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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!

Risen
by Jan Strnad

 

Six

The woods were lovely, dark and deep.

Not that Deputy Haws, trapped under eighteen inches of earth, was in any position to appreciate that loveliness.

His first impulse upon returning from the dead was to open his eyes. They filled instantly with dirt that lodged under his eyelids and scratched like sandpaper. Muddy tears flowed over his pounding temples.

He opened his mouth to cry out and dirt flowed between his lips. It mixed with spit to form a bitter black paste that clung to his tongue and the roof of his mouth. He sucked dirt into his nostrils. The dust tickled his nose but his lungs held no air with which to cough. His empty chest cramped painfully. Rivulets of muddy saliva worked their way to the back of his mouth and trickled down his throat. He felt his gorge rising.

His arms were pinned by the press of earth. His legs, immobile. He fought his lungs' demand to take in air, for there was none, only the engulfing residue of death and decay.

Haws lay in total darkness, unable to move an inch, the planet pressing him on all sides, earth insinuating itself into every wrinkle and crevice, no sliver of light, no air, no space. He couldn't pound on the constricting walls, couldn't scream. He was an object buried by children, sacrificed to the slow invasion of roots and water and the appetites of burrowing creatures.

His mind crackled with terminal efficiency. He had died and come back, and now he was about to die again, smothered in a blanket of crust, invaded through every orifice by the dust that was the beginning and end of life.

He remembered the hot sear of the bullet entering his belly and the taste of blood and bile from his shredded stomach that bubbled up through his throat. He remembered how time seemed to stand still, how the boys who'd killed him froze like slack-jawed statues. Galen Ganger was the first to realize what had happened, and Haws remembered the glint in his eyes, the flush of delight on his face, the sneering smile creeping over his lips just as everything misted over and then turned black and then white, white, white.

These memories flashed through Haws' mind in an instant, and in the next instant Haws vowed to get even with the Ganger kid and all the others, with everyone who'd ever tormented him or called him Deputy Hawg or laughed at him behind his back. Such was the promise he made to himself, sealed in the body of the smothering earth, suffocating, entombed. Buried alive.

He would get revenge. Seth would guide him, as Seth would help him now.

Fighting the panic Haws twisted his right hand palm up and worked the fingers like worms. He clawed at the dirt and his hand began to bore like a separate, digging creature for the surface.

He turned his left hand and it, too, clawed at the encompassing ground. How deep was his grave? Maybe inches, maybe feet.

He saw himself in his mind's eye as if in an ant farm, buried deep beneath grass and roots and rocks and bones, under the rabbit warrens and insect trails, his hands clawing pitifully at the earth, working their way in vain toward an airiness as out of reach as the moon.

Haws shook from the suppressed urge to fill his lungs. He clenched his teeth until his jaw ached. He felt the scritching of tiny legs in his left ear as a beetle, swollen with eggs, tunneled in. Something moist and silent slithered across his lips.

His hands continued their slow-creeping crawl. He found that he could raise his arms a little and then a little more. The earth was crumbling beneath his fingers. He swiveled his shoulders and turned his head from side to side, his nose digging at the dirt. But these were feeble victories, the last spastic twitchings of the fly caught in amber. His chest ached. He felt as if his entire insides were turning to stone.

He could hold it no longer. His lungs demanded air with which to scream. He would open his jaws and fill his lungs with dirt and let it gorge his windpipe and starve his brain. Anything was better than this dark torture!

And then his hands broke through to the cool night air.

They must have made some sight, his dirt encrusted fingers worming through the thin cover of leaves and then clawing frantically at the earth over his chest and face. Then his mud-streaked face heaved into view, gasping and coughing dirt, eyes bloodshot from abrasion and terror. He dug the dirt from his eyes and vomited it from his stomach and dug the kicking beetle out of his ear. He clawed the dirt off his legs and rose, choking and heaving, to his feet.

Ants, outraged over the night's excavations, swarmed over the deputy's feet and climbed his ankles. He stomped to the shallow riverbed and let the current whisk them away. He scooped up water to splash his dirty face and washed the dried blood from his mouth and chin. A brown stain, blackened with powder, marked his shirt. Haws inserted a finger through the hole and prodded his belly. Then he opened his shirt and stared at the perfect, unbroken skin. Not even a scar or a scab commemorated his murder.

