Posts Tagged ‘Southbound Nightmares’

~~~

Voices.

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

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

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

Get out! Leave my child alone!

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

Lucas is dead! They… They killed him!

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

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

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

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

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

“Just do it! There’s no time!”

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

She can’t move. She can’t resist.

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

No!

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

NO!

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

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

“What? Already?”

“We need to move her… now,” she says.

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

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

“Well?” the doctor asks impatiently.

“Hold on,” the nurse says.

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

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

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

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

~~~

…hunger.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“To what end?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come again?”

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

“Stop it.”

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

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

“What are you up to, Coop?”

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

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

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

She nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

Next Episode 38-4

Previous Episode 38-2

~~~

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

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

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

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~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t say that.”

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

Stephen looked away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen didn’t know what to say.

“Remember those snipers who killed Greg?”

Stephen nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen waited.

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

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

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

“What was that?”

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

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

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

Stephen looked at his shoes and nodded.

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

Stephen looked up.

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

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

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

“Now, promise me something.”

“If I can,” she said.

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

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

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

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

Stephen freely let his own tears fall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And what about, Tony?”

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

Gina forced a smile. “Goodnight, Stephen.”

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

She nodded and walked him to the door.

Stephen gave her a final smile and exited.

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

~~~

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

The light knock at her door caused her to jump.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gina said nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I have to leave, Meredith.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I bet he has.”

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

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

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

“Just tell me already,” Gina laughed.

“It’s about Megan!”

Gina’s smile quickly faded.

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

“What does that even mean?”

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

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

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

“Remember?”

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

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

Meredith gave her a confused look.

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

Stephen nodded.

They turned together.

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

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

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

She smiled nervously and stared at her feet.

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

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

Stephen was clearly disappointed. He turned back to the community and said, “Does anyone have anything they want to add before sentencing?”

“Yeah!” Nine shouted, while Diane tried to calm him down. “This is all bullshit! Gina deserves better than this!”

No one said a word.

Stephen had made it clear an hour before sentencing that there would be no time for goodbyes once the deed was done. Gina had caught them in the hall, saying her goodbyes to Nine and Diane before exiting. Diane had told her to stay strong, and in a rare display of emotion from the hunter, Diane had embraced her. Nine had been an emotional wreck telling her that he felt like he was losing his big sister. Gina had consoled him as best she could without losing it herself, until Diane had taken over and pulled the distraught teen away. Gina had watched them depart down the hall with a smile, watching the young couple hold each other close. They love each other… very much, she’d thought, taking some comfort in that. She’d looked for Tony then. But he hadn’t come to say goodbye.

Nine caught Gina’s pleading stare and regained control. “That’s all I wanted to say,” he finished, stepping back into the crowd.

Gina dared a glance at Tony.

He refused to look at her.

He looks terrible, she thought, noticing his frail frame. Tony looked like he hadn’t eaten in days. He was clearly in pain and exhausted. They’ve all been hiding the truth from me. He’s hurting… bad. She forced herself to look away before her emotions overwhelmed her.

Stephen turned back to Gina. “Gina Melborn,” he said, trying to sound as official as he could, despite his own emotional turmoil. “It has been decided that you are to be… exiled… immediately for your crimes. From this day forth, you are no longer a member of our community.” He forced himself to spew out the rest. “If you are seen here again, for any reason, you will be arrested as an enemy and dealt with as such. We have provided you with a pack of provisions to see you on your way… but you are never to return to these woods. Do you understand the terms of your punishment?”

The word struck her harder than she expected:

Exiled.

For the first time, the gravity of her situation was finally taking hold. I’ll never see any of them again. I will be… alone.

“Do you understand the terms of your punishment?” Stephen repeated.

She couldn’t look at him… any of them… without bursting into tears. “Yes,” she finally said. “I… I understand.”

“Goodbye, Gina… and good luck,” Stephen said. He turned away before he lost his composure and joined the community.

One of the guards dropped a backpack by her feet and then they stepped away from her and also joined the others, making her feel completely naked, standing there alone.

They all turned and started back up the path toward the compound entrance.

Gina refused to look up, refused to move until they were all gone. She closed her eyes tight and listened to their shuffling feet, wondering if this was the last time she’d ever hear sounds of the living again. If I watch them leave… I’ll lose it. Have to stay strong now. I have to get through this and move on… somehow.

When all she could hear was the lonely sound of the wind blowing through the trees, she finally opened her eyes. For a moment, she saw Tony standing there to greet her with open arms. But then realized her longing had created a momentary mirage out of the tree she focused on.

Her heart sank immediately. I am alone. She quickly wiped fresh tears from her eyes and grabbed the pack by her feet. I need to get the fuck out of here before I die right here! She strapped on the pack, turned, and stopped, staring into the ominous forest before her. Where do I go? She had not considered this until now.

Unable to shake Tony from her tortured thoughts, she remembered him telling her of his original route into the wilderness preserve, and how he came in from the west and followed the river in. She decided to start there.

As she neared the river, she remembered that hellish winter night when she’d escorted Tyler and Brannigan out here to die… by her hand. It’s fitting that I’m wearing their shoes now. Were they as terrified by the prospect of being exiled as I am now? I didn’t even give them a chance. Her shame was immediate. She fought it off as best she could.

Gina reached the bank of the river and felt better. The ice was almost gone. She watched the vibrant rush of the river downstream and started to turn west. She stopped and looked across the river, to the north. That’s where I ordered them to go. Made them piss their pants with ghost stories of the Shadow Dead out there to the north until I knew they’d fight me… and fight for their lives… giving me an excuse to murder them. Gina saw a narrow gap in the stream where she could cross. That’s where I belong. Go north, Gina. Find your fucking Shadow Dead, or wait until they find you… if they’re even still out there at all. That’s what you really deserve. She shook off her dark thoughts and realized that even she was too cowardly to face that fate… alone. Hell, stay out here long enough, maybe you’ll be just like them. Maybe you are what’s left of the Shadow Dead for as brutal as you’ve become. She shook her head and spoke out loud to the river. “No. I’m not that far gone… yet.” She continued to stare across the river into the northern woods, half expecting all the ghosts from the people she’d slain, living or dead, to step out of the trees and come for her. She shivered at the thought, turning her back toward the haunted forest.

“I had a feeling you’d come this way.”

Gina nearly fell back into the river when she looked up and saw Tony standing in front of her. For a moment, she simply stared at the ragged looking man she loved, not believing he was there at all.

“Are… are you real?” she finally said.

Tony stepped up, unslinging a pack from his shoulder. “I had to leave quickly and take over the perimeter patrol in order to get these and catch up to you in time.” He crouched down and opened the large pack revealing a shotgun, three handguns and extra ammunition. “The perks of being in charge of security now,” he said with a half-hearted smile. “I wasn’t going to let them send you away unarmed.”

Gina continued to stare at him. She crossed her arms across her chest, struggling for words.

Tony looked down at the pack. “I tried to get what I could from the armory. Hope this is…” He stopped. Tony’s shoulders fell as he took a deep breath, trying to maintain control. The big man started to weep. “What have I done, Gina? I didn’t want this to happen… please… can you forgive me?” He finally looked up into her eyes. Tony had the eyes of a man who had spent the last several weeks punishing himself for turning her in. “I had to stop you. I didn’t know how else to do it. I knew what you did… what you were about to do… again. They would’ve killed you… or you would’ve killed everyone. So I… stopped you.”

Gina put her hands to her face and let out an agonizing sob. Her feet gave way beneath her as she fell to her knees in front of him. “Forgive you?” she sobbed. “My God, Tony. You didn’t do anything… I did it… I killed those men… I had no idea that you knew… that you… always knew. I love you… and I put you through so much misery… covering for my fucking sins!”

“I don’t care what you did,” he said. “Not anymore. I can’t lose you like this… I won’t. I never should have turned on you… and put you in this position… I’m so fucking sorry.”

Gina reached for him, grabbed his face gently in her hands, and said, “There’s nothing to forgive, Tony. You’re a good and decent man. This was something you never should’ve had to handle… to hide… for me. I did this. I killed people and justified it. And I was so fucking wrong! You did the right thing… the only thing. And I’m grateful that you did it… really.”

Tony tried to speak through tears.

She reached over and embraced him fiercely.

“I forgive you, Tony,” she whispered in his ear. “Not because you did anything… but because you need to hear it. You need to stop this now. Take care of yourself… for me. I can’t bear to see you like this. I won’t make it out there if I know you’re in pain. Please… promise me, you’ll take care of yourself.”

“I… I promise,” he said.

“You know I have to go.”

“I know,” he said.

“And you know I can’t allow you to come with me.”

She felt him tighten up and then he finally relaxed. “I know.”

She smiled and looked into his eyes. “I’ll get better… I’ll… figure this out. When I do… when I can stand to look at myself in the mirror again… I’ll come back for you… okay?”

“They won’t let you come back. So… I’ll leave… I don’t care,” he said. “You just go and work it out and I’ll be waiting. I’ll come here every day, to the river, and when you’re ready, you just meet me here and we’ll go. Fuck everything else.”

“I don’t know how long, Tony,” she said. “I’m pretty fucked up. But I will find you… okay?”

“Okay,” he tried to regain control, breaking free of her embrace. “Okay. I get it. If you get lost out there, you go find Orosco. They’ll take you in and you can contact me that way. Just… just don’t be alone too long. That’s not going to help.”

She gave him a puzzled look. “Orosco?”

“I left a map in the pack. He told me where he was going when he left… when he asked me to come. I know where it is and I put it on the map. Just go find him and heal. They don’t have to know about any of this.”

“Okay,” she said. “If it gets too rough out there… I’ll go find Orosco. Just don’t go chasing after me and get yourself killed. I need you to be here… to be alive… when I’m ready to come back. You’re the only good thing in my life and I need you.”

He nodded. “I’ve waited this long. I can wait a bit longer.”

She got up and wiped the tears away. “Thanks for coming… and for the weapons.”

He shrugged it off. “Just stay safe, Gina. I love you too damn much to see you like this… just… just work it out and come home to me.”

“I will,” she said with a smile. “Now get out of here before I can’t leave.”

He stood up and looked west along the river. “Where do you think you’ll go?”

“Anywhere… Everywhere!” she said. “Maybe I’ll find a cozy little cabin and just sleep in for the next hundred years.”

Tony smiled. “Sounds lovely. You find that cabin and come get me.”

“You got it.”

“All you ever had to do was ask,” he said.

“What was that?”

“When we were at Herpies. Your dream of running away with me… If you’d asked… I would’ve gone. It was a good dream.”

She laughed through tears and said, “Yeah… maybe it was.”

“It still can be,” he said. “Someday.”

“Someday it is, then,” she finished. Gina put on her pack.

Tony handed her the weapons pack and kissed her passionately. When he finished, he said, “All of this, all of this darkness will pass and we’ll go follow that dream. Just you and I. Hold on to that and we’ll get there… okay?”

“Deal,” she said. “Now let me go before we end up getting naughty on the forest floor.”

Tony laughed. “Agreed. I don’t think either of us are up to that right now.”

She pointed in his face. “Yeah… but it’s gonna happen next time I see you… so work on that stamina.”

“You got it. I love you, Gina. Always.”

She smiled and grazed his cheek with her hand. “And I love you. See you soon.”

“See you soon.” Tony stepped back and nodded. He turned without another word, allowing Gina a chance to do the same.

She started west along the river, praying that Tony would not follow. She didn’t think she could keep lying for much longer about coming back. “I love you, Tony, with all my heart,” she whispered to herself. “But I won’t share this darkness with you any longer. It’s a part of me now… and you deserve better than that.”

She continued following the river, another Wasteland phantom disappearing into the wilderness.

~~~

Next Episode 38-3

Previous Episode 38-1

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 38-2: Healing” Copyright © 2017 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Four: Phantoms. All Rights Reserved.

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

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

~~~

Stephen entered Cubicle City and stopped to enjoy the silence. Most of the lights were in dim mode to allow the illusion of evening, helping most of the tired community get some much needed rest. In the three weeks since he had assumed leadership, Stephen had created several small committees who were assigned various projects designed to give everyone a voice and a purpose in the eventual relocation of their group. He had received overwhelming support and had discovered a whole new level of unified strength in this band of survivors, who were once on the verge of tearing each other apart a short time ago.

Among some of the major committee groups were: Resettlement and Recovery–a group dedicated to preparing the community for mass exodus by accounting for all vital supplies and figuring out how to distribute those supplies among the survivors when the time came to move out. They were also in charge of planning out future missions to scout out locations, such as nearby neighborhoods and farmlands, for possible resettlement. They used whatever local road and topography maps they could get their hands on, as well as first-hand knowledge from survivors who had once lived or visited various locations, to make long-term assessments of surrounding areas.

Another group called Search, Rescue and Growth, was in charge of figuring out where other survivors might have fled, well beyond the wilderness preserve, to outlast the long grueling winter and the dead. They made plans and discussed possible scenarios to approach other groups of survivors, and how to safely assess if they were hostile, friendly, or the unpredictable “desperate”, which could fall either way.

Logan, who was no longer in charge of security, was appointed the task of rounding up as much information about each survivor’s families, in order to put together profiles with the eventual intent to locate missing members, dead or alive, and offer closure or happy reunions. He named the group: The Ministry of Hope.

There was even a group entirely devoted to the welfare and morale of the community, called, Operation Laughter, which met weekly to discuss fun recreational activities to help the survivors get their minds off their troubles and ‘loosen up’ when time allowed.

Stephen’s primary purpose for the committees was to give every man and woman an important task, hoping to get everyone on the same optimistic page and start thinking about their future. So far, it was working. He met twice a week with representatives of each group to discuss and vote on various issues, which destroyed the old “inner circle” way of leadership that often felt exclusive, and instead, let everyone have a seat at the decision-making table. He also insisted that each group have a name, whether he picked one or each committee did. Stephen believed that by giving groups ‘titles’, it made them official, adding a permanent position of importance to every issue.

The exhausted new leader sighed as he quickly checked the shadows surrounding him, hoping for any sign of Nicole. Since his public admission of the accidental killing of the girl, Stephen had not seen or heard from her. In order not to freak out about it, the former history teacher had jumped head-first into his awesome new responsibility, hoping that Nicole would return when circumstances quieted down.

Nicole? I know you’re still there. Why are you hiding?

Yes. He knew it… felt it. Nicole was too much a part of who he was now. Stephen would know if she was really gone, the same way anyone would know if the sun was ripped from the sky.

I’m not mad at you anymore. Please… just come back. He closed his eyes and shook his head to clear his thoughts. I love you, Nicole, but I can’t keep doing this. These people need me to lead them.

Stephen continued on and found Logan in his usual pre-bedtime spot, praying to his God before the prayer wall in the back of Cubicle City.

While he waited for the big preacher to finish, Stephen gawked at the wall, marveling at how much it had evolved since Logan took over as head of The Ministry of Hope. Where there was once just fading pictures of missing loved ones, now, the wall was covered with every piece of information Logan had acquired from the survivors. He placed everything up on that wall, from hand-scribbled notes to detailed descriptions of the last whereabouts of loved ones. Logan treated all of it as sacred and prayed for God’s help every evening to lead him in eventually finding them all.

Stephen stood back and smiled at the big man who continued to wear his infamous black tank-top (he often wondered if the man owned any other shirt), with his old hate tattoos branded across his arms, which Stephen hardly noticed anymore. In the last three weeks Stephen had relied upon his new second-in-command heavily, getting to know the man on a more personal level than before. In some ways, Logan reminded him of his optimistic old friend, Greg, whose faith in God had never wavered. But as he watched Logan, knelt down before the wall of fragile dreams, face pressed to the floor and fervently whispering to God, Stephen realized that the difference between Greg and Logan’s faith was that while Greg’s simplistic beliefs made him the easy-going man that he was, Logan’s faith was quite different. The big man before him approached God with such intensity at times, reminding him of a soldier before going into battle.

Logan slowly got up from his knees and wiped tears from his eyes. “Thank you, Jesus,” he whispered before the prayer wall, raising his arms in praise.

“I get exhausted just watching you pray,” Stephen said stepping up beside him. He looked up at the pictures on the wall. “If we find just one of them… it will all be worth it.”

Logan put a big arm around Stephen’s shoulders and shook them lightly. “That’s the spirit, little brother!” he said with a heart-felt laugh. “Praise God! Just one, we give you thanks! But I’m gonna be greedy and ask for as many as you can give us back!”

“Amen,” Stephen said with a smile.

Logan turned toward a couple of fold-up chairs and motioned Stephen to sit with him.

They both sat down, feeling the weight of another busy but satisfying day.

“What brings you out here to see me so late, Stephen? Can’t sleep?”

Stephen frowned. “It’s Gina. Tomorrow’s the day… and I can’t do anything to stop it.”

Logan nodded. “You’ve done all you can, little brother. Gina’s fate is in God’s hands now. I’ve been praying really hard for her to come back from that dark place… and she will… but it’s a tough climb out of that pit. Believe me… I’ve been there.”

