Posts Tagged ‘Book Five: Remains’

~~~

The bulk of the storm had pushed further east, but the rain continued to fall relentlessly. They exited the rear of the inn with dawn still a couple of hours away from providing relief. They decided to flee across the open fields and hills to the south. Meredith, struggling in a severely weakened state, had detected a massive horde of the reanimated heading down from the north, toward the river, as well as from the roadways entering Cherry Hill to the east and west, leaving them with only the southern option.

Stephen and Logan had grabbed their packs stuffed with essential supplies, their few weapons, and some spare blankets to wrap themselves in. Stephen had to help Meredith walk out into the fields while Logan carried Megan in his arms. The fierce, half-dead felt surprisingly light and vulnerable cradled in the big man’s arms, wrapped up in a thick blanket.

Meredith looked ill and could barely hold on to consciousness after the attack in the common room.

After twenty hard minutes, they were all soaked, stumbling through fields shrouded in darkness, an overcast sky promising more of the same.

Logan led his weary friends into the night. He looked east and could make out the faint outline of distant mountains on the dark horizon. If we get caught out here… in the open… He let the futile thought hang and then stopped and turned back.

Stephen had Meredith’s arm over his shoulder. They were falling behind.

Logan looked down into Megan’s pale and wet face. He felt like he was carrying a corpse. He stared up into the sky, and whispered, “God, help us. We’re not going to make it like this.”

“Stephen,” Meredith said. “Please… I need to stop for a moment.”

Stephen halted, wiping the rain away from his face. “Something wrong?”

The medium looked up toward Logan, and then past him. She frowned. “They’re coming.”

The former school teacher shook his head and laughed. “We can’t catch a break, can we?”

Meredith attempted a smile. “No. We cannot.”

“How long?”

“It’s hard to say,” she said. “It’s just like the rest. It feels like… It feels like they’re right on top of us because there’s so… so many of them.”

Stephen nodded. He turned toward the big preacher. “Logan!”

“What now?” Logan grumbled.

“The dead… they’re in front of us!”

Logan turned and stared south toward the open fields rolling upward into the hills. His eyes widened as he let out an exhausted sigh.

At the edge of the southern horizon, at the crest of the largest hill, he could just make out a long dark line silhouetted by the slightly lighter sky, extending from one side of the hill all the way to the other.

That dark line was moving.

“We’re cut off,” he called back. “My God! I’ve never seen so many of them!”

“We need to head back!” Stephen called out.

“Head back to where?”

Stephen didn’t have an answer.

“I’m sorry, Stephen,” Meredith said. “This is my fault. What I did… what I did announced our presence like an explosion… as far as the darkness is concerned.”

“You did what you had to do,” Stephen said, with a note of bitterness in his tone that Meredith caught. “We’d be dead now if you hadn’t.”

Peek-a-boo, Meredith… I see you.

Meredith closed her eyes. Her shoulders dropped. She silently cursed herself for being too weak to reestablish her mental defenses.

“He’s found me,” she told Stephen.

“Toby?”

“Yes,” she added, staring at the ground.

You’ve been very, very naughty, Toby playfully said in her mind. Then, after a slight pause, he added with surprise, What have you done?

Meredith attempted to ignore him, using what little strength she had left to hide her thoughts from Toby’s prying eyes. She shook her head at Stephen. “We should return to the inn… while we still can.”

“But…”

“It doesn’t matter, Stephen,” she said. “We’ll be surrounded by the dead before dawn.”

~~~

The rain finally stopped. To the east, a sliver of red morning light penetrated the canopy of dark clouds.

Surrounding Cherry Hill, the dead, wearing shredded clothing from a past life hanging loosely on their skeletal, rotting and contorted frames, stood in the twilight like horrendous scarecrows staring obliviously up into the gloomy sky. They filled the streets, nearby yards, the forest and fields—they were everywhere—forming a perimeter around the inn a football field’s length thick, and about half that away from the small structure.

Logan walked laps around the inn’s first floor windows with his shotgun, staring out at the motionless phantoms who seemed preoccupied with the rising sun. It unnerved him to see so many deadheads on all sides, and none of them advancing toward the inn to finish them off. He stepped back into the common room to check on his friends.

Stephen sat in a chair, his handgun in his lap, trying not to move. He couldn’t look at them any longer, staring absently at the obnoxious looking boom box sitting beside him.

Meredith was kneeling beside the half-dead woman who was still unconscious, lying on the couch. She wiped sweat off Megan’s forehead with a towel. Since returning to the inn, Meredith had hardly spoken a word as the dead entered town shortly before the rain had stopped.

There was nothing any of them could do now. Either the dead would advance upon them and kill them, or they wouldn’t.

Logan turned to Meredith and asked for the hundredth time. “Any word yet?”

Meredith frowned. “No,” she said. “Ever since we got back, Toby hasn’t said anything to me. I don’t know if he’s expecting us to make the next move… or… if he’s just enjoying himself while we suffer in here.”

“That’s it?” Logan was frustrated. He hated feeling so damn helpless.

She stared at him absently and finished, “Yes, Logan. That’s it.”

The big man stared back out the closest window. “Why are they all just… standing out there? They’re just far enough away to make us think we could make a break for it.”

“That’s Toby’s way of maintaining control over them,” Meredith said. “If they were any closer, the dead would go into a frenzy over our scent and attack.”

“That’s not good,” Logan said, shaking his head. “I wish they’d just come for us… if that’s the plan. This… waiting around to die… is much worse.”

“Toby’s weighing his options,” Meredith said. “When he spoke to me, he seemed genuinely surprised that Sylvia was here… and that I destroyed her.”

This made Stephen look up. He stared over at Meredith, and said, “You mean all this time, Toby had no idea Nic… Sylvia… was hiding among us? How is that possible?”

“I don’t know, Stephen. Sylvia’s been in our world for a long time. Maybe she’s learned how to hide… even from Toby. Or, maybe Toby just never noticed her because he wasn’t looking.”

Stephen laughed lightly. “Just like how you never noticed Nicole when you looked at me?”

She gave him an apologetic glance and said, “Maybe something just like that… yes.”

“Does that mean he’s afraid of us… or rather… you?” Logan said.

