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!
Maybe it was the beers. Maybe it was as simple as that.
The beers, and the flask of Jim Beam that had mysteriously appeared from Galen's back pocket after they'd polished off the twelve-pack.
They were plastered, for sure, and the needle on the Vega's speedometer blurred in and out of focus as Buzzy stared at it. Buzzy couldn't make out the numbers clearly but the needle was way over to the right and he could feel the wheel shake in his hands as the car barreled down the highway.
He looked over at Galen and Galen grinned back at him. How'd he let Galen talk him into this?
"Immortality," Galen had said to Darren and Kent. Buzzy stood apart from the group but he stayed within earshot. "Immortality, not just of the spirit, but of the body as well. That's what Seth offers, pure and simple. I am the living, walking, talking, drinking, belching, farting proof. I have cheated Death.
"All of those people out there," he'd said, gesturing toward town, "living their little lives, working their work...they're doomed. Doomed to the void. God won't save them. Jesus won't save them. Buddha and Mohammed won't save them. Only one person can save them from an eternity of night. Seth.
"Seth walks among us, right here in little ol' Anderson U.S.A. He is here and he will save us from death, but we have to meet him halfway. He can't do it all. We have to show him that we believe in him and trust him to help us."
"How do we do that?" Darren had asked, and Galen had said, "Die." He opened his hands and strutted in front of the boys like a prosecuting attorney. "That's all. Just die. Doesn't matter how."
"How about old age?" Buzzy had said, wandering back to the others.
Galen glared at him. "Go ahead, make jokes about it. Laugh it off. Wuss out any way you want to. Be like Culler and run out of town with your tail between your legs."
The boys started, and Galen smiled at them. "Did you think I didn't notice? He wasn't at the service, he wasn't in school. I called his house, there was nobody there. It's okay. Some people can't handle it. They'll miss out. Too bad for them."
Galen wrapped an arm around Darren and another around Buzzy, drawing them close. It was more like a wrestling hold than an embrace.
"But you're my buds. I'm not going to let you miss it. We're all for one, right? Right?"
"I don't know," Buzzy said, extricating himself. "Suppose it doesn't work."
Galen looked at him in disbelief.
"Look at me," Galen commanded. He held up his arms, turned around in a full circle. "I was dead. Hell, I was fucking cremated, and I came back!" He leaned in close to Buzzy, intimidating. "Impossible, isn't it? Can't happen. But here I am. It fucking works!"
Galen calmed down and spoke confidentially, drawing the boys in. "Let me tell you something. There are forces in this world so powerful, we can't even comprehend. We're like an ant standing on the railroad track. Along comes a train and wham! He never knows what hit him. That train is so much more powerful, it isn't even funny.
"Seth is that train. And either you're on board, or you're that ant."
And that's how it had gone for the next hour. Galen had orated and proclaimed, he'd brow-beaten them, he'd pulled out the whiskey and gotten them drunk, and somehow he'd convinced them all, even Buzzy, that the best thing in the world they could do on that particular, deepening afternoon was to kill themselves.
Bringing them to this moment, in two cars racing down the highway with the pedal mashed to the floor, straddling the center line.
Galen was all smiles. Buzzy looked at him but couldn't bring him into focus. Galen reached over and steadied the wheel, keeping Buzzy on course. Darren and Kent hadn't come into view yet. Maybe they never would. Maybe, once they were away from Galen's spell, they'd drive off and just keep going.
No. There they were, coming over the rise. Darren's Satellite crested the hill, wheels on either side of the center line. It looked like a slot car, and Buzzy remembered how he and Darren had played with Buzzy's slot car set when they were kids, sticking two cars in the same slot, rear bumpers touching, and then they'd squeeze the throttle and watch the cars race around the track doomed to the inevitable collision.
