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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-Three

When Tom saw Cindy leap out of Hank's Jeep and run into the alley, he had no choice but to go after her. He left the pistol with Brant, who was going to check on Hank.

The alley was dark but for the occasional security light that came on as Cindy ran past. Tom called to her once but she didn't even slow down. Obviously she'd learned not to trust anyone, and Tom wasn't going to win her confidence by yelling at her while chasing her down. He concentrated on overtaking her. Once she saw that he wasn't going to hurt her, maybe he could convince her to come with them.

He gained on her steadily. Cindy turned to look over her shoulder at him and her foot came down wrong. She cried out in pain and fell. She saw Tom gaining on her and hurried to her feet, but one step on her twisted ankle was all it took to bring her down again. She crawled away from Tom as he ran up. The terror in her eyes caused Tom to slow as he drew nearer.

"I'm not going to hurt you," he said. He tried to make his voice sound calm and reassuring but he was out of breath from all the running. To his own ears, he sounded like a telephone breather. He opted for a few moments of silence while he caught his breath and Cindy hauled herself to a more comfortable position against someone's board fence.

"We'd better get out of this light," Tom said, nodding toward the security light that had come on at their arrival. "Come on." He moved to a shadowed space between the fence and a detached garage and motioned Cindy over. She looked up at the security light and scooted out of its beam and a few feet closer to Tom. He smiled what he hoped was an engaging, non-threatening sort of smile, then dropped it when she didn't smile back.

"Do you know Seth?" she asked.

Tom nodded. "I know what's going on, if that's what you mean."

"But you're not converted. You're not one of...them."

He shook his head. "Not yet," he said, "but it isn't for lack of some people trying."

Cindy's eyes darted about.

"I don't know who to trust," she said. "They have this code phrase, 'Do you know Seth?' They use it to identify one another. If you say 'yes' it means you've been converted. That's what they call it. Conversion."

"How do you know all this?"

"I overheard my parents talking."

So that was it. She was running from her parents. There was no telling how they'd died or who'd done the "converting," but something had set off her suspicions.

"What else do you know about Seth?"

"Nothing. I don't understand any of this. I know something strange is going on but I don't know what. I know people are coming back, and not just John Duffy and that old woman and Galen. There's more. Lots more. They're killing everybody who isn't converted already."

"What were you doing with Hank?"

"Trying to get out. He saw me running through the alley. He was avoiding the streets himself, he said. I thought he was trying to leave town, too, but he wasn't. He was looking for runaways like me. Cruising the alleys."

Tom consulted his watch. Eleven o'clock. They had to get moving.

"Tom," Cindy said, "I killed him. I killed Hank Ellerby. He grabbed me and I fought him, but I couldn't get loose. I had that knife, the one my brother bought in Tijuana. I stabbed him with it."

"People don't die of a single stab wound, not unless you hit a vital organ," Tom said. "You probably just surprised him into running into that tree."

"I'd like to think that."

"We don't have much time," Tom said, getting to his feet. "We have to put some miles between us and Anderson before all of these corpses start coming back."

Her eyes pleaded with him. "Take me with you," she said, and Tom replied, "Sure." He held out his hand to her, helped her up. She tested her twisted ankle and winced.

"I can't walk on it," she said.

"Lean on me. Come on. We have to hurry."

"Of course," she said, and she pulled him close and kissed him.

***

Brant kept Hank covered with the pistol until he was sure he was dead.

Hank's chest was wet with blood. The wound was low. If the angle was right, a knife blade could've entered at that spot and gone up under the ribs and straight into his heart.

A hunting rifle sat on the floor, canted up against the seat. It was Hank's new Winchester. Brant didn't know beans about rifles, but he knew from the Saturday morning talk at Ma's that Hank was fatherly proud of his new gun. Nobody went hunting at ten-thirty at night, not around these parts, anyway. Brant wondered if the new rifle had been drafted into service to Seth. Maybe Seth was on patrol for people like Brant and Tom and Cindy Robertson.

Then he noticed, lying on the floor at Hank's feet, dappled in blood, a bundle of envelopes held together by a fat rubber band. Brant pulled off the band and read the envelopes. All were addressed in a woman's hand and lacked a return address, but they were postmarked from Chicago where Hank went once or twice a year on business. Brant opened one letter and found what he expected. Hank's wife would not have been pleased with the content. The letter spoke of longing and understanding and "our situation," and it didn't take Brant long to realize that Hank Ellerby's life was torn between obligation to a wife and children on one hand and undeniable passion on the other.

Brant felt a sudden chill. A man does not take love letters on patrol duty. Hank Ellerby was running away, and someone had killed him, and that "someone" was Cindy Robertson.

Brant had to find Tom, and fast.

***

Cindy's lips against his felt so good, Tom wondered how he'd ever had the strength to break up with her. Maybe it wasn't strength at all, but sheer stupidity. She felt so right in his arms, he must have been seriously mixed up in the head to think he was better off without her.

The one impediment to their love had been removed, thanks to the Returns. Anderson held no sway over Cindy anymore. They were headed in the same direction, she and him, away from their little town and out into the real world.

Over Cindy's shoulder, Tom saw headlights appear at the end of the alley. Brant, probably. The car drove slowly, searching. The headlights winked off and on and then winked again. Brant was looking for him.

Tom gently eased himself out of Cindy's embrace.

"There's our ride," he said, and Cindy turned to look at the headlights. Tom said, "Not much time. We have to hurry."

"I want to show you something," Cindy said.

Tom stepped to the middle of the alley and waved his arms to Brant, wondering as he did so if he'd just given them away to some Return, maybe to Hank Ellerby who'd gotten the drop on Brant and come after them. But no, the headlights were too low to be Hank's Cherokee. It had to be Brant in the Saab.

"Look at this," Cindy said, cradling something against her stomach.

"What is it?"

"Just come look."

"Why don't you just tell me?" he began, drawing closer, but then the Tijuana switchblade went snik and the blade shot out to its full length and in one continuous movement it leaped forward headed for Tom's chest cavity. He jumped back instinctively.

Cindy lunged at him again with the knife. She moved frantically as the headlights approached from down the block.

"Hey!" Tom shouted, dodging the slashing blade. "It's okay! I'm not one of them!"

"Not yet," she said. She lunged again with the knife. She was awkward on the twisted ankle and Tom sidestepped easily. She swiped the knife through the air two more times and each time Tom leaped back, out of striking distance. She tried again and Tom grabbed her by the wrist. He twisted her hand, folded her arm behind her back, then pulled it up until it hurt enough for her to drop the blade. He caught it and held it to her throat.

"When did it happen?" he demanded.

"Last night, when I was sleeping."

"Who did it?"

"My father. But Tom, it's not a bad thing. Once you meet Seth you'll understand."

"You wouldn't care if I slit your throat right now."

"I'd welcome it. This ankle hurts like hell."

The Saab pulled up and Brant leaped out of the car.

"Looks like my warning comes too late," Brant said as he strode up. "Hank's dead, a knife through the ribs. He was trying to get away."

"Let me convert you, Tom," Cindy said. "You'll be glad once it happens. You're just afraid of change, but it's change for the better. Let Seth heal you. Whatever's wrong, Seth can fix it."

"I'm happy just as I am."

"Is that right?" she said flatly.

No, it wasn't. The truth was, Tom would have been hard pressed to name a single happy moment he'd had since he'd broken up with her...until a minute ago when their mouths were together and the empty ache he'd felt for the past few months was gone.

"What do we do with her?" Tom asked. He held the knife pressed close against Cindy's neck, on the jugular. He knew what he should do. He should press a little bit harder, break the skin, rupture the vein and let her die. She was dead already, despite the fact that she was warm and breathing and, even in this unseemly position, felt so damned good in his arms.

"Kill me," she said. "What's so hard about that? I'll be back before you know it. What's stopping you? Do I have to scream to make you do it?"

"She'll have the whole town down on us, Tom."

"So I should just slit her throat, is that it?"

"He's right, you know," Cindy said. I'll have them running from their houses, chasing you through the streets, chasing you down like rabbits. Go ahead, cut my throat. I'm not afraid. Do you want me to struggle so you can tell yourself it was an accident?"

