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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

 

Twenty-Two

Brant's neck was so knotted, it felt like a piece of lumber. He swiveled it and listened to the crunch.

"What do you think?" Tom asked him.

They sat in the dark on the shoulder of the road and stared at the flashing lights. Shotgun wielding silhouettes milled around the roadblock. One of them was unmistakably Deputy Haws.

"We could try the county road on the other side of town," Brant offered, "but they probably have that blocked, too."

"What if we ditched the car and hiked in? We could enter from the woods, then cross Miller's field to the co-op. We could follow the railroad tracks...what?"

Brant's mouth was tight, he was shaking his head.

"Nobody walks anymore. We'd stick out like a sore thumb. We've got to figure that most of the people in town are Returns, otherwise they wouldn't be making such a blatant move. They'll be watching for us and anybody who isn't one of them. I'm guessing that once the town is secure, it'll be open season."

"We have to get Mom out of there!"

"Yeah, and we can't waste any more time doing it." Brant twisted the key and started the Toyota. He turned on the headlights and pulled slowly back onto the highway. "They'll give us some bullshit reason for the roadblock. Pretend to swallow it and we'll try to bluff our way in. We'll find Peg and get the hell out of town."

"She won't leave Annie."

"If she's arranged to move her, we move her. Otherwise, we can't wait."

"Mom won't leave her behind. She just won't."

"She'll have to."

"What about Seth?"

"What about him?"

"Killing Seth is the only way to break the cycle. You heard Pritchett."

"Pritchett's a nut case. Maybe he's right about Seth and maybe he's had too many jolts to the brain. Even if it's true, Seth is somebody else's business. The police, the FBI...."

"Like they'll believe us. We're the ones who know. If we don't do it...."

"We don't even know who he is!"

"It's Small, it has to be! This whole thing started when he came to town. And right from the first he's been saying, 'Oh, it's a miracle...it's wonderful....' Of course it's him!"

"He'll be surrounded ten-deep by his handiwork, too, you can bet on that. Jesus, Tom, this isn't a comic book. I'm no Batman and you aren't the goddamn Boy Wonder!"

Tom pounded his fist against the side window. "Shit!" he said.

Brant took a deep breath. Someone at the roadblock was waving a flashlight at them.

"Shit is right," Brant hissed. "We're up to our necks in it and I'm getting Peg out of town. If you want to run off and play Rambo, that's your choice, but I'd rather we stuck together."

"Brant, read my lips. Mom won't leave Annie," Tom said. "We can't run away from it because Mom won't go."

"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it. Right now, here comes Haws."

Haws sauntered into the Toyota's headlights. His revolver, normally holstered, was in his hand. He carried it casually, his arm hanging loose and swinging freely, but he carried it, and that bothered Tom.

"He's got his gun out," Tom said.

"I noticed."

Tom tried to peer into the glare of the revolving red and blue lights. John Duffy was there and he had a shotgun. He'd been hanging back, but now he moved slowly, easing himself around to the Toyota's flank.

"There's Duffy."

"Where?"

"On the right, moving like a cat stalking a wounded bird."

"Got him. Anybody else?"

Tom shielded his eyes and tried to discern faces on the shadowy figures.

"Merle Tippert. Oh, Christ! It's Carl Tompkins!"

"Shit. He sells shotguns, hunting rifles, even a few handguns. If he's opened up the store to the cause, he could supply a small army."

Haws was getting closer. He held up a hand to shield his eyes from the headlights and squinted in the glare.

Then he stopped.

"What's he doing? Why's he just standing there?" Tom asked.

Brant turned to look at Tom and saw John Duffy raising a shotgun to his shoulder.

"Get down!" Brant yelled and he mashed the accelerator to the floor. Tires squealed on the asphalt and the Toyota surged forward. The window glass behind Tom exploded, showering the back seat with glass and buckshot. Pellets of safety glass pelted the back of Tom's head and lodged in his hair. He looked back to see Duffy running behind the car, clutching his shotgun to his chest like a commando, then looked up in time to see Deputy Haws frozen in shock, eyes wide, while Brant bore down on him with no thought of stopping or swerving to the side. There was a crunch of bone as Brant's bumper met Haws' legs just under the knees and then a thump as Haws jackknifed onto the hood. He lay there until Brant smashed into the police vehicle blocking the road, crushing Haws' legs between the cars and flopping his body upright like a figure in a child's pop-up book.

