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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-Four

Brant loaded three rounds into the Winchester, raised it to his shoulder a couple of times for practice, and decided he was ready to go to church.

He wished for the pistol. That gun held six shots and would be better in close quarters. While he was at it, he wished for an Uzi or, better still, a few grenades he could lob through the stained glass windows. Instead, he had a hunting rifle and three shots with which to bring down an ancient, evil spirit that had fought this fight before. Brant tried to encourage himself with the thought that Donald Pritchett had brought Seth down thirty years ago, and he tried not to think of the price Donald had paid for his victory...a lifetime locked in a mental asylum. If it came to that, Brant wouldn't try to explain his actions to the authorities. Let them throw him in jail for murder.

There were only a few cars in the parking lot. Contrary to Brant's expectation, the Returns were not gathering at the church. They had spread themselves throughout the town, "converting" those who had not yet discovered Seth and turning Brant's drive through the city streets into a game of stealth and avoidance. Thanks to the prowling Returns, it had taken Brant longer than he'd anticipated to reach the church. Time was woefully short as he tried to figure some way to get inside and find and kill Reverend Small with his pitiful allotment of firepower.

Brant had parked the car a couple of blocks away and sneaked up on the church on foot. From his vantage point in the bushes across the street, he could discern two people on the front steps, standing under the incandescent glare of a single outdoor lamp. Brant shielded his eyes and determined that it was Jack and Dolores Frelich. Jack cradled a shotgun across his chest. Dolores held some kind of rifle, maybe a .22, it was hard to tell from this distance.

An experienced hunter could have picked them off easily, but Brant had no idea how accurate he'd be with Hank's Winchester. The noise might attract attention even on a night as gun-noisy as this one. If he'd had more time he might've scouted for an unlocked basement window and tried to sneak inside, but the clock was ticking and there weren't that many ticks left before midnight. No, it had to be a frontal assault, quick and clean.

He raised the rifle to his shