Writer of Horror Fiction

Dark Stories: Michael, Frank, and Cindy

This is the first of the stories I originally wrote that would have appeared in Into The Dark had they made the cut.  Of course, I have revised this one a bit due to the fact that it is no longer integrated into the actual book.  This particular story is primarily flashback, with Michael being the main focus, but it also provides an introduction to both Frank as well as Cindy, explaining how he got mixed up with both of them.  Michael was always someone who was different than the people who were closest to him in the story, and this brief vignette hopefully explains why he was with them.

While this is primarily a flashback, it is mainly a story about Michael’s reflections on why and how he ended up with Cindy, and it is while he is sitting down at one of the tables in the RV camp on the morning after Jeff, Megan, George, and Jason have joined his group.

If you haven’t read Into The Dark as of yet, I won’t suggest that you don’t read this, but it might not make as much sense until you do have the chance to check it out.  The same applies to the rest of the stories that I will be posting from here on out.  I will do my best to avoid revealing anything that may come as a major surprise to anyone who hasn’t read further than Comes The Dark, but since none of these characters are even introduced until the second book in the trilogy, all of this is probably a surprise anyway.

As always, I must state that I have tried my best to catch all the typos and glitches that are in this story, but I am sure there are some still in there.  So forgive me for that.

Michael, Frank, and Cindy

He knew being with her was all wrong.  It wasn’t supposed to be like this.  Everything up to this point in his life had been regimented and controlled, structured to allow for the greatest amount of success.  Even when civilization crumbled, he had adapted and maintained control over the situation.  Now he was the leader of a small, but growing tribe of people.  The bloody lines on the map he looked at every day spoke of his triumphs: where he had come from (where they all had come from) and where they were heading.  They would continue heading east, away from large population centers, and find even more people to join them.  His power would grow as more people relied on him and trusted his leadership.  It was all working out as planned.

But all those visions, all those dreams, had been disrupted.  He still wanted the power, but there were other, darker things crossing his mind these days.  They hadn’t been there before.  They had been planted there recently.

Perhaps that was an excuse.  Maybe they had always been there, and it took the right, or more accurately, the wrong person to trudge them up.  So maybe if that person was out of the picture, maybe all those dark, hideous desires inside his head would disappear along with her.

Either way, he was sure that Cindy had to go.

*

Michael had been groomed for greatness by his parents from early on in life.  Private boarding schools, Princeton, and then Michigan for his MBA.  Business first, then politics.    There had been a stint in a corporate training program for Proctor and Gamble.  That was after they had wooed him and offered him the best compensation package amongst a slew of elite employers.  There were several rapid promotions leading to the executive level.  He was the youngest Vice President in the company and was expected to go much further with them … if he chose to stay.  The plan was to build relationships with various lobbyists, business leaders, and politicians, working those connections to his advantage.  His father was highly respected not only in Connecticut, where Michael had grown up, but had politicians in his back pocket from all across the country.  Between his own burgeoning relationships and those of his father, Michael would be ready to run for office either in Connecticut or Ohio shortly after turning thirty.  From there the sky was the limit.

He was to marry first, of course.  There had been a few respectable girls in Cincinnati he’d dated, but they were of the disposable variety.  Most were young and attractive, but interspersed with them were a few women of more … experience, who had helped him along his career path at P&G and with his political desires.  But he was from old money and the expectations were that he would marry old money.  There just was not enough of it in Cincinnati for his or his father’s liking.  So he had been shuttling back and forth between Cincinnati and New York on weekends for the past few months so he could court Ms. Penelope Warden.  Her father was a business associate of Michael’s father.  More importantly, Penelope’s family had political connections that ran up and down the east coast and it certainly didn’t hurt that as an only child, she was due to inherit substantial holdings in several Fortune 500 companies when dear old dad kicked the bucket.

