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!
Brant sat next to Peg on her bed and carefully unbuttoned her blouse. They'd made out for awhile on the porch swing and when she'd pulled away from him, Brant had expected her to tell him it was time to go. Instead she'd said, "Let's go inside," and she'd led him up to her bedroom.
Brant opened her blouse down to her waist, where it was tucked inside her skirt. She sat up straight so he could pull it loose and finish his unbuttoning. He took his time, and Peg found the sexual tension exhilarating. Brant was stretching out the moment, obviously savoring the thrill. This was a good portent of things to come, and Peg let herself imagine that an orgasm lay in her not-too-distant future.
God knows they'd been few and far between with Rod.
She sloughed off her shirt and reached around to unfasten her bra but Brant stopped her, wanting to do it himself.
"Removing a bra was the only useful skill I learned in high school," he said, "besides typing."
The bra came loose and Peg's breasts fell free. There had been a time when they would have stood out firm and pert. She wished Brant could have seen them then, men have such an obsession with tits. She hoped they didn't look too motherly to be erotic. She tugged at his shirt and he took the hint and pulled it off. She put her hands behind his neck and pulled him close, kissed him deeply on the mouth. He leaned into the kiss and their bodies met. Soon they were fumbling with snaps and zippers, then his fingers were exploring between her legs and she was holding him in her hand.
He seemed determined to kiss every inch of her body before entering her, even rolling her over onto her stomach and kissing the back of her neck, down her spine, kissing her bottom, her hips, the inside of her thighs. It felt like forever before he was inside her and they were rolling together in passion.
She climaxed first. Then almost immediately, as the hot waves crashed through her, she felt him come. For Brant, the long denial paid off with rush after rush, every second drawn out in time until it seemed that he'd never stop. When he did finally roll over in exhaustion, Peg rolled on top of him and planted a long kiss on his mouth.
They lay together in post-coital reverie, Peg nestled into Brant's shoulder, and let the breeze from the window cool their bodies. Brant glanced at the alarm clock on Peg's night stand. Its glowing face told him it was nearing midnight.
For awhile he had completely forgotten about Duffy and Haws and whatever other Returns were lurking outside. Tom would have met his friends at the mortuary by now, and in another few minutes they might be witnesses to a miracle.
Brant looked at Peg and observed that he had a miracle of his own right here. It took the form of a woman he cared about and who cared about him and who was pretty and unmarried and good in the sack. It seemed to Brant as if every event of his life had existed for the sole purpose of propelling him toward this moment.
It surprised him to realize that somehow, amid a lot of extremely strange and menacing goings-on, life had become quite good.
The dock looked the same as ever to Tom. The cheap flashlight he'd snatched from the refrigerator when he stormed through the kitchen kept going out. When he was able to pound it into working, the glow it gave off was feeble and yellow. The waning moon wasn't much help, either.
Apparently blood stains weren't as dramatic in real life as they were in the movies. If someone had been killed here, it would've been easy for the killer to douse the dock with a bucket of water and rinse it clean. The stains might be obvious to a reporter like Brant, in broad daylight, but to Tom and his dime store flashlight with the dying batteries, they remained invisible. He'd seen the cars, though, parked at the edge of the woods, and people didn't leave their cars at the reservoir overnight unless they were camping out. He didn't see or smell any campfires.
It was a beautiful night. The air was cool, the sky clear and starry. Tom slapped at a mosquito that came to dine on his cheek. He picked the dead insect off his face and held it between his fingers. He remembered reading that all blood-sucking mosquitoes were female. This one must've had a hardy meal before zeroing in on Tom for dessert because her smashed body was bloody and red. Would she, too, come back at midnight? Tom wished he'd brought a jar to keep her in and find out, but since he hadn't, he kneeled down and washed her off his finger in the water of the reservoir.
