Please note: This Internet publication of Risen is © 2000 by Jan S. Strnad. It is not public domain and may not be duplicated without permission!
Curtis Waxler was not warm to the idea of mopping out the morgue at midnight.
It seemed to him to be tempting fate, like walking through the cemetery on Halloween night or driving a car in Transylvania when the forecast called for rain. It was the sort of thing the obvious victims, the people Curtis and his friends referred to as "dead meat," do in monster movies.
But Doc Milford, who was also Chief Administrator of the Cooves County Hospital, was expecting the coroner to show up early for the autopsy on John Duffy and he wanted his facility to make a good impression.
They didn't perform many autopsies at Cooves County Hospital. It was usually pretty obvious what killed people when they got caught in the hay baler or had the tops of their cars peeled back like sardine cans and their heads sliced off by slow-moving combines driving the highway during summer harvest. It seemed obvious to Curtis, when he lifted the sheet over John Duffy's face and peered at the parted flesh and the exposed veins in the neck, what had killed the man. You didn't have to be a forensic scientist to figure it out. But the law required an autopsy and the coroner had been called and he would be there by eight a.m.
So here was Curtis and his bucket and his mop at the witching hour, down in the hospital basement with the corpse, doing as fine an impression of "dead meat" as any frustrated actor in Hollyweird ever dreamed when John Duffy's voice boomed out, "What in the hell...?" and the corpse sat up, flailing its arms under the sheet and banging its head on the light over the examining table and groaning and cursing a blue streak.
The effect on Curtis was profound.
He emptied his bladder to shed the excess weight and ran so hard for the half open door that he reached it before he was ready and banged smack into it, slamming it shut. He grabbed the door handle with sweaty hands and wrenched it open but he couldn't help but glance back over his shoulder to see if something was gaining on him. He saw John Duffy writhing on the table, still kicking at the sheet over his legs and looking as perturbed as a badger in a gunny sack. Duffy and Curtis locked eyes.
"You there!" Duffy bellowed, and Curtis whined as he dashed through the morgue door. His shoes squeaked on the linoleum as he made a ninety-degree turn in the hallway and ran like Jim Thorpe had run in Stockholm in 1912 but with less grace and a lot more volume.
Curtis punched the elevator button frantically and gave the doors one half-second to open. When they didn't he headed for the stairs with the slap of Duffy's bare feet resounding down the hallway and Duffy's voice calling after him, "You! Hey you!"
To the night nurse on the first floor, Curtis was only a flash in the corner of her eye as he streaked past her station.
"Get out!" Curtis yelled, and then he was gone, leaving behind bewilderment and the faint odor of fresh urine.
Duffy appeared moments later. He'd wrapped the sheet around his waist and tossed the rest of the material toga-like over his shoulder, which may be why Claudia White, the night nurse, stammered out "Great Caesar's ghost!" rather than any of a hundred other possible exclamations. Later she would think it was funny, but it didn't strike her that way now. What did strike her was the corner of the counter as she fainted dead away.
"Sheriff?" Doc Milford said into the phone. "I think you'd better get out here to the hospital right away.
"No, if I told you what it was, you'd think I was drunk.
"No, I am not, thank you very much.
"I don't know if it's an emergency. I don't think so.
"Just come, Gene, please. I want somebody to tell me I'm not going crazy."
They had found Duffy's underwear by the time Sheriff Clark arrived. The rest of his clothes were bloodstained and were being held as evidence by the Sheriff's Department.
Duffy sat in Doc Milford's office in his boxers and a blood pressure cuff. He looked up when the Sheriff entered.
"Am I under arrest?" he asked.
It took Sheriff Clark a full fifteen seconds to summon up the word "no." Then he sat down to have a serious chat with the deceased.
They determined the facts of the case pretty quickly, as completely as they could without the input of Curtis Waxler, who had vanished like a vapor into the night. Duffy was informed that his wife had murdered him in his sleep and that he had been officially pronounced dead by Doc Milford. Then Duffy had been taken to the morgue awaiting an autopsy where he appeared to have returned to life.
