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!
Tom watched another page of The Junction City Beacon blur past on the microfilm reader.
From the outset, he and Brant had decided to limit themselves to front pages and the obituaries. Each had assembled a short list of Eloises, mainly from the obits, but few of them died of unnatural causes and not one of them came back. One Eloise had been murdered. The killer had been her husband and he'd been swiftly brought to justice. Another had died in an auto accident, and the othersthere weren't manypassed away from cancer, heart disease, and, as Tom delved deeper into the past, in childbirth. His back hurt, his neck was stiff, and his stomach gurgled from too many Snickers bars, cheese curls and cans of soda. It occurred to him that in one day of reporting he'd picked up the ailments it had taken Brant a lifetime to assemble.
He leaned back in his chair and swiveled his neck and glanced over at Brant who was doing the same. They saw each other and smiled.
Tom looked at his watch. It was nearly three o'clock, which meant they'd been poring through old newspapers for over four hours and neither of them had found anything of note.
"Ready for a break?" Brant asked.
"I'm almost at the end of this spool," Tom replied. He sat up and twirled the little handle and confronted another Beacon front page. A small headline caught his eye: Police Close Book on Eloise.
"Holy shit," he said aloud as he began reading.
In a moment Brant was leaning over his shoulder and reading the short article along with him.
"Holy shit is right," Brant echoed. "Go back. Find the first report."
"Must be on another spool. I've been through this one."
"Get the previous year."
Minutes later Tom and Brant were staring at the headline that set their abused stomachs churning big time. Tom felt something cold climb up his spine and wrap itself around his heart.
SLAUGHTER IN ELOISE, it proclaimed, and the article began:
"Police are baffled by the murder overnight of all but two residents of the small town of Eloise. Forty-eight bodies were counted by police sent to investigate. The bodies were discovered early Tuesday morning...."
"God," Tom said as he continued reading.
The article described a "tableau of death unparalleled in a civilian population during peacetime." Corpses were found in bedrooms, kitchens, porches and outhouses; in front of houses and behind; in cars; everywhere. Some had been murdered where they lay. Others seemed to have been killed elsewhere and deposited in a favorite chair or behind the wheel of a wrecked automobile.
"There was no sense to it," according to one frustrated policeman. "No sense at all. It was as if the whole town went mad. But even then, there are things that about it that...I can't explain it. It doesn't make any sense."
The only hope for an explanation lay with the two survivors. One was a child, Irma Louise Pritchett, age five.
"I'll bet a dollar that was Irma Klempner's maiden name," offered Brant. "It says she was sent to stay with relatives, her own mother and father having been murdered. Her mother's throat was slashed, but they don't say what killed the father."
"'Unknown causes,'" Tom read. "Poison, maybe. There wouldn't have been time for an autopsy before the story was written."
"Good guess," Brant said.
Irma had been found in a kitchen cabinet, hiding under the sink behind a tiny curtain of fabric, terrified. Police had had to crawl in and drag her out.
The other survivor and the only suspect in the case was Irma's older brother, Donald Adam Pritchett. Donald was eighteen years old. It was Donald who telephoned the police on Tuesday morning.
"What made him a suspect?" Tom asked.
"It only says he was behaving erratically. Maybe we'll learn more in later editions."
They did learn more as they followed the story through the pages of the Beacon.
Eloise, Unincorporated, was tiny, barely more than a collection of houses along the road that would later become the highway. No post office, no governing body, no schools. There was a bar and a church, both constructed during more optimistic times, both badly in need of repair. Not too far away, off the main road, there was a cemetery named "Wildwood."
Calling Eloise a "town" at all was like calling a patch of wild daisies a "garden." The house and the people were just there, with road signs on either end to inform travelers that they were entering and leaving something. The people who made up the population of Eloise were bound only by coincidence. Looking for a place to live, they stopped in the same vicinity, like pennies rolled down a sidewalk that happened to lose momentum and fall over in more-or-less the same spot.
Much of the population was black, slaves and their descendants who'd fled north within living memory and now worked on neighboring farms. Most of the people living in Eloise would be considered poor, but too many people were poor at that time for the word to carry any weight of special tragedy. The Pritchetts did all right, thanks to an oil well on their property, a modest producer that didn't make them rich but which allowed the purchase of an automobile and a few other niceties. It was a common sight, that of a wellhead bobbing in the middle of a field of wheat or milo, but yields were marginal and no fortunes were being made as they were in boom states like Oklahoma and Texas. Nature's bounty lay closer to the surface around Eloise, in the rich topsoil that farmers were only now, in the barest beginnings of the dust bowl years, wishing they'd done more to protect.