Tom shined the light at the surrounding trees. Somewhere out there was a body, probably more than one. He thought about himself and his friends on the other side of the lake getting high and talking about Deputy Haws and Galen, hearing gunshots and thinking nothing of it, while across the water the nudists were being slaughtered. They must've made easy targets, lying there lolled by the sun, rather obviously defenseless. What kind of person could walk up and blow people away in cold blood?
A religious fanatic, it had to be. Who else would care? Normal people who didn't want to see naked bodies just stayed away. Only someone who thought he had God on his side would feel compelled to...what was the word they always used? Smite. Only religious fanatics went around smiting people. What the hell was "smiting" anyway?
You're losing it, he told himself.
Whoever did it, he could be watching Tom this very minute. Maybe he was lurking in the trees, waiting for his victims to come back to life. That could be the thrill, the returning, not the killing.
He could be out there right now with his gun trained on Tom's back. Tom scanned the trees again with the flashlight. An ice worm crawled up his spine and made him shiver. This is how Brant must have felt this afternoon, how the nudists must have felt, naked and helpless. It would have been worse in the daylight.
He shined the light on his watch. Almost eleven. He was meeting Darren, Buzzy and Kent down the street from the mortuary, and they'd sneak around to the back where the bodies were kept, where Galen would be now. Kent was supposed to bring the lock picks he'd bought in junior high from the mail order place.
Jed Grimm lived in the house next door to the mortuary. There was an apartment above the mortuary itself but the previous owner had bought the adjacent property when it came on the market a few years ago. This was good for the boys. Breaking in with Grimm sleeping upstairs would've been quite a risk.
Tom heard frogs croaking as he walked away from the dock. Whatever monkey wrench had been thrown into the cosmic works, certain wheels kept turning, and the lure of a mate was one of them. Life expressed itself everywhere, in all parts of the world, under the Arctic ice, beneath the sea where no light penetrated and the pressure would crush a man's bones, in the microscopic ecology of an eyelash. There was no more potent force on Earth than the replication and spread of life.
But life changed form, identity was lost and reshaped in the eternal process of birth and death and decay and rebirth in the cells of new organisms. Life was eternal but identity was not.
Until now. Something new had come into being, a kind of super-life that thumbed its nose at death, that refused to give up the who and what of its being.
It might be a miracle to some, but to Tom it had the stench of abomination.
He kick-started the Honda and steered it toward the mortuary. Darren and Buzzy and Kent...and Galen...would be waiting for him there. He smiled wryly as he realized that he had, quite literally, a rendezvous with death.
On one side of the mortuary was the house that Jed Grimm lived in. On the other side was a park. It was a small park, just a few picnic tables, a barbecue pit made out of cinder blocks, and some trash cans.
Darren, Buzzy and Kent sat on a picnic table, getting high.
"He won't show," Darren predicted.
"He'll show," Buzzy said.
The boys looked toward the mortuary as they heard a car engine crank and start. The car, a recent model Dodge, was parked in front of Grimm's house. It made a U-turn and headed their way. When it passed, the driver shot them a look.
"Who was that?" Darren asked.
"The new preacher," said Kent. "Do you think he saw us?"
"He looked right at us!" said Darren.
"Maybe we should call it off."
"No way. We've come this far. What time is it?"
Kent looked at his watch. "Quarter 'til."
"He won't show."
"I hear his bike."
They saw the single headlight of the Honda moving toward them and thirty seconds later Tom pulled into the tiny parking lot at the park's edge. As he walked up to the boys, Darren said, "You're late."
"Sorry. Kent, can you still get us in before midnight?"
"Then let's go."
They climbed the six-foot chain link fence that separated the park from the mortuary grounds and dropped to earth on the other side.
"Grimm's light is on at the house," Tom said.
Buzzy informed him, "He had company. The preacher just left."
"I passed him on the road. Did he see you?"
"Hell, yes." Darren spat onto the dewy ground. He was still in a pissy mood. The more he thought about Galen purposely killing himself and leaving the rest of them alone, the madder he got. Tom's stepping in and acting like he was everybody's boss pissed him off even more.