They'd blown up a lot of stuff together. Half the fun of building a model airplane was the M80 they'd pack inside, fuse sticking out. Then they'd hang the airplane in a tree, dangling on strings, and light the fuse and run backwards so they'd be sure to see it when it blew. Model planes, model ships, model cars...all met the same fate through one means or another. Buzzy figured it was some kind of gene that the male of the species possessed, the "pyrotechnic gene" that gave them such delight in anything explosive. So common was that gene, it's a wonder every boy in America didn't grow up to be a demolition expert.
Now the game had become real. The cars sped along a real highway with real people inside who would die real deaths. So why did this veil of unreality hang over every moment? Why did the whole thing feel like a dream? Denial, probably, or Jim Beam.
I can always pull out, Buzzy thought. It was the comforting lie that kept his foot on the accelerator and the wheel pointed straight ahead. I can chicken out, swerve and miss, and they'll call me a coward all the time they're thanking their lucky stars that I did it. And I won't give a shit. Six months from now, this'll all be a memory, a story I'll tell my college friends.
Darren was flashing his lights at him. Buzzy fumbled for the switch and gave it a couple of yanks.
In the other car, Darren saw Buzzy's Vega toeing the line a half mile ahead. He flashed his lights and Buzzy flashed back. He'll wimp out, Darren thought. It wasn't like Buzzy to go through with something like this. Especially now, when he was going away and everything.
Darren glanced over at Kent. It looked like Kent was ready to climb out the window, he was so scared. They were all pretty fucked up but not so much that they didn't know what they were doing.
Darren was intrigued by Galen's story about death and the void and the man who promised them eternal life, but he didn't know if he believed it. Galen was living proof, but proof of what? That something incredible had happened. The rest could've been a dream or a hallucination, or maybe Galen wasn't Galen at all but some demon from Hell come back to lure them all to their deaths. Shit! That was a new thought!
He eased back on the accelerator to give himself a few seconds to consider this. Problem was, his brain wasn't working too good right now. Neither were his eyes or his hands or his feet. He slowed down more than he meant to and the car lurched and Kent looked over and asked him what was wrong.
"Nothing," Darren said, and he mashed the pedal to the floor. Buzzy wouldn't go through with it. If Tom had been here, it never would've gotten this far. He'd have stood up to Galen and not been talked into anything. Where the hell was Tom, anyway?
The Vega was getting close. Darren's hands were slick with sweat. The wheel vibrated like crazy but Darren slipped one hand off and rubbed it on his jeans. Then he dried the other one. He wondered if Kent noticed his nervousness and looked over, but Kent wasn't noticing anything except the floor. He held his head in his hands.
Darren said, "Hey, if you're going to--" but the warning came too late. Vomit gushed out of Kent's mouth and soaked the floor mats.
"Shit!" Darren said as Kent continued to heave. He started to yell at Kent that he was the one who'd clean that mess up, and then he thought, Nobody's cleaning it up, not unless Buzzy comes through. Puke on the floor mats would be the least of Darren's worries if Buzzy didn't pull out. Still, he hated to die with the stink of Kent's vomit in his nose.
The front seat drama had distracted Darren for a few seconds and he'd let the Satellite wander. He looked up and was amazed at how close the Vega was, how the gap between them had narrowed so quickly. He made a fast course correction and was once more bound for glory. Or whatever.
Buzzy watched Darren's Satellite get closer and closer. The dreamlike veil disappeared and Buzzy's mind screamed at him, This is real! The onrushing car meant the end of everything, absolutely everything. No school, no girls, no cars. Images flashed through his mind of corpses and stainless steel tables and trocars and formaldehyde pumped through tubes, and he saw himself on the that table, slit open, organs scooped out, and Jed Grimm bending over him, applying rouge to his cheeks and paint to his lips, his parents looking down on his body in the coffin, his mother crying, and him lying there with barbed wire in his mouth and rubber forms under his skin, eyelids sewn shut, a look molded on his face of sweet repose, as if he were dreaming of angels.
You should be so lucky, his mind said. They'll wash you out of this wreck with a hose.
