Archive for the ‘Zombies’ Category

~~~

Another half a mile up the highway, they entered the central hub of Wayne Village, unremarkably located around one major intersection. Small residential homes lined both sides of the streets, branching out and away from the intersection in all four directions. At the intersection, there was an old family restaurant on the right, that had been closed and boarded up. A long-neglected sign read: CROSSROADS FAMILY REST… The remaining letters, too faded to make out. On the other side of the street on the right, a tall church spire penetrated the surrounding tree tops. On the left was a burned down grocery store, and a three-story brick structure with a generic dirty sign that read: Wayne Apartments.

The sky continued to get darker as a light rain began to fall.

Tensions were high as the survivors continued to stare back the way they came, expecting another herd of the dead to appear out of nowhere. To make matters worse, every structure in Wayne stood exposed with the front doors either completely off their hinges, hanging askew, or just left wide open, blowing against their frames as the wind picked up. Most windows had been shattered. Litter blew across the street from piles of domesticated junk that had been removed and abandoned in front of their homes.

They needed to find shelter from the storm but Wayne felt uninviting and sinister.

Tony told the others to hold up near the intersection while himself, Diane and Alysa examined the yards.

When they crossed the intersection, Nine got a good view of the church parking lot. The large lot was full of ancient-looking cars that had been there long before the winter, resembling more of a junkyard. The front double doors of the grime-covered faded white church stood open like the mouth of some dormant monster, waiting for its next victim to foolishly step inside… and prey.

Wendy stepped up next to Nine and startled him. “It looks like everyone fled their homes in a hurry to… what… go hide in the church? Wait out the storm in numbers?”

Nine couldn’t stop looking away from the church doors. “I keep thinking if we went up there we’d find rotting bodies loaded in the pews, still listening to their last sermon.”

“Everything here feels… wrong,” Wendy said, nodding toward the church. “Especially that place.”

“They came here to die together,” Matthew said. “Probably hoping to meet God when all hell broke loose on Day One.”

“That’s fucking bleak,” Mark said, staring at the cars. “Think any of them might have left a set of keys before the service?”

Nine ignored their chatter. He found the church marquee lying in the weeds near the entrance:

First Congregational Church
Pastor Ray and Mary Speers
Going to waste? Let God recycle you.
BS – 9:45 Services – 11am & 7pm

Any other time, Nine would’ve found the saying amusing, but in light of the present, it gave him a chill instead. This whole damn world is going to waste.

Wendy snickered at the sign and said, “‘Soul food served here’.”

Nine gave her a puzzled look.

“That’s the only one I could remember,” she said. “My friends and I used to read all these church signs just for those funny phrases.”

Nine laughed, remembering one. “‘To prevent ‘sinburn’ use ‘Sonscreen’.’”

“That’s a good one,” she said. “How about, ‘7 days without prayer makes 1 weak’.”

“‘Vote Mother Teresa, nun of the above’,” Matthew chimed in, surprising the others.

“‘Forbidden fruit creates many jams’,” Nine added.

Wendy snorted at that one, causing even gloomy Matt to crack a smile. “Okay… ‘Brush up on your bible, it prevents Truth decay’,” she added.

Nine shook his head with a smile. “That’s lame.”

Wendy laughed. “Yeah… it is.”

“Okay, wait for it,” Nine said with a deviant smile. “‘Cremation is your last chance for a smoking hot body’.”

Matt and Wendy both lost it on that one.

“Would you idiots keep it down,” Mark hissed.

Tony, Alysa and Diane came over.

“Everything alright?” Tony said.

“Just trying to lighten the mood,” Nine said, staring back at the church doors. “Please tell me we aren’t sleeping in there.”

The big man stared at the church. “Hell no.” He turned and pointed across the street at another smaller church set back from the road that had been converted into a town hall. “Alysa checked the building through the windows. Two ways in or out, with one large room. Big wooden secure doors. But most importantly, it’s one of the few places here that appears to have been overlooked… and the front door is unlocked.”

“We could just… keep going,” Nine suggested.

Tony looked at the sky. “No. We’re about to have one helluva storm. Last thing we need is to get sick out here. And Diane needs rest.”

“I’m okay,” she defended a bit too harshly. “Besides, this place… this place reminds me of the back end of a horror novel with the front pages missing; don’t’ know what happened, but all the signs point to something bad.”

“Agreed,” Tony said. “But we need shelter and we all need rest. We’ll lay low in the town hall, get our strength back, and get the hell out of here at first light.”

Alysa was looking around repeatedly, holding her bow at the ready. She made the others jumpy.

“What is it?” Tony said.

“I’m with the hunter,” she said. “This place is giving me a bad vibe.”

The rain started falling harder.

“Let’s just get inside and we’ll figure out what to do from there,” Tony said. He looked back once more at the church doors. “I want to get out of the street… now.”

They were all in agreement as Alysa led them across the highway and into the vacant town hall building.

Overhead, the sky grew increasingly darker. A bolt of lightning zipped across the sky.

~~~

The inside of the town hall building was mostly clear. There were rows of aluminum folding chairs set up before a raised platform. A podium with a long dead microphone collected cobwebs at the center of the platform. On both sides of the room were two long fold-up tables, presumably where refreshments might have once been set up for various public official speaking engagements.

After securing the front door, Tony set Diane, Wendy and Matthew near windows on three sides to act as lookouts while himself, Alysa, and Nine swept the remainder of the hall, behind the platform, to verify that they were alone. A single hallway ran along the backside of the podium where they discovered two small bathrooms, and a large storage room full of town relics from days long past. They made sure the back door was still secure and then rejoined the others in the front.

“What do you suppose the final town meeting was like?” Nine joked. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” he said in a mock politician’s voice. “I assure you, there’s no need to be alarmed. The situation is well under control. There is no zombie epidemic… I repeat… no epidemic. So please… return to your homes and go about your business as usual. There is no need to panic. Pizza delivery services have been restored… I repeat… pizza delivery services-”

“Nine,” Diane interrupted.

“Yes, my angel?”

“Shut up.”

“You got it.”

“Sky is getting real dark,” Wendy said, staring out one of two large front windows and up at the dark swirling mass of ominous clouds. “Looks like night out there but it’s still a couple of hours before sunset. It’s going to be a bad one.”

Tony nodded. “This place looks like our new home for the night. Might as well get comfortable and settle in. We’ll eat and try to get some sleep in shifts.”

Just then, the sky erupted as a bright flash followed by a loud BOOM reverberated overhead.

“Shit,” Mark said. “That’s close.” He started removing candles from his bag. “No lights, no worries. Courtesy of Annie’s bunker of doomsday supplies and horrors.” He met Diane’s gaze. “Sorry.”

The hunter turned away and pulled a chair up next to the window facing the creepy church across the street. She collapsed in the chair and let out a heavy sigh. “What do you suppose happened over there? It doesn’t look like anyone left that church after entering for the final service.”

Nine stepped up behind her and placed his hands on her shoulders. “I keep thinking we’ll find them all sitting in their pews… dead and decomposed… getting ready to sing another hymn.”

“That’s a disturbing image.” Another burst of lightening lit up the sky. Thunder rumbled and cracked overhead, causing Diane to jump in her seat. “That’s going to get old real fast.”

“How’s the pain?”

“Manageable,” she said. “Annie’s doomsday bunker of supplies and horrors came fully stocked; drugs to knock you out for immediate arm removal, and drugs to help you forget that it’s gone.”

“Yeah, but she didn’t have any laugh-inducing drugs you could smoke… total let down.”

She looked up at him and smiled. “That’s the last thing you need.”

“Are you kidding?” Nine said. “We should all be stoned to oblivion right now. Pass the apocalyptic peace pipe, please.” He leaned in and whispered, “Hell, can you imagine what a little wacky-tobaccy would do to that ultra-serious archer in the room?”

She laughed. “Stop it. Now I really want to get high. I’ll just have to add it to the list, right below a double-cheeseburger and just above a two-hour bath.”

Nine let loose a wicked little smile. “I know what just bumped itself to the top of my list.”

“Keep dreaming… maybe I’ll let you have a bite of my burger.”

Nine laughed.

She suddenly imagined herself naked in a tub, having to look at the grotesque stub sticking out of her right shoulder. Her mood immediately changed as she quickly wiped a tear from her eye. “Forget the fucking bath. It’s off the list… permanently.”

Nine wanted to reach out and take all her pain away. He hated seeing Diane like this. But anything he could do or say would come off as pity, and for Diane, that was the same as pouring salt over an open wound. He just pulled a chair up beside her and sat in silence.

She leaned over and put her head on his shoulder as they stared out into the fast approaching night.

~~~

The rain clapped the pavement outside and struck the roof like gravel being dumped from the sky. Thunder continued to roar overhead as intermittent lightening lit up the large space, illuminating the tension on everyone’s faces.

Mark and Nine had found several dark blankets in the town hall storeroom that they used to cover the windows before night set in. This allowed them to safely light a few candles without risk of exposure to anyone or anything lurking out in the darkness.

They all sat in a small circle of fold-up chairs, like an addiction support group, near the back corner of the room. Some were eating what they could while others were just waiting for the dreadful storm to end, trying to kill the time with hushed sidebar conversations. No one was ready to attempt sleep.

Alysa, who normally looked like she was waiting for some imminent attack that no one else knew about, was sitting in a chair, bow resting across her lap, looking… at ease? She listened to the rain, staring off into some distant place, with a nostalgic little smile betraying her humanity.

Tony found her unusual demeanor amusing. “Where are you right now?”

Alysa looked at the big man, immediately raising her shields. “It’s nothing.”

He waited.

She smiled and said, “Okay. I was remembering a time from my short-lived youth. I had a sister once. When we were younger, we’d listen to the storms and make up stories. Sometimes… in the afternoons… we’d sneak outside and dance in the rain, pretending we were anywhere and anyone we desired. I never laughed so hard in my life.” She frowned as reality set in. “But that was long ago. Storms like these always bring it back… for a moment.”

“What was your sister’s name?” Tony asked.

“Eva,” she said with a smile. “I was always the practical one. She was the dreamer.” She stopped abruptly. “Doesn’t matter. She’s dead.”

“I’m sorry,” Tony said. “I didn’t mean to stir up anything.”

“It’s alright,” she said. “She died a long time ago, long before any of this. Perhaps she was the lucky one.”

“Perhaps.” Tony caught himself staring too long. He looked away from the vulnerable archer. “It’s nice seeing another part of you, something other than the warrior. It’s… refreshing.”

Alysa didn’t know how to respond. She started to rise. “I should do a sweep. Make sure everything is-”

“I’m sure we’re still alright,” Tony said with a laugh. “No one with any sense will be out in this weather right now. Why don’t you sit back down and we’ll finally have that chat.”

Alysa let out a heavy sigh.

The others stopped what they were doing and were looking at her.

Tony waited expectantly.

“I suppose now is as good a time as any,” she relented, sitting back down in her chair. “What do you wish to know?” Whatever vulnerabilities Tony had observed were gone.

“I was captured in those woods, long before we acquired the compound,” Tony began. He was all serious now. “Samantha Petroskovich, a former police officer, was in charge of security at that… death camp… run by Micom and some crazy machine referred to as Micolad. Any of this ring a bell?”

Alysa’s face was unreadable. “I am aware of the camp, the cop, and the leadership.”

Tony nodded. “Then you know the horrific things that took place there? The Gathering?”

“Yes.”

“Were you part of all that?”

“Initially, before the objectives changed, yes, I was part of it.”

“Objectives?”

Alysa leaned back in her chair and scanned their suspicious faces. “There’s nothing I can say in my defense that will make up for some of the atrocities that I participated in at that camp. I did horrible things that I’m not proud of.”

Wendy looked at the others and then said, “Well, I can’t speak for the others, but all I know is that you helped get us out of the woods. And if not for you, Diane would be dead… just like Beverly.” She wiped a tear from her eye and finished, “Whatever you did, I’m sure that’s not you anymore.” She added a smile.

Alysa smiled back. “Thank you for that.”

“Hell, we’d all be sleeping while the dead Greenman family ate us alive, if you hadn’t showed up,” Mark added. “I’m sure we’re going to bite the bullet in the end… but I’m grateful it wasn’t like that… so… yeah, whatever you did… screw it.”

“You saved my ass… twice,” Diane added weakly, discovering that her pride felt as absent as her right arm. “I still don’t know what to make of you, yet, but maybe you’ve earned a little leniency from us. That’s all I’ve got to say.” She quickly looked away.

Nine looked at Diane proudly. He turned to Alysa and laughed, “What can I say, except, you haven’t eaten any of us yet, so, maybe you’re not all bad.”

Alysa raised an eyebrow. “Is it Tuesday yet?”

Everyone laughed a little.

“Good one!” Nine said. “And I sure hope you were kidding about that.”

“Go on, Alysa,” Tony said. “We’re not going to judge you for the past. We’ve all done things. Maybe not as bad as what you’ve done, but things that we have to live with.” He looked away. “You can provide us some answers now, and perhaps a little bit of closure for all the ones we’ve lost.”

Alysa nodded, took a deep breath, and continued. “In the beginning, The Shadow Dead, Micom, Micolad—we were all part of the same controlled experiment. The camp was created, in part, to study the long-term effects on survivors forced to live within a vacuum environment. Micom was the leadership, Micolad was the diety, and we were… we were the devil. The experiment was designed to work in phases. Phase One’s purpose was to form and focus on the strengths and weaknesses of ‘community’. Phase Two introduced an unbeatable adversary to discover what conflict would do to that community. That’s where the Shadow Dead fit in. What would happen to said community in the face of adversity? What would the element of fear show us? Desperation? Panic? Emotional reactions were documented and studied. Phase Three’s intent was to focus on faith. Could a populace, after being scattered like ants, be controlled by giving them a higher power to believe in? Could faith be forged into a weapon against an unbeatable enemy? That’s where it all started going wrong.

What started off as controlled fiction, turned into a delusional fact. Micom tossed out the script. He’d perverted the experiment and turned Micolad into a god-like mediator between man and beast with the intent to find a way to coexist with the dead… and like some of the gods that history has taught us about, Micom believed that human sacrifices were the key. It was Micom who created The Gatherings. He re-programmed Micolad and modified the Shadow Dead’s agenda to suit his new objectives. And like good little soldiers, following orders, my former brethren never questioned it… and that’s when I got out.”

“Sam was right all along,” Tony said, stunned, and shaking his head. “She tried to tell us that something was off about the camp. She believed we were guinea pigs in an experiment.”

Alysa nodded. “Somewhere along the way, well above my paygrade, the order came down to ‘secure’ the children. So we took them… all of them. And then when the experiments started on the kids, I was done.”

Tony remembered the pool full of bodies along the river, and the lifeless eyes of the young boy with the hole in his forehead. “I found bodies in the river,” he said. “Some were just kids.”

She nodded, staring at the floor. “Those who were sentenced to walk the river after the gatherings were either turned… or killed. Some of the children were… rejected. They were also put to death.”

Tony unconsciously balled his fists and closed his eyes. “Did you do that?”

“I followed orders,” she said. “If death was required… it was quick. One stab to the skull, just in case the outbreak ever mutated… or repeated.”

The silence in the room was thick.

Tony nodded, but refused to look at her. “That explains the wounds I saw on their foreheads. But what did you mean by ‘mutated or repeated’?”

Alysa sighed and stared into all their faces. “The organization you’ve come to know as ‘Mother’, is pulling all the strings. Mother has known what was coming for a long time… and has prepared for this epidemic in a variety of ways, with unlimited funding and resources. Aside from that general fact, and understanding that the Shadow Dead is one of many pieces created to fit this apocalyptic puzzle, I don’t pretend to grasp the motivations behind everything Mother has put in play. But I do know that the powers-to-be have been carefully monitoring and adapting to the effects of the outbreak on the population. They knew how the infection spread, and that if someone died aside from being bitten, that they would just… die. But they also knew that the possibility remained that this could change—mutate—especially since the dead initially came back from the grave. Along with this, they also knew ‘The Change’ was coming, and that it would strike randomly. But while most survivors sat around afterwards trying to figure out all the ‘whys’ behind who was spared and who wasn’t, everyone except Mother overlooked the most terrifying possibility of all.”

“That… The Change… might happen again,” Wendy whispered.

“Exactly,” Alysa said. “Thus, the word ‘repeat’.”

Another boom of lightning struck overhead to add emphasis.

Nine laughed nervously, pointing toward the ceiling.

Tony shook his head and looked at the archer. “Well… we’re just going to have to hope that possibility doesn’t happen… or else we’re screwed.”

“Randomly screwed,” Mark corrected.

“What was it the first time around?” Wendy asked. “One out of every five or so, right?”

“That’s about right,” Alysa said.

“And there’s no way to determine… who might turn?” Nine asked.

“The term I’ve heard come down is ‘selected’,” Alysa said. “I don’t know what the means, but I do know it sounds a lot less random when you put it that way.”

“Sure does,” Diane said as a sudden chill seized her.

“So, let’s get back to the kids,” Tony said, refusing to continue entertaining the notion of a second Change. “You said that you got out because of what was happening to the children. Explain that?”

Alysa’s shoulders sank as though she were suddenly wearing a thousand pounds. “Mother had already found a way to ‘weaponize’ the outbreak. God only knows why. An injection was all it took. We could also apply it to our traditional weapons… like what happened the night of the attack. But that was forbidden… at least, until then.” She sighed and continued. “We’d catch them escaping, inject them, and then tie them up to the trees as warning markers for the rest of the community. This also kept up the illusion that the Shadow Dead were… zombies… to use a generic term.”

“And how do the children fit into this?” Diane asked.

“Through all sorts of hideous experimentation on the children that I will not repeat… it was originally believed that a cure could come from them… but it turned out to be the exact opposite. The younger the child, the more potent the disease. All the children tested, were in fact… carriers… even if they showed no outward signs.”

“How can that be possible?” Wendy asked. “What you’re saying is that all children contracted whatever the hell it was that happened when The Change occurred… but it didn’t ‘change’ them?”

“Oh, it did,” Alysa said. “It’s been documented that most of the children above the age of two were affected as randomly by The Change as anyone else… and when they turned… it was estimated that they were five times more… ruthless… for lack of a better word, than the rest of the older yellow-eyed beasts. But some of the youngest ones Mother had acquired, didn’t ‘change’, not outwardly. Either they continued on with the infection inside of them, for a short time, until they simply burned out, or, in the case of the rare few… they simply continued on… living. Those rare kids are who Mother is trying to locate. They believe the infection has either gone dormant inside of them, or, that their bodies have simply adapted to it… which, in a sense, makes them immune. And pregnant women… well… they were considered gold. The opportunities to study the effects of the outbreak from the womb, watch it progress, and learn from it, was considered one of Mother’s higher priorities. There were… lists… of women already being monitored prior to The Change, who were of special interest. Should they survive the ‘selection’ after The Change commenced… well… they were highly sought after.” Alysa placed her hands together and finished the rest. “As for the non-rare children, their blood is drawn and used in the injections. The particular strain that runs through their bodies, is the most potent and works very rapidly to ‘infect’ people.”

Tony immediately thought of Megan. He got up out of his chair and walked away before he exploded on the former Shadow Dead. He looked like he wanted to punch a wall.

Diane was the first to speak. “You knew about all this? What they were doing to the kids? So, you just… ran away? How do you sleep at night?”

Alysa’s smile was loaded with irony. Her eyes were full of sadness and far, far away. “I don’t sleep much. The one realm my skills are useless in are the dreams that haunt me. They are the only things that truly terrify me.” She looked back toward the floor.

The others were surprised by her open admission of vulnerability.

Another volley of lightning lit up the room, followed by more crackling thunder.

Tony turned back toward the former Shadow Dead. He wanted to hate her and throw her ass out into the darkness… but he couldn’t. Beneath all the atrocities she was a part of, and her connection to this diabolical group known as Mother, Alysa was once someone else… someone who used to laugh and dance in the rain with her sister. He continued to stare at the downcast young woman, with the perfectly braided hair, an imperfect mask of stone no longer able to conceal her guilt; a beautiful, attractive woman—and a repulsive one—all rolled together. Alysa was a complicated mess; a childhood on fire constantly burning within an older house made of arctic ice… but still human. She ran… to save herself, Tony thought. Because if she had stayed any longer, she would’ve completed becoming another monster.

He took a deep breath and walked back over to his chair and sat down.

Alysa refused to look at him… any of them.

Tony finally spoke, breaking the uncomfortable heaviness. “Alysa, I only have one more question for you, right now. My mind’s already spinning out of control with what you’ve unloaded on us.”

She looked up into his eyes. “I completely understand. Ask your last question.” She looked around at the others, and finished, “I just hope my next answer doesn’t result in me being hung from the rafters.”

Tony smiled. “No… this is an easy one.”

She waited.

“Your sister, Eva, do you miss her?”

The smile that broke on the former Shadow Dead’s face was a mixture of surprise and intense relief. “Yes,” she said. “Every day.”

He couldn’t turn away from that stunningly beautiful face. Tony felt like he was truly seeing the woman behind the monster for the first time.

The storm rescued them from the strange, yet alluring moment.

Another burst of thunder cracked overhead causing Wendy to jump. “I’m really starting to hate that!” she said, causing Mark to laugh.

The rain came down harder and the wind picked up, causing the water to strike the front door at a new downward angle.

Wendy excused herself from the conversation to go peer out through the curtain of one of the front windows and into the blackness. As her eyes adjusted, she just made out the familiar form of the church spire against the overcast sky, but nothing else. The darkness made her shiver as her imagination made it come to life in her mind; it felt oppressive and heavy, just waiting out there for one of them to let it in as the night would consume them all, like it had everything outside.

Lightning illuminated the clouds for three seconds, several large bolts speeding across the sky like lit cracks across a dark mirror. Wendy looked toward the church parking lot and gasped, stepping away from the curtain and nearly falling over a chair.

“What is it?” Tony asked, rising to his feet.

Wendy’s face looked haunted. She couldn’t find words and pointed outside.

Tony and the others raced to the two front windows and peeked out from behind the curtains.

Another round of lightning lit up the area.

And then they saw them.

“Fuck me,” Mark whispered.

Appearing out of the darkness at brief intervals, the lightning revealed the reanimated dead, standing out in front of the town hall, spread out across the highway, in the church parking lot, and on the church steps—all motionless—as the wind ripped against their tattered, rain drenched clothing. They were all staring up into the night as if trying to figure out how to devour the storm.

“There must be at least a hundred of them,” Nine said, feeling his throat tighten up.

“More than that,” Alysa said. “These are just the ones we can see. They’re probably all around us—maybe the entire town.”

“What the hell are they doing?” Matthew asked.

Tony stepped away. “Doesn’t matter. They don’t know we’re here, or they would’ve swarmed this place.”

“Storm’s hiding our scent,” Diane suggested.

Tony nodded. “Okay. Let’s just try to stay calm, reduce some more of this candlelight, and stay quiet. I don’t know what this is… but we’re hidden for now.”

“So much for sleep,” Mark said.

“So much for sleep,” Alysa repeated with a smile.

Mark caught the joke and laughed.

For the remainder of the night, they took turns patrolling the building in pairs, checking and re-checking the doors and windows. The rest sat huddled around a single candle, waiting for the fierce storm to end and jumping at every sound, believing the dead had finally found them.

The night passed painfully slow. The storm eventually ceased a couple of hours before dawn. The dead slowly wandered back inside the church, the apartment building, and everywhere else they’d sat dormant, until the storm had drawn them all out.

By dawn, the Village of Wayne once again resumed its illusion of another ghost town while the dead went hungry.

The exhausted survivors departed quietly out the back of the town hall, hit the highway, and continued west without a word until the living nightmare of Wayne was an hour behind them.