This was not how it was supposed to be, and it didn't have to be like this. Galen's suicide had screwed everything up. If he'd really died in an accident it'd be different, but the longer Darren thought about it the surer he was that Galen had taken himself out on purpose, because of the Haws thing, because of Duffy, because he had it in his stupid head that he'd come back. Now they were going to find out if he was right or not, and either way, Darren didn't like it. He wished Galen hadn't died, but the thought of him coming back from the dead creeped him out. He didn't know what he was hoping for, and that pissed him off, too.
Tom kept an eye on Grimm's house, as much as he could before the mortuary building blocked his view. Why would Reverend Small be visiting the town mortician in the middle of the night? Tom had seen two lights on, one in the living room and one upstairs in what must be a bedroom. The upstairs light was faint, it could be a reading light. If Grimm was upstairs when the doorbell rang, but not yet asleep, he might have left that light on when he answered the door. Why didn't he turn out the downstairs light after Small left? At this hour, he'd probably be headed upstairs before Small's car pulled away from the curb.
All sorts of possibilities presented themselves to him. Maybe Grimm was watching television downstairs or reading a book or the latest issue of Modern Embalming. Maybe Grimm naturally kept late hours or had insomnia. Maybe he was a drunk and had passed out on the sofa while Small was there.
It was only a couple of lights in the windows. It didn't have to mean anything sinister.
But it was odd at a time when oddity walked hand in hand with death, and death itselfgood old dependable, enduring death--came packaged with a surprise.
The steel door at the back of the mortuary had a good lock on it, and it'd been a long time since Kent had used his lock picks. Kent supposed that there were all kinds of pervs and weirdoes who'd like to get into a mortuary at night. Necrophiliacs, for example. The very thought made him shudder.
"Hurry up, man!" Buzzy urged.
Kent tried to ignore him. This was delicate work and it took all of Kent's concentration. Buzzy was always in a hurry and he couldn't stand still when he was agitated. He paced nervously behind Kent, his hands twitching.
"Ten minutes," Tom said.
"I'm working on it," Kent snapped.
"This sucks," Darren announced. "Let's just kick it down."
"It's a steel door. You could pound on it all night and all you'd do is wake everybody up." Tom tried to keep his voice steady while his heart beat like he was running a hundred-yard dash. They had to get inside before midnight or it would all be for nothing. He had to see the body and see for himself that it was dead, feel the cold flesh and even stick it with something sharp if necessary. Then he'd see if it came back. He had to wash the uncertainty out of his mind. Two days ago he'd been sure enough that Deputy Haws was dead to help put him in a hole, but two days was time enough for his mind to manufacture doubts. Galen would be the crucial test.
"Fuck it," Darren said, and he turned to walk away when there was a pronounced click from door and Kent pulled it open.
Kent played doorman as the boys entered. Tom led the way using the flashlight Buzzy had taken from his dad's camping gear, an expensive aluminum number that produced an achingly white light. Tom shined it into the middle of the room and immediately discovered the bodies.
One of them lay on a steel table, the other on a gurney. Sheets covered both.
The air in the room was sharp and unpleasant, reeking of germicide, like a hospital, but overlaid with the chemical smells of a janitor's closet and a biting stench that had to come from the bodies themselves. The air was cold. An air conditioner hummed, keeping the temperature in the low sixties.
Tom played the light around the room, illuminating steel shelves holding chemicals and containers and latex gloves and needles and tubing and wax and cosmetics and surgical instruments and mysterious, knobbed rubber items Tom could not readily classify.
"What time is it?" Darren asked.
Tom held the light on his watch. "Eight minutes to go," he said.
"Look at this," Kent said, picking up a sharpened metal tube with a handle on one end. He made fencing motions at Darren with the tube but Darren was in no mood to horse around.
"Quit fucking around," Darren said.
Kent looked at the object in his hands.