Meredith rubbed her tired eyes. “No. I don’t believe he’s afraid. Just caught off guard. Like I said, he’s weighing his options.”

“And those are?”

She sighed at Logan. “He can’t storm this inn to capture me because he knows I’ll use whatever I have left to fight back. He also knows that to do so… would certainly kill me.”

This got their attention.

Meredith turned back to Megan, wiped her forehead again, and finished, “After finding out what I did to Sylvia, now he has to see me as a threat, too. Killing a First One was not what he expected to find after he found us. I believe he’s now considering if leaving me alive, despite his plans for me, is too risky.”

“Shit,” Logan said, staring back out the closest window. “I’m going to check around again. Make sure none of these rotting bastards are sneaking up on us.”

Meredith nodded.

Logan walked into the next room.

“Can Toby hear us… now?” Stephen abruptly asked.

She shook her head. “No. It’s not like before when I didn’t know what he was doing. And I’m… I’m getting stronger with each encounter with him. Strong enough to block him out… but not completely. Not now. He can speak to me directly, but he can’t spy on me… not anymore.”

Stephen nodded. He stared back down at the boom box.

Meredith sensed his heavy and conflicted thoughts. To her, he had the look of a man who needed to grieve, but the shock was still too fresh. “When I asked… Nicole… if she’d told Toby where I was… back in the compound… I was just reaching,” she told him.

He looked back up. “What do you mean?”

She frowned. “Hannah,” she said. “When Nicole chose to appear as her… I… I wanted anyone or anything else to blame for what happened leading up the Shadow Dead attack. Understand?”

Stephen smiled weakly. “Yeah. I think I do.”

“What I’m trying to say,” Meredith continued, “is that when Nicole said she didn’t betray us… I believed her… for whatever that’s worth now.”

“Thanks for that.”

“She also saved my life,” Meredith added. “When Megan… when Sylvia charged at me… Nicole stopped her. If she hadn’t done that, I believe Sylvia’s plan to eliminate me would’ve succeeded.”

Stephen stared at the medium for a long time. He finally said, “Are you trying to make me feel better… or worse?”

Meredith shook her head. “I… I know you’re in pain. I just wanted you to know that I don’t believe Nicole is responsible for what happened last night… and that I believe that it was entirely Sylvia’s doing.”

He looked away, wiping a tear from his eye. “I… I appreciate you saying that. Not that it matters now.”

“It matters,” she corrected. “Nicole may no longer be with us… but how we remember the ones we’ve lost is just as important. I just didn’t want anything to taint your final memory of her.”

He nodded. “We talked on the porch, after our meeting. She reminded me of how she found me waiting to die along the Grand River after the marina attack. That was before we got separated and then Marcus found me, sick as a dog. Remember?”

“Yes,” she smiled. “I was so worried you might not survive the night.”

He nodded. “That’s when she first appeared to me… along that river. The dead had found me, and I was so… defeated. I was ready to give up and Nicole wouldn’t let me. She reminded me of that day when we last spoke… said that she was willing to die on that shore beside me, if I hadn’t got up.”

Meredith waited.

“Anyway, she couldn’t understand why I would choose to remain with you when it seemed like such a death sentence, because of Toby.”

Meredith laughed and looked around. “Obviously, she might have been on to something.”

Stephen continued. “I told her that I was going to see this through with you, no matter what. That’s when she brought up that first day we met, and the sacrifice she was willing to make then, even though she didn’t understand it at the time. Nicole said that maybe, because of that day, it took all this time for her to finally understand what it meant to love someone enough to sacrifice your own life…” He looked down, as fresh tears streamed from his eyes. “She didn’t think we had a chance to survive, and she agreed to help us, anyway… even if it meant her own death.” He looked back up and smiled at her. “I guess we now know that she meant it.”

Meredith smiled back and nodded. “Yes, she did. And that’s something, Stephen. That’s something you should always remember about Nicole… no matter what anyone says.”

He nodded, wiping the tears from his eyes. He took a deep breath and said, “I’ve been sitting her thinking ever since we go back.”

“About what?”

“About our chances of winning.”

Meredith nodded. “Considering everything that’s happened… up to now… what do you think our chances are, Stephen?”

“I never liked all this running,” he admitted. “I always saw something like this eventually happening—getting caught. Despite the odds against us, I’ve always thought we should confront Toby.”

Meredith raised her eyebrows. “You still believe that… even now?”

“Absolutely,” he said. “But it doesn’t matter if I, or Logan, or even Megan believed it. That always came down to you.”

“To me?”

“Yes,” he said. “You’re the only one in this whole damn world who has a chance at stopping all this… I’ve always believed that.”

She stared at him for a long time. Finally, she carefully said, “And if it meant losing more people we care about to stop Toby… is that price worth it… to win?”

“Yes,” he said without hesitation.

This surprised her.

He continued, “We’ve already lost so many…” He struggled not to break down. “Running from this monster hasn’t gained us anything. I say we go right at that nasty sonofabitch responsible for it all… while we can still draw breath.”

She was still staring at him. “So… if there’s a chance to stop Toby… even if it’s a small one… you believe we should sacrifice everything… and take it?”

“Yes,” he said. “While the choice is still ours to make.”

Meredith smiled warmly at him, then looked to Megan. “I wish I had a fraction of your faith in me, Stephen.” She wiped more sweat from the half-dead’s face. “I can’t lose any of you… I won’t. And I would never bet on me… not with all your precious lives.”

Stephen didn’t know how to respond to that.

She turned and finished, “But maybe we do have a chance. Maybe we do… now.”

He raised an eyebrow in surprise. Before he could inquire further, Meredith raised a finger to her mouth, to signal that something was happening.

Clever woman, Toby said. I don’t know how you did it… how you killed Sylvia. I wish you would let me in, so I could find out.

Meredith didn’t respond.

I know you can hear me. Don’t feel like talking? That’s okay. Just listen then. I assume my display outside has already gotten your attention.

Logan entered the room and stopped.

Stephen waved the big preacher over and then placed a finger to his own mouth to signal him to stay quiet.

Meredith looked at him, pointed to her head, and said, “He’s… here.”

Logan understood.