"Why are you doing this to me? Is it revenge, is that it?"

"I want you to know there's nothing to be afraid of. If you won't let me convert you, let someone else. Let Galen. Let Peg."

"What about Peg?" Brant said. He grabbed Cindy's shoulders and pinched them tight. She winced under his grip. "Is Peg one of them? Tell me!"

"Probably. Most everybody's converted. Join us. Join Seth and everything will be all right. What have you got to lose, anyway? Not much, from what I hear."

Brant raised the pistol to Cindy's face. He pressed the end of the barrel against her cheek, aimed it up toward her eye.

"You're telling me this doesn't frighten you, not even a bit?"

"It's annoying the hell out of me, is what it's doing. It hurts. I wish you'd pull the trigger and quit fucking around."

Cindy gasped and Brant saw red liquid spilling around the knife. Cindy's heart gave a beat and the blood spurted and Brant jumped back reflexively. Blood flowed over Tom's knife hand and down Cindy's front as Tom brought the blade around. Tom relaxed his grip and let her slide out of his arms. Her eyes rolled back in her head and her mouth curled into a smile as she collapsed to the ground.

Brant looked at Tom's face and saw the tears streaming over his cheeks. Tom threw the switchblade to the ground and shook the blood from his hand as best he could. He stood there looking down at the body. He wiped a clean sleeve across his face, destroying the tears.

"Shit," Tom said. His voice choked.

"Come on. We have to get to the hospital. We have to get Peg."

"It's too late."

"We don't know that. Come on. There's still a chance."

Brant pulled at Tom's arm and Tom moved reluctantly. He walked like a condemned man to the car. He stood looking at the door handle for long moments, trying to remember how it worked, what it was for, what he was doing in that spot at that time.

Finally Brant opened the door from inside and commanded Tom to get in. They were getting Peg, he said, and the Devil take anybody who got in their way.

***

Tom and Brant's thoughts were running deep. Neither spoke as the Saab navigated the dark streets. Occasionally Brant spotted another pair of headlights and casually turned the corner, then he watched the rear view mirror for any sign that they were being followed, his heart racing and his fingers drumming on Hank Ellerby's Winchester.

He kept thinking of Josh Lunger's eyes, mentally flipping back and forth between the dead, otherworldly boy he'd tied to a bedpost and the exuberant child of the hallway photographs. What Seth had done to Josh was worse than murder. Seth had taken a lovely and loving child and ripped out his soul and twisted what was left into an abomination. Josh was as dead as any corpse in Wildwood Cemetery. What walked the earth in his guise was a thing neither living nor dead, soulless as the devil and with a demon's taste for blood.

How many children lived in Anderson? How many had already received Seth's "blessing?" How many more would be murdered and resurrected if another midnight passed and Seth's crusade were allowed to continue unopposed?

Tom's thoughts were at least as black. He studied his hand, the one that had pressed the knife to Cindy's throat and parted her flesh. He'd felt her warm blood cascade over those fingers. The blood remained, dried under his fingernails, lodged in the crevices of his skin. Cindy's blood.

Only now, with her loss, did Tom realize how much she'd meant to him. What a fuckhead he was. He'd turned his back on the best thing that had ever happened to him. He'd shut her out of his life, not because of what she was, but because of what she stood for in his screwed up, twisted, bullshit-befuddled mind. Who knows what might have been if they'd gotten out of Anderson together, traveled, seen the world?

He tried to tell himself that the creature he'd killed was not Cindy, not really, but something that had taken her place. He'd killed...temporarily, for less than an hour, actually...a being that looked like Cindy and, Jesus, that kissed and felt like Cindy, but it wasn't her, not in any way that mattered. That's what he told himself over and over as the car glided between pools of light from the street lamps, as it moved with excruciating stealth toward the hospital. That's what he had to believe or the guilt would have been unbearable.

Tears welled in his eyes. The pressure in his chest demanded release, but he was not going to break down, damn it, he was not going to break down in front of Brant. He was going to see this thing through like a man. Whatever rewards life had in store for him, they lay beyond this terrible, black night. He had to muscle his way through it or die trying.