All around him was coolness and night. A breeze stirred the branches, rustling leaves. Bats fluttered. Rodents scurried for cover under the rush of owls' wings. Crickets chirped. Water bubbled and babbled and flowed ice cold over the rocks of the riverbed.

Haws peered into the darkness with new eyes. His past life seemed a million years gone. He saw everything with a new clarity of mind and mission. He thought of the boys who'd killed and buried him, and he remembered the vow he'd made as he lay underground with the other subterranean things.

The woods were lovely, dark and deep.

But Deputy Haws had promises to keep.

***

Madge politely declined the Sheriff's offer to come in and speak with John. If anything, it would only enrage him more. If it was remotely possible that John wasn't already spitting nails over his murder, the interference of the law would catapult him beyond the edge.

John had as little use for the police as did a serial killer. How many times had the law brought him to the front door, drunk, with blood caked under his nose and his jaw bruised from a fight in some bar? Each time, she knew she would bear the brunt of his fury.

Come to think of it, Madge didn't expect much from the police herself. They couldn't protect her. They only brought him home, time and again, to hit her with his fists or something harder. They took note of her complaints and filed their reports, even hauled John off to jail a time or two. But they always let him go. And he always came home madder than when he left, and Madge always paid the price.

What would he do to her now that she'd tried to kill him? And why, if he was going to be there waiting for her, was the living room so dark?

She called his name. There was no answer. She turned to lock the door and then thought better of it. The danger was not outside, but in. She had let the stranger in twenty years ago when she opened her heart to John. She left the door unlocked in case she had to run. Maybe, with luck, he would be too drunk to follow her and she could escape into the darkness.

She stood at the door and thought about running now. Why wait for the hand to grab her arm and twist it until she fell to her knees? Why wait for fists to knock her to the floor and hard-toed work shoes to bury themselves in her ribs? Why wait until she lay on the floor crying and begging his forgiveness and trying painfully to drag herself out of range of his anger? Maybe he'd break her leg again and she wouldn't be able to run at all. Why wait? Why not go right now? Why not run?

Because there was nowhere to run to. Hadn't her sister warned her, after the last time, that she was tired of seeing Madge all bruised and broken, and that if she didn't leave John after this she could just run to someone else?

Leave. They made it sound so easy. As if a forty-year-old woman with no skills could just rent an apartment with no money, no security deposit, no first and last month's rent. As if John wouldn't find her and kick the door down and drag her back home wherever she ran.

She peered into the darkness. She turned on the switch but the light was off at the lamp. She called his name again and there was still no answer.

For a moment she dared to hope that he'd left her. Just packed his things and left. How could you live with a woman who had split your neck while you slept?

"John?" she called.

"Upstairs," he replied, and Madge's hopes died.

Well, what did she expect? She was a murderess, after all. If John did beat her, even if he killed her, it was no less than she deserved.

She flicked the switch that would illuminate the stairs. The stairway remained dark. Had he removed the bulb, or did he break it in a fit of anger?

She set her foot onto the first step and began to climb. She didn't have to see the wallpaper along the stairs to know it was faded or see the carpeting beneath her feet to know it was worn thin. The details of the house were as familiar to her as the lines in her own face. The shabbiness of it depressed her. This was her house, this was her self, shabby and worn to bare threads. If John did kill her, maybe he would have the courtesy to put a match to it all, destroying the evidence of his crime and sending her ashes into the sky, soaring at last.

Her mother must have felt this despair all those years ago, when she took her life to escape Madge's father. Madge had grown up with the fights and the beatings. Her sister had run away when she was fourteen, but Madge stayed behind. Someone had to stay with their mother. If now and again she could divert her father's anger away from her mother and onto herself, maybe her mother would find the strength to put an end to the abuse. Maybe she'd see Madge being beaten and something inside her would rise up and break the spell of fear her father had woven over them all. Maybe she'd grab something...a poker or a chair or anything...and bring it down hard over his head....

Instead, her mother had swallowed poison and died a horrible death that left her husband's rage focused with unrelenting precision on Madge. When John Duffy started "sniffing around" (as Madge's father called it), he brought hope for Madge's own escape. He was strong and forceful. He would protect her from her father. And so they were married when Madge was nineteen and she passed from one hell to another.

She endured John's abuses but made one promise to herself. She would not die for him. She would not kill herself over a man the way her mother had done. She would find any other escape if it became too much to bear. Murder, if need be.

She continued her march. The railing wobbled under her hand, the stairs creaked in all the familiar spots.