Toby continued. I needed to ponder a few things. I apologize for the delay. I assume the others are with you. Please feel free to speak on my behalf. I want my terms to be perfectly clear.

“Terms?” Meredith said.

Yes. You have two options. Either you resist and I let the dead loose and you can all die horrible deaths… or… you can surrender.

Meredith looked to the others and frowned. “He wants us to… surrender.”

Stephen and Logan shot each other a quick glance, then turned back to the medium.

She held up her hand.

I sincerely hope you choose option number two, Meredith. But know this: I will dispose of you here and now. This is not a bluff.

“Why would we surrender?” she told him. “We are all aware of your plans for me… and for this world. You know I’m prepared to die to stop that from happening… we all are.”

Toby laughed lightly. Such misplaced heroics. Admirable, perhaps. But honesty, I find it tedious at best. You overestimate your own value, Meredith. I’ve told you before that I am patient, and that I would find another to carry out my plans… eventually. As it turns out, you are not the only one left who is… special.

Meredith turned toward to the others and started relaying Toby’s side of the conversation. She focused on Toby and smiled. “Now that sounds like a bluff,” she told him. “You may be ready to kill us all… but as far as finding another to replace me, I don’t believe you.”

After a slight pause, Toby continued. It doesn’t concern me what you believe. I have found another. But it might take me another year or two to make this one ready and strong enough to finish what you and I started together. I would prefer not to delay my plans any further due to some of my… children… left roaming around in your world without parental guidance. Thus… the reason you are still alive.

Meredith relayed Toby’s words and then silently considered them.

Yes, I sense you believe me now, don’t you, Meredith?

The medium remained quiet.

Doesn’t matter. Let me get to the point and remind you why it’s important that we finish our work together. Whether I’m there or not, my influence will remain, as will those loyal to my purposes. However, there are some who have already devised their own designs for your world that are contrary to mine… and much more… primitive.

“What does that mean?” she said.

Toby laughed. You still don’t see the big picture, Meredith. I’ve told you before, the world you know is finished. The only choice you have is to bring me across so that I can rule that darkness… before everything erupts into chaos.

Meredith relayed, then shook her head. “You would eliminate all of us.”

Yes… eventually. But not for many years to come. Until then, the existence of your species still serves a purpose under my dominion. But… without me there… now… Mankind will die off very, very quickly.

“Explain that.”

No.

“Then you might as well kill us now,” she said.

You need to understand, Meredith. Having me there increases the life expectancy of your kind. It’s simple math… really. Mankind can die off now without me… or… gain a few years with me in it. Much like your present situation. You can die now, or, buy yourselves a little more of that precious commodity you call ‘time’ by surrendering and returning west.

“West?”

Yes. I want you to head back to the beginning… back to Fairport Harbor.

“The… marina?”

There you go. I’ll have another boat sent to you… one that doesn’t go ‘boom’ this time. As we once spent time together on an island in the darkness, I find it fitting that we will be reunited on another island in the light.

Meredith hesitated.

Your reluctance is amusing, Meredith. It’s as if my gracious invitation or my mercy shown to your people now, not to mention, toward your entire race, wasn’t enough to persuade you. Must I entice you further?

She refused to answer.

I have her. Your precious Gina. She’s currently a guest on my island.

Meredith gasped.

And I dare you to accuse me of bluffing. Go ahead. I’ll make you all wait there while I deliver… pieces… for confirmation.

“Just… hold on,” she said. Meredith was trembling.

“What is it?” Stephen said. “What’s wrong?”

“He has Gina,” she said.

“What? You mean… on his damn island?” Logan said.

She nodded. Meredith closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Doesn’t matter,” she said sadly. “Our lives… and hers… we’re all expendable.”

Meredith was about to speak to Toby.

“Wait!” Stephen said.

She turned.

“Ask it… ask Toby for time to… to think about it.”

Both Logan and Meredith gave him a confused look.

“You know the score, little brother. Toby can’t get Meredith… no matter what… or who… we have to sacrifice.”

Meredith looked away with a nod. “He’s right, Stephen. Better to die here then-”

“Unless we can beat him!” Stephen interrupted. “I’m not saying we should surrender… just… stall. Tell him we surrender… tell him anything… buy us some time to talk about this.”

She stared into the school teacher’s eyes and saw a spark she wasn’t used to seeing.

He still believes in me, she thought. Meredith smiled wearily and nodded. “Okay.”

Stephen relaxed.

“Toby,” she said. “We… we’re exhausted and not thinking clearly. We need a little time to-”

Of course, he interrupted. I am well-aware of your physical limitations, and the journey ahead of you. Agree to my surrender… immediately… and I’ll give you until the next sunrise to rest, pack, and be on your way. But don’t test my patience any further. If you are not on the western road by sunrise… I will release the dead to feed on your bones.

Meredith looked to Megan, then said, “We… we have an injured member of our group. She’s not fit to travel. We may need more-”

Is the half-dead worth more than a whole life? Leave her behind.

“I will not!” Meredith pushed back.

Toby laughed. Oh, Meredith. Your compassion for the hybrid is amusing. As if I haven’t shown enough patience, I will now offer you a gift.

Meredith tensed up. “What does that mean?”

The hybrid is only… asleep. I will wake her for you.

Meredith’s eyes went wide. She stared at Megan. “No! You can’t!”

It’s already done. You can thank me when you arrive. Rest now… if you can.

Toby was gone.

Megan started to twitch, then went into a full-blown seizure.

“Oh, God!” Meredith screamed, rushing toward the girl. “Help me!”

Logan and Stephen came over.

Megan was shaking so violently she nearly fell off the couch.

“Hold her down!” Meredith said.

“What’s wrong?” Stephen said.

She turned, her face pale as a ghost. “Toby’s waking her up!”

“What’s that mean?” Logan said.

Meredith was bordering hysterical as all three of them struggled to hold Megan down. “It means, he’s woken up whatever darkness is still left inside of her!”

Megan suddenly went limp.