With the delays, the waiting with the headlights off while a car passed, with the circuitous route they were forced to take, it was past eleven-thirty by the time Brant and Tom reached the hospital. Peg's car was in the parking lot. Brant pulled into the empty space beside it but did not turn off the engine.

He swiveled in the seat to face Tom. "I'm not going with you," he said. "You'll have to convince her yourself. Tell her the truth, lie to her, do whatever you have to do but get it done before midnight in case...." Brant knew what he had to do, had known it for the last half hour, but speaking the words aloud made it too real.

"In case what?"

"In case I don't get to Reverend Small in time. I have to go after him, Tom. I can't let this go on. Even if we get out of it for now, it'll catch up to us."

"Like ripples, getting wider and wider. I know. Maybe you should get Mom and I should go after Small."

"No, getting her away from Annie...I don't think a stranger could do that."

"You're not exactly a stranger."

"But I'm not family, either. You're her son. If she'll do it for anybody, it'll be for you."

"I don't know. We've been at each other's throats a lot lately."

"Tom, believe me. She loves you. She might not leave Annie for her own sake, but she'll do it for yours. Tell her you aren't leaving without her. Force her to choose."

"Suppose she chooses Annie."

"Then drag her out by the heels. Take her car, meet me at that diner in Junction City, the place across from the newspaper office."

Tom nodded. He opened the door and slid out. He stuffed the pistol in the small of his back and headed toward the hospital. He heard the Saab back out of the parking stall and he turned to watch Brant drive off.

If Brant didn't eliminate Small before midnight, the town would be crawling with Returns. Deputy Haws, Hank Ellerby, Cindy and who-knows-how-many others. He might be able to bluff his way out, but he wasn't going to count on it. He figured he had ten, maybe fifteen minutes to make his case and get him and his mom out of the hospital. They'd have to drive straight to the highway, maybe shoot their way through the roadblock. If they made it that far, they'd have a chance.

He walked into the hospital and felt Claudia White's hostile eyes on him as he passed the nurse's station. The net was closing around him. He'd waited too long.

Pulling this off would take a miracle.

***

Peg, too, was praying for a miracle.

The room was silent but for the rushing of blood in her ears, a side effect, probably, of the sedative Doc had given her. She hadn't wanted the shot at first, but as the minutes ticked ever slower toward midnight and then seemed to just stop and hang in the air, and as the panic rose in her throat until she thought she would scream, she'd asked for a little something to calm her nerves. Doc had said it would take the edge off and it certainly did that. It could have been the stress or the fact that she'd eaten dinner out of a vending machine, but the tranquilizer was hitting her harder than she'd expected. Had Doc miscalculated the dose? Her head was spinning.

She leaned forward and massaged her temples. It was strange not to hear the hiss of the respirator. She'd called for Doc around eleven and signed the forms consenting to withdrawal of Annie's life support, then watched the proceedings from a million miles away. Claudia White drew out Annie's breathing tube and wheeled the respirator away. Why remove the machine? Peg had wondered. So I can't change my mind? The remaining nurse worked quickly and precisely, removing the feeding tube and the IV. Soon, according to the monitors, it was done. Her little girl was gone.

Peg had broken down, then. She'd fallen into one of the plastic chairs and bawled like a child. Doc's hand on her shoulder did nothing to ease the pain. She wanted to punch him when he told her to "let it all out," as if she needed his permission. Annie was dead, for Chris'sakes, she had all the reason she needed to cry and wail and moan and carry on. She would pound the floor or throw one of these stupid plastic chairs out the window if she wanted to, she had the right.

Only when he told her that everything would be all right, that it would soon be midnight and she'd have Annie back again, did Peg begin to regain control. He sounded so sure. How could anyone confidently predict a miracle? But there was something in his voice that made her believe him, and by degrees the sobbing stopped and she quit filling tissues with her tears and she experienced a few moments of grace.

As the minutes passed, the fear set in. Panic welled in her chest and she asked Doc for something to calm her down, expecting a pill. Instead he'd come back with the syringe, saying that a pill would take too long to have any effect. She'd let him inject her and soon her head was swimming, but the body shakes had gone away and there was a pleasant mist over everything, muffling sight and sound and thought alike.

