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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

 

Seven

Deputy Haws stood in the dark back yard of the Culler house and looked up at the bedroom window. Tom's Honda was parked beside the house, his muddy shoes were on the back porch. So the boy was home.

Haws forced open the back door with the strength of the undead and shuffled his way inside. One foot had stopped working somewhere between the grave and the house. His good foot, thick with mud, sucked at the vinyl flooring of the kitchen. The other, dragging behind, left a brown smear. Bits of decaying flesh dropped from his body, landing ker-splop ker-splop in his wake.

Somehow, without passing through the living room, Haws was on the stairs that led to Tom's bedroom. His dead foot knocked against each step as he painfully heaved himself up the long flight of stairs. He gripped the banister with a deteriorating, lichen-covered hand.

Haws gazed up with his one good eye. It was glazed over and yellow with pus. The other eye had fallen out in the woods. Earthworms oozed from the socket like meat through a grinder. Haws' teeth were decayed, some were missing, and his rancid breath issued through torn lips in a visible yellow-green vapor.

His head twitched. It seemed too heavy for him to lift. Sometimes it sagged until his chin collided with his chest, and then he'd raise it again, looking up, his Cyclops eye fastened on Tom's bedroom door.

Then suddenly he was standing over the bed where Tom slept fitfully, embroiled in a bad dream. Tom tossed his head from side to side muttering, "No, don't, Haws, don't, stay away, you're dead, dead, Haws, don't...."

The room was starkly lit by the full moon shining in the window. Haws leaned his slack-jawed head over the sleeping boy. Drool hung from Haws' mouth and dangled over Tom's face. Longer and longer grew the thread until it broke free and deposited itself on Tom's lips.

Tom opened his eyes. He beheld the grinning face of Deputy Haws hovering over him, staring at him with one yellowed orb, haloed by the full moon in the bedroom window, breath hissing from his throat like gas through a cracked pipe, maggots overflowing his mouth and the stench of death exuding from his putrescent flesh.

Tom screamed.

He sat bolt upright to find himself in a bedroom bright with morning sun. A mockingbird outside the window chirped another bird's song. Tom shook his head to clear the cobwebs.

"Shit," was all he could think to say.

His mother called to him from downstairs.

"Coming!" he said.

He hauled himself out of bed and stumbled toward the bathroom. His foot slipped on something wet and gooey and he fell to the floor.

"What the hell...?" he said, and then he saw the muddy footprints leading from the hallway to the bathroom. They weren't his. They couldn't be his. He'd left his shoes outside on the porch.

The bathroom door was closed. Carefully he climbed to his feet and followed the muddy prints to the bathroom. He threw open the door.

And stared into the grinning face of Deputy Haws peering at him with one yellowed eye, maggots overflowing his mouth and the stench of death issuing....

Tom cried out as his eyes popped open and he found himself flat on his back in bed in a bedroom bright with morning sun and a mockingbird outside the window chirping another bird's song and his mother calling to him from downstairs.

"Jesus," he muttered, awake or dreaming, not certain which, "how long is this going to go on?"

***

Tom stared at the sunny side up eggs on his plate and wondered if he had ever seen anything more repulsive in his life. The bad dreams had left him with a queasy stomach that had been sour enough when he went to bed.

The events of the previous night were beginning to feel like a nightmare. He'd have given everything to make it a bad dream or make it right or just make it all go away. It was so weird to think of Deputy Haws lying out there in the woods, under the ground, and that it was Tom and his friends who'd put him there.

It was all Galen's doing, of course, but the law wasn't as lenient on accessories to crime as it used to be. Just being there when somebody shot somebody else was enough to get you a mandatory sentence if the circumstances were right. Didn't you have to be committing a crime or something for that law to apply? But shooting a cop...man, that was serious shit no matter what. And he knew that covering it up was a mistake that would come back to haunt them.

Was that what his dreams were about?

The swinging door to the kitchen banged open and Tom jumped a mile, expecting to see Deputy Haws' rotting face and moldy-green body come shambling through. He was only slightly relieved to see his mother, especially since Peg wore the tight-lipped, scowly look that said she was about to jump on his case about something.

"You look like crap," she said.

"Thanks."

"Late night."

"That's what Fridays are for," he said.

"Fridays are for going on dates with girls, going to football games, going out for dinner and a movie. For renting a tape and making out on the sofa after your mother goes to bed. Whatever happened between you and Cindy, anyway?"

Tom shrugged.

"Didn't work out," he said. He glared at her through his eyebrows to show her that any good humor she tried to spend on him would go unappreciated. He'd rather she just ragged him out. She got the message.

"I don't want you going out with that gang tonight," she said.

"It's not a gang."

"Then what is it, Tom? Please, characterize it for me. Is it a charitable organization...you're out doing good deeds for the underprivileged?"

