“‘Understanding’?” Hannah said. “What is there to understand? You all reek of fear, as has always been the case when your kind and mine cross paths.”

“And yet, we’re here now, having a civil conversation, despite our fears,” Meredith said with a smile.

“I know who you are,” Hannah said. “I’ve been in your world for a very long time and have seen many faces, have worn many faces… and yet… your face I recognize from before this place. You were just a child back then. I don’t know how… but you are the reason I’m here.”

Meredith nodded. “And you are Sylvia.”

“No longer,” Nicole said, turning to smile at Stephen.

He smiled back.

“I have not been ‘Sylvia’ for a very long time.”

“You said you were hiding in our world,” Meredith pushed. “Was it Toby you were hiding from?”

“Not at first,” Hannah said. “But when no one else came… I lost faith. I felt like a mistake. The concept of time, and its passing, was foreign to me… it left me confused and alone. Eventually, others came. I hid from them because I feared them. I was not like them anymore… and yet… I felt them in the darkness.”

Meredith’s eyes lit up. “You’re referring to the First Ones?”

“You should know. You sent us here.”

“And are they all here now?” Meredith said.

Hannah looked confused. “‘Now’ is a relative word. It is always ‘Now’ where we were, when you sent us here.”

Of course, she thought, remembering one of earliest discussions with the boy, Toby, from the fictional beach. “Think in terms of our time,” the old medium clarified. “Have they all arrived, or are there more to come?”

“Yes, they are all here… now.”

Stephen turned. “Now… I’m confused.”

“Ditto,” Logan said.

Meredith laughed lightly. “Remember when I spoke of Elsewhere? There is no concept of time in the darkness. On that beach, when Toby first tricked me with the lions, as practice, he had me send six across the ocean from that timeless place. But over here, any of the six could have arrived anywhere along our timeline… including the future. Sylvia just confirmed that this is not the case any longer.”

“Got it,” Stephen said, then added, “Her name is Nicole.”

“Of course,” Meredith said. “I meant Nicole.”

“Thank you,” she said to the medium, still looking at Stephen.

“Which leads me to ask an inappropriate question,” Logan said. “But since Nicole’s not a lady… not really… I suppose it’s okay. How the hell old are you?”

Jonas glared at him. “Lady or not… it’s still a rude question.”

Logan averted his eyes. “Whoops,” he said. “I retract the question-”

“450 years… give or take a few,” Jonas said. “That’s how long I’ve been in this world. Prior to that, it doesn’t matter since age has no relevance in the dark.”

Stephen looked faint. He reached for the wall and took a deep breath.

Nicole looked concerned. “I’m sorry, Stephen. These are things I’d hoped we’d never need to discuss. I was not trying to deceive you.”

“I know,” he said. “It’s just mind-blowing.” He stared into the dirty face of a teenage girl, just on the edge of being a woman before he’d stabbed her, remembering thoughts he’d had since their bizarre relationship had started of how he would continue to age and she would never look any older than eighteen. He had considered approaching her on the subject eventually to see if she could alter her appearance to include ‘aging’… but now… with hundreds of years buried behind those adolescent eyes… it all seemed suddenly irrelevant. He managed a smile for her sake, and said, “I’m okay… really. It’s just strange and ironic that I’m now the one who gets to use the, ‘you may be too old for me’ line.”

“Don’t you dare,” she teased.

Meredith broke the moment. “I knew that actions in Elsewhere affected time differently here… but… my goodness… 450 years!”

Hannah turned and frowned. “Trust me, it’s not been a pleasant experience. Imagine yourself thrown into another world with no understanding of it. And then imagine the terror that comes with knowing you’ve been marooned on that world. For many years, I sought to end my existence… but had no idea how to achieve this.” She quickly wiped a tear away from the corner of her right eye.

Stephen yearned to reach out and comfort her but restrained himself for obvious reasons.

Nicole collected herself and sighed. “I don’t want to discuss this any further,” she said. “I came because Stephen asked me to come… and I thought… I thought he might think better of me if I did.” Hannah glared at Meredith. “But in the last few minutes of talking with you, I’ve only managed to confuse and cause my love more pain. So again, why am I here?”

Meredith nodded and took a deep breath. “You know who I am… or more accurately… you know what Toby made me do.”

“Yes. The one who calls himself Toby is much older than I, speaking in terms you will understand, and his hunger and designs for your world, though far exceeding my understanding, is as old as what you call… time.”

Meredith paused to let that sink in. “As far as my understanding is concerned, I am still just that naïve child he manipulated on that beach long ago. But I do know he is the enemy of light and life.”

“That he is,” Hannah agreed.

“And you know, as I do, that regardless of Toby’s plans… he has not succeeded.”

“Not yet.”

Meredith studied Hannah’s face. Her expression was unreadable. “We will stand against Toby for as long as we can, as long as we must, to give our world a chance to survive. I can’t tell if you believe our cause if futile, perhaps you do, but we’re not going to accept that… we cannot.”

Hannah nodded. She measured her words carefully, then responded, “I understand your motivation to fight, even if I believe you can’t win.”

Stephen stared at her. “Is that why you didn’t help us at the compound? You knew the Shadow Dead were coming. You could’ve warned us but chose to stand aside.”

Nicole couldn’t look at him. “Yes. I chose not to be involved. My only concern was to see you safe. But you wouldn’t leave.”

“And yet, despite your disbelief in us, some of us survived that attack,” he said.

Nicole looked at him. “Only because Toby willed it,” she said. “The only reason you are all still here is because Toby wanted her.” She glared at Meredith, and finished, “The only reason Toby attacked that compound in the first place was to push you in the direction he intended.”

“Toward the cavern?” she said.

“Yes. I believe he’d hoped to reconnect with her in that dark place. The barrier between this world and the darkness is very thin there. But the cavern was too… unstable.”

Logan nodded. “That explains a lot. We saw some terrible things down there that I’d very much like to ‘unsee’. Things that don’t belong in the light.”

Stephen shook his head sadly. He couldn’t shake her actions at the compound. “You… you let all those people die… when you could’ve warned me of Toby’s intentions.”

Nicole frowned. “As I’ve said, I’m not proud of my actions. At the time, I only wanted you away from them… away from Meredith. But you refused to leave. I… I was acting selfishly. I know that now.”

“Then help us now,” Meredith said.

Hannah gave her a puzzled look. “Is that what this is about? You asked me here to help you… what… fight against Toby? That’s absurd!”

“Any more absurd then believing that you can whisk Stephen away and hide while Toby consumes this world?” Meredith pushed. “Did you think that Toby was just going to forget about you while he was preoccupied with destroying the rest of us?”

Hannah looked away.

Stephen frowned at her. “Answer her, Nicole.”

