“Meredith,” Doug said, “no one’s here to judge you. Tell us what you can. Tell us what you’re comfortable with—that will have to suffice.”
She nodded. “Hannah—she was always the better talker—Hannah had a way with people.”
Frank shifted in the rocking chair; his discomfort was apparent.
“She could take the worst circumstances and turn them into an adventure,” Meredith continued. “My Hannah was able to love me, despite my strange condition. When I’d seen how she saw me… my goodness… I felt better about things and not such a freak in the world. It was Hannah who turned it all around and found a way to help me use it to make people feel better. She knew I wanted that more than anything. I miss her… she’d know exactly what to tell you fine folks right now.”
Gina reached out for her hand and squeezed gently.
Meredith smiled and fought back the tears. “Anyway, it was Hannah who talked me into private consultations. She found them—all those families who were in pain—and she set up all the meetings. At first, I was scared to death. But as it turned out, I was able to help those families with their grieving and give them closure.”
Each of them waited patiently for Meredith to explain.
“And there I go babbling again,” she said with a laugh. “I never was very good at taking the shortest distance to the point.” She took another deep breath. “We arranged to meet the Patterson family late Friday night—just before the world turned upside down. They had lost their little girl, Emily, a year prior. Someone had broken into their home around three in the morning and stole that poor child right out of her bed. Can you imagine the horror of waking up and finding your little girl gone? Horrible, horrible affair. The police never found Emily and there were no ransom demands of any kind by the kidnappers. Everyone feared the worst. After a year without a word, that poor family was nearly destroyed by the blame game, the anger… the guilt. They were desperate for anything at all to help them move on. That’s when Hannah put us together. We needed to perform the consultation in Emily’s room… around the time she was abducted. We’d discovered that many returned to the scene of the violence since it was their last connection to the living world. It’s where the connection is the clearest, like tuning in to a radio station with those old bunny ear antennas in the right configuration.” She frowned. “I wasn’t in their home five minutes before I knew that little Emily was dead-”
“Hold the fucking press,” Charlie said. “How could you possibly know that? Are you going to sit here and tell us, with a straight face, that you’re some kind of psychic?”
“Not exactly,” Meredith said with a sigh.
“‘Not exactly’?” Charlie leaned back and covered his eyes with his hands. “This day just keeps getting better and better.”
“Let her finish,” Gina said crossly.
“Thank you, honey.” Meredith collected herself and resumed. “Again, back to that believing part I was talking about, I’ve kept my… ability… a very private affair for most of my life. Very few people treated me the same after they found out what I was. Who I was always became irrelevant after that. Many, like Charlie, simply couldn’t believe and considered me a fraud, hating on me for messing with people’s emotional well-being.”
“If you’re not a psychic, then what are you?” Doug asked, surprisingly receptive to the conversation.
Meredith smiled and said, “See, there’s that pesky what again. No worries, Douglas, I know you’re only trying to understand. I don’t know what to call ‘it’, and usually prefer not to be associated with stereotypical titles because of what they make people think of. But I guess you would call me a medium.”
Meredith continued before the stones were let loose. “Emily—that little girl I spoke of—we’d established a connection right there in her bedroom, just before things got ugly. She tried to warn me about what was coming, but what you have to understand is that it’s not like having a normal conversation where words are exchanged. The best way I can think of to describe how Emily communicated with me was through fragmented images from her life. It was up to me to put those images together and interpret what she wanted to convey.” Meredith stared at the floor and finished. “By the time I figured it out… everything was already happening. Mrs. Patterson, along with her oldest boy, Peter, turned into one of those yellow-eyed things… started ripping apart their own flesh and blood right in front of us…”
“So… if you’re a medium… that means you can speak to dead people, right?” Ashley asked.
Meredith said, “More or less.”
“Then that means you were already… connected to the undead internet when dead people started… coming back?”
“Shit,” Gina said. “She’s right. What the hell was that like?”
Meredith stared at Ashley and said, “Child, you have hit the nail on the head of my current dilemma. ‘Undead internet’… now that makes me chuckle… but that’s pretty close. Let’s just say, I’ve had a heck of a time logging off ever since.”