He glared at her in silence.

Peg propped her arms on the table and leaned toward him.

"Look," she said. "You're old enough to be out after midnight. I don't care about any sort of curfew. You could stay out until six in the morning and I wouldn't care, not if I knew you were all right and weren't getting into trouble. But I don't like the boys you're hanging out with, and I especially don't like that Ganger boy."

"Why is he always 'that Ganger boy' to everybody? Why doesn't anybody just call him 'Galen?'"

"Because that's what he's made himself. And I don't want people calling my son 'that Culler boy.' You used to be a good student, once upon a time. Until you started hanging out with those...with Galen and Kent and the others."

"They have nothing to do with it."

"They have everything to do with it. They're ignorant. They don't value education. They don't value anything but those souped up cars of theirs and getting drunk and--"

"You don't know that! You don't anything about them!"

"I know enough." She was thinking that they were just like Tom's father, but a comment to that effect would spin them off to a place she didn't want to go.

Peg sat there looking at Tom stonily. Tom stared at his eggs and they stared back. Big yellow eyes. The yolks looked like pus.

"Your eggs are getting cold."

"I'm not hungry."

Peg sighed. "They're a bad influence on you."

"Who? The eggs?"

"Don't be a wiseass. You know who I mean. They won't be happy until they drag you down to their level. You were a good student before. Now I never see you crack a book."

"You'd have to be home for that, wouldn't you?"

Peg's jaw set and Tom could tell from the way she started breathing heavily through her nose that he'd hit a nerve.

"What do you think waitressing pays in this town?" she asked after an ominous pause. "You think I'm rolling in twenty dollar tips out here? You think I want to work double shifts? I do what I have to to put food on the table...food you don't even care enough eat!"

The guilt was starting to roll in like a fog that settled over Tom's mind, obscuring everything. Where did it come from, this fog? He didn't have anything to feel guilty about...well, except the dead cop he'd helped bury in the woods. But what he was feeling now was old guilt. Old, familiar guilt.

He knew how hard his mom worked. He knew how hard it'd been on her since the divorce, and since she and Tom's dad weren't married when he died, there wasn't even any insurance money. He should've been working, but at what? Busboy in Ma's Diner? God, but Anderson sucked.

"I'll eat the eggs," he said.

Peg pounded the table. The dishes jumped and so did Tom.

"I don't care about the goddamn eggs!" she screamed. "I just want you to straighten the hell up! Quit hanging out with losers! Take school seriously! For Chris'sakes, Tom, I just want you to use your head!"

The implication that he was stupid cut Tom to the quick.

"Well maybe you've got two brain-dead kids in the family!" he snapped, with instant regret. That was low, bringing Annie into it. He wished he could call the words back and stuff them back down his throat where they belonged.

Peg's hand, moving with the speed of reflex, whipped out and slapped him hard across the face.

Tom sat back, stunned. He shoved his chair away from the table. It made a groaning noise and toppled onto its back, and he left it that way as he strode out of the room.

"Be here when I get home!" Peg yelled after him. She heard him tromp upstairs, heard his bedroom door slam shut.

Tom flopped down on his bed and somehow the motion made him think about Deputy Haws' body flopping into the hole they'd dug. He wished he could trade places with the dead deputy right now. He wished he was dead and buried and didn't have to hassle with all this bullshit.

"Shit," he said as the tears welled in his eyes.

In the kitchen, Peg considered allowing herself a good, hard cry. But she was already late and Ma was waiting for her at the diner, so she put it off, as she always seemed to do.

***

Doc Milford plopped the Polaroids one after the other in front of Brant, a stomach wrenching sequence detailing Madge Duffy's carving skills.

Brant merely glanced at the photos. He had no reason to doubt their authenticity or Doc's analysis of John Duffy's condition. Still, it seemed important to Doc to lay out all the evidence in favor of considering Duffy dead on Friday night. Maybe he was thinking of a malpractice suit. Or maybe he was doubting his sanity.

"The coroner showed up this morning and verified my diagnosis," Doc said. "He could tell from looking that these were pictures of a dead man, and he's seen his share. When I told him that this very same man had walked out of the hospital under his own power not eight hours later, he wouldn't believe me. And I don't blame him. It's the fruitiest goddamn story I've ever heard in my life. But it happened, I saw it, and all I have to prove it are these pictures."

"You aren't suggesting that I run these photos in the Times!"

"No, no, nothing like that. But you see why I had to show them to you. This wasn't some borderline case. Duffy showed all the normal symptoms of death--lack of respiration, no pulse--but for gosh sakes, look at the man!

"Normally I'd feel for a carotid pulse. In Duffy's case, with his neck laid open like that, I could see the carotid--plainly severed! The blood is not circulating in his body. Look how it's settled in the lower body area--they call it "postmortem stain." Livor mortis.