"What do you suppose it is?" he said.
"It's a trocar," Buzzy said. "They use it to drain gas and liquid out of corpses." All eyes turned to Buzzy as if he'd suddenly started speaking Italian. He looked back at them nonchalantly. "What?" he said.
"How do you know that?"
"I don't know. I read it somewhere."
"What's this for?" Kent asked, kicking at a machine on the floor attached to various tubes.
"That pumps preservative into the body when they embalm it."
"What're these?" Tom asked, picking up a couple of the knobby rubber appliances he'd noticed on the shelf.
"Mouth formers. They put one under the skin before they sew the mouth shut, to make the mouth look right. Those round ones are eyecaps. They keep the eyelids closed, but sometimes morticians use Superglue."
Kent was feeling nauseous.
"How do you know all this shit?" he asked.
Buzzy shrugged. In fact, he was fascinated with the mortician's art and had read more about it than most people wanted to know. He'd only been to one funeral, that of an uncle who'd fallen off his tractor and run himself over. Buzzy had been impressed with how good his uncle looked as he lay in the coffin. His nails were trimmed and clean, his hair styled more neatly than Buzzy had ever seen it before, his skin was rosy, and his face wore a look of contentment that had eluded this particular uncle while he lived. It had seemed like a miracle to young Buzzy, the transformation of a coarse and quarrelsome uncle into a man of refinement and peace. It set Buzzy on a path of private study, one he knew that other people wouldn't understand.
He picked up all the technical details of body preservation that he could discover. His proudest volume was a textbook on embalming printed in the 1930s. At first Buzzy had been appalled, though no less intrigued, by the crude methods old fashioned undertakers used to keep corpses from rotting and to make them presentable for viewing by the grieving family. Things like using barbed wire to hold the mouth shut seemed unbelievably gross, and he felt sure that some better way had been invented in the sixty years since the book was written. Later he learned that barbed wire still was used, or the lips might be sewn shut, and that overall the process hadn't changed in any fundamental way since the Civil War. The last big thrill had been in 1867 when they discovered formaldehyde.
Buzzy even considered undertaking as a career. He hadn't said anything to his parents. He'd mentioned it in passing when the guys talked about what they were going to do after high school, but they always treated it like a joke. He knew it was weird but he couldn't help himself. This shit fascinated him.
Darren walked over to the corpse on the embalming table. The boys had avoided the bodies, cruising the perimeters of the room instead, zeroing in on the true target of their curiosity.
He raised the sheet over the body and peered in. The blackened thing that greeted his eyes could have been Galen or Irma Klempner or Freddy Krueger. It was still recognizably human, but the flesh had burned into a black parchment over the bones and the bones, too, were burned black. Looking closer he saw that the body parts weren't even attached properly. Pieces rested loosely on the table, connecting tissue burned away. He couldn't stomach the sight for more than a few seconds.
"Tom," he said, and Tom looked over at him. Darren nodded toward the corpse. "This thing is not coming back."
Kent angled around behind Darren and glanced at the corpse and instantly turned away.
"How do you even know it's him?" Kent said.
"There should be a toe tag from the morgue," Buzzy answered.
Tom lifted the sheet over the corpse's feet. There was no tag.
"That's weird," Buzzy said. "How does he know which one's which?"
"Maybe there's a tag on the other one."
They looked at the corpse on the gurney, head and toe, but it too was unlabeled. Looking from one body to the other, it seemed that the one on the table was larger. They decided it was Galen.
"How do you embalm something like this?" Kent asked, directing the question to Buzzy.
"You have to vat it. Soak it in chemicals. He might not even do that if they're going to be cremated."
"They're already cremated," said Kent. "Why didn't he just throw them in the oven instead of letting them sit here?"
"It's the law. You have to wait forty-eight hours."
"Man, it creeps me out that you know this shit. You ought to leave a fucking job application on your way out."