Stephen had stalled for as long as possible, hoping the newly discovered spirit of the community would allow Gina a place among them. But the better things became, the more they placed the blame for everything that had gone wrong, including Carl Lannister’s rebellion, on the often distant, harsh, and war-minded dictatorship of their former leader. Many felt that her secret execution of two of their own had crossed the line and the community remained firm in their final decision on the matter.

“She doesn’t even fight it,” Stephen said. “It’s hard to defend someone who is so eager to be punished. It’s like she’s already gone–like she died that day Tony turned her in.”

Logan shook his head. “It’s a hard thing, little brother, to hear the truth about what we are, what we’ve become. It really hits home when the ones closest to us become the mirrors of that truth.” He shifted gears. “How is Tony holding up?”

“He’s managing in his own way,” Stephen said. “When I refused to let him step away entirely and asked him to take over as head of Security, he accepted it and threw all he had left into it. He’s outside everyday making sure the perimeter is secure while we have the topside camp operational during the daylight hours. But in truth, I think he’s just distancing himself from the whole matter. He still refuses to visit her.”

“Tony is a man of conscience,” Logan said. “It’s very hard to do what is right when it hurts the ones we love. I’ll keep praying for him, too.”

Stephen nodded with a frown.

“I never did thank you for… taking away that burden,” Logan said. “It was very thoughtful of you to assign security matters to someone else. I never realized the load it was until it was lifted.”

Stephen looked into the big man’s humble eyes and saw a glimpse of the memory that still haunted him. “I know you still struggle with it, Logan. But you did the right thing. Shooting Sabastian saved lives.”

Logan nodded. “Yes… but it’s not a thing I wish to ever repeat. When you kill a man, right or wrong, you live with it. It becomes a part of you. Taking a life never leaves you. You can only learn from it and become… better… or it swallows you whole.” He placed a hand on Stephen’s shoulder.

Stephen nodded, understanding that the preacher’s words were as much for him, too. “I live with Nicole’s death every day. In fact, it has made me… better. I’d like to think so, anyway.”

“That was a brave thing you did, telling the community. You shared your soul with them. That’s why they love you, Stephen. You’re a good and honest man who cares for these people… and they feel it in everything you’re doing.”

“What am I really doing, Logan?” Stephen asked. “I talk to Gina every night. She’s told me about the horrors they’ve seen ‘out there’. She tells me that she worries for me and doesn’t want me to go through the hell she went through trying to keep everyone safe. What if we finally leave this place and I lead them all to their deaths because of some naïve notions that there’s something better than this?”

Logan smiled. “Because you already know, little brother. Your faith has opened your eyes.”

“What does that even mean?”

“I know you struggle with God. That you have a hard time giving in to an ‘all-loving’ deity when the world looks like it has been abandoned. But that doesn’t mean he’s stopped believing in you. Look around, little brother. You have turned the tide and stopped these people from becoming… monsters. God has chosen you to lead these people, not because you are some skilled warrior who will fight their battles for them, but because you can help them see what the real battle is… and that’s the darkness within… and show them how to win their own battles. You love them and they love you for it. That’s how we survive down here now. And that’s how we will survive out there, no matter what dark and dire circumstances await.”

“And if we get slaughtered the moment we leave these woods… what does that say about us? About love?”

Logan laughed. “It’s says that we held our ground, Stephen. That we stood for something greater than all the darkness out there. It says that we refused to let the evil forces at work in the world make us cower and hide in a hole any longer, snuffing out the light and love this new world desperately needs… that it’s always needed. When we leave here, we will leave together, and that is what our God has left us to do… the only thing left there is to do… and that’s how we will find our way in the dark. You’re eyes have been opened down here. Mine were opened from a jail cell in my former life when I once worked as an agent of the darkness. Love trumps all and as long as we fight for each other… we will find our way. God will guide our every step as long as we keep on loving each other.”

Stephen stared at the big man, admiring his conviction. “I wish I had a tenth of your faith… I really do.”

“You have more faith than you know, little brother. Your compassion for these people is the evidence of that faith. You will lead us to whatever end awaits, arming us anew with a sense of community we’ve almost lost down here. Trust in yourself. God has given you his favor with these people. He will be there at every step of the way as long as we hold true.”

“And if I lead them straight to the gates of hell, what then?”

Logan laughed long and hard. “Then I’m sure we will have this discussion again as we turn and feed off the compassion of our family as we march confidently through the flames! Praise God!”

Stephen shook his head with a smile. “There’s just no reasoning with you when you get like this. Perhaps when we find ourselves surrounded by a hungry horde of yellow-eyed demons, they’ll smell the aroma of love and just lose their appetites.”

“Now we’re talking, little brother!” Logan laughed. “‘Lose their appetites on love’… now that’s a keeper!”

“Does the word ‘sarcasm’ hold any meaning to you at all?” Stephen laughed.

Logan settled down. “We’ll be alright. And if not… well… we can always hope those yellow-eyed bastards choke on all that love we’re carrying around.”

“You’re impossible… but I like the sound of that.” Stephen started laughing, causing Logan to erupt into more laughter.

Stephen finally calmed down and got up. “Well… if anything good comes from being this tired all the time it’s that everything starts get a lot funnier by the end of the day.”

“That’s the damn truth.” Logan got up. “Off to bed?”

“Soon,” Stephen said. “Got one more visit to make and then I’ll try to pass out for a few hours.”

Logan caught Stephen off guard with another one of his bear hugs. “Thanks for making me laugh, little brother… and for everything you’re doing for these people, praise God.”

“Same to you,” Stephen tried to get out, feeling crushed by the big man who finally let him go. Stephen collected himself with a laugh. He then looked at Logan and said, “I don’t know if I could’ve made it through the past few weeks without your help. I mean that.” He looked around briefly again for Nicole. “I’ve learned one thing really fast about leadership. It’s an incredibly lonely position sometimes. But having your help reminds me that I’m not alone.

Logan looked embarrassed. He said, “Well… you’re not alone. We will all strive to do our best to help you carry that burden, little brother.”

Stephen stared at the big man feeling his throat tighten up. He was about to speak but then just nodded.

Logan nodded back with a smile.

He turned to go, “Goodnight, Preacher. Don’t forget to find your own bed. It scares the locals when they find you snoring out by the wall in the mornings.”

Logan laughed. “Will do. Goodnight, Stephen.”

Stephen walked off.

Logan sat back down, feeling the weight of his heavy frame collapse into the squeaky fold-up chair. He closed his eyes and started praying silently.

From where she stood in a shadowed corner beside the prayer wall, Nicole waited for Stephen to depart before stepping out into the dim light to look at the praying man. She was wearing one of Stephen’s favorite sundresses, the same one she wore when they talked together outside the school in Harpersfield. She longed for those days when they had an abundance of time alone together with none of these pathetic creatures stealing him away at every moment. She had wanted to appear to him tonight and let Stephen know she was alright. But she was still upset. Nicole was angry that he’d spoken publicly about her death and that he’d lied to her about leaving this horrible place together when all along he wanted to stay. She was upset with herself for holding things back from the man she loved, especially about Lannister’s plans to take over. She’d overheard Lannister’s men talking about it on one of her nightly excursions in Stephen’s body, which were not as frequent, now that he was so fucking busy taking care of these… people. But mainly, she was upset that she couldn’t reach out and touch the man that she loved, and that no matter what he said, she knew that Stephen understood that it created distance between them, restricting the love they could have for each other. This made her furious… uncontrollable at times… and it frightened her. That was why she’d chosen to stay away. Lately, she’d gone from wanting to make love to him… to just wanting to reach out and… destroy him.

Nicole looked at Logan and hissed, “You’re all pathetic little creatures that deserve what’s coming next!”

Logan continued to pray quietly, unaware of the ghost girl who wanted to rip his throat out.

She looked at the worthless man with his worthless prayers and said, “Maybe I’ll get inside your head, too, like Olivia and all the rest of them, and get you to end your own meaningless existence!” She knew that she could, too. Nicole could see the darkness in each of them–and exploit it when it served her.

“But not you… not yet… my love would be all alone, surrounded by these ungrateful creatures if I took you from him,” she said to Logan. “But when he doesn’t need you anymore… when he only needs me, I will take care of you! I will take care of all of you worthless dumb animals!”

She could feel the anger trying to consume her again. Nicole closed her eyes and calmed down. She shook her head at the preacher and started walking away.

“I know you’re there,” Logan said.

Nicole stopped, turning with alarm.

Logan was still praying. His back was to her. He hadn’t moved.

That’s impossible! She waited to see if the preacher was just talking to his vain God again.

Logan opened his eyes, took a deep breath, and said, “I know you’ve been here all this time. Just like you were there when the Lord Jesus rescued me in that jail cell and turned me toward the light.”

Nicole didn’t move. She started to panic. He’s not talking to me! If he were, than that would mean…

“I just wanted to thank you, as crazy as that sounds,” Logan continued. “If not for you on that long night, I never would’ve found my way… never would’ve realized how close I was to my own destruction. I never would’ve turned from the darkness.”

Nicole waited.

“I know you now. I know what you are… and my God will put an end to you… and others like you.”

Something stirred from deep within her, making her want to jump out of her skin and lash out at the big man with such ferocity. Leave. Now! He’s not talking to you! He’s just a crazy man speaking to the shadows… they all do that… the ones like him.

But Nicole had to know. She took a step toward the preacher and said, “You… you say you know me. Then who am I?”

Logan did not respond.

Nicole frowned. See. It’s just crazy talk. He’s not talking to you. Stop being foolish. Nicole turned and walked away, disappearing into the closest shadow.

Logan turned in Nicole’s direction, and for a moment, he swore he saw it– the same shadowy man he’d seen in the alley the night something had tricked him into believing that he’d murdered the Asian busboy, Brian Cheng.

~~~

Next Episode 38-2

Previous Episode 37-15

~~~

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 38-1: Healing” Copyright © 2017 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Four: Phantoms. All Rights Reserved.