"And...there were the flies."

"Flies?" Brant asked.

"They smell death. Long before you or I would notice the smell of a dead body, the insects pick it up. We still don't know what produces the odor, but flies can smell a fresh corpse from a mile away. Madge Duffy left a window open. When the Sheriff got there, he said the body was swarming with flies."

Brant was silent. He didn't want to seem skeptical, but he hadn't seen the body himself. Could this all be a prank? Big city cynicism dies hard.

Doc Milford began to pace. He had a bad hip that wanted surgery but he kept putting it off, his own worst patient.

"I could've run an EEG," he said, "looked for brain death, but really, who would've thought it necessary?

"And even if I was wrong about the death...even if Duffy was just seriously wounded, where's the wound now? Where's the scar? It'd take hours of surgery to reattach those veins and arteries, and the stitches...he'd look like a damned Frankenstein."

His limping stride took him over to the goldfish bowl he kept in his office for its tranquilizing effect. He tapped some food into the bowl and the lone fish gobbled it up eagerly.

"People talk," Doc said as he fed the fish. "The news of the murder was all over town like a plague wind. Duffy's return is already making the rounds. And you can bet that most people are saying what an incompetent old coot Doc Milford is and how he should have retired years ago before the liquor robbed him of his senses. Well I don't want to retire, especially not over something like this."

Brant's sympathy went out to the man. Doc Milford had devoted most of his adult life to the births and traumas of his small community and now he stood a good chance of being hooted out in disgrace. They wouldn't run him out of town, of course, but one great wave of gossip would wash out his sterling past and reduce him to another town character, like Clyde Dunwiddey the drunk. It was a fate worse than death for a proud man like Doc.

"I'll do what I can, Doc," Brant offered. "I'll point out that the coroner agreed with you, based on the photos. If Sheriff Clark and Jed Grimm will back you up...."

"You see," Doc interrupted. "If. You don't believe me. You think I'm off my rocker."

"I didn't say...."

"Oh, I don't blame you. Yes, please, talk to the Sheriff. Talk to Jed Grimm. The night nurse, Claudia White, saw the body. Talk to her, too. But wait 'til she's off the sedatives. She got quite a shock last night."

"I imagine so."

Both men were silent for a time. Brant glanced at the photos on Doc's desk. John Duffy sure looked dead to him. He'd be interested to hear what the Duffys had to say about all this.

As much as he wanted to believe Doc and to believe that something incredible had occurred in this tiny town in the middle of nowhere, as much as he wanted to think that he'd somehow, magically been at exactly the right place at the right time to stumble onto the story of the decade, Brant knew better than to get his hopes up. There was probably a simple explanation. It was a hoax or a misunderstanding of some sort. He couldn't figure it out now but it would come to him or the right piece of the puzzle would fall into place and solve everything in a mundane, logical and very ho-hum manner.

If nothing happened to explain it, it would remain an anomaly. A tabloid item, MURDERED MAN RETURNS TO LIFE, photos on page twelve. Something to read in line at the supermarket, being sure to snort derisively in case anyone was watching, commenting as you put the newspaper back in the rack, "Can you believe the trash they print? Does anybody really believe this stuff?"

"Mind if I take these?" Brant asked. "I'll scan them into the computer, get them back to you."

"Fine, fine," Doc replied.

"I'll do what I can," Brant said again.

"I know you will," said Doc, but he wondered to himself if anybody could do anything at this point, or if events weren't already spinning wildly out of control.

***

Deputy Haws had been pissed as a bluejay that night to find himself more than six miles from his consarned vehicle. He'd walked along the highway without encountering a single car. These days anybody who was anxious to get anywhere took the interstate, leaving the old county highway to service the dying little towns that had sprung up along its path so many years ago. It saw some traffic in the morning and evening as the hardhats building the nuke plant drove to work or home, and you'd see combines working its length at harvest time, the migrant harvesters following the season from south to north. But much of the time, especially late at night, the road was just a black snake of asphalt running between Not Much and Used To Be.

Being dead didn't appear to have impaired Haws in any way. The bullet wound had healed completely, though he did wonder what became of the slug inside his gut. Had it been spit out like a cherry pit, or was it still rattling around his innards somewhere? Either way, it wasn't bothering him now.

He seemed to have more energy, which he appreciated as he hoofed it along the highway. He still carried about a hundred extra pounds of bulk, but that old feeling of weariness at the slightest exertion was absent. He breathed easier and had more get up and go. Maybe there'd been something wrong with his lungs or his arteries had been getting clogged or something, and now he was experiencing that unfamiliar phenomenon called "health."

He did cough up some dirt now and again and his mouth tasted like he'd been sucking on a toad turd, but that and a sort of roughness in his eyes, like the dirt had scratched his corneas, maybe, were about it for physical side effects.