"Stupid question," Tom said, "but is everybody satisfied that he's really dead?"
"Hell, yes," said Darren, "and he's staying that way."
"It might not be Galen," Kent said.
"What if it doesn't come back at midnight?" Buzzy asked. "How long do we give it?"
"I don't know. Ten or fifteen minutes."
"This is fucked," Darren said, pacing. Tom looked at his watch. As he did so, the church bell began to toll.
The boys tensed. Simultaneously, the corpses started to jerk, one body slapping against the steel table, the other on the creaking gurney.
"Fuuuuck!" Darren said, backing toward the door.
"Wait!" Tom cried out.
Kent was the first to bolt. Tom heard him bang into something and he shined the light in the direction of the noise. Kent's face was drained white and his eyes were as big as an alien's. He was feeling his way along the wall, looking as if he might crawl right up one of the metal shelves and curl up on top of it in a fetal position. The light helped him find the door and he was out of the room like a shot.
Darren was trying to hold back. He watched the corpse on the table as scorched lungs healed and organs were born anew. Black parchment skin fell away as limbs swelled and veins filled with blood. Features appeared in the face, familiar contours. It was Galen on the table, and he was alive, dragged back painfully across the boundary that separated the living from the dead. In Galen's empty sockets, eyes were born, eyes that stared out blindly as his body continued to reflesh, jerking and writhing uncontrollably.
When he saw the eyes, Darren lost it. He turned and ran, following Kent's footsteps across the dewy grass between the mortuary and the park.
Buzzy stood transfixed. He saw blood rush through vessels and pink new skin grow across fresh muscle that flowed over Galen's body like a wave. Galen's chest heaved and his lungs drew in air through a ravaged throat. Muscles formed in his jaw and pink skin grew to cover it and Galen worked his mouth soundlessly. He drew a ragged breath and let out a tortured scream.
His shriek was joined by Irma Klempner's. Tom and Buzzy glanced over to see the old woman's body twisting in the pain of rebirth. She screamed as she had screamed from her nightmare fears.
Buzzy clapped his hands over his ears but he couldn't draw away. He couldn't take his eyes off the corpses. Hair pushed its way through new skin. The convulsions ceased, replaced by a tortured writhing as nerves knit into a network of electric pain.
Two new bodies lay among the ashes and the burnt, useless tissue of the old. Their shrieks died in their throats. They clenched and opened their fists as new blood flowed to their extremities. Buzzy turned to run, but Galen's hand whipped out and held him fast.
"Tom!" Buzzy yelled, and Tom shined the light on Buzzy and saw Galen's hand clutching a fistful of Buzzy's shirt. Galen turned his face to look at Buzzy. He moved his mouth, his lips forming words that his newborn throat struggled to voice.
Buzzy tugged at his shirt, trying to free it from Galen's grasp. Galen's mouth took on its signature sneer and his voice croaked, "Date...with an angel?"
"Go!" Tom yelled and Buzzy pulled away with Tom shoving him toward the door. Cloth ripped and Buzzy was free. The boys reached the doorway and Tom paused, shined the light back at Galen. Galen still clung to the scrap of shirt. He swung his legs off the embalming table, moving like a paraplegic, grinning. Nearby, Irma Klempner sat up on the gurney. Tom spun on his heels and ran.
Darren and Kent were already hightailing it in their cars when Tom and Buzzy reached the fence. They launched themselves at the chain link and climbed up as if rottweilers were snapping at their heels.
Buzzy dashed for his Vega and Tom hopped onto his Honda and put his weight into the starter. He heard Buzzy's Vega roar to life and Buzzy peeled out in a cloud of dirt that stung Tom's eyes and made them water as he followed closely behind.
Tom shot one quick glance back toward the mortuary. He could barely see, through the dust and tears, in the near darkness under the crescent moon, two figures standing near the mortuary door. Galen Ganger and Irma Klempner.
Running toward the mortuary from the house was Jed Grimm, the undertaker.