She sheepishly looked into his disappointed eyes and nodded. “Yes. I… I’d been here so long… alone… and despairing… I didn’t care about anything. I didn’t care about Toby, and the others. I didn’t care about myself, or the darkness that called to me, or the light that sickened me. I wanted nothing to do with any of it… especially after what you call, The Change, finally occurred. I took that as a sign that Toby was close. I knew that if he ever found me and discovered what a lowly and useless mess I’d become, while others were furthering his cause in his absence, that he would dispose of me.”

Meredith’s eyes went wide. “You weren’t drawn to me when you found Stephen. You sought me out. You were coming for me, weren’t you?”

Hannah refused to meet her gaze.

“The Change had come, and you believed Toby would be riding in on its wake. So, you came to the power plant to get me as some sort of prize, hoping to win back favor in his eyes.”

“Is that true?” Stephen said. “Don’t lie.”

She sighed. “Like I said, I was desperate. I knew he would find me.”

“And then an unexpected,” Meredith said. “You found Stephen first.”

“Yes. That changed everything.”

Meredith smiled. “Because Stephen gave you something you failed to find in this world. He gave you purpose.”

“More than that,” Hannah said. “I tasted… love… for the first time. And I… hungered for it, rather than the darkness that had abandoned me.”

The old medium nodded. “I understand.”

“Do you?” Hannah challenged.

“I understand that you stayed with Stephen while we fled the power plant, and that you fell in love him,” Meredith said. “But I now understand why you never tried to possess him while we were on the run, and why you waited until we found the underground compound.”

She nodded. “Yes. I’ll confess if it proves I’ve changed. I had my love… and while the two of you traveled together… I had you, as well.”

“Like a damn insurance policy,” Logan said, shaking his head. “Should Toby come back and find you in the middle of your unnatural romance, you could still offer up Meredith as your prize. That’s some shady shit, not that I’m surprised.”

Nicole felt the weight of Stephen’s hard gaze. She started to feel cornered. “Have I been brought here to stand trial, then?”

Meredith wasn’t finished. “Did you… were you responsible for Toby discovering me at the compound?”

“No!” she quickly said. “He didn’t need me for that!”

“But when he did find me… that’s when you were preparing to take Stephen away, yes?”

She nodded. “I knew you couldn’t stop him, any more than I could. I just wanted to leave and take my love with me.”

“And after all that,” Stephen said, “what do you think would’ve happened once Toby found us?”

Nicole didn’t have an answer.

Stephen laughed. “Do you think he would’ve given us his blessing to live out the rest of our days, or mine anyway, in bliss?”

Nicole shook her head.

“And when he took me from you, or made you kill me in front of him for his own amusement, what then? Would you just jump back into the darkness and serve your master?”

“I… I would never!” Nicole was aggravated. “I would never let him harm… how could you possibly think that I would-”

Megan tensed up behind the couch. “Something’s wrong,” she whispered to Meredith. “She smells… different… bad.”

Meredith refused to look away from Hannah. She was ready to shut the entity out of her mind in a moment. “Nicole, please… stay calm. Stephen, didn’t mean to-”

“I WOULD NEVER HURT HIM! NOT THE ONE I LOVE!” Nicole shouted at the medium.

Megan looked like she was about to leap over the couch. “I smell it!” she hissed. “The very bad smell!”

“Shit,” Logan muttered under his breath. He was about to grab the shotgun.

For a moment, the illusions of Nicole, Jonas and Hannah shifted into black smoke, and then they all saw a badly beaten and bloody young woman in a torn tank top flicker in and out of the blackness. A kitchen knife was protruding from her left eye.

“Nicole, don’t do this!” Stephen pleaded. “You need to control the anger!”

And then the image of the murdered girl was gone.

Meredith relaxed a little when the image of Hannah returned.

Logan was looking once more at his dead nephew.

Stephen was relieved when Nicole changed back into the woman wearing the dirty hoody.

“I’m… I’m sorry,” she told them all. “Everything’s… everything’s alright now.”

Meredith smiled to lighten the moment. “That was a bit… unsettling.”

Hannah nodded sadly and stared at the floor. “Sometimes my anger gets the best of me and I… drift.”

“That’s okay,” the old medium said. “No harm done. Are you… feeling better?”

“Yes.”

“I’ve seen you before,” Meredith said, attempting to redirect the conversation away from what offended the creature. “Just now, when you changed, you resembled a young woman who appeared to me in a cave that was made to look like the den of those who called themselves the Shadow Dead. I remember losing control in that cave. If I recall correctly, you helped me come back from the edge of a very dark place in my mind.”

The others looked confused.

Hannah nodded. “Yes, I was there. You were doing something extremely dangerous, summoning a horde. I feared you were about to be overcome… so I intervened.”

“And you were afraid I’d turn on Stephen, yes?”

She looked to him. “Yes,” she answered.

“How did you-”

“No more questions,” Hannah interrupted. “What do you want from me?”

“I want you to help us,” Meredith said. “Just like you helped me in that cave from being overwhelmed. Help us find a way to defeat Toby.”

Hannah laughed. “That’s ridiculous! There is no ‘way’.”

“You’re just afraid,” Stephen said. “And that’s okay. We are all afraid.”

Nicole smiled at him. “I fear many things since coming to this world. But nothing more than losing you, my love.”

“Then help us,” Meredith pushed. “We all fear losing the people we care about, but together, our strength measures up to that fear and gives us a chance.”

Hannah looked at the strange woman. “You really believe that, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

Nicole looked back at Stephen. “And… you will fight with her… even if you can’t win?”

Stephen smiled. “I think we gave up on winning a while back. We’re just trying to survive… moment to moment… until the chance to win presents itself.”

Nicole shook his head at him. “You will die, my love. I… I can’t stand the thought of it.”

“Dying isn’t the worst thing that could happen to us,” Logan chimed in, surprising them all. “It’s how we live before the dying, that matters. That’s the hard stuff.” He took in his friends and laughed. “We’ve all done our share of falling flat on our faces in the living department. But I believe God Almighty is pleased with the outcome so far. ‘Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’, the Good Book says. And if we die tomorrow, loving each other as best we could, then Death… well… good ole’ Death doesn’t seem to matter as much.”

“Amen,” Stephen said, causing the preacher to laugh.

Megan nodded her approval.

Meredith was staring at the big man, smiling from ear to ear. She turned back to Hannah and said, “As you can see, we’ve made up our minds to live for as long as this crazy world will allow it. We may not be able to defeat Toby… or win… but as long as we abide in Love, regardless of our greatly depleted life expectancy, we are victorious already.”

“AMEN!!!” Logan jumped in enthusiastically. “Preach it, sister!”

Nicole looked stunned. “I… I fail to understand this… optimism… in the face of Death’s certainty. Perhaps if you all had been in the darkness that waits beyond, you would not be so… encouraged.”