His mind, however, had changed profoundly.

He preferred to view the world as black or white. Good was good and bad was bad and that was that. He liked it when a new subject of thought bounced down through his brain like a ball bearing in a pachinko machine until it settled into one slot or the other. Then he didn't have to think about it anymore.

But people liked to confuse him with subtleties, and that made him mad. Why, when a person had everything figured out, did they have to pull the rug out from under him? Just because they couldn't make up their own minds about a thing, that didn't give them the right to confuse everybody else.

Certain people always seemed to be laughing at him, like they knew something he didn't. And occasionally, that got to him. Late at night, lying in bed, trying to make shapes out of the shadows of the leaves crawling on the wall, sometimes he'd get to wondering if the world wasn't such a big, complicated work that it was foolish for an average sort of guy like himself to think he could make sense of it.

Maybe he was blind to something that only smart people could see, the way they say dogs can't see color. How could you explain color to a dog? Maybe he was just too thickheaded to understand what smarter people tried to tell him.

Well, if that was the case then there was nothing he could do about it, so it was stupid to even think about it. He got along okay, better than some of the so-called geniuses he'd known who ended up working in bookstores, selling books to other smart people for minimum wage. Or killing themselves because the world didn't fit their idea of how the world ought to be. They'd doubted themselves to death, some of those smart people had.

Deputy Haws wasn't going to lose any sleep thinking about how maybe everything he knew was wrong.

But still....

Still....

The uncertainty was always there, lurking in his nerves like a cold sore, ready to pop out under stress. It made him lash out over ridiculous things and get into fights when the conversation drifted to particular topics, like whether somebody who repeated third grade should be allowed to carry a handgun.

That night, though, trudging along the blacktop, he had no more doubts. Everything was crystal clear. Everything. And he was absolutely dead sure certain about it all. No crack weakened the armor of his certitude.

Seth had made everything clear.

Seth had spoken to him while he was dead. Seth had peered into Haws' brain on those lie-awake nights when the shadows crept along the wall, and Seth had examined the questions that haunted Haws' dreams, and Seth had provided the answer that Haws sought.

Seth was the answer.

No matter the question. All questions were one, really. All answers, one.

Seth.

All Haws had to do was believe in Seth and everything would be all right. All would be right. All...right.

There was an example right there of Haws' new clarity of thought.

It was Haws' mission to bring this enlightenment to the rest of the world, starting with those who needed Seth's wisdom the most.

Starting with Galen Ganger.

***

Haws retrieved his vehicle and drove home well before dawn. He laundered his clothes and sewed a patch over the bullet hole, doing both jobs much better than anyone in town would've expected him to.

He'd treated the bloodstains with pre-wash and liquid detergent and let them soak and then ran everything through the washer three times. Then he'd cut a circle of material from his shirt tail where it wouldn't be missed and used it to patch the bullet hole.

In truth, Haws was not half bad with a needle and thread. He'd all but raised his little sister, Lucille, his alcoholic mother not being of much use in that regard and his father being a "guest of the federal government" in Leavenworth, Kansas. With no money to waste on luxuries, Haws had grown up learning how to make do.

He hadn't anticipated needing more than one official police shirt and one pair of official police pants, so tonight he had to salvage his sole uniform so he could be seen around town later that morning. He wanted to mess with the heads of the punk kids who surely figured him for dead. Nothing heavy. He wouldn't run them in. He just wanted to be seen and let their own guilty consciences and fear of payback do the rest. For now.

Haws still lived with Lucy, who cleaned houses to bring in her share of the rent. Like her mother, she was a heavy sleeper, but for a different reason. Lucy slept because she was depressed. She was not an attractive woman by most standards and had given up on herself early in life. She rose from the bed only long enough to make her meager living, to watch a little TV, or to open a can and heat contents to boiling. Unlike her brother, Lucy was cadaverously thin. Her depression had been with her so long that she couldn't imagine life without it. She was not like other people, certainly not like the happy, buoyant souls she saw on the television screen, and she did not expect anything to change. She tried not to inconvenience her brother, whom she loved and relied upon, and that meant staying out of the way, in her bedroom, in her bed, the covers pulled up tight over her bony shoulders. It was as good a place as any to be, for her, and if that's how she wanted to live, it was okay by her brother.

Haws finished his washing and mending and pressing and draped his uniform on a wire hanger that he hung in a doorway. No point putting it in the closet when he was just going to put it back on in a few hours anyway.

He showered and put on clean underwear and went to bed, not really tired but figuring that he should try to get some rest. He fell asleep in moments and slept like a baby until late Saturday morning. He woke feeling like a million bucks. With a bit of luck, this could turn out to be the best day of his life.

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Chapter Eight