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

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

~~~

This is not lookin’ good, boss. She knows your name. What else does she know?

That was a good question.

Russell carefully swung his legs back on the bed and remained sitting upright. He lifted his hands and said, “You are clearly in control here, Alysa. What do you want from me?”

“Straight to the point. I love that about you. You cede control immediately, hoping that I’ll keep talking while you continue to scheme, and then hit upon the only intriguing question of relevance to keep me talking. Bravo. You play this game very well, Russell.”

“Don’t call me that. Whatever you think you know about that name and who it belongs to, you would be wise to forget it if you value your pathetic existence.”

“Threats… really? Okay, Russell. Let’s talk about the question then: ‘What do I want from you?’ Here are some answers: Maybe I’m like the mugger who, after you’ve given me your wallet, car keys, and the clothes off your back, I’m still standing there with a gun in your face expecting more. And you’re the victim who stares back at me in horror when you realize that I wanted none of these material things because all you’ve left to give me is your life. Maybe I already stole everything I wanted from you and now I intend you kill you in some slow demeaning way that gives me some sick perverse pleasure. Or, maybe I want to turn you into my sex slave. Or, maybe I just want you to keep this crazy woman company by forcing you to stay in that bed for the rest of your days. Maybe I want to know where the rest of your friends are hiding so I can go murder every one of them while you remain helpless on that bed to do anything about it. Maybe you and I are already dead and I’m the fucking ghost sent here to torment you for all your past sins… the list goes on and on… pick any answer you want. Hell, make up your own, I don’t care. But your question is a good one.”

Maybe we could slit the cunt’s throat, rip out her fuckin’ tongue, and then throw it in the fire. What do you say to that answer, boss?

Russell stared into Alysa’s eyes and found no vulnerability in them. She could clearly kill him and not think twice about it afterwards. He frowned and said, “Who are you? This is all obviously an elaborate farce. I just don’t understand why you’ve gone to all the trouble to deceive me, Alysa… if that’s even your real name.”

She stepped closer and smiled. “What I can’t figure out, Russell, is what you’re hiding behind all those walls of darkness you’ve erected. Clearly you’re a killer, but even a murderer needs a motive… a mission.”

Russell’s eyebrows shot up. What have I told this psycho? No matter what she knows, I need to misdirect her attention away from Gina… everything else is irrelevant.

“Your fixation… your obsession with the red-headed leader of your group seems to be the key to everything, but I can’t figure out why.” Alysa started pacing. “What makes her so special? It’s certainly not love or lust or anything else like that… no… you’ve already proven to me that a woman’s flesh is meaningless to you without the cause.”

Well hell, so much for that, boss.

Russell gave her a hard look. “I don’t know what you expect to accomplish here. Are you trying to break me? Crack my head open and analyze me? You’re wasting your time. I’m not like the rest of you who still play by the rules of an obsolete world. In fact, my world… my cause… is beyond you. I’ve been hiding in the shadows of your pathetic world waiting for this moment… waiting for Death to finally come out and reveal all. You are not worthy of my words or my time. So if it’s my death that you require… then have at it already. You don’t know me or who I serve, witch. And I do not fear anything you can do. I’ve been prepared to face Death before you were born!”

Alysa’s eyes lit up. “That’s it, isn’t it? You consider yourself called to a higher purpose! You’ve always believed this, and now, now that the world has changed, you can feel Death’s call upon your heart more clearly than you’ve ever felt it before.”

Russell ignored her.

Alysa shook her head and laughed. “Oh, Russell, your silence doesn’t matter now. You’ve told me your whole story several times. And each time you’ve told it, you’ve made it clear who is at the center of it all. Gina Melborn, the ultimate quest. You don’t love her like a man loves a woman, but you love her nonetheless. You love the idea of what she represents to you. Does that make her your goddess?”

Russell murdered the woman with his eyes.

“No… she’s much more than that, isn’t she? She has to be.” Alysa stopped and pointed at him. “Gina is the validation of your existence. Without her, your life’s as meaningless as you keep claiming my life is.”

“I don’t know what your end game is, bitch, but know this: When you lower your guard… and you will… I will take great pleasure in removing you from this life.”

Alysa laughed. “Threats… promises of death… glaring looks… is that all you have to offer?” She stepped in closer and met his gaze with stone. “Do you really believe I fear anything you could do to me that hasn’t already been done? Are you really that naïve?”

“I know that you’re afraid,” Russell said. “All of you are afraid. You can’t help it. Fear has been your master since birth and you know nothing else.”

She flashed him a wicked smile. “Fear, my master? Well, that’s very interesting, Russell. Your arrogance in believing that you are the only one capable of seeing beyond the veil of lies created by our now dead society is your undoing. Could it be possible that you are not the only one on a mission? Or does your calling prevent you from seeing the bigger picture?”

“And what mission might that be?” he fished.

She pretended to speak and then put a finger over her mouth. “You’re not ready to hear what I know, Russell. You’re close… but still broken like the rest of these animals roaming the world.”

“And you fill the air with empty words while you hide from the world. You make me sick. When Death comes to cleanse this place… and she will… you, and the others like you, will have no place by her side. She will leave you here to rot and wallow in your pointless existence.”

Alysa said nothing.

“Now let’s get on with this. Kill me or let me go. Either way, just shut your fucking mouth because I’m done hearing your worthless words.”

She squatted down near the bed and looked up at him. “And where would you go? Back to your precious Gina? Back to your fruitless cause?”

Russell looked away.

Alysa smiled. “Of course you would. Assuming she isn’t already dead.” She stood up and sighed. “And I had so hoped we would have more time to talk. There is still so much more you need to learn.”

Russell laughed but refused to look at her. “And what would you teach me, cunt? How to manipulate, seduce and torture? Do you really think any of this matters? You’ve kept me here, poked into my mind, tried to fuck me in more ways than one, and still you miss the entire point.”

“And that is?”

He turned to her, his eyes ablaze. “That Death is coming to take her rightful place. And only those who have proven themselves worthy of her call will matter in the end. You demean others, strip them down and reduce them to nothing in order to elevate yourself. You pride yourself in your abilities to rise above your victims, look down upon them with your haughty tongue and clever wiles, but in the end you are still right back where you started. You are nothing. Nothing can’t be made into something, no matter how hard you try to become valuable in my eyes… and that’s the only way the illusion you’ve created has any life. But you are nothing to me… and so nothing you will remain.”

Alysa looked like she wanted to pounce on top of him and rip his eyes out. But she maintained her calm exterior.

Nice try, boss. Anyone else would have taken the bait and attacked. This one’s a cautious piggy.

Indeed, he had hoped she would lash out and give in to anger. Anger he understood. Anger was a weakness he could exploit.

She looked down at the floor, smiled, and then shook her head. “Russell, you are an interesting man if nothing else. But in the end, you’re still just a stupid man.”

“Sticks and stones, bitch,” he said with a smile. “And round and round we go.”

Alysa laughed and then got up and walked back toward the window. “I could kill her, you know. You’ve told me about your compound in the burnt wilderness preserve. I could eventually find it and worm my way into your little community. Then I could win her trust, get close to her, and simply kill your precious Gina while she slept. And then you would also be nothing.”

“And then the hunt for your end would become my purpose,” he added.

She turned. “Relax. I would not dare reduce your existence to something as petty as revenge. I would never be able to forgive myself.”

Russell simply stared at her.

Alysa walked toward the fire. “I hate the winter. No matter what I do-”

“No matter what you do you can’t shake the cold from your bones,” Russell finished. “It gets inside of you and then never lets go.”

She smiled at him. “Yes. On that we can certainly agree.” She moved over to the fireplace and squatted down near a pile of wood. She started placing logs on the fire. “There’s no explosives beneath the bed. You’re free to leave. You’re wounds have healed enough to travel, just be mindful of the sprained foot. Try to keep pressure off it as much as possible. The hounds don’t hunt during the day so you should be able to make it out of the woods before dark. Just head north and you’ll find a road. From there, you’ll be able to make it back to your precious Gina.”

Russell waited for more but Alysa offered no catch.

“You clothes and gear are beneath the bed,” she added. “Now get the fuck out of here before I change my mind.”

He continued to stare at the back of the strange woman. She was now stirring her pot of soup.

You know she’s full of shit, boss. There’s no way in hell she lets you just stroll on out of here. This is just more fuckin’ foreplay.

Perhaps. He had to know more. “What you told me about Michael, was it the truth, or just more lies?”

Alysa refused to look at him. “What you’ve done, what I’ve done… what does it matter now? The Past is a persistent enemy who is always trying to meddle and remain where it doesn’t belong.”

Fuck this Yoda bullshit, boss. I say, call her bluff. She don’t mind you getting’ off the bed… it’s getting’ to the door that’s gonna be the problem.

Russell agreed. He moved slowly toward the edge of the bed, managed to get his good foot on the ground, and then committed to standing up, using the nightstand to support himself.

The bed did not explode.

He looked over toward Alysa. She still ignored him. She was now sitting cross-legged in front of the fire in what appeared to be a meditative posture. He wasn’t certain, but it looked like she was moving her lips and … praying?

Fuck it, he thought. Russell felt dizzy and weak from lying prone for so long. He ignored his discomfort and put a little weight on the heel of his bad foot. The pain was immediate as it shot up his leg. He grimaced and then leaned forward on the toes of the foot and the pain was bearable. Yes, he could hobble his way out of here, but it would take time. He carefully moved down to his knees, keeping his bad foot elevated, and looked beneath the bed. There was a pile of neatly folded clothes placed on top of his small pack. What surprised him was finding his machete still attached to the pack.

Russell concentrated on getting dressed. If the woman was watching him or planning on moving in to take advantage of his vulnerable state, he could still retrieve the weapon and catch her by surprise. But nothing happened.

After dressing and putting on his coat and pack, Russell pulled himself back upright, the cold handle of the machete in his hand, and he moved toward the closest wall that would lead him to the front door, opposite the fireplace.

Alysa continued to drift off into the fire. It was as if she’d completely forgotten that Russell was in the room.

The stupid bitch wants to die, boss. I say we accommodate and then throw her fuckin’ body in the fire.

Russell started moving along the wall, feigning more effort than it required to gain her attention and offer her an opportunity to get up and stop him. She continued to stare into the fire. When he reached the front door, he reached for the door knob, expecting it to be locked. It wasn’t. Russell opened the door and let in the daylight. It stung his eyes but he quickly adjusted. Instead of exiting, he leaned up against the wall and stared at Alysa’s back.

The woman appeared to stop praying and tossed another log into the fire. “What is it… are you afraid you’ll miss me when you’re gone?” she teased. “No tricks. I said you’re free to go and I meant it. Just shut that fucking door on your way out. You’re letting in all the cold.”

“Why?” he asked.

Alysa smiled but refused to turn around. “‘Why’ did I do all of this… or… ‘why’ am I letting you go now? Does it really matter? I have my reasons. Let’s just say that I’m a sucker for a man with a cause… even if it’s misguided.”

Russell stared at the woman’s back, irritated that he couldn’t look into her cold eyes once more. She had to know that it bothered him, which just meant that he had told this witch far too much about himself.

You know ya’ can’t leave this bitch alive, boss. She’s either fuckin’ with you right here and now, or she gave you bullshit directions and she intends to take you outside.

Russell had already considered this and ruled it out. No. Alysa was a clever woman. She had to know that if she provoked him or tried to corner him, he would strike back with all he possessed. She had to know how foolish and dangerous that was. She already knew he was a dangerous man.

Just kill the fuckin’ cunt and be done with it! The other one was showing his usual impatience. Always a slave to the bloodlust, the savage could never see the bigger picture. He just wanted his brutality satisfied and Alysa’s blood all over the walls of this hellish cabin. But Russell could clearly see that there was more going on in this moment, enough to recognize that he had to be extremely careful with his next decision.

“Why would you turn your back after discovering who I really am?” he finally asked.

“Ah… that persistent ‘Why’ again. Doesn’t matter. I still have the advantage.”

“How so?”

She laughed. “Who am I, Russell?” she countered.

Russell gripped the machete handle tightly in his non-bandaged hand. He desired her death, almost as much as the savage, but he hesitated. “You are someone who has seen my true face. You may not understand what you’ve seen… but you’ve seen it. You must have known what that meant when you let me get this far… and what I must do now?”

Alysa laughed lightly. “Yes… I know your secrets. I know who you really are… in part, at least. But I also know that you value this new opportunity our present world now affords.”

“And what’s that?”

“A chance to finally be known. No more secrets. No more shadows. No more masks and deception. You must admit, Russell, a part of you has to be a little relieved for someone to finally see you… the real you… and to find someone who is not afraid of you.”

Russell had no response.

Kill her now, boss! NOW!

“We are more alike than you know, Russell,” she continued. “Different… but not so different. I think a better part of you longs for acceptance. With me, you have that. I don’t choose to let a killer loose on the world. I choose to let a misunderstood man free to find his way in a new world where the lines between Man and Monster are just as misunderstood.”

Russell had already closed the gap between them while she spoke. He raised the machete for the blow that would remove the witch’s head from her shoulders. But still, he hesitated.

It’s more poison, boss! It’s in the water, in the soup, and pouring out of her fuckin’ mouth to infect your ears! End this bitch! She is dangerous.

Of that he was certain. But he needed to know, needed to look once more into Alysa’s eyes and discover the truth before he hacked her to pieces. “I was wrong about you in only one regard,” Russell whispered, expecting her to turn now that she knew how close her death was.

Alysa did not turn. She continued to stare into the fire. She smiled and said, “I’m touched, Russell. To have started from nothing to at least being worth saving in your eyes is humbling. But like you, it is not my time yet. Death has given both of us purpose, and she will see us both to the end.”

Russell was thrown off-guard by her words. His hand shook. The machete felt surprisingly heavy. Almost every part of him boiled for her blood. He wanted to commit such savagery on her flesh and make her scream until she choked on the blood of her words. And yet, he continued to pause. She’d struck a chord with him that he couldn’t deny. No one had ever come this close to seeing him, to truly seeing him for what he was… what he was destined to be.

KILL THIS FUCKING DEMON, BOSS! RAPE HER WITH THAT FUCKING BLADE!

“There is nothing more to be said, Russell,” the witch continued. “You’ve a choice to make. Either kill me and wound yourself, or leave… and return to Gina. I could’ve killed you many times, but chose to heed to the one who calls us both. Regardless, we who do not fear Death, wait to embrace the Lady who comes to take this world. What happens now, is entirely up to her.”

Russell lowered the machete and slowly backed away.

She’s playin’ you, boss! Distorting things you’ve told her in your fucked-up drug-induced state! Just kill her and be done with it!

No. He couldn’t… wouldn’t risk it. He would have to consider Alysa’s words, but for now, he had to survive and get back to Gina. He focused on that and he turned and headed for the door.

You’re a damn fool, boss. You leave this snake alive and I guarantee you, she’ll come back to bite you!

Russell could not deny the savage’s wisdom. But he couldn’t take the chance and kill this woman if anything Alysa said was true. What if the Lady, herself, had orchestrated this meeting? He trembled at that thought.

The other one laughed inside his head.

Before he exited the cabin, Alysa spoke once more, causing him to pause in the doorway. “When you get back to your people… to Gina… you need to warn them. The ones you call the Shadow Dead will be coming for them now that the winter has passed. If you can’t talk her into leaving… there will be more death.”

Russell didn’t bother turning back. He faced north and departed the cabin, entering the unfamiliar woods.

For a long time he refused to stop as he continued to press on through the forest, oblivious of all threats around him, unconcerned about the stress he was putting on his weakened body. He needed as much distance as he could manage between himself and the strange woman in the woods. Russell believed that if he stopped and turned back to track his progress, he would see the cabin and discover Alysa staring at him from the doorway, as if trapped there no matter how hard he tried to get away.

Give it a rest, boss. The bitch is long gone. She ‘ain’t following us. She’s probably sitting exactly where we left her in front of the fuckin’ fireplace.

Russell finally gave in and stopped for a brief rest and to take the stress off his sprained ankle. He sat down, his back against a large tree, and stared at his bandaged hand that started to throb again. She said I burned myself on the lantern. But his drug-induced memory or hallucination said otherwise.

I wasn’t there for that party, boss. You said she branded you. Are you sure the bitch wasn’t lying? It couldn’t have all been a fucked-up dream.

Russell stared at his hand as he remembered something. “‘You’re mine now’… that’s what she said after branding me.”

He suddenly needed the bandage gone. Russell slowly removed the gauze from around his palm until his hand was free. He stared at his burned palm for a long while and started calculating again.

Well isn’t that a sonofabitch, the other one remarked.

Branded into his flesh was a three-pronged symbol with a large eye at the top.

~~~

After Russell Bower departed, Alysa let out a deep breath and let her tense shoulders slump. That had been close to ending very badly, she thought. She raised the serial killer’s utility knife she had kept hidden in her hand and watched the firelight flicker off the small blade. She slowly got up, walked over to the door, and closed it. Alysa remained by the door and stared around at the safe house she had stayed at for most of the winter.

“Goodbye,” she announced to the gloomy cabin with a smile. Her work was done here. When she departed the next morning, she would burn it all to the ground and never look back.

Alysa walked over to a large chest in the corner of the cabin, to the left of the large fireplace, and opened it. She stared once more at Russell’s small blade, the one she’d found fastened to his forearm when she’d first found him and stripped him. The things we hold on to, she thought with a smile.

Alysa started having second thoughts about letting Russell go. He could decide to return this evening, using the darkness to catch her unprepared and kill her in her sleep. She knew she could leave now, hunt the man down, and finish this. She shook her head and smiled. “No. We will meet again, but not like that.”

She removed her large cloak from the top of the chest, revealing several strange items which once held special significance in her life. She then tossed the utility knife into the chest. It landed between a black longbow and a black quiver full of arrows. Beneath the bow was a dark metallic suit full of various electronics, two gauntlets with razors for fingers, and a large cow-skull looking helmet.

~~~

Next Episode 38-1

Previous Episode 37-14

~~~

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 37-15: Through the Eyes of a Devil” Copyright © 2017 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Four: Phantoms. All Rights Reserved.