“I have been in the dark,” Meredith said. “Probably for most of my life. But love has overcome that darkness, whether I understand how that is… or not. And you, Nicole, have been liberated from the darkness by that same… Love.”

Nicole stared long into Stephen’s eyes. “Yes… what you speak of is true. It’s as you say… I do not understand the ‘how’… only that it just is.”

“Then perhaps, we will find a way to ‘win’ a winless battle in the same fashion,” Meredith said. “But I believe your help would bring us closer to achieving it.”

“Please, Nicole,” Stephen said. “You were always trying to get me to run away with you… and I get it… you wanted to protect me and… our love.”

“Yes,” she said with a smile. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted.”

“But now, when I need you to stay and fight with me—to make a stand instead of fleeing—you resist.”

Nicole desperately wanted to understand. “But… to stay… means death. How is that better?”

“How does that still matter?” Stephen countered. “Whether we stay or flee or die… if we are together, then the rest is irrelevant.”

Nicole nodded then looked away. She scanned the other’s faces then rested her gaze on Meredith. “I… you all have given me much to consider. I will require time to ponder your words.”

“Okay,” Meredith said. “That’s a start.”

“Unless there’s anything else, I would like to leave now,” she said.

Meredith nodded. “Of course. It’s getting late. We could all use a little time to reflect on this evening.”

Nicole nodded then turned to Stephen. “That’s… that’s the best I can do… for now.”

Stephen smiled. “It was brave of you to come here. I want you to know that I appreciate that.”

She smiled. “Will you walk me out? I’d like a few more words alone with you.” She quickly caught herself and turned to Meredith. “If… If that’s okay with the rest of you.”

“Of course,” Meredith said. She looked to Stephen.

He nodded. “We’ll be alright.”

Stephen and Nicole stepped out of the inn. As soon as she did, Meredith and Logan no longer sensed a connection with the creature. The illusions of Jonas and Hannah were gone.

Logan waited until Nicole and Stephen were out of earshot, then turned to Meredith and said, “Well?”

Meredith frowned at the big preacher. “Yes,” she said. “I was very careful. I don’t believe she sensed me in her mind when we were connected. I’ve discovered… well… I believe I’ve found a vulnerability, albeit, a very dangerous one to exploit.”

Megan stared at them. “Is something wrong?”

Meredith replied, “I hope not, honey, I really do. But just in case… we will be ready.”

“For what?” the half-dead said.

Meredith looked away, refusing to answer.

~~~

Next Episode 53-6

Previous Episode 53-4

~~~

If you’re enjoying Don’t Feed The Dark so far, please consider voting for it on Top Web Fiction and Top Site List by clicking the links below. This will help increase its visibility and draw in more potential readers. No registration is required. Thanks for your support and for reading :)

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 53-5: Love and Loss” Copyright © 2019 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Six: Mother. All Rights Reserved.