That was about the time when things went haywire and the blasted virus came into play.  At first Michael reacted like everyone else, in a complete panic.  His world came crashing down around him.  His downtown Cincinnati condo was in jeopardy almost immediately and he found himself barricaded inside it as the city tore itself apart thirty stories below.  He tried to contact his parents and younger brother, but they were out of the country, somewhere in the Mediterranean on the family yacht.  When he couldn’t get a hold of anyone else back home or even any of the other P & G executives to see if he could snag a ride out of town on one of the corporate jets, he realized he was on his own.  He didn’t bother trying to contact Penelope.  Despite claims of undying love for him, she wasn’t going to be much help from over six hundred miles away.  In a way, it was a relief.  She was an insufferable bore and a hypochondriac that complained incessantly.  Michael could tolerate a lot to achieve his objectives in life, but having her at his side during the apocalypse terrified him.

As the world crumbled around him and he was certain his demise was eminent, Michael recalled something his father had said to him repeatedly as a young boy.  “Life is what you make of it.  When things go bad and you get knocked down, dust yourself off and get back up.  You were born with my blood running through your veins and I’ve never been a quitter.  So don’t bother with the excuses, because I’m not interested in them.”

Thinking back on it those words, they seemed trite and unimaginative to Michael as an adult.  But to a child of ten, they sounded far more impressive and scary.  It really was not the words anyway – it was how his father had backed them up.  He pushed Michael into every activity the private schools he’d attended had to offer.  Every sport, every extra-curricular activity.  He was never allowed to quit or perform at a subpar or average level.  He was expected to have stellar grades, leadership roles, and top notch girlfriends from well to do families.  Of course, nothing was ever good enough for dear old dad, and Michael spent much of his early life sniffing at his father’s feet for any sort of praise he could get.

There was no sob story attached to his upbringing.  Michael did not freak out, rebel, or ever climb onto a therapist’s couch.  Sure, dad had his mistresses and because of that, mom was a functional alcoholic and pill popper, but none of that ever played out in public or really caused any uproar.  It was simply par for the course for a well to do family.

Instead, he grew up knowing he was better and stronger than everyone else.  If for no other reason, because of all the sweat he had to pour into all he did.  His childhood had been hard, but he knew anything worth having in life was hard.  His father’s philosophy had carried him this far and he knew it would carry him further still.

The sense of helplessness he felt while watching the city burn evaporated as he concocted a plan.  Once the fear left him, things became clear.  He grabbed the camouflage outfit he’d bought for some retreat he’d gone on with other executives at P&G.  For three days Michael had played paintball, got drunk out in the woods, and howled at the moon.  It had been an absolutely worthless experience, but at least he got some useful duds out of it.  He also grabbed the rather large knife he’d bought out of a catalog after training with edged weapons in his martial arts classes.  Tai Kwan Do had been studied more for keeping in shape than for self-defense, but now it appeared that he would have the chance to put that training and the knife to good use.

For one last time he scanned his place; all the expensive decorating touches he had spent top dollar for.  He glanced over at his wine collection and the few pieces of artwork he’d bought at auction.  The accoutrements of wealth and success.  It was all kindling for the bonfire that humanity was being tossed into now, nothing more.

Being able to accept that was what made Michael stronger than his peers, and he knew it.  So many of them would be desperate to save the trappings of their prior lives, believing that somehow that would make a difference.  They would all die clutching at scraps of that old world.  He could relinquish it all – the wealth, the prestige, the potential power … and recognize that in this new world there would be other types of power which would allow only few to stand out from the crowd.  And that power would not come from possessions or connections, but from the strength of one’s determination and ability to adapt.  Michael vowed to embrace this new world order and show his father and every other ghost living inside his head that he was up to the challenge.

The next couple of days were a blur of furious movement and hiding in any hole he could find.  He managed to escape the tower he lived in with a couple of other tenants, though neither of them made it too far.  They were convinced the police or military would save them, or that they would find a safe haven within the city.  Michael didn’t spare much regret when they were torn to pieces within blocks of their former home.

The running seemed endless, as did the uncomfortable and cramped spaces he found himself in to avoid detection.  He slept in a broom closet in the bowels of an office building at one point, with the mop bucket and several large containers of cleaning solution pushed up against the door.  He swiped bottles of water and smashed in vending machines to get food.  He avoided confrontations with both the living and the undead while moving steadily in the direction that appeared to be the safest: east.