“And that’s what you’ve been struggling with all this time?” Gina asked.
“When you’re reaching across the void to find the departed, they’re usually the first you encounter because of the ‘where’ and the ‘when’ and their essence is like that crystal clear radio station, once you tune it in. But that doesn’t keep others from coming. It takes a long time to learn how to filter out who you’re communicating with. I can generally sense the differences between entities—unless there’s just too many—then it feels like they’re doing the channeling, and you start to lose control of your own mind.”
“And that’s what happened at the plant?” Doug asked. “And the house?”
“Yes and no, Douglas. I’ll try to explain it if you can hang on a little longer. Being connected to Emily was like an open invitation. She was already there waiting for a means to reach out to her loved ones. She’d died a violent death and they generally take a while to move on. They’re still confused. They have no sense of place or understanding that they’re dead or how to let go. They no longer understand time like we do, so years to us can feel like moments to them. They’re lost between here and elsewhere because, in a way, they also need closure and someone to tell them it’s okay to leave… if that makes any sense.”
Doug leaned back, looking like a man on the verge of imploding. How much more could he possibly be expected to digest in such a short time?
“Now, those others I told you about, the ones who are drawn by a connection already established with the living, most are just lost souls like Emily trying to find answers. Some are timid while others are more forceful in being acknowledged, but they all want the same thing as Emily.” Meredith sighed and continued, “But there are others who are not at all what they appear to be.”
Gina felt a chill rush down her back. “Are you talking about demonic spirits? Malevolent ghosts?”
Meredith treaded lightly. “I don’t know for sure what they are, but if by ‘demons’ you mean entities who desire to inflict harm upon the living… then I guess that’s as good a term as any. I’ve encountered these entities only twice in my life while performing consultations. Both times I was able to sever my connection immediately. Over there, they can pose as loved ones and manipulate a consultation. They aim to keep the connection open for as long as possible to gain access through the medium. Whether they succeed or not, they want to cause pain, confusion and prolong suffering… they hate us intensely.” She took a sip of her warm soda while trying to control her trembling hand. “When I was with Emily, and The Change occurred, I was nearly overwhelmed by these entities. I couldn’t see them—our connection didn’t work like that—but Emily could see them. She tried to tell me… she tried to show me what was happening through images. I can’t adequately put into words the images themselves, only the final impression they left on me.”
“What did she see?” Gina asked.
Meredith looked grave. “Imagine a place, an in-between place, that’s like a massive bee hive, with no discernible boundaries. Then put it inside a sealed box big enough to hold it. Then imagine something shaking the box and stirring up all those bees inside. Now, imagine what would happen if you took that lid off the box… that’s what Emily showed me.”
“And where are all those bees now, Meredith?” Gina regretted the question immediately.
“Not where they’re supposed to be, honey. Not at all. I’ve been trying to sort it all out up here.” Meredith pointed to her head. “But it’s incredibly difficult. They know I’m there, but I’ve been able to hide from them so far. The old ones, the resurrected corpses we’ve encountered, that’s where most of these entities went when the box blew open. I can always sense them right away because it feels like I’m rotting away inside my own mind. Sometimes, I swear I can smell them. Trouble is, there’s so many of them, I can’t detect the danger until they’re right on top of us. It feels like I’m constantly drowning in an ocean of those nasty things. But when they’re together and all riled up for blood, it’s like a wave rising up out of nowhere. I almost missed them the other night in the house because the stench of them diminishes in my mind when they’re… calm… inactive… perhaps ‘still’ is a better description.”
“That would explain why I almost walked right into them,” Frank said. “Thought they were damn trees in the dark because they just stood there, blending into the shadows. Stealthy bastards when they want to be.”
“Yes,” Meredith said. “Stealthy is a good word for them. It reminds me of those dark entities disguising themselves as one of the recently deceased. Perhaps another word would be, ‘absent’. I have a theory… just a theory… but I believe those entities can move freely in and out of those long dead husks. There’s no fight left in them since they were already dead and vacant before the start of this outbreak. I think they may even have to jump bodies on occasion if those husks are too decayed.”
“And the other ones?” Stephen asked. “The yellow-eyed haters?”