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

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

~~~

A cool evening breeze disrupted the unnatural silence in Cherry Hill. Two loose flaps from a torn and moldy awning incessantly brushed against the aluminum siding of Sandy’s Shakes and Sundaes, making Stephen jumpy. He sat at one of the three round picnic tables beneath the awning, trying to figure out what he was going to say to Nicole. He’d arrived an hour after darkness settled and sat down after pacing around the ice cream shop for fifteen minutes.

Maybe she knows? he thought, believing Nicole had decided not to show herself. Maybe we’re still connected somehow, and she knows I told them?

Before he could torture himself with more questions, a slender figure approached from out of the darkness that swallowed up the roadway. Nicole was still wearing the dirty blue hoody and jeans as she sheepishly walked toward him, her hands buried in her pockets, her head hung low.

Stephen stood up as she stepped just under the awning and stopped.

She looked up at him through her messy hair and smiled. “You came.”

Stephen forced a smile. “Yeah. I came. Now what?”

Her shoulders dropped. “Please, my love… please don’t be like that.”

“Like what? And don’t call me that.”

She nodded. “There was a time when we were very comfortable around each other,” she said. “But now, now you look terrified.”

“Well, a lot has changed, Nicole.”

“I won’t argue with you on that. May I… May I sit with you?”

With reluctance, Stephen waved her over and sat back down.

Nicole sat directly across from him and sighed heavily while wiping her messy hair away from her eyes.

Stephen just stared. He felt like a statue, afraid to make a move.

“I must look awful,” she said. “I’m sure you’re not used to seeing me looking like a homeless person.”

“Frankly,” he said, “I don’t know why you chose to appear to me like this. Were you trying to make me feel sorry for you?”

Her smile faltered. “Sorry,” she said. “Since we’ve been apart, I… I’ve strived to find appearances that convey the way I feel… as opposed to the way you felt.”

“Can something like you really feel anything?” he said. “Or is that just part of the act?”

Nicole looked hurt. She took another breath, then said, “I know… I know you’re upset with me. I’ve done some horrible things to you… and to… others.”

“You mean all those people you manipulated into killing themselves… through me? Yeah… the word I was thinking of was ‘monstrous’.”

She placed her dirty hands on top of the table and stared at them. “If my appearance troubles you, I could-”

“No,” he said, coldly. “Don’t change a fucking thing.”

“Okay.”

“What do you want from me? I hope you don’t honestly expect me to want to run off with you.”

“No, I don’t expect you would, my… Stephen.” She looked up into his hard yes. “I came to ask for your forgiveness.”

Stephen was thrown off by the request. “Seriously?”

“Yes,” she said. “I want you to know that I take full responsibility for the evil things I’ve done, but I also want you to know that there’s another part of me that compels me to do them… a darker part. Since losing you in that horrible cave, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect and confront that ‘monster’ you spoke of. It was hard, but I… I finally defeated that darkness.”

“What does that even mean?”

She smiled. “It means that I’m free, Stephen. I’ll never be able to undo all the bad things I’ve done, but it was our love that made me… better… different. I never knew there was anything else for someone like me… until I found you. And now, I’m not who I used to be.”

“You mean when you were Sylvia?”

Her eyes went wide. She tensed up. “Where did you hear that name?”

“Then it’s true,” he said.

“I haven’t heard that name in a very long time,” she said. “The fact that you know it disturbs me. Did you… did you discover it in that awful place?”

“You mean the cavern?”

“Yes.”

Stephen paused, then said, “No. Meredith told me.”

Nicole got up quickly, causing Stephen to jump. She started backing up and looking around. “You told them, didn’t you? You told them I was here?”

“Calm down,” he said. “They’re not here.”

“I don’t believe you.”

Stephen sat back down. “Well, then what’s the point to any of this? If you don’t believe me… if you think I’ve set some trap… then just go away.”

She stopped and stared at him. “You… you told them… but came alone?”

“Yes,” he said. “I came alone.”

Nicole looked confused and ready to flee in an instant. “Why… why would they let you come here alone?”

Stephen sighed. “Because they know you wouldn’t hurt me. Because they know I still … I still care about you, too.”

Overwhelmed, Nicole put her hand over her mouth as tears streamed down her dirty cheeks.

“Please… just sit back down,” he said. “But if you can’t believe anything I say… then you might as well go away and never come back.”

“I don’t want to do that.”

He motioned her back to the table.

She stared, then nodded. “Okay, Stephen. I’ll trust you.” She came back over and cautiously sat down.

Stephen found something new beyond the dirty ruse, something genuine. The surprise in Nicole’s face showed him that whatever this entity was, it had not anticipated any of this.

“When I got back to the inn, I told them you found me. They’re my friends, my family, I couldn’t keep it from them, especially after everything that’s happened.”

She waited, unsure of what to say. Nicole’s face had become a collage of conflicting emotions.

“At first, they were afraid,” Stephen continued. “But then something changed.”

“What changed?”

Stephen laughed lightly and said, “Meredith looked past the fear and… she started to understand how we are with each other.”

Nicole’s eyebrows shot up. “Explain that?”

“I don’t know that I can. All I know is that they were originally waiting for you to show up for weeks, and they intended on confronting you, believing you might… take control of me again.”

Nicole was stone.

“But then, Meredith… started to see another way.”

“And what way is that, Stephen?”

He looked her in the eyes and said, “She knows that we still love each other. She believes… she believes that counts for something, something that might not make you a threat.”

Nicole sat back. “She… they… believe in us?”

“As crazy as that sounds… yes. They want to meet with you and… talk.”

“It’s a trick.” Nicole was about to get up. “They’re using you to get to me!”

He shook his head. “Stop that. Stop trying to run. Aren’t you tired of running?”

She hesitated.

“After all that time we spent together on the road, then stuck in the compound… aren’t you fed up with keeping what we have a big dark secret?”

“There… there is no other way for us, Stephen.”

“Bullshit. They want to meet you… not kill you. For the first time, we might be together… openly! You speak of freedom, but all you know is running away with me so that we can keep our dark secret love going. But now, we have a chance to be accepted!”

“Then… then you still… you still love me? After all I’ve done to you and yours?”

Stephen closed his eyes and laughed, realizing everything he’d just said. “Yes, I guess I still do. But I also hate you for what you’ve done.”

Nicole buried her face in her hands and started to weep. “I’m… I’m so very sorry. I can’t… I can’t undo what I’ve done… but… but if you still love me… I can make the rest of it matter! I can make amends!”

“Can you make this first step?” he said. “Can you come out of the darkness… for real… and show yourself to them?”

Nicole looked horrified. “You mean… my true form? No…NO! I’m… I’m not Sylvia anymore. I’m Nicole!”

Stephen frowned. “You’ve transformed your appearance to look like a dead girl… but that doesn’t make you Nicole.”

“But I am!” she insisted. “Not the Nicole from the diary… but Nicole nonetheless! I was born out of a book, and from your immense grief… but it’s what we’ve created together that makes me… this Nicole! Do you understand?”

Stephen paused. “Yes,” he said. “I do understand.”

“Then you know… you know me, Stephen. I’m not Sylvia… not anymore… not ever again.”

Stephen frowned. “And what if the darkness overtakes you again? What then? How many more people will die because you can’t hold back the darkness within you… that’s still a part of you?”

“It’s a part of us all, Stephen. We all struggle against it, do we not?”

Stephen was stunned by that response. “You’re right.’

“I was born in the darkness… but I’m drawn to the light, the light that you and I have created together. I never knew what it was… what it meant… until our love was born. And now, there is no Sylvia. There is no darkness. There is only you and I… and what we both feed upon… together.”

Staring at Nicole now, he could almost forget everything he’d found out about what she was, just as their love had originally taught him how to forget everything she wasn’t.

Almost.

He reached his hand across the table to grab Nicole’s.

She retracted them quickly before the illusion was challenged. “You know,” she said, sadly. “You’ve always known that we can’t interact physically.”

He nodded with a smile, pulling his hand back. “Sorry,” he said. “I sometimes forget.”

She smiled at him. “Yes… you do. And it always makes me happy when you do.”

He nodded. “Please come back to the inn with me. Meet my family. Let them see that you’re not a monster. Let them see… let them see what I see.”

Nicole stared into Stephen’s sincere eyes for a very long time.

~~~

“For the record,” Logan started, continuing to wear out the common room rug with his pacing, “I think this is a very foolish idea.”

Meredith smiled at the big preacher from the sofa, then folded her hands across her lap, trying to keep her mind calm. “Logan, you’re making me dizzy. Please, why don’t you sit down and try to relax.”

“Bah!” he grunted, waving a dismissive hand in the air. “Someone needs to take this threat seriously.”

“I understand the risks in what we’re attempting,” she said. “But I also understand the alternative. If I’m forced to confront… Nicole… the danger we will be in afterwards is far more significant.”

He stopped. “Do you really believe we can… what… befriend this creature?”

She smiled. “I wouldn’t go that far. But, yes, we might be able to win her over to our side without confrontation. If Stephen is correct, Nicole has just as much to lose by Toby locating us.”

“Assuming she hasn’t been sent by that fucker.”

Meredith looked toward the kerosene lamp lit up on the small coffee table, then stared about the room at the entrancing shadows cast upon the wood-paneled walls decorated with framed black and white photos. “I rather like this inn. I imagine it was once very… nostalgic… pointing to the simplicity and comforts from another time.”

Logan shook his head at her in disbelief. “Well… I’m glad you’re pleased with our present accommodations,” he added sarcastically, and continued to pace.

From her position near the front window, Megan snickered, drawing the preacher’s attention.

“Something funny?” he said.

Megan kept her back turned to hide her smile. “No,” she lied.

Meredith cupped her own smile to hide her amusement.

He shook his head at them. “Great!” he said. “Apparently I’m the only one bothered by inviting the demon over for a welcome-to-the-neighborhood sit down! Hell, we even got some fucking ambience to set the mood! I wonder if we can whip up some iced tea, you know, just to show our hospitable side, assuming the demon likes-”

Megan laughed, surprising them both. She quickly cupped her mouth and regained her composure.

This made Meredith giggle uncontrollably.

Logan just stared at them, his hands on his hips. He looked ready to implode. “Did I say something amusing?” he growled.

“Sorry, Logan,” Meredith said, calming down.

Megan kept her back turned.

“I guess we each deal with stress a bit differently,” she added, offering the big man an apologetic look.

Megan tensed up by the window. “Stephen’s coming back.”

Logan immediately started pacing, whispering prayers into the air.

Meredith didn’t move. Instead, she straightened her back against the sofa, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath to steady herself. Be ready.