"Thank Christ you didn't cut me open!" Duffy exclaimed.
"John," said Doc, "believe me--it wouldn't have made any difference. You were as dead a man as I've ever seen. Livor mortis had set in. Primary flaccidity of the muscles. You weren't in a coma, you weren't catatonic, you were dead."
Sheriff Clark flashed suddenly on an image of John Cleese pounding a dead parrot on the counter of Michael Palin's pet shop.
"I don't know about any of that," Duffy snarled.
Doc produced Polaroids documenting his diagnosis.
"Here. Look. This is how you were brought in twelve hours ago. Your throat was slit practically ear to ear."
Duffy glanced at the photos and then tossed them back at Doc. Sheriff Clark noticed the tightness in Duffy's jaw and the dark look in his eyes and was glad that Duffy wasn't drunk. With liquor in him, Duffy argued with his fists.
"I don't know what you're trying to pull," Duffy said, "but if you think I'm paying you dime one for this horseshit, you're wrong. My throat's fine. I've never felt better in my life."
"Sometime around midnight, you apparently returned to life," Doc said. "Your wound was completely healed."
Duffy snorted. He looked up at Sheriff Clark.
"You say Madge did that to me?" he said, gesturing toward the Polaroids.
"I have her taped confession at the station. She says you got drunk, beat her up and passed out on the sofa. While you were asleep, she cut your throat."
Duffy shook his head.
"I don't remember any of that."
A few moments passed in silence, during which Doc and Sheriff Clark exchanged looks and shrugs. Doc fought down an overwhelming urge to apologize, but what did he have to apologize for? For declaring a dead man dead?
"Where's she now?" Duffy asked.
"She's in a cell."
"But you got nothing on me?"
"We don't file charges against the victim, John, or against corpses. If Madge wants to file a domestic abuse complaint"
"I don't remember any beating. I want to see her."
"I don't think that would be a good idea."
Duffy's mouth curled into a smirk. "Sheriff," he said, "you're gonna have a hell of a time convincing a jury that Madge killed me with me sitting there on the bench saying it ain't so. So you just let her out of that jail of yours and take her home and tell her I'll be there waiting for her."
Doc said, "I think you should stay here, John, at least until we can run some more tests. There will be no charge. But something awful damned strange is going on and we need to get to the bottom of it."
Duffy shook his head. He rose slowly and drew himself up to his full five feet and nine inches of height. He stood there in his boxer shorts and looked down his nose at Doc Milford.
"No, you might just decide I was dead again and I'd wake up in a pine box. You've wasted enough of my time. Now who's giving me a ride? I'd catch my death walking home like this."
Madge was awake when the Sheriff returned. She hadn't slept clear through a night for some years and sleeping on a cot in a jail cell didn't make it any easier. She wondered if she wasn't dreaming, though, when Sheriff Clark opened the cell door and invited her out to the office for a cup of coffee. That that was nothing compared to what she thought when he told her that her husband didn't seem to be dead after all.
"Not dead?" she said, unable to keep the disappointment from her voice. "What did I do wrong?"
"Technically speaking, nothing. You severed a carotid artery which should have led to an immediate stroke. And even if he didn't die of stroke, the cut in his jugular was deep and ragged and he should have at least bled to death."
Madge prided herself on being meticulous, so it stung a little to hear that her cut was considered "ragged" by professional standards. It was just like her, though, to bungle a simple job like killing her sleeping husband. Even more upsetting was the thought of what John would do to her when he got out of the hospital.
"How long will he be...confined?" she asked.
Sheriff Clark sighed, a habit he seemed to have acquired since getting the call from Doc Milford. "He isn't," he said. "Doc Milford drove him home a short while ago. He's waiting for you there."
Sheriff Clark saw the blood drain from Madge's face.
"Oh, my," she said.
"Is there someone you can stay with? A relative?"
No, there was no one.