~~~

Chapter 41 continues on Monday…

Previous Episode 41-1

~~~

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“Chapter 41-2: Siege” Copyright © 2017 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Five: Remains. 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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~~~

By early afternoon, when Diane was fit enough to travel, they continued west along Route 322, passing several old neglected farms on large fields slowly being reclaimed by nature. Everywhere they looked told the same story: Society’s complete economic and social breakdown as Mankind, whether by the dead or by the elements, was slowly fading away. Places once maintained for generations were now silent graveyards of rot, rust and weeds.

The early morning sun had gone into hiding as a storm front moved in. A dark overcast sky accentuated they’re gloomy moods as everyone kept to themselves, slowly trudging along the desolate highway.

No one considered investigating the farms, or the occasional house along the way, as an understandable distrust and dread of discovering the living rivaled stirring the dead in those dark abodes. They had plenty of food and water, and a few more weapons acquired from the Greenman house, and they intended to keep their supplies… and their lives… by sticking to the roadway, eyes forward, and quickly passing every former dwelling like ghosts.

“A car would be nice,” Mark grumbled to Wendy’s left as he stared ahead at the endless road, riddled with fading yellow dashes that mocked their every tired step. Himself, Wendy and Matthew were walking a few feet ahead of Tony and Nine, who were moving much slower to help Diane. Alysa took up the rear with her bow drawn, waiting for threats from everywhere.

Wendy said nothing as she tried to forget about the heavy pack she was wearing.

“I mean… it’s like some sick joke,” Mark continued, readjusting the weight of his own heavy pack on his shoulders. “All this open highway, and here we are, walking our asses off. I’m starting to feel like that thirsty guy stranded at sea, surrounded by water he can’t drink. Annie didn’t have a car… nothing working at the Pendleton place either. And every time we see one along the road, it’s either missing keys, out of gas, the battery is dead, or the engine’s flooded.” He looked to his left at the latest two-story home set back down a long gravel driveway. There was a Ford pick-up truck in the drive, guarded by unknown residents hidden behind foreboding dark windows and nerve-wracking silence. “Take that truck, for example,” he continued, while no one cared to listen. “There’s probably a key hanging just inside the front door… ripe for the taking. But we just keep on going, afraid of our own damn shadows.”

“Then go check it out,” Matt finally said from behind him, his irritation evident. “And if you manage to not get eaten by the dead, or jumped by the living for all the shit you’re carrying, and still find keys for that truck, and if it even runs, then we’ll all sing your praises from here on out.”

Mark shot him a dirty look.

Matt gave him one in return.

“Take it easy,” Wendy said. “This is the last thing we need right now. Tony doesn’t want us taking any more risks, especially with Diane struggling to keep up.”

Mark shook his head and laughed. “He should’ve thought of that sooner. Then maybe Beverly-”

“Shut your mouth!” Wendy stopped and cautioned. “Not a fucking word about that… do you hear me?”

Mark looked like he was about to challenge the short young woman, but held back when he saw the seriousness in her face. “Whatever,” he finally said, pushing on ahead of them.

Wendy took a deep breath, regretting that she stopped as the weight of her pack felt heavier.

Matt held up next to her. “You… okay?”

She gave him a half-hearted smile. “I should be asking you that.”

He frowned, feeling the weight of his own pack. “I’ll be fine… when I can get this pack off my back and sleep for a thousand years.”

She laughed. “At least we’re useful now. Although I never pictured myself as the group ‘pack animal’.”

Matt smiled weakly. “Let’s keep moving before the others catch up. I can’t look at her without losing my shit.”

Wendy glanced back at Diane. She was walking in between Tony and Nine with her arm, her only arm, wrapped around Nine’s shoulder. The stub of her other arm was wrapped in gauze and buried within a light rain coat. The once fierce hunter of the group hardly looked up from the road as Nine occasionally tried to talk to her. Tony stayed close, his rifle out, guarding the young woman like a hawk. When she did look up, her face was a mixture of pain and deep sadness, partially obscured behind her brown hair. She briefly met Wendy’s gaze and quickly looked away, feeling humiliated, like some freak show spectacle.

Wendy turned away, feeling her heart sink and wiping a tear from her eye. “That poor girl,” she whispered to Matt. “She hasn’t said a word since waking up.”

“Careful,” Matt said, staring to move. “Don’t let her hear you talking like that… or see that pity-face your wearing. That’s all it will take.”

Wendy started moving. “‘All it will take’?”

The young man frowned, staring off into nowhere. “We all have our limits. I’ve already reached mine. She’s probably very close to hers.”

“And what does that mean, exactly?” Wendy pushed.

Matthew said nothing.

~~~

Tony was the only one who appreciated the seemingly endless road before them. It allowed him time to process his conflicted and heavy thoughts while trying to figure out their next move. If there was anything he hated most about being the leader, it was that he always had to be ready at a moment’s notice to make some dreadful decision that might cost them something if he chose wrong. For as long as they remained on the road, those choices seemed easier… linear: Just keep moving, or stop and risk dying.

He stared up at the storm clouds. They would have to stop soon and find shelter. The thought filled him with anxiety, causing him to second guess every decision as they passed each home that offered a roof… and the devil only knew what else.

He focused on Diane instead. “How are you holding up?”

Nine gave him a wary look.

Too late.

“I’m fine,” she snapped, refusing to look in his direction. “Just like the last damn time you asked… and the time before that.”

Tony was about to speak, but wisely remained silent.

“In fact… I’m feeling fucking peachy, if a new adjective will shut you the hell up. Why don’t you stop staring at me like I’m some fragile china doll, and find something else to worry about.” She coughed from the exerted effort to speak.

Tony backed off and let the two of them walk ahead. Shit. She’s right. I’m smothering her… making her feel… weak.

“I would’ve put an arrow in your ass the second time you asked that pointless question,” Alysa said, stepping up beside him. “But she’s a lot more generous than me.”

Tony turned to the archer with the stone face, failing to initially catch her dead-pan humor. “You know… just when I’m starting to like you again, you start to piss me off.”

She gave him a wicked smile. “So… perhaps I should ask: How are you holding up?”

“You’re such a bitch” he said with a laugh.

Alysa shrugged her shoulders. “I’ve been called worse. Seriously though, lay off the hunter. She needs time to ‘adapt’, and that won’t happen until after she has time to ‘accept’, first.”

“Accept what?”

“That she’s a warrior who’s lost her ability to fight.”

Tony felt the heaviness left behind by that horrible truth.

“Warriors don’t have much else,” Alysa continued. “In my former life, if what happened to Diane happened to one of us, the expectation was that one of our comrades grant us an efficient death.”

“Sounds harsh. Must have sucked to get wounded as a Shadow Dead.”

Alysa gave him a puzzled look. “You speak of things you can’t possibly understand. In our Order, being a warrior is everything. It’s a sign of deep respect to be put to death after receiving a serious wound.” She nodded toward Diane. “What she’s going to suffer through now, and all the debilitating shame to follow, is worse than death among my kind.”

“She’s tough. She’ll get through this,” Tony said. “She past the worst of it. Her wound is no longer life-threatening.”

“Would you allow a bird with broken wings to live, knowing that it will never fly again? Is that kindness? Mercy? Or just cruel?”

Tony gave her a hard look. “Diane’s more than just a warrior… hell… I hope we all have a chance to stop fighting one day. She’ll eventually figure this out and adapt… as you say. We’ve all had to adjust to a great many things since this shit started.”

“Yes, but a warrior is different than most. The rest of you fight because you must. A warrior fights because it’s all she is.”

Tony looked at Diane and Nine. He smiled. “She has more to live for than that. You’re wrong about her. Diane’s not like you.”

Alysa flinched at his cold words, surprised by her own vulnerable response. “You mock me. Fine. But if you’re wrong about your friend. She will suffer.”

“Diane will ‘accept’ what she has to… like we all have had to do… and ‘adapt’ accordingly. Perhaps you’re the one who needs to re-evaluate things, especially since you’re no longer a Shadow Dead. Remember?”

Alysa turned away. “Perhaps. But I am a warrior… and I will die as one. Shadow Dead, or not.”

“And when the fighting is done, what then?” Tony pushed. “What does a warrior do, then?”

The archer had no response. She glanced into Tony’s sincere eyes, and found no contempt this time. Somehow, she’d allowed the focus of their conversation to fall directly on her, making her uncomfortable.

She turned away, guards firmly back in place. “Should that time come, and we are both still breathing… you can ask me that again. But until then, it’s irrelevant.”

Tony laughed lightly and stared at the quiver on her back. “You are quick. I didn’t even see you pull out that ‘arrow of avoidance’ and open fire.”

Alysa shook her head. “I have many arrows.” She deliberately made a show of looking at his ass. “And that is increasingly becoming a better target for many of them if you continue down this road.”

Tony laughed.

Alysa released a genuine smile, and then quickly caught herself doing it. She stopped abruptly, stone face intact, and said, “Go on ahead. You’re distracting me.”

“Yes, Sir.” He mock saluted, walking ahead. “But don’t think for a minute that I don’t know what you’re really doing back there.”

She gave him a puzzled look. “Explain?”

Tony didn’t say a word.

She caught herself staring at his ass and then rolled her eyes. Another rare smile broke through her stony exterior.

~~~

They made it to the outskirts of Wayne Township by midday. The sky was so dark it felt like early evening.

Tony’s concern at this point was finding shelter before the storm broke. But he continued to show reluctance as they passed each dead-looking home along the road, believing that their lack of encountering the dead out in the open only meant that they were either roaming the open fields or lying dormant in houses, just waiting for the living to step inside and stir them to violence.

Mark called back from the front of the group, pointing toward a long narrow stretch of open field to their left. “I see something,” he said. “Not sure what to make of it.”

Tony and the others caught up with him.

Mark pointed to several sets of wide tire tracks that veered off the roadway and through the field.

Diane, who was feeling less pain now thanks to a stash of Annie’s painkillers they’d brought with them from her bunker, knelt down to investigate the tracks. “Looks like one large truck… maybe two other smaller ones. Tracks are a month old, maybe longer.”

Wendy’s eyes lit up. “Remember Annie’s story? She described a group of people in front of her home, driving trucks. Maybe it’s the same people we’re looking for?”

“Maybe they’re just waiting for us to step into that field so they can blow our heads off,” Mark added. He then pointed further into the field. “Look there. I can’t tell what those are, but there’s several of them, all in a line at the back of the field.”

“Those are targets,” Alysa said, squinting her eyes. “Specifically, archery targets.”

Nine laughed, pointing to the archer’s diminishing supply of arrows on her back. “That’s some well-timed good luck. Looks like you’ll be able to re-stock on a few arrows… assuming we check it out.”

Alysa gave the young man a thoughtful look, and then turned to Tony. “What do you want to do?”

Tony was staring past the targets to where he thought he saw the side of a building nestled just inside the tree line.

Diane found another piece of the puzzle when she noticed an old crushed sign buried in the tall grass. She pulled it out, struggling with her one hand, and let it fall on the road.

Mark came over and read the sign. “Dunbarr’s Archery and Guns.” He raised his eyebrows to Tony. “If our murderous friends are still there… and if they weren’t armed… they are now.”

“They’re long gone,” Diane said. “There’s tracks going in and coming back out again. They probably understood what they found, looted the place, and moved on.”

Tony nodded and then stared up at the ominous sky. “Weapons or not, we need shelter soon. Anything we find is a plus.” He nodded toward the field. “There’s a structure back there, hidden from the road. I say it’s worth exploring. I’m not looking forward to spending the night out in this fucking storm. I believe Diane is right. Those fuckers are long gone… but there may be some clues left behind telling us where they went.” He turned to Alysa. “What do you think?”

The archer was caught by surprise. She turned toward the field. “I could use a few more arrows. There could still be a huge surplus of overlooked weapons or ammunition there. I say it’s worth the risk… but we will be exposed. I recommend going in quietly—blunt weapons only. That way, if we encounter the dead, we won’t bring the rest of this town’s dead residents right to us with gunfire.”

“Agreed,” Tony said, removing one of several hunting knives they acquired from the Greenman stash. He still had the fire axe, holding it in his other arm. He addressed the others. “We stick together and make sure the area is safe and secure before we do anything else.”

The others nodded, retrieving their own knives, looking entirely awkward holding them. Mark also had a long metal pipe, Matthew—a crowbar, and Nine had a wooden baseball bat he’d grabbed from the room of one of Annie’s boys.

“I feel all ‘Lord of the Flies’ like,” Nine said, holding his large knife and the bat.

Diane gave him a weak smile and shook her head.

She was caught off guard when Tony walked up to her and held out a handgun. “I’m hoping for the no-gunfire approach… but… just in case, I want us ready.”

She stared at the weapon and then at Tony, waiting for him to realize the obvious.

“Take it,” he said. “You’re probably still better left-handed then these kids are with two hands.”

Diane was about to speak, but then nodded, accepting the weapon like a good soldier.

Tony left her standing there and walked up to the front where Alysa had her bow loaded and ready. “That was a good thing,” she said.

“What’s that?” Tony asked.

“Showing her that you still have confidence in her might help her find it in herself.”

“That was the idea. Ready?”

The archer nodded, and then took point as she crouched down low and ventured into the field. The others followed, trying to use the tall grass as concealment.

~~~

“My God,” Matt whispered, stopping with the others.

“That’s some fucked-up shit,” Mark added when they were close enough to the six archery targets to make out four bodies pinned on the targets with arrows through their chests.

Wendy put her hands to her mouth. Her face went pale. “Are they… are they…”

“No,” Alysa said, beating her to the question. “They haven’t turned. Whoever they were… they were alive when this happened. They’re really dead now.”

They all cautiously approached the targets.

Nine counted the targets again to avoid staring into four faces with tortured expressions, eyes wide
open—one man, a woman, and two teenage girls. They had all been stripped naked before being executed. “Six,” he said. “That’s not a good sign… at all.” He started looking around nervously.

Tony forced himself to examine the faces of each suspended victim. “They’re not our people,” he finally said. “Probably local. Fucking animals!”

Alysa removed one of the arrows from the chest of a blond-haired teen and examined it. “Some of these are still good.” She started removing the arrows and placing them in her quiver. The dead teen’s body fell limp to the grass.

“What’s the matter with you?” Wendy said, causing the archer to stop. “You just… you just plucked those arrows out of that poor dead girl like she wasn’t even there!”

Alysa stared at the odd-looking woman with the glasses, trying to figure out what she’d done to offend her.

Wendy huffed in frustration and then walked up to the fallen teen lying all distorted in the tall grass. She grabbed her cold, rotting arms and pulled her away from the target until she was lying flat on her back. Wendy crossed the dead girl’s arms in front of her chest, trying to restore some sense of dignity. “I need something to cover her up,” she said, wiping tears from her face.

“What are you doing?” Alysa asked. “She’s dead, and doesn’t care what you do to her body.”

“Just… just shut up… please,” Wendy said.

Nine found an old tarp and dragged it over to the targets. “Here. We’ll take them down and cover them up with this.” They reluctantly began removing arrows from the corpses.

Alysa shook her head. “Was I not doing that already?” She resumed removing arrows until the bodies were all lying in the grass.

Nine, Mark and Matthew pulled the large tarp over the remains.

Tony and Diane were investigating the side of the structure just passed the tree line. The rusted green aluminum siding blended well with the surrounding foliage. After walking the perimeter of it, and finding two sturdy locked doors, they ended up back where they started.

Diane looked up toward the top of a two-level home, converted into a place of business. “Roof looks intact. Place is old, but well concealed from the road.”

Tony pointed toward a large two-car garage door. “That’s our way in. If nothing else, we could secure the garage and stay in there tonight.”

The hunter looked at him. “Are you expecting trouble?”

He turned back toward the targets. The others were standing around the large tarp. It looked like Wendy was praying or speaking on the victims’ behalf. Alysa, obviously wanting nothing to do with it, focused on filling her quiver with arrows. “Those poor souls under the tarp were probably the last ones trying to hide out here. Didn’t go well for them. I just want to be extra careful before we start sneaking around in dark, tight hallways.”

“There could be a shit-load of weapons scattered around the house,” Diane said.

“First things first.” Tony moved in front of the garage door, held up his axe, and used it to tap on the door five times. He then put his ear to the door and listened.

The others started over. Diane held a finger up to her mouth until they understood what Tony was doing.

“I hear something shuffling around in there,” he said. “I think I woke a couple of dead-heads up. They sound sluggish… clumsy.” He was already considering calling the whole thing off and leaving.

“We can handle a couple,” Diane said. “Just lure them outside and take them from behind.”

Tony turned back and looked at the hunter’s missing arm, before quickly averting his eyes.

Diane caught the glance, frowned, and let her shoulders sag. “When I say ‘we’ I meant the rest of you… obviously. I can cover you with the handgun if things get out of hand.”

“No gunfire,” Alysa reminded them. “I’ll stand back with Diane.” She raised her bow as a reminder.

“I don’t need your protection,” the hunter hissed.

Alysa raised her eyebrows. “Of course. I was only being tactical. Go ahead and join the others at the door if you wish.”

Tony and Diane exchanged a look.

“Forget it,” she said, shaking her head. “Let’s just do this already. I’ll hang back.”

Tony tried to pull up the door and barely budged it. He waved Mark, Matt and Nine over. He whispered, “It’s stuck… feels like something’s jammed into the rails. We’ll lift it up slowly, just enough to see what we’re dealing with first.” He turned to Wendy. “You, take a peek beneath and tell us what you see.”

Wendy nodded nervously.

Tony turned back to Alysa and Diane. They both had their weapons out and nodded.

When they were all in place in front of the door, Tony signaled them to lift.

They grabbed on to the outside handles and raised the heavy door a few inches. The door squealed on its rusty track.

Wendy was lying prone on her belly, several feet away from the door, trying to peer inside. “It’s too dark. Just a little more…”

They raised it a foot.

Wendy almost had enough light to work with. “Wait… I see movement in there!”

“How many?” Tony asked.

Two feet.

She squinted her eyes and then they went wide as everything came into focus. She scampered back on her hands and knees. “Close it! Close the damn door!”

Before the others had time to react, at least twenty pairs of rotting arms shot out from beneath the garage door, latching on to their ankles.

“Let it go!” Tony shouted.

They did. But the garage door remained open.

“It’s stuck!” Matt yelled, trying to use one foot to kick off dead hands from around his other foot.

Tony was swinging his axe down at the flailing arms reaching out for him.

Mark managed to get free, but foolishly stepped directly in front of Alysa line of fire. She lowered the bow with a curse. “Move!”

“Shit!” Nine yelled. He tried to back away as two rotted hands grabbed both of his ankles, causing him to fall backwards on his ass. Four long sickly arms started moving up his legs, decrepit hands latching on to his pant legs, attempting to pull him under the door.

Diane could see their mangled faces pressed up against the gap in the door, howling and hissing and drooling with lust, as they gnashed their decomposed teeth at the air, trying to push their way out to tear into flesh. They looked like patients in an insane asylum all crammed into a single room—their dark sunken eyes, feverish for blood.

When Nine fell, the young hunter panicked. She couldn’t get a clear shot with her handgun, not without risking a bad shot with her non-shooting hand. She ran toward the door, obstructing Alysa’s view.

“What the hell are you doing?” Alysa shouted.

Nine was frantically swinging his bat, trying to swat the hands away from his lower legs while trying not to get cut on grime and blood-stained fingernails. “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!”

Tony couldn’t get a clear shot with his axe without risking cutting Nine’s legs off. He was still trying to free himself from the horde of violent hands.

And then Diane was there, sitting behind Nine. She wrapped her one good arm around his neck and started to pull him back. “Let go, fuckers!”

“Get… get back!” he tried to warn her, as the hunter started cutting off his air supply.

The extra force was enough. Nine got loose and scurried back away from the disgusting assault of arms.

Tony also hacked his way loose and then helped Matt and Mark get free. Before he had time to register what was happening, Tony looked back at the archer, who was loosing arrow after arrow, super-fast, into the dead things crawling out from beneath the door.

When she was finished, a line of twenty zombies lay motionless spread out before the base of the door with arrows sticking out of their rotting skulls.

“Fuck!” Tony shouted, “They never made a damn sound when I banged on the door!”

Wendy, shaking, got back down and peered beneath the door again. “It’s because they couldn’t move, most of them…”

“What?” Tony got down to see what she was looking at.

“They were under the pile,” she said, her face going pale.

Tony got closer to the door, pulled out a flashlight, and then leaned down, nearly gagging from the repulsive odor that escaped beneath.

“Careful,” the archer advised.

The big man ignored her and got a good look. “She’s right,” he said with a cough. “They were trapped under a pile, until we gave them an opening to get out.”

“A pile of what?” Mark asked.

Tony stood back up. “There’s more bodies in there then I can count, stacked on top of each other. The only reason they haven’t turned-”

“The only reason they haven’t turned is because they were food for the others,” Alysa finished.

Tony nodded at her. “Looks that way.”

“What happened here?” Matthew asked.

Tony shrugged his shoulders at the young man. “There was something else. I could just make it out on the back wall. Some kind of message, written in bold uppercase letters… and in blood.”

“What message?” Mark asked.

PAY THE LUNATICS OR FEED THE DEAD,” he said.

They all paused, needing a moment to digest the cryptic message.

Diane and Nine stood back oblivious to the situation. “You okay?” she asked, checking him for bite marks.

“I’m fine,” he said. “Just took a bite to my ever-depreciating ego.”

“I… almost lost you,” she said, looking at the ground. “I tried to shoot them, but-”

“It’s okay,” he said. “Your damn choke hold did the job. My neck’s going to be sore, but I’m sure you’ve wanted to choke me out on more than one occasion.”

“Stop making jokes. This is serious.”

His face changed. “What’s the matter?”

“You know what’s the matter. That was the first time I couldn’t keep you safe.” She looked at the stump of her missing arm in disgust. “How am I supposed to keep doing this… when I’m half a woman now?”

Nine shook his head and smiled. He embraced her and then finally answered, “You’ll adapt. You always do. I know how strong you are… and your arm has nothing to do with it.”

“But that was the first time I didn’t know what to do,” she said, wiping a tear from her eye. “Before, I never doubted, never hesitated.”

“And you didn’t this time either,” he said. “You still pulled me out of there.”

She smiled at him.

He smiled back. “There we go.”

“You’re still an idiot, and most of the time you say things that make my eyes hurt.”
He laughed. “Go on… laud me with accolades.”

She laughed. “But… I just wanted to say… thank you.”

“For what?”

“For not making me feel… less.”

He kissed her and then brushed her hair back with his hand. “I like it when you’re not playing the tough girl all the time. But don’t worry, I won’t blow your cover, my angel.” He added a wink.

She shook her head.

Tony announced, “I’ve seen enough to know that this place isn’t safe. We’re leaving. From the looks of that garage, there probably isn’t anything worth risking our lives to salvage here.”

They were all in agreement.

Alysa quickly started pulling arrow shafts out of the dead while the others gathered their belongings.

“Maybe we’ll find something in town,” Tony added. “Let’s try and beat this rain.” He started back across the field, the others in tow. He couldn’t shake the massacre image of that garage or the message he read on the wall.

Lunatics?

And now they had a name for the murderers they were pursuing.

~~~

Next Episode 41-2

Previous Episode 40-8

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 41-1: Siege” Copyright © 2017 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Five: Remains. 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.

~~~

Early morning sunlight penetrated the living room, quickly chasing off last night’s shadows, but leaving behind the horrific stains of Annie Greenman’s unspeakable actions.

Wendy, Matt and Mark sat on the couch near the window. They looked scared, exhausted and defeated. Wendy’s face was still red from tears, as the shock of losing Beverly and seeing what happened to Diane, still played out in her mind.

Diane was currently sleeping in Nine’s arms on the far couch. She was feverish, a sweaty mess, breathing erratic, her head turning back and forth as she fought off whatever hellish nightmare that was trying to wake her for another round of intense pain caused by her missing arm.

Nine felt helpless as he tried to keep her cool by applying a wet kitchen rag to her forehead. He gazed over at Tony with a sad, faraway look in his eyes.

Tony shamefully looked away from the young man’s gaze. He sat in Annie’s chair, stared out the front window at what promised to be a sunny day, and knew that it was just another lie designed to lower their guard just long enough to kill them—like Annie Greenman and her hospitality almost did.

Will we ever be able to trust anything or anyone again? Tony wondered, as his thoughts drifted off into a very dark place.

When Annie’s drugs finally wore off, the others went from feeling weak, groggy and confused to despondent and angry. It was Alysa who had saved them. She found them tied up and laid out in an old chicken coop near the bunker out back, waiting helplessly for their turn to be slaughtered—turned into food for Annie’s dead family… just like Beverly.

Tony felt smothered by the small living room and the looks on everyone’s faces. He needed to move before he lost it. He struggled to his feet and made his way out to the Greenman porch for some air. The effort required to get from the chair to the porch made him feel winded and faint. He reached out for one of the pillars for support.

“You need to rest,” Alysa said from his right. “All of you do.”

Tony turned. “Lot of good that did the first time,” he said bitterly. He stared into the archer’s stone face. She had a dark bruise running down the left side of her face and a gash across her forehead. “How are you doing?”

Alysa managed a weak smile. “Better than the rest of you. I’ve been through much worse.”

Tony was still trying to process everything. Alysa had told him most of what happened but said very little about her own encounter with the Pendleton son across the street. “What happened to you over there?”

Alysa turned the ranch house across the street. She folded her arms across her chest and leaned against the house. “Like the rest of you, I underestimated the enemy.”

Tony took the shot. He deserved it.

She shook her head, disgusted by her own admission. “They’ve done this before, enough times to get good at it. The one I found over there… he was the lookout. Probably saw us all coming before we ever reached Wick. Everything else was just bait to get us into this woman’s house.”

Tony frowned and looked over at the ranch. “Annie played us from the beginning… and I just let us all walk into her fucking web.”

“Yes, you did. But it’s over now. Her plan failed.”

Tony turned. “Beverly’s dead. Diane’s close to it. I wouldn’t call that a ‘failure’.”

“Could have been much worse,” Alysa said matter-of-factly. “The rest doesn’t matter.”

“‘Doesn’t matter’?” Tony was getting angry. “Of course it fucking matters! I don’t know what it was like being part of the Shadow Dead… but out here… every life matters!”

Alysa scowled at him. She took a step toward the big man, before reigning in her own anger slightly. “You sure didn’t act like that yesterday… in Andover… when you let that girl shoot that dead waitress in front of the diner. What were you thinking, then? The sound of that gun going off could have brought every dead thing in that town right to us! Where the hell was your ‘every life matters’ stance when you foolishly led us into your dead friend’s camp where we could’ve been ambushed on that peninsula, while you sat feeling sorry for yourself over a pile of dead bodies? And what the hell were you thinking when you walked up to this damn porch, allowing that woman to point a gun in your face… and then decided to get drunk with your ‘every life matters’ friends in this stranger’s house? Don’t you dare speak to me with that tone when I’ve been watching all your backs since we left those fucking woods and covering for your ‘half-assed’ leadership since then!” She turned away before she really lost her temper.

Tony’s fists were balled. He wanted to punch this Shadow Dead bitch repeatedly until all his anger was satisfied. Instead he took a deep breath and stepped back.

“It doesn’t matter… because it can’t matter… or else every death slows us down and makes us more vulnerable to the next attack. That’s all I meant,” Alysa said. Then added much more softly, “For all your faults, I screwed up, too. Beverly’s death is on me. I knew better when the rest of you didn’t… and I still failed to recognize the threat.”

“Fuck that,” Tony said. “Like you said, I’m the damn leader, whether I wanted to be or not. It’s all on me.”

She turned. “You’re very good at taking responsibility. If only your decision making were just as good.”

Tony laughed. “You don’t pull any punches, do you? That’s fine. Just let it all out. I can take it.”