The city was not only in flames, it a war zone.  The trick, Michael learned, was to be counterintuitive.  Other refugees migrated toward the shelters and where the National Guard was located.  They headed to the hospitals, police, and fire stations.  They were idiots.  Because not only were the living moving in that direction, so were the dead.

Michael listened to a portable radio he had taken with him from his condo, and every report about a shelter that had been set up in the city told him exactly where not to go.  And when the reports stopped, he continued listening for gunfire, and steered clear of that as well.  He slipped into areas that had already been overrun by the dead, because the stiffs had a pack mentality and followed their prey where ever they could sense them.  That meant that only the stragglers and those too feeble to walk were usually left behind once all the living had fled or been devoured.  Those few ghouls were far easier to manage than the large hordes attacking the National Guard troops and the frightened sheep the general population had become.

By the time Michael met Frank, the endless hiding and running had taken its toll on him.  He was wearing down and feeling dispirited, questioning whether his brilliant plans for the future were all just a bunch of crap he’d made up to keep him motivated to stay alive when there wasn’t much sense in doing so.

Michael almost killed the other man by accident, thinking Frank was a rotter.  He was beating the brains in of a woman with his bare hands out on the street, and it was hard to tell which of the two was alive.

Michael tried avoiding situations where things might get out of control on him.  He had no interest in playing the hero or drawing a crowd, but this was in a quiet residential neighborhood that he was walking through – there was no one in sight beside the two people a dozen yards in front of him.  It was, in fact, one of the first streets he’d been on that didn’t have at least a half dozen stiffs wandering aimlessly on it.

He’d come down this road because he saw several cars and even a work van that appeared to be in working condition out in plain sight.  Looking for a vehicle he could drive out of the area had preoccupied Michael’s mind during much of his journey.  Walking was getting old, and being out in the open and vulnerable was making him a nervous wreck.

As he came up on the two struggling figures, Michael wondered if the man, or maybe the woman he was beating on, might have a set of keys to one of the vehicles nearby.  Looking around, he spotted a heavy tree branch that had snapped and fallen to the ground.  There was, in fact, plenty of debris all over the street to choose from.  Shattered door frames, discarded house wares, and even a few broken road signs.  The area, an old, rundown neighborhood filled with dilapidated row houses, looked like a tornado had hit it.  The two people doing battle appeared to be the last remnants of whatever madness had passed through the area.

Michael crept up behind the man and raised his weapon, ready to strike.  Frank chose that moment to turn his head, perhaps having spied Michael’s shadow from the corner of his eye.  That probably ended up saving his life.  He turned white as a sheet and raised an arm to ward off the blow as he scrambled backwards.  He stumbled over the woman he’d been pummeling and fell on his ass beside her.

The woman, no longer pinned to the ground, turned over in an effort to reach Frank, who scrabbled away from her.  Her face was an open wound.  A flap of skin that contained most of her facial features slapped at her skull with every jarring movement she made.  She was a heavy set, matronly woman with thick arms and legs.  She was trying to hiss out something through her lips, though nothing intelligible.  With it, there was a shower of spittle and blood that came from the depths of her throat.

Frank was babbling as well as he pressed up against one of the cars parked at the curb.  Reaching behind his back, he made an effort to hook his hand onto the bumper to help elevate his corpulent frame to a standing position.

Michael slammed his booted foot down on the small of the woman’s back and drove her chest toward the pavement.  One of the hands she had used to elevate her body skidded out from underneath her, leaving most of the skin from her palm on the asphalt.  Her other arm snapped, braking below the elbow, which caused her to collapse.  Swinging the tree branch, Michael landed several blows as the ghoul struggled to get back up.  A scattering of teeth sprayed from her mouth as the abuse rained down on the back of her skull.  After a minute or so, the matronly woman’s movements stilled.

Michael studied the corpse for a moment before looking back at Frank.  The expression on the filthy man’s face would have been amusing, if it weren’t so pathetic.  Frank looked about as terrified of Michael as the monster he’d been brawling with.