Haws collapsed screaming to the ground as Brant slammed the Toyota into reverse and pulled away. He twisted the wheel, spinning the car ninety degrees to make a short, fast, three-cornered turn on the narrow road. He saw Duffy running up to them. Duffy paused and raised the shotgun and Brant screamed for Tom to duck and then ducked under the wheel himself, the Toyota aimed at John Duffy and the accelerator pushed to the floor.

The windshield exploded over their heads and glass pellets rained down on them. Brant raised his head to peer over the steering wheel. Duffy leaped out of the way and Brant headed for the highway. There was another blast from the shotgun and a back tire blew. Brant heard it flubbing on the asphalt. The car was in bad shape, the rear tire ruined and the radiator leaking fluid from the collision with Haws' police vehicle. All hope of driving anywhere to get help died.

Brant made it to the highway and turned right. The engine lasted long enough to get them beyond the reach of the flashing lights and under the cover of darkness, then it clattered and froze and the Toyota coasted to the shoulder.

"Somebody's coming!" Tom yelled. Brant glanced down the highway to see a pair of headlights float along the access road and then turn right onto the highway, heading their way.

"Come on!" he said. He yanked open the door and he and Tom dashed for the cover of the woods. They hadn't gone more than a few steps before Brant felt Tom's fingers grab his arm. In a flash of panic he thought it was Haws or Duffy and his heart nearly stopped in his chest.

"The other way!" Tom said. "They'll search the woods!"

The kid was right. The Toyota was pointed toward the woods outside of town. It would be natural for anyone trying to reach Anderson to head that direction. By crossing the highway and running the opposite way, they might throw their pursuers off the track. Unless they had dogs, of course, in which case Brant and Tom were royally screwed.

The headlights were closing fast as they dashed across the highway and dived into the ditch between the shoulder and a stretch of dusty wheat field. The headlights solidified into John Duffy's rattletrap Ford that skidded to a halt in back of Brant's Toyota. Long moments passed.

"What's he doing?" Tom hissed, and Brant shushed him. He was about to raise his head when a bright beam of light passed over the ditch and the field behind them. Brant raised his eyes above ground level. Duffy was busy inside the car, doing who-knows-what, then the door flew open and Duffy leaped out with a shotgun in one hand and a flashlight in the other. The flashlight was new and heavy with five D-cells fresh from Carl Tompkins' hardware store. Its powerful beam cut through the darkness with a cold, alien intensity.

Brant ducked as Duffy walked toward them. The light played over the field, illuminating stubble and dirt. Brant and Tom held their breath, hearts pounding in their chests, and Brant found himself praying to a God he didn't believe in that Duffy continued to overlook the obvious.

Duffy's footsteps moved away from the ditch. Dark seconds passed and Brant ventured another look. He saw the light receding into the woods.

"He's searching the woods," Brant said.

Tom raised his head to look. He nodded toward Duffy's Ford and said, "There's our ride."

"Suppose he took the keys."

"Who needs keys?" Tom said, and he heaved himself out of the ditch and ran for the car. Brant followed.

Tom yanked open the door and said, "Shit." He jerked his head toward the steering column. The Club jeered at him like an upraised middle finger.

"Can you get it off?" Brant asked.

"If you've got the saw."

They looked toward the woods. Other lights were joining John Duffy's, sparkling like fireflies among the trees. The word was outBrant and Tom were officially hunted men.

"We have to skirt the woods," Brant said. "Which means we hug the ditches and work our way around town and come in where they aren't expecting us."

"That'll take time."

"You've got a better idea?"

They both jumped as a rifle shot cracked in the distance.

Back at the roadblock, Carl Tompkins had just put Deputy Haws out of his misery.

***

Under the new moon, away from the city lights, Tom and Brant couldn't see squat. On the other hand, they were themselves invisible as long as no cars were near. Most of the headlights were passers-through with no interest in Anderson or any of the small towns along the way, and Tom considered trying to flag one of them down. He wouldn't tell them the truth, of course, since they'd instantly write him off as a psycho, but if he and Brant could get a lift to Isaac, they could....