Alysa shook her head at the big man. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself. If my words make you angry… than perhaps you still have a little life left in you.” She walked over to him and finished. “You carry around something… or someone… that’s causing you pain… and that’s what’s keeping you from being a better leader.”

Tony retreated from her words. “You don’t know me.”

She smiled. “I don’t. But I know pain when I see it. Your eyes tell me enough.” She paused and said, “Whoever she is, let the bitch go, before you get us all killed. She’s not worth it. And something tells me, despite your piss-poor leadership so far, that you could be a great man one day… if you allow yourself to be.” She turned, suddenly feeling uncomfortable under Tony’s gaze and betrayed by her own abundance of words.

Tony stared at the peculiar woman who saw right through him. Her words struck him harder than a punch across the jaw. And then he saw something in Alysa. “What happened to you over there?”

“I’ve said enough.”

“This is the first time I’ve seen you… out of control.”

She turned, her eyes ablaze. “Don’t push me. Let it go. I’ve saved your lives… again. You owe me that much.”

He saw something in Alysa’s eyes that clearly showed that this tough woman was struggling with more than her disappointment in him. Something had happened across the street, something Alysa was trying to put past her very quickly… and it made her vulnerable. Tony nodded, sensing that things were getting very uncomfortable between them. “Fair enough,” he said. “Thank you for watching our backs… and for covering ‘my ass’… again.”

Alysa averted her eyes, quickly changing the subject. “Annie’s got enough supplies in her bunker to sustain us for a while… that, and a few rifles. I suggest that we pack what we can and-”

“Put this hell house miles behind us,” Tony finished. He looked over at the ranch. “We should probably search the Pendleton place, too.”

“Don’t bother,” she quickly said. “There’s nothing over there.”

“You sure? It was dark when you were-”

“I said, forget it!” she snapped. “There’s nothing over there… by madness and death.”

“Okay,” he said, sensing her discomfort. “Then we pack, wait for Diane to get better-”

“She might die,” Alysa interrupted. “They cauterized her wound… but it might be infected. There’s some anti-biotics in Annie’s stash, but it will be up to Diane in the end.”

Tony nodded. “She’s a fighter. She’ll get better.”

“Tony… she lost her right arm, her shooting arm,” Alysa said with a frown. “When she realizes what that means…”

“She’ll be fine,” Tony added with annoyance. “One thing at a time.”

Alysa let it go. “What do you want to do with the woman?”

When Alysa had escaped the basement of the Pendleton ranch, she had barely made it back in time to stop Annie and Wayne from finishing the job they’d started on Diane. Wayne had tried to stop her and failed. Annie had collapsed into a weeping mess when Alysa killed her zombie family. Rather than put her down with the rest, Alysa had decided to keep her alive, not knowing at the time if she needed more information about what she’d injected into the others. She’d gagged and bound the old woman and put her in the chicken coop where she’d found Tony and the others.

Tony wasn’t ready to deal with Annie yet. “Let me worry about Annie,” he said. “Let’s go take care of our friends first and get the others busy packing. They need to get their minds off what happened to Beverly.”

Alysa nodded, but wouldn’t let the matter rest. “She’s still a very dangerous woman, bound or not. Now that we don’t need her, I could… take care of it… if you want?”

“What? No! Don’t ask me that.” Tony didn’t want to think about Annie Greenman… ever again. “I’ll handle it,” he said crossly.

“Will you?” Alysa challenged.

Tony sighed. “I said-”

“Consider this,” she interrupted. “If you let that woman live, you’re responsible for whoever she tricks next time.”

Tony gave her a hard look. Suddenly, he was thinking about Walter, the Bad Man. But this is different! he tried to reason. Walter was… infected. He was already a monster when we took him down. Annie’s just an old woman, and she’s still… human? He closed his eyes and let out a heavy sigh. I don’t need this shit. A part of him wanted to let Alysa ‘handle it’, but he knew he couldn’t allow that. He couldn’t just sanction the murder of this woman in cold blood, no matter what she did. This is your mess, Marcuchi. So, man up and own it. He repeated, “Like I said, I’ll handle it.”

Alysa stared into him for a moment, frowned, and then turned and headed inside.

Tony remained on the porch a bit longer, staring across at the Pendleton ranch, while he dealt with his own heavy thoughts. All he knew for certain was that he wanted to throw up.

~~~

Tony approached the chicken coop with a cup of water in his hand.

Annie was sitting up against the cage, murdering him with her eyes.

He was thankful she was bound. Tony hesitated near the coop door and said, “I’m coming in to give you some water. Please don’t try anything stupid.”

Annie just sat there, staring at him.

Tony opened the door and crawled inside. He slowly reached toward Annie’s gag and she let him pull it away from her mouth. He held up the water. “Here. You have to be thirsty.”

When he tried to put the cup to her lips, Annie defiantly turned her head away. “Don’t want your damn help or your pity,” she hissed. “Just… leave me alone. Y’all done your damage. Now, steal my supplies and get the hell off my property!”

Tony sighed and put the cup down. “Fine. Don’t drink. But you and I are going to talk.”

“I’ve nothin’ ta’ say to you fuckers,” she spat. “Ya’ all murdered my family. What’s left ta’ say?”

Tony was getting angry. “You drugged us, killed a young girl, cut her up and fed her to your ‘family’. You’ve chopped off Diane’s arm and now she’ll never be the same. How dare you accuse us of murder?”

She whipped her head back and spit in Tony’s face. “Fuck all a ya’!” she screamed. “I invited you into my home, fed ya’, gave ya’ beds to sleep in—even gave ya’ my wine—and this is the thanks I get?”

Tony wiped his face with his arm, took a deep breath to calm down, and then shook his head. “You’re insane.”

“‘Insane’ ya’ say?” Annie laughed. “Maybe so. But family comes first no matter what… I only did what I had ta’ to keep my family alive.”

“They were already fucking dead!” Tony shouted. “Beverly was a vibrant, beautiful young lady. You took her life as though she were nothing more than a piece of meat! Your damn daughter was her age once. How could you do such a horrible thing and act like we wronged you?”

Annie shook her head. “No… no… NO!” she shouted back. “You don’t understand nothin’! My family is everything. That’s why I stayed put and waited for ‘em to come home. Where the hell were you when your family needed you? Hmm? Out here, wandering where you don’t belong? Miles away from your homes? People like the lot of ya’ only think of yourselves. You’ve long forgotten the meaning of the word. But not old Annie… Annie knows better than that.”

Tony gave up. There was no reasoning with this lunatic. He shifted gears. “What am I supposed to do with you, now? It’s been suggested that I kill you before we leave because you’re dangerous.”

“Dangerous ta’ you for sure. I’ll kill every one of you fuckers for what ya’ all did! Make it my mission in life, too!”

Tony dismissed the threat. “You’re not making this easy. I came to talk and find any reason to let you live, and then head out on our way. You deserve to die… but that doesn’t make me qualified to pass sentence on you.”

Annie laughed hard. “Ya’ know what I am… what I did… and what needs done, but you don’t have the stomach for it. That makes ya’ a coward in the ‘pocalypse.” She leaned in. “Well, Tony, I do have the stomach for it. That’s why old Annie will outlast all a ya’. Y’all nothin’ but dead men walkin’ with no real purpose. I could see that when I met ya’. I’ve seen the same thing in all the ones who came before. That’s why I treated y’all well and gave ya’ somethin’ ta’ take with you after I put you under. Don’t pity me, Tony. It’s all of you who need pitied. I knew what needed done ta’ keep my family alive. You… you’re just waitin’ ta’ die.”

“Enough,” Tony said. “You’ve lost your moral compass a long time ago. You’re a sick woman who needs to be treated somewhere… but there is no ‘somewhere’ anymore.”

“Curse you! I curse you, Tony, and all your friends! May you all find nothin’ but misery in the days ahead because that’s what your damn kind deserve! You’re all too weak and stupid and cowardly ta’ fit into this world now. But old Annie knows what she knows.”

“And what’s that?”

The old woman shook her head. “There’s nothin’ I wouldn’t do to save the ones I care about. You don’t know because you haven’t been there. Ya call them ‘monsters’ because they’re not your family members. But until you see them, like old Annie did, you haven’t a clue what your fuckin’ talking ‘bout!”

Tony shook his head. “We’re done here.” He started to replace the gag.

“What wouldn’t ya’ do for love, Tony? Hmm? Ya’ don’t know until you’ve been there.”

He stared at the old woman, haunted once again by those familiar words:

Tony quickly put the gag back over Annie’s mouth before she could say anything else. He backed out of the coop and headed toward the house, refusing to look back at the mad woman.

What wouldn’t you do for love, Tony?

~~~

While Tony and Alysa pulled food supplies out of Annie’s bunker, Matt, Mark and Wendy took turns watching the old woman in the chicken coop while loading several backpacks acquired from the Annie’s home. Nine stayed inside to take care of Diane while keeping watch out the front window for any new threats.

Matt, who had become more and more despondent since leaving the relative safety of their compound in the Wasteland, stared into the mesh fence at the old woman. Annie lay motionless, her hands bound behind her back with a rag tied tightly around her mouth. She had turned over on her side with her back facing him. Aside from the slow rise and fall of her chest, the young man would’ve thought she was dead. At one time, Matt would have been appalled by the harsh treatment of the elderly, but now he felt nothing… nothing at all. After finding out what this sick old woman had done to Beverly and Diane, Matt wished he felt angry like Mark, or was able to shed tears as Wendy did, but he felt hollow and empty. Matt wanted the old woman to wake up and look at him so he could stare into her eyes and find out what was really in there, now that her act was over. But ultimately, he just wanted Annie’s attention long enough for her to admit that he was right all along, and that hope was all bullshit in the end.

Something caught his eye on the left of the chicken coop, beyond a wooden fence at the border of Annie’s property. Matt moved toward the fence and looked across a large field. Several dark shapes appeared in the distance, not yet aware of the living behind Annie’s fence. One of them was much closer and moving away from the small dead herd, slowly approaching the fence. Matt started to turn to get Wendy and Mark’s attention, but then stopped, as recognition set in.

As the figure came into full view, Matt saw a small boy with a backpack and a dirty faded blue ball cap shambling straight toward him. Matt’s heart sank as the boy he’d first seen in the field on their way into Wick spotted him, and then tried to pick up its pace, as the dead thing’s hunger took control.

“No,” Matt whispered, taking several steps back from the fence as the dead boy moved closer. He could hear it now, moaning in a child’s voice which sent chills up his body.

Annie Greenman heard it, too. The old woman sat up, her eyes going wide. She started speaking unintelligibly through the gag, trying to call out to the boy.

Matt turned toward her and immediately understood. She knew him. The dead boy was Annie’s missing grandson.

“Matt!” Wendy yelled. “Get away from the fence!”

Mark was already running toward the bunker to get Tony and Alysa.

Matt could do nothing but watch as the young, decrepit child with the dead dark eyes, covered in blood, approached. He looked over at Annie. Tears were streaming down her face as she struggled desperately to free herself.

Matt walked over to the coop and opened the gate.

“Matt, what the hell are you doing?” Wendy asked, coming over.

Matt ignored her and retrieved a newly acquired hunting knife.

When Annie saw it, she recoiled.

Matt ducked down and entered the coop.

The old woman scurried away from him.

“Hold still,” he calmly said, raising the knife.

Annie understood. She turned her back toward him and Matt cut her hands free. She then removed her gag. “Thank… thank you, young man.”

Matt ignored her, too. He stepped out of the coop, allowing Annie to scurry out behind him.

“Wait!” Wendy yelled at the old woman. She turned to Matt. “What the hell is wrong with you?”

Matt just stood there, watching Annie rush toward the fence as the young boy was almost there.

Tony and Alysa exited the bunker with Mark, who was pointing toward the fence.

When Tony saw Annie, he shouted, “Alysa, shoot the boy!”

Alysa quickly loaded her bow and raised it.

Annie was part weeping, part laughing, her arms opened wide at the fence, as her grandson reached out for her from the other side.

“Now, Alysa!” Tony shouted.

The archer hesitated for a moment, then let an arrow loose… and missed.

“Come ta’ me, my precious child,” Annie beckoned through tears. “You’re home now. Come ta’ me and I’ll make everythin’ okay.”

The young boy leaped for the fence with a fierce groan and grabbed the old woman around the neck, pulling her forward and over the fence.

Tony stared at Alysa accusingly.

The archer shrugged her shoulders at him.

He grabbed a rifle and raised it, but then saw the rest of the herd standing back, oblivious to their presence. He lowered the gun.

The boy sat on the old woman’s chest. All recognition left her eyes as the monster opened its small mouth, exposing bloody teeth. Annie started to scream as her dead grandson started ripping pieces of her face off with his teeth.

Tony turned away from the gruesome sight. “Finish this,” he told Alysa.

The archer nonchalantly reloaded her bow, took aim, and then shot the young boy through his temple. It wobbled for a moment, blood dripping down its face, not understanding what was happening—only that its compulsion to feed had been interrupted.

Finally, the young boy collapsed on its right side and remained still.

Annie was struggling to breathe as she spit up blood. She tried to call out, but started choking on the crimson fluid. She was violently convulsing.

Satisfied, Alysa stepped toward the fence, leaned over, aimed her bow down at the old woman, and placed an arrow through her head. Annie stopped moving.

Tony stepped up beside her and whispered, “Why?”

“You’re always stopping me from using my bow. I was just trying to stay consistent.”

Tony glared at her.

“Look, you didn’t want me to do it… and you certainly didn’t want to do it yourself. The old woman was a problem, and you know it. I saw an opportunity and I took it.”

“What opportunity?” Tony spat.

She turned and smiled at him. “To do absolutely nothing. Some problems have a way of taking care of themselves… if you let them.”

“You’re a very cold woman.”

Alysa let loose a devious smile. “Yes… when the situation calls for it… I can be. But I didn’t create this situation.” She nodded over to Matthew. “He did.”

Tony turned to Matt. The young man had fallen to the ground and rolled up into a ball, his hands tightly covering his ears. He was weeping. Mark and Wendy were there, trying to calm him down.

Tony turned back and looked at Annie’s mangled corpse. He then stared over at the small boy and frowned. “The dead always come home,” he said with a chill.

“What was that?” Alysa asked.

Tony frowned. “I’m glad I wasn’t home when this all started. Maybe we’re better off not knowing… or waiting… for our loved ones to finally show up.”

~~~

Next Episode 41-1

Previous Episode 40-7

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 40-8: Wick” Copyright © 2017 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Five: Remains. 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.

~~~

Diane felt like her body was a thousand pounds, descending into a bottomless chasm. As she struggled to the surface of consciousness, she heard sounds… horrific, sticky, squishy sounds and rattling chains. She opened her eyes, everything started to spin rapidly. Her vision was blurry. There was dull light, some sort of overhead lamp maybe. In the background, behind the horrific, sticky, squishy sounds and chains, she heard a steady muffled humming.

Generator, her mind managed. Yes, the background sound was clearly a generator. She tried to lift her head but was unable to control anything beyond her heavy eyelids. She tried to focus. The room started to slow down and she could now make out several blurry forms in front of her. Their movements gave them away.

I’m lying down, she thought, as her vision started to clear. She was on her back, head tilted to the right. What the hell happened? She had meant to ask the question out loud but couldn’t make her mouth respond.

It was Annie… and that man! They injected me with something!

There was a new sound, somewhere in the direction of her feet. Footsteps. Coming closer.

Again, Diane tried to move her head, but failed. She could only stare toward the blurry forms as she struggled to make them out.

When her eyes suddenly cleared, Diane wanted to scream but could not.

Four dead people in various states of decay, skin brown, rotting and stretched tight over skeletal frames beneath, their clothes ripped, blood and dirt stained—barely passable as clothing at all, were sitting on one side of a blood-stained picnic table, facing Diane’s direction. They were all wearing chains padlocked around their wrists and chests, the other end of the chains were fastened to the wall behind them. There was enough slack in the chains to allow them minimal movement as all four of them were oblivious to Diane as they fought against each, reaching into a large aluminum tray full of what looked like barbecue chicken… at least, that’s what Diane made herself believe it was.

A shadow appeared in front of her, mercifully blocking out the nightmarish scene.

And then a voice spoke from the shadow, sounding far off, like the echo at the end of a tunnel. It was Annie Greenman’s voice.

“Oh my, child. I’m sorry ya’ had ta’ see that. You weren’t supposed to wake up for a few hours yet… and by then… it would’ve all been over.”

The old woman was standing over her… but her voice… her voice still sounded farther away. What did you do to me, you old bitch? Again, Diane could only think the question.

As if hearing her thoughts, Annie said, “The drug’s powerful, so I kept the dose low. Should have been enough, but I didn’t want ta’ go too heavy on the dosage. Figured the alcohol would’ve helped. Old Annie got it wrong, child. But don’t ya’ worry, you’ll be back under soon. I can already tell by the look in your eyes that it’s kickin’ your ass just to stay up this long.”

Diane struggled to speak but only managed to twitch her lower lip.

Annie laughed. “Don’t bother, child. Ya’ don’t have any motor function control… at least… not enough to move those lips and scream out for help… not that it would matter if ya’ did.”

She could clearly see Annie now as the old woman backed up a couple of steps. She was wearing a bloody apron and bloody latex gloves on her hands. There was also a surgical mask around her mouth. What the fuck have you done? her mind accused.

Annie saw it in her eyes and frowned. “You must think I’m a monster… that it, child? All this blood and ya’ think ya’ have old Annie figured out… hmm?”

Diane was unable to respond.

“I treated y’all well… can’t say that Annie Greenman didn’t, neither. So just take those condemnin’ eyes and look elsewhere! I let y’all into my home, made ya’ supper, gave ya’ drinks… hell… by the looks of it, old Annie gave y’all the best time you’ve had since the ‘pocalypse started. Made y’all feel like kings and queens… like royalty… considerin’ the state of things these days. What kind a monster would care enough ta’ do that, child?”

Diane remained motionless… except for her eyes.

Annie moved in close and whispered, “Child, I did a good thing… yes, I did. I let y’all have one good time as regular folks again. Gave ya’ a moment to hold on to… and then ya’ woke up. But if ya’ hadn’t… you’d be thankin’ old Annie on the other side when it was all done. Now… just close those hateful eyes and let Annie take all your pain away, child. Not that you can feel pain right now… old Annie made sure of that. Just trust old Annie, close your eyes, and sleep.”

Diane closed her eyes and lost consciousness. She was falling… falling…

~~~

…SCREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE

Her eyes opened. The new sound was more terrifying than all the rest. Again, the sensation of falling, of immense weight, the inability to move her body. Vision blurry. I’m in hell! her mind proclaimed. Diane had never felt so helpless. She desperately wanted control of her own body, but she felt like a stranger travelling within her useless flesh and could do nothing.

The loud sound ceased. Diane felt something at last. In her right arm, she felt a million pins and needles poking at her flesh just above the elbow.

“She’s up again.” A new voice this time. A male voice.

“Oh, for cryin’ out loud!” Annie sounded agitated. “Next time, full dosage. Can’t have this happen’ right in the middle of… damn it, Wayne! Ya’ need to be quick before she bleeds out!”

A figure quickly crossed Diane’s vision carrying something with a flame.

“Torch it… now!” Annie shouted.

Diane felt the pins and needles in her right arm again… much more intense this time.

Annie was suddenly in front of her again. Her blurry face level with her own. “Any pain, child?” she asked, and then laughed at herself. “Not that you could answer… foolish old woman,” she scolded herself.

Annie moved again as Diane’s vision slowly cleared.

“We should put the girl out of her misery,” the man suggested. “This seems cruel.”

Diane desperately wanted to find the owner of the male voice, but still couldn’t move. What… what are they doing to me? Why can’t I… MOVE!!!

“They like ‘em best fresh… I’ve told ya’ that, for Pete’s sake.”

“But-”

“Don’t look at me with those eyes, Wayne Pendleton! She can’t feel none of it, no how! Just… cauderize it and wait outside. Make sure the others aren’t popping up like this one and then get that son of yours over here ta’ help us with the rest of ‘em! That boy of yours is as lazy as ever! Thinkin’ all he’s got ta’ do is catch that rude one and do God-only-knows what he’s doin’ to her right now!”

“He isn’t like that!” Wayne defended. “My boy’s simple, is all. We told him to catch the archer… and he did! He gave me the signal two hours ago and it’s done!”

Diane heard Annie sigh. “All I’m sayin’, is that boy should be helpin’ more!”

“You know he doesn’t like this part!” Wayne said. “He never could stand the sight of blood, is all!”

“Just… go… I’ll call ya’ back in when she’s down again.”

The one she called Wayne stopped what he was doing and exited the room, rushing past Diane’s vision again.

Annie was laughing lightly. “Never you mind, him, child. Wayne loves his children and in a father’s eyes, they can do no damn wrong.” She moved in close. “You are a stubborn one, ‘ain’t ya’?” she asked. “Just can’t go quietly and let an old woman finish her business?”

Diane could see the monsters at the table again. This time there was no large tray… just the remains of something large and bloody sprawled out across the table that all four were sinking their bloody teeth into.

What the fuck is that? What are they eat-

“I know they’re a bit hard on the eyes, child,” Annie said, just out of Diane’s visual range. “It took some time for me to get used ta’ them, too, especially the smell… but after a while… after the shock of it all… I started ta’ see ‘em again… the way they used ta’ be.”

It’s… it’s her family! Dear, God… this woman’s lost it.

Annie came back over and kneeled down near Diane’s head. She pointed toward the first one on the far left. He was the oldest and tallest of the four reanimated… and the most decayed. To Diane, what remained of the male zombie looked more like bones wrapped in skin, resembling a mummy. “That one there… that’s my late husband, David. I told ya’ ‘bout him? Well… he was the first ta’ come home. Must have been a week after the ‘pocalypse started. David just shows up at my doorstep, still wearin’ the same funeral clothes I buried ‘em in. I know he hardly looks like the man I remember… but if you gaze into those dark eyes long enough, you can see it… everyone’s eyes give them away… windows to the soul and all.” Annie laughed. “The one next to him is Wayne’s wife, Norma. She was buried in the same cemetary as my David, just two miles up the road. Wayne already knew about my husband when Norma showed up at his door. I talked him out of shooting her… said she could stay over here with my husband. That way, we could take care of ‘em together while we waited for the others to come home.”

Diane stared in horror at what was left of Norma Pendleton. She was in slightly better condition than David since she’d died more recently, but she was still barely recognizable as human. If not for the rotting corpse’s few thin strands of knotted hair that ran down from its skull, Diane wouldn’t have recognized it as a woman. She was wearing what remained of some funeral dress that might have once been white with some sort of flower design, but was now just a torn muddy brown, mercifully concealing what was left of her decaying flesh within it. Its arms were so thin and brown that they looked more like tree limbs.

Annie sighed and continued, “Now, that young woman next to Norma… that’s my daughter, Clara. She and her little boy were livin’ with me when the ‘pocalypse started. She was out shoppin’ with my grandson when it happened… and I couldn’t find ‘em.” Annie stopped and wiped a tear from her eye. “I prayed, and prayed, and kept on believin’… then… my Clara finally came home, too.”

Diane looked at Clara. The young woman was missing a piece of her neck and half her face looked like it had been ripped off with teeth. It was clear that Clara had been jumped by several of the dead, infected, and then turned. Diane tried not to think of Clara’s son and what happened to him.

“Last one on the right is Wayne’s oldest boy, Pete. He was the one I told ya’ ‘bout who came home just recently. I kept tellin’ Wayne when his younger boy came home that Pete would come home, too. He just had to keep on believin’.”

Pete Pendleton looked to be no older than nineteen. Most of his hair was gone. His skin was pale and bloody. His eyes, dark and sunken in. To Diane, Pete looked like he’d spent most of the winter wandering around in the elements until finally finding his way home.

Annie stood up. “So ya’ see… old Annie was right all along. Old Annie knew that if you kept on believin’ and waitin’… that they’d all find their way home eventually. My two boys live out of state, but I reckon’ they’ll show up at my door any day now… and my grandson, too.”

Diane watched as what was left of the Greenmans and Pendletons devoured the bloody carcass of what she assumed must have been a deer. And then it struck here: There are no more deer!

And then she saw it, hidden behind Pete Pendleton’s frail hands.

A bloody human foot.

Who… who is that? Her heartbeat started leaping in her chest. Who the hell is that?

Annie stepped over toward the picnic table, blocking her view of the monsters again. The old woman was holding something. “I’m sorry ‘bout all this, child. You weren’t supposed to see any of it… and for that… I’m truly sorry. I can’t imagine what’s goin’ through your head right now… but… my family needs ta’ eat. What kinda’ woman would I be if let my family starve… after all the hell they’ve been through ta’ get back home?”

Who is that? WHO IS THAT? Diane wanted to scream the question, but could not move.

“I’m careful ‘bout the dosages… but sometimes… the heart stops, and old Annie can’t get the heart goin’ again. Your friend’s heart stopped and I had to hurry… had to hurry and feed my children while your friend’s blood was still warm. Still… I hate that you had to see it. Old Annie never intended that.”

My friend? Which friend? Nine? Tony? WHO IS THAT, YOU FUCKING MONSTER?!

Diane almost got her mouth to twitch again.

Annie turned to look at her. She was holding a severed right arm.

The tingling sensation immediately returned in Diane’s right arm, just above the elbow.

“Now, child, I need you ta’ go back ta’ sleep and let old Annie finish. You weren’t supposed ta’ see this… any of it. But, I promise, you won’t ever feel a thing.”

In her mind, Diane screamed… and continued to scream… until she was falling… falling…

~~~

…New sounds. Voices yelling. Furniture tipping. Shattered glass. The monsters are howling, growling… silence.