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

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

~~~

He woke to the bright morning light stinging his eyes. Russell was amazed by how different the cabin looked now that everything was no longer swallowed up in shadows. He raised his hands toward his face to wipe the sleep from his eyes and then stopped to stare at them. His right hand was wrapped up in gauze.

I can finally move my arms. Yes. He no longer felt weak and weighed down to the bed by his own useless flesh.

Before he could explore his mobility further, Alysa stepped up beside the nightstand. “Well wonders never cease. You’re actually fully awake this time.”

Russell turned to look at her, remembering all too well what this crazy woman had done to his hand. She looked different now… saner. Her hair was tied back in a tight braid. She no longer wore the large cloak, but had opted for a dark-colored sweater and jeans instead. Her face looked surprisingly serene. Perhaps the unexpected daylight served to mask her madness. “Stay the hell away from me,” he finally said.

She wisely kept her distance, folded her arms across her chest, and smiled. “Relax… Marcus, right? I’m no threat to you. My name’s Alysa and I found you in the forest a few days ago. I’ve been taking care of you through the worst of your fever… but it was a challenging ordeal, to say the least. Last night was particularly bad. I almost started to believe that you weren’t going to make it. But then your fever broke this morning and… well… here we are.”

Russell raised his eyebrows in surprise and then lifted his right hand. “You… branded me last night and then have the audacity to claim that you’re no threat? And why are you acting like we haven’t met before?”

Alysa shook her head. “Ah… I see. I’ll try to explain. You’ve been in and out of consciousness… delirious with the fever. I’m really surprised that you remember me at all. And as far as your hand… you burned it on the lantern that you broke last night when you tried to hit me.”

“Bullshit, lady,” Russell said. “I remember everything. Your name’s Alysa. We spoke about my journey. You fed me chicken soup. You even tried to convince me that I was dead and we were sharing some version of hell together. And then you burned my hand.”

It was Alysa’s turn to look puzzled. “I see. Well… yes, we did speak about your travels. In fact, that was mostly what you talked about when you were feverish. I tried to talk with you on and off and shared some things about myself hoping that you would become coherent… but you kept passing out.” She motioned toward the chair. “May I sit and try to clear up what I can?”

Russell scowled at her. “I want to leave now. Are you going to try to stop me?”

“Oh, God, no,” she said as she sat down. “I don’t know exactly what’s going on in your head or what you remember, but I assure you, most of what your feeling is coming from whatever fever dreams you had. And it’s perfectly understandable that you’re on the defensive right now since this is the first time you’ve been awake… and truly aware… since I brought you here. What you’re experiencing are bits and pieces of reality mixed with whatever nightmares you were having. I imagine they felt very real… very vivid. And I want nothing more than to help you get back on your feet… believe me… this has not been fun for me either.”

“So you want me to believe that the last three nights have been… what… dreams?”

Alysa took a deep breath. “You remember my name. You remember that I fed you. But you also seem to think that I harmed you in some way, when actually, you tried to harm me… several times.”

“I couldn’t even fucking move until this morning! And you acted like a lunatic! You left me alone and promised to let me die. You even tried to seduce me!”

Alysa looked away, uncomfortable. “Wow. You really did have some wild dreams. I can assure you, Marcus, that I don’t make it a regular thing to… come on… to people I hardly know. And I don’t know what on earth you’re talking about. I’ve done nothing but try to get you well… and you were very hostile toward me when the fever was at its worst. But I don’t blame you for it. You obviously weren’t yourself.”

Russell shook his head. “No. I’m not buying it. Everything I experienced was real! I don’t know what game this is… but I’m finished. Where are my clothes?”

She raised her hands. “Okay. I get that you probably believe everything you’ve experienced was real. But let me ask you this: Was there anything that you remember that seemed… strange… and not possible? If I’m right, and you were dreaming, then you should be able to rationalize your way to the truth.”

Russell thought about the ghosts of his dead friends… and his father. Could she be telling the truth? It’s the only thing that would explain what you saw… unless you’re the crazy one. He started to calm down. “It… it was night every time we spoke. There was a storm. You were… you were there sometimes, and then you weren’t.” She was right, the more he thought about what he remembered, the more impossible some of it seemed. “I remember seeing people I knew… that shouldn’t be there. It was… disturbing.”

“Yes,” Alysa said. “That makes sense. You spoke a lot about your friends when you seemed rational. That was when I tried to engage with you. I asked you questions about them and you actually understood me. But then you would suddenly slip away. Maybe you started seeing them… wherever you drifted away to.”

“So then none of the last few nights was real? I find that hard to believe.”

Alysa shook her head. “No. Some of it was real. We did speak, but not in the way that you remember it. But the rest of it… well… it was bad. Your dreams made you lash out at me. It was rather frightening. You reminded me of someone trapped in a nightmare and I half-expected you to get up out of that bed and come after me. You seemed so awake at times… so lucid. But I realized that the fever was the cause of your outbursts. I really thought you were going to die. No matter what I did to try to talk you down, you seemed determined not to wake up. And when it looked like you were going to surface, that was the worst. You’d start screaming in the middle of the night. I’d come over to talk to you and you’d settle down… or you didn’t. And then I’d lose you again.” She looked away. “I never felt so helpless. There was nothing I could do for you but talk to you. It’s not like I could take you to the hospital… so I just fed you when you were calm and tried to keep my distance when you weren’t. But you’re better now. Thank God.” Alysa leaned back in her chair and tried to keep her composure but couldn’t keep from shaking. “I didn’t know what I’d do if you’d died. I hadn’t seen a soul in so long, and then to find someone, finally, just to have him die in my bed…”

Russell probed the face of the woman, looking for a crack in her mask. He could find nothing. She seemed… genuine. It all seemed so real! She seemed so real. And yet… the phantoms… they were just as real… or they were not. Russell took a deep breath. It’s all irrelevant now. I can move. The fever has broken. It’s time to leave.

If you don’t gut that pig before we exit stage left, boss, I will never forgive you, the other one chimed in.

Russell was surprisingly relieved to hear the savage in his head again. Where the hell were you?

Long story, boss. I’ve been busy. Busy trying to find out what this bitch’s end game was. I had to go deep… so deep I had a hard time gettin’ back.

Russell closed his eyes. Fever dreams… we’ve been having all sorts of fucking fever dreams.

The other one laughed in disbelief. Is that what this psycho’s been selling, boss?

“Was there something else, Marcus?” Alysa asked. “You don’t look well.”

“I’m just tired,” he lied. “Please… just give me a minute to digest all of this.”

“Certainly,” she said getting up. “I’ll get you something to drink.”

“That would be great.”

Don’t you dare drink from the witch’s cup, boss. She’s been spiking the punch bowl with all sorts of fucked-up shit.

Russell was alarmed. What are you talking about?

She’s been keeping you sick, boss. Sounds like someone else we used to know… remember?

Russell clenched his left fist. If the other one was correct, there was no force in nature that would stop him from decorating the walls of this cabin with Alysa’s blood.

How do you know this? he asked.

The other one laughed. Because the witch doesn’t know about me, boss. Her potions don’t work on little old me. She’s been playin’ you the whole time. And another thing, boss… she knows who you really are.

Russell tensed up. Explain.

We’ve been here a whole hell of a lot longer than three fuckin’ nights, boss. I had to go deep in that fucked-up head of yours to find out the truth. But it ain’t pretty. She’s been drugging you with some powerful shit. The kinda’ shit that puts you in a very suggestive place where someone skilled at fishin’ can ask all sorts of questions and get whatever answers she wants. The kinda’ shit that makes Lucy in that fuckin’ sky of diamonds look like an aspirin. That story of ours you’ve been tellin’ her, you’ve told it several times already, but not the edited PG version you remember. She knows more than she’s lettin’ on, but wants you to think she doesn’t know shit… just whatever you told her these last three nights when she let you come out of the damn near coma state she’s been keepin’ you in. Translation: This bitch is fuckin’ dangerous. She’s tryin’ to mind-fuck you to death, boss.

Russell was calculating.

Alysa returned with a cup of water. She handed it to Russell and then sat back down. “If you’re hungry, I can make you some soup. Just let me know.”

“Thank you.” Russell pretended to take a sip from the cup. “How’s my leg? I remember that it was broken and that you had splinted it. Was that real?”

“Yes. It was pretty bad. You took a nasty fall from a cliff near here.”

“I remember… I remember that we discussed that.” Russell thought about his chest injuries and how well the gashes had healed so quickly. He wanted to pull down his sheet to investigate, but chose to play ignorant for the time being.

Alysa studied his every motion like a hawk. She smiled and asked, “Is there anything else you remember that I can help clear up?”

She’s already interrogating you again, boss. Better make your move soon.

Russell tried to move his legs. He still felt sluggish but he believed he could swing them off the bed if required.

“Not too much, now,” Alysa urged. “I know you’re dying to get up, but you need to take it easy. I don’t want you to over exert yourself.”

“Could you help me sit up? I’m sick of lying in this damn bed.”

Alysa’s face changed for a moment. Something unfamiliar surfaced and then it was gone. She smiled and stood up. “Let’s get you something to eat first so you can build up your strength. Then, I’ll get you a chair. How does that sound?”

Boss, you eat that shit and you’ll go back to bed-times stories after midnight again.

Russell frowned. “Let’s just hold off on the food for now. I don’t feel hungry at the moment.”

She laughed and started toward the fire place. “Don’t be silly. You haven’t eaten in a while. You need-”

“I need you to sit the fuck back down,” Russell said. “I told you, I’m not hungry.”

Alysa raised her hands in surrender and turned back toward the chair. She sat back down. “Fine! No need to get vulgar with me. I’m only trying to help!”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I do appreciate your help. It’s just that… I’m anxious to get out of this bed and back to my group. They need my help and I feel like I’ve been here long enough already.”

Alysa frowned. “You’re still in no condition to wander around outside yet. What do you want to do… hurt yourself again?”

“My friends have a doctor. If you could just help me get to them, they could get me some real medicine.”

She looked concerned. “You mean, you want me to leave this place?”

“You said it yourself, I’m the only person you’ve seen in a long time. Fuck this place. Help me get back and you can join our group. You won’t have to be alone anymore.”

“That does sound tempting.” She got up and started pacing. “And… and they’ll accept me?”

“Absolutely. Especially when they discover how much you’ve helped me stay alive these past few days.”

She shook her head. “No. Not yet. You still need to rest. If I try to move you now, your fever could return. Let’s just wait another day or two, then we can-”

“I’ve already been here long enough.” Russell said. He tossed the cup on the floor and sat up. He started to move his legs toward the edge of the bed. “I won’t spend one more fucking night here. Are we clear?”

Alysa looked irritated. She folded her arms. “Marcus, you need to stop what you’re doing and lie back down… right now.”

Suck on it, you crazy cunt! the other one thought.

“Alysa, I’m leaving. Help me.”

“I won’t. It’s not safe out there.”

He looked at her. “Then at least get me my stuff. I’ll go alone.”

“You’re sick. You won’t make it very far.”

Russell was growing tired of this game. “I seem to be gaining my strength back… rather suddenly. Perhaps if you’d stopped poisoning me with the fucking soup sooner, I could’ve been back with my friends by now.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Alysa started stepping closer to the bed.

“How long?” he asked.

“Excuse me?”

“How long have I really been here? I know it’s been more than three damn nights.” He removed the bed sheet to examine his leg. She had dressed him in what looked like a hospital gown. His leg was still in the make-shift splint. Russell began to remove the cloth bindings from around two flat pieces of wood that ran from the top of his calf down past his foot. They looked like they’d been torn off a wooden chair. If he could get his hands on one, Russell believed he could snap the wood in half at an angle and then he’d have a weapon. His foot looked swollen around the ankle, but he suspected that it wasn’t broken at all, merely sprained… or so he hoped.

Alysa laughed. “Okay, you got me. You’ve been here a while… but that wasn’t my doing. And as far as poisoning you… well… I gave you pain killers… that’s all. And please… stop taking the splint off.” She took another step closer.

She’ll make a move soon, boss. Better be ready.

Russell got one piece of wood free and then laid it on the bed beside him. When she got close enough, he would grab it, break it, and then stab the witch in the throat. He paused to take a deep breath, feigning that he was going into a relapse. “Wow, you weren’t kidding. I’m not feeling too hot.”

“I told you,” she said. “You’re trying to do too much and your body isn’t ready yet.” She stepped in closer but remained just out of his reach.

He looked at her hard. “Please, Alysa. Tell me the truth. How long have I been here?”

Alysa sighed. “Three weeks.”

Told ‘ya, boss! Three fuckin’ weeks and you only remember the last three nights! She’s probably been doping you every evening so she can ride the pony for free as many times as she wants… hell, that’s what I’d do!

Russell did not have the time to consider the implications of being this crazy woman’s prisoner for the last three weeks. But it certainly wasn’t a pleasant prospect. Regardless of what came next, Russell knew that he would have to gain an advantage quickly and kill this woman.

“Why can’t I remember the last three weeks, Alysa? And don’t tell me it was the fever. I think you and I both know that dog won’t hunt any longer.”

She stared at him for a long moment as if trying to figure out what manner of man Russell was. When it looked like she was about to step inside his kill zone, Alysa stepped back instead, being mindful to keep her eyes on him the entire time.

Shit, boss. So much for that plan.

Alysa stepped back near the window and continued to stare at him as she crossed her hands behind her back. Her face was unreadable.

She knows. She sensed that I was about to harm her and then moved far enough away to make any attempt ineffective. Even if I got to my feet, I couldn’t get to her fast enough on this bad ankle before she had time to counter with a move of her own. Russell began recalculating his kill plan.

At last, she finally spoke. “I must admit, I wasn’t prepared for this reaction after weaning you off the psychosis cocktail last night.” She sounded calm… detached and a little cold. “I have no idea how you’re able to resist the combination of drugs I’ve pumped into your system these past weeks. Your mind should be mush by now, easily malleable, and suffering from extreme memory loss. But you… you’ve managed to retain more than you should. It’s baffling, and a little frustrating considering how much effort I’ve wasted on bringing you to this point.”

Russell had no response. He simply continued to calculate while letting this predator speak. As long as she kept talking, he would eventually find his opportunity. But first, he needed off this bed.

Alysa sighed again. “Please just stop trying to figure out how you’re going to kill me already. I assure you, there’s nothing you can do before I stop you first.” She reached into her pocket and retrieved a small box. She then removed a small safety cover over one of three buttons and pushed it. A small red light began to blink on the box.

From what Russell could see, the box looked like a remote control of some sort. “What’s that?”

Alysa smiled. “One of the coolest perks about this new world is that you can get your hands on just about anything if you look hard enough for it. This is a detonator. I just armed it. I can set off the explosives that are strapped to the bottom of your bed any time I wish. I suppose it’s a bit dramatic and I could’ve just held a gun to your head, but I believe this makes my point much more clear. There’s enough C-4 beneath you to blow this whole fucking cabin off the map… and then you really will be sharing this hell with me. The irony is beautiful, don’t you think?”

Shit. Russell considered if she was bluffing. “So if I wanted to kill you, then you just made it easy, assuming I don’t give a shit whether I live or die. That seems like an awfully big gamble since you don’t know a damn thing about me, crazy lady.”

“On the contrary, Marcus… or should I say, Russell, I know quite a bit about you. And… from what I’ve just shared with you… now you know that you are not the only one ready and willing to die for a cause. I think my point is clear… you get off the bed before I’m ready for you to get off that bed, we will both be dying on my terms… and I’m perfectly fine with that.”

~~~

Next Episode 37-15

Previous Episode 37-13

~~~

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 37-14: Through the Eyes of a Devil” Copyright © 2017 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Four: Phantoms. All Rights Reserved.

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

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

~~~

Death.

Unlike life’s familiar deck of cards dealt out, each pulse played out according to the given game in question–the winning hand, or a folded one–everyone is “all in”, each life moving in accordance with the rules of the chosen game. Death does not offer an illusion of chance or choice. It is a scattered deck thrown into the air–reason abandoned, the rules… no more. All hands end the same. Winners, losers… irrelevant.

All bets are off.

“I am not dead,” says the next player, unfamiliar with this very old game. And yet, every card falls. Every card fails. No one gets to cheat it, prolong it, or avoid its inevitable conclusion.

House rules: Death always wins…

~~~

It is time.

The sun has expired over the remains of Russell’s youth. His heart has been conditioned for this moment ever since the darkness made its home there. He and the night are now one… and the night has promised to keep his secrets.

Young Russell is lying in bed. He is staring at the dust covered blades of the ceiling fan, which offers no relief from the hot summer evening. He looks around at the small bedroom. There are no toys scattered about, no posters of childhood heroes tacked to the walls, no photographs of family atop the dresser with the one broken drawer at the bottom. Beyond its functionality for sleeping, the bedroom is as void as his previous existence. The shadows roam freely, crowding every available space surrounding the invading moonlight entering in through the broken blinds of his bedroom window. The light does not reach his bed in the corner. It knows that it doesn’t belong there and wisely steers clear of the boy.

His heart is beating too fast. Russell closes his eyes and waits for all emotion to flat line.

“Are you ready, Russ?” he asks himself. The voice is not his own. It is deeper, distant, diabolical.

Russell smiles. He takes a deep breath as all fear departs. “Yes. I’m ready.”

“You know what to do, Russ. Just like we planned. Be brave. Be strong. I’ll be with you every step of the way.”

Young Russell takes comfort in the voice of his only friend. “Thank you.”

“Do you have it?” his friend asks.

Russell reaches beneath his pillow and retrieves his father’s utility knife.

“Good, Russ. Very good. Now, just remember to do it just like we practiced. Remember, if you miss the artery, it will end badly for you. They’ll stop you. They’ll send you away. They’ll send you to the crazy place and give you drugs that will keep me from speaking to you again. And we don’t want that. Right, Russ?”

“Right,” he says. “I will do it just like we practiced.”

“Good, Russ. I knew I could count on you. After you save them, everything will be better. Just wait. You’ll see.”

Russell smiles.

“But the first time is always the hardest, Russ. Just remember to keep the fear out… no matter what… and you’ll be just fine.”

“Okay,” Russell says. “Will they… will it end quickly?”

His friend hesitates before answering. “If you do it right, Russ, they will not suffer. But it will be messy. There will be blood… lots of blood. But that’s alright, Russ. The blood is a good thing… a cleansing thing. The blood will purge all the bad from them. They will bleed out all that awful, awful bad… and then they’ll go away… to the better place.”

“With the Lady?”

“Yes… with the Lady.”

After a moment Russell asks, “Do you think Mr. Patches is with the Lady?”

His friend laughs lightly. “Yes. Certainly. Mr. Patches is definitely with the Lady.”

“What about Father?”

“No. Your father is in hell, Russ. But it’s not too late for Mother.”

Russell considers this. “But what if I don’t want Mother there? What if she tries to hurt Mr. Patches?”

“The Lady will not allow it, Russ. Don’t worry.”

Russell frowns. “Mother deserves to be in hell, too.”

“Yes… she certainly does. That’s why it’s up to you to save her.”

“But what if I don’t want to save her?”

His friend sighs and says, “By saving Mother you will please the Lady, Russ. She will love you for doing this very hard thing… you’ll see.”

Russell nods. “Okay. But she still deserves to suffer. I hate her. I hate them both!” He is referring to his mother’s secret man, her lover who helped murder his father.

“Purge all emotion, Russ. Like we talked about. You must not act in anger. You must stay pure if you wish to be an instrument of salvation.”

“I know. I’m… sorry. I will do it right.”

“I’m proud of you, Russ. We’ve come a long way since they murdered Father. You’ve listened to everything I’ve said and now… you will be a real man… and the Lady will be impressed by your growth.”

Russell smiles. “When can I meet her? When can I go to the Lady?”

“You have much to do first, Russ. The Lady needs you. She needs you to stay patient and finish all the work she has planned for you.”

“What does she have planned for me?”

“There will be more to save, Russ. The world is full of pain. The Lady loves them and needs you to save as many as possible. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” Russell says reluctantly. “I think so.”

“You will understand after tonight. Just don’t forget to look into their eyes. You will see it for yourself, Russ.”

Russell nods.

“And when you’ve done all that the Lady has in store, she will greet you with open arms and love you forever.”

“Forever?”

“Yes, Russ. Are you ready?”

Russell swallows hard and forces out all emotion until the cold void steals over him.

“It’s time, Russ. After tonight we will have to leave and never look back. Others will try to hunt you down and catch you. You must not let them find you. I will help you hide from them, Russ. I will help you become shadow.”

“Shadow?”

“Yes, Russ. The Lady will hide you from the eyes of the wicked. She will reveal your destiny and you will never feel alone ever again.”

Russell wipes a tear from his eye. “You promise?”

“I promise, Russ.”

He stares at the clock. 3:15 am.

It is time.

Russell gets out of bed. He puts on black sweat pants and a black hoody. He retrieves his father’s utility knife and stops before his window, careful to avoid the light. He can feel the fear threatening like an approaching tidal wave. Russell steadies himself and takes deep breaths.

“You can do this, Russ,” his friend encourages. “Don’t let the fear win. The Lady has given you the strength to overcome all fear. You’ve been conditioned for this moment your whole life… your whole miserable existence has been preparing you for this time. You will find salvation tonight… along with Mother and the man who you are not allowed to mention. And then… you will be free!”

“Free,” Russell mutters in the darkness. The sound of the word escaping his lips feels like some exotic food from a foreign land that he is tasting for the first time, and only now discovering how much he’s missed.

After battling his emotions, young Russell expels the fear and becomes a new creation. He slides the metal forward on the utility knife, stares at the blade, and understands that he and the sharp blade are one–cold, precise, full of purpose… and lethal.

Russell forces his legs to move toward the bedroom door. He opens it and steps out into the dark hall. He stares down the hall toward his mother’s room. Before proceeding, he can hear the echoes of berating voices, like phantoms, trying to steal from his resolve, his purpose. Years of physical and mental abuse assault his mind causing him to tremble and almost drop the instrument of his calling. He tightens his grip on the utility knife and steps forward.

He reaches his mother’s door and grips the door knob as if the floor beneath him is about to disappear. His hands are sweaty, shaking. His heart is pounding in his chest. Russell knows that if he fails, they will beat him to death and bury his remains with his father… and the Lady will forsake him.

Russell turns the knob and pushes the door open.

He can see them as his eyes adjust to the ambient light. His mother and the man are sleeping together. To him, they look like monsters pretending to be human under the guise of sleep. Second thoughts invade his mind. Russell evicts all doubts spewing forth from the traitor within–his conscience. There is no right. There is no wrong. There is only deliverance for them, himself… and for so many others who need him to succeed this night.

He moves to his mother’s side of the bed. Russell watches her sleep. Her breathing is calm, still, and a lie. He knows that if she woke up now, the demon within would open its mouth and consume him.

Russell lifts the blade and moves it toward his mother’s exposed throat.

Closer… Closer…

The monster coughs abruptly from years of chain smoking.

It opens his eyes and sees him.

Russell can’t move, the blade is inches from her flesh. He can’t look away from his mother’s dark eyes.

For a moment, she says nothing. Russell’s mother stares at her son as if trying to decide if he is a dream, or perhaps an angel of death come to punish her for her sins… at last. Finally the monster speaks. “Do it,” she whispers, turning to look at the blade. “Do it, you worthless boy. For once, you’ve finally grown some balls… so just get it the fuck over with!”

The man starts to stir as Russell’s mother raises her voice. He is almost out of time.

“What are you waiting for?” she says. “I’ve done horrible things to you. I know it. I’m a terrible mother. Never wanted you in the first place. But… I don’t regret what I did to him. Killing that piece of shit father of yours was… satisfying. But this now… this feels right. I’m surprised it took you this long.”

Russell is slipping. The fear is holding him back. “This… this is… I can’t do this.” he says.

Somewhere within, he can feel his friend screaming at him like a savage animal trapped in a cage.

His mother smiles and shakes her head. “You can’t even do this one fucking thing right. You’re just as worthless as your father. All talk, no commitment! I can’t tell you how many times he threatened to kill me… but he beat me instead. And then, I finally took care of him, yes I did. And I’ll take care of you, too, you worthless piece of sh-”

Russell quickly sends the blade across his mother’s throat before the monster can utter one more word. The wound is deep, the blood… immediate.

His mother grabs at her throat as the crimson liquid gushes out between her fingers. She lets out a gurgling cry that makes Russell step back and drop the blade. He wants to run but forces himself to finish. He looks into her eyes. He has to know. He must bear witness.

Russell’s mother looks at him. He can see her terror… but then… it fades. In its place, he beholds something wonderful as the light disappears behind her eyes. The monster is gone. The fear is gone. His mother is… free!

After a few more strangled sounds, Russell’s mother stops moving, her eyes locked in on her son… looking beyond him to the place where only the Lady awaits.

Salvation!

Russell begins to weep.

“What the fuck!” The man who must not be mentioned wakes as the warm blood has reached his side of the bed. He stares at the dark liquid all over his hands, then, at Russell’s dead mother. He is shocked, confused, and then he discovers Russell. “What… what have you done?”

Russell cannot hear him. He is still staring into his mother’s dead eyes. A new sense of peace has overwhelmed him. He has slain the monster and saved his mother… and himself.

The man gets out of bed. He is still naked from fucking his dead father’s wife. He is reaching for anything he can use as a weapon. “You little fucking bastard!” he shouts. “I told her! I told her you were fucked up!” The man grabs a large cerermic ashtray from the nightstand. He moves clumsily in the dark around the foot of the bed toward Russell. “Fucking sick!” he shouts. “You’re fucking dead!” He raises the ashtray over Russell’s head.

Russell turns away from his mother long enough to see the big man. He reacts with no fear. He is one with everything occurring in that moment. He has evolved beyond the moment and is in complete control.

As the man brings down the ashtray, Russell steps back as the man misses and strikes a lamp instead.

Russell is quick. He makes a fist and punches the man in the balls… hard.

The man falls to his knees, crying out in agony.

Russell moves behind him and locates the utility knife on the floor next to the man’s feet. He reaches down and picks it up.

“You… you piece of… you’re so dead!” the man spits, starting to rise.

Russell doesn’t hesitate. He takes the blade and slices at the man’s exposed ankles, cutting the Achilles tendon on both feet.

The man collapses to the floor and screams. He manages to turn on his back as young Russell stands over him with the bloody blade still in his hand. “Wait… please! You win! I’ll stop! Just… please…”

He is standing before the window as a hint of moonlight illuminates half of Russell’s face.

The man can’t see his eyes, but he can see that Russell is smiling.

“What’s your name?” Russell asks.

The man is terrified and in so much pain that he has wet himself. He is confused by the question.

“Your name, asshole. What is it?”

“Reg… Reggie,” the man finally says.

And there it is. The nameless man who held so much sway in the destructive influence over his mother, the man who helped push her into killing Russell’s father, lay like a wounded animal, stripped of all power now that the monster’s name was revealed.

“Reggie,” Russell says, adding a demeaning emphasis to such a simple, puny name. “Reggie. Reggie. REGGIE! There, I said it!” The man has become so much smaller in Russell’s eyes.

“Please… just let me go. I won’t tell. Please…” The man is weeping.

Russell savors the moment. Reggie reeks of fear.

Russell is fearless.

He is just like the blade. No… he is the blade.

From Russell’s mouth, his friend speaks. “You did it, Russ! You’ve won!”

“Yes, I’ve won.”

“Look at that piece of shit, Russ,” his friend says. “Look at how powerful the Lady has made you! He’s not the master of this house any longer… you are!”

“I am,” Russell says.

“The Lady is so proud of you, Russ. Now… finish the work.”

Russell looks at the bloody blade.

Reggie stares at the crazy child. He knows his life is over. He puts his head in his hands and starts to pray through tears.

“Pathetic, isn’t it, Russ? The fear has revealed the true man behind the monster. The fear has reduced him to his true size.”

“Yes,” Russell says. “Pathetic.”

His friend laughs and finished, “He is not the boss of this house anymore, Russ. You are.”

Russell smiles. “I am… I am the boss.”

“You sure are, boss,” his friend says. “Now… put this worthless creature out of its misery and come see all that the Lady has in store for you.”

“I would like that,” Russell says. “He moves in to cut Reggie’s throat.

“Wait, boss,” his friend says.

Russell hesitates.

“Not so fast this time, boss. You can enjoy saving this one. Take your time. Make him feel it. Make him feel… EVERYTHING!”

Russell nods in the darkness.

Reggie screams for a long, long time before young Russell watches the life leave his eyes…