Maybe it was the wind and the drought that set the people of Eloise on a murderous rampage, though the true hardship had barely begun. A psychiatric authority labeled it a "mass psychotic episode." Even if Donald Pritchett had tried, he couldn't have murdered them all. In fact, there was no evidence that he'd killed anyone beyond the man he'd buried in Wildwood Cemetery outside of town, the one he'd buried alive.
The man's clothes were ripped as though he'd been stabbed several times, but his body, when it was exhumed, was completely intact. There was dried blood on his collar, a lot of blood, but no corresponding neck wound to account for it. It was as if he'd put on the clothes of a man who'd been stabbed to death, but what, other than insanity, would possess a man to do such a thing?
The only evident trauma was in the man's fingers and legs, and those were explained by his premature burial. The flesh of the fingertips was scraped away and the nails all but ripped from their roots by his frantic clawing at the pine box Donald Pritchett had buried him in. The coffin had been built for a much smaller man, and Donald had had to break the man's legs to fit him inside.
Tissue samples were taken to test for poison. (Weeks later, the tests would come back negative.) Donald Pritchett insisted that he'd stabbed the man repeatedly, killing him, and that he'd returned to life inside the coffin. His account of the mass homicide in Eloise was similarly fantastic.
Due to overcrowding at the morgue, the man had been interred again before nightfall, buried in the same undersized box utilized by Donald Pritchett, broken legs and all. No one knew his name and, in the months following the slaughter, no one had identified him from the autopsy photos.
Donald was incarcerated, tried, found insane, and committed to a state-run facility.
His little sister, Irma Louise, was sent to live with an aunt and uncle in the town of Isaac.
The other bodies were identified and buried at Wildwood Cemetery. The houses were abandoned and eventually torn down, the road signs removed when the road was paved and widened, and the town of Eloise passed into history the same way it had come into being, without fanfare or ceremony, never inspiring a mark on any map.
Tom read the articles in the Beacon and felt as if he were gazing into a crystal ball. Change "Eloise" to "Anderson," bump up the numbers, and he could've been reading the epitaph of his own town.
He continued searching back, forsaking the front pages in favor of human interest articles that might hint at persons who'd come back from the dead. There was one, a farmhand who'd been struck by lightning. With the storm raging, his body had been carried into the barn where he was left until the weather cleared and the corpse could be properly disposed. His appearance at a farmhouse window in the wee hours of the morning had caused a pregnant woman's water to break and a child to be born a week early. Several hours later, all three patientsfarmhand, mother and childwere doing fine.
That was less than a week before the Eloise slaughter.
Ripples, Tom thought, and he showed the article to Brant.
"There's a fable," Brant said, "about a peasant who saved a king's life. The king offered him a reward, and the peasant said that all he wanted was a gold coin today, and for his reward to be doubled every day for a month. The King agreed. By the end of the month the king owed the peasant half a billion gold coins."
"So the peasant took over the kingdom."
"Well, he was probably dragged out behind the castle and killed for being a smartass. But the same math would apply to Returns."
"If each Return created another one, how many would you have in a week?"
Brant and Tom did some quick multiplying and came up with the number sixty-four.
"Of course," Brant observed, "there's no reason to limit each Return to a single murder per day. If each one killed two or three, you'd accelerate the curve dramatically."
"Then, what stopped them in Eloise?" Tom asked. "They died on Tuesday. Why didn't they all come back on Wednesday?"
Tom and Brant arrived at the answer simultaneously.
"Donald Pritchett," they said, practically in unison.
Galen's welcome home party consisted of Galen, Darren, Kent and Buzzy, a twelve-pack of Bud and the last of Darren's grass, which was mainly stems, seeds, and recycled roaches.
"Jesus," Galen said, wincing and stifling a cough after his first toke, "you trying to kill me again or what?"
"Hey, how's the weed in hell?" Kent asked.
"Like Darren's," Buzzy said. "All the good dope's in Heaven."
Darren was relieved to see Galen's mood lightening up. He'd seemed pissed off when he met them at the school, yelling at him and Kent as they headed back in after getting high over lunch break. He said he'd been hanging out, walking around town and letting people get a good look at him. Hardly anybody spoke to him, he said, they just gawked and kept their distance, like he was some kind of freak.
"Which I guess I am," he said.