Diane opened her eyes. This time her vision was clear. The zombies were laying still, hunched over the table with black arrows sticking in their heads. There was a man pinned against the back wall by another arrow through his forehead. Wayne?

She could move a little now. Her face, her lips, her mouth. “Any…anyone… there?” she managed to whisper. Diane could feel her right arm. There was a dull throbbing pain. She managed to turn her head enough to confirm the awful truth. Her arm, from the elbow down, was gone. No… NO… NO!

Alysa stepped beside her. The archer looked like hell. “Are you… awake?” she asked.

“Who… who was it?” Diane struggled to ask.

The Shadow Dead looked confused.

Diane nodded toward the table. “Nine?” She could feel her heart about to burst, the anticipation of finding out was worse than not knowing.

Alysa looked toward the dead and frowned. “No,” she said. She turned back and sighed. “Beverly.”

Diane started to weep. Before she lost it, she had to know. “What else… Am I missing… anything else?”

The archer was quick to respond. “No… just the arm… I’m sorry.”

Diane nodded. “Where is she? Where… is that evil old bitch?”

“She’s in custody. Don’t worry. She won’t hurt anyone else.”

“Wayne’s other son… he’s part of this, too! I heard them talking… he was still across the street…”

Alysa put a hand on Diane’s shoulder and nodded. “I took care of that sadistic shit. The threat is over. You need to rest, now. All of you do. Let the drugs wear off. I’ll keep watch.”

Diane tried to move but failed. She kept trying to use an arm that did not exist. “I need to… to get up… and kill that evil bitch! I need to be with… Nine…” the more she struggled the worse she felt. The heaviness returned. The room started to spin. Diane collapsed on top of the gurney… and was falling… falling…

~~~

Next Episode 40-8

Previous Episode 40-6

~~~

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 40-7: Wick” Copyright © 2017 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Five: Remains. 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.

~~~

When the party finally died out, Annie graciously offered up her two boy’s bedrooms upstairs and her older daughter’s live-in basement room that she’d shared with her grandson. No one wanted to mention the absence of the Greenman children, especially Annie.

Tony thanked her for the thousandth time as Matt and Mark took one of the upstairs bedrooms, Wendy and Beverly moved in to the other. They all had to share one bed per room and Annie insisted that the boys and girls sleep separately.

“Don’t want no hanky-panky under my roof,” she’d said, escorting the four upstairs.

This caused Nine to smirk at Diane with an expectant look on his face.

“Don’t even start,” Diane had cautioned the troublemaking young man.

“Yes, my angel,” he’d said with a laugh.

After Annie returned from helping the others settle in upstairs, she lit a small candle and set it at the center of the coffee table. She started shutting off the lights and then excused herself to go turn off the generator.

When the power went out, Alysa came back inside.

“The Queen of the Dark has returned!” Nine said dramatically.

Alysa ignored him. She turned to Tony. “You can’t even hear the generator running out there. She must have it below ground.”

“She did mention… a bunker,” Tony said, staring up from the couch at the archer through bloodshot eyes.

Alysa frowned at him. “You drank too much.”

Tony laughed. “I’m just really tired… and… I drank too much.”

“Look at him, honey,” Nine said, elbowing Diane. “That’s what a cheap-date looks like.”

“Don’t call me honey,” she said, feeling the eyes of the Shadow Dead woman on her.

Annie returned and said, “Well… if y’all are good, old Annie’s gonna turn in. We’ll talk more tomorrow over breakfast.”

“Goodnight, Annie,” the others said, watching the old woman finally slow down and drag her tired frame upstairs to her room.

“Annie offered us her kids’ bedrooms,” Tony told Alysa. “The basement room is all yours if you want to get some rest. Myself, Diane and that clown with the shit-eating grin on his face over there will stay in the living room and keep watch.”

Alysa’s eyebrows shot up. “Are you watching each other to see who passes out before the rest?”

It took them a moment to realize she was attempting a joke… well, mostly.

Tony laughed and admitted, “I guess we aren’t in too good a shape right now, but we’ll be alright. You should get some rest.”

“I’ll rest later,” Alysa said. “After we’ve left this house and everything about it behind us.” She turned to return to the front porch. “I’ll stay posted outside.”

Before Tony could object, the archer was gone.

“Okay,” Nine started excitedly. “I think I’ve figured this shit out.”

“What are you babbling about now?” Diane asked.

“I’m talking about… Alysa,” he said, being sure to drop his voice to a whisper before saying her name.

“What about her?” Tony asked.

He started counting on the fingers of his left hand. “She sees in the dark, hides in the shadows, no one ever hears her creepy ass coming. Add in the fact that the Shadow Dead probably sleep during the day… and she just said she doesn’t sleep at night-”

“That’s not what she said, fuck-stick,” Diane corrected.

“Well… close enough. Point is, I know what she is now.”

The other two waited.

“Come on, guys! Isn’t it obvious?” Nine stood up. “She, and the others like her… are Vampires!”

Diane and Tony looked at each other, and then busted up with laughter.

Nine folded his arms and shook his head. “Alright, I see how you two are. I yell ‘zombie’ and everyone turns to run… but if I say ‘vampire’… now I’m being farfetched?”

This just made the others laugh harder.

“You all lack imagination,” Nine said, giving up and sitting down. “Just wait. She never said she didn’t eat people, she just made a joke about it. I’ll bet she’s just waiting for us to fall asleep… hell… she can probably feed on us without us knowing. Don’t come crying to me if you notice unusual marks on your bodies.”

“Nine, I swear,” Tony started, trying to calm down. “If I wake up in the morning and you reek of garlic, I’m throwing your damn ass into the closest lake.”

This made Diane double over with laughter.

Nine raised his arms in surrender. “Alright, don’t say I didn’t warn you. And don’t bother with that crucifix shit… that only works in the movies. Any self-respecting vampire hunter knows that shit.” He sat down on the empty couch, leaned back, and buried his head into the cushion. “Damn, I didn’t realize how tired I was until just now.”

“You two get some sleep,” Tony said. “We’ll take shifts. I’ll take the first one.”

“No,” Diane said, getting up and sitting down next to Nine. “The vampire was correct. You look shitty. Get some sleep and I’ll take the first watch.”

Tony was too tired to argue. He removed his shoes, turned, and propped himself up on the sofa. He looked over toward the young couple who were now snuggling together in the shadow of the candlelight. They look great together, despite how different they are. Love is certainly a mysterious thing. He smiled at them and then thought of Alysa on the front porch. “Diane,” he said, as his eyelids started to get heavy.

“What is it, Tony?”

“Would you please try to be nice to her if she comes back inside?”

“No promises… but I’ll try.”

“Garlic sticks and extra cheese please…” Nine muttered groggily and then started to lightly snore.

Diane shook her head and laughed. “See what I have to deal with? I stand watch while asshole over here gets to eat pizza in La La Land.”

Tony laughed. “Night, Diane.”

“Goodnight, Tony.”

Thirty minutes later, all three of them were fast asleep.

~~~

Alysa glanced through the front window and into the candlelit living room. Tony, Nine and Diane were all asleep.

She smiled and shook her head. So much for the night watchmen. She lingered a moment more, staring at the sleeping forms, wondering just what it was that Marcus found so fascinating about them. To her, none of these sheep appeared all that special… nothing like the infamous Gina Melborn that her former patient had raved about in his drug-induced state. And yet, he had chosen to keep his true identity hidden rather than slaughter all of them systematically as the blood-thirsty Russell Bower of old. Why? Why bother staying with these pathetic people at all?

But she knew why.

Marcus had showed his contempt for her isolated existence several times in the three weeks they’d shared that cabin together. He believed hiding away from the world—from people—was weakness, and at the root of that weakness… fear.

She smiled fondly, thinking back to the time they’d spent together. In the end, she had given Marcus the choice to flee, or attempt to kill her. He had wisely departed—the need to get back to his Gina outweighing his need to murder her. But was it fear that drove people to live a lonely existence? Or was it just strong survival instincts, reacting to the current chaotic environment, that drove people to separate from one another? And what drove her to finally decide to pursue Marcus back to the wilderness compound? Did she actually miss his company? She would continue to explore the question while traveling with these leftovers from a dead world, while hoping that their path would eventually intersect with Marcus’s… and his god, Gina.

In the meantime, there was Tony. To understand why Marcus worshipped the red-haired woman, she needed to understand her. And how better to do so then by getting close to the man that Gina esteemed.

She looked at the sleeping man, turning uncomfortably on his side. He barely fit on the small couch.

So far, Alysa was not impressed.

She stepped away from the window and sat back down on the porch steps. She decided to wait another fifteen minutes and then investigate the strange old woman’s bunker out back. Perhaps she would loot her supplies, or at the very least, take an inventory, and then steal what they needed before leaving. If it had been up to her, Alysa would have killed the old woman by now. It was foolish to advertise your existence to strangers, let alone inviting them inside where they could clearly ambush you and take everything. Annie had it coming. If they didn’t do it, eventually, someone else would. She struggled to understand what validated the morality of her travelling companions, especially in a world where desperation ruled… and desperation never gave a damn about morality. But, she would continue to show restraint and yield to some misplaced notion of “right and wrong” in order not to alienate herself from the others.

A bright light briefly flashed from one of the front windows of the dark Pendleton house, and then it was gone.

Alysa frowned, grabbed her bow and quiver, and then quickly dropped prone to the ground at the base of the porch steps. She remained still for several minutes, watching the property for any movement.

That old woman became guarded when we asked about her neighbors, Alysa thought. It was only there for a moment, but the signs were obvious: A pause in her breathing, a subtle shift in her eye movement, that nervous twitch of her finger… and she started choosing her words very carefully, too.

Alysa decided to postpone her trip to the bunker.

Moving swiftly but stealthily, Alysa blended into the darkness and crossed the highway, stopping behind a large tree just to the left of the long dirt driveway. She let her eyes adjust to the increasing shadows that filled the fenced-in yard, watching for the slightest movements. There were none.

Alysa lowered her shoulders to make herself as small as possible, and then sprinted across the dirt roadway, making no sounds, until reaching the old chain-link fence. She dropped back into the prone position, staring between tall grass and weeds at the front of the old ranch house.

From this close, she could see faint light slipping through the crack between a drawn curtain. As far as she could tell, the exterior of the house looked long neglected. A partially caved-in roof stood over a weathered front porch. The peeling paint looked ancient around an old wooden front door surrounded by windows that looked like they offered no protection from the previous winter winds. The house resembled more of an old rotting cabin, long forgotten. Her night vision was better than most, but she couldn’t make out any further details under the limited light. If anything was clear from the surface of things, Alysa believed that the Pendletons wanted their home to look abandoned. The ranch house was the exact opposite of the Greenman house; where one was homely and inviting—this place looked haunted and menacing. It screamed, STAY AWAY… OR ELSE!

But then there was the flashing light… the ‘inviting’ flashing light. Had that been a careless mistake, or did the current residents, Pendletons or otherwise, want her to see it?

Alysa dismissed all questions. She started moving along the fence line, looking for a vulnerable point to breach, while working her way around toward the back of the property. She did not concern herself with monsters or men hidden in the darkness waiting to ambush her… she was the darkness. No one would know she was there unless she wanted them to know.

At the rear of the house, the chain-link fence ended and an old wooden horse fence continued, bordering the back half of the property. There were no horses, or anything else.

Alysa easily maneuvered between a gap in the fences as she slithered through more tall grass and approached a lone door at the back of the deteriorated ranch house.

Despite Annie Greenman’s good relationship with her estranged neighbors from across the street, Alysa felt like there was more to the story than Annie revealed. The former Shadow Dead would find out for herself what that story was as she slowly opened the creaking back door with her bow drawn, like a viper getting ready to strike out at the night, itself. She no longer cared if those within were tipped off by the loud door. They would try to hide, using the darkness to their advantage. That was expected. But they would never see her coming until she was standing beside them, or not at all, if Alysa decided to enter, investigate, and then exit without the occupants’ knowledge.

Alysa crept into the dark house and disappeared within it.

~~~

Beverly and Wendy slept soundly next to each other in the single bed of the youngest boy’s bedroom.

Before Annie had shut off the power, the two women enjoyed examining the walls full of old sports memorabilia and music bands, wooden shelves full of treasured toys and stuffed animals from youth, and more family pictures, including one young woman who clearly might have been the boy’s girlfriend a long time ago.

Wendy had always admired parents who preserved the spaces once occupied by sons or daughters even long after they’d grown up, moved on, and perhaps were now raising children of their own. She had smiled fondly at the room and thought, They never really grow up, never really leave, as long as the memories remain. She had fallen asleep with Beverly sharing another one of her famous Cleveland adventures from a world long gone… and Wendy loved her for it. They had felt like two girls having a slumber party together in some brother’s room.

The door to the youngest son’s bedroom opened slowly and quietly on recently lubricated hinges. Two shadows entered the room and moved to either side of the sleeping girls.

The shadow on the right side of the bed turned on a flashlight, being mindful to keep the light directed away from the girls’ faces but close enough to still see them. “They’re out,” a gruff male voice whispered. He was a tall, lean man with an unkempt beard.

Annie Greenman stepped into the dim light from the left side of the bed. Her face looked grave, almost sinister in the partial light. She retrieved two syringes, handed one to the man, and whispered, “Remember… meaty part of the shoulder.”

The tall man nodded.

Annie and the tall man leaned in carefully over the sleeping girls. They gently placed their hands on both girl’s chests buried in blankets and applied just enough pressure to minimize any premature movements.

Annie pulled back the sheets just enough to expose their shoulders. She turned to the tall man and nodded.

They quickly moved in over the girls, injecting them both in the shoulder with the syringes.

Beverly and Wendy’s eyes shot open immediately as the sharp pain woke them.

Before they could cry out, Annie and the tall man cupped their mouths closed with one hand while holding their heads to the pillows with the others. Both girls squirmed beneath the blankets until the powerful horse tranquilizers kicked in, causing their nervous systems to shut down.

Wendy and Beverly’s world went black.

Annie and the tall man stepped back from the bed.

The tall man started shining his flashlight back and forth between the girl’s faces while Annie moved in to check for breathing. Either the Xylazine was performing its desired effect… or the girls were already dead.

The old woman seemed satisfied. She nodded toward the second bedroom while retrieving two more syringes.

~~~

Alysa hid within a narrow gap between the refrigerator and a pantry door. The kitchen was dark and small, but provided a clear view of the back hallway as the man with the battery powered lantern walked right by her, and stopped at the open back door to investigate.

She could see tell from the man’s silhouette that he was young, probably late teens, and that aside from the lantern, the man also carried a rifle slung around his back.

One of the Pendleton sons, Alysa deduced. As she waited to see what the young man would do, she took in her dark surroundings as best she could while the man’s lantern partially lit up the shadows. The kitchen was a mess. A mountain of dirty plates filled the sink; the counter tops hadn’t been cleaned; trash filled the floor and everything smelled of rotten food. If not for the appearance of the young man, Alysa might have suspected that no one had lived here for quite some time. But then again, this wasn’t the first time since the old world ended that she’d come across so-called survivors who had already given up on everything except breathing, and who were just waiting their turn to die.

The man finally closed the back door. It creaked shut, reducing all light save for the small sphere surrounding the pale-faced young man.

Alysa got a good look into his despondent eyes before he passed the kitchen. His face mirrored so many other faces—those who had witnessed so many unspeakable horrors that it no longer registered as anything but normal, now. That faraway, haunted expression in the eyes spoke of someone who resembled alive, but was no longer living, in his former shell. Alysa understood that those who shared this look were capable of anything… or absolutely nothing. They had nothing left to lose, and that made this young man very dangerous.

When the lantern light faded, Alysa quickly and quietly moved out of the kitchen, being mindful to walk lightly on the old hardwood floors just waiting to moan with age and indifference to her stealth. She followed the man to the front of the house, stopping in the shadows at the end of a long hall that opened up to the Pendleton living room.

She watched the young man sit down in an old recliner that had been repositioned before a large front window. He put the lantern down on top of an old television console turned table. On the other side of the console was what looked like a telescope on a stand, aimed directly toward a small gap in the long black curtains that covered the window.

Alysa took in the rest of the room. Off to the left was an ancient-looking fireplace. To the right there was an alcove leading toward the front door. The back of an old sofa faced her, leaving a considerable gap of open space between the couch and her hiding spot at the edge of the hall. Mounted on two of the dusty living room walls were the heads of two animals; one, a buck; the other, a bear. There was also a large bear-skin rug spread out across the floor, just between her and the couch. There was a yellow-stained pillow and what looked like a quilt laying on top of the rug. He sleeps here, she thought. Someone else uses the couch. Why? She considered exploring the bedrooms but believed what she really needed to see was here.

The young man got up and stood before the telescope. He peered within the viewer and started scanning slowly, first to the left, then back to the right.

Surveillance, Alysa thought. He’s been watching us and the Greenman house. She suspected that the telescope might have some sort of night vision capability, which would mean…

Alysa raised her bow toward the young man. “How long have you known I was here?” she asked.

At first, the young man didn’t move. Finally, he raised his head from the telescope and said in a low monotone voice, “I knew you were… somewhere. In the yard, maybe.” He slowly turned toward the intruder with the bow and attempted a smile which ended up looking ghastly on his pale face. “You’re quiet… real quiet. After the back door, I never heard another sound.”

“Why are you spying on us?” Alysa asked.

“Not spying… inventory.”

“Explain that.”

The young man pointed to a notebook near the lantern. “People come. People go. I watch. I count. I describe it all in here.”

Alysa considered killing the man immediately. But then she’d have to explain it to her travelling companions if it was discovered. “So, you watch the road for people, assess their numbers, what they have, and then, what… set up an ambush down the road?”

The young man laughed. “No. No ambush. Just watch.”

“Sure. Just watch,” Alysa frowned at him. “Are you a Pendleton?”

He nodded.

“Where’s your father?”

“Busy.”

“Is he here? I want to speak with him.”

He shook his head.

Alysa was growing tired of this game. She took a threatening step forward, hoping the young man would panic, go for his gun, and give her a reason to put an arrow through his head.

The young man didn’t move. He continued to stare at the intruder with what looked like a mix of wonder, curiosity, and something malevolent just beneath the surface of his face.

She frowned. This one’s checked out a long time ago.

“Are you alone in this house?” she asked.

He nodded.

“Where exactly is your father?”

The young man laughed again and then pointed over his shoulder with his thumb.

Alarms were going off inside Alysa’s head. “Your father’s at the Greenman house?”

He nodded.

Time to go. She started slowly backing down the hall.

“Wait,” the young man said. “There’s more.”

Alysa stopped.

The young man waved her toward the telescope. “Come see. Come see… and you’ll understand.”

Alysa stepped back to the edge of the hall. “If you’re playing games… I will kill you.”

He nodded. “No games. Come see.” The young man stepped back from the telescope, raising his arms submissively.

“Look into my eyes,” she ordered.

He did.

“Can you see it? Can you see that I don’t care if you live or die?”

The young man nodded and took another step away from the telescope. He pointed at it and repeated, “Come see… and you’ll understand.”

Alysa stepped forward toward the back of the couch to get a better look at the telescope. She stepped on the bear skin rug and started… falling.

She dropped her bow into the darkness below, managing to catch an edge of the floor with one hand, as she dangled from the hole that the rug was concealing.

The young man came over quickly.

Alysa had just enough time to look up as the butt of the man’s rifle struck her hard in the head. She lost her grip and fell unconscious into the basement beneath.

~~~

Diane woke in the strange dark living room, a sudden feeling of panic overwhelming her before she realized where she was. She stared at the barely burning candle; the wax had melted down to the base. It’s been two hours, maybe three.

“Fuck,” she whispered, realizing that she’d fallen asleep on watch. She glanced over at Tony and Nine. They were still asleep. The hunter smiled. Well… they never have to know.

Diane stood up and stretched. She walked over to the front window and looked outside. All she could see was darkness. If the Shadow Dead woman was still out there, she’d never know unless she stepped out onto the front porch. Check downstairs first, she thought. Hopefully the bitch had enough sense to come inside and get some sleep, and then you won’t have to go outside and have a conversation with her. Of course, if she did come in… why didn’t she wake one of us first?

Diane let out a long yawn and decided that she was too damn exhausted to care. She started toward the basement door, near the kitchen. It was open. She reached into her pants pocket and retrieved a small flashlight. She turned it on and briefly scanned the quiet living room. All was as it was before she passed out. Good. Now… just creep on down and see if she’s there… then… maybe I might find some secret coffee stash in Annie’s kitchen. Walking around did some good as she felt her groggy head begin to clear. She was half-way down the steps that led into the furnished basement when she stopped. What if I startle her and she puts a fucking arrow in my skull?

“Alysa?” she called down. “It’s me… Diane. If you’re down there, just let me know, and I’ll leave you alone.”

There was no answer.

Of course.

Diane finished descending the steps, scanning the room before her. It was as expected. A large bedroom, obviously the older daughter’s, with a master bed and a smaller bed set against the wall. Both were unoccupied. Further back was another open door which either led into the rest of the basement or perhaps a small bathroom.

Shit. Miss Creepy is still outside.

She turned to head back up the steps and stopped.

Diane heard a faint noise coming from the possible bathroom.

She turned back. “Is anyone there?”

No answer.

Just calm down. It’s an old house. Old houses always make noises.

And then a dark shape filled the doorway at the back of the bedroom. Diane nearly jumped out of her skin, when she panned her light over and saw someone standing there.

Diane lowered the light slightly and grabbed her chest with a laugh. “You scared the hell out of me. What the hell are you doing down here, Annie?”

Annie smiled back. “Sorry, child,” she whispered. “Didn’t me ta’ frighten’ ya’. I come down here sometimes to be close ta’ my kin. I have dreams… dreams that have me wakin’ up at the strangest hours, believin’ my kids have all come home. Dreams that are so strong… I start ta’ wonder if I was dreamin’ or if it really happened. So… I wander about sometimes in the dark, thinkin’ I hear them callin’ out ta’ me. Ya’ probably think I’ve lost my marbles or somethin’.”

Diane relaxed. “I think you’ve just been alone for a very long time.”

Annie looked away, embarrassed. “Well… you’re too kind. I’d appreciate it if you’d just keep what I said between us.”

“Absolutely,” Diane said. Sensing Annie’s discomfort, she changed the subject. “I don’t suppose you’ve seen Alysa? You know, Miss Antisocial with the bow?”

Annie laughed. “No, child. I haven’t seen your rude friend. But since your down here… would ya’ mind keepin’ a foolish old woman company for a spell? Just ‘till I get my bearings?”

Diane glanced around the basement and then gave Annie a hesitant look, realizing that the old woman hadn’t yet moved away from the doorway. “I don’t mind… but how about we talk upstairs? Basements are not my thing. I guess my boyfriend’s love of cheesy horror movies is starting to rub off on me.” She surprised herself with the admission that Nine was, indeed, her boyfriend, but vowed never to let him hear her say it.

The old woman laughed. “I understand. If you would be so kind…” Annie raised her arm out to her. “I could use a little help gettin’ back up those stairs. Old Annie can still do a lot of things… but stairs are a real challenge. I’m surprised I made it down here. I must admit, I was a little winded and disoriented when you found me. I’m glad ya’ came down when ya’ did, or else old Annie probably would’ve slept down here.” She added a laugh, making fun of herself.

Diane smiled. “Of course.” She started over toward the old woman.

When Diane’s light left her face briefly, Annie’s jovial facial expression started to change. She held one hand behind her back, her fist clenched around the syringe.

After dealing with the hunter, Annie and the tall man, who was hiding in the laundry room shadows just behind her, could focus on taking out the last two sleeping beauties in the living room.