"I just don't understand it," she said. "I know he was dead, Sheriff. A wife can tell these things. And Doc Milford"
"Madge," the Sheriff interrupted, "I don't have an answer for you. We're all completely baffled. John should be...John was dead. There's no mistaking that. But he's very much alive again. There isn't so much as a scratch to indicated...what happened. I can't keep you here. You're a free person."
"No. I'm not," Madge replied, and Sheriff Clark knew what she meant.
They sat in silence for several minutes. Now and again the hairs on the back of the Sheriff's neck stood up for no apparent reason, and just as often Madge would shudder as if from a chill and take another sip of wretched, greasy coffee.
Madge looked over at Clyde Dunwiddey in his cell, snoring in drunken repose, and envied him. No spouse to answer to. No one to judge his every move and find it wanting. She had almost attained that freedom for herself, but somehow she'd mucked it all up the way she mucked up everything she tried. John hadn't come back from the dead, he couldn't. Madge believed in miracles but they were for saints and such, and John was no saint, to put it mildly.
It was all a mistake. She'd done everything wrong. John was right about her. She was a waste, a sheer waste.
She said at last, "I'd better be getting home, then," but she sat in the hard wooden chair for another ten minutes picking at the Styrofoam cup of dregs until the lip was as ragged as an amateur wound in a husband's throat.
"I'll drive you," Sheriff Clark said. "Maybe I'll have a few words with John when I drop you off."
"Thank you," Madge replied. "I'll just get my pillow and we can go."
It was all clear to him now.
John Duffy had never been able to figure out the ways of the world before. It seemed so complex, like chess, where you could learn the basic moves in a few minutes but the strategy of the thing took some kind of genius to master.
School had been a nightmare, every day bringing a new humiliation. He hated the blackboard and every miserable math problem he couldn't solve and every lousy sentence he couldn't diagram. He hated spelling bees and oral reports and the way the teacher called on him whenever he didn't know the answer and never called on him when he waved his hand desperately in the air. He tried waving his hand when he didn't know the answer once and of course that was the time she did call on him and then he really felt like shit when he had to admit, his face turning radiant, that he didn't know it after all. How the kids had laughed at him that time.
No wonder he dropped out.
Working at the garage was no better. He was a good mechanic, he knew that, but the owner was always looking over his shoulder and second-guessing him, telling him that whatever he was doing was wrong. He couldn't please the guy no matter what he did.
No wonder he had quit.
Just as he had to quit every job he'd held since then. What cosmic law was it that made every garage owner either an idiot or an asshole and most likely both? If he could find one place that wasn't like working in an insane asylum, that treated him with the respect he deserved, that didn't play favorites, where you didn't have to be a goddamn computer expert just to change a set of spark plugs...that's all he wanted.
But he couldn't figure it. He couldn't figure how kids just out of school got the raises that eluded him. Or why supervisors who couldn't find their ass with both hands and a road map were determined to keep him down. Or how owners who were too dumb to cross the street without a dozen Boy Scouts made enough money to buy six-bathroom houses and fancy cars.
Meanwhile, here was John Duffy with not much of a formal education but more common sense than any dozen bosses he'd worked for, still bouncing from job to job, town to town, working his ass off for stinking wages that never even paid the bills.
It didn't make any sense.
Madge thought she knew it all, of course. Madge, with the I.Q. of a guppy, who'd never held a job in her life, thought she knew better than he did what went on at work.
"Maybe if you tried harder to get along," she'd say. Or, "Well, I can see his point." After he'd slapped her around a few times she'd learned to keep her mouth shut, but he could still see the disapproval in her eyes, the accusation that somehow all their troubles were his fault. Everything was always his fault. He couldn't bear it sometimes and he'd have to hammer something with his fists, just pound the living shit out of something, and Madge was always there, always there.
But it was clear now. He'd had time to think and to remember. He was confused at first, but it was all coming back to him now and the puzzle pieces were falling into place. All those thousands and thousands of pieces were forming a picture that he could see in its entirety. He had made the passage and it had opened his eyes.
The answer to life was simple after all, as he'd always suspected it was.
The answer was Seth.