The fear turned into nervous appreciation as the two men traded introductions.  After that, Frank’s story came out in a tumble, as if he was relieved to have the chance to speak to a live human being.  He’d been stuck in his basement for several days, and had been forced to “deal” with his wife, who’d been bitten early on.  They had no children, so he had been all alone ever since.  After a while, the itch to see what was going on outside as well as a chance to grab something beside the pork n’ beans he’d been living on caused him to climb the stairs, pry open the door he’d nailed shut, and take a look around.  Most of the stiffs out of the street had migrated elsewhere by then, since a lot of Frank’s neighbors fled in the first couple of days of the madness that had gripped the city.  So he went on the hunt for food in his neighbor’s houses.  That was when he happened upon Lila, the woman he’d been attacking when Michael wandered by.  She lived a couple doors down from Frank.  He had entered her home and found her in the kitchen, snacking on Stanley, her husband.  “I guess she wanted fresher meat, ‘cause ol’ Stan smelled a mite sour, so she went after me,” Frank said with a crooked grin.

He rushed to leave the house, but Lila followed, smashing through the front door he’d slammed shut behind him, forcing him to deal with her out on the street.

“I never liked that bitch much anyway,” Frank said with a nervous chuckle as his story came to an end.

Michael patiently listened to the sweaty, smelly man’s tale and tried to ignore the fact that Frank looked like the type of person he wouldn’t have spoken to on a bet just a week prior, unless it was to pay him to do plumbing work or some other menial task … not that someone in Frank’s condition (even if he had showered and had on clean clothes) would have ever made it past the doorman of Michael’s building.  But things had changed, and the need to adapt to this new environment, and to the people who remained in it, was imperative.  There would be a need for men like Frank, like there always had been.  He was the type who took orders and was willing to get his hands dirty … very dirty, if necessary.

Nodding politely, Michael did his best to seem interested in what Frank had to say as his eyes kept gravitating to the work truck sitting in the driveway nearby.

Frank invited Michael into his house and they shared a sparse meal of the beans remaining in Frank’s stash and a few of the candy bars Michael was carrying.  He did his best not to cringe at the smell of the decrepit house, noticing all the while that Frank didn’t seem to mind the foul odor emanating from his basement.  Michael’s guess was that Frank’s wife was still down there, and his new acquaintance had grown used to the smell of her rotten corpse.

It didn’t take more than an hour with Frank for Michael to make up his mind.  Frank wasn’t too sharp, but he was malleable and appeared willing to do just about anything to get out of the stink trap he’d been living in for the past week.  The idle promise of some booze and the assurance that together they could forge a new existence for themselves and anyone else they found sounded pretty good to Frank.  He was a pig, but Michael knew he would be a loyal pig, as long as he was given some mud to root around in on occasion.

Before the day was over, they were on the road in the truck, which happened to be Frank’s, maneuvering past the most of the wrecks and areas crawling with mobile corpses as they headed east, away from the city.

Frank was just another piece of the puzzle Michael had been working on in his head.  Getting used to the filthy, disgusting man would be easy, since he was willing to follow orders and grew excited at the prospects of a lawless world that would need men like them to set things straight.  They might have to do a few questionable things along the way, but that would be okay – in the end, those living under their protection would thank them for what the two men were willing to do for them, with no questions asked.

As they avoided the hordes of undead and the few clots of National Guardsmen still alive and still willing to fight, they passed their time capturing a few of the individual ghouls they came across.  Michael felt it was important to understand the enemy, to see if anything could be done to salvage these inhuman wrecks.  He tried to see if they would respond to any stimulus besides warm flesh, and if, given enough time, they could be turned into some sort of slave labor or mindless work force.

They would lure a single stiff into the back of the van.  A dead dog or cat carcass was usually enough to get them moving in the right direction.  The truck had a wire-reinforced barrier between the driver’s area and the back, which made it easy to collect specimens without fear of getting bit.  A couple of hockey sticks, a fishing net, and some padded gloves acquired from an abandoned sporting goods store were the only equipment they needed to manage the task, along with some stout rope.

When every experiment Michael did failed, he turned the monsters over to Frank, who enjoyed torturing the creatures.  Michael suspected it wasn’t because of some twisted desire for revenge that the small-minded man had, but because Frank got his rocks off that way.  Michael tolerated the behavior, though it repulsed him, because it gave his partner a little bit of joy in an otherwise dreary existence.