~~~

Next Episode 40-7

Previous Episode 40-5

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 40-6: Wick” Copyright © 2017 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Five: Remains. 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.

~~~

Tony and Alysa returned in time to catch a question from Wendy. “So… Annie… how did you manage to survive all this time while the world went crazy? Weren’t you afraid that the dead would find you, all alone in this house?”

Annie laughed and then took a sip of water from her glass. She shook her head, looking up and around at her living room, a deep sense of pride beaming forth from her face. “Child,” she started, “I’ve lived here, in this house, my entire life. This was my daddy’s home, and his daddy’s home before him. There’s always been hardships—can’t escape it. No matter where ya’ go, there’s always somethin’ awful starin’ ya’ in the face, tryin’ ta’ make ya’ stumble. And that’s just life. Can’t just up n’ leave every time some bad storm comes rollin’ in. We Greenmans are built tough. That’s why old Annie is still alive and kickin’ after everything.” She laughed and winked at the young woman.

Wendy laughed and shook her head. “Well, I don’t think I would’ve lasted five minutes out here. I think you’re an amazing woman to have stayed when so many ran off. Weren’t you afraid?”

“If I’ve learned anything about livin’ in Wick, it’s that nothin’ changes in places like this.” Annie laughed. “Change has always blown through here. Nothin’, not even Change, has time to slow down and notice this place. I think that’s why I love it so much. The years come and go, like the people who speed by in their cars have always come and gone… why would the ‘pocalypse be any different? There’s no need ta’ run and hide from a world, good or bad, that’s already forgotten about ya’. And for the most part, old Annie has survived the ‘pocalypse, ‘cause even that horrible mess has forgotten ‘bout old Annie.”

Tony sat back down on the couch.

“Well,” Wendy finished, “I still think you’re one brave woman.”

Alysa returned to her position, standing between the living room and the front door, trying to appear less intense by removing her bow and quiver, standing them up against the wall beside her, and then awkwardly leaning against the wall with her arms folded.

Annie smiled at the archer and then looked back at Wendy. “I thank ya’ kindly for sayin’ so, child. Truth is, I’m not brave… just stubborn. When the world went topsy-turvy, I just thought about my family—how I needed ta’ stay strong for them, not knowin’ where they were… and just too darn old ta’ go out in that chaos and try ta’ find ‘em. So… I dug in, did what I could ta’ prepare for the worst, like all good Greenmans do, and made sure my home was still a home. Ain’t nothin’ worse in this ever-changin’ world than being away, thinkin’ ‘bout the strangeness of everythin’ around ya’, knowin’ that ya’ just wanna get home… to find it all gone. So, I waited for them ta’ come back.”

“You… stayed to wait for your family to come back?” Matt, who had very little to say since leaving the Wasteland, seemed astonished. “But, you must know that they’re all gone, right?”

Beverly and Wendy gave him a hard look, silently scolding him for his lack of sensitivity.

Annie smiled at the young man. “Son, let me tell ya’ somethin’ ‘bout us Greenmans.” She got up from her chair and walked over to one of the walls loaded with family portraits. She pointed to one and said, “This here’s my granddaddy. He was a soldier, like his son after him. He served in the Great War, out on the front lines in the worst of it. I remember hearin’ stories as a child ‘bout how my grandma waited for him to get back from that horrible mess ‘cross the ocean. She told me ‘bout how awful it was, waitin’ and waitin’, expectin’ to hear the worst. But she never lost faith, never let that lamp of hope burn out. Then, after all that waitin’, my granddaddy came home when it looked like he never would. Same was for my daddy, who fought in the Second War. But he eventually came home, too. I remember huggin’ him so fiercely right outside, right there on that front porch, when my daddy showed up dressed in his uniform. And we never gave up believing then, neither.” She walked over to a small frame on top of the television, picked it up and frowned at it. Her face then changed to one of pride again. She handed it to Tony to pass on to the others.

Tony stared at it. It was a portrait of Annie’s family. He recognized the younger version of their host standing beside a taller man with three children in front of them–two boys and an older girl.

He passed the picture frame to Diane with reverence while Annie continued:

“Now David, my husband, he wasn’t a soldier… but he fought a war just the same. He was… stricken’ by a devil found in the bottom of every darn bottle of whiskey he could get his hands on… and it followed him relentless. He wasn’t a kind man, but he wasn’t cruel, neither. He’d disappear for weeks at a time, chasin’ after that devil, or being chased by it. One time, he was gone so long we started thinkin’ that devil finally caught him, and that we were gonna get that phone call, the one that told us that my husband was found dead in some back-alley bar somewhere. But you know what? I didn’t give up hope then, neither. I knew that if we waited, and kept on believin’, that somehow, some way, David would come home, too. And he did. Turned out he ended up in the hospital for alcohol poisoning, got some help, spend time in a rehab center, and then just came home one day, free of that damn devil. Never touched another drop of whiskey again.”

Matt ended up with the portrait. He handed it back to Annie.

She smiled at him. “Like I said, Greenmans are no stranger to hardships. But we’re known for our great faith and patience in overcomin’ anything life throws our way.” She sat back down, scanned each of their tired faces, and finished. “And then the ‘pocalpse came along, scattered my family ta’ God-knows where—just like all of your families.” She took another sip of water. “So, you know what old Annie did? She did what all Greenmans do, the one darn thing all Greenmans are good at… she relit that lamp of hope, got her house in order, and waited. Because no matter what it is, be it some crazy war, demon, or the ‘pocalypse, Annie knows that eventually, everyone comes home to those who don’t give up—who don’t stop believin’.”

Beverly was softly weeping. “Wendy’s right,” she said. “You are an amazing woman. If I had someone waiting at home for me, believing as hard as you do that I was still alive, then I’d run home and nothing would stop me from getting there.”

“Well, child, how do ya’ know someone isn’t waitin’?”

The tall woman’s eyes fell to the floor with a frown. “I already know my folks are gone,” Beverly said. “They died in a plane crash.”

Wendy put a hand on her shoulder.

Beverly wiped tears away and nodded. “And since I was an only child… that’s just leaves me.”

“I’m sorry, young lady. That must have been difficult on ya’.” Annie stared hard and long at the young woman, beginning to make her uncomfortable.

“It’s okay.” Beverly tried to smile. “That was a long time ago… long before all of this happened. Besides, at least I know one way or the other. So many don’t have a clue where their loved ones are.”

A heavy silence invaded the room as Annie’s guests allowed a moment to consider their loved ones, out there, in this new hellish world. Were they long gone? Were they waiting at home, like Annie, or in some other safe place, for them to return? Or were they now… monsters? The last alternative was much too difficult for any of them to consider, and was the primary reason so many of them had forced themselves to stop thinking about lost love ones… period.

“Now, stop with all those long faces,” Annie said with a laugh. “There’s a time for sorrow. But as long as there’s still questions ‘bout the ones we care about, then mourning’s just a wasted effort. There’s too much livin’ left ta’ do, with far too much work ta’ keep on livin’. That’s what old Annie says, anyway.”

“Everyone is already dead,” Matt said, staring at his feet. “The rest of us just don’t know it yet.”

They all looked to him. Even Mark, who considered Mankind an endangered species and getting what it deserved, raised his eyebrows at such a dire statement.

“Maybe so, young man,” Annie added. “But that doesn’t change the here and now. Right now, livin’ is hard work… believin’s even harder… but I won’t wait for Death ta’ come knockin’. He isn’t worth that much attention. You should take that ta’ heart if nothin’ else.”

Matt simply nodded and continued to stare at his feet.

“We do what we must ta’ get by,” she finished, leaning back in her seat. “It’s always been, always will be. Damn ‘pocaylpse don’t change that fact. We hold the ones we love close, and when times get real tough, we hold them even closer.”

“Amen,” Nine chimed in, exchanging a long look with Diane.

The hunter smiled at him.

Tony glanced at the two young lovers and smiled. They need this moment, he thought. Any damn moment they can get, because it won’t last. Tony looked away with a heavy sigh. He hated that his own thoughts sounded more like something Gina would say. Just let them have it for as long as they can… for as long as any of us can. Tony turned to Annie, desperately desiring an opportunity to change the subject. “Annie, what can you tell us about your neighbor across the street? We noticed the other house on the way in.”

Alysa’s ears perked up.

Annie turned to the big man and took another sip of her water. “That would be Wayne Pendleton’s place,” she said with a faraway look. “The Pendletons have lived there for as long as I can remember. They’ve always been a bit… odd… as I recall. Keep to themselves, mostly. When the ‘pocalypse started, and everyone was tryin’ ta’ get to nowhere as fast as they could, the Pendletons stayed put, like old Annie. In the years I’ve owned this house, I’ve seen Wayne, or his two boys, a handful of times, always when I needed help managing things. I think they always knew that I was doin’ too much for a woman my age, and Wayne would send the boys over from time ta’ time, when they noticed my yardwork was gettin’ too much to handle. They’d offer ta’ help me chop firewood for my stove, mow the lawn on occasion, shovel the driveway… that kinda’ thing. The Pendletons have always been good like that.

I used ta’ be the town vet in my younger days. Once, I had ta’ go over there and tend to a sick horse. It was the late Mrs. Pendleton’s favorite. They treated that old mare like it was Mrs. Pendleton, herself.  After I nursed it back to health, I could tell that Wayne was grateful. Not a man of many words, but I could see it in his eyes. Ever since then, that family has been watchin’ over me… from a distance. As much as they kept things private, I think it made them feel good ta’ know that old Annie was still up and runnin’.

Anyway, after The Change, as you put it, Wayne came over. He had this sad look in his eyes when he told me his boys were missin’. My boys were already grown and livin’ elsewhere, but my daughter and grandson were still livin’ with me when they went missin’, so I invited him inside and I told him what I told all of ya’, ‘bout just waitin’ and believin’ they’d come home. I think he really appreciated it. Since then, he started comin’ over often ta’ make sure I had what I needed ta’ get by.”

Annie slowly got up and moved toward the front window. She looked out across her porch and toward the old ranch. “Well, his younger boy, Micah—a strange child—turned up shortly after that ‘pocalyspe started. He’d been at the Jefferson house, two miles up the road, the whole time… can you imagine? Never did explain what he was doin’ or who he was with.” She turned to her guests. “Then, just after the winter let up, Wayne’s oldest boy came home, too! We were so excited ‘cause we’d both been waitin’ for what felt like an eternity. It was quite the encouragement for me, I can tell ya’.”

The old woman paused at the window for so long that Tony stared at the others, believing that Annie had either finished her story abruptly, or simply nodded off standing there.

She finally turned away from the window and returned to her chair. “Anyhow, that was the last time I saw Wayne. There was no rhyme or reason, he just stopped comin’ over. I just assumed that they’d forgotten about old Annie across the way. But like I said… them Pendletons have always been odd.”

“Do you think something bad happened to them?” Diane asked.

She looked over at the hunter and smiled. “Child, I’m too old to worry ‘bout such things. I could worry the days away if I chose… but then my chores would never get done. I suspect Wayne and his boys are getting’ by just fine over there.” She paused to take another sip of her water. “Things just change, is all. After Wayne got his oldest boy back, I imagine the relief he felt was overwhelmin’. That’s the type of thing that happens after you pray and wait and fight off all those worst fears that keep ya’ up at night, and then when it happens… when ya’ get one back… one precious child… ya’ just force the rest of that cold cruel world out, because it tried ta’ steal what was precious. I reckon’ Wayne was done with everythin’ after that. He’s probably guardin’ them boys night and day, waitin’ for the world to right itself. Hell… that’s what I’d do.  And there ‘ain’t nothin’ I wouldn’t do ta’ keep them safe!”

The room got quiet.

Annie laughed, getting up. “But enough of all that. I’ve been slow-cookin’ a bean soup since you all arrived. Anyone hungry?”

They all nodded eagerly.

“Been a while since I had a chance ta’ cook for so many… and don’t worry… I have plenty. One advantage ta’ comin’ from a military family is that the survival mentality never stays on the battlefield. Took them ages to finish it, but my granddaddy and his son built a bunker out back, fully stocked with canned goods and everthin’ old Annie needs to get by durin’ any ‘pocalypse.” She winked at them, causing several to laugh. “Y’all stay put and I’ll whip up some supper before it gets dark. Then we’ll talk about sleepin’ arrangements for the night, ‘cause old Annie’s not gonna feed ya’, then send ya’ all back out into the darkness. My mama raised me better than that.”

Tony got up as the fast, old woman started for the kitchen. “Annie?” he said.

She turned back.

Tony looked around the room, the look of relief on his friends’ faces spoke volumes. “I think I speak for all of us when I say that your kindness… despite so much cruelty out there… is just the boost we needed. I know you’ve just met us… but it’s been a rough road as of late. You are a very bright light in a very dark place. Thank you… for everything.”

Annie was grinning from ear to ear. “My, you really are a charmer, aren’t ya’? All that sweet-talkin’ might just get you a second helpin’ of Annie’s soup.”

Tony looked away, embarrassed.

She turned to the brooding young woman with the bow. “And you… don’t let this one go. He may be a charmer, but I suspect ya’ need a little charmin’ in your life. It might just bring the woman out of ya’.”

Alysa was stunned into silence. She shook her head and turned toward the window.

Nine couldn’t stop laughing.

~~~

Annie brought them all bowls of soup… and it was delicious. Everyone’s moods lifted as Annie took the focus off herself and listened to the others talk a little about themselves and what they’d been doing since the ‘pocalypse started. The old woman was fascinated by the fact that so many people were living beneath the ground all winter in a bunker that made hers seem like an outhouse by comparison. And then they shared the tragic events that eventually led them to her doorstep.

The sun was setting behind the tree line causing a noticeable shift in light. Evening shadows started filling the living room as the last vestiges of the day fought in vain to keep the cozy space lit and vibrant with details and life, and not the usual gloom that preceded the night, swallowing up all tangible memory of the living with taunting darkness. Annie’s house guests turned toward the front window, absorbing the last of the sunlight with their eyes, and dreading the approach of another long evening of hushed voices and bodies huddled together around the dying artificial light produced by flashlights or candles.

“Well, old Annie knows a thing or two ‘bout dealin’ with heavy hearts and troublin’ thoughts,” the old woman said with a laugh, rising from her chair. “I don’t normally squander resources… but it ‘ain’t often that I have guests anymore, and as the old sayin’ goes… the night is still young.”

Tony and the others watched the strange old woman exit the living room. They shared amused expressions, wondering what Annie was up to.

Five minutes later, the living room lights flickered and then came to life.

Beverly let out a delighted laugh and clapped her hands together three times. “She has power!”

“She mentioned a generator,” Diane said, looking at Tony. “I can’t even hear it.”

Tony nodded, looking concerned. “That’s a good thing. If we can’t hear it… the dead can’t either.”

“When night settles, we will be lit up for miles around,” Alysa said, staring cautiously out the window. “She’s being foolish… and wasteful. Anyone or anything in the area will know that we’re here.”

“I’m sure Annie knows what she’s doing,” Wendy chimed in, sounding more like she was trying to convince herself.

“I’ll talk to her,” Tony said. “I’m sure she has candles or-” He stopped as they heard Annie’s footsteps approaching.

The old woman entered with her hands behind her back. Her face was lit up brighter than the room. “Now… isn’t that much better? It almost feels like the way it was when folks could keep on talkin’ and laughin’ the nights away.”

“Annie,” Tony said. “Maybe we shouldn’t turn on so many lights this close to dark-”

“Nonsense!” The old woman interrupted. “There ain’t no one left in Wick to see my house all lit up… and if there were… well…” She showed them her hands, revealing two bottles of wine. “Then I guess we’d just have to invite them to the party!”

Nine laughed and then pointed at the old woman. “Annie… you rock!”

Annie laughed at the young man and said, “Now… I don’t condone the devil’s behavior, but even the Lord, Himself, drank wine on occasion. I never did much drinkin’ while my husband was still alive, for obvious reasons, but since his departure… well… old Annie’s been known ta’ cut loose every now and again. It feels good ta’ let your hair down, laugh with friends, and celebrate!”

“I’m confused,” Mark said. “What exactly do we have to celebrate? As I recall, the world’s a pretty bleak place right about now.”

Wendy and Beverly gave him a disapproving glare.

Annie put the wine bottles on the coffee table, along with a corkscrew that she removed from a pocket in her apron. She then waved a dismissive hand in Mark’s face. “Pooh, on you, young man!” she said. “Just for that, you’re drinkin’ first. If we can’t live a little… then all we’ve got left is the dull dyin’… and I won’t stand for it! Not in my house.”

“You tell him, Annie,” Nine said, reaching for one of the bottles. “It’s never too late to cel-e-brate!”

Diane beat him to the bottle. “Hold on, Mr. Octoberfest,” she said, pushing the bottle away from him. She looked to Tony. “The lights are one thing. But getting drunk? Really?”

Nine, Beverly, and even Wendy looked expectantly at Tony. Mark just shook his head. Matt simply stared out the window. Alysa was staring at the old woman is if trying to figure out what planet she was from.

Tony stared back at them, mouth wide open to say something that never came.

Annie rescued him. “Now… who said anythin’ ’bout gettin’ drunk? I said, ‘celebrate’, not ‘inebriate’. There’s no foul in havin’ some wine followin’ a good meal. But, if y’all can’t handle it, after everthin’ you’ve been through, then I’ll just go and be fat, dumb and happy after y’all leave in the mornin’. Makes no difference to old Annie. I just thought we could share a little joy together after breakin’ bread.” She looked at Tony. “Don’t ya’ all still believe in havin’ fun wherever the heck you came from?”

Tony looked down at his hands and sighed. “Fun’s been in short supply… for a long time now.”

Annie patted him on the shoulder and said, “Well… tell ya’ what. You, and your peeps, can have a little fun with old Annie. She still remembers how. And then when y’all head out to God-knows-where tomorrow, where the fun ‘ain’t nowhere to be found for miles around, you’ll be able to look back at tonight and remember why you’re doin’ all that survivin’ in the first place.” She stared at the others with a laugh and said, “Y’all be in some dreary part of this God-forsaken world and one of ya’ will turn to the other with a smile and say, ‘Remember that time we partied with old Annie?’ And then y’all be thankful to have one new memory worth a damn… mark my words.”

Tony stared into the old woman’s eyes and smiled. He then reached out his arm toward Nine and said, “Hand me that damn corkscrew.”

~~~

For the next two hours everyone, except the brooding archer, sat around drinking wine with old Annie. She didn’t bother with wine glasses, insisting that they just pass the bottles around and that it made drinking together more personal, almost desperate, like the winos used to do it over some back-alley barrel fire on a cold night, when good conversations about better days were what really kept them warm.

The darkness murdered what was left of the day outside, but for once, that killer in a world full of killers went by unnoticed inside that living room.

Beverly broke the ice and shared stories from her former Cleveland life as Nine injected the occasional joke at the right moment, causing them all to laugh harder than they had in ages. Once the breach in the damn of the past had been made, they all opened up about their families and former lives. Even Diane and sullen Matthew, though not offering much, still appreciated the journey back, relishing the rare glimpses into their fellow survivors’ lives… back before surviving meant anything and they were just… normal people.

Annie did little talking once her guests started sharing, only asking the occasional question to keep the fire of nostalgia lit, as she absorbed their stories and continued to pass the wine bottles. For her, this was the way it was supposed to be, ‘pocalypse or not, back before the awful sound of silence drowned out the millions of voices that once filled the world with life.

Alysa remained in the background, as still as a statue, hoping to avoid being drawn into their discussions about a world that had rejected her long ago. She had no fond recollections to share, and the fire that kept her warm was one that would burn all of them alive. She did, however, pay attention to their stories as one who gathers intel for later use.

Tony had the honor of finishing the last of the wine as he held the bottle up high, and downed the warm liquid, feeling like he could sleep for a hundred years.  He, too, had shared very little, fearing that he would start gushing out all his negative emotions about Gina, but had enjoyed hearing the others talk about their glory days, and not the present gory days.

Annie, sensing a lull in the party, spoke up. “I’ve one more surprise for all of ya’. Somethin’ I only pull out when I know I’m with good company.”

“Vodka?” Nine blurted out, which was met with enthusiastic shouts and laugher. They were all feeling the intoxicating effects of the alcohol.

Alysa simply rolled her eyes and sighed, wondering what fresh hell the old woman had planned now.

Annie laughed. “Not quite. But somethin’ just as essential to every party.”

Before they could inquire further, the old woman was on the move again, exiting the living room.

“I feel heavy,” Nine said, slouched down in the couch with an idiotic grin on his face.

“You’re drunk,” Diane said and then laughed. “I think I am, too.”

Wendy and Beverly were giggling on the opposite couch, staring and pointing at Mark and Matt who had passed out. Mark had his head resting on Matt’s shoulder.

“Between the lack of sleep, full bellies, and all the wine, I think we’ll all sleep well for once,” Tony said. He immediately followed his statement with a loud burp, for emphasis.

Nine pointed at him and broke into drunk laughter, causing Tony to laugh.

“Fucking men and their ability to find humor in bodily sounds,” Diane said with a laugh.

To add to the point, Nine let loose a loud fart, causing them all to crumble with laughter.

“It’s a good thing one of us is still sober enough to stand watch while the rest of you forget… everything.” Alysa had finally lost patience.

They turned to look at her.

Nine laughed and pointed to the archer. “She wins the ‘buzz kill’ award!”

“Only if we let her,” Diane added, looking away from the Shadow Dead woman.

Nine raised his hand up to Diane for a ‘high five’.

She slapped him on the head instead. “You’re an idiot.”

“But I’m your idiot,” he said, blowing her a kiss.

“Alysa,” Tony said, feeling self-conscious and a little annoyed under her disapproving gaze. “Come join us. I think we’re safe for the moment.”

“No thank you,” she said, trying to appear more tolerant, but failing. “As much as some of you despise my presence, you may thank me later for showing… discretion.”

“Does she always stare down her nose at everyone, like that, or am I just drunk?” Beverly asked, turning to Wendy, and not realizing she’d spoken loud enough for everyone to hear.

Nine snickered, staring between Beverly and the stone-faced archer.

Alysa dismissed the comment and turned back to Tony. “How do you wish to… proceed?”

Tony, irratated that she was forcing him back into the leadership role once again, pointed at Alysa with his best mock serious face. He then burped long and loud in her direction.

Alysa’s eyebrows shot up in surprise.

The others started laughing uncontrollably.

Tony watched the archer turn and head for the front door. “I’ll be outside waiting for you all to decide what’s more important: Your past lives or your present ones.”

Tony’s laughter was cut short by her cold words. Fuck it, he thought. Just this once, fuck all of it. I’m tired of all the running, hiding, fighting… and especially cold-hearted bitches who think it’s normal behavior to kill people rather than laugh with them. He suddenly realized his anger wasn’t directed toward Alysa. He sighed heavily and reached for the empty wine bottle, wishing it were full.

Annie returned with what looked like an old record player. “I had a heck of a time findin’ this thing, but I’m glad I still kept it.” She set it on the coffee table and then plugged the cord into the closest outlet.

Beverly was immediately fascinated by the archaic music machine. “Oh, I haven’t seen one of these since I was small.”

Annie laughed. “Yes, old Annie’s dating herself with this thing… never had much use for those fancy contraptions they have nowadays. But no matter. Music is music and it will survive us all.”

Beverly leaned over to stare at the label on the prehistoric vinyl record.

Bill Haley & The Comets

“You probably never heard of it, child, but I guarantee y’all can still dance to it,” Annie said as she placed the record needle down on the spinning disc.

The song, Rock Around The Clock, started blaring.

“I know this one!”  Beverly said.

They all did.  Their faces lit up as recognition mixed with wonder settled in, feeling like aliens from another planet hearing music for the first time.

As the music started playing, Annie started to sway her hips to the left and right, approaching Tony on the couch. “And if there’s music, that means there’s still dancin’… and what kinda’ party is this without dancin’?” She reached her hand out to Tony.

The big man looked at Annie and laughed. “I’m not much of a dancer. Never was.”

“Never was a lot of things, I suspect, until that ‘pocalypse came along. Still not much of a thief, though.”

Tony laughed.

“You gonna leave a girl hangin’?”

Tony looked at the others surprised faces, and then back to Annie. “Why the hell not,” he said, getting to his feet.

“That’s the spirit!” Annie grabbed the big man’s right hand and put it on her left side. She then grabbed his other hand and said, “Now, I’ll lead. Ya’ just follow to the beat and forget all that ‘never was’ stuff.”

Tony laughed and let old Annie lead him out past the couches to an open space before the kitchen door… and they danced.

Mark, waking up disoriented by the sound of the music, muttered, “What the hell?”

Beverly laughed delightedly at Tony and Annie, then reached over and grabbed Mark’s hand. “Come on,” she said. “You’ve been nominated.”

“Huh?” Mark had no time to register what was happening before Beverly pulled him up off the couch and led him over to the makeshift dancefloor, mimicking Annie’s upbeat dance moves from the 50’s.  Mark looked like he wanted to die.

“Now that’s some funny shit,” Nine said. He turned toward Diane.

“Don’t even think about asking,” she said, wrapping her arms in front of her chest.

Nine looked disappointed and then turned to Wendy. “Wanna dance?”

“Sure,” she said, getting up to join him on the dance floor.

Nine turned back to meet Diane’s sulking gaze. “You had your chance,” he said with a wink.

She gave him the finger.

Wendy and Nine joined the other two couples on the dance floor.

Diane saw how much fun they were all having. She looked once over at Matthew who was still passed out. He was snoring. “Of course,” she said, shaking her head with a laugh. She watched the others dance, unable to hide her delight at this rare breach in their usual forced apocalyptic-style kill-or-be-killed living. “This has turned into some kind of weird-ass day,” she muttered.

~~~

Alysa stared in through the window from the safety of the front porch. She huffed in disbelief when even the temperamental hunter finally got up from the couch to make a fool of herself, dancing with the other drunks. She turned away and stared into the night.  Something felt… off.  Alysa could feel it in the cool night air—almost taste it. But for now, it eluded her.

The former Shadow Dead sat down on the bottom porch step, away from the artificial light pouring out from the living room window. She leaned her back against one of the pillars, placed her bow and quiver within easy reach on the next step up, and then closed her eyes. She minimized her breathing and all other movements, trying to listen past the muffled sounds of Annie’s strange old music and her traveling companions’ laughter. She aimed her ears out into the night that was void of life, trying to locate any sounds that did not belong.

She opened her eyes and smiled as a humorous image struck her.  Alysa imagined a raven flying over Annie’s home, trying to understand the strange light below, before the creature flew up, panning slowly away from the faint pin-prick of light and muffled music coming from such an anomaly surrounded by so much overwhelming silence… and pitch-black darkness.

~~~

Next Episode 40-6

Previous Episode 40-4

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 40-5: Wick” Copyright © 2017 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Five: Remains. 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.

~~~

By mid-afternoon, Tony and his group departed Orosco’s camp. They all felt relieved to put that dead place behind them, but they couldn’t escape a sense of dread that struck them in the pit of their stomachs as Alysa led them to the State Route 322 intersection and the familiar beer cans scattered across the highway.

They cautiously traveled west for four miles on the two-lane country road, passing long neglected farmsteads in between the occasional run-down house swallowed up by vegetation or nestled in silence behind suspicious looking tree groves where the daytime shadows lingered from dark windows hiding horrors within that no one wanted to investigate.

The road was surprisingly clear, offering up false hope every time they came across a long-abandoned vehicle parked along the shoulder. Each one had been looted long ago, leaving only broken-windowed traces of the living, the vehicle owners’ futile stories left untold.

It was becoming increasingly clear that in the six months since The Change, the world around them had been slowly rotting away, along with the dead, leaving behind one large graveyard of humanity that would one day be hidden away when Mother Nature finally removed all evidence of them.