Meredith looked ill just thinking about them. “They’re the worst kind. I can’t sense them at all when they’re in small groups, unless I choose to let them in. But when they’re together, like at the plant, it’s like a poison shooting through my brain. But there’s more to them than that. They’re not completely dead or alive—more dead, in fact. At least, dead in all the ways that matter. They’re savages. They’re what’s left of us if you stripped away conscience, love and anything else that makes us good. They’re the primal ticking time bomb in every human being, which is normally kept in check by the sane person. They are… insane… dark… evil through and through.”
“What do you mean, ‘not completely dead’?” Stephen asked. “Are you saying that they’re still…a little alive? That they can still think and breathe and feel? Now that’s insane! I saw children turn into those beasts and rip each other’s hearts out. How can anything still living do that?”
“You said it yourself, Stephen. You called them ‘haters’. We’ve all felt that from them. One look into those hungry and merciless eyes is all it takes to feel their seething rage and hatred toward us. That’s why they’re so brutal. You have to be self-aware on some level to hate. I don’t even believe those dark entities are in complete control of them because there’s too much of a person’s dark side which still remains. Don’t take me wrong, Stephen. When I said they’re not quite dead, I only meant that their souls are still trapped… somewhere. They’re not like the others where there’s nothing left at all.”
“What about those beasts who attacked us at the boxcar?” Frank asked. “Greg and I thought they shared similarities to wolves.”
“And what about the infected people with the mercury eyes?” Gina added.
Meredith shook her head. “I don’t know. I never sensed either group at all. Of course, I haven’t encountered them before… perhaps they’re a mutation of some kind? Hannah, before she left us, appeared to have those mercury eyes, but she was still alright… at the beginning.”
“Are you saying we haven’t seen all the cards this outbreak has to offer, Meredith?” Doug asked. “Should we anticipate more… mutations?”
“I wish I knew, Douglas. Truth is, there’s a world just on the other side of death which is loaded with mysteries. Something or someone’s made it possible for that world to directly affect this one. Your guess is as good as mine as to what that will mean.”
“I guess the real kicker question is, who opened the damn box, and why?” Doug said.
“That’s the million dollar question,” Meredith said. “I’ve given that a lot of thought over the last few days and all I can say is that whoever started this, had to know something about the other side. Now, whether they intended this outbreak to happen, or bit off more than they could chew… well, that again is beyond my reach. I will add that I don’t believe these entities could have pulled it off on their end. They had to have help from here.”
“That’s a comforting thought,” Gina said with a sigh.
Charlie started laughing and clapping his hands. “Bravo. Excellent performance. I’m still not buying your bullshit, lady. In fact, I’m starting to think you have a good chance of stealing the title away from Mr. Creepy over by the window.”
Frank blew him a kiss.
“See what I mean?” Charlie said.
Meredith didn’t respond.
Charlie could feel the others’ scowls on him. “What? Am I the only sane person who’s going to challenge the fortune-teller over here?”
“Charlie, that’s uncalled for!” Gina snapped back.
“No, it’s alright, Gina. Let him speak. Dealing with skeptics comes with the territory. Go ahead, Charlie, I don’t mind.”
“Okay, I’ve patiently been listening to this conversation and considering everything we’ve already seen, I’ve tried to keep an open mind. However, it occurs to me that no one’s asked the obvious question, albeit your clever bit of misdirection has probably had something to do with it.”
“Please, go on, Charlie,” Meredith said.
“I’m already going to assume that if you really were a medium, you would be ready to produce proof, but since you’re obviously not, I’ll save you the trouble of coming up with another fabricated, yet, clever reason why it ‘doesn’t work like that’ excuse. Am I wrong?”
Meredith smiled and said, “Charlie, it doesn’t work like that.”
“Fair enough,” Charlie said, just warming up. “I think it’s clear you can sense them. We’ve seen that. Doesn’t make you a psychic, but it does make you dangerous.”
“Charlie,” Gina said. “That’s ridiculous.”