The half-dead’s eyes opened wide.

~~~

Chapter 53 will continue on Friday…

Previous Episode 53-8

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 53-9: Love and Loss” Copyright © 2019 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Six: Mother. All Rights Reserved.

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

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

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~~~

Stephen bent down in front of the coffee table to relight the lantern. “Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to startle you. There’s a storm front moving in. I must’ve… I dozed off on the porch… stupid. The wind woke me a minute ago. I came in and the whole room was dark. The wind must’ve blown the lantern out.”

Meredith’s sat straight up. Her heart was racing as she stared around the now lit room. Except for herself and Stephen, no one else was present. “Where is everyone?”

“I was just about to ask you that.”

She stared at him. Stephen’s face was partially hidden in shadow.

Something’s wrong!

Logan stumbled in from the back porch. “Shit!” he hissed. “How long was I out?”

“You fell asleep, too?” Meredith’s mind was reeling.

“Yeah,” the big preacher confessed. “Remind me not to pray in the prostrate position when exhausted.” He sensed the tension in the room immediately.

Meredith’s head turned from him back to Stephen who stood in front of the coffee table.

“What’s going on? Where’s Megan?” the preacher said.

Stephen shrugged his shoulders at him.

Meredith stood up and slowly stepped back behind the couch, putting distance between herself and Stephen while maintaining a little space from the preacher.

Stephen stared at her. “Why are you acting so strange?”

Logan was confused. He looked to Meredith. “What’s happening in here?”

The old medium turned to the preacher, and then to Stephen. Something is dreadfully wrong!

A moment later, Megan came rushing in from the front porch. She stopped when she saw everyone standing there, her eyes going wide.

“My goodness!” Meredith exclaimed. “You look like you’ve seen a-”

“I was attacked!” Megan gasped. “She’s here!”

Stephen turned. “Who? Nicole? Did… did she… attack you?”

Logan immediately turned toward the grandfather clock for his shotgun.

It wasn’t there.

Damn old fool, he thought. I took it with me out back!

“She’s in the fucking room!” Megan growled, stepping back from Stephen and pointing. “It was Stephen! He jumped me outside!”

“What? I did no such thing!” Stephen took a step back.

Meredith took a deep breath to steady her nerves. “Logan,” she calmly said. “Remember what we discussed?”

The preacher’s face went pale. “Yes.”

“It’s happening… right now,” she said.

“What the hell is going on?” Stephen said, staring into Logan and Megan’s accusing faces. “Why are you all looking at me like that?”

“You know why!” Megan hissed.

“He fell asleep on the porch,” Meredith said. “I woke up with Stephen standing in front of me… in the dark.”

Logan took a cautious step forward. He raised his hands toward Stephen, paying particular attention to his holstered weapon. “Now, little brother… if that’s who you still are… I need you to back away from everyone.”

Stephen looked frantic. “This is insane! I’m still me!”

“He’s lying!” Megan said, stepping further into the room and crouching down into an attack stance. “I can smell her… right where he’s standing!”

This isn’t right, Meredith thought. None of this is. With regret, Meredith closed her eyes and immediately opened her mind toward the entity possessing Stephen’s body… but couldn’t find it.

Is it… Logan?

Stephen turned toward Megan in shock.

Megan stared back at him. She flashed a wicked little smile.

A familiar smile.

No fucking way! His mind screamed.

“Everyone! Stay the hell away from her!” Stephen reached down to his side and fumbled for his holstered handgun.

“Stephen, stop!” Logan shouted, rushing toward him like a linebacker. He tackled the school teacher to the floor.

“Meredith!” Stephen shouted. “It’s Megan! IT’S MEGAN!”

The half-dead was already rushing toward the distracted medium. She was howling like a predator, her fingernails raised like claws as she prepared to rip the old woman’s throat.

Meredith turned too late.

Megan pushed her to the floor and sat on top of her legs.

Meredith stared stunned at the half-dead girl. “Megan?” she said in disbelief. She found no recognition in the young woman’s murderous eyes.

Oh, God! How did I not see this!

The half-dead raised her hands to cut Meredith’s throat… then stopped, grabbed the sides of her head, and started screaming in agony. Megan fell off the medium and on to her side.

Meredith rose to her feet and backed away.

“NO!” Megan shouted through the pain. “HE… HE TRUSTED ME! MY LOVE… TRUSTED ME NOT TO BE… BAD!”

Logan helped Stephen up. Both men were confused.

Logan rushed to Meredith’s side as Stephen stared at the young half-dead woman.

“Nicole?” he said. “Is that you in there?”

Megan turned to him, her face a mask of pain and grief. “THIS WASN’T… WASN’T ME… MY LOVE. I’M… I’M VERY SORRY.”

Before Stephen could reach her, the young woman screamed again. Megan turned to Meredith and shouted, “I CAN’T… I CAN’T STOP HER! SHE’S SO MUCH… SO MUCH STRONGER! I CAN’T… CAN’T HOLD… ON!”

Meredith was in tears when she turned to Logan. “I’m going to have to do something… awful.”

“What the hell does that mean?” Logan said.

“Pray to your God, Logan!” she cried. “Pray to your God that I don’t destroy the poor girl!”

Logan was terrified. He nodded and raised his hands toward heaven. “‘O Lord, how many are my foes! How many rise up against me!’”

Thunder rumbled above the inn in response. Moments later, heavy rain assaulted the inn roof.

“What can I do?” Stephen said.

Meredith grabbed his shoulder for support. She could already feel the entity sucking up the life and light in the room. Meredith’s mind felt like the sky was about to come crashing down along with the rain. “Keep talking to her, Stephen. She’s trying… Nicole’s trying to buy us as much time as she can… but Sylvia is too much! She’s too much darkness! TOO MUCH!”

Stephen nodded and scrambled to Megan/Nicole’s side. The half-dead woman was screaming in pain and anger now.

“Nicole!” Stephen shouted. “Keep fighting! Keep fighting for us… my love! Keep fighting for as long as you can!” He wiped tears from his face, then reached down and grabbed Megan’s hand.

Nicole/Megan held it tight.

“Megan, honey!” Meredith shouted. “Nicole needs your help! If you can hear me in there… fight with her! Fight with all that you have… or the darkness will consume you both!”

Lightning flashed outside. Wind rustled violently against the front window curtains as hard rain splattered down upon the roadway.

The entity took advantage of the distraction, turned to Stephen, and laughed like a maniac.

Stephen could feel the grip on his hand get tighter. He tried to pry it loose.

“Nicole… stop! You’re hurting-”

Another flash of lightning momentarily blinded him.

His eyes adjusted and he gasped.

Nicole was staring back at him. Her face was pale and bloody. The black tank top torn. She had a large kitchen knife sticking out of her left eye. “Murderer!” she hissed, letting go of Stephen’s hand.

Stephen lost his balance and fell backwards. “No!” he cried out. “This isn’t you!”

“Stephen!” Meredith cried out. “She’s real this time! It’s… it’s not whatever you’re seeing! It’s Megan!”

The entity scrambled forward on all fours like a wild animal. “MURDERER!” it cried out. “Couldn’t let the sassy teen whore get away with it, could you? I trapped you and you couldn’t stand that I was going to turn you in… after you raped me in your filthy car!”

Stephen stared back at Nicole in shock. He was shaking his head. “No… that’s not… that’s not true!”

“Stephen!” Meredith yelled. “Don’t listen to it!” The medium was struggling to reach the creature hiding inside of Megan.