They couldn't do anything. Nobody would believe them, and his mom would still be trapped in Anderson.

They'd have to hijack the car, run the roadblock, pick up Peg and get out again. Of course, with no way to tell which cars held strangerswho were now, in this new bass-ackwards world, more trustworthy than the people he'd grown up withthey couldn't risk being seen by anyone at all. At the first sight of headlights, he and Brant headed for the ditches.

"What we need is a truck," Brant said as they walked along in the darkness. "A semi. We'd know it didn't come from Anderson, and it'd plow through the roadblock like a son of a bitch."

"Trucks take the Interstate," Tom said.

"You never know. If one does come by, I'm going to wave it down."

"Fine by me."

No truck came.

The woods quickly gave way to more dry, autumn fields. Brant and Tom kept to the highway until they were out of flashlight range of anyone searching the woods, then climbed over the barbed wire fence and headed across the field. They picked their way over the wheat stubble, walked down the plowed rows, stumbling and cursing silently and taking, it seemed, forever to make any headway at all.

It was the perfect time for Tom to slip into the Blacklands. Instead, he realized, he was charged with energy, his mind racing a mile a minute. Peering into the darkness ahead, turning to regard the darkness behind, surrounded on every side by deep country dark, the Blacklands had come to Tom. They had become manifest, swallowing him physically as the horror radiated from its evil center and spread, ripple upon ripple, engulfing everything he knew and (he was only now, this very minute, realizing) all that he loved. Suddenly the little town that had constrained him, that pinched and chafed with his every movement, seemed precious beyond all belief, precious and lost and irrecoverable.

It would take everything he had to hang on to the vestiges that remained.

He had to cross the Blacklands and see what lay beyond.

***

For the first time in his life, Brant regretted his lack of military service. He could've used some basic training right now, or better yet, experience as a Green Beret stalking Charlie through the jungles of the 'Nam.

The broken ground, invisible in the darkness, made every step a chore. Trying to walk in the furrows bent his ankles at an awkward angle. The wheat stubble scratched and poked and crackled underfoot. He couldn't get any rhythm going in his stride. It was frustrating. He felt time running out on him. He was worried sick about Peg.

He looked at his watch. The radium numbers glowed so brightly that he feared they would attract attention. He unfastened the strap and stuffed the watch in his pocket, and he hissed at Tom to do the same.

It was after nine o'clock.

At midnight, whatever victims the Returns had claimed would be back. The odds against him and Tom would double or triple or worse. And Peg...

If he didn't reach her before midnight, how would he know if she was still the woman he loved? How would he know that the Returns hadn't gotten to her first and made her one of their own?

He tried to walk faster. His foot slid into a rut and he felt his ankle twist and he fell to one knee. He was picking himself up when Tom stumbled into him and both of them tumbled to the ground, cursing.

Brant regained his feet and tested the ankle. It wasn't sprained but it was sore. That's what he got for being in a hurry.

He had no idea how far they'd gone or how far they had yet to go. Not a light was visible except for the stars overhead, a brilliant swath across the black sky that dazzled the eyes and did nothing to illuminate the ground below. If he got turned around, he could walk for hours in the wrong direction and never know it. He tried to fix the town's location by the stars but couldn't. He didn't know how.

He felt Tom's hand on his shoulder.

"This way," Tom said.

Thank God, Brant thought, the kid knows where he's going.

He staggered on in the blackness. Somewhere not too far away a dog barked, then a gun, and then there was silence broken only by the pounding of blood in his ears and the crunch of dry wheat underfoot.

***

The Lunger house was haunted by the ghosts of children Old Man Lunger had caught in his peach orchard, fattened up in the cellar, and dismembered over a period of weeks while he feasted on their flesh.

Lunger had an understanding with the parents of Anderson that he would not prey on their children in their homes and yards or on the school grounds or anywhere in town except his orchard. This way the "bad children" who stole peaches were selected out of the population and the "good children" were allowed to thrive. Thus he got away with murder for several decades, until 1982, when he broke his vow and took a Girl Scout who'd come to the house selling cookies. He killed and ate her and, as God's punishment for breaking his promise, choked to death on her finger bone.