“Is it?” Charlie defended. “Explain to me then how she knows when they’re coming? How do we know that these ‘entities’ aren’t simply drawn to her? We saw it, so there’s no point in denial. Frankly, that’s the only proof she’s shown me about anything that has me almost convinced that Meredith’s a danger to this little fucked-up group.”
Meredith looked down and said, “He’s right.”
They all turned, stunned.
“Meredith?” Gina asked in disbelief.
“Remember what I said about those entities trying to get at the medium? Well, they almost did at the plant. It took all I had to fight them off. All I can say in my defense is that I was blindsided by it. I never experienced anything like that before and I never want to again. I feel confident that I could defend myself better next time… but I can offer no guarantees. Yes, if I can sense them… they can sense me.”
“What would’ve happened if they took control?” Doug asked.
Meredith frowned at Doug and said, “I would probably try to kill some of you, forcing you to put me out of misery.”
No one had a response to that. Not even Charlie.
“Was there anything else, Charlie?” she asked.
Charlie felt deflated by the woman’s brutal honesty. “Well… yes… there was a couple more points I thought worth bringing up.”
“Despite my doubts, you seemed so damn sincere. Then it hit me, perhaps you really do believe what you’re saying… which would make you clearly insane.”
Meredith smiled again. “I can definitely see why you would think that. Was there anything else?”
“Just one more thing: If… and I stress the ‘If’… If you were indeed visited by that dead girl-”
“Emily,” Meredith said. “Her name was Emily.”
“Okay… Emily. If Emily did visit you and give you that warning, how do you even know that it was Emily? I mean, you can’t be sure, can you? So you might even be receiving false information from those very entities themselves. How do you know if she was warning you, or simply distracting you while it rang the ‘dinner bell’ on the other side?”
Meredith looked at Charlie with a horrified look on her face. “That’s very true, Charlie. I hadn’t even considered that. There is a chance that I got it wrong, especially in the heat of the moment when so much was happening. You’re right. I can’t say for sure if the little girl I was speaking to at the end was still Emily. But if not for her warning, I’m certain I would’ve died in that house.”
“Well… alright then… I’m glad we’re starting to make some sense now.” Charlie didn’t know what else to say. His victory felt shallow in light of Meredith’s willingness to concede his points.
Meredith addressed them all. “You’ve all underestimated Charlie more times than you know. It’s his questioning attitude which might save us one day.”
They were stunned that Meredith was defending Charlie.
Charlie was speechless.
“He’s questioned my credibility with good reason. The result: Is Meredith a risk? Is Meredith insane? Is Meredith even a competent medium? You’ll have to decide that for yourselves. If you tell me to go, I’ll go. All I can say is please consider my heart in your decision. That much I know with certainty has tried its best to do right by all of you. I can only offer that as my proof for anything that comes next.”
“Well… I’m going to sleep,” Charlie said, feeling slighted somehow and wondering how Meredith got the best of him. He lay down on the opposite side of the couch where Amanda continued to snore, blissfully unaware of the whole conversation.
“What happened to your friend… Hannah? How did you get away?” Ashley asked, wanting to hear the rest of the story.
Meredith immediately looked over at Frank who met her gaze.
His eyes were pleading with her to go no further.
She turned away and let the tears fall. “I was still connected with Emily when things got bad. If Hannah hadn’t acted quickly when she did… She got me up and pushed me outside the room… I fell hard, which severed my connection with Emily… I had just enough time to realize what she was doing… I saw Mrs. Patterson and her boy grab Hannah from behind… she could’ve got out but she said that she loved me… told me to run… and… closed the door with her inside to buy me some time to get out of the house…” Meredith stopped to collect herself. “I’m sorry, Ashley. That was probably not the kind of story you wanted or needed to hear. I wish with all my heart that I had a happier ending for you.”
Ashley surprised her and reached over and hugged the older woman.
Gina felt like she was about to burst as well. Her throat stiffened but she fought back the tears. They had all lost so much. Tony, I’m sorry I wasn’t there to help you. Sorry I was so weak. I’ll never let that happen to anyone I care about ever again. I owe you that much. She kept the silent vow to herself and meant to fulfill it with everything she had left.
“Well, I finally agree with Charlie on something,” Doug said with a long stretch of his arms. “We should all get some rest and-”
“Doug!” Greg called over. “I think we got her up and runnin’!”