~~~

“I am not dead,” says the next player, unfamiliar with this very old game. And yet, every card falls. Every card fails. No one gets to cheat it, prolong it, or avoid its inevitable conclusion.

House rules: Death always wins.

WELCOME TO YOUR HIDDEN PAIN.
WE’VE KEPT A SEAT AT THE TABLE WAITING FOR YOU.

“So… what you’re saying is that I fell off the cliff… and died?”

WELCOME TO HELL…

~~~

Next Episode 37-14

Previous Episode 37-12

~~~

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 37-13: Through the Eyes of a Devil” Copyright © 2017 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Four: Phantoms. All Rights Reserved.

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

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

~~~

The fire went out.

The cabin fell to darkness.

Russell could hear the faint rumblings of the dying storm outside. Nothing else. No voices. Nothing.

He waited for his heart to slow down and for his eyes to adjust to whatever ambient light was available. He saw nothing. Nothing was very, very good right now.

He heard a light cough from the chair next to his bed.

So much for nothing.

And then a match was lit as Russell observed Alysa lighting the lantern and placing it on the righted nightstand.

What the hell? Russell was at a loss. He noticed that his bedsheet had been pulled up over him, with an additional blanket thrown over that, providing much needed warmth.

I never even heard her come back inside.

Alysa sat back down. She was still wearing her large cloak. Her hood was up. She was completely soaked as Russell listened to drops of water striking the hard-wood floor. Alysa absently stared down at the floor. “I’m sorry I left you all alone,” she finally said. “I was… confused… but I’m better now.”

You and me both, Russell thought. As the lantern came to life, Russell looked around the cabin for ghosts, especially ones who resembled dead family members with blunt instruments. He was relieved to find nothing.

She looked up at him. “Are… are you warm enough?”

“I’m fine. Thanks for coming back. I was starting to really lose it because of the storm. Had all sorts of crazy fever dreams.”

She smiled. “Yes… the long silences can play tricks on you in this place. But after a while you get used to it… or simply pretend to.”

Russell dismissed the strange comment. “Alysa, I’m sorry I upset you earlier. I don’t know what came over me.”

She nodded with disinterest. She crossed her arms around her chest, oblivious to the soaked cloak. “I hate the winters. They’re always so cold. No matter what I do I just can’t shake the chill from my bones.”

Russell studied the crazy woman. He needed to be careful now. Nothing was as it seemed. He remembered something from earlier. “Alysa, my chest wounds were all healed. I remember seeing the bloody bandages three nights ago… or what I thought was three nights ago. How long have I really been here?”

Alysa looked irritated. “Don’t you trust me, Marcus?”

“Absolutely.”

“Then what’s it matter?”

Russell treaded carefully. “I was just curious, is all. Maybe we can talk more about it in the morning. There are mornings here, right?” He tried to inject his question with a little light humor.

Alysa was unresponsive.

Russell was silently wishing the other one would return. It was disconcerting that the savage was absent for so long. More damn questions. He looked at Alysa’s wet clothes. She seemed oblivious to the fact that she was drenched. “Are you alright, Alysa? You were outside in the storm for a long-”

“There’s no mornings here,” she interrupted. “It’s been this way since I arrived at the cabin.”

“Excuse me?”

She looked at him with a deep dark sadness embedded into her face. “You asked why it’s always night when you wake up. It’s because there are no fucking days. No sunshine. Just darkness.”

“Alysa,” Russell said, “you’re not making a whole lot of sense. How can there be no daylight? That’s impossible.”

She flashed him an exhausted smile. “I used to be like you. Trying to figure it all out. But I had to make a choice: Go crazy trying to fight it, or just accept it for what it was.”

“And what is ‘it’?”

Alysa stared back down toward the floor. “You were right, you know. When you asked me who left me behind, I was so angry that you brought that up. I’d fought so hard to forget, but there really is no escaping it.”

Russell tried to keep up. “Someone close to you? Someone you loved?”

“Yes. Someone I loved very much. That’s why when you spoke of that woman, Gina… when you told me your story and I could hear how much you cared for her through your words… that’s why I needed you to let her go.”

“Because what I hold for Gina reminds you of what you lost?”

She laughed. “Because we aren’t allowed to love in this place. We aren’t allowed to bring that with us here. It always ends badly… every time.”

Russell was lost. He needed more. “Alysa,” he started gently, “what happened to him? What happened to make the person you cared about leave you behind?”

She quickly wiped tears away and took a deep breath. “His name was Michael and I loved him with all that I had.” She stared around the cabin and then back to Russell. “Before the old world ended, this place was our hideaway. We came here every summer to remember how we were when we first met. We were both workaholics with jobs that became bigger than our relationship could keep up with. We started seeing each other less and when we did, we spoke less about the things that really mattered until we started becoming strangers. It was this place that save our relationship. We would come here and hit the reset button, allowing us to slow down and remember what was important. This was a really beautiful place… and magical place for us.”

Russell smiled. “I’m not a romantic, but that sounds… beautiful… almost sacred, in a way.”

She smiled. “Yes… I like that word. ‘Sacred’. That’s what this place meant to us. No matter what the world threw at us, we could come here and be ourselves again.” Her face changed. “And then, of course, the world ended… and everything changed.”

Russell nodded encouragingly. “I know it’s hard, but maybe you need to finish.”

Alysa nodded. “I was so thankful to be home with Michael when it happened… when everyone started going crazy with those yellowish eyes and started murdering each other. We ended up with a large group of people. At first, we found strength in numbers, but after a while, people started turning on each other. The fear made us all crazy and made us do things we normally wouldn’t do. There were reckless decisions that were made that started getting people killed… and then the blame game started. The hate soon followed. It was then that Michael and I decided to leave the group. We did what we always did when life got crazy, we thought about this place. Fortunately, it wasn’t too far from where our group was hiding out. We took three others with us who also saw what our group had become, and we eventually found the cabin, remarkably untouched and untainted by the epidemic… and it was great, for a little while, until we ran out of food. That’s when even the cabin lost its magic and Michael and I started fighting over the smallest things. We made the others uncomfortable and they wanted to leave, but I convinced Michael that if we abandoned the cabin, we were giving up on us. I was so damn foolish. So naïve. I seriously believed that the cabin would not only save our relationship, as it had done in the past, but that it would save us through the outbreak, until order was restored. I was so fucking stubborn… if I’d only left when they all wanted to… Anyway, Michael tolerated me for a little while longer and talked the others into staying. We foraged for food as best we could from nearby homes, but as supplies became scarce, we had to move farther away from the cabin and closer to where the dead were. The wise thing to do was to give up the cabin and find somewhere new to hide… I knew this… but I still refused to leave. Michael and I got worse. We fought long and so loud that I thought the dead would hear us. And then, one afternoon we were done. The magic was gone. The others had talked him into leaving with them. Michael told me to stay at the cabin while he went out with the others to find more food, but I knew what was really happening. I’d known for days but refused to see it. Her name Lana. She poisoned him against me and stole his heart from me. I confronted him about it. Michael was too damn exhausted to deny it. He just wanted it all to be over… he wanted us to be over.” Alysa paused to wipe ancient tears from her eyes.

Russell frowned. “And so he left you for this woman… left you here all alone. And you’ve been here ever since,” he finished for her.

Alysa closed her eyes as memories ripped the scabs off of her heart. “I was enraged. He’d betrayed me… abandoned us. Michael desecrated our ‘Sacred’ place and I lost my fucking mind.” She looked at Russell, her face, a mixture of hatred and deep regret. “I… I attacked him. He tried to walk out the door, but I wouldn’t let him. He pushed me down and I grabbed my hunting knife. I stabbed him… again… and again…”

Russell sighed heavily. This is turning into the most fucked-up night.

She looked away. “The others fled and never returned. I buried him that evening, in the crawlspace beneath these very floor boards. It was the least I could do for us.”

The silence which followed took on a tangible life. Russell felt the cabin closing in on them like a large monstrous jaw. He finally dared to speak. “The world was different by then, Alysa. Much harsher. We do things now that we never could do before. Some of them bad, some of them good… some, just necessary. I’m not here to judge you.”

She looked up at him with a disbelieving look. “Judge me? Why would I be concerned about what you think? I was merely trying to help you understand the nature of this place.”

“I don’t understand.”

She laughed. “When I found you, lying face down beneath that tree, I almost thought you were him. I almost thought you were my Michael and that somehow… the cabin brought you back to me. But then I saw you, and I understood that you were just like me.”

I am nothing like you, he thought, but held his tongue.

“I can see you fighting it still,” she continued. “You don’t get it… but you will. I was the same way.”

“Just get to the point, Alysa.” Russell was growing weary of this conversation. “Stop trying to lead me to it and just speak plainly.”

“Okay, Marcus. But just remember, I tried to be kind about it. I knew how unprepared I was to accept the truth and no one was there to gently ease me into it.”

“The truth about what?”

“The truth about this fucking place!” she snapped and then quickly calmed down. “My story wasn’t finished, Marcus. There was a little more.”

“Go on.”

“For a while, the lie held,” she said. “I killed Michael, the others took off, and then I buried him. Even after this place became… strange… I still hid the truth from myself. But after a while, I started to remember things I’d forgotten. Little things, at first, and then bigger things. And that’s when I remembered what happened after I killed Michael.” She leaned in close and said. “It was that bitch, Lana. After I stabbed him, she stormed up the porch with more boldness than I’d ever seen in that frightened girl. That’s when I knew she loved him. You can do amazing things, beyond your limitations, when compelled by someone you love. That girl came directly at me, pulled the gun out before I’d even recovered from the shock of what I’d just done, put that gun to my forehead, and blew my brains out.”

“Bullshit.” Russell had heard enough. “So I’m to believe that this is some version of ‘Hell’ and because you claim that you’re dead… than I must be, as well?”

Alysa said nothing.

Russell was furious. “If I could move my fucking arms right now, I would wrap my hands around your fucking neck and show you Death!”

She smiled. “I didn’t expect this to go down easy. It’s a tough pill to swallow, Marcus. I haven’t seen the sunlight since that day Lana put me out of my misery. While you sleep, I do not. I used to sleep when I thought I was still alive. But now, I roam one long endless night, looking for a way to be free of this God-forsaken cabin in the middle of Hell. And that’s the irony, Marcus. I made this place the cure-all for everything, eventually becoming obsessed with my belief that this cabin would save us all. And now, as a just punishment for the blood on my hands, I get to spend eternity in this cage, cursing the day I ever set eyes on it.”

Russell was shaking his head. “So… what you’re saying is that I fell off the cliff… and died?”

She nodded. “It’s the only thing that makes sense to me.”

“If I’m dead, then why the fuck would I be in your hell?”

“That’s a good question, Marcus. Maybe in time, when your memories start to return, perhaps you’ll be able to shine some light on both of our situations. All I know is that you’re somehow here… now. And I’m not alone anymore.”

“I’m leaving this place. You better understand that right now,” Russell threatened.

“Oh, I know you’ll try to leave. I wouldn’t have it any other way. But you will fail, as I failed. Hell, that might be why you’re not getting better. Maybe your hell is to be taken care of by someone like me for eternity.”

“I’d kill you first and die alone before I submitted to that madness. And if you and I were stuck together here, I would torture you in the most painful and creative ways just for my own amusement.”

Alysa frowned and shook her head. “This is like looking into the eyes of another devil. I see myself in you, Marcus. You’re a cold-blooded killer, just like me. Maybe that’s why you’re here.”

“You don’t know anything about me you foolish fucking woman.” Russell needed to calm down.

She stared at him for a long moment. “I’ll go build the fire back up,” she finally said. “And then I’ll get us some chicken noodle soup. It’s been a very long evening.”

“Fuck your soup and FUCK YOU!” Russell felt himself grow faint from the exertion. He closed his eyes, feeling dizzy. I don’t know what sick games this witch is playing. But it’s time to go!

He opened his eyes and saw Alysa hovering over him.

She was now wearing her nightgown with her hair braided back up. The fire was already blazing behind her.

What? How could this be? She’d just left to build the fire a moment ago! And her hair… her clothes… did I just pass out again?

There was even another cup of chicken noodle soup steaming on the nightstand beside him.

Alysa’s smile was radiant. She’d looked like she even had time to bathe again. “I know we got off on the wrong foot, Marcus. And I know there’s still a whole lot you don’t understand yet. In fact, I know damn well you won’t understand what I’m about to do next… but just know that I do this for your own good. She walked over to the fireplace and removed what looked like a hot poker from the fire.

What fresh madness is this?

Alysa walked over.

Russell noticed that she carried what looked like a branding iron. It was glowing hot from the heat.

“What are you about to do, Alysa?” Russell asked.

She smiled. “I’m going to help you, Marcus. Eventually, you will appreciate this.” She lifted the heated metal and turned his right hand over, pulpy side facing up.

Russell was still unable to move his arms. He was helpless. Defenseless.

“Don’t do this, Alysa,” Russell advised. “If we are sharing this hell together, the last thing you want to do is piss me off.”

She laughed and then blew him a kiss.

Alysa turned the fire brand downward and pushed the hot metal into the palm of his hand.

The pain was excruciating but he did not scream.

“You’re mine now, Marcus,” she said.

He could smell his own burning flesh before passing out.