Stephen knocked lightly on the door, then entered the inn. His face wore a mixture of excitement and trepidation.

Meredith opened her eyes and smiled.

“Was she there?” Logan said. “Did you see the damn thing?”

“If you mean Nicole, then yes, we talked,” Stephen said, turning his head toward each of them. “It went better than expected.”

Before anyone could ask the obvious, Megan stared over at Meredith, her eyes going wide as she sniffed at the air and then retreated into the nearest corner, crouching into an attack position. “She’s close,” she said, staring at the door as if she were ready to charge at it. “I can smell her.”

“Shit!” Logan hissed.

“It’s okay!” Stephen said. “She agreed to wait in the road until I had a chance to prepare you. But she’s ready to bolt in a moment… so, please-”

“It’s alright, Stephen,” Meredith said. She turned to Megan. “Megan, honey, could you please join me on the couch. We don’t want to scare off our guest.”

Megan whipped her head toward the old medium and attempted to calm down. “Sorry,” she said. “Some scents put me on edge.” Surprisingly, the half-dead woman, exercising considerable restraint, stood up, took a deep breath, then calmly walked over to Meredith. Instead of sitting, she moved around the couch and stood directly behind it, placing her hands along the back edge which she gripped fiercely.

Meredith looked over at the young woman’s hands, then said, “I guess that’s your version of calm?”

“It’s the best I can do… right now,” Megan said.

Even Logan attempted to appear calm. He stood at the back of the room, leaning against the old grandfather clock. He crossed his arms and continued to pray beneath his breath.

Stephen wiped nervous sweat from his brow. “She’s taking a considerable risk… on me,” he reminded them. “That should count for something, right?”

“Maybe,” Logan said suspiciously.

Meredith scowled at him. She looked to Stephen. “Yes, Stephen, I believe it does. Why don’t you go ahead and invite her inside.”

Stephen hesitated, then said, “Nicole wanted me to tell you that she doesn’t want trouble, but she’s prepared to offer it… if this is a trick.”

Meredith smiled. “No tricks, Stephen. You have my word.”

“I know,” he said. “She also wanted me to tell you that she’ll go no further than the front door, and she wants me to leave it open.”

“That’s fine. Anything else?”

Stephen just stared at her. “How will… you know… how are you going to… see her?”

“When you go back outside, tell Nicole that I’ll be… opening myself up… just a little… but enough for her to make a connection with me.”

Stephen gave her a confused look.

Meredith laughed lightly. “I believe she’ll understand what that means. Her kind know what I’m capable of… in the spiritual sense.”

The school teacher nodded. He was about to exit, then stopped, and turned back. “Will she appear to you as differently as she does to both myself and Logan?”

“If you’re wondering if I’ll see her true form, Stephen, then I believe the answer is ‘no’. We can establish a connection… but I’m certain she’ll be as guarded as I will be.”

He nodded. “But you will see… something?”

“Yes. She’ll have limited access to my memories, enough to choose a form that’s familiar to me.” She turned to Logan and said, “She may very well appear to you as Jonas again. Can you deal with that?”

Logan shifted uncomfortably. “Yeah,” he said. “I figured that was the case. I’m prepared.”

Meredith looked to Megan. “You won’t see her at all, honey.”

“That’s okay,” Megan said. “I can track her by scent. I’ll know exactly where she is.”

Stephen laughed nervously. “This is going to be very strange.”

“Are you ready for this?” Meredith said.

Stephen sighed. “I’m absolutely terrified,” he said. “But a little relieved, as well.”

“I believe that sums up what we’re all feeling, including Nicole,” she said. “Go on now, Stephen. Go invite her in before she thinks something’s wrong.”

He nodded and stepped outside.

A few minutes later, Stephen stepped back inside and moved off to the right of the open front door.

Meredith could feel Megan increasing her grip on the back of the couch as the young half-dead tensed up next to her. “She’s standing in the doorway,” she half-whispered, half-growled.

Logan stopped leaning and reached behind him to touch the barrel of the shotgun he’d placed up against the clock. “Dear God,” he whispered as the entity stood in the open doorway, appearing to him as Jonas. “Protect us from our folly,” he finished.

Stephen turned to Nicole. She was still wearing the dirty blue hoody and jeans.

She flashed him a nervous smile.

“It’s okay,” he told her. “Everyone’s a little unnerved by what they see.”

She nodded. “I know. This is hard for me, too.” She turned her gaze directly toward the older woman on the couch and reached out toward the keyhole opening in the woman’s thoughts.

Meredith’s eyes suddenly went wide as she restrictively opened her mind toward the entity and established a connection. She gasped and covered her mouth.

Standing before her in the doorway, she saw a woman with short brown hair and brown eyes. She had a gentle smile and was wearing a familiar sundress that both Meredith and her old lover shared a fondness for.

Meredith’s throat became tight and her eyes started to water. “Hannah?” she whispered.

~~~

Next Episode 53-5

Previous Episode 53-3

~~~

If you’re enjoying Don’t Feed The Dark so far, please consider voting for it on Top Web Fiction and Top Site List by clicking the links below. This will help increase its visibility and draw in more potential readers. No registration is required. Thanks for your support and for reading :)

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 53-4: Love and Loss” Copyright © 2019 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Six: Mother. All Rights Reserved.

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

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

~~~

Chapter 53 will continue on Friday…

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

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Thanks again for all your support and for reading.

-Scott