Nicole smiled like the devil. “Then, your opportunity came to hide your dirty, lustful sins. Right in the middle of all that chaos… you saw your moment to dispose of me! You picked up that knife… turned… and stabbed me in the face!”

“No!” Stephen cried out, raising his arms to defend his face.

“MURDERER!”

Before it reached him, Logan was there. He grabbed Megan around the waist and flung her toward the back of the couch. He shouted over the storm, “‘To the Lord I cry aloud, and he answers me from his holy hill!’”

The entity stared back at him from the floor, dressed in a bloody leather jacket. The lanky young man, his black hair slicked back, shouted through frustrated tears, “This is your fucking fault, uncle! You were so busy trying to find that half-breed who murdered Abbey’s kid—all fucked up, strangled and left in that dumpster to rot—t hat you let the real killer slip out from under your damn racist nose!”

Logan stumbled back. “No! This isn’t… this isn’t real,” he whispered to himself.

Jonas got up and pointed accusingly at him. Blood poured from his mouth and from three large bullet holes in his torn Iron Maiden t-shirt. “Your fucking hate got me killed!”

“Be gone, demon!” Logan shouted, looking away.

Thunder resounded overhead.

Logan turned back and froze.

Maggie was standing there, wearing the skimpy red dress he’d seen her wearing when her mother embarrassed her in front of the bar. What was left of the red torn dress barely covered her ghostly pale dead flesh. Dark bruises surrounded her neck. Her black eyes, full of blood, bore into Logan’s soul.

“Oh, dear God!” Logan whispered, stumbling back into the grandfather clock.

The young girl stepped toward him. She opened her mouth and a large rat jumped out of it. She managed to speak, her throat full of blood and making her words sound like she was gargling with them. “Demons! They’re everywhere! In everything!” She was repeating the words of John Sumner, before his bar killing spree. “Kill ‘em all! KILL ‘EM ALL!”

Logan closed his eyes. He was shaking. “Dear, Jesus, help me,” he pleaded.

“Enough!” Meredith opened her mind toward the entity.

The entity could feel the old woman, blasting into its thoughts. It turned, transforming from the mangled remains of Abbey’s daughter into…

“Why didn’t you help me?”

Meredith shook her head at the ghastly image. “No. I will not entertain this!”

Hannah stood before her, her sundress ruined by blood stains, a chunk of flesh ripped from her shoulder after she’d been attacked in the Patterson home. Her hair was disheveled. Her once gentle eyes… now full of rage and insanity. “I begged you to kill me… to spare me from the madness. But you wouldn’t! You let me suffer! You let me turn… you let me burn on the inside… and become this… disgusting animal!”

“No,” Meredith said through tears streaming down her cheeks. “I… I tried to save you.”

“You!” Hannah accused. “You were selfish! You just watched as I lost control! I begged you to kill me… and you wouldn’t HELP ME! That’s not love, you worthless cunt! You were afraid… and your cowardice made me suffer!”

“Stop,” Meredith whispered to the darkness. “Please… just stop.”

“And then… and then you wouldn’t let me touch you! You wouldn’t turn out the light… and let me reach you!” Hannah moved closer to the distraught woman. “You left me alone… and treated me like a monster!”

Meredith backed away as her former lover was now naked, wet, and bloody as if she’d been out in the rain. “No,” she cried out, refusing to look any longer.

“Look at me, Meredith,” it hissed.

“No!”

“Look at me, coward! See what you’ve let me become? Do you see? DO YOU SEE?”

Meredith turned.

Hannah’s cold dead gray eyes bore into her with hunger for her flesh.

Meredith couldn’t concentrate on the entity. The pain from her past was overwhelming.

Hannah moved in and held her arms wide, attempting to smile through bloody teeth. “Come to me, Meredith. I’m so cold… so very cold. You forced me to remain… when I begged you to help me! Then you left me alone in all… that… darkness! How could you do something so horrible?”

“No. I… I tried to save you… but I didn’t know… I didn’t know what I know now!”

“That’s okay,” Hannah said, raising her bloody arms to her. “Come to me now. Don’t leave me alone again.”

Meredith nodded and stepped toward Hannah.

The creature reached for Meredith’s neck.

Meredith couldn’t breathe as Megan’s controlled flesh tightened around her throat.

“Let her go,” Stephen said from behind. He was holding his handgun to Megan’s head. “Let them all go, Sylvia… or this ends very badly.”

One-eyed Nicole’s voice changed. “You sick fucking pervert!” it hissed in a familiar voice. “After you fucked my underage daughter and murdered her when you were done, I bet it gave you so much joy when you had a chance to be rid of me, too.” Amanda Howard let go of Meredith and turned. Her long brown hair looked like it had been torn out in multiple places, her flesh—ravaged—making her barely recognizable.

Stephen backed away. “Fuck this!” he shouted, raising the gun to Amanda’s face.

“Go ahead, you sick fuck!” Amanda screamed at him. “Maybe you’d like to have a go at me, too, before you finish me off! Though I don’t think those hungry fuckers left much.”

“Shut up!”

“You let me die, you sick fuck!”

“Stop!”

“I tried to get out that fucking basement window… and you wouldn’t help me! You let go… on purpose!”

Logan’s voice cut through the façade. “‘I lie down and sleep; I awake again, because the Lord sustains me! I will not fear the tens of thousands drawn up against me on every side!’”

Amanda turned toward the front door. Someone was standing there.

Logan looked toward the door… and smiled. “Praise God!” he whispered, falling to the floor as his legs failed him. He saw something that resembled Stephen… but was not. He saw someone dressed entirely in white… no, that description wasn’t accurate… it was dressed in light!

“No!” the entity shouted toward it. “You can’t be here!” The creature couldn’t hold a shape as it shifted from Amanda to Nicole, then to Jonas, Maggie and Hannah.

The apparition of Stephen Eddington had returned, but for Sylvia, he was dressed all in black. His intense eyes bore through stolen flesh, staring straight into her and exposing what she really was. The apparition pointed toward the ground.

“NO! I WILL NOT GO! I’LL BE ALONE AGAIN! I CANNOT BE ALONE!”

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

The creature could not shift as it became Megan again.

Megan grabbed the sides of her head and screamed out in pain as the creature attempted to retreat deep within the half-dead woman.

Logan looked at Megan, then turned toward the apparition.

It was gone.

“Meredith!” Logan shouted. “This is our only chance! Take it, woman! Take it before it comes back!”

Meredith felt weak and depleted. The weight of her grief and pain came crashing down upon her. “I… I can’t,” she whispered. “It’s too much. Too much darkness.”

Stephen managed to crawl over to her side. He grabbed the medium’s hand. “Look at me,” he said.

Meredith stared into her old friend’s weary face. “It’s the grief and the guilt,” he said. “That’s all Sylvia knows. That’s what it feeds on… and that’s what it fears. It’s what brought me to its attention in the first place… and how Nicole was born to bear the brunt of it, while that monster hid safely behind all the pain and suffering.”

Meredith shook her head. “I… I’m broken, Stephen. That creature knew exactly where to strike… and I can’t stop thinking about… what I’ve done.”

“We’ve all done things, Meredith,” Stephen reminded her. “And we all have to live with what we’ve done. You taught me that.”

She smiled and nodded.

“Megan needs you right now. Nicole needs you, too.”

Meredith closed her eyes. “I could kill them… both.”

“If you do nothing,” Stephen said. “The guilt and the grief will have killed them both anyway… and then, it will come and finish you off. Trust me, I know.”

Meredith squeezed her friend’s hand. “Thank you, Stephen. Now, help me up.”

Stephen smiled and helped the medium to her feet.