~~~

Next Episode 37-13

Previous Episode 37-11

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 37-12: Through the Eyes of a Devil” Copyright © 2017 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Four: Phantoms. All Rights Reserved.

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

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

~~~

Another burst of lightning illuminated the cabin. Thunder cracked outside. The rain continued to blow through the open doorway as the wind gusted and whistled through the open portal. And then the room grew darker.

Russell turned his head toward the fireplace. The fire was dying out.

He began to shiver involuntarily as the cabin temperature dropped rapidly.

Russell had many questions storming though his mind about the true intentions of his host. But all of them were irrelevant at the moment. He needed to get out of the cold. Russell strained himself trying to move his arms and legs. He would’ve settled for rolling right off the bed if possible. But his limbs were still uncooperative. He was now a sweaty mess.

In my feverish state, I could easily die of exposure. If I pass out, that might be enough to finish me off. He kept looking toward the open doorway, expecting Alysa to return. She did not.

And then a new consideration entered his tired mind. What if those creatures approach the cabin seeking shelter from the storm? The open door might make them curious and bold enough to take a chance on scoring easy prey. Again, there was no point on dwelling on anything he couldn’t change.

Russell took a few deep breaths. He would give it one more concentrated effort to try and move. He focused all his remaining strength on trying to lift his sluggish arms. Russell let out an excruciating growl as he managed to lift his left arm several inches. And then his right. He felt like he was trying to lift a tracker trailer off his chest. And then he was spent. His arms fell, limp and useless. He struggled to breathe. He could feel himself blacking out as his eye lids became large skyscrapers collapsing. His body wanted to shut down immediately and fall once more into the trap of sleep.

Stay awake! Stay the fuck awake!

His eyes tried to close repeatedly as he forced them open. Each time, he felt himself going under a little longer, losing the battle for consciousness.

He turned his attention back toward the door, needing something to focus his attention on.

Someone was standing against the wall halfway between the door and the fireplace, blending into shadow.

“Who… Who’s there?” He tried to raise his voice in a threatening manner. Was it Alysa? He could not tell.

The shadowy form did not respond to his voice.

It’s not the dead, they would’ve charged by now… ripped me to pieces. Yes. That much was certain. But who knew what else lurked in the darkness these days.

“Alysa… please… I’m sorry for hurting you. Could we talk about it? Could you at least close the door? I’m… I’m not fairing too well right now.”

The intruder remained still.

Russell never felt so vulnerable. Not even when he was a whimpering boy terrified by the monsters who were his parents. All he had left was the strength to string together words in the hope of making the stranger second guess his invasion.

“Whatever… whatever you’re considering… I’ll give you just a few more seconds to turn your ass around and get out of here. After that… I’m going to kill you.” And he meant it.

From the shadows came a deep, dark laugh, followed by mock applause.

Definitely not Alysa.

The stranger stopped and said, “Bravo. It’s good to know you’ve grown a fuckin’ backbone since I last saw you, Russ.”

That voice…

He recognized it immediately.

…and he knows my name.

But he couldn’t be here. It was impossible.

“It’s good to know my lessons stuck with you, boy. But I think you need a few more licks to get it into your fuckin’ head.”

No. He is not here!

Another flash of lightning momentarily lit up the cabin… and then he saw him, standing there with his arms crossed, a malicious grin and loveless eyes boring into his soul.

Russell turned away, refusing to let the madness enter.

His father stood there… and laughed… and laughed.

Thunder rocked the night, drowning out all sound.

Russell dared another glace toward the shadow of the dead man.

He was gone.

For the second time since believing the ghost of Sarah had returned to find him from that ravine, Russell felt fear.

“Well I bet that sucked,” came another familiar voice standing near the overturned nightstand. “I’m not a big fan of family reunions either.”

Russell snapped his head toward the new voice.

A short man with a mostly bald head and a disfigured nose, reached down, retrieved the lantern and then lit it.

“Charlie?” Russell was dumbfounded.

Charlie Ottermeyer sat down in Alysa’s chair, holding the lantern in his lap. He wore a smug smile on his very pale face. “Hello, Marcus… Russell… whatever the fuck your name is. I bet you’re not too happy to see me right now. That’s okay, no one’s ever really happy to see me. I think I bring it on myself.”

Russell quickly started calculating. Ghost, hallucination, insanity… didn’t matter. He desperately needed to regain his composure. “Charlie, it’s fucking great to see you. We thought you died in the explosion. I don’t know how you found me, but-”

“Oh… just… shut… the… fuck up!” Charlie snapped. “Please… spare me your bullshit, you god damn charlatan! I think I’ve had my fill of your lies to last me a lifetime… providing I had one left.”

Russell was at a loss. What could he possibly say to an apparition? He chose the truth. “Okay, Charlie, no more lies. I’m in no position, mentally or physically, to risk upsetting you. What do you want from me?”

Charlie smiled. “Now that’s much better. Straight to the fucking point for once.”

Russell waited.

Charlie leaned forward. “What I want to know, con-man, is how long were you feeding me my own bullshit in order to get me to think of you as an ally?”

Russell’s face went blank. “Since the car lot in Painesville.”

Charlie nodded and laughed. “I figured as much. You knew all along what I wanted… Amanda… leadership… Gina’s fucking head on a platter… and you did nothing but stand aside while coaxing me forward and up the steps toward the gallows. You didn’t put that rope over my neck, you just pointed me toward the noose and watched me hang myself… and all the while acting like the perfect fucking cheerleader while I did it.” Charlie’s face went dark. “Why did you do it? Why did you play me against the others? And don’t tell me you did if for ‘love’. I deserve an honest answer.”

Russell sighed. “Your petty ambitions were your weakness, your vulnerability. Your pride made you blind to all else. I knew how smart you were… how lethal your abilities were becoming. If you ever stopped to consider anything outside of your realm of existence, you would have figured it all out… and found us all expendable. I needed only to encourage you to act upon your own impatience by swearing allegiance to your cause. You did the rest all by yourself. Bottom line, Charlie… I considered you very dangerous and I wanted you gone.” Russell told him a half-truth. He hoped it was enough.

Charlie nodded. “And that morning at the vineyard, when you fed me all that bullshit, that was your idea, too, wasn’t it? You placated me. Gave me a way to save face with that fucking bitch when all you were doing was trying to put some space between me and the group. You knew that if I stayed I would’ve killed all of you eventually.”

Russell was exhausted. “Yes. But you don’t need me to tell you any of that now. You knew this already. Why are you really here, Charlie? Payback?”

Charlie leaned back and smiled. “I came for the show, Marcus. I came to watch you die.”

“So you are here to kill me?”

“Not exactly.”

Russell did not know what else to say. Before he could ask further, a woman’s voice addressed him from the other side of the bed.

“What the little prick is trying to say, is that you’re already dying, Marcus.” Amanda Howard walked around the foot of the bed and stared at his exposed penis. “Speaking of little pricks, you should cover up before your friend catches a cold,” she teased.

Charlie laughed obnoxiously.

Russell stared at the pale dead woman who nonchalantly walked about the cabin. Her hair was a mess. She wore a black tank top that looked ripped in several places.

He closed his eyes and declared, “Neither of you are real. You’re just hallucinations brought on by my fever… nothing more.”

Amanda walked over and laughed. “Denial’s the first sign of a problem, Marcus. That’s what those idiots at the AA meetings always told me… not that it matters much now.”

“What… what do you want, Amanda?”

Her face was filled with loathing. “I was getting better, asshole!” she snapped. “After we left the tracks and headed into Painesville, I was kicking the bottle and going through withdrawal like you wouldn’t believe… but I was winning. I was trying to not be so fucking helpless and a burden. But you… you wouldn’t let me. You held on to that grenade and waited for the perfect moment to set it off, knowing damn well that it would destroy me… especially when I started to relapse after what that fucker Charlie tried to do to me.”

Russell looked toward the chair.

Charlie was gone.

She stepped up to the bed and stared at him. “I hate you. I hate you for poisoning me more than the bottle ever did. You came to me when I was the most vulnerable by that pond, after Austinburg, and you dropped my dead daughter’s diary in my lap like you were doing me some fucking favor. You knew! You knew what it would do to me! Why would you allow me to become so… angry?”

Russell swallowed hard. “Because I needed you out of my way. You were always watching me… watching me watching Gina… and I found it… troublesome. The more sober you became, the more I knew that you would piece enough of it together to cause problems between Gina and I. You were a jealous and petty woman, Amanda. You would’ve spooked her and told her lies about me just to be vindictive. I couldn’t have you sabotaging what I’d built with her.”

“So you turned me back into the town fucking drunk.” She was shaking her head. “You knew that if I never got better, no one would take me seriously… and eventually, they’d tire of me and send me away. Right?”

“It was nothing personal, Amanda.” Russell held nothing back. He saw no point in deception… not now. “I would’ve saved you the first night we met… in the tent, back at the power plant. But you were already lost.”

“So you fucked me instead… and then you fucked me some more!” Amanda turned her back on him. “And Stephen… were you trying to fuck him, too?”

Russell averted his eyes. “After Charlie… I needed to remove as many of you as possible, but not in a way that would’ve aroused suspicion. I set you and Stephen on a collision course. You were volatile and unpredictable. Stephen was a depressing anchor. Both of you had outlived your usefulness… but Gina loved you both in a way one loves both the good and the ugly in someone. She felt responsible for all of you… and that turned you both into liabilities.”

“It took you fucking long enough to make your move on me,” came a gruff male voice from where Amanda was standing.

Russell looked up and found Frank Carman standing there, sneering at him, with his arms folded. He looked as pale as the others.

Amanda was gone.

“You never would’ve slipped that blade in past me if I’d been healthy at the time. But I guess that’s how snakes like you have survived this long.” Frank walked toward the closest window and stared out into the stormy night. “I never could quite figure out your end game… but I would’ve figured it out eventually.”

Russell smiled at the dead man. “And that’s what made me both weary and appreciative of your presence within the group. I knew you knew what I was… that I’ve killed before. I saw it in you, too. But you kept your distance and I was glad to keep mine. I figured we had a silent understanding that we were both not who we claimed to be, and that we overlooked it for as long as we could.”

Frank turned. “Anyone could see that you were dangerous… if they wanted to see it. If we’d been back in the old world, you would’ve had to go back under the rock you crawled out from. But you and I, we were needed in this world. I’d thought about confronting you quietly many times along the way, but then you kept saving Gina’s ass… so I let it go. Even thought about telling her about my suspicions, but then things got crazy, and then they got crazier, and I figured we needed you… for a while. But I never stopped paying attention. And once you killed Sam, I knew you’d crossed the line and needed to be gone. Creatures like you can only curve your appetite for blood for so long. I just never understood why you chose such a high-profile person to get your fix.”

“The police officer was… killing Gina,” Russell said. “As long as Samantha was in charge, Gina had no purpose, nothing to keep her mind from wandering into very dark places. At first, I believed Tony would be enough to stop her, but he wasn’t. She needed to be in charge of the Andover community… but then she became reckless, or so I thought at the time, and went after the pregnant girl.”

“So you murdered Samantha for nothing.” Frank laughed. “I’ve always known that we’re all living on borrowed time. I was fine with that. But Samantha… man… what a shitty way to end in this world. There was no profit in her death… and I find that sad, even for that bitch.” Frank shook his head. “And the Andover man hung on the wall with the message scrawled over his head in his own blood? That was you, too, wasn’t it?”

“Yes,” Russell confirmed. “People like myself don’t escape notice for very long in a stagnant place. My… darker impulses were pushing me to make a mistake. I needed the Andover community disrupted. Everyone was getting far too comfortable there. So I fed the Shadow Dead myth… brought it close… and then let their fears take care of the rest.”

“You are one conniving sonofabitch,” Frank said, with a hint of admiration. “And I thought I played games.”

“Just so you know, Frank,” Russell started, “it was not my intention of killing you that day. You forced my hand. I, too, understood the silent pact we shared. It was you who violated it in the end. But either way, one of us would’ve had to go at some point.”

Frank stared at him. He was a stone.

“I respected our… relationship… Frank. We served our own agendas individually, but collectively, we protected all interests involved. You were a valuable asset and helped in keeping Gina safe. That was worth the risk of exposure. Hell… you kept me on my toes and reminded me to never get complacent or else I’d tip my hand and allow you to see too much. I really miss you, Frank. Do you resent that I struck first? No, of course you don’t.”

“I pity you,” Frank said. “I came back from a very dark place… made some better choices… did a few things to make amends… but you… you’re just evil through and through. No remorse. No regrets. At least I died on my own terms, and not by your fucking hands. Frank Carman… the killer… died long before you pulled that blade on me, asshole.”

Russell frowned. “Death is no respecter of persons. She comes for us all in our time. There is no right. There is no wrong. There is only… Death… and all her glory. And what I do, I do for her.”

“You’re pathetic,” Frank said. “I suspect Hell is full to the brim with your special kind of people.”

Russell lifted his head and laughed. “Heaven. Hell. What fool came up with those ridiculous concepts? That is Fear’s game… and I won’t subscribe to it.”

“But you’re there now,” another voice said, approaching from the foot of the bed.

It was Stephen. Frank was gone.

Russell was confused by the appearance of the school teacher. “I don’t understand. You are not deceased. How are you here?”

“We’re all dead,” Stephen said. “We died when The Change occurred. Our frail bodies and limited understanding just hadn’t caught up with the truth yet. We all turned days ago at the compound in the woods. But you know now… don’t you, Marcus? Can’t you feel Death working within you, too?”

Russell looked away from the visual lie. None of this was real… he had to believe that.

“We carry the seed of death within us. Some “changed” early… others will later.” It was young Ashley this time. She was circling the front of the bed.

“Those who died long before will meet up with the rest of us who “changed” after.” It was Douglas this time. “The rest will change, too. They will be the last and then we will all be FREE!”

They were all there now: Ashley, Stephen, Amanda, Frank, Greg, Charlie, Douglas… even Meredith was there, all circling his bed like vultures.

“WE HAVE CHANGED, MARCUS!” they all chanted together. And then he noticed their eyes. They all had yellow, savage eyes.

“No!” he shouted. “This isn’t real!”

“WE ALL CHANGE!” They all began to bar their teeth as veins began to pulsate beneath their pale skin. They surrounded the bed and moved in toward the fresh kill.

Russell shut his eyes tight and prepared to either wake up or be eaten alive.

Thunder resounded across the night followed by several intense flashes of lightning.

And nothing else happened.

He slowly opened his eyes. They were all gone.

“Marcus?” It was Gina’s voice. That’s right! She wasn’t standing among the others! Maybe she hadn’t undergone The Change?

Russell followed the voice toward the fireplace where he could just make out Gina’s dim form silhouetted by the dying fire. She stood hallway between the fire and the bed, and would come no closer.

“Gina, help me please,” Russell said. “I can’t get out of this bed and the strangest… the strangest shit has been happening.”

“Why did you try to stop me that day, Marcus?” Gina asked. “When I wanted to kill the rooftop snipers why did you fight against me? Why did you bother when you’ve killed the people I care about?”

“Because you’re special, Gina,” Russell said. “You’re destined for great things and I didn’t want you tainted by that form of darkness. It’s the kind of darkness that stains your soul and changes you forever. I did not want that for you… not you… my love.”

Gina stepped forward until he could see her face. Her eyes were filled with yellow hatred.

“No,” he whispered. “Not you… never you!” He had failed.

The Gina-thing smiled and said, “Everyone changes, Marcus. Everyone is already changing… either now, or later… doesn’t matter. Everyone is already dead.”

Russell could not listen to the madness any longer. He shut his eyes tight and listened only to the storm outside, ignoring the tempest which threatened his mind.

“Marcus,” he heard Gina whisper into his ear. “Do not be afraid. All is not lost. I am still with you.” Her words were gentle, soothing… warm like a blanket made of darkness that banished the cold before snuffing out the light. It was Gina… but it was also not Gina.

She is here! The Lady speaks to me now!

Russell opened his eyes.

A tall man stood menacingly above him. “Surprise, surprise, boy!”

It was his father.

No!

He was holding Doug’s spiked baseball bat. He raised it above his head. “Everyone changes, boy… everyone dies!” His father’s eyes burned with the yellowish fire.

“No!” Russell cried out.

His father laughed as he brought the bat down toward Russell’s head.

“NOOOOOO!”