~~~

~~~

“I come bearing gifts,” Logan said as he sat down on an old sofa, placing his backpack in front of him. He started searching through his pack.

Stephen plopped down in a large armchair, placing the heavy boom box beside the chair. He looked over at Meredith, sitting beside Logan, and then up at Megan who stood next to an old grandfather clock at the back of the small inn common room. “Did you miss us?”

“Yes,” Meredith said. “How is it out there?”

“The usual,” Stephen said. “We followed the river into Ohio and found another horde searching north of the river. We didn’t have to deal with them this time, thankfully.”

“So, nothing headed in our direction?” she asked.

“Nothing.”

Meredith looked at the boom box. “What on earth is that thing?”

“Portable toilet,” Logan said, winking up at Stephen.

He rolled his eyes at him. “It’s just another distraction tool. These things play some really loud music. Figured it would be good to have it here since Cherry Hill is scarce on supplies.”

Meredith nodded. “Is that a tape player attached to it?”

“Yeah,” Stephen laughed. “Don’t worry, thing came already loaded with a cassette. Garth Brooks… but hey… don’t judge. It’s slim pickings out there.”

“And here it is,” Logan said, removing a big round hairbrush from his pack. “‘Ask and you shall receive’, so sayeth the Lord.”

Meredith’s eyes lit up at the sight of the brush. She grabbed at it greedily. “Oh, my word! Thank you, Logan. And my knotty hair thanks you.”

Logan laughed. He peered over his shoulder at the half-dead woman who was trying not to look obvious staring over his shoulder. “Other than Stephen’s obnoxious portable stereo, the brush, and a few canned goods, I’m afraid that’s it for specialty supplies.”

“I smell them,” Megan said, unconvinced.

Logan smiled and looked to Stephen.

Stephen laughed. “I told you. She probably knew you had them the moment we walked in.”

Meredith stared back and forth between the two men with an amused expression.

Megan paced impatiently behind the couch.

“Alright, hold on a minute,” Logan said, digging into his pack again. He pulled out a vending machine sized bag of pork rinds.

Megan’s eyes went wide.

“Little lady, I’ve been searching every day for weeks for this ever since you told me about them. Lord only knows why you like these things.”

“So sayeth the guy who eats expired sardines,” Stephen teased.

Megan moved in like a predator and snatched the bag from Logan’s hand. She tore it open and tossed a bacon-flavored piece of stale fried and crispy whatever into her mouth with a loud crunch.”

“You’re welcome,” he said with a laugh.

Megan stopped with another piece hanging out of her mouth. “Tank woo,” she said.

Meredith giggled at the sight of the girl going at the bag of grinds like a barbarian.

Megan wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and showed some restraint. “I think the thought of having one was more enjoyable then the taste,” she said. “I remember that I used to enjoy these things.”

“You go on, girl,” Logan said. “We all have our unusual cravings.” He stopped himself. “Shit, sorry. I could have said that better.”

Megan shrugged her shoulders and tore into the bag.

This made Stephen laugh hard.

Meredith sat back and enjoyed the moment. “We make quite a strange little family, don’t we?”

“Yeah,” Stephen said. “On the longest and most bizarre road trip ever.”

Logan laughed at that. He leaned back on the sofa. “I could sleep right here. How are things? Any trouble?”

Meredith shook her head. “No. Nothing to report. This little town is calm and boring… just the way we like them.”

Logan nodded. “That’s good. We checked across the bridge before heading back. No sign of the dead, or anyone else. Maybe we’ve finally found a place that everyone’s forgotten about. We could probably get a few days rest here if we’re lucky.”

Stephen suddenly became distant as he leaned back and stared into his lap.

“Something wrong, Stephen?” Meredith said.

He looked up and sighed. “We’re not entirely alone here,” he finally said, gaining everyone’s attention. He leaned over and rested his elbows on his knees while nervously picking at his nails. “Nicole’s here, too.”

Logan sat up and stared at him. “I fucking knew it!” he said. “You saw her on the road in, didn’t you?”

“Yes.”

“And you said nothing!” Logan was getting upset. “Little brother, you know what we’re up against here. No more secrets, remember?”

“Logan,” Meredith said. “He’s telling us now. Let him explain.”

The big preacher nodded and attempted to calm down.

Stephen couldn’t look at any of them. He felt their probing eyes and was reminded of what Nicole had told him:

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

He looked up at Meredith and said, “This was the first time I’ve seen her since before the cavern. I don’t know how she found us… but she did.”

“Are you sure it’s the first time you’ve seen her?” Logan pushed unapologetically.

Stephen glared at him. “Yes. You want to talk about secrets? I know you and Meredith are talking about me behind my back, but I don’t care. I’m telling you the truth. This is the first time she’s contacted me since then… and that’s why I’m telling you all now. I just… I just needed some time to process it.”

“I believe you, Stephen,” Meredith said.

He looked at her.

“You’re right. We have been talking about you and Nicole privately, but it was only a precaution.”

Stephen nodded. “Because you don’t trust me, right?”

“No,” she said. “Because you still love her.”

This caught Stephen off guard. He didn’t know what to say.

Megan was surprised by Meredith’s direct reply. She stared at the medium.

“That is insane,” Logan said, rubbing his tired face. “You can’t possibly still love that… that demon! Not after everything you know now. Tell her, Stephen. Tell her that can’t be it.”

Stephen felt trapped. Tears started to fill his eyes. “Wow,” he said. “Up until this moment, I thought I was over her. I’d convinced myself that Nicole was some monster who manipulated me… and since she’s been gone… it was easier to convince myself that it was all a lie. Then I saw her again, and it all came back, like a flood.” He looked away. “I’m sorry that I still… feel… for her. I can’t help it. Regardless of everything, it wasn’t all bad. Not in the beginning.”

Logan looked on the verge of imploding.

Meredith raised her hand to calm him down. She addressed Stephen, “What did she say to you, Stephen? Are we in danger of Toby finding us now?”

“No… hell no!” he was quick to say. “She doesn’t want to be found by Toby any more than you do. Nicole’s afraid to go back… back to wherever she came from. I think that’s what scared her so much down in that cavern and why she tried to destroy the airlock. She didn’t want to leave me, but she couldn’t… she wouldn’t go into that scary place. So, she tried to keep us from going.”

“Yeah, by wearing her masks to trick us,” Logan pointed out. “She tried her bullshit on me, too, remember? When she appeared as Jonas.”

“That was different,” Stephen said. “She was different. Nicole had never done anything like that before.”

“That you know of,” Logan said. “And let’s not forget how she possessed you to murder those people.”

Stephen nodded and looked away. “Yeah… I know. I haven’t forgotten. I’m still struggling with all that. She’s done horrible things. I know this. But I still care for her.”

Logan waved a dismissive hand in his face. “She’s fucking bewitched you, little brother!”

“Stephen,” Meredith said. “Is she… is she with you now.”

“No,” Megan said, surprising everyone. “I don’t smell her here.”

Stephen didn’t know what to make of that. He said, “She’s right. Nicole’s not here. She didn’t try to possess me or anything. I saw her in the woods for a just a moment. She was keeping her distance… and she looked terrible, like she’d been through hell to find me.”

“Did she say how she found you?” Meredith pushed.

Stephen shook his head. “No. She just looked miserable… desperate. All she wanted to do was talk with me. She asked me to meet her tonight… privately.”

“And there it is,” Logan said. “The trap.”

“Perhaps,” Meredith said. “I think Stephen’s aware of that, too. That’s why he’s telling us now.”

Stephen nodded. “Look, guys. I may still have strong feelings for Nicole, but that doesn’t mean I’d sacrifice any of you for her. You are all my family. Part of me believes she must know that. Nicole took a risk exposing herself to me when she could’ve… you know… just possessed me again.”

“What do you believe her intentions are, Stephen?” Meredith said.

Stephen closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “She probably wants me to run away with her. That’s all she’s ever really wanted. I don’t believe she wants to harm any of you… but she does have a dark streak at times… when she doesn’t get what she wants.”

“And do you want to meet with her?” Meredith said.

This got Logan and Megan’s attention.

“I don’t know,” Stephen said. “Honestly, part of me wants to… part of me needs to. But I don’t trust that part of myself. I’ve told you about it, and I’ll do whatever ‘we’ decide to do. I just hope you all can still trust me after this.”

“I trust you, Stephen,” Meredith said. She looked back at Logan. “He’s upset, but deep down, Logan trusts you, too.”

Logan grumbled and said nothing else.

“I trust you,” Megan added.

Stephen looked toward the half-dead and smiled.

She quickly looked away.

Meredith sighed heavily and shook her head at him. “Darn it, Stephen. How could we have traveled this long together and I’ve never even suspected her presence?”

Stephen laughed. “That’s a good question. Marcus was the only one who knew.”

“What?”

“Well… I should say, he figured it out and confronted me in Jefferson. That man’s good at keeping secrets.”

She shook her head. “I should’ve known. I guess I never had a reason to look in your direction with my… abilities. I’ve always trusted you.”

“You still can,” he said.

“And yet,” she added, “a potential threat has been hiding in plain sight all his time, right under my nose. How is that possible?”

Stephen shook his head. “Maybe because she wasn’t… dangerous… until after she felt trapped down in that compound. Before then, when we were on the road, she only cared about me. As strange as it sounds, without Nicole, I never would’ve survived the guilt of killing… Nicole. Whatever she is… she saved me. That much I know for sure.”