Meredith looked to Megan, squirming on the floor as Logan walked around her like an exorcist quoting the Word of God.

“This part, Stephen, will be the… scariest,” she said.

Stephen’s eyes went wide. “I think we’ve gone past that.”

“Stay with Megan and hold her down if you can. Sylvia will try to use her to get to me…. and don’t believe the darkness, no matter what it says.”

“Shit,” he said. “What will you do?”

“I’m going to attempt to get it out of Megan, if I can… but I could just as easily kill her.”

“And… Nicole?”

Meredith gave him a grave look. “I just don’t know, Stephen.” She reached out her arm. “Get me there.”

Stephen escorted her toward Logan and Megan.

Logan was smiling like a madman, staring up toward the ceiling. “Our Lord has arrived!” he said, excitedly. “I have seen the angel of God! He has struck a blow to this beast!”

Meredith and Stephen looked at each other, then toward Megan on the floor.

“It’s not over,” Meredith reminded them.

Logan nodded. “By the power of Christ, you will cast it out into the darkness, yes?”

Meredith’s face was stone. “No, Logan. Change of plans, I’m afraid. I’m going to bring the darkness to Sylvia. I’m going to bring the darkness… here.”

Logan’s face went pale.

Stephen knelt beside the young half-dead woman. Tears were flowing down his face. “Hold on Nicole,” he whispered. “Stay with Megan… keep her safe. I’m… I’m sorry for what happens next. Just know… know that I’ll always love you.”

Meredith put a hand on the school teacher’s shoulder. She, too, was weeping. “Be ready.” She turned to Logan. “I’m hoping… I’m praying… that your God is still here.”

“He’s never left,” Logan assured her. “You do what you must.”

She nodded.

Meredith closed her eyes and opened her mind… reaching out… reaching out into the darkness all around them and within them. The old medium opened herself up wide, blowing the mental door of her mind off its hinges, shattering the wall that once held it, until she located the dead several miles away, from every direction, causing the darkness that drove them to hunger for the living, to pause, and turn its head in her direction.

She made a connection with each and every one of them—digging deeper and delving further than she’d ever done before—until those which resided within decaying flesh felt her threatening presence and were tempted to flee. Meredith reached into the darkness, made a fist around it, and grabbed on tightly with her mind, pulling that darkness toward them…

Megan stopped, opened her eyes wide, and shouted, “NO! YOU CAN’T! THEY’LL FIND ME! THEY’LL ALL FIND ME!”

Meredith ignored Sylvia and summoned the darkness… consuming it with all her being.

Megan turned toward the medium and growled. She attempted to lunge at the woman, but Stephen grabbed her from behind and held on tight. “Fight, Nicole! Keep fighting!” he shouted.

Logan raised his arms to heaven and continued to petition his God. “‘Arise, O Lord! Deliver us, O my God! Strike all our enemies on the jaw; break the teeth of the wicked!’”

Meredith could feel the weight and the strain, as the darkness assaulted her mind, causing her to fall to her knees.

The common room grew dim, but the lantern remained lit. Shadows formed and expanded where shadows shouldn’t.

The storm outside intensified. Lightning flashed, thunder rolled, and rain plummeted the inn roof, as if Mother Nature stood in defiance against the unnatural darkness swallowing up the night.

Meredith was screaming as she rolled on to her back and started to convulse.

“Meredith!” Stephen shouted over the storm.

The medium’s eyes were changing colors. Red to black to yellow to black. She had become a vessel for the darkness, a vessel about to burst.

The common room felt like an icebox as the temperature dropped.

Stephen looked to Logan who was still praying. He could see the preacher’s breath as shadows enveloped him.

Megan continued to resist, trying to free herself of Stephen’s grasp, staring vehemently at Meredith, spiting curses toward her and promises of death in a tongue he could not recognize.

Dear, God! Help us! Stephen prayed. He couldn’t stop shaking but refused to let the half-dead woman go.

And then suddenly, it happened.

Stephen was violently forced back as Megan broke free and stared up into the darkness all around them. What sounded like three women screaming at the same time escaped Megan’s lips. It was a terrifying scream that made Stephen want to run and cower in the closest corner.

Black smoke exploded out of the half-dead woman’s mouth, as Megan fell over on her face and did not move again.

The predator made of black mist swirled around the common room, trying to escape the darkness.

It was Sylvia.

What sounded like a thousand maniacs crying out in terror, filled the room as the entity attempted to flee but could not penetrate the unnatural shadows, forming a suffocating barrier within the common room.

And then Stephen saw it!

A face appeared within the black mist, if it could be called a face. It’s eyes glowed red. Its mouth, full of razors for teeth. Stephen covered his eyes… unable to look at it without his heart bursting from fear.

He heard Logan screaming at it.

“You!” he shouted. “I see your face! You are the demon! The Shadow Man! The Enemy of Light! God has cast you down, demon! God has trapped you in the darkness of your own design!”

The demonic creature turned toward the preacher, and for a moment, Stephen believed that it would simply bite Logan’s head clean off.

But Meredith intervened.

“You are mine!” she screamed at it. “All of you… All of it… is mine to devour! and… I… will … FEED!”

“NO!” Sylvia screamed in a hideous voice, assaulting nerves like chalk scratching across a chalkboard.

Stephen had to cover his ears before he went mad.

“LET ME OUT! LET ME OUT AND I’LL NEVER COME BACK!” the demon begged.

Meredith opened her mouth… and started to… consume… the black mist.

Sylvia looked like a desperate creature trying to flee while its tale was caught in a trap. It cried out defiantly as the medium sucked it into her mouth, and into the darkness of her mind.

Stephen rolled over on the floor and crawled into a ball, covering his ears, his eyes shut tight.

And then… the darkness was gone.

All of it.

Stephen jumped at Logan’s touch on his arm.

“You okay, little brother?”

For a moment, Stephen had trouble recognizing him. Then the terror faded. “Logan?”

The preacher smiled. “Yeah. It’s me.”

Stephen could see the lantern light dancing along the walls behind him. “Did… did all that… just happen?”

Logan laughed. “I don’t want to talk about it… not until well after sunrise.”

“Is it… over?”

“Praise be to God… I believe the storm has passed, the one in this room, anyway.”

Logan helped Stephen to his feet.

Meredith was sitting beside Megan, weeping. She looked like she’d just spent the last few minutes outside in the real storm. Her hair was a sweaty mess. Her clothes were torn. Her face was pale as if she were ill.

“Meredith?” Stephen said, coming over.

“I’m… I’m okay,” she said.

“And Megan?” Logan said.

“She’s… dormant,” Meredith said. “It was all I could… all I could do… when the worst of it happened.”

Stephen and Logan knelt beside the exhausted medium, staring down at Megan.

Megan looked dead.

“Is she even breathing?” Stephen said.

“Yes,” Meredith said. “Barely.” She looked at them both through tears. “I don’t know if she’ll ever wake again… and if she does… I don’t know which would be worse.”

Neither of them knew what to make of that.

“Is… is the entity… gone?” Logan said. “Did we defeat it?”

Meredith didn’t look at him. “Yes. The entity is back where it belongs.” She wouldn’t elaborate further.

“And… and Nicole?” Stephen said.

She looked him in the eyes. “I’m sorry, Stephen. There was no other way.”

He nodded.

“We need to leave,” she said. Her voice lacked the urgency it needed. She was that spent.

They waited.

She gave them both a grave look. “We need to leave,” she repeated. “The dead are coming. Toby knows where we are.”