Tom's voice called to her. It floated to her from a distance, as if from across a lake, until his face was in front of hers, blurring in and out of focus. He spoke urgently to her, with an edge in his voice that cut through the fog and penetrated her drug-clouded brain.

"What's he done to you, Mom?" he was asking. His hands gripped her arms and shook her. His eyes sought hers, striving for connection. She tried to speak, to tell him that everything was going to be all right, but her mouth wouldn't form the words. If she could only lift her head, but it seemed to weigh a hundred pounds....

He was pulling at her, trying to lift her to her feet. She held back and his hands unexpectedly let go and she fell back into the chair and there was a scuffle...shouting...a crash and Doc collapsed on the floor in front of her. Blood trickled from his mouth and for what seemed like minutes she watched the blood run between his lips and drip to the pristine hospital room floor. Then Tom's hands slipped under her arms and were lifting her from behind. His voice in her ear urged her to rise, to walk, to hurry, that time was short and they had to leave. She tried to tell him about Annie but he wouldn't listen. It was everything she could do to put one foot in front of the other as he hurried her into the corridor.

She tried to follow Tom's lead. Things were going on that she didn't understand. She didn't know who to trust. She'd trusted Doc but look at her now, drugged out of her mind. In her confused state, she had to put her faith in her son.

Sights came to her in stroboscopic flashes. Tom struggling with Claudia White. The cold, clear numbers of a clock. There was an explosion, then more, and then Tom was yelling at her, angry and impatient.

The minute hand of the clock jumped, and it was fifteen minutes to midnight.

***

The instant Tom stepped into Annie's hospital room, he knew that everything was wrong.

Equipment had been removed. Annie sat in bed like a doll, the covers neatly folded over her legs, stripped of her life-sustaining tubes. Peg sat beside the bed, head in her hands.

"Mom?" Tom said. When she didn't answer he marched into the room under Doc Milford's watchful gaze.

"Tom, your mother came to a decision" Doc began, but Tom cut him off with an angry glance.

"Did she? Or did somebody decide for her?" Tom kneeled before his mother. "Mom? What's going on?"

"I have the forms with her signature. No one coerced her."

"Can you understand what I'm saying? Mom?" He put his hand under Peg's chin and lifted her face. Her eyes were wide and blank, but he could see she was trying to focus on him. "What's he done to you?" he asked.

"I gave her a tranquilizer. She was having a panic attack."

"She isn't tranquilized, she's stoned to the gills," Tom snapped.

He grabbed Peg's arms and shook. Her head lolled on her shoulders, a dead weight. Her lips moved soundlessly, trying to form words that wouldn't come.

"Think about it, Tom," Doc urged. "Think about all that's been happening. If Annie's to have any chance of recovery, any chance at all, it has to come now."

"How? Through Seth?" Tom took Peg's hands. "We're getting out of here, Mom. Come on. I'll help you up."

"I can't let you do that, Tom."

Tom looked over to see Doc rushing at him with something clutched in his upraised hand. A syringe. Tom let go of Peg and whirled and planted his fist into Doc's belly. Doc whuffed and stepped back, still clutching the syringe.

"You don't understand," Doc hissed through clenched teeth. He held his stomach, his breath came in labored gasps.

"I understand enough," Tom said.

"You don't understand anything because you don't know Seth! Seth is life, don't see that?"

Tom replied with a blow to Doc's mouth that sent the older man reeling. Another one dropped him to the floor where his head impacted on the hard floor. Doc lay unmoving at Peg's feet, the object of her drugged fascination.

Tom stepped around behind Peg and lifted her from behind.

"We have to go," he said. "Come on. You need to stand up. That's it. That's good." He spied her purse on the floor, picked it up and forced it into her hands. "You have to walk now. Hurry. There isn't much time and we have to go."

"Annie...."

"Annie's fine. Hurry. We have to leave."