Over the next few days, they had run-ins with both the living and the dead, and managed to come out on top in each situation, adding to their level of confidence as well as their arsenal.  Frank laid claim to a double barreled shotgun while Michael got an M16 and 9mm pistol from some stubborn soldier who took a little bit of prodding before he gave them up.  Not long after that, they were also gathering people; stragglers more than happy to let Michael take the lead in their efforts to survive.  They ditched the van as their contingent grew in size, finding a small plastics factory that they could fortify until they could find more adequate transportation.

The battle to survive was a daily grind.  The group spent their time foraging for food, water, and other supplies that would help them make a go of it.  Everyone who joined Michael’s group was thrilled to be with other survivors and asked few questions about his methods, which was just how he liked things.  He doled out the responsibilities and Frank made sure everyone did as they were told.  It seemed that everyone was more than happy to be following orders – it gave their existence meaning and the confidence Michael exuded gave them hope.

Then Cindy came along.

Michael couldn’t say that she ruined everything.  To say that she had even changed his plans would be an exaggeration and a lie.  He knew Cindy didn’t change one single thing about his vision for the future.  They would still find a permanent home for the living that Michael preached about, and he would continue shaping everyone’s vision of the future.  Each step they took as a group was still as he dictated.

It wasn’t his vision that had changed with Cindy.  It was him who had changed.  After spending just a little time with her, he knew what she was.  She was a succubus, taking great pleasure sucking the life force out of him bit by bit.  But that wasn’t all.  She was not so indifferent to his suffering that she wanted to take everything away until he withered and died.  Instead, for every bit of him she took, she gave back piece of herself.  It was her gift.  For every rational thought, for every piece of compassion he tried to maintain a grip on but lost, there was something new put in its place.  Something that was dark and squirmed beneath his skin.  It burned in his gut and made it feel like his bones were turning to ash.

Cindy’s gift to Michael was her pure and unadulterated hatred for everyone and everything in the world.  And as much as he wanted to deny it, he had to admit that a part of him liked the gift she had given him.

Cindy had stumbled into the factory a couple of days after they’d set up camp and told a muddled story about a boyfriend who she’d shared a camper with until he was bitten.  The story was vague, but it didn’t bother Cindy that no one seemed to buy it – she stumbled over what her boyfriend’s name was and she was even vaguer about her existence before the virus had hit.  It was easy for Michael to dismiss; several of the people with them found it hard to talk about their past.  What was clear to him was that Cindy enjoyed the rough, harsh existence brought on by the plague, and didn’t have any problem killing infected.  She was good at it.  She was a strong, remorseless killer, and that appealed to him.  Most of the people he was surrounded by had an almost crippling fear of the undead, but not Cindy.

Almost immediately after being welcomed into the group, Cindy began the process of insinuating herself into Michael’s life.

Despite her outward appearance as a tattooed, rebellious free-spirit, Cindy was, in her own way, even more power hungry than Michael.  She recognized him as the person in charge and did everything she could to learn what made him tick.  Michael, who had rubbed elbows with politicians and the well to do his entire life, realized too late that he had no built in defense mechanisms to hold off the advances of someone so … raw, for lack of a better term.  Cindy had no fears, no boundaries, and a depraved, lusty nature that attracted Michael like a moth to the flame.

She was his girlfriend before he even realized it.  And from the first moment he did realize it, he understood that he needed to figure out a way to be free of her clutches.

Cindy scared Michael.  She could see right through him and knew from the get go that there was a repressed knot of rage buried deep inside that he rarely displayed.  She massaged that rage to the surface, prodding him into directing his anger toward her.  What scared Michael the most was that Cindy enjoyed it when he was mad at her.  She didn’t stop there, and pushed him into getting violent with her when no one else was around.  It was a sick trip, but the desire that burned in her eyes when she provoked him made it all the more frightening and appealing.  When he tried to restrain himself, she would push harder.  Lacing the violence with sex made it all the more confusing.  It was exhilarating and terrifying, and felt like they were in some sort of sick, symbiotic relationship; Cindy fed on his anger while at the same time encouraging more of it to grow inside of him so the supply she craved would be never ending.