Lunger's ghost and those of the murdered children still infested the ramshackle house. On windy nights you could hear Old Man Lunger's maniacal laugh as he stripped the flesh from his victims, and you could hear the shrieks of the tortured children carried on the wind.

Or so the story went when Tom was nine years old.

The Lunger house then sat in ruin on the edge of town, abandoned, boarded up, and given a wide berth by anyone with a lick of sense, which naturally excluded every boy in town, Tom among them. It was worth a Playboy centerfold to anyone with the guts to run up and pound on the front door at night.

Tom had done it once. He banged on the screen door with his fist and turned and ran full speed off the rotting porch, but a warped board snagged a dangling shoelace and down he went. He tried to jerk his foot free but he could feel that Old Man Lunger had a tight hold of it from his hiding place under the porch. Galen yelled at him from a safe fifty feet away. Tom looked back knowing that he would see Old Man Lunger's bony fingers wrapped around his foot and perhaps another hand rising up from below with a meat cleaver ready to whack his foot off at the ankle. Instead he saw the pinched shoelace and summoned enough courage to reach back and work it free, and then he sped off the Lungers' porch and he and Galen plunged into the orchard.

The orchard stank of rotten fruit. Their feet slid on peaches mashed underfoot, but Tom kept running and running until a stitch in his side forced him to slow down. Even then he staggered on, winded, his knees smarting, praying the breeze would dry the wet spot on the front of his shorts before Galen noticed.

Now he and Brant watched the house from behind one of the crooked peach trees in the surrounding orchard. Lights burned in some upstairs windows but no shadows moved inside.

A few years ago, a pair of Old Man Lunger's distant relativeshis nephew Mark and his new wife, Carolrescued the house from demolition and began the long process of remodeling. They let it be known that they would lease the orchard for one dollar a year and a small share of the profits to anyone who would pledge himself to the organic method of farming. Edgar Miller's son, Tony, said he'd give it a try and had done all right, better some years than others, but most years coming out in the black. His crop was smaller than some, but the fruit commanded a premium price from health nuts and Tony saved a mint on expensive pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

Mark Lunger quit his job in the big city and became a private investment counselor who published a monthly newsletter. He also contributed a bi-weekly column called "It's Your Dime" to the Cooves County Times which he hoped to organize into a book one of these days. Carol maintained her real estate license but devoted most of her time to raising their son, Joshua, and to gardening, various civic functions, and handling secretarial duties for Mark's business.

They were not the sort to have a gun in the house, which made breaking in a lot more attractive to Tom and Brant.

"If they were in bed, they'd have turned off those lights," Brant said. "I don't think they're home."

"What if they are?"

"Then we have to assume they're Returns. If they try to bluff us, play along, but watch your back. If they make any overt moves...."

"What...stab them with my keys? We need some weapons."

"Okay, let's break in through the kitchen and grab a couple of knives. I'll try to phone Peg."

"I can't believe I'm breaking into the old Lunger house," Tom said, shaking his head and feeling suddenly nine years old again.

"I don't believe any of this," Brant replied. "Let's go."

The light from the windows was a relief after the nearly total darkness of the countryside. Tom and Brant hugged the shadows as they dashed from the orchard to the house and worked their way around toward the kitchen door. Brant nudged Tom and pointed to a white lump lying thirty feet from the house in the side yardthe Lungers' prize-winning Spitz. They remembered the barking and the gunshot heard earlier.

"They never would've shot that dog if they weren't Returns," Brant whispered.

"Maybe somebody else shot it."

That thought gave them pause. Very possibly, they were about to break into the scene of a mass murder. Images of blood-spattered walls leaped unbidden into their heads. Carol Lunger could be lying on that kitchen floor in a pool of her own blood. Mark and Josh could be in the living room, cut down in the middle of a video game. Their killer could be waiting inside.

The thought stilled their voices and slowed their footsteps to a stealthy creep. Brant opened the screen door slowly. The closing spring sang, the hinges creaked. The inside door was locked. Tom thought of Kent and his lock picks and how easy it would have been for him to get inside quietly. Instead, Brant elbowed a pane of glass and broke it. He picked out the shards of glass that hung in the molding and reached through, unlocked the deadbolt, and swung the door open on more creaking hinges.