Darren watched Buzzy's Vega close in fast and couldn't believe that Buzzy hadn't pulled over. Kent watched out the windshield in helpless fascination, like a mouse hypnotized by a snake. He watched death bear down on him and he was as sure as he'd ever been about anything that he'd made the stupidest mistake of his life. How did he let himself get talked into this? His dad was right, he did have shit for brains. As the Vega ate up the road between them, all Kent could think was shit!
Buzzy glanced over at Galen. Galen knew what he was thinking, that he was thinking about swerving. Galen glared at him as if beaming strength of will into Buzzy's brain, freezing Buzzy's hands on the wheel, his foot to the floor. There was no way Buzzy was turning that wheel. He was in it to the end, to the ever-loving, ass-kicking end. He pulled his eyes away from Galen and focused on the Satellite, on the headlights Darren had left on, and he watched them get bigger and bigger as the highway between the two cars vanished.
Darren's mind screamed at Buzzy's to swerve. He was cutting it too close! Turn, damn it, turn! What in the fuck are you waiting for?
Kent couldn't take it anymore. He lunged at the wheel and yanked it hard and it slid under Darren's sweaty fingers. The Satellite swerved hard to the right and there was the crying of tires and then the car was perpendicular to the road and going too fast and suddenly it was rolling, rolling, still on course, hugging the center line as metal crunched and glass shattered and it rolled toward the oncoming Vega.
Buzzy stared at the car rolling at him along the highway like the blades of a combine. The Satellite bounced and for one crazy instant Buzzy thought it might bounce right over the Vega's roof and on down the highway like a tumbleweed. Then the cars crashed in a terrible cry of metal and an explosion of glass, and death came so quickly that no one knew it.
And no one in either car saw the fireball shoot into the sky so gloriously and so vividly orange against the blue sky, roaring and tumbling, soaring into the heavens, rising on a column of black smoke that was visible for miles.
"Old Donny won't give you any trouble, Doctor," the orderly said. "The state cut him up pretty good before they sent him here."
"When was that?" Brant asked, amazed as always at how easy it was to claim credentials you didn't have. He and Tom and the orderly walked through the minimum security ward of the Greenhaven Convalescent Center. Few of the residents of Greenhaven were "convalescing" in the sense that they were getting better. "Greenhaven Storage Facility" would have been more accurate.
"Fifty years, give or take," replied the orderly. "Electric shock, lobotomy, drug therapy...Donny's been through it all. Every fad, every cure-all, Donny's been there. In the sixties they had him tripping out on LSD, can you believe that?"
Tom kept a wary eye on the inmates who stared at him as he passed. One woman approached him and grabbed his arm and stroked it. "My boy," she said. She said it over and over while looking up at Tom's face. "My boy, my boy." At first glance Tom had thought she was a much older woman, but when he looked her in the eyes he realized that she was not much, if any, older than his own mother.
The orderly pulled her away gently but firmly.
"He's not your boy, Grace," he told her.
"My boy," Grace insisted forlornly, and Tom almost wished he was her son who, the orderly explained, had died in infancy fifteen years earlier.
"Grace is something else," the orderly said as they continued without incident down the corridor. "Usually if they've lost a child like that, they won't think about them getting older. If they lost, say, a three-year-old, they might develop a fascination with three-year-olds. Not Grace, though. She follows the years. Her boy keeps getting older. He really is alive in her mind. Here we are."
The orderly knocked on a closed door but didn't wait for a response. He opened the door without a key, revealing an old man inside on a hard wooden chair, rocking his body and humming a tune that neither Brant nor Tom could quite make out.
"Donald? You have visitors." The orderly turned to Brant and said, "Give him a little while to get used to you. Nobody visits old Donny much anymore. He doesn't have any family. Well, a sister, but she ought to be here, too, from what I hear. I guess it runs in the family. He's okay, though. Like I said, they messed him up pretty good."
Brant noticed the scar left from a frontal lobotomy performed circa 1936.
"Donald?" Brant said. Donald Pritchett didn't respond. Brant and Tom moved closer. "My name is Brant Kettering. This is Tom Culler. We'd like to talk with you for a few minutes."