The urge to resist Cindy weakened in time, though never disappeared.  There were far too many other things going on for Michael to worry about their relationship and what it was becoming.  About a week and a half after they claimed the factory as their own, it was overrun and several members of the group died as they escaped.

Michael’s group was once again out in the open and that was when the idea of getting a hold of an RV or two popped into his head.  Ben, one of the newcomers and a massive giant of a man, suggested they get more than just a couple, and set out to find a place they could bring them which would keep the group hidden away from danger.  He alluded at the fact that getting diesel to fuel those beasts would be tough, and become next to impossible in the upcoming months, but they would be incredibly useful even if they weren’t able to go that far.  They needed to find a place to hunker down that was defensible, and if they had enough RVs, they could create a barrier that would be difficult for the undead to penetrate.

It took several days, but they found an RV dealership not too far away while Ben found an ideal place to move the motor homes to near a small town called Manchester.  Things got messy and a few more members of the group perished during the process of moving and transplanting the RVs, but afterwards they were safe again, hidden behind massive metal walls and buried in a wooded area that would keep prying eyes, both living and dead, from seeing their new home.

As things settled down, Michael found himself with more free time, and more time to reflect on his existence than he’d had since he left his condo in downtown Cincinnati.  Marcus, who’d joined the group after they fled the factory, became Frank’s drinking buddy, which kept the lout preoccupied most of the time.  Ben volunteered to collect the supplies they needed and spent much of his time beyond the walls of the RV fortress hunting and scavenging around Manchester.  Lydia, one of the more recent additions to the group, was more than willing to take responsibility of managing the food and water and tending to the children.  All of this meant that Michael had more time to spend thinking … thinking about the future of the little civilization he was trying to create … and about how imperative it had become that he sever his ties with Cindy.

It couldn’t happen yet, not with the batch of newcomers that had just arrived, but soon enough.  No reason to give any of them any doubts about the stability of the pecking order in the camp.  Even if he did find Megan intriguing.

She wasn’t attractive … at least not at first glance.  She was physically weak and sickly looking, with dark circles beneath sunken eyes and pallor that was the norm for those who had spent the past few weeks either hiding or running in fear.  And yet, there was a sparkle in her eyes which was hard not to notice and traces of what she might have looked like before her world had been shattered haunted her face.  There was beauty hidden there, and given time and nurturing, it would return.  And for Michael, more important than any physical potential she possessed, she was a normal human being.  Megan was feisty, no doubt about it, but she wasn’t a sociopath, which elevated her status dramatically in his eyes.  She was a suitable match for him, and he doubted that anyone except Cindy would disagree with that.

But that could wait.  He could woo Megan after she, Jeff, and George understood their place in his little world.  It wouldn’t take long for them to realize they were better off doing things his way, rather than resisting the inevitable, or they would suffer the consequences.

Given enough time, Megan would regain the weight she’d lost and a healthy glow would return to her skin.  She would also come to her senses.  Life was a struggle, but it would be much easier with Michael at her side.  No amount of animosity she felt for him now would keep her from seeing the truth in the coming weeks.

The only thing standing in the way of that vision was Cindy.  She would have to be dealt with.  It had to happen soon.  Their relationship had grown more and more twisted with every day and night they spent together.

Michael knew that “dealing” with her wouldn’t just be a matter of kicking her out of the RV they shared or telling her it was over between them.  No.  It would require something a bit more drastic than that.

Perhaps a trip beyond the walls of their little fortress for just the two of them might be in order.  A trip she wouldn’t return from.  It wasn’t as if anyone would miss her anyway.

As he ran his finger along the razor sharp edge of the knife he kept strapped to his wrist, a nervous smile twitched at his lips.  He could deal with her.  He just had to work up the courage.

Then everything would return to normal inside of Michael’s head.  All the sinister urges Cindy had put in there would evaporate, disappear.  The dark cravings would be gone, and he would become the leader he had always wanted to be; the one everyone admired and respected, and not just feared.  All he had to do was get rid of her vile influence on him and everything would be just fine.

Soon.  He would do it soon.

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