They stepped into the dark kitchen. Their dark-adapted eyes picked out vague forms illumined by the blue glow of electronic clocks on the stove and microwave. They couldn't see a telephone, but Tom spotted a knife block on the counter and pulled out the two largest knives. He handed the smaller of the two to Brant.

An open doorway led to the dining room, pitch black. Tom's foot encountered a chair leg that groaned as it skidded on the hardwood floor, startling Brant into dropping his knife. Tom thought that, with all the noise they were making, they might as well have rung the front bell.

"We have to get a light on," Brant whispered. He was thinking of all the breakables planted like booby traps in the average dining room. Glasses, pitchers, vases, plates sitting on edge...all waiting patiently to be bumped by a careless elbow as he and Tom felt around for a telephone.

Before Tom could answer, the darkness exploded with a blinding flash and the crack of a small caliber pistol. A bullet whizzed by Tom's right ear and Brant's left and there was a shattering of porcelain on the wall behind them. They hit the floor as another shot rang out. In the flash of light, frozen like a photograph, they saw seven-year-old Joshua Lunger in his Spider-Man pajamas, holding a mag-loaded .22 pistol in both hands, chest high, firing blindly into the room.

"It's Josh!" Tom yelled.

"Josh, it's all right!" Brant said. "We aren't going to hurt you!"

"Put down the gun!"

Josh pulled the trigger six more times while Tom and Brant put as much Ethan Allen as possible between them and their would-be killer. Bullets tore into the dining room table, splintered the wood off chairs, pierced the china cabinet and sent shards of glass whirling through the air. Tom and Brant sheltered their eyes against the flying glass. Their ears rang with the explosions. Josh's footsteps retreated deeper into the house and Tom yelled, "Come on, before he reloads!" and he and Brant were on their feet in a second, running over broken glass in the total darkness.

Brant's fumbling fingers discovered a light switch and flicked it on. The light was blinding over their shoulders but it spilled usefully into the living room where they caught sight of Josh Lunger running up the stairs, still clutching the pistol.

Brant called out to him and the boy paused and stared at them over the banister. His eyes were narrow and he chewed his upper lip nervously, but there was no hint of fear. He stared at Brant with a coldness that shot straight through Brant's brain like a bullet, then he turned and dashed up the stairs.

"Josh!" Tom yelled and started after him, but Brant grabbed his arm and held him back.

"There's the phone," Brant said, pointing. "Call your mom. Tell her we're on our way."

"Where are you going?"

"Upstairs."

"He's one of them, isn't he? A Return."

Brant nodded. There had been a few moments of doubt when he first glimpsed Josh Lunger in the flash of the pistol. He could have been a scared little boy left home alone by irresponsible parents, confronting prowlers in the middle of the night. But Mark and Carol Lunger weren't irresponsible parents and they would never have left their boy alone with a loaded pistol. Unless it didn't matter. So what if he shot himself or someone else? All would be well again come midnight.

"Here," Tom said, and he handed Brant the big knife. Brant accepted the trade and headed up the stairs to find out just how mad his world had become.

Lights were on and he could see down the length of the hallway. Nothing seemed unusual, from the new carpet and wallpaper to the family photos lining the walls. Brant glanced at the pictures as he passed: baby Joshua in Carol's arms, Joshua in his Little League outfit, Joshua and the dog, Joshua and Mark proudly displaying a fish that should have been thrown back.

None of the photos were of the boy that had glared at Brant from behind the banister. The body was the same, and the face. But the boy in the pictures was warm and lively and his eyes held the spark of benign devilry that was the hallmark of boyhood. The eyes of the boy on the stairs were cold and dead, eyes that saw but did not feel, a killer's eyes.

The doors to all the upstairs rooms were shut. Josh would be behind one of them, calmly (as Brant imagined it) loading shells into the twenty-two. Behind one of them, perhaps, were the bodies of Mark and Carol Lunger, murdered in their sleep by their son.

Brant slowly twisted the knob on the first door he came to. The door opened silently into a darkened room. Brant reached up and found the switch and flipped it. There was the roar of an exhaust fanthe bathroom. He found the second switch and flooded the room with light, crouching as he swung the door wide.