Donald Pritchett continued rocking and humming softly. Brant looked at the orderly standing in the doorway. "Can he answer questions?"
The orderly shrugged. "In his way. I think he understands more than he lets on."
Brant moved around to face Pritchett directly, bending down to try to make eye contact with the old man.
"Donald, this is very important to us. I need to ask you some questions. Do you understand me?"
There was no response. Brant put one knee on the floor to kneel in front of Pritchett and look into his eyes. They seemed to stare at some point miles, or perhaps decades, away. He hummed quietly, a tune that faded in and out.
"I came here from Anderson. Something very strange is happening there. It's something I think you know about." Brant glanced at the orderly leaning in the doorway. If he pushed Pritchett too far and he became upset, the orderly would order them out. He had to proceed cautiously, and yet, there was so little time. Who knew what might be going on in Anderson?
"It's like what happened in Eloise," Brant said.
If the name meant anything special to Pritchett, he gave no sign. Brant continued.
"Some people have died. But Donald..." he shot another quick glance at the orderly. "They didn't stay dead. They came back."
Donald Pritchett stopped rocking, stopped humming. His eyes remained focused on whatever distant sight they beheld, but Brant knew that he had the old man's attention.
"We think this is what happened in Eloise. There was a man who was struck by lightning. Everyone thought he was dead. But he came back, didn't he? Were there others, Donald? Others who came back?"
Pritchett's mouth tightened. His eyes narrowed.
Tom saw the orderly, who had been leaning against the door jamb, straighten and scowl.
"What is this?" the orderly began, and Tom stepped forward.
"Please," Tom said. "I know this sounds crazy, but it's very important."
"Is that what happened sixty years ago?" Brant asked Pritchett. "First, they come back. Then...what?"
Pritchett worked his lips and finally a single word came out. "Come," he whispered.
Brant leaned in closer.
"Come," Pritchett said, louder this time, and then he said the word again, drawing it out like a mantra: "Come."
"Come where, Donald?" Brant asked. He glanced over at the scowling orderly. He saw that Tom had placed himself between the orderly and himself. If Pritchett became agitated and the orderly tried to intervene, Tom could hold him off for a few precious seconds. Those seconds might provide the clue they needed.
Pritchett's lips moved slightly, mouthing words he seemed to hear in his head. Brant put his ear close to Pritchett's mouth. He could feel the old man's breath, and he realized that Pritchett was singing. The tempo was all wrong, drawn out like a record played too slowly, but Brant could make out the words.
"...church in the wildwood...." Pritchett sang.
Brant sat back.
"What is it?" Tom asked.
Brant stood, wincing at the stiffness in his ankles and knees.
"He's singing 'Little Brown Church,'" Brant said. "That's the hymn they were singing last Sunday. 'Come to the church in the wildwood, come to the church in the dale....'"
"I remember," Tom said.
"I think you two should go now," the orderly said.
"Look, I know how this must appear," Brant said, "like we should be checking ourselves in at the front door. But the fact is"
Tom interrupted. "We think this delusion Pritchett has about people returning from the grave is at the heart of his psychosis," he said.
Brant was impressed. He'd almost blown it by starting to level with the orderly about the goings-on in Anderson. If he had, of course, they'd have been hustled to the nearest exit. Tom had instinctively known better, and he'd come up with a plausible lie that would sit better with the orderly than anything as unbelievable as the truth. The kid had a future as a reporter.
"We're trying to develop rapport through a shared delusion," Brant said, lowering his voice to a conspiratorial level.
"You understand," Tom said confidently.
"Uh-huh," the orderly said.
"I must've sounded like a nut case!" said Brant.
"You probably thought we were crazy."
"Yeah, you had me going there for a minute," the orderly said.
"I just have a few more questions for Mr. Pritchett. Do you mind?"
The orderly shook his head. "I guess after all he's been through, a few crazy questions won't hurt."