~~~

Next Episode 37-12

Previous Episode 37-10

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 37-11: Through the Eyes of a Devil” Copyright © 2017 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Four: Phantoms. All Rights Reserved.

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

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

~~~

He listens to the sound of the stream as the last of the day’s light reflects upon its surface. The luminescent glitter ripples downstream past the edge of his father’s property and into the dense forest beyond. Young Russell stares into the water wishing he, too, could dissolve into the fast flowing liquid… where the pain would never find him again. He lies back on the small bank and loses himself in nature’s soothing symphony. This is a temporary reprieve from his noisy and violent existence where Mother and Father hurl verbal arrows into him every evening. He loves this place and hides here in the summers whenever his parents forget he’s alive for a little while.

The filthy orange tabby with the limp and half its right ear missing has joined him, as was there custom. Russell welcomes his purring friend and rubs the stray cat beneath the chin. He does not mind the trash-can smell, the dark patches of fur, or the torn apart condition of the pitiful creature. And the cat has accepted him likewise.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Patches,” Russell says.

The cat rubs its head against his leg.

Young Russell named him this after the first three times he had encountered the poor animal. Each time, Mr. Patches showed up, he looked like he’d fought through hell just to make it to anyone who would love the dumb animal. And each time, Russell would tend to his wounds, patching up the cat, until that name stuck.

“Well, I’m glad to see you, too.” Russell smiles. “And I’m glad you’re still in one piece for a change, you stupid cat.”

Mr. Patches simply stares at him.

“You shouldn’t mess around with that foul fucking animal,” a deep voice says from behind him.

Russell turns, startled to find his father here. He stands up and lowers his head, assuming he’s in trouble again. It doesn’t matter what his father is mad at him about, or even if he’s done nothing wrong to warrant the man’s volatile temper, Russell has learned not to question and just accept his fate.

He is a tall man with long black hair and a well-trimmed beard. Donny Bower is holding an open beer can in one hand and a hand gun in the other.

Russell notices right away that his father’s eyes are bloodshot red; this is a portent of abuse to come. The question was whether he would be the target tonight, or his mother.

“Why the hell are you always coming out here?” his father asks. “You should be hanging out with kids your own age, not wasting your summers away back here fucking that damn nasty cat.”

Russell wisely remains silent.

Donny takes a long sip from his beer and stares into the woods. “Relax, boy… you’re not in trouble… that is… unless I find out you’ve been fucking off when there’s work you haven’t finished yet.”

“I did everything she told me to do,” Russell quickly chimes in.

His father glares at him. “Don’t get mouthy with me, fucker!”

“Sorry.” Russell looks back at his feet.

Donny shook head. “No matter. I only came out here to find that sonofabitch coyote that’s been tearing into our trash again. Have you seen it?”

“No sir.”

He stared hard at his son. “Well… if I catch that fucking thing, I’m going to fill it with so much fucking lead, and then have your mother cut it up for supper.” Donny looked at the cat which was now wrapping itself around Russell’s legs. “By the looks of it, I’d say your furry friend there has already had a run in or two with that fucker. Coyotes get hungry enough, they’ll eat anything, especially a dumb-ass cat with no sense. They’ve been known to snatch babies right out of strollers. Can you believe that shit?”

Russell remains quiet. He wonders what he’d do if he ever came out here to find Mr. Patches all torn up with a coyote feasting on him.

“Do… do they really hunt cats… and… and babies?” he asks.

“Yeah… fucking cats, dogs, babies, anything small enough that they could drag off into the woods. Hell… you’re frail enough… I wouldn’t be surprised if a couple of ‘em didn’t try to snag you, too. They work together, those fuckers, so you better watch your ass if you’re gonna keep coming out here.”

Russell nods.

His father sizes him up for a moment and then shakes his head with a laugh. “Probably wouldn’t bother with you though, you smell too much like a pussy. Your damn cat’s got more balls than you do.”

Russell looks at Mr. Patches and smiles. “He is a tough cat… but stupid.”

This made his father laugh. That was always a good thing. Sometimes, Russell almost liked his father… almost.

“Speaking of stupid, let’s get your sorry ass back inside before your Mom turns bitch on you and me both.”

They started back.

Two minutes later, Russell heard Mr. Patches cry out in pain.

“Those fuckers!” his father yells. “All they were waiting for was for you to leave the dumb animal alone.”

“No!” Russell cries out. He starts to run back to the stream, foolishly ignoring his father who yells after him to stop.

By the time Russell reaches the river, he sees two coyotes fighting over Mr. Patches as the cat tries to fend them off.

“Get away from him!” he shouts.

The coyotes back away from the injured cat and snarl at Russell.

Before the wild animals turn on him, Russell hears two gunshots. The first coyote falls to the ground dead. The second one runs off.

“Mother fuckers!” Russell’s father yells after the one that got away. “I’ll get you bitch! Just try to come back again!”

Russell doesn’t care about the coyotes or his father’s rage. He is staring at Mr. Patches, lying on the ground. His fur is covered in blood. Russell runs over to the cat.

Mr. Patches manages to wobble to his feet and hiss at Russell.

“It’s alright,” Russell says through tears. “You’ll be okay, Mr. Patches.”

The cat slowly retreats into a tree and then calms down as Russell approaches. He pats the cat on the head as the animal struggles to breathe. He removes his t-shirt and wraps the cat up, trying to stop the bleeding.

“That cats done, Russell,” his father says from behind him. His voice is unusually soft… almost tender. “Best thing you can do for that dumb animal is put it out of its misery.”

Russell turns and snaps, “No! He’s fine. Mr. Patches is tough. He’ll make it through this like he always does.” He attempts to pick up the cat and cradle it. Surprisingly, Mr. Patches lets him.

Donny Bower laughs. “Now that’s damn strange. Fucking thing should’ve scratched your arms up for being so damn stupid. You never pick up an injured animal.”

Russell doesn’t hear him. His only concern is for his friend.

“Put him down, Russell,” his father says. “Since you’re too much of a pussy, I’ll take care of it.”

Russell turns toward his father who is holding up the gun. “He’ll… he’ll be fine. Please… leave him be.”

His son’s eyes are streaming with tears making him uncomfortable. Donny sighs heavily and says, “Look… son… you’re not doing that thing any favors. Just look at the fucking thing! Those coyotes have been picking him to pieces a little at a time. Maybe the cat lives this time… or maybe it dies overnight in agony. Either way, your pussy cat has been suffering for a long time now.” He kneeled down next to Russell and reached into his pocket. His father pulled out a small utility knife. “Look, we don’t have to shoot it, alright? But you need to take care of it. You want to help that pitiful creature, don’t you?”

“How?” Russell asks.

His father hands him the blade. “You see how calm it is right now… how you holding it just makes the fear leave its eyes because it knows you and trusts you?”

Russell nods.

“Well, that’s a good thing. You hold his life in your hands right now. Either you can be cruel and patch that cat up just to feed it to those coyotes on another day, or you can end it now, and save him from this fucked-up world. You do want to save him, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Then do the right thing, son. Take the knife, slit its throat, and be done with it.”

“I… I can’t.”

“Then you’re as bad as those beasts that just tore pieces out of your little friend. You want Mr. Patches to suffer some more?”

“No.”

“Then end his suffering once and for all. If you don’t, that cat will get mean and turn on you. After it’s been tortured enough by those coyotes, Mr. Patches will die inside… and there will be nothing left of the cat you remember ‘cause the world is cruel and turns everyone evil eventually… if the suffering becomes too much and we allow it.”

Russell looks at the utility knife and then into Mr. Patches’ soft eyes. “You mean… I… he won’t be the same cat anymore?”

“No, Russell, he won’t. And you’ll be sadder on that day because you let it happen, when you could’ve ended all that pain right now… while he’s still the cat you remember.”

Russell holds the blade to the cat’s neck.

“That’s the way, son. See… he doesn’t mind. It’s like that damn thing is ready to die, and you can be merciful because you do this out of love.”

“Goodbye, Mr. Patches,” Russell whispers. He closes his eyes and slits the cat’s throat quickly. He can feel the animal’s warm blood soak his hand as Mr. Patches stops moving.

“You saved him, Russell,” his father says. “That’s how you save them all.”…

~~~

…The storm rescued him from the dream. He opened his eyes as the distant boom of thunder resounded. Lightning momentarily lit up the few windows which mocked his inability to be free. Russell was immediately dismayed to discover that it was still dark within the cabin. He tried to move again but was only able to turn his head toward the crackling sound of the fire. Alysa was there again. She wasn’t wearing her usual cloak to fend off the cold, but rather, a transparent material that revealed the silhouette of her slender form beneath as she moved about in front of the fireplace.

Where the hell is the sun? he wondered. This was the third night in a row that he’d awoken to the darkness, and each time, he felt exhausted. It was possible that his body had simply adapted to Alysa’s late night regiment of chicken noodle soup and story time, but he suspected there was more going on. What did this strange woman do during the day while he slept? She’d mentioned going out on runs and it was clear that she had acquired supplies from somewhere. And where the hell was ‘here’? It was time for answers.

He took a deep breath, intending to call out to the woman, but stopped.

Alysa was facing him but preoccupied with whatever she was doing. She was standing before a large tub in a light-colored gown. Her usual braided hair hung down over her shoulders as she leaned over the tub and placed her hand within.

Russell continued to observe the girl, hoping to gleam something about her that he could profit from… now that she was unaware that he was awake.

Alysa stood back up and stared hypnotically into the fire. She then absently removed the gown from around her dark-skinned shoulders and let it fall to the floor. Once naked, she stepped into the large tub and sat down to bathe. She glanced briefly over at her patient.

By then, Russell was feigning sleep. The last thing he needed was to add the accusation of ‘pervert’ to their already strained situation. He continued to watch her through squinted eyes until she looked down into the tub, reached beneath the water, and retrieved a sponge.

He watched as the unbashful woman began to wash herself.

Russell was puzzled. In light of recent developments, namely, the naked woman in the tub, the other one should have spewed forth a dozen lewd and vulgar comments by now, but the savage remained surprisingly silent.

Strange. He was tempted to summon his vile half, something he’d never had to do before, but then stopped himself. Don’t screw up a good thing. Just let it be for now. Maybe he’s sleeping in.

Alysa ran the sponge slowly, deliberately, up around her shoulders and then down across her chest, lingering around her small but well-proportioned breasts. She looked casually over toward Russell and then turned back toward the fire. Alysa was smiling.

This is for your benefit, Russell thought. He was certain she’d seen him looking. He frowned and finished, She’s playing games. Dangerous games. What does she hope to accomplish? And then he understood.

Alysa was finishing up. She slowly stood and then turned away from Russell, making sure to bend over in front of him before retrieving a towel. She stepped out of the tub and quickly dried herself off before the fireplace. After a few more minutes, she left her hair down and put the thin gown back on.

Russell turned his head away and closed his eyes. He heard another rumbling from the night as the storm threatened outside. He pretended to sleep while already calculating his next move. When Alysa comes for you, and she will, she’ll try to subdue you with the oldest of weapons in a woman’s arsenal.

He could already hear her approaching.

Alysa stopped before his bed, placed what he assumed was the lantern on the nightstand, and then sat down in her normal seat. He could hear her breathing in a more slightly elevated rhythm than she normally did. She should be relaxed after bathing, but she was anxious… expectant.

“I know you’re awake,” she finally said. “It’s okay. I know you were… watching me.”

Russell opened his eyes and turned to look at her.

Alysa sat in the chair, legs crossed, her gown loosely covering her body. Her hair flowed erratically down the front of the gown. Russell could smell the coconut oil again. She smiled at him. “Did you sleep well?”

“Not really,” he answered. “How was the bath?”

She laughed. “Heavenly. It takes a lot of effort to prepare, but it’s well worth the effort. A woman’s got to indulge when she can.”

“Obviously. May I ask you something, Alysa?”

She turned her head and gave him an inviting look. “What would you like to ask me, Marcus?”

“Why is it always dark when I wake up? I’m starting to feel like I’m trapped in the longest damn night of my life.”

Alysa looked annoyed by the question. “Do you like me, Marcus? I mean… do you find me attractive? I don’t mean to be so straightforward, but… it’s been a very long time.”

She will attempt to dominate you through sex, Russell thought. And if she’s allowed to have this, Alysa will be able to make meaningless what she thinks Gina means to you… and essentially win her argument that ‘Love is dead’. She will use what she perceives as intimacy to control you. She cannot be allowed to have that.

Russell smiled. “I think you’re very attractive, Alysa. But maybe we should slow things down a bit. If you haven’t noticed, I’m in no condition to… accommodate.”

She laughed teasingly and said, “You don’t have to worry about that. I’ll help you. That is… if you want me.” She stood up and removed the gown. “Do you want me, Marcus?”

Russell could find no words as he stared at her flawless skin.

She smiled and then moved around to the foot of the bed and slowly pulled down his sheet. “Just relax,” she said. “You’ll enjoy this… I promise.”

Russell was surprised to discover that he was entirely naked. When had she done that?

Alysa slithered up on top of the bed like a python, slowly moving her way over his legs. Lightning flashed outside as the rain began to fall harder. He tried to focus on the sound of the rain striking the roof of the cabin… anything to keep his body from reacting to this seductress.

She lightly exhaled over his cool flesh. The warmth of her breath made every hair on his body stand as she knew exactly how much was required to maximize stimulation. Her dangling breasts made contact with his manhood as she lingered long enough for her nipples to make contact. She moved up toward his chest, pressing down on top of him. She lightly kissed his neck as her left hand reached down and began stroking… stroking…

He wanted to let this happen. Not because it was wise, but because Alysa reminded him that he was still a man, susceptible to pleasures that only a woman could incite. His lower member betrayed his arousal. Russell would have to act quickly, before he was inside of her.

“How does that feel?” she whispered into his left ear.

Russell lightly moaned as her hand performed magic below.

She smiled and kissed him on the lips. “We belong together, Marcus. Stay with me and I’ll make you feel like this all the time.”

“I… I can’t… Alysa.”

She moved her perky breasts up over his face and teased his lips with her nipples. She moved back down and breathed into his right ear. “You want to. I can feel that you want to.” She rubbed her pubic area over his burning loins, inviting him to penetrate. “There’s nothing out there for you anymore. Stay with me. We can do anything… together… make this world what we want it to be, take whatever we want, be passionate whenever we want.”

He was almost out of time. “I need to get back to her. She needs me.”

Russell could feel Alysa tense up. But she would not back down. “Gina’s dead, Marcus. They’re all dead. You’ve done enough for them. Do something for yourself now. You can have me… and I’ll make it worth your while.”

Russell was looking into her eyes now… her confident, commanding eyes.

“Does Gina treat you as well as you deserve? Does she do this for you?”

He smiled up at her. Within, he wanted to laugh at the irony of his next move. The other one was not present, but nonetheless, Russell knew exactly what ‘he’ would say now.

“No,” he said. “Gina’s not like you… not like this at all.”

Alysa smiled like the devil. “That’s good to hear, Marcus.” She kissed him again and then finished, “I want you inside of me so bad… is that alright with you?”

Russell’s face changed. Alysa was caught off guard by his strange expression.

“Something wrong?” she asked.

“Oh… YES!” he mocked. “Do it, you cheap fuckin’ whore! Just stop talkin’ already and wet my fuckin’ pole!”

Alysa stopped. Her face went dark as another flash of lightning lit up the cabin. “Don’t,” she cautioned. “Don’t do this.”

“Do what, you horny bitch? I’m the one that can’t move right now so get to the humpin’ already. The sooner you get ta’ pushin’ those pretty little hips of yours, the sooner I can get finished fillen’ up that Boston Crème pussy of yours.”

She slapped him. Hard.

“Oh, yeah, baby! I can dig that rough stuff, too. As soon as I’m able, I’ll bend you over and pound that ass like a jack hammer.”

Alysa leaned in over his face and yelled, “Shut up, you filthy… fuck! Why? Why the hell would you say such foul things?!”