They stopped briefly and ducked down when they came across an old corn field off to their left and spotted a small herd of the re-animated, standing in the field like ancient scarecrows.

Matthew noticed a young boy, who stood closest to the road. The boy was staring away from them toward the distant wood line at the back of the field. He was wearing a dirty striped and torn short-sleeved shirt, revealing his brown skeletal looking limbs dangling from his sides. On his back was what looked like a dirty school pack. On his head was a faded blue ball cap, perhaps displaying the logo of his former favorite baseball team.

Wendy moved in beside him and crouched down, startling Matthew. “They look so… peaceful… just standing out there. It’s hard to believe they’re as dangerous as we’ve been told,” she whispered.

Matt continued to lock in on the boy, praying silently that it wouldn’t turn around, because he didn’t know if his mind could take seeing that zombified horrific little face. “That’s not peaceful,” he said. “That kid would’ve been in bed when this all started, dreaming about Saturday afternoon and playing with his friends. Look at him now. He probably lost his parents and then had to pack whatever he could and try to find some help… alone. Can you imagine how terrified he must have been?” He looked away.

Wendy put her hand on Matt’s shoulder. “Just try not to think about all that… okay? You’ll give yourself nightmares.”

“Nightmares?” he laughed. “This is a nightmare… and I’m hoping that somebody wakes me the hell up soon.”

Wendy frowned and turned to the boy. Something was happening. The decrepit looking zombies in the field started to shamble toward the trees as if responding to something only they could hear. She watched the young boy move with them, almost dragging its arms in the tall grass as the weight of the pack made it hunch over, its movements, grotesquely making it look more like some injured animal than a boy.

“That’s fucking horrible,” Matt said, watching the boy shamble away. “Do you think it was those other ones… you know… that did that to him? Maybe he ran to them for help, didn’t know what they were before it was too late, and then… hell… now he’s just like them.”

Tony was signaling them all to move.

“Let’s get out of here,” Wendy said, regretting ever describing zombies as ‘peaceful’.

The boy with the blue cap and the backpack continued to follow the others toward the trees. He was not thinking of Saturday or playing with friends. He was hungry. He was dead.

~~~

Two lonely miles later, they came across a dirty faded sign, just on the other side of some railroad tracks, that read: WICK TOWNSHIP.

They walked another quarter of a mile, the roadway passing through two long rows of trees hiding more fields behind them, and stopped, noticing another house to their right. It was an old two-story quaint Craftsman style home with an overhanging roof. It had a small front porch with two columns bordering the front steps. A lone rocking chair sat at the top of the steps. The white-painted siding was peeling but looked cleaner than most of the run-down houses they’d seen. What gave them pause was that the grass looked recently mowed, an ancient looking push mower sitting near the porch added additional proof. Two American flags blowing in the wind stole their attention, supported on two flagpoles attached to the two columns.

“What a cute little house,” Beverly remarked, earning her several sneers.

Tony panned away from the house, to the rusted grey mailbox standing at the end of a small gravel driveway. He read the last name, GREENMAN, painted across the side in faded red. Directly across the roadway was a longer dirt driveway and another house, set farther back. He could see a deteriorated ranch home surrounded by tall weeds, a few trees, and an old chain link fence. Apart from the two houses, there was nothing else out here but the highway and more endless fields standing off in the distance. “Welcome to Wick,” he laughed. “Blink an eye… and it’s gone.”

“Should we check out the cute house?” Diane asked, smiling at Beverly. “It’s the only one we’ve seen that doesn’t look abandoned… lifeless.”

“Someone still lives there,” Alysa quickly added, feeling a need to remind them of the obvious.

“We need supplies,” Tony said. “Diane’s right. This is the only home we’ve seen so far that doesn’t look looted, or like it’s hiding the dead inside. If someone is there, maybe they can help us.”

“Or shoot us the moment we step into the yard,” Mark said. “It doesn’t feel right.”

“Agreed,” Alysa said. “Perhaps we should just move on.”

Tony looked up the long stretch of highway that continued toward nowhere. “It’s going to be dark in a couple of hours. I don’t like the thought of spending the night out here in some field with those dead things roaming about. Let’s try something old-fashioned. We’ll go to the front door… and knock. If no one answers, we might have a decent roof over our heads tonight.”

“Wonderful,” Mark said. “Are you hoping for hospitality? Because the way I remember it, there wasn’t much of that around before this shit-storm started.”

Wendy shook her head at him. “My God… you are such a constant buzz kill. Why do you automatically assume that every human being has to be evil?”

Mark just shrugged his shoulders. “Believe what you want. It’s your funeral.”

“I’ll go,” Nine offered. “Looks inviting to me. If someone still lives there, they still care enough about the way things were to cut the grass. That’s not your typical response if you’re a paranoid hermit trying to remain hidden from the rest of the world. Could just be some lonely soul hoping to see another living person out here. I say it’s worth the risk.”

“Agreed,” Wendy added. “Not all of us have given up on humanity, yet.” She looked over at Mark.

“Cheese placed on a mousetrap is also an invitation,” Alysa added.

Nine laughed. “Well… when you put it that way…”

Before anyone could add another word on the matter, Tony said, “Wait here.” He started to cross the yard, stopped, and then approached the driveway instead.

Nine snickered at Tony’s courteous attempt to approach the house.

“Something funny?” Diane asked.

“Since every day is like… permanent Halloween now, I’d just cut through the damn yard like an anxious trick-or-treater.”

“Nine.”

“Yes, my angel?”

“Please, shut up.”

He laughed.

Tony made it to the front porch steps and stopped.

Someone was standing on the opposite side of a screen door, half-hidden in shadow.

When Tony’s hands went up submissively, Alysa raised her bow toward the door, arrow at the ready.

“Hello?” he said. “Don’t be alarmed. I’m not a zombie… just a man.”

The figure in the doorway didn’t move.

“I see you standing there.” He wiped sweat from his brow. “My name’s Tony. I’m not here to cause trouble. Me and my friends saw your house and just wanted to find out if anyone still lived here.”

“And if I’d just happened ta’ been out when you came strollin’ up to knock on my front door, ya’ would’ve just turned around and left when y’all realized I wasn’t home, right?” a woman with a deep southern accent asked.

Tony distinctively heard what sounded like the hammer of a gun being cocked back. Shit. Play this straight, Marcuchi. He smiled weakly and said, “Honestly… Ma’am… if no one had answered the door, we would’ve checked out the house, realized someone was living here, and then… waited for you to return.”

“So… ya’ planned on jumpin’ me in ma’ own home?”

Diane shook her head.

“And you thought I said stupid things,” Nine whispered to her.

Idiot… that was ‘too much’ playing it straight. “Sorry,” Tony corrected. “That didn’t come out as intended. What I meant was-”

The woman laughed. “Son… if ya’ gonna rob somebody’s home, then ya’ just do it. What ‘cha don’t do is say what ‘cha just said ta’ the other end of a gun barrel pointed right at ‘cha. Did ya’ lose all your good sense after the ‘pocalypse?”

“Apparently,” he said.

“You’re not much of a thief, I reckon’,” the woman said. “First time?”

Tony laughed nervously. “I never did much ‘Breaking and Entering’ before The Change. I’m not familiar with the protocol for being caught at the front door.”

“What the hell is he doing?” Mark asked, stepping up beside Diane. “Is he trying to get shot?”

“Just… calm down,” she said. “Let’s see how this plays out.”

“I have a clear shot,” the archer said. “I could kill the woman and we would be done with this.”

“Just hold on, quick draw,” Nine told her. “I don’t know what they teach you in Shadow Dead School, but we don’t just kill everyone we meet.”

Alysa frowned at him. “Very well. But if she fires her weapon… I will eliminate the threat.”

“‘Eliminate the threat’?” Nine laughed, shaking his head at her. “What are you? A Terminator?”

Alysa clearly didn’t catch the reference. She dismissed the young man and focused on the front door, her bow still locked in place.

The woman in the doorway paused, and then asked, “What do ‘ya mean, ‘The Change’? That some fancy liberal nonsense?”

“‘Liberal nonsense’?” Tony was confused. “No… no… nothing like that. It’s just what some people call the ‘Event’… or the ‘Outbreak’… I guess.”

“Son… are ya’ talkin’ ‘bout the ‘pocalypse?”

“Yes.”

“Then why didn’t ya’ just say so? ‘Aint gotta be fifty flavors of the same damn thing.”

Tony frowned. “I’m obviously failing miserably at my communication skills today. Is there anything I can say that will stop you from shooting me on your front porch?”

“Who’d ya’ vote for?”

“Excuse me?”

“Your hearin’ broken, too?”

“Are you talking about the presidential election?”

“Yep.”

Tony considered the absurdity of the question, thought about the woman’s liberal remark, and then said, “McCain.”

“You’re about as good a liar as ‘ya are a thief. I can smell you ‘Bama types from a mile away.”

“Alright,” he said. “I did vote for Obama… not that any of that matters now.”

“It sure does matter!” the woman said. “Damn ‘pocalypse doesn’t change what ‘cha believe. Once ‘ya stop believin’ in things… then the dyin’ begins.”

Tony nodded. “I see your point.”

“‘Ya believe in God Almighty?”

That was an easy one. “Of course.”

The woman paused again, then said, “Well… it takes a good liar to do a lot of bad things… and a good liar you ‘ain’t.”

Tony laughed.

“You tell that skinny Robin Hood girl over there, ta’ lower the bow, and I’ll consider invitin’ y’all inside.”

Tony turned and signaled Alysa to ease off.

The archer reluctantly lowered her bow.

Tony waved them over.

The old woman stepped out of the shadows. She was wearing a long faded blue sundress with a soiled apron hanging down the front. She stepped out on to the porch carrying a two-barrel shotgun. She was short, but had a large girth with very broad shoulders, giving her a strong appearance. The woman’s face was hard and weathered by age and many years spent outdoors, but it wasn’t an unkind face. Her long silver hair was slicked back and tied up into a tight bun.

“They all more liberals like yourself?” the woman asked suspiciously.

Tony smiled. “Ma’am, we’ll all vote for you if there’s ever another election. I promise.”

The old woman laughed hard at that. “I see now. ‘Ya ain’t a good liar, but the next best thing is a charmer.” She looked over at Alysa and added, “Them charms he’s throwin’ around ever work on you, darlin’?”

Alysa and Tony shared a glance, verbally tripping over each other to make it clear that they weren’t together.

Nine giggled.

“Well, never you mind. Name’s Annie. Come on in before the sun sets. And close the door behind ‘ya. Don’t wanna let any of them strays in the house.”

Wendy and Beverly looked around the yard for cats before realizing Annie wasn’t talking about animals.

~~~

Annie Greenman’s small home was a moment from the past, completely immune to the decay of the outside world.

“Make yer selves comfy. Chair’s mine, though,” she said. “I know it ‘ain’t much of a castle, but that chair’s been my throne since my daddy died twenty years ago,” she laughed.

Annie was amused by the awkwardness and shocked expressions on her guests faces as they sat down on two old sofas before a long antique wooden coffee table, visually absorbing everything in the room as if they’d forgotten what a living room was supposed to look like. All the furniture in the room looked ancient, including an old grandfather clock (no longer working) which permanently displayed fifteen minutes past three. The walls were cluttered with memories; picture frame after picture frame displayed what they all assumed were members of the Greenman family tree. Many of the photos showed men in decorated military uniforms. There was an old fireplace off to the right with more pictures sitting on the mantle. A big Zenith console television sat useless in the corner of the room, but remained as a reminder that things might one day return to what was… and that big screen might once more display Annie’s favorite television shows.

Diane, Nine and Tony sat on one couch. Wendy, Beverly, Mark and Matt squeezed in on the other. When Tony got up and offered Alysa his seat, she refused as though the thought of getting comfortable repulsed her, opting to stand at the back of the room, instead.

Annie was already moving a hundred miles an hour as she traveled back and forth between her small kitchen and the living room, talking all the while. For an old woman, she had a surprising amount of energy. At some point, she’d put the shotgun down, presumably in the kitchen. “Now… I ‘ain’t got much as far as beverage choices. It’s water, water, or water. The Lord blessed me with this house. Still have the well out back so there’s plenty of that. The well keeps it nice and cold, too.”

Tony laughed. “Water’s fine… and thank you.” He smiled at the others to help put them at ease.

“I run my geny sparingly,” she called from the kitchen. “Just long enough each day ta’ keep a few things runnin’ when I need ‘em. I use just enough juice ‘ta keep my ‘fridge cold but the pot-belly stove’s been a lifesaver, ‘specially this last winter. I just can’t chop all that wood like I used ‘ta. But I gotta have my stove, fer sure. ‘A hot meal’s the only thing keepin’ us from turnin’ into damn barbarians’, my mama used ‘ta say.”

Nine looked extremely amused. As Annie continued to chatter on, he raised his right hand, turning it into an Annie puppet, mouthing her words with the hand, while pretending to be Tony, who was constantly nodding or trying to get a word in.

Beverly started snorting again, causing Wendy to cup her mouth to keep from bursting out with laughter.

“Children, behave,” Tony scolded them teasingly. It felt good for him to see the others laugh a little. There had already been enough death and sadness to last several lifetimes.

Annie returned with a tray of glasses filled with water, a bowl of pretzels, and a bowl of potato chips (the non-stale kind). She placed it on the coffee table, shooting Alysa a disapproving glance for standing around. “Now, I know it ‘ain’t much, but it’s a start.”

Tony stood up. “No, it’s fine… Annie. Thanks for your hospitality.”

“Sit, sit, sit,” she said with a wave of her hand. “Have a snack and a drink. Y’all look like you haven’t had either in a spell.” She moved to her chair and slowly sat down. “That’s better.” Her younger guests were attacking the chips and pretzels, making Annie laugh. “It’s been a while since I had young people in this house. I’d forgotten how much they like that junk food.”

Diane slipped a chip away from the savages and tried not to inhale it. “This is wonderful,” she told Annie. “We haven’t sat down in a real living room like this in a long time.”

“It shows,” Annie said with a wink. “And what might yer’ name be, young lady?”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m Diane.”

“That’s a lovely name. And the rest of ‘ya?”

The others went around the room introducing themselves.

When it came around to Alysa’s turn, the archer simply stood there.

The old woman frowned at her and said, “And who might you be, other than short-of-manners?”

Alysa looked at Tony who nodded for her to continue. She looked back at Annie. “Are you alone here? I find it difficult to believe you’ve managed this long by yourself… considering your age.”

Tony winced. “You’ll have to forgive my friend. She’s…”

“Emotionally challenged,” Nine finished. He grabbed a handful of pretzels.

Alysa rolled her eyes, sighed, and said, “Alysa. My name’s Alysa.”

“Well, Alysa, you can come on in and join us. I’m not gonna bite ‘ya,” Annie said. “And, yes, I’ve had a little help from time ‘ta time.”

Tony gave the archer a pleading look.

Alysa returned it with a ‘what the hell did I do?’ look. “I… need some fresh air,” she announced, heading for the front door. “I’ll be on the porch.”

“Sorry about that, Annie,” Tony said after the door shut. “Times are tough, as I’m sure you know. Sometimes it’s hard to remember how we’re supposed to ‘be’ in certain situations.”

Annie waved it off, leaned in and whispered, “‘Takes all kinds of nuts ‘ta fill this world jar’ my mama used ‘ta say.”

This time it was Diane who laughed, earning her a surprised look from the others.

“Truth is… Tony,” Annie continued. “Your girlfriend reminds me of a dog I once rescued from a bad way. Took that mutt a whole week ‘ta start trustin’ people again.”

“She’s not my girl- ”

“I had ‘ta feed that poor thing on the porch,” Annie continued. “Damn thing wouldn’t run off… but it wouldn’t come in either. Eventually, it came around.” She patted Tony’s hand. “Don’t give up on her, son. It’s damn near impossible ‘ta find a good woman these day. Slim pickin’s. You might have ‘ta settle for them broken ones, too.”

Both Nine and Diane were laughing now, enjoying Tony’s discomfort.

Tony immediately thought about one ‘broken girl’ in particular, causing the scab over his heart to peel. He was relieved when Annie changed the subject.

“So, what brings you folks out ‘ta lonely old Wick, Tony? Never saw many people before the ‘pocalypse… much fewer now.”

“We’re looking for some friends that might have headed through here,” he said. “Have you seen anyone else, like us, come through in the past month?”

“You mean, there’s more lousy thieves out there roaming about?” she said with a laugh. “You better stop them right quick before the lot of ‘ya give the profession a bad name.”

“Annie,” Nine laughed. “I really like you.”

“Well, thank you, young man. You go on and take an extra couple of chips for that.” She winked.

“Seriously,” Tony said. “You might have seen them. They would’ve been with a larger group.”

Annie leaned back in her chair and thought back. “Well… there was one group that came by right after winter let up. But they weren’t like any of you. They was strange… and a little scary.”

“Go on,” Tony urged.

“I’d seen all sorts come through here… but this lot… well… they just spelled trouble. Most folks just pass through and never give old Wick a second thought… it’s always been… always will be, I suppose. That’s why no one bothers old Annie, all alone on this here highway. But this group, they were driven’ in three cars, all slow like. One was a big green Caddy, another was a flatbed truck full of face-painted people and lots of stuff. The last was a box truck. They came creepin’ through Wick in the early hours, almost didn’t catch ‘em, but I heard one of them trucks squeal to a stop… just out front, too.”

“I’m sorry,” Tony said. “Did you say ‘face-painted’ people’?”

Annie shook as if reacting to a draft. She started rubbing her arms. “Yep… I got a good look at ‘em ‘cause the moon was out that night. They were paler than ghosts, remindin’ me a little of clowns, ‘cept they wasn’t funny… not at all. I was sure that it was white face paint. And they’d painted black around their eyes, noses, and around their mouths, too. I’d looked outside my window and seen ‘em when some of ‘em got off the flatbed truck, just standin’ there at the end of my driveway. They was just starin’ at the house like they were tryin’ to decide what to do. And they was armed to the teeth!”

“How many of these face-painted people did you see?” Mark asked.

Annie started counting on her fingers while she tried to picture what she saw. “At least twenty-five… maybe more.”

“And did you see any other people, Annie?” Diane asked. “People without the face paint?”

“No… but there was still that box truck. You think your friends were with them?”

Tony sank in his seat. “We don’t know, Annie. It happened a while ago… but our friends were attacked. We think some of them may have been captured.”

Annie nodded. “Well… these could’ve been the capturin’ kind, fer sure. I think they knew I was here ‘cause they started acting all strange… howlin’ and cussin’, tryin’ everything they could to scare me out. At least that’s what I think.”

“That must have been dreadful,” Beverly said. “I can’t imagine what I’d do if it were me. I’d probably run out the back, screaming.”

“Oh… I thought about it, yes sir, but I decided ta’ wait ‘em out. Then, when it looked like they was gonna come inside, this tall one stepped out of the Caddy. It might have been a woman ‘cause she had long straight hair, but I wasn’t certain ‘cause of all that face paint. She was wearing a leather jacket and jeans, looking like some kind of circus gangster, holding a handgun in each hand.

“Shit,” Matt said, earning him a reproachful look from Annie. “Sorry… excuse my language.”

Annie continued. “Anyway, this woman, or long-haired man, startin’ yellin’ at the others ta’ get back in the trucks. She seemed in a hurry while the others wanted to play. So, they all got back in their cars like pouting children and drove off. Haven’t seen them since, thank the Good Lord.”

“Amen,” Nine said with a smile. “I’m glad nothing happened to you. There’s been enough bad things happening to good people since this all started… and that’s without having to worry about our own kind, too.”

Annie nodded thoughtfully. “I’m grateful they drove off… but I was pissed in the mornin’ when I went outside and found all their damn beer cans tossed about the road. Wick ‘ain’t much, but it’s always been clean. This ‘ain’t some damn trash can… this is my home!”

Tony and Diane exchanged a worried glance at the mention of the beer cans.

Annie caught it. “My, I sure hope your friends weren’t involved with that lot. We’re they?”

“They might be,” Tony said. “So, when they left, did they just continue heading west?”

Annie nodded. “Yep, but like I said, haven’t seen ‘em since. Sorry.”

“That’s okay, Annie,” Tony said. “You’ve been a big help. At least we know who and what we’re dealing with now.”

“Tony?” Alysa surprised all of them from the doorway. She’d come back inside unnoticed.

He turned.

“I need to speak with you… outside.”

“If you’ll excuse me a moment,” Tony said to Annie, getting up.

“Go on… take care of business,” Annie said, rising to meet him. She then leaned in and whispered with a wink, “I understand. I was young once, too. Take care of your woman. Maybe you can talk her into sitting down with us.”

Tony just shook his head and tried to ignore the others amusement. He walked outside with Alysa.

“Were you in there for any of that?” he asked.

“What… the ‘she thinks I’m your girlfriend’ bit?”

“Not that,” he said, shuffling his feet.

Alysa smiled. “Yes, I caught the gist of it. It sounds like her face-painted people are our new enemy.”

Tony nodded with an exhausted sigh. “I’m too tired right now to consider what that will mean for us if we ever catch up to these… people.” He shifted gears. “What was so important that you couldn’t tell me inside?”

Alysa looked across the street. “It’s that ranch house.”

“And?”

“I wanted us to have the advantage of information that our host might not know we have.”

Tony laughed. “You really don’t like this woman, do you?”

“It’s not that… I’m just… careful. Annie’s someone we do not know. And I don’t trust easily.”

Tony nodded. “Fair enough. What is it?”

She turned back. “I’m almost certain that someone is living in that house, too.”

~~~

Next Episode 40-5

Previous Episode 40-3

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 40-4: Wick” Copyright © 2017 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Five: Remains. 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

~~~

All is lost… all is lost…

Tony closed his eyes as those three words hit home in his thoughts. He couldn’t look at the pile of burnt flesh any longer without wanting to turn his head up towards the sky and throw obscenities at God, or anyone else who would listen to his outrage. Every time he tried to rise above present circumstances or the inner war that was slowly tearing him apart, the old part of himself, the one who understand the preserving power of hope, would reach up to find it, catch a glimpse of it like a well-timed life preserver tossed out in an indifferent dark sea, just to have some sadistic behind-the-scenes presence pull it away with a mocking laugh.

He opened his eyes and stared at the bonfire again. Here is the end result of all your wishful thinking, Marcuchi, he thought. Every time you want to believe that there’s a chance… any damn hope at all… just remember these monuments of the dead, left behind like knife wounds to the heart, reminding you that everything good is rotting away while evil celebrates.

Tony was tired of being teased and tormented by this horrible new world. He was beginning to feel like some apocalyptic ‘play thing’, or the punch line of some bad joke that always ended up with the ‘good guys’ falling flat on their faces in a pile of never-ending shit.

“At least she wasn’t here,” he said out loud, and was surprised by the two-fold relief he felt from saying it. Yes, part of the reason that made it an easy call to search out Orosco’s camp was knowing that Gina might have made it here before the attack. Part of him had hoped that she heeded his advice and tried to find this place after getting her exiled, but if she had, there would have been nothing to find but this dead place… and something else for her to hate him for.

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

Marcus had said those words the night he left, the night he told him about the rape… and forced Tony to accept what he’d known since being reunited with Gina again.

Our love has become another one of these morbid monuments, he thought. Another bad joke played on the rest of us who dare to believe that love is enough. How long had he held on to that very hope before finding Gina in Andover? How long had he relied upon their love to get out of the Bad Man’s basement after being separated by The Change, and to get him through everything else that followed?

He thought about how their relationship had changed over the long winter, and how hard Gina tried to put on a good face for his sake, while she continued to descend into whatever darkness owned her. The truth was that they had both drastically changed. He’d tried to accept her, regardless of that darkness, because he loved her and believed that it was enough to overcome it all… together. But it wasn’t. As a result, she brought him down to her level. Made him do things… cover for her when she murdered two of their own.

He had watched her torture Marvin, that pathetic sick man, and then when Tony’s back was turned, she had burned him to death. He thought about the irony of coming full circle back to that horrible place with a different Gina, after escaping with a Gina who no longer existed, except in his heart.

She wasn’t getting better, and he knew it. But because he loved her… he turned a blind eye, until he could no longer live with himself, and then he finally turned her in.

And now, she was out there, somewhere, doing God knows what, and he was… relieved. Relieved that she didn’t suffer the same fate as Orosco’s people or the others in the Wasteland facility. But it was much deeper than that. Tony wasn’t going to lie to himself any longer. Not now. He was relieved to be free of her… and all that darkness she carried around.

He started to weep, feeling like he was betraying her again by not holding on to that precious memory of who they were, and who he had long hoped they might be again. He refused to lie to himself any longer, not after so much death and suffering. Maybe he was the real reason their love could not overcome and adapt? Maybe it was his unwillingness to see Gina for who she was now, and not who he hoped she might be again, that kept them apart? Or, perhaps the only way they could be together again, is if he betrayed himself, and embraced that darkness, too?

Tony let the tears roll down his face and made a hard decision, perhaps one of the hardest decisions he would ever make.

I love you, Gina. But I can’t be with you. I can’t continue travelling down that dark path… not without losing myself.

For the first time since the world went insane, Tony did not lean upon their love for strength. That crutch was gone. He did the hardest thing, for both their sakes: Tony let her go.

Wherever you are, I hope you find your way out of the darkness, Gina. I hope you find peace and a way to keep on surviving without becoming as dark as this world we’re struggling against. I love you… always.

He then forced himself to finish. “Goodbye,” he whispered before the ashes.

Tony found no joy in what followed. He felt like an incredible load had just been removed from his shoulders. And for the first time, his heart and mind were clear. He shook his head and laughed toward the sky. “So, this is how it has to be… to survive.” He spit out that last world with all his bitterness. “Well, all you Assholes responsible for this mess… fuck you! And fuck this world that spawned you, Survival! We’re going to do better than that. So, keep on laughing at us, but we’re not done yet.”