The boys didn't know what to say to that since it hit so close to home. If they could've, they'd have avoided Galen themselves. So they muttered something about what assholes people in this town were and hung around until after Buzzy's test. They convinced Buzzy to blow off the rest of the afternoon, popped the Buds, rolled a joint out of Darren's trash and headed for the reservoir.
Buzzy was glad to be getting high and drunk. The test had gone poorly, to say the least. He'd been sliding this semester and he knew it, getting high too much, not studying. He'd gotten into State on the basis of his junior year grades and now he was wondering if they'd change their minds when they received his final transcript. Then again, it was only a state university and not M.I.T. They took anybody with tuition and a pulse, at least for the first year. There was still time to turn himself around. He'd start first thing tomorrow.
"So," he said, "what's it like being dead?"
"It sucks," Galen replied, turning somber.
He described the crushing void and the monstrous sounds, the terrible wails of lost souls. He told them about wandering, hands stretched before him, feeling his way step by step through the relentless dark. He told them about kneeling down to touch the earth beneath his feet, and how it was coarse and sharp and left splinters like glass in his fingertips. He told about stepping into nothingness and falling, about sliding and tumbling down the lacerating rock until it seemed no shred of skin remained, yet how the wounds refused to bleed. Somehow he knew they would just as stubbornly refuse to heal.
Galen's eyes went blank as if again confronting that limitless night, and he told about staggering along after his fall, his exposed flesh screaming from a thousand cuts, pain shooting through a battered ankle. Tears burned their way down his ravaged cheeks and his cries joined those of the invisible damned he could sense but never find, hear but never touch.
He told of the stirring of a hot wind that parched his lips and cracked his skin and carried no scent of life. He talked of despair, of collapsing and writhing on the harsh, hot surface, consumed by pain and terror.
"I couldn't take it," he said. "I lost it completely. This was my future and it wasn't going to last for a year or even a hundred years. This was forever.
"And I knew that good and evil didn't have a fucking thing to do with it. I wasn't in Hell. There isn't any Hell, or Heaven either. There's just the void, and it's the same for everybody. Death is nothingness and pain and loneliness, and it's eternity. Once you die, that's where you go."
"How do you know?" Kent asked.
Galen paused. "Because," he said, "that's what Seth teaches us."
Seth, Galen explained, was a rebel. "He rebelled against death and the eternal void by restoring life to those who had died. For this sin he was cast out and made to wander the earth. He lives in two worlds, on earth and in the void, and with each soul he rescues he becomes stronger. He is our life and we are his!"
"Where was he cast out from?" Buzzy asked.
"What?" Galen said irritably.
"You said he was cast out, but you said there wasn't any Heaven, so where was he cast out from?"
"How the fuck should I know? Listen...I've been there! I've seen this place! It is not where you want to spend eternity, right? I've met Seth. He gave me my life back! He took a fucking pile of ashes and...!" Galen thumped his chest. "Look! Believe the evidence of your own fucking eyes!"
"So everything they taught us is wrong," he said. "Everything about God and Jesus and Heaven and Hell and all that, it's all wrong."
"Look," he said, trying to keep the anger and impatience out of his voice and coming up instead with an ominous monotone, "I'm telling you what happened. This isn't out of some book written by some guy a million years ago and handed down and translated and fucked up and sold to the masses to pump the plastic Jesus business. This is real!"
He closed on Buzzy, backing him against the fender of his Vega.
"Have I tried to sell you anything?" Galen asked. "Have I asked you for money? Am I getting something out of this? I'm trying to bring you the fucking truth and you're standing here telling me I'm full of shit! I came back from the dead, motherfucker!"
"I know! I was there!" Buzzy said. "It was freakin' weird, man, and I'm having a little trouble getting my head around it, okay? I'm just trying to understand!"
"What is there to understand? I told you everything you need to know! Beyond that...." Galen shrugged. "Beyond that, all you can do is experience it."
Darren and Kent exchanged looks that said He can't mean... and I think he does... and Holy shit, we're ass-deep in it this time.
Buzzy looked to Darren and Kent for assurance that Galen didn't mean what they all knew he meant.
"Yeah, you got it," Galen said, looking from one downturned face to the next. "You've got to make the journey, my friends. You've got to make the farthest journey." He opened his arms and said, "It's the only way to fly."
"Forget it," Buzzy said, extricating himself from between Galen and the fender. He took a long draw on his beer and turned his back to the group.
"Fine," Galen said. "No skin
off my ass. Enjoy the void, pal." And he went to work on
Darren and Kent.