~~~

Next Episode 53-9

Previous Episode 53-7

~~~

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“Chapter 53-8: Love and Loss” Copyright © 2019 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Six: Mother. All Rights Reserved.

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

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

~~~

Chapter 53 will continue on Friday…

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~~~

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The big preacher just stared at him.

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

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

Stephen laughed. “That about covers it.”

“That must have been difficult.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen laughed. “Now that’s crazy.”

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

“Excuse me?”

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

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

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

“That’s a good point.”

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

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

Logan smiled. “Yes.”

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

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

“The what?”

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

That’s in the Bible?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Amen,” Stephen added with a laugh.

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

Stephen snickered at that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fear?”

“Yes.”

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

“Thank you.”

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

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

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

“Okay. Thanks.”

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

~~~

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

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

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

“What was that?’

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

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

Megan waited.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You know this?”

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

Megan nodded. “Then… she’s like me?”

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

Megan waited.

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

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

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

“You mean if Nicole loses control?”

“Yes.”

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

Meredith smiled. “I believe that it is.”

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

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

“I don’t understand,” Megan said.

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

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

She turned. “How is Stephen?”

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

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

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

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

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

She gave him a puzzled look.

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

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

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

She smiled, catching on. “Discreet?”

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

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

He waits faithfully for his ‘love’ to return.

She was surprised by the sarcasm that accompanied her thought.

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meredith forces her legs to move.

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

Meredith turns back.

Hannah is already closing the door from the inside.

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

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

And then she is gone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hannah sluggishly rises to her feet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Excuse me?”

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

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

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

“What was that?”

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

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

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

“What are you talking about?”

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

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

“The code! Say it!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Meredith?”

“What?”

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

~~~

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

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

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

“Stephen?”

~~~

Next Episode 53-8

Previous Episode 53-6

~~~

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

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

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

~~~

Nicole is running beneath the moonless night.

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

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

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

WHERE ARE YOU GOING?

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

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

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

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

The darkness laughs. The mocking tone is real.

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

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

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

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

The darkness scoffs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHAT ARE YOU DOING? STOP THAT! STOP IMMEDIATELY!

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

It is… inspiring.

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

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

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

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

“STEPHEN!” she shouts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen opens his eyes.

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

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

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

She smiles and says, “Ditto.”

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

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

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

It is enough. Stephen rises from the sand.

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

~~~

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

Nicole continues to pull Sylvia into the light of memory…

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I wish it were that easy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Absolutely.”