Russell stared defiantly back and answered, “Because you ‘ain’t half the woman Gina is, dead or alive. And I’d sooner make love to her corpse, than pretend to give what we’re fuckin’ doing any real value. So go ahead… get your hole punched, than get the fuck off me, bitch!”

She wanted to tear his tongue out and rip his face off with her nails. Instead she got off him and knocked the nightstand over. She let out an infuriated scream and balled her fists.

Russell watched the humiliated woman stand there naked, her back turned to him, as she tried to control her breathing and calm the tempest within. He believed that if she turned around now to look at him, she would murder him immediately. Either way, he’d ended her game and reestablished control. His death was irrelevant.

After what felt like an eternity, Alysa finally spoke while putting her gown back on. She still refused to look at him. “I don’t know what game you’re playing, Marcus,” she said calmly. “But it isn’t going to work.” She then turned around and smiled through tears. “You want me… I know you do. I felt it. You felt it. But that bitch won’t let you be free. I can see that now.” She quickly buttoned her gown and then ran her hands through her disheveled hair, trying to maintain some sense of dignity.

Russell did not trust words. He waited.

She started pacing the room. “Yes… yes… that’s it. Your guilt caused you to lash out… I see that now. I made you feel like you were… betraying her… but… you know that’s not true. I know you know.”

“Then you know that I love her,” Russell dared to say. “And no matter what this is… I can’t love you… I won’t.”

Alysa’s eyes blazed at him. Suddenly, she stormed over to the bed and raised her fists.

Russell did not flinch.

She barely stopped herself from pounding his face in. “DON’T YOU EVER SAY THAT AGAIN!” she spat into his face. She pointed at him threateningly and started backing away. She started to laugh and sob at the same time.

At last, the truth comes out, he thought. She is insane… insane with loneliness and desperate for anyone to validate and share in her miserable existence.

The storm intensified outside. He could hear the wind howling through the trees as a blast of thunder rocked the night.

Alysa looked toward the cabin door, briefly distracted by the storm. “I’m leaving for a while,” she announced. “I need to… I need some time to think.”

Russell tried to move again. He was not able. “Where are you going?”

The sick woman grabbed her large cloak and started putting it on. “Maybe I won’t come back at all,” she laughed. “Maybe then you’ll appreciate how good I was to you while you’re lying there dying from your injuries. Maybe your precious fucking Gina will come and save the day.”

He could not tell if she was bluffing or not. Russell wanted her seduction attempt to end, but he still needed her… for now. He had to try to calm her down. “Alysa, I’m sorry for what I said. I was… confused. Please… don’t leave. I do need you.”

She frowned at him. “Yeah… you need me… you need me… but you don’t want me. I can see it in your eyes every time I look at you. You despise me because I’m not her! Well… fuck off, asshole. Maybe I’m done needing you.” She wrapped her arms around her cloak to fight off the chill. She hated the cold. Alysa walked toward the front door and opened it. The wind blew rain into the open doorway. She looked back once. Her face was stone. “I wish I’d never found you. I was… better off before I met you… when I didn’t realize how alone I was. Goodbye, Marcus. I hope you rot in that bed.” She stepped out into the night without another word, leaving the door wide open behind her.

He immediately felt the cold night air invade the cabin and strike his naked body. She had not bothered to cover him back up before she left.

Shit.

And then he noticed something peculiar. The wounds he’d seen two nights ago, the deep gashes from the tree branches that tore into his chest when he’d fallen from the cliff, they were closed and scarred.

There’s no way they could have healed that quickly in two days, he thought. And then the light came on. How long have I really been here?

~~~

Next Episode 37-11

Previous Episode 37-9

~~~

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 37-10: Through the Eyes of a Devil” Copyright © 2017 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Four: Phantoms. All Rights Reserved.

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

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

~~~

…Russell stopped speaking and closed his eyes. For a moment he forgot about Alysa staring in shocked silence beside him as he tried to shut out the confusion of that day in the junkyard, and the ancient memories of his youth that came out with it. He risked betraying his partial story if he couldn’t reclaim his usual detachment.

That damn girl made you soft, boss. It was good she died when she did. And you know it. Fuckin’ kids have always been your kryptonite.

Russell let it go.

“He was training them,” Alysa finally said with a heavy sigh.

Russell opened his eyes and stared at her.

“Your friend, this Frank guy, he was trying to prepare them to protect themselves.”

“He was trying to turn them into killers,” Russell sternly corrected. “There’s a difference.”

“Is there?” Alysa looked away and leaned back in her chair.

To Russell, she seemed lost in her own memories. “Have you… killed?”

Her eyes came up quickly, fiercely, and then softened. “I’ve put down my share of those creepy bastards… sure. I think anyone who’s still around today has had to at some point. Haven’t you?”

Russell took it further. “I wasn’t referring to those dead things.”

Alysa’s face went blank. She wouldn’t offer anything.

Russell smiled. “Okay… me first. I’ve killed people. People who tried to hurt us… we lost one of our own in an unprovoked attack. Sniper on a roof top.”

“But you were defending yourself… your group.”

Russell laughed and shook his head. “No… we were in the clear. We could’ve escaped, but we chose not to.”

Alysa raised her eyebrows. “So it’s an ‘Eye for an Eye’, then? You don’t strike me as the revenge type.”

“You don’t know anything about me.”

“True.” She folded her hands in her lap. “But you don’t strike me as the killer type.”

Now that’s some funny shit, boss.

“So you believe there’s no blood on my hands? Do I come off as someone who would lie about something as serious as killing a human being?” Russell said.

“What I mean is,” she elaborated, “I believe you’re capable of taking another life, and that you have, but not for something as pointless as revenge. I think you’re far too complex a person to settle for that.”

Russell was caught off guard. “And what would you know of my motivations?”

Alysa smiled and leaned forward, placing her chin in her hands. “You strike me as someone who weighs everything and then decides to commit to an action only if it’s important. Killing seems… well… beneath you. Someone must have made you commit, someone important enough to kill for.”

She can see right through you, boss. Like a fuckin’ open book. Who is this bitch? Maybe she really is a damn witch.

Who indeed.

Alysa leaned back and laughed. “Sorry… there I go again getting way too personal. Believe it or not, in a morbid-as-hell sort of way, that was intended as a compliment.”

Russell scrutinized the woman with his intense gaze. He needed to know what she was hiding… and she was definitely holding something back. He decided to offer a bit more. “You’re right. I don’t care for revenge and I don’t take killing lightly. I was forced to retaliate-”

“Who did you kill for?” she cut in.

Careful, boss. She’s baiting you again.

Russell smiled and deflected. “I think we’re getting off track here. I’ve been honest enough on the matter. Now why don’t you tell me who you killed… but more importantly, why?”

Alysa feigned disappointment and laughed. “Almost had you there. Fair enough. Yes, I’ve killed people. But only because I had to.” She picked up her soup cup and took a sip. “It’s another reason I’ve chosen to stay the hell away from everyone.”

“You’re being annoyingly vague.”

“And you’re being equally persistent,” she countered. She frowned and said, “Truth is, I’ve only killed one person. But he had it coming. He had every opportunity to stay my hand, but he pushed me to the brink… pushed me to the point where my life was in danger if I didn’t stop him. And so I did.”

“But there’s more to it, isn’t there?”

She smiled and said, “There’s always more, Marcus. But let’s get back to your story before it gets any later. I was beginning to sense that you all were close to finding that marina.”

Russell gave up. It was clear that Alysa would volunteer nothing more.

She’s like a fuckin’ bad phone trace, boss. You know, like the ones in every thriller where the cops have the psycho on the line and need just another few seconds to locate the bitch… but then she hangs up every time.

Russell smiled at the fitting analogy.

“What was that?” she said, noticing his face. “Inside joke?”

“You could say that,” he finished. “After the junkyard, we cleared the tracks and made it to the river. From there, we found a boathouse to hide out in for the night. And then it rained like a bad omen. Everything quickly went to shit the following day.”

“The dead found you?” she asked.

“Another group went to great lengths to set up a trap when we neared the marina. All along the river, every boat had been destroyed. That should have been our first clue to turn around. But our leader had summit fever by then.”

“Summit fever?”

“It’s a term mountain climbers use to describe people who don’t have enough oxygen or strength to make it to the top. They see the peak and abandon reason, and their lives, obsessed to finish the climb.”

“And you were a mountain climber back in the day?”

“Not quite,” he laughed. “Discovery Channel.”

“Of course. Ahh… the good old days.”

“Anyway, reaching the boat had blinded Doug from seeing the danger all around us. We were so close but never had a chance. There were these large hangars that were loaded with the dead. When we reached the center of the hangars, they opened the doors and let them all out. That was when we lost Doug and everything went to shit.”

“And who were they?”

Russell shook his head. “There were symbols spray-painted on the hangar doors. A three-pronged symbol with an eye at the top. Later, we discovered the meaning of the symbol. It meant Mother. But that’s a much longer story and I’m way too tired to get into it.”

“So what happened after Doug’s death?”

“We got separated by the horde. Eventually we found each other again along the river. But it wasn’t a happy reunion.” Russell paused, his eyes going distant as the memory of that last tragic and glorious day surfaced. He continued. “We lost one more person. Everyone took it hard.”

“Was it… Gina?”

Russell looked at her. He detected a hint of hopefulness in her tone. “No. It was Greg’s daughter, Ashley. She’d been bitten by one of those dark-eyed beasts… the reanimated ones. She passed very quickly and Greg finished what needed to be done.”

Alysa looked away. “Yes… there was that to deal with. Like it wasn’t bad enough to watch them die, but then to watch them… come back. She quickly shifted gears. “Thirsty?”

“Yes, please.” Russell watched her leave to retrieve water. He appreciated the moment alone.

Try it again, boss.

Well… almost alone.

Russell looked down at his right arm and began to lift it. He was able to raise it a few inches and clench his fist before he started to perspire from the effort. It took all he had to exert any effort into moving, but it was getting easier.

Alysa was returning.

He tried his best to look calm and tired rather than a man who just felt like he’d come back from sprinting five miles. Whatever fever this is, it’s kicking my ass. Perhaps all the normal bugs from the old world have mutated into something much worse since The Change. He found the irony comical since it probably wouldn’t be the dead which finished off the human race… but a zombie version of the common cold.

She stopped before his bed with a plastic cup, noticing beads of perspiration on his forehead. She frowned. “You should stop being so damn stubborn, Marcus.” Alysa leaned in and helped him take a sip of water from the cup.

The water tasted luke-warm and old. “Excuse me?” he said.

“I wish I understood better what’s happening inside of you, but I don’t,” she said. “All I can deduce is that your body is working overtime to fight off some nasty infection from the fall. That’s why you have no strength. But every time you ignore my advice to let it run its course and let your body take care of it by getting lots of rest, I believe you’re just making it worse.”

Russell smiled. “Sorry, Doc. I’m a horrible patient, aren’t I?”

She helped him drink the rest of the water and then put the cup on the nightstand. She sat back down and smiled. “No… you’re just frustrated. I completely get it. I’d hate to be dependent on anyone, too. Especially these days. But I’d like to think that I’ve earned your trust by now.”

Russell saw an opportunity and seized it. “I want to trust you, Alysa. But this new world has made me suspicious of everyone and everything. It’s how I’ve survived this long. I’m sure you can appreciate that.”

She looked puzzled. “Yes… but… we are friends, aren’t we? I mean, I’m not Gina or Amanda, and we certainly haven’t known each other that long, but haven’t I been good to you? We’ve talked. We’ve laughed. We’ve overcome the occasional spat along the way…” She trailed off and laughed at herself. “Listen to me, I’m starting to sound like we’re in a relationship or something. You must find me very foolish.”

There it is, boss. There’s your angle. She’s not only crazy from all that alone time… she’s wants your dick! Even a woman has needs and you fit the fucking bill. It’s a simple fuckin’ equation: Prolonged isolation + animalistic desires suppressed = one horny toad. It’s human nature to fuck, boss. Why don’t you cut to the chase and ask how often she mastur-

“I don’t think you’re foolish, Alysa,” he said gently. “I just think you’ve been alone for far too long and that’s made you… guarded. I’ve done everything to remain open. I’ve been telling you my story. But every time I try to get to know you, you shut the door on me whenever I start asking the hard questions. It would go a long way toward me trusting you if you’d start trusting me, too.”

Realizing she’d left herself vulnerable, Alysa started to raise her shields. She wrapped her arms around her coat and said, “I can’t ever shake this damn cold. Anyway, I should let you finish. So what happened after the girl died?”

Missed your chance, boss. Now she’ll keep the goods locked up tight. She’s only wearin’ that damn cloak to keep ya’ from seein’ her built in lie detectors from giving her away. I bet her damn nipples are pointin’ at you right now like a fuckin’ junk-hungry divining rod.

You really are disgusting, Russell thought back.

The other one laughed.

“After Ashley’s death, it was clear that we needed a new leader; someone who could keep us focused and working together toward whatever came next.”

“And that’s when you took charge,” she said confidently.

Russell smiled. “I’m flattered… but no. I’m not the ‘leader’ type. We all agreed that it should be Gina.”

Alysa made no effort to hide rolling her eyes. “And that’s why I’m alone now. When people get desperate, they’ll look to anyone to tell them what to do. Let me guess, since she obviously had Doug in her pocket, Gina figured she was entitled to the position. Is that about right?”

“Hardly.” Russell was amused. “In fact, Gina didn’t want anything to do with it. That’s why, I believe, she made a great leader. She genuinely cared for the group and brought us all together as a… family… for lack of a better term. She didn’t consider herself worthy to lead but her actions since then have proven otherwise.”

Alysa wisely remained silent.

Russell got lost in the moment. He remembered that day when she stood up and gave a brief speech. It wasn’t so much what she said that moved him, but it was the conviction he saw in her eyes. That was the moment everything changed and he began to see her finally move toward her destiny… and he had vowed to do everything in his power to make sure Gina became that woman, no matter what the cost. That day, Russell had seen his new purpose revealed as the fiery red-head took over leadership. He had believed it was his purpose to make her rise up out of the ashes of her former self and stand up, unafraid… as a worthy offering to Death herself. But after that moment, Russell understood that he was staring at a future queen of the new world. It was a glorious revelation and a humbling honor the Lady had bestowed upon him. Eventually, he would remove her from this life and deliver Gina to the other side, but not until the Lady’s purposes were fulfilled.

She had been anointed by Death to rule before the glorious end.

“She can’t love you,” Alysa said, noticing his illuminated face.

Russell turned. “What was that?”

“Gina… she can’t give you what you want in return, no matter how high a pedestal you place her on.”

You’re a damn fool, boss! You risk everything by exposing the only thing you fuckin’ care about to this crazy bitch. All our hard work, and my longsuffering patience, put at risk because you can’t hide your fascination for the fuckin’ Golden Goddess.

Doesn’t matter, Russell thought. Gina is far from here and this ‘thing’ pretending to live and breathe while rotting away in this tomb, will never leave this forest. And that was assured long before we ever arrived.

You just make sure, boss. If Gina is so fuckin’ important, then you make sure this bitch’s blood is spilled before we ever leave this place. Because now, she knows how to get to you.

Russell smiled. When we get our strength back, I will let you do whatever you wish to Alysa. Call it compensation for your cooperation all these long months.

You mean that, boss? I can have this one?

Russell turned to Alysa, making her uncomfortable with his lingering stare, and thought back, I would not have it any other way.

He could feel the other one’s savage excitement.

“Sorry,” Alysa said. “Again, I’m overstepping, aren’t I?”

“That’s alright,” he said. “You don’t know Gina as I do. You could never know.”

Alysa was puzzled by the comment.

He realized why he despised this woman. She was nothing but a fraud, pretending to show strength while living in a perpetual state of fear. Even now, she lavished in the illusion of control over a man who she thought she could manipulate due to his injuries. Alysa was nothing more than a vulture within this place, and a frightened child running from the world outside of these walls. This was who Gina could become if Russell allowed her to wallow in her pain.

Gina was Alysa… if he failed.

“You do love her, right?” Alysa pushed.

Russell had never considered the question before. Love, in the sense that so many of these fools understood it to be, was insignificant and the useless byproduct of emotional and physical impulses… nothing more. He would not reduce what he held for Gina to the same standard. What the sheep called ‘Love’, he called dung. However, he did love her. Russell loved Gina more than anything in this life, except for the Lady. He loved her as the Lady also loved her. And that was something he would never be able to convey to the animals of this world.

“No,” he finally said. “I do not love Gina. She means a great deal to me… but not in the way you think.”

Alysa didn’t know how to take the comment. “Well, that’s good to hear because, like I said, she can’t love you back.”

“Why do you keep saying that?’

Alysa’s face turned hard again. She stared at him and finished, “Because love is dead. I know this more than I know anything else about this fucked-up new world.”

“That seems a bit harsh.”

“It’s the truth, Marcus. And the sooner you accept it… nothing… and I mean nothing… will ever be a threat to you.”

~~~

Next Episode 37-10

Previous Episode 37-8

~~~

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“Chapter 37-9: Through the Eyes of a Devil” Copyright © 2017 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Four: Phantoms. All Rights Reserved.

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

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