The Apocalypse had no response.

Tony rose from the ashes and added, “All is not fucking lost… not yet.”

~~~

Diane approached within fifteen feet of the Shadow Dead woman and raised her handgun to Alysa’s head. “This is all your fucking fault,” she accused.

Alysa turned to face the angry woman but did not raise her bow. Instead, she dropped it in the sand and held her hands out, palms up, in front of her chest. “I’m not doing this with you,” she said. “I’m not your enemy.”

Diane’s long brown hair blew wildly around her face, but she didn’t flinch. She maintained her shooting stance, locked in, with both intense eyes open and staring down the sites of her weapon. She almost pulled the trigger… almost. “Of course you’re my damn enemy!” she hissed. “You and your fucking people came to our home, attacked us, and now… now we’re here, in this dead place, staring at more Shadow Dead savagery.”

Beverly, Wendy, Mark and Matt came up from behind Alysa, saw Diane’s gun, and stepped to the side, looking very confused.

Nine calmly stepped beside her and said, “Diane… you know this wasn’t them. All those beer cans… really? From what we know of the Shadow Dead, do you think they’d build a bonfire and throw a party afterwards? They don’t strike me as the partying type.” He quickly turned to Alysa. “No offense.”

Alysa shrugged her shoulders.

“Doesn’t matter,” she barked. “They’re still responsible for everything! If not for the constant threat of her fucking people all winter, Gina wouldn’t have lost her shit and pushed Orosco to come out here in the first place!”

“I tried to warn you,” Alysa said. “I told Marcus they were coming.”

“She’s right, Diane. You remember what Marcus said when he got back,” Nine pleaded.

Diane shook her head. “You’re all the same,” she said. “I have no idea why Tony still tolerates you being here. Isn’t what we suffered enough? We’re all that’s left! You got your damn compound back! So why the hell are you still here?”

Alysa frowned and let out a deep sigh. “Would it matter what I told you?”

“No, it wouldn’t,” Diane said. “You killed my friend! Put a damn arrow in his head after he saved my life!”

Alysa put her hands down. Her face became dark. “I’m done trying to convince you to put aside your hate. Do what you must.”

“I’ll do it, bitch!” she threatened, raising the gun a little higher for emphasis.

“Yes,” Alysa said. “I believe you just might.”

“Who’s hungry?”

They all turned as Tony strolled up the beach carrying a handful of sticks.

He looked at them and said, “I’m fucking starving. We should get a fire together and eat.”

Alysa raised an eyebrow at his peculiar behavior.

Diane shifted uncomfortably, but continued to aim her gun at the enemy.

“Tony?” Nine said.

“Yes?”

“Uh… we seem to have a bit of a problem at the moment.” Nine laughed nervously. “Perhaps lunch could wait a few more minutes.”

“Screw that,” he said, putting a hand to his belly. “All this gun-pointing shit is just making it worse.” He looked to Diane and said, “Could you hurry up and finish? I’m an impatient son-of-a-bitch when my stomach starts growling like this.”

Diane turned and gave him a ‘what the fuck’ look.

Nine was about to speak, but realized he had no idea what to say.

Tony dropped the sticks and brushed his hands on his pants. “Alright, I warned you,” he said. Then he put his hands to his side, stared at both women, and said, “Look, either you shoot her with the gun… or you, pick up that damn bow, and shoot her with an arrow. Either way, it’s time to sit down, make a hot meal, and try to talk like fucking civilized people used to do. There’s been entirely too much death since last night, so… go on… get your shit over with, because I’m done with it.”

Alysa folded her arms across her chest and stared at Diane.

“Tony,” Diane said. “She’s one of them! We have to-”

“We have to what?” he snapped. “Kill her? Why? Because her people killed us? We probably wouldn’t have made it out of the woods last night without her… but go ahead… shoot her in the head!”

Alysa looked like she wanted to object, but remained silent.

“Tony?” Nine tried. “You’re not helping-”

“No… no… if Diane needs to kill the Shadow Dead woman, then let her do it.”

“Tony, are you alright?” Diane asked.

“No… I’m being serious.” He sat down in the sand. “You go ahead, kill this woman, and then you take that fucking gun, turn it on your boyfriend over there… and shoot him, too.” Tony laughed. “Because if you think that you two will ever be the same again after Nine watches you murder this woman in front of him… then you’re a fucking idiot!”

Diane recoiled as if Tony had just struck her across the face.

“And then after you’ve killed whatever chance you have at a relationship in this wonderful new world of ours, and believe me, after a little murder gets in between you two, it’s never the same again, then you might as well shoot me, too, for letting me believe that you’re better than this. Obviously, I was very wrong.”

Diane closed her eyes and lowered the weapon, slightly. “Tony… I… I don’t know what to say. I’m… I’m so fucking angry.”

“Angry?” Tony said. He laughed hard. “You’re angry? Try standing in my fucking shoes for five minutes, woman, and then talk to me about angry!”

Diane took a step back.

Tony got up, gave her a seething look, and then turned to the rest, raised his hand in the air, and said, “Anyone else reached their limit on how much more death we can tolerate today? I sure know I have!” He walked over to Diane and stripped the gun from her hand. “This is over. Do you understand? NO MORE FUCKING DEATH!”

She nodded and looked at her feet, feeling two feet tall.

Tony took them all in with a long gaze and said, “Now, if all this bullshit is finished, let’s make a damn fire, search this place for anything else we can snack on, sit the fuck down… and eat! Any objections?”

No one objected.

~~~

Everyone was grateful to be doing something, anything to quiet their dismal thoughts.

Matt and Beverly gathered wood while Wendy and Mark argued about how to build the fire.

There wasn’t much to salvage from the destroyed homes. Nine discovered an overturned cupboard with enough coffee mugs still intact for each of them. He also found a dented tea kettle. Combined with Diane’s discovery of a pack of plastic spoons and a half bag of stale potato chips from the trunk of one of the vehicles in the wall, they decided to try preparing their meal of soup and chips by slowly heating the soup in the kettle over the fire.

Tony and Alysa checked the vehicles for keys and anything else they could use. Only the bus and a sedan had them and neither vehicle would start. The bus had no gas and the sedan’s battery was dead. They did find a cigarette lighter to light the fire. Whoever came and attacked Orosco’s camp, picked the camp to the bone afterwards, leaving nothing of real relevance.

By early afternoon they were all sitting around a small campfire on the beach, taking slow sips from their mugs full of hot split pea soup. If felt good just to get a little nourishment, which helped them get their heads on straight.

Alysa was the last to sit down around the fire as Nine scooted over to allow her room.

“Here you go,” Beverly said, handing her a mug of soup. “Normally, not the best of meals, but it’s amazing how great a seasoning hunger can be.”

“Thank you,” Alysa said, taking the cup from the smiling young lady. She looked away and quickly sat down, staring into her mug.

Tony was enjoying his soup while Diane was pretending to, and trying not to cause any more trouble.

The others were savoring their portioned handful of chips, staring at each irregular crisp or licking the salt off each one before inhaling it, as if these were the last potato chips they might ever eat, stale or not.

Nine took it upon himself to break the silence (of course) as he watched the Shadow Dead woman out of the corner of his eye and noticed she wasn’t eating. “Not hungry?” he asked.

Alysa smiled politely and said. “Just waiting for it to cool a bit… and… no, I’m not very hungry.”

Nine seized his opening. “I’ve never spoken with an urban legend before… well… a former urban legend.”

She gave him a puzzled look. “Excuse me?”

Diane was already shaking her head.

“What I mean is… until the attack, many of us were starting to doubt if your people even existed. Tony and Diane have encountered your kind before, and a few others from back in the early days, but guys like me… well… we just heard the stories.”

“Stories?” Alysa put down her mug.

“Nine, tread easy,” Tony cautioned. “It’s already been a hell of a day.”

“Oh, no!” Nine said. “I mean no offense. I’m genuinely curious, is all. It’s just that, Shadow Dead talk always happened late night, when someone wanted to scare the pants off someone. You get bored down there in that compound after a while and start entertaining each other with ghost stories and stuff.”

“Joe was great at that,” Beverly added, and then got quiet.

Alysa cracked a partial smile, betraying her amusement. “So… is talking to me like talking to the Boogeyman.”

“Exactly!” Nine said, excitedly. “Except you’re like the Boogeyman off camera, kicking back, hair down with the costume off.”

“Oh… my… God,” Diane muttered to herself, clearly embarrassed.

“I sense you wish to ask me questions,” Alysa said, now amused by Diane’s discomfort. “Maybe to find out what’s real from legend… is that it?”

“Do you mind?”

“Not at all.”

“Oh… I’m Nine by the way. We’ve not officially met.”

“Beverly,” the smiling girl said. She pointed to the others. “That’s Matthew, Mark and Wendy… and you know Tony… and Diane.”

Everyone except Diane quickly greeted the Shadow Dead woman. Diane simply nodded.

“Well, it’s nice to meet all of you… officially. I’m Alysa Monroe, a.k.a. The Boogeyman.” She turned back to Nine and smiled. “I sense we don’t have a lot of time to explore urban legends right now, so… I’ll let you ask one question. Make it a good one.”

Nine pondered for much longer than he should have, acting like he’d just found a genie and trying to decide upon a wish. Finally, he said, “Okay… okay… I’ve got it. Of all the stories I’ve heard about you guys, the one thing that I would really like to know so I can sleep tonight is… well…”

“Go ahead… Nine. Ask your question,” Alysa invited.

“Do you… like… you know… eat people?”

Alysa’s face was stone.

Everyone stopped eating. They were staring at Alysa.

She leaned in toward Nine a little, causing him to lean away, and said, “That’s a good question. I guess all of you would sleep easier if we just got that one out of the way… hmm?” She picked up her soup mug and waited.

She made Nine wait so long before answering that he started to regret the question. “Doesn’t matter,” he said, waving it off with a laugh. “I was just-”

“Yes,” she interrupted, staring straight into his eyes with a serious expression. “I eat people.”

The others suddenly lost their appetite.

Nine opened his mouth to speak but said nothing. He wiped sweat from his forehead.

Alysa then cracked a full smile and finished, “But… only on Taco Tuesdays.” She added a playful wink and then began eating her soup.

Nine let out a nervous laugh.

Beverly was pointing at his face and laughing so hard that she snorted.

Wendy, Mark and even Matt were also laughing.

Tony and Diane were not amused, but let the moment pass, understanding that Alysa was just trying to ease the tension. They both exchanged a look across the fire, understanding all too well the previous horrors they’d experienced facing these boogeymen.

“Damn!” Nine was laughing and shaking his head at her. “You got me, good, Alysa.”

She just smiled and leaned back, while tossing a stale chip in her mouth.

“You know,” Tony said to Alysa after the laughter died down, “we do have a lot of questions that need addressing. Not right now… but soon. Will you have a problem with that?”

“Of course not,” she said. “I’d be surprised if you didn’t ask… but I, too, have questions. I know nothing about any of you.”

Tony nodded. “That’s understandable. After we’ve put this beach behind us, and figure out where we’re heading next, we’ll talk again.”

Alysa nodded.

“You have that look in your eye, Tony” Diane said. “Do you know where we’re going? Because I’m scared to death of leaving this beach without a plan.” She looked toward the ruins. “I know there’s nothing here for us… but graveyard or not… this is the last familiar place we have left. Once we leave here… it’s all unknown territory.”

Tony nodded and gave them all a hard look. “I wanted to get here, get reinforcements, and then go back to the compound to kill those fuckers.” He looked at Alysa and continued. “But I realize now that my emotions were screwing me up… just like the rest of you.” He took a deep breath and continued. “If anyone survived back home, then they’d have to be long gone from those woods. I believe that returning now would just guarantee our own deaths…” He paused, took a sip of his soup and continued. “I hope that Gina and Marcus got away safely… but we may never know. I’m just going to have make peace with that. We do know that this place is lost to us. The compound is lost to us. And we, all of us sitting here right now, need to stop looking for ghosts… because we’re the community now.”

They all started to scan each other’s tired and skeptical faces.

“And before I hear a fucking peep out of anyone about how Alysa can’t be one of us… let me remind you that she chose to help us, and by doing so, became as much an enemy to the Shadow Dead as we are. That makes her one of us.” His intense eyes searched their faces.

Alysa simply stared at the big man, shocked into silence.

“Before all this shit went down six months ago, I didn’t know any of you and you didn’t know me… and here we are… now. We were strangers, some of us more strange than others,” he said smiling at Nine. “But now we’re like blood, we’re stronger than that because we’re bonded in blood. I say all this to remind you that we will get through this together. That’s our strength. That’s the only strength that matters.”

Diane stared into the fire and nodded. She quickly wiped a streaming tear from her eye with the back of her hand.

“I’m not going to bullshit you,” Tony said. “I’m tired. I’m hurting inside, but I’m working through it. I’m going to make mistakes. So, I need you to help me keep my shit together and I’ll do the same for all of you.”

“Nice speech… Tony,” Wendy said, adjusting her glasses. “But… where will we go now?”

“Hell,” Mark added. “Where do we even start?”

Tony nodded and smiled at Diane.

“You do know where we’re going?” she happily accused.

Tony shook his head. “No… what I have is a number… which will lead to a choice.”

Alysa gave him a curious look.

“Well… it better not have a damn six in it,” Nine said with a laugh.

“No,” Tony continued. “Twenty.”

They all waited.

“I stared into that damn bonfire and counted, and counted, and I’m sure of it. There were only twenty of Orosco’s people burned in that fire,” Tony said.

Diane caught on immediately. “Shit! He left with thirty people to come out here! That means some of them might still be alive.”

Tony got up and started pacing. “We’ll have to search the area again thoroughly to make sure we didn’t miss any bodies… but, yes, it’s starting to look that way.”

“And if your people survived the attack,” Alysa started, “you believe they have them, don’t you? The people responsible for this attack?”

“If they’re alive,” he said, looking around, “then they either drowned in the damn lake, or they were taken.” He raised his arms out wide. “It’s a damn peninsula… they had nowhere to escape.”

“So, you want to go after them… these unknown murderers who like burning shit up, on the chance that they might have our people as captives. Is that what you’re suggesting?” Mark asked.

Diane shook her head. “This happened a while ago, Tony. Judging from the ashes, the overgrowth, and a few other signs… at least three weeks ago to a month, probably right after winter let up. The trail’s gone cold. I’m good, but I’m not that good. We’d never find them now.”

“That’s not entirely correct,” Alysa added. “After assessing the scene when we first arrived, I headed back out past the vehicle wall, up the private drive, and back out where we entered. Just a couple of minutes farther south, is a state highway intersection. I found beer cans just like the ones around the bonfire, scattered along the highway headed west. Whoever these… murderers… are, I don’t believe they made any attempt to conceal their movements. It was evident that after slaughtering your people, they headed west.”

“But a month, Tony?” Nine said. “That’s a whole lot of ‘what if’s’ between heading west from here, to God knows where. Not to mention, they might be dead… now.”

Tony shook his head and raised his hands. “You’ve all brought up valid points. Like I said, all I have is a number that takes us to a choice: Do we attempt to find our friends, knowing that we may never catch up, or that they’re already dead? Or, do we go our own way, avoid the danger, and try to rebuild… somewhere? Take some time. Discuss it. Think about it. We decide together.”

“You want to go after them,” Diane stated.

Tony laughed. “Of course, I do. But I’m just hard-wired that way. You throw me a bone of hope… and I’ll go running after it, every time. But I’m not making the call on this one. It’s too important a decision, and both choices will require a long commitment. Talk it over. I’ll be back in an hour.” Tony started walking down the shoreline with his hands in his jean’s pockets.

“May I join you,” Alysa asked.

Tony turned and gave her a surprised look.

She explained. “My decision is made. I will follow whatever choice the majority decides… and it’s not wise for anyone to wander off alone.”

“Unless it’s you, right?”

She smiled. “I am… a lethal exception to the rule.”

“How can I argue against that?” he laughed. “Well come on, then,” he said, turning back toward the shore.

Alysa stood up and followed, stepping up beside him. For the first time, her bow was not held at the ready, but slung around her back instead.

For a couple of minutes they walked in silence. They could hear the others in what sounded like a heated debate.

“So, are you going to tell me what you wanted to talk about?” Tony asked.

She looked at him, her eyes narrowing. “Why are you defending me? You know what I am?”

“What you were, right?”

She sighed. “Okay. Yes. But… you don’t know me. And… those questions you all have… I’m certain you won’t like some of my answers.”

“You’ve done bad things, right?”

She looked straight ahead and then reluctantly nodded.

“And those… things… are what caused you to run off and hide out in some cabin… far from the rest of your kind, right?”

“Yes, but that doesn’t excuse-”

“You’re right,” Tony interrupted. “I don’t know you, or what you did, or the shame you carry from what you did.”

She waited.

“But you got out. Turned it around and now you’re not out there doing God-awful Shadow Dead business, like slaughtering my friends. And as result, you saved some of us instead.”

Alysa shook her head and smiled. “You are a very unusual man, Tony.”

Tony laughed. “I’ll take that as a compliment. Normal’s never been my thing.”

“I just haven’t decided yet if that makes you a fool, and even fools look wise until their luck runs out.”

“So much for the compliment,” he said. “Anything else?”

She hesitated and then said, “These people who attacked this camp, like I said, they were not concerned about hiding where they went. In my experience, that either means they are confident in themselves because they have the numbers…”

Tony nodded. “Or?”

She gave him a grave look. “Or, they are simply insane and don’t fear death. The world is much different now. It hasn’t only affected the dead, it’s changed the living, too.”

Tony frowned, thinking about Gina. “Don’t I know it,” he said cryptically. “Do you think following after these murderers is a bad idea, then?”

“I just wanted to put the facts out there. You say that returning to your compound is a death sentence, and you are wise in believing so, but… chasing after your lost friends from this disturbing place might also be a death sentence if we find them.”

“You don’t have to come,” he said. “You owe us nothing.”

Alysa smiled. “I’m not concerned for my safety. It’s the rest of you that need to understand the risks.”

“Noted. Anything else?”

She stopped, causing him to stop and stare at her. For the first time, Tony took in her appearance. Beneath her imposing exterior, Alysa was a very beautiful woman. He stared at her dark skin, eyes, her high cheekbones, her cute little nose with the ring making her look exotic, her lips… He wondered what her tightly braided long hair would look like let loose. He wanted to see her smile again. Tony forced himself to look away.

“I just wanted to say… thank you… for standing up for me. I’m not comfortable with it, and you may have been better off letting Diane shoot me after you find out about my past, but it’s refreshing to find someone I don’t have to… distrust… all the time.” She started walking again. “That was all I wanted to say.”

Tony watched the strange woman walk away and smiled. “You’re welcome.”

When they returned to the others, Tony smiled, opened his arms wide and said, “So, are you all ready to head west?”

Wendy looked surprised. “How did you know we decided to go after Orosco’s people?”

“Because we’re still the ‘good guys’,” he said. “And in this fucked-up world, that’s what the ‘good guys’ do.”

~~~

Next Episode 40-4

Previous Episode 40-2

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 40-3: Wick” Copyright © 2017 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Five: Remains. All Rights Reserved.

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

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

~~~

It took Tony and Diane longer than expected to find the private drive, which led to a peninsula off the southern portion of Lake Pymatuning, where they had originally discovered the four large vacation homes that had gone unnoticed after the world went mad. Diane was the last to visit the lake before the winter, when she had left Frank Carman and Marcus behind, to retrieve their community, not yet split. That was back when Gina had seized the compound, deciding that it would be their new home. But that was months ago, and now, everything looked different… older. It was as if every month that passed since The Change, equaled a year out in places abandoned, where mother nature ruled with a vengeance and chose to wipe out all traces of mankind as fast as possible.

They found the private drive entrance by late morning, hidden behind overgrown weeds and vegetation. It hadn’t looked used in a long time.

“Orosco’s a clever man,” Tony reminded her. “He probably abandoned the roadway to help hide the camp.”

Diane wasn’t convinced, but said nothing.

They started up the small private drive, rounding a heavily wood bend, and came across a wall of fortified automobiles, parked sideways across the road, extending on both sides of the property to neatly block easy access into the peninsula. Each vehicle’s windows facing them were boarded up with thick plywood, with gun ports cut into them.

“Your man’s been busy,” Alysa remarked, admiring the vehicle blockade. “The plywood’s shit for stopping bullets, but effective for keeping the dead out… and adding a little concealment.”

Tony smiled at the largest vehicle, an old school bus, which must have served as the main gate since it was positioned just behind two other vehicles, allowing it to move in reverse for entry if needed. The windows of the bus were all covered with more plywood, with more gun ports built into them.

“Where is everybody?” Nine asked, surprised that they hadn’t been greeted yet. “What good’s a wall without guards?”

Tony tried to peer between the vehicles without alarming anyone on the other side. But the low-hanging foliage on tree branches blocked his view.

“There’s room to crawl beneath the bus,” Mark said. “Looks like someone forgot to put whatever barriers they were using back in place.”

“It’s too quiet,” Alysa added, staring up into the trees. “Something’s… off.” She made her bow ready.

“Calm down,” Tony said. “Maybe they heard us coming and are waiting in the houses. If I remember correctly, you could see in all directions from the second-floor windows.”

“He’s right,” Diane added. “This wall of cars was probably just to keep the dead out. I’m sure Orosco has a secondary plan to deal with other potentially hostile survivors. They could watch anyone approaching from those windows with snipers in place, keep everyone hidden inside to make the place look deserted, while deciding what to do from there.”

“That’s exactly what I’d do,” Tony said with a smile. “And I taught the man everything he knows.” He added a playful wink.

Diane rolled her eyes and retrieved her handgun. “Let’s send someone under to let them know we’re friendly… someone who dresses funny that they’d easily recognize.” She immediately looked at Nine.

This caused Beverly and Wendy to laugh.

Nine shook his head at Diane. “Make fun of me… that’s fine… but make fun of these awesome threads… well, now you’re crossing the line.” He failed to keep a straight face as he tried to puff out his chest and straighten the collar, proudly drawing attention to his favorite jean jacket with the ‘80’s bands stenciled in.

“I guess you told me, Caption Retro,” Diane laughed, affectionately messing up his hair.

Now Mark and Matt were both chuckling.

Tony just shook his head and smiled. “I’m too tired to appreciate the absurdity that is ‘You’, my young friend,” he said to Nine. “But your girlfriend is correct… you stand out like a sore thumb.”

Nine smiled like an idiot and lightly elbowed Diane. “You see, everyone knows the truth, even Tony.”

“What… that your fashion sense is as outdated as your jokes?”

He leaned in and whispered, “No… that you’re my girlfriend.”

“Go,” she pointed to the bus.

“She’s so in to me,” he laughed, strutting toward the vehicle. He leaned down to crawl under, turned back, and said to them, “You’re all my witnesses. Even in the apocalypse, it’s never too late for the one you love to throw you under the bus.” He gave Diane a mock pouty face.

This caused Beverly to snort hysterically, drawing everyone’s attention.

The laughter was infectious, as they all let their exhaustion get the better of them… but it felt good.

Alysa was the only one who didn’t join in, standing back with her bow in hand, and staring at all of them as if wondering if they’d all been gassed or if they’d just gone insane.

“Get your ass under that bus,” Diane said through tears, failing to regain her composure.

He mockingly saluted and then disappeared beneath the bus.

When the laughter ran its course, Tony wiped tears from his eyes and said, “I guess we needed that… more than we know.” They all started to feel better knowing that they were one bus away from being reunited with friends they hadn’t seen since before the winter. Considering what they’d just lost, the need to be reunited with their people again, was overwhelming. They needed to mourn or cry or shout against God… but they needed to do it together.

Nine reappeared from beneath the bus two minutes later. His shoulders dropped, his face was pale, and his eyes red from wiping tears away.

All jubilation faded away like a mist that never was.

Diane came over. “What… what’s the matter? Did you make contact?”

Nine’s eyes started to water up as he looked at her and said, “They’re… all gone.”

Tony came over and gently put a hand on Nine’s shoulder. “What do you mean?”