Meredith raised an eyebrow. “That does sound strange… but so does everything else these days.”

“Amen,” Logan chimed in, finally calming down. He stared at Meredith. “You should tell him. He has a right to know.”

Meredith gave the preacher a weary glance.

“Tell me what?” Stephen said.

Meredith sighed. “Logan’s correct. Up until now, I thought keeping my suspicions about Nicole between the preacher and myself were for the best. It seemed like you were free from this entity and didn’t need to carry any additional burdens about her.”

Stephen shifted uncomfortably. “Alright, out with it. I appreciate that you’re trying to protect me, but she’s here now. No more secrets.”

“Agreed,” Logan said.

Meredith nodded. “When you and Logan first described your encounters with… Nicole… assuming what Logan saw is the same entity… it reminded me of that beach in Elsewhere, where Toby manipulated me and…”

“When you caused The Change,” Megan finished.

Meredith glanced at the half-dead woman and found no judgment. She nodded sadly. “Yes. When I caused The Change.” She stared down at her lap. “You’ve all heard this strange story, and we’ve discussed it several times since I unloaded it on you. Before I sent that beach full of lions over into our world, all at once, there were six others that Toby had me believe I’d cast into the ocean. He called them, ‘The First Ones’. Well, the very first one I unknowingly sent across into our world turned into a black mist right at the end, as if it were trying to change form from the emerald lion… into something else… much like what Logan described from his encounter down at that elevator airlock when Jonas became Nicole, then shifted into the Shadow Man, or mist, that he described from his past.”

“Wait,” Stephen said, shaking his head. “Are you trying to tell me that Nicole was that first lion?”

“I don’t know, Stephen,” she said. “It’s just a suspicion. But if Nicole is that lion that I brought over to our world, then she’s very old… and she’s been here a long time, long before The Change. Toby named her Sylvia and called her one of the oldest of The First Ones… and described her as very fierce. We already know one of the other six I’ve sent over. The last one was named, Taven.” Meredith took a deep breath. “It’s possible that Sylvia was initially drawn toward me at the power plant… and that’s how she found you.”

“Shit,” Stephen hissed, completely in shock. “If you’re right-”

“If she’s right, Stephen,” Logan interrupted. “Then your demon girlfriend is extremely fucking dangerous.”

Meredith raised her hands. “If she is, Stephen. I don’t know for sure. But now we’ve told you.”

Stephen rubbed his eyes. “If Nicole is this… Sylvia… then she appeared to Logan before we ever met, and possibly others several times before that, over the course of however long she’s been around.”

Meredith laughed at the implications. “Correct. If Nicole is Sylvia, then she’s been here a while, and has been alone in our world for God-knows how long. Who knows what that did to her over the years and what she’s done. Maybe when she found you, she found something much better than being alone in all that darkness.”

Stephen looked at her. “Is that even possible?”

Meredith and Logan looked at each other, unable to find a suitable answer.

“Maybe love saved you both,” Megan chimed in, causing everyone to stare. The half-dead girl nonchalantly shrugged her shoulders and poured the crumbs out of the pork rinds bag into her mouth.

Meredith laughed. “This wise young woman has reminded me of a thing or two today. But most importantly, that we now have another option other than trying to trap this thing the next time it comes for you, Stephen… and destroy it. That was the original plan if Nicole ever showed back up.”

Stephen looked terrified. “You were… waiting for something like this to happen? So, you could… kill her?”

“Yes,” Logan said. “We had a plan… a damn scary one.”

“A risky plan,” Meredith added. “One that would have exposed us to Toby because I would have had to use everything within me to destroy this creature… along with whatever Logan knew about demons, and what his God could do to… stop them.”

“In Jesus’ name,” he added. “But since we’re short on animals. A pig was out of the question.”

“So, let me get this straight,” Stephen said. “If I remember my Bible stories correctly, you wanted to… what… wait and see if Nicole would possess me again, and then… exorcise her from me and send her into a pig? That is absolutely ridiculous!”

“Not exactly, little brother,” Logan said. “But the principle is the same.”

Meredith smiled. “We discussed this to some length and decided that I might be able to get her out of you-”
“With the power of Jesus flowing through you,” Logan corrected.

“Okay,” Meredith said. “And then… trap her in the body of one of the reanimated.”

“Long enough to kill it… and her,” Logan said.

“Or… send it back to the darkness,” Meredith finished.

Stephen was rubbing the sides of his head. “And you really believe you could do this?”

Meredith looked to Logan and said, “Logan believes more than I… so I left the believing up to him and his God. This was the best plan we had, until now.”

“What?” Logan looked as confused as Stephen. “We have a better plan now?”

Meredith looked over at Megan and smiled.

Megan just stared back.

“What was that passage of scripture about ‘love’ again, Logan?” she said. “The one in Corinthians something or another about how love endures?”

Logan looked confused for a moment, then quoted, “‘Love never fails’.”

“That’s the one,” she said, turning back to Stephen. “I think you should meet her tonight.”

“Excuse me?” Stephen said, in disbelief.

“Are you fucking kidding me!” Logan expressed.

Megan just stood there, staring back and forth between the two men, wishing she had more pork rinds.

“Yes,” she said. “I think you should meet her tonight. I believe that if she wanted to harm you, or us, she didn’t have to expose herself on the road. She could’ve just seized your body, ran far away, and then spent an eternity trying to make you love her. But that’s not how love works… and even Nicole has learned that much from her time in the light.”

Stephen shook his head. “I show up alone, she may do just what you said. She won’t harm me… but she might force me to come with her, especially if she falls into one of her dark… moods.”

“Would you rather we attempt to kill her?”

“No,” he said. “Please… I don’t want it to come to that. It could get ugly for everyone.”

“Then go meet her… and invite her back here.”

Logan’s jaw was about to hit the floor.

“You want me to… invite her back here?” Stephen said.

“Yes,” Meredith said. “Tell her we want to talk with her.”

“Even if you could… talk with her… which you can’t because only Logan and I can see her… you’re assuming I can convince her to agree to this?”

Meredith smiled. “You let me worry about the ‘seeing her’ part. If she loves you as much as I think you love her… then yes… I believe you can convince her.”

“She’ll think it’s a trap.”

“Then tell her the truth. Let her know what we know and that you’ve told us she’s here. Play it straight with her, and she’ll trust you.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“I can’t, Stephen. This time, I’m putting my faith in you. I would rather not get into a confrontation with this creature. It could be costly to everyone and Toby might find all of us, including Nicole. Maybe we can come to some common ground.”

Stephen laughed. “This is insane!”

“Amen,” Logan agreed.

“Maybe,” Meredith said. “But maybe Nicole is tired of running as much as we are. Maybe she’s ready to come out of the shadows and stop being someone’s secret lover.”

“This is as risky as your first plan,” Stephen said. “You’ve read the notebook. What if she can’t control the darkness?”

“Then help her,” she said. “As I suspect you’ve always done, Stephen.”

Stephen’s shoulders dropped. He looked down toward the floor and shook his head. “This is all… too much. For the longest time I thought Nicole was only in my head… and that I was going crazy. After a while, I just accepted her regardless of my mental state… and made her real. Turns out she was here all along… and she’s some kind of… what… monster from another world?”

Meredith smiled. “I don’t envy what you’re going through. I know it’s difficult and I appreciate your openness about Nicole, especially over the last few weeks. I don’t want you to get hurt, Stephen. If I thought for a moment that I was putting you in danger-”

“I know,” he said. “And you’re right. Nicole or Sylvia… she’s had plenty of opportunities to harm me since the beginning.”

“And that’s why I believe this might be the best way to proceed,” she finished. “By us showing her that we trust her with you, then perhaps she’ll take a chance and trust us. But don’t get me wrong. If this is something that’s going to hurt you in other ways… then we’ll find another solution.”

“I’ll do it,” he said. “Even if she doesn’t agree to meeting with the rest of you, perhaps I can still talk her into keeping her distance, or, just leaving. She did promise me that she would leave if I met with her and still wanted her gone.”

“If you can trust that demon,” Logan added.

Meredith glared at him.

“Okay… sorry,” he said. “Nicole.”

“Nicole, Sylvia, demon, or whatever she is… I do still have feelings for her,” Stephen said. “Everything else might be uncertain… but I know that much is true. I can’t explain that to any of you in a way that makes sense… not without sounding insane.”

“You don’t have to,” Megan chimed in, once again looking away from Stephen’s gaze. “When you really love someone… it never goes away… it just ‘is’. I suppose no one can explain that… or should have to.” She flashed Meredith a quick glance, then looked away. “

Meredith smiled at the girl.

“Okay,” Stephen said. “How do we do this? She said she’d be at that ice cream shop down the road after the sun went down.”

“That’s out of my range,” Megan said. “I won’t be able to smell her from here.”

Meredith nodded. “Of course, it is.” She rubbed her hands together and finished, “Let’s get this place ready to meet… your friend… Stephen. Although, I must be honest, my skills as a medium are rusty. It’s been a long time since I’ve entertained a spiritual entity.”

They all gave her an incredulous look.

She smiled. “That was a joke… mostly.”