This is insane, he thought, you don't have a plan, why are you doing this?

Because I have to know!

He had to confront the boy and find out what was going on. He had to know what in the hell were they up against.

The bathroom was empty. No one behind the door, no one behind the shower curtain.

Brant eased into the hallway. Three more doors to try, two with light spilling through the cracks, one dark. If he were lying in wait for someone, he would turn off the room lights. Josh was probably in the darkened room. Then again, maybe that's what Josh wanted him to think. Josh was only a kid, but kids these days knew more about shooting people than many adults. Between television and the computer games....

Brant crept silently down the hallway and paused in front of the first lighted door. His sweating palm was twisting the knob when he heard a footstep on the stairs behind him. He whirled, gripping the butcher knife hard, and moved toward the stairs just as three shots rang out and bullets ripped through the hollow wooden door behind him.

Tom called out from the stairs as Brant flattened himself against the wall. It was Tom's footstep on the stair, and it had saved his life. Brant reached around and rattled the door knob and five more explosions sent five more bullets crashing through the door.

Brant threw the door open and saw Josh Lunger crouched beside his parents' bed frantically dropping spent shells from the .22. A box of live rounds sat on the floor beside him. He looked up at Brant as if he'd just been caught stealing quarters from his father's pockets. Josh reached for the box of ammunition but Brant crossed the room in a second and threw himself at the boy. He landed on him with all his weight, flattening him to the ground. Josh's legs kicked out and rounds of ammo skittered across the floor.

Josh beat on Brant's side with the empty pistol, cursing and screaming. In another moment Tom was in the room. He pried the gun out of Josh's hand and Brant rolled over and grabbed the boy's arms and pinned them behind his back. Josh kept screaming until Tom had had enough and slapped him hard across the mouth.

Josh glared at Tom with savage hatred.

"You can't win!" Josh cried. "They'll get you tonight and you'll be converted! You'll be sorry you hit me when Seth finds out!"

Seth. Brant and Tom locked eyes. So it was true. The demon of Eloise was back.

"What will Seth do, Josh?" Brant asked.

"He'll punish you! He'll let you die and stay dead if you don't do what he says!"

"How do you know that?"

"I know!"

"Did you meet Seth?" Tom asked.

Josh nodded.

Brant and Tom exchanged a quick look.

"Is it Reverend Small? Is he Seth?" Brant asked.

Josh clamped his mouth shut and stared back at Brant defiantly. He'd hit a nerve, something Josh had been warned against.

"Tell me, Josh!"

Tom shook Josh by the shoulders. "Tell him!" he insisted, and Josh shook his head. For one instant, something like terror flitted through his eyes, but fear of what? It certainly wasn't Tom.

Tom threatened to hit him again and Brant told him to leave the kid alone and for a few minutes they played good cop/bad cop. Still Josh resisted all efforts to intimidate or cajole him into betrayal of Seth. Maybe they could wear him down, in time, but time was running out. They could torture him, but then who would be the monster? Tom and Brant exchanged exasperated looks.

"We don't have time for this," Tom said.

"Just a minute."

Brant turned Josh around to speak to him face to face. He waited for their eyes to meet, and when they did, a chill went up Brant's spine at the deadness he saw there.

"Josh, tell me one thing. Just tell me whywhy does Seth want you to kill?"

"You have to die to know Seth," Josh said impatiently, as if trying to explain the obvious to the stupidest person on Earth.

"And everybody has to know Seth, is that it?"

"Yes!"

"Why?"

"Because!" Josh snapped. "That's how it is!"

"Why is that how it is? Because Seth says so?"

"Because, that's all!"

"Brant, forget it," Tom said. "He doesn't know. He's just a kid."

Something about those words made Brant shudder. No, he thought, he used to be a kid. Now I don't know what he is.

"Come on," Tom said. "We have to find Mom."

Brant stood, keeping a tight grip on Josh's shoulder.

"Did you get her on the phone?"

"No. There wasn't any answer at home. I could call the hospital...."

"No! You'd have to go through the switchboard. So far they don't know where we're headed and I'd like to keep it that way."

Tom nodded toward Josh.