“What about your wife and your job?”

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

“I was once afraid,” he reminds her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She looks away.

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

She looks at him.

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

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

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

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

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

Nicole is shocked.

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

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

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

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

“I forgive you,” he abruptly says.

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

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

Nicole waits.

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

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

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

Nicole doesn’t know how to respond.

“I do know that I… still love you.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Because Toby searches for her?”

“Yes.”

“And he… terrifies you?”

“Yes. We all share that in common.”

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

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

Stephen looks away and nods, shuffling his feet.

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

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

“Really?”

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

“What does that mean?”

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

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

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

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

“Yes. Even if it means death.”

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

He waits.

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

Stephen smiles. “Yes.”

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

He smiles.

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

“I don’t understand.”

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

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

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

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

Nicole is stunned. “You mean-”

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

“But… what about your family?”

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

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

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

She smiles back.

NO!

Nicole stumbles back a step.

“Are you okay?”

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

I… SAID… NO!

“You don’t look okay,” Stephen says.

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

“What’s happening?” Stephen is concerned.

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

…WELCOME BACK, MAGGOT LOVER.

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

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

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

He has fallen asleep.

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

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

“I promised! I told him I wouldn’t-”

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

The darkness moves across the roadway toward the inn.

Nicole is powerless to stop it.

~~~

Next Episode 53-7

Previous Episode 53-5

~~~

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

Here’s an easy way to do so:

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

Thanks again for all your support and for reading.

-Scott

~~~

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meredith turned to Stephen.

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

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

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

“That’s fascinating,” Meredith said.

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

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

Logan nodded, but refused to look at it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meredith relayed to the half-dead what Nicole said.

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

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

Meredith relayed this as well.

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

Nicole smiled sheepishly. “Sorry.”

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

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

Meredith hid her smile behind her hand.

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

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

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

Logan shifted at the veiled threat.

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

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

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

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

Meredith nodded. “And you are Sylvia.”

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

He smiled back.

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

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

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

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

“You should know. You sent us here.”

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

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

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

“Yes, they are all here… now.”

Stephen turned. “Now… I’m confused.”

“Ditto,” Logan said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t you dare,” she teased.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That he is,” Hannah agreed.

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

“Not yet.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Toward the cavern?” she said.

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

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

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

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

“Then help us now,” Meredith said.

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

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

Hannah looked away.

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

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

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

Hannah refused to meet her gaze.

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

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

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

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

“Yes. That changed everything.”

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

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

The old medium nodded. “I understand.”

“Do you?” Hannah challenged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nicole didn’t have an answer.

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

Nicole shook her head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then the image of the murdered girl was gone.

Meredith relaxed a little when the image of Hannah returned.

Logan was looking once more at his dead nephew.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

The others looked confused.

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

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

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

“How did you-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

Megan nodded her approval.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He nodded. “We’ll be alright.”

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

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

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

Megan stared at them. “Is something wrong?”

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

“For what?” the half-dead said.

Meredith looked away, refusing to answer.

~~~

Next Episode 53-6

Previous Episode 53-4

~~~

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

Vote for DFTD at topwebfiction

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Like what? And don’t call me that.”

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

“Well, a lot has changed, Nicole.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay.”

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

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

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

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

“What does that even mean?”

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

“You mean when you were Sylvia?”

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

“Then it’s true,” he said.

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

“You mean the cavern?”

“Yes.”

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

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

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

“I don’t believe you.”

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

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

“Yes,” he said. “I came alone.”

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

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

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

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

“I don’t want to do that.”

He motioned her back to the table.

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

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

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

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

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

“What changed?”

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

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

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

Nicole was stone.

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

“And what way is that, Stephen?”

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

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

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

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

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

She hesitated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Almost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Something funny?” he said.

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

Meredith cupped her own smile to hide her amusement.

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

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

This made Meredith giggle uncontrollably.

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

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

Megan kept her back turned.

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

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

Logan immediately started pacing, whispering prayers into the air.

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

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

Meredith opened her eyes and smiled.

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

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

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

“Shit!” Logan hissed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe,” Logan said suspiciously.

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

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

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

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

“That’s fine. Anything else?”

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

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

Stephen gave her a confused look.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you ready for this?” Meredith said.

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

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

He nodded and stepped outside.

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

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

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

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

She flashed him a nervous smile.

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

Next Episode 53-5

Previous Episode 53-3

~~~

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

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

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

~~~

Chapter 53 will continue on Friday…

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~~~

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

“Nothing.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I smell them,” Megan said, unconvinced.

Logan smiled and looked to Stephen.

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

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

Megan paced impatiently behind the couch.

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

Megan’s eyes went wide.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Megan shrugged her shoulders and tore into the bag.

This made Stephen laugh hard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Something wrong, Stephen?” Meredith said.

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

The big preacher nodded and attempted to calm down.

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

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

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

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

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

“I believe you, Stephen,” Meredith said.

He looked at her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Logan looked on the verge of imploding.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This got Logan and Megan’s attention.

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

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

Logan grumbled and said nothing else.

“I trust you,” Megan added.

Stephen looked toward the half-dead and smiled.

She quickly looked away.

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

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

“What?”

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

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

“You still can,” he said.

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

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

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

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

Meredith gave the preacher a weary glance.

“Tell me what?” Stephen said.

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

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

“Agreed,” Logan said.

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

“When you caused The Change,” Megan finished.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meredith looked over at Megan and smiled.

Megan just stared back.

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

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

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

“Excuse me?” Stephen said, in disbelief.

“Are you fucking kidding me!” Logan expressed.

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

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

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

“Would you rather we attempt to kill her?”

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

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

Logan’s jaw was about to hit the floor.

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

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

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

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

“She’ll think it’s a trap.”

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

“How can you be so sure?”

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

Stephen laughed. “This is insane!”

“Amen,” Logan agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meredith glared at him.

“Okay… sorry,” he said. “Nicole.”

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

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

Meredith smiled at the girl.

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

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

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

They all gave her an incredulous look.

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

~~~

Next Episode 53-4

Previous Episode 53-2

~~~

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

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

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