Brant smiled and thanked him, then he sat on the bed opposite Pritchett. Pritchett's voice had gone silent and he was rocking again, slowly, in time to the tune in his head.
"Donald," Brant said. "There was a man. He lived in Eloise, but he wasn't like the others. Do you know the man I'm talking about?"
Pritchett appeared not to hear.
"He was different. Special. You...you buried him."
"Come, come, come, come," Pritchett intoned, "Come to the church in the wildwood...."
"Do you know the man I'm talking about? You buried him, but they say he wasn't dead."
"Come to the church...." Pritchett sang loudly.
"They say you buried him alive."
Louder: "...in the vale!"
The orderly stepped forward. Tom blocked his path, putting a hand on the man's chest.
"Wait! This is the breakthrough we were hoping for!"
The orderly glared, but he took a step back.
"He wasn't alive, was he, Donald? He was dead when you buried him. But he came back."
"No spot is so dear...." Pritchett sang. His head trembled. Brant could see the pounding of Pritchett's heart in the veins of his neck, pulsing under the thin skin.
"Was he the one responsible for Eloise?"
"...to my childhood...."
"Was he responsible for the slaughter?"
Pritchett's eyes bored into the past and his voice cracked with emotion. The words poured out with anger, with a vehemence born of outrage and loathing.
"...as the little brown church in the vale!" he sang, shouting the words, his sunken chest heaving, his voice hoarse with effort.
"Is that why you killed him, Donald," Brant persisted, "and then buried him so he couldn't come back?"
"That's it!" the orderly announced. He shoved his way past Tom and grabbed Brant by the arm. "You're out of here! Come on!"
Brant let himself be hauled to his feet but he didn't take his eyes off Donald Pritchett.
"It's happening again, Donald!" he said. "In Anderson! You have to help us! What do we do to stop it?"
"I said that's enough!"
The orderly dragged Brant toward the door. Tom rushed in to take his place in front of Donald Pritchett. He bent down and took the old man's hands. He spoke quietly but with urgency.
"Tell us, Donald! How do we stop it?"
Pritchett's eyes moved, locked onto Tom's. Tom saw that the pupils were dilated with...what? Fear?
"Seth!" Pritchett said with a sudden clarity that took Tom by surprise. "Kill Seth!"
"Who's Seth?" Tom asked frantically as his side vision registered the orderly's form closing on him.
Tom felt strong hands on his arm as he was yanked to his feet and propelled toward the door in a flurry of profanity. His last view of Donald Pritchett was over the orderly's shoulder as the orderly shoved him into Brant and forced both of them into the hallway, cursing steadily.
He saw that Pritchett had curled one bony hand into a fist. The tendons stood out on his thin forearm as he shook the fist, beat it against his leg.
"Kill Seth!" Pritchett shouted as loudly as his aging lungs could manage. "Kill Seth!"
"Where are we going?"
The sun had been going down as the two security guards escorted Brant and Tom to the parking lot of the Greenhaven Convalescent Center. Now, as they raced back toward Anderson, the sky was on fire with a glorious sunset that spread all around the horizon from west to east. It was a spectacle so grand, it demanded a keen and profound appreciation. Though he'd witnessed such sunsets many times before, Tom couldn't take his eyes off the sky. Was this the last awe-inspiring sunset he would see? Did Returns appreciate such things even more than the living, for having seen the other side?
"Seth," Brant said, shattering Tom's reverie. "That's a Biblical name?"
"I suppose." The overwrought synapses of his brain reconnected. A memory leaped forward. "It's Egyptian," Tom said. "Seth. Set. All the Egyptian gods had a dozen names."
"Who was Seth?"
"Bad news. I think he was the god of chaos or evil or something. He tore out somebody's eye and got castrated for it."
"So, we're looking for a ball-less ancient Egyptian diety."
"Or somebody who gets his power from Seth, or someone who named himself after Seth, or maybe it doesn't mean squat."
"Whoever Seth is," Brant said, "his powers are limited. Donald Pritchett, at the age of eighteen, was able to kill him, to stab him to death apparently."