They had all forgotten about the radio.
“Anything?” Doug asked.
“I’ll turn it up a little,” Greg said.
“Not too loud,” Frank cautioned, resuming his vigil by the window.
They all heard static as Greg and Marcus tried each channel, resulting in nothing but more white noise.
“Greg… maybe you should just give it a rest,” Doug said. “You guys got it running, but it’s not your fault the world’s no longer broadcasting anything.”
“Wait,” Marcus said to Greg. “Back up a channel. Did you hear that?”
Greg messed around with some additional dials.
Suddenly the static cleared, as a broken message in a woman’s voice came forth from the receiver capturing everyone’s attention:
“HELLO… WILLIAMS, CALLING IN BEHALF… ASHTABULA COUNTY GROUP OF SURVIVORS, JUST OFF ROUTE 11, TEN MILES NORTH OF I-90… HELD UP IN… SMALL MEDICAL BUILDING. WE ARE FORTY STRONG… FULL MEDICAL STAFF… AND MILIT… TO KEEP THE BUILDING SECURE… ABLE TO ACCOMMODATE SURVIVORS AT THIS TIME. WE CAN PROVIDE FOOD, WATER, MEDICAL CARE… WARM BEDS TO SLEEP IN… WILL SEND SOMEONE EACH DAY, AT NOON, TO PICK UP… THE LOCAL WAFFLE HOUSE LOCATED AT 8177 TERRANCE… JUST EAST OF ASHTABULA, OHIO. AGAIN, THAT’S 8177 TERRANCE ROAD JUST EAST OF… OHIO. GOOD LUCK. WE HOPE TO… YOU SOON. GOD BLESS.”
The line returned to static.
Greg was frantically scribbling the address down on the back of their travel map.
“Is that it?” Amanda asked excitedly. “How far away-”
“Never mind that,” Doug said. “Ashtabula’s in the opposite direction, miles from here. We would have to go inland and survive the general population just to have a chance at getting there.”
“Oh, come on!” Charlie protested. “What do you have against finding other people? Are you just upset that someone else is more organized than you? We haven’t seen anyone out here and there’s clearly a group of survivors-”
“Can it, Charlie!” Doug was losing his cool. This was the last thing they needed right before making a break for the marina. “We don’t know anything about this group. False hope is no hope at all!”
“Quiet!” Greg was fine tuning the dials on the CB radio. “I think I found it again.”
“HELLO. HELLO. HELLO. MY NAME IS SONJA WILLIAMS, CALLING IN BEHALF OF THE ASHTABULA COUNTY-”
The transmission was cut off abruptly by what sounded like a woman screaming in the background.
Greg fell backward.
“Turn that shit down!” Frank snapped.
Marcus quickly turned down the volume.
The line returned to dead static.
No one moved.
“Probably just feedback,” Greg said, trying to convince himself more than anyone. He attempted to reestablish the connection but it was gone.
“That didn’t sound good,” Gina said.
“You heard the man!” Charlie shook his head. “Fucking feedback! Stop letting your imaginations get the best of you. There’s a group out there and I say it’s worth trying for it.”
“We don’t really know anything, Charlie,” Meredith chimed in. “That could’ve been a recorded message for all we know, and several days old.”
Before anyone else could speak, Doug ended the discussion. “Look, we don’t have time for speculation on a vague message over a radio. It’s too far away to do anything about right now. We have a plan. Let’s stop looking for an easy way out and stick to it! We can be on a boat tomorrow morning. Ashtabula’s a helluva hike back the way we came.” He looked right at Charlie and finished, “We are going to the marina. That’s the end of it! Now all of you go get some sleep. We have a big day tomorrow. I’ll take the first watch.”
“No. I’ll take it,” Gina said. “You can take the next one.”
Doug looked like he was about to protest and then said, “Fine. Now let’s get our heads on straight, get some rest and get the fuck out of here tomorrow! We’ve come too far to turn around on a whim. We’re staying the course and with any luck, we’ll be drinking cocktails on a beach by sunset tomorrow.”
No one else objected. They turned in.
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