~~~

Next Episode 53-4

Previous Episode 53-2

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 53-3: Love and Loss” Copyright © 2019 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Six: Mother. All Rights Reserved.

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meredith didn’t believe it.

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

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

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

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

“What are you reading?”

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

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

“Something wrong?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You mean, when she shape-shifts?”

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

“You know what Toby smells like?”

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

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

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

Meredith busted up laughing.

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

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

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

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

Megan waited.

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

“You think he’s looking for her?”

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

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

“Maybe.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meredith closed her eyes.

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meredith gave her an incredulous look.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s right. Are you good, then?”

“I’ll manage,” Meredith said.

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

“Are you going to answer that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s not true.”

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

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

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

“You still love him. I know you do.”

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

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

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

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

“Same thing.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I can’t… I won’t!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s my ‘real’ gift,” she teased.

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

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

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

“I’ll hold you to it.”

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

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

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

“We’ll figure it out together, okay?”

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

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

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

The medium nodded sadly.

“Can you sense her… out here?”

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

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

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

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

Meredith turned, puzzled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe.”

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

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

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

“You promise?”

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

“Meredith?” …

~~~

… “Meredith?”

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

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

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

Megan looked away. “Cooper?”

“No… not Coop.”

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

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

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

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

Megan nodded.

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

“You must have really loved her.”

“Yes,” Meredith smiled. “I still do.”

“Even after… everything?”

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

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

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

Megan waited.

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

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

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

“You’re welcome.”

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

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

“Maybe Logan,” she said.

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

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

“Oh, and Megan?”

She turned.

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

Next Episode 53-3

Previous Episode 53-1

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 53-2: Love and Loss” Copyright © 2019 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Six: Mother. All Rights Reserved.

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

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

~~~

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

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

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-Scott

~~~

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well… almost perfect, she thought.

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

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

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

“You’re impossible.”

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh… please!”

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

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

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

She leaned over and kissed him on the lips.

“What was that for?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

She paused.

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

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

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

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

Megan snorted. His astonished face was priceless.

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

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

~~~

… “Megan?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meredith waited.

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s that, honey?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s not what I mean.”

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

“I guess so.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

Their strategy had worked until recently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Retro what?” Logan said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen smiled. “Remember the fireworks you found?”

“Yeeesss,” Logan said. “I remember.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it, little brother?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“To what end, little brother?”

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

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

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

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

Stephen laughed at the windmill reference.

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

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

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

“Ever heard of an expiration date?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something shifted in his peripheral vision off to the right.

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

He saw nothing.

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

Something shifted from behind a tree.

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

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

No… no fucking way!

Eddington turned back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you talking about?”

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

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

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

Stephen was at a loss.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What was that, little brother?”

Stephen opened his eyes.

Nicole was gone.

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

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

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

“What exactly freaked you out, Stephen?”

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

“And… did you see anything?”

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

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

Stephen gave him a strange look.

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

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

Next Episode 53-2

Previous Episode 52-12

~~~

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“Chapter 53-1: Love and Loss” Copyright © 2019 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Six: Mother. All Rights Reserved.

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

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