"So, what do we do with him?"

"We can't just leave him, that's for sure. He'll call the Sheriff."

"Technically...." Tom said, and then his voice trailed off.

"Yeah?"

"Well, technically he's dead already. Somebody killed him, his parents probably." Tom played nervously with the pistol in his hand. "We could kill him again," he said.

"So what?" Josh said. "I don't care."

The horrifying thing was, the boy meant it.

***

They left Josh tied up with electrical cord and a gag in his mouth, though, here at the edge of town, all the screaming he could do wouldn't attract a soul. A quick check of the house turned up no bodies, living or dead or otherwise. The garage held a late model Saab and Brant found a spare set of keys hanging on a peg by the front door. The car was a blessing, meaning that the hospital was now only a few minutes away and they would attract far less attention than they would have on foot.

"Where do you suppose they are, the Lungers?" Tom asked.

"Church," Brant said, thinking of the gathering they'd seen that morning on their way out of town.

"And they left their kid home alone, with a loaded pistol."

"Why not? What could happen...he might shoot somebody?"

"Why didn't they take him with them?"

"Maybe it was past his bed time," Brant said dryly. The comment prompted Tom and Brant to check their watches.

"Ten-twenty," Tom said.

"Time enough. Did you find any more guns in the house?"

"No. Do you want the pistol?"

"You keep it. Open the garage door and let's get going."

Brant eased the Saab out of the garage and Tom closed the door behind them. Tom looked back at the Lunger house as they drove away, thinking about Old Man Lunger and the ghosts of murdered children, and he thought of Josh Lunger in an upstairs bedroom, tied to a bed post, whose last comment before they stuffed the sock in his mouth was that they would never get out of town alive.

***

The road through the Lungers' orchard became a street and soon Tom and Brant were gliding silently through Anderson proper.

At first glance the town seemed quiet, but, like a pornographic painting that reveals its obscenities under scrutiny, the quiet streets and familiar houses let slip their secrets by degrees.

Too many lights glowed in too many windows. The occasional gunshot popped and echoed like a Fourth of July firework and died unremarked. Dogs were silent in their yards, alleys were devoid of prowling cats.

As they drove, Brant and Tom became aware of the not-so-subtle evidence of Seth's influence.

Bob Walker knelt by the curb, vomiting from the death angel mushrooms his wife Julie had cooked in his morning omelet.

Night nurse Claudia White's father lay on the front yard where he'd fallen when the quinidine in his gin and tonic stopped his heart.

Matt and Gina Saunders sat slumped in their car in front of their house, suitcases in the trunk and clothes thrown any old way in the back seat. Each had been shot through the skull.

Jerry James carried his new wife, Amber, in his arms, taking her back home. She'd made it six blocks before Jerry was able to chase her down and finish crushing her throat.

Jerry nodded to Tom as he passed, and Tom nodded back.

"Jesus," he whispered to Brant. "The town's gone crazy."

"Just like Eloise."

Brant's voice was distant. He couldn't stop thinking about Josh Lunger's eyes and the evil he'd seen in their depths. Deputy Haws hadn't had that look, or John Duffy. But Haws and Duffy were grownups, and grownups were used to hiding their innermost selves. They smiled when their feet hurt and hid their amusement when someone else slipped on the ice. Kids were transparent. It's what made their joy so infectious and their hurt so intolerable. It's why Brant could peer into Josh Lunger's eyes and see straight through his empty soul and into the dark reaches beyond.

Brant thought about Josh Lunger and he thought about Annie Culler and he thought about Seth, and he began to think that leaving town was not enough for a man to do in the face of such ancient and deep-abiding evil.

Such were his thoughts when Hank Ellerby's Jeep Cherokee ran a stop sign and cut across his path, swerving from side to side as if the driver was drunk. Tom spotted Cindy Robertson in the passenger seat, her eyes wide. He gave a shout.

The Jeep bounced over a curb and flattened a speed limit sign and buried its nose in the trunk of an oak. Brant turned the corner and drove toward the accident. Cindy jumped out of the car and saw Brant and Tom heading her way. A splash of light from a street lamp caught her terrified face, and then she turned and ran.

 

Go Back to Chapter Twenty-One
 

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