As she neared the top of the stairs she could hear him up there, pacing. She looked up. The bulb in the overhead socket was gone, but there was a flickering light from down the hall. Not an electric light but something warmer and less steady, like a candle, but too bright for a candle. She reached the landing and saw that the light came from the bedroom.

"John?" she said.

"In the bedroom."

His voice was pinched, expectant. He was waiting for her, lying in wait like some great, hairy beast crouched in the corner of its cave, eyes afire, waiting for its prey to come stumbling in. Waiting to pounce.

She stepped hesitantly toward the open bedroom door. She could smell the burning wax. So it was a candle, or rather, many candles. Why did he remove the bulb? What was he planning that required candles? Some churches used candles. Some rituals....

A sacrifice.

Her heart pounded in her chest. Her throat constricted so she could barely speak. Her voice, when again she spoke his name, was thin and wavering.

"John?"

"In the bedroom," he repeated. "I'm waiting for you."

She wanted to turn and run, to lose herself in senseless flight. But what was the point? She couldn't run forever. If it was going to end, let it be now. Let it be here. Let him beat her to death if that's what he wanted, but let it be over once and for all. She deserved it. She was a murderess in her heart. She didn't deserve to live.

Her only prayer was that he do it quickly. Maybe he would be so angry that couldn't hold himself back. He would hit her once and knock her out and she wouldn't even feel the killing blow.

She walked across the landing to a yellow trapezoid of light on the floorboards that issued from the open door. It beckoned her with its warmth. She reached the very edge of the light and paused. This was her last chance to run. If she entered the light, if she so much as let it touch the tips of her shoes, the decision would be made.

She took one more step and turned her head to peer into the bedroom.

He must have dug out every candle in the house, she thought.

The room was ablaze with candlelight. John stood in the middle of it. His hair was washed and neatly combed, slicked back the way he used to wear it, and smelled of Wildroot. He wore his only suit. The vest was tight across his middle and a button was missing from the jacket. His shoes were brightly buffed and shining in the candlelight. The pants, judging from the way the zipper opened ever so slightly in a V, must have been fastened with a safety pin around the waist. He hadn't worn the suit in years. Ages.

"Do you remember?" he asked. He stepped forward. "Our first night in our first house, the power wasn't on yet but you insisted that we spend the night there."

My God, she thought, that was a hundred years ago.

"I...bought candles," she said. And John had griped about what a waste of money it was.

"It was the beginning of a new life." He walked toward her slowly, as if afraid of frightening her off. "Tonight was another beginning. I was born again, Madge. I'm a new man. Maybe I almost deserved what you did to me, I don't know. But I don't hold anything against you. We're starting over again. Starting fresh."

He was close enough to touch her now. She tensed as he lifted his arms, afraid of what he would do, but he only rested his hands on her shoulders.

"We have work to do," he said. "We'll do it together, you and me. I can't explain it yet, but you'll understand soon enough. You'll see. Everything's going to be different."

Madge couldn't believe her ears. Was he reborn, really? His eyes were so bright, like they were twenty years ago before they'd grown cold and mean. In any event, what could she do about it? She was trapped there the same as ever. If things were better or worse, it didn't matter. There was nothing she could do about it.

His hands on her shoulders began to weigh her down.

"It's been a rough trip," John said. "It was quite a shock, waking up in the morgue. Then Doc told me I'd died, and the Sheriff came around and told me how. They showed me pictures, Madge. They weren't pretty. I'm not blaming you and I'm not mad. But I'm tensed up. Very tensed up."

The hands were pushing her down. She knew now what he wanted. It was one thing she'd never given him, not so much because she was against it, but because it seemed to be what he wanted almost more than anything else. It was the one thing he'd never been able to force her to do, despite the threats and the beatings.

She lowered herself to her knees. As she lowered his zipper, she told herself that she was not giving in. Maybe it was a new beginning. He wasn't threatening her. He'd forgiven her for a thing she'd done to him that was much worse than what he wanted now. It wasn't giving up to do this. It was an act of good faith. It showed she was willing to do her part.

The pressure on her shoulders remained as she drew him out of his pants, all hard and expectant. She looked up to see him standing like a saint in all that candlelight, the glow flickering over his face and glistening on his Wildroot-slickened hair, his mouth set tight but curling slightly at the corners, and she wondered if she knew what she was letting herself in for. She decided that she did not.

Oh, well, she told herself, you never did.

 

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Chapter Seven