"For what it was worth. Apparently he came back, probably at midnight. He couldn't get out of the coffin, and so he suffocated to death."
"And without him, the Returns of Eloise lost their ability to defy death. They dropped where they were, though they'd been killed hours or days earlier."
"That would definitely baffle the police," Tom observed. "They'd look for murder weapons and signs of struggle that could've been miles away and cleaned up by then."
"But the wounds on the bodies would be fresh. The murders would appear to have happened simultaneously all over town, but they could've taken place days earlier. The police would have been looking for one impossibly active killer, or for an extremely sudden and widespread outbreak of murderous mass hysteria."
"I wonder...." Tom began, his voice trailing off.
"About Seth. When he woke up inside the coffin and wore his fingers to the bone scratching to get out, was it just that one time? Or did it happen over and over? Did he come back every midnight for sixty years until he finally wore through the coffin and dug his way up through the earth?"
"That's what we need to find out at Wildwood," Brant said.
"We should just go home."
"Cemetery's on the way."
The sun went down while Tom thought about waking every night to find yourself entombed. It was truly a fate worse than death. Did Donald Pritchett realize the hell he was sentencing Seth to when he buried him at Wildwood Cemetery? He must have. That thought alone was enough to drive anyone insane. The guilt....
Brant asked Tom to check the map. "In the glove box," he said. "There's a little flashlight in there, too."
Tom dug out the map and unfolded it.
"What am I looking for?" he asked, refolding the map to their section of the highway and scrutinizing it under the flashlight's beam.
"There should be a road on our left that leads to the cemetery."
"Just ahead. Half a mile or so."
They drove the distance in silence. The road appeared and Brant slowed for the turn. As the headlights swung around they splashed a large, almost billboard-sized sign.
Brant backed up to toss the lights back on the sign.
Future Home of the Coyote Creek Power Facility read the headline, and there was an architectural drawing of a domed generating station, the nuke plant.
Brant drove on down the road until he encountered a twelve-foot chain link fence and a security check point. They'd missed shift change for the construction workers and the guard had a moment to talk.
"The cemetery?" he said. "Shoot, they moved that when they cleared the site. Moved it over to Landon County."
Brant gave the guard his thanks and turned around. He drove back down the access road, shot a glance over at Tom and found the boy looking at him grimly.
"So Seth didn't have to dig himself out," Tom said. "The electric company did it for him."
"What about the people of Eloise?" Brant said. "Did they come back when he did?"
"If so, you'd think it would make the paper."
"Maybe that's another limit on his abilities."
"Could be. My guess is, he left them for someplace new."
"Anderson," Brant echoed, and there didn't seem to be anything more to say for the next several miles. They'd discovered what they set out to find. Whatever was going on in Anderson had happened before, sixty years earlier in the tiny community of Eloise. It was the work of a man named "Seth," and to put an end to it, they had to find Seth and kill him...and worse. It could be doneDonald Pritchett had done itbut Seth would certainly have learned from experience. He wouldn't be so easy to catch this time. Maybe they shouldn't even try. Maybe they should grab Peg and Annie and run, get out of town and hope they found someone of authority they could tell their story to, someone who wouldn't write them off as a bunch of hysterical crazies who belonged in the Greenhaven Convalescent Center.
"Oh, Christ!" Brant said.
"I just thoughtremember what Madge Duffy said about John, about his bursitis being gone after his return?"
"The last time I saw Doc Milford, he wasn't limping. He's a damn Return."
"Mom would need his okay to move Annie. She's talked to him."
"They know what we're planning to do."
Tom stared out the side window at the passing fields and turned these thoughts over in his head.
The sky was inky dark under the barest sliver of new moon as they approached the city limits. Brant slowed, then eased over to the shoulder and coasted to a halt.
"Shit," he said, and he cut the engine and the headlights.
Tom poked his head out of the side window to peer into the darkness. Ahead of them, across the turn-off, were flashing lights and a police barricade.
"They've sealed off the town," Brant