Tom supported Peg as he ushered her into the corridor. He saw Nurse White marching toward them and too late noticed the scalpel in her hand. The scalpel shot forward and Tom deflected it with his hand. The blade sliced across his palm, cutting deep, but Tom grabbed Claudia's wrist and twisted. She cried out. The scalpel clattered to the floor. Tom shoved her aside and urged Peg on.

Claudia quickly retrieved the scalpel and rushed at Tom's back. He let go of Peg and whirled around in time to grab Claudia's wrist, already descending toward him with the scalpel. He held the wrist with both hands and kneed her hard in the stomach. She doubled over and Tom raised his knee to her face. He heard cartilage crunch and knew he'd broken her nose. Claudia moaned breathlessly and fell to the floor, hands cradling her face as blood streamed between her fingers.

Tom found Peg staring at something on the wall. A clock. It was a quarter to twelve.

The fight had attracted attention. Though the hospital was minimally staffed at this time of night, Curtis Waxler, the night orderly, rushed in their direction from down the hall. A voice called out, "Tom!" and Tom saw Doc striding toward them angrily. A smear of blood stained his chin where Doc had wiped at it with the back of his hand. Caked blood squatted in the corner of his mouth.

"Come on, Mom," Tom said. He tugged at her arm but she stood transfixed by the clock.

"Almost midnight," she said, slurring the words.

"Yes, we have to get away before midnight. Hurry, please."

He considered knocking her cold and dragging her to the car. It couldn't have been much harder than motivating her to walk. Curtis Waxler was almost of top of them when Tom decided to quit pussyfooting around. He reached under his t-shirt and pulled out the pistol he'd stuffed in his jeans, in the small of his back. He aimed at Curtis, gripping the pistol with both hands, and threatened to pull the trigger.

Curtis didn't slow and Tom realized that intimidation was useless. Returns had no fear of death. Josh Lunger had looked him in the eye with Tom's pistol aimed straight at his head and said "So what?" Cindy had welcomed death as an alternative to a twisted ankle. It was useless to point a gun at a Return unless you intended to use it.

Tom pulled the trigger. Peg jumped at the sound and Curtis Waxler staggered. A red splotch appeared in the center of his chest. Tom fired again and Curtis went down.

Tom swiveled the gun over to point at Doc. Doc looked at him wearily but did not break his stride.

"Oh, come now, Tom," Doc said, and then Tom pulled the trigger and a bullet whizzed by Doc's head and ripped a chunk from one ear. Doc cried out and grabbed the side of his head. Tom's second shot went wild but his third entered Doc's temple squarely and emerged on the opposite side in a shower of bone and brain and blood, tumbling end over end.

Tom grabbed Peg and dragged her toward the door. His patience was gone and his voice was angry as he ordered her to walk, damn it, they were getting the fuck out of there.

The parking lot was eerily quiet as Tom pushed, pulled, and bullied Peg toward her car. Tom heard the distant crack of a gun and knew there would be one more Return come midnight. Then he heard more shots and realized that the massacre had begun in earnest. Anyone who was not a Return was being openly murdered as midnight approached. Gone was all subterfuge, what little was left. Outside interference was not likely in the next...what? Ten minutes? The Returns would be taking no chances. If they mistakenly killed one of their own, what difference would it make? All would be back come midnight.

A heavy form appeared from the shadows as they reached Peg's ancient Impala. Tom used his last bullet, not waiting to see who it was or to determine if they were friend or foe. It wasn't Brant, and that was all Tom needed to know. The form went down. Tom maneuvered Peg around the body as they passed. It was Clyde Dunwiddey, and he still held a new Beretta pistol in one hand.

Tom managed to get Peg into the car. He took a minute to reload and then started the car and pulled into the street. Peg turned in her seat to keep her eyes on the hospital as they pulled away. It occurred to Tom that she probably knew which lighted window was Annie's.

The car clock said eleven-thirty and for a moment Tom thought they had a chance. Then he remembered that it was later than that when he'd entered the hospital and that the clock in Peg's car had said eleven-thirty for the last three years. He checked his watch. They had twelve minutes to make it to the highway, and he could see that something was happening on the road ahead and he'd have to circle around.

They'd never make it.

It was all up to Brant, who had twelve minutes left to kill Reverend Small and put an end to the madness.

 

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