Nine stared into Tony’s frightened face. “Everything… it’s all… gone!”

~~~

When they all cleared the bus, and walked up what remained of the private drive, exiting the canopy of trees, they stopped as the peninsula came into full view. Nine’s words could not capture the horror their eyes revealed.

The burnt down remains of four large vacation homes sat like neighboring graveyards in a half-circle at the edge of the peninsula. There was hardly anything left, except for their foundations, a few charred first floor walls, and the collapsed rubble that the rest was leaning inward against.

At the center of the half-circle, in the large front yard all four houses once shared, was the ancient remains of a small bonfire surrounded by weeds and tall grass. Burned up bodies, long past the point of recognition, were stacked unceremoniously on top of each other. Around the old fire were numerous empty beer cans and food trash, completing the grim scene of some sort of after-slaughter party.

Tony dropped to his knees before the bonfire, feeling like the wind was just knocked out of him.

Beverly and Wendy started to weep.

Matt and Mark just stood there… shocked into silence.

Diane turned away, burying her face into Nine’s shoulder.

Alysa was already moving about the ruins, making sure they were alone.

“Who… who would do something like this?” Tony was close to breaking. They had already lost so much… and now this? “What kind of sick fucking world is this?” he whispered to himself.

The others started disbanding, heading toward the peninsula beach at the rear of the homes. They needed to be anywhere but near those hideous remains. Once on the beach, Nine and Diane, holding each other close, walked off to the left; Wendy, Beverly, Matt and Mark all wandered to the right. They all needed time to process and grieve in their own way.

Tony remained before the bonfire, refusing to look away. He was too exhausted to cry or yell out in anger. He felt nothing. Numb. When he couldn’t make out their faces, Tony started counting the bodies.

“The area’s clear. We’re safe, for now,” Alysa squatted down beside him.

“What? What was that?” Tony was in shock.

The archer stared at the big man, into his eyes, and saw the depths of his sadness. “May I sit with you?” she asked.

Tony looked away from the bodies and down toward the grass.

Alysa sat down three feet to Tony’s right, placed the bow beside her, and then rested her arms on her knees. She stared around at the ruins and remained respectfully quiet.

“Why are you still here?” Tony finally said, still staring at the ground. His tone was not accusatory. It was just a worthless question, like so many others he could ask now.

Alysa stared thoughtfully at the big sad man. “I’m sorry for your loss… both now… and before. I meant to say that earlier, but-”

“Did the Shadow Dead do this?” Tony asked. His voice sounded weak and void of emotion.

Alysa’s eyebrows went up in surprise. That was the first time he hadn’t associated her with them. “No,” she quickly said. “Of that much, I’m sure. This is not their way.”

Tony partially turned his head. “And what is your ‘way’?”

Alysa smiled weakly. “That is… complicated.”

“Of course, it is. So, why are you still here? As you can see, all our people are dead. We’re alone now, and by the look of things, we’d all just like to lie down and die with them.”

Alysa gave him a puzzled look. She couldn’t decide if he was joking. “I came to find and help a mutual friend,” she said. “When I realized Marcus was gone, I chose to do the next best thing and help his friends.”

“That’s mighty big of you,” he said sarcastically.

Alysa frowned, regretting opening up a little to this man and his group that would never accept her. She rose to her feet, grabbing her bow, and said, “When I shot and killed the Shadow Dead who was about to kill you, I became dead to them. I can no longer be reunited with my people… and that makes me just as alone as the rest of you.” She started to walk away.

Tony turned to watch her go.

“You need your privacy,” she said over her shoulder. “I’ll leave you in peace. Sorry for disturbing you.”

“Alysa,” Tony called out.

She stopped and turned, surprised that he addressed her by name.

“Don’t wander away,” he said. “None of us can make it very far… alone.” He forced a smile.

Alysa offered one in return and nodded. “I’m going to walk around a bit and see what there is to see. Perhaps we can try to talk again when I return?”

“We can try,” Tony offered. “And… thank you for saving my ass back in those woods. We wouldn’t have made it this far without you.”

The former Shadow Dead offered an awkward smile, unprepared for the big man’s gratitude. She then turned and headed toward the vehicle wall.

~~~

Beverly sat near the edge of the beach, letting the water rush over her bare toes. She’d rolled up her jeans a little, grateful to have those awful running shoes off for a moment, and then started untying her knotted long hair. “I’d kill for a brush,” she said over her shoulder. She wiped sand on her soiled jeans and added, “And a laundry machine.”

Wendy sat behind her, staring despondently out across the lake.

Matt and Mark were standing off to the right, skipping large stones across the lake’s surface.

Mark turned and addressed Wendy. “Cheer up, girl. It could have been worse. You might have been here when those murderers showed up and extra-crispy fried our friends. We all know how damn worthless you would have been then.”

“Oh… gross!” Beverly said. “Show some respect for the dead, asshole!”

Wendy scowled at him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nice shooting, by the way, Legs. You have bigger balls than Matt over here.”

Matt ignored the jab.

“Shut up, creep!” Beverly said. I don’t want to talk about that… ever.”

“What the hell did you mean, Mark?” Wendy pushed.

Mark smiled. “Come on, Velma! You can’t even shoot a damn zombie without crying out in behalf of their rights to be… what… dead?”

She shook her head. “They were just like us not too long ago. How would you feel if someone made me shoot you in the head after you turned, just to find out later that there’s a cure that could’ve saved you?”

Mark stopped throwing stones. “You really think there’s a cure? Even after all this time?”

“Why not?” Wendy said. “Just because we don’t know about it, doesn’t mean it isn’t out there.”

“Please… wake… up… Velma! What’s happening in the world can’t be cured. It’s the predetermined extermination of Mankind, designed by God, or Mother Nature, or the damn universe… to finally rid the earth of all our bullshit. Just look at this damn camp! Look at what just happened at our own little safe haven! We can’t escape it. We are being eliminated one day at a time.”

Wendy shook her head. “Why do you hate your own kind so much? What the hell happened to you that made you this way?”

Mark turned away. “Doesn’t matter. None of us matter, Velma.”

“Stop calling me that!”

“Or what? You gonna go all pacifist on my ass?”

Wendy’s face turned beat red. She took a deep breath to calm down. “If you don’t start treating people better, especially since you’re quickly running out of friends who will put up with your cynical shit, you’ll wake up one day worse than being dead.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

She smiled. “You’ll be alone.”

Mark was getting upset. “Fuck you, Velma. Fuck all of you.”

“I have an idea,” Matt said.

They all turned to look at him.

Matt reached down and pretended to pick up a glass. “I’ve been thinking about poor Joe. He was a goofy guy, but his heart was always in the right place. He never judged us, even when the rest of the community labeled us as extra baggage. Joe was one of the good ones. He stood up to those Shadow Bastards… protected us…” His voice cracked. Matt raised his pretend glass, cuing the others to follow suit. Wendy and Beverly raised their glasses. Even Mark reluctantly played along. “Here’s to Joe. May he rest easy, along with all our lost friends, far from this hellish place.”

“To Joe,” Mark agreed.

“To Joe,” Wendy said.

Beverly’s emotions got the better of her as she started to cry. She raised her glass and nodded.

Matt raised his glass and finished, “To Joe. May we all find a way to escape this place… and join you… wherever that is.”

This was followed by a heavy silence.

~~~

Nine and Diane found a large piece of driftwood and sat down together.

Diane shivered from a breeze blowing in from the lake and Nine placed his favorite jacket around her shoulders.

She looked at him and tried to smile. “I’m not good at this.”

Nine laughed. “Yeah, we both know I’m the romantic one. That’s okay. You try.”

“No,” she said, elbowing him. “I mean… I’m not good at these long dark moments that make me question everything. It scares the hell out of me. There’s so much uncertainty in the world now, and every time it looks like we have a handle on it… something bad happens.”

Nine nodded, appreciating this vulnerable moment. They hardly had time to talk, really talk. He just wished their dire circumstances didn’t force them into such moments. He looked down the beach at the four young rookies who were damn lucky to still be alive… and have each other. He envied their naïve innocence and their ability to draw strength from the past. It still bothered him that he now referred to everything prior to The Change as the past. “I know what you mean,” he said. “A minute ago, there was Gina, then Stephen… the compound… the hope of finding Orosco in this graveyard… and now… it’s all gone.”

She looked at him.

“What do we do with this now? What does it mean?” he continued. “I feel like some homeless guy, except that they had carts with cool stuff, and warm boxes to sleep in. They could just squat anywhere they wanted, surrounded by people who just ignored them… and then there’s me… the bum that everyone wants to turn into a meal. That’s messed up, don’t you think? I mean… who eats the smelly ass homeless guy, right?”

Diane laughed. “I hear you. In your own warped way… I hear you.”

Nine reached in and kissed her gently on the lips.

“What was that for?”

“That was just another slow attempt to wear you down in the hope that you’d share my cardboard box with me someday.”

“You are an ass,” she said, shaking her head. “I’m glad you’re here. This would be… unbearable… if I’d lost you, too.” She quickly looked at her feet.

“Ditto,” he said, reaching in to squeeze her hand. “That’s a ridiculous, anti-romantic word, by the way. Who the hell says, ‘Ditto’? It’s almost like-”

She leaned in to kiss him.

“What was that for?”

“It’s the only way I know to shut you up,” she laughed.

“You know my weakness, woman,” he said with a laugh. “But seriously, now that we’re technically ‘homeless’, why don’t we just take off… you and me… and find somewhere far from all this… insanity.”

“What are you suggesting?” she asked. “You want to just… leave? Where the hell would we go?”

“Anywhere! Everywhere! Doesn’t matter. I know! Since I’m a rock god and you’re a farmer, we could go find a farm where the dead hate roosters and cow shit. You can teach me how to farm the land while I bitch about it constantly, and I’ll teach you how to play rhythm guitar for the new band I’ll form.”

“Shut up,” she laughed.

“Seriously! Think of the possibilities! Eventually we’ll have crops growing out our ass and I’ll teach you how to dance naked in our very own cornfield while we howl at the moon together!”

Diane shook her head.

“And then we could, I don’t know, live happily ever after… just the two of us… for as long as we can… maybe have some kids and stuff-”

“Hold on!” she interrupted. “Did you just say ‘kids’?”

“I… uh… I meant goats… isn’t that what they call baby goats on the farm?”

“You’re impossible,” she laughed. “My mother always warned me about you dreamer types.” She continued in a mock motherly voice, “She’d say, ‘Their heads are full of strange ideas. They always sow in the clouds and reap rainbows from a unicorn’s ass’.”

Nine couldn’t stop laughing. “She really said that? That’s awesome. She’s absolutely right, of course.”

When Diane calmed down, she gently stroked his cheek. “Thanks for making me feel better. But seriously, you know we can’t leave. Maybe someday, but not now.”

Nine sighed. “Spoken like a good soldier. War’s over, babe… we lost. I think Tony can make do without you since he’s got nothing left to command.”

“Well,” she said, “We’re all soldiers now.”

“Doesn’t mean we have to be,” Nine offered. “We don’t have to keep fighting against whatever all this is. We could just try to make the most of it and live the life we choose.”

“Until the dead come along… or something worse… and snatches it away. That’s why we have to keep fighting. We fight until we don’t have to anymore… then… who knows. Maybe I’ll run naked with you in that cornfield.”

“Promises, promises.” He looked back toward the rookies. “So… let’s assess the current line-up. We have Commander Tony, who looks like one exhausted large muscle; one stylish and handsome young adventurer (that would be me); and then there’s you, a deadly vixen, hiding in plain sight; four youngsters who look like they’re fighting for who gets dibs on the next video game-”

“Oh, please!” she laughed. “Those ‘youngsters’ are all older than you.”

“Yes, but in ‘apocalyptic years’ I’m an old man compared to them. Hell, they make me look like I know what the I’m doing.”

“Fair enough. We’ll have to remedy that before one or all of them get themselves killed, or someone else. Especially that short-haired young lady. She needs to understand what the threats are now.”

“Just go easy on them, soldier,” Nine teased. “They’re still holding on to the old world, feeding on nostalgia, while the rest of us fight.”

“That’s what I mean,” she said. “They won’t survive on their own, living in the past. It’s going to catch up with them and crush them.”

“Maybe so, but they also represent what we hope to get back one day. What good will all this fighting do if we forget all the good things that made us who we were? I don’t want to be remembered, or only remember, how well I ‘survived’.”

Diane nodded. “Okay. I get it. I could go a little easier on them.”

“There you go,” Nine said. “I think they’ll come along better at their own speed. But if you force them into the fire too soon, at the cost of all those precious memories, they’ll crack…”

“…Becoming worthless steel that breaks under pressure. Damn… you just pulled a forge analogy on me.”

“I’m full of surprises, aren’t I?”

“You’re full of something,” she teased.

Nine turned as Alysa stepped on to the beach and walked toward the water. “And then there’s her. Don’t know what to make of that yet. I’m still not convinced she won’t try to eat me when I’m sleeping.”

Diane’s composure changed immediately. She stood up and drew her gun.

“What are you doing?” Nine asked.

“What I should’ve done long before now,” she said. “It’s time to be a soldier.”

“Wait.” Nine got up. “Don’t do something stupid.”

Diane tuned him out. She approached the Shadow Dead woman, seeing only red, and a target for her vengeance.

~~~

Next Episode 40-3

Previous Episode 40-1

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 40-2: Wick” Copyright © 2017 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Five: Remains. 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.

~~~

They exited the wilderness preserve and walked south for the remainder of the night. Tony set a deliberately slow pace along the familiar two-lane backroad between the Wasteland and Andover, which by day, was surrounded by old fields, forests and farms, and had always been zombie-free. But now, everything was swallowed up in darkness as the last cool evenings of a defiant winter still lingered, the indifferent wind biting at their exposed skin.

Tony knew they were all exhausted and suffering various injuries. No one, except the murderous archer, were in any shape to face new threats, so they stopped often to rest and wait for dawn, huddled up in a circle for warmth in the center of the cold roadway. They took turns watching the night in silence with concrete slabs replacing eyelids as they all struggled to stay alert. Some had asked to build a fire but Diane was quick to suggest that they not attract attention to themselves and keep moving as much as possible.

Alysa wisely kept her distance, understanding that the broken remains of this community were hurt and angry, and that it was her kind that had caused them so much pain. When they’d exited the wilderness preserve, she had quickly discarded the rest of her Shadow Dead armor, revealing a slender young dark-skinned woman, roughly Gina’s age, who was now wearing skin-tight black stretch pants and a light black fleece jacket.

Nine had cracked a joke to Diane. “All she needs is some whiskers, pointy ears, and a long black tail and she’d be ready for Halloween.”

Diane, who had slowly regained her strength before exiting the Wasteland, had found no humor in Nine’s remarks. After finding out what this bitch had done to Barney, she stared at Alysa constantly, stewing in silence, as she also wrestled with her grief.

The Shadow Dead archer would walk a perimeter around them each time they stopped to rest, holding her bow out at the ready. Sometimes, she blended into the night so efficiently, that the others lost sight of her, and then Alysa would reappear suddenly at another angle, like a shadow sliding across shadows. She had told Tony that she could see in the dark much better than the average human, volunteering to keep watch over them.

Tony had begrudgingly agreed, understanding that in their present state, if Alysa wanted them dead, she could easily manage it.

~~~

The first traces of dawn split open the eastern sky, spilling out brilliant pink and blue streaks against the fading night. The sun started to warm up the day and their weary limbs as they pushed south, waiting for the light to illuminate their surroundings. As the early morning approached, the countryside opened up around them. No one felt at ease as the unsettling silence of last night continued to travel with them, making everything around them feel hollow and less real. The world had clearly become more void of life in the half-year they’d been hiding beneath it.

They arrived in the town of Andover two hours later to discover more of Winter’s devastation. What was once their community’s temporary camp and the place where Tony and Gina had finally found each other, was now a town slowly being reclaimed by the elements. What they all noticed immediately after entering the small public square was the repulsive smell of sewage. More than half of the downtown area was under water. Since all public services had gone extinct, accumulated rainfall followed by the thawing ice and snow had backed up the entire sewer system causing it to fail and flood the streets. Weeds had already begun to spring up through roadway cracks and sidewalks. The walls of buildings were covered in green vines. The grass was several feet tall. Andover had essentially become a swamp. Nature wasn’t the only culprit. The doors of several buildings were left hanging open on broken hinges. Windows shattered. Trash tossed about the streets. The town had been assaulted by desperation, looted thoroughly, and then left for dead.

“This place is depressing,” Tony said. They had intended on stopping just long enough to gather some supplies. They ended up finding three cans of soup, four bottles of water, and a fire axe that Tony picked up, gratefully abandoning the black spear.

They approached the diner on their way south out of town. All the windows had been destroyed and the furniture within had been ripped out and thrown into the street as if someone had just gutted it and discarded the innards everywhere.

“That place looks like it has an apartment above it,” Nine remarked. “Might be worth a-”

“There’s nothing up there but death,” Tony quickly said. “Let’s move on and get to Orosco’s camp.” He remembered all too well that this was where Samantha, the police officer and their former leader, had been brutally murdered. The big man did not need to visit the crime scene again.

With the help of several harsh looks from the others, Nine slowly pieced it together. “Shit… sorry, Tony. That happened before my time.”

Tony nodded. “It’s okay. Just bad memories.”

“Where’s the dead?” Beverly asked. “You’d think we would have seen them by now?”

“Winter cares very little about the living or the dead,” Alysa offered. “I imagine she came this time in full force, knowing that nothing was standing in her way… and destroyed them equally.”

Nine laughed. “My… you’re just a ray of sunshine, aren’t you?”

Alysa smiled at the young man. “No… I just hate that cold bitter bitch. Once she gets inside of you, it seems like it takes forever to get your bones warm again.”

“That’s comical coming from a cold-blooded creature such as yourself,” Diane snapped, causing Nine to give her a wide-eyed look.

Alysa turned to the hunter. “My apologies. I should have remained quiet. It’s clear that I’m not yet welcome among you.”

“You got that right,” Diane said. “And fuck the ‘yet’ part. Not gonna happen.”

Alysa looked away and nodded with a submissive smile. She then put some distance between herself and the hunter, moving toward the head of the line near Tony.

“That was a bit rude,” Nine whispered. “I think she was just trying to break the ice… no pun intended.”

Diane gave him a hard look. “Attractive or not, you should stop worrying about that dead woman.”

“Who said anything about finding her attract-”

“Shut up, please.”

“Damn… you’re in a mood,” Nine said with a laugh. “And why do you call her a dead woman? Is that a Shadow Dead pun?”

Diane didn’t answer. Instead, she stabbed Alysa in the back with her eyes.

“Hey!” Matt was getting animated, pointing toward the debris in front of the diner. “Do you guys see that?” Something was moving from beneath a pile of discarded booths. A badly deteriorated hand punched out from beneath the ruble, causing Matt to step back. “Shit! Someone’s trapped under there!” He started toward the pile.

“Matt! Hold up!” Tony called out.

Wendy grabbed the young man’s shoulder, causing him to stop and turn. She sadly shook her head at him.

Matt turned back and covered his nose and mouth immediately as the stench of the dead thing assaulted him. Two disfigured limbs appeared as something barely recognizable as human crawled out from beneath the booths. The zombie’s dirty rotting skin was stretched so thin over the thing’s back that it tore as it struggled to free itself, revealing black bloody covered bones beneath a ripped soiled blouse, it’s original color unknown. From what remained of its long blond hair on a torn scalp, it used to be a woman.

“Fuck me,” Matt said, backing up further until he nearly knocked Beverly over. He turned toward the edge of the road and vomited.

The dead thing, hearing their voices, turned and looked right at Wendy. Its dark eyes had retreated into the sockets, but we’re clearly fixed on the young woman. Wendy covered her mouth. To her, its face looked like a dirty flesh-colored balloon wrapped around a skull. The thing opened its mouth to snap at the air in Wendy’s direction, but it’s jaw fell off instead. “Oh God, someone please… help her,” Wendy begged.

The others stared at her, stunned.

Alysa stood further back. She appeared more interested in how the others would handle the situation.

“She’s in pain,” Wendy continued. “Can’t we do something for her?”

Diane walked up next to Wendy and stared at the beast.

It started to crawl toward them now, eyes still locked in on Wendy, as it ripped itself in half, trying to get free of the debris and to the girl.

“Look at it,” Diane said. “It doesn’t even realize that it can’t bite into you without its jaw… but that doesn’t stop it from craving your flesh.”

Wendy noticed something dangling on the front of the creature’s soiled blouse. It was a name tag. From there, she could piece together the rest of the woman’s outfit. “I think she is a waitress. Probably from this very diner.”

“You mean ‘was’,” Diane corrected.

“I can just make out her name: Marge. Her name is Marge.”

Diane stared at Wendy in disbelief. She then turned to Tony.

Tony immediately turned away from the dead waitress, and thought, The dead come home. He caught Diane’s gaze and shrugged his shoulders at her. It was clear that Wendy, and probably a few of the others, had not seen many zombies, or had forgotten as much as possible since living sheltered for so long. Tony sighed, reaching for a weapon that wasn’t there. He turned toward Alysa. “Do you have a knife?”

Alysa shook her head. “No, and I’m not wasting an arrow… or the effort. It’s harmless. We should leave it be.”

He nodded and turned toward Mark, who was holding one of their two handguns.

Before he could ask for it, Mark put his hand on his holster and said, “I’ll do it.”

Tony gave him a questionable look. “Do you even know how to shoot that thing? I don’t recall ever seeing you, or your friends, in Gina’s firearm classes.”

“I’ll… I’ll get in close.”

Tony sized up the young man. “Make it quick. One to the head.”

Mark nodded.

“Just one shot,” Tony repeated. “We don’t need to wake the rest of these things, and we certainly can’t waste the ammo. Understand?”

“I understand.”

Tony turned and met Alysa’s disapproving gaze. He laughed and said, “Some of them are new to the whole killing thing. They need… experience.”

“Whatever you say,” Alysa said, turning away. “I’ll watch the road.”

“You do that.” Tony turned to watch Mark step beside Wendy and Diane.

“What are you going to do?” Wendy asked him.

“What’s it look like?” he added sourly, lifting the gun.

Wendy gave the weapon a disapproving look. “That could be someone’s mother,” she said. “Maybe someone’s looking for her.”

Diane laughed. “Then we’re doing someone a favor by putting this creature down. Would you want to find your mother looking like that?”

“Of course not, but… we don’t have the right to just… kill it.”

Diane raised her eyebrows. “Wow. You don’t have a fucking clue, do you? Of course we have the right! Where the hell have you been these last few months?”

“She’s a pacifist,” Mark said, earning him a scowl from Wendy.

“A what? A fucking what? You’ve got to be shitting me?”

“She doesn’t believe in violence… of any kind,” Mark said, staring at Wendy. “Go on, tell her.”

“Doesn’t matter what I am. All I know is that Marge… that’s her name, by the way… is a human being,” Wendy said. “A very sick human being… but still a human being. She has a life, and a family out there somewhere that loves her. We don’t just get to shoot it because she’s… different… now.”

“Careful, Diane,” Mark laughed. “She’ll pull the racist card out on you next.”

Diane stared at the waitress zombie. It continued to crawl, very slowly, toward them. Diane shook her head. “I can’t believe we’re having this discussion. Marge wants you dead, Wendy. Marge wants us all dead. Just look at the damn thing!”

Wendy did. “Doesn’t matter. She’s not well. We kill her now… and then someone finds a cure… then what are we? Murderers?”

Diane’s face grew cold. “Survivors.”

Mark took a step back. “It’s… it’s starting to get uncomfortably close. Should I… shoot it now?”

Diane held out her hand. “Give it to me.”

“But-”

“Now!”

Mark reluctantly handed over the weapon.

Diane took it, racked the slide back sending a round into the chamber, and then said to Wendy. “You do it.” She held out the gun.

Wendy took a step back. “No! I can’t… I won’t!”

“You will… and you’ll do it right fucking now!” Diane’s eyes left no room for debate.

Nine approached Tony, who was standing back, allowing Diane to handle the situation. He said, “You going to stop this any time soon?”

“Stop what?” Tony said.

Nine gave him a puzzled look. “That girl is clearly scared out of her head. She doesn’t want to shoot the damn zombie.”

“And that’s a problem,” Tony said. “In case you haven’t noticed, we’re real short on fighters right now and those four kids missed the training window months ago.”

Nine was getting upset. “So… we just shit on each other’s beliefs if they’re contrary to killing the dead?”

Tony scowled at him. “Yes… that’s exactly what we do. I would rather have that pacifist girl hate my ass tomorrow for making her shoot that fucking zombie, if it means keeping her alive today!”

Nine didn’t know what to say. Finally, he shook his head. “You’ve changed, Tony. This shit sounds like something Gina would pull.” He walked off, leaving Tony fuming.

Alysa pretended not to hear the exchange. She focused on the zombie matter. The dead waitress had crawled within ten feet… and they were still arguing about who was going to shoot it.

Wendy refused to touch the weapon.

Diane refused to back down.

Five feet…

“I won’t do it!” Wendy shouted.

“You will, you self-righteous little brat!” Diane shouted back.

Two feet…

This is ridiculous. How did they ever survive this long? Alysa thought, quickly loading her bow, the black arrow aimed for the dead waitress’s temple. She then stopped and smiled, lowering her weapon.

The gunshot surprised both Wendy and Diane.

Beverly dropped the second gun as though it were a snake. She put her hands to her mouth, horrified by what she’d just done.

The mutilated former waitress lay silent on its side, bullet hole penetrating its caved in skull, one mangled arm fully extended, its grotesque fingers an inch from Wendy’s left foot, its dead eyes never wavering rom the call to feed… ever.

The tall girl started to cry. “Did I… did I… kill her?”

“No!” Diane said, losing all patience. She gave Wendy a disapproving glare, holstered the other gun, and then turned away. “They’re already fucking dead!” she yelled back over her shoulder.

Wendy looked at her tear-streaked friend and smiled gratefully.

The girl with the long legs smiled back. “I couldn’t let you… you know.”

“I know,” Wendy said, stepping toward her and getting up on her tippy toes. The other bent down to embrace the shorter woman. “Thank you,” Wendy said, letting her own tears fall.

Nine picked up the discarded gun and holstered it. “Well… it looks like Survival School 101 has officially begun,” he said sarcastically to no one. “Count me out… I hear the course really sucks.” He walked past Diane and said, “I love you… but between you and that big block head over there… I don’t know which of you sucks-the-big-one more right now.”

“What the hell does that even mean?” Diane said to his back.

Nine flicked her off in response.

“Really?” she laughed. “Grow the fuck up!”

They all turned to the sound of a trashcan falling over along the side of the diner.

Several bloated looking dead things with wet rags hanging loosely over their skeletal frames started toward them, the hunger driving them forward and bordering a frenzy.

“Time to go,” Tony said, motioning the others to follow. “The sooner we get to Orosco’s camp, the sooner we can regroup, get armed, and figure out how to go back and save our friends.” He started south with his axe, deliberately ignoring Alysa’s futile gaze.

The others followed behind, easily out-pacing the struggling dead, thankful to put the ruins of Andover behind them.

~~~

Next Episode 40-2

Previous Episode 39-6

~~~

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Vote for DFTD at topwebfiction

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 40-1: Wick” Copyright © 2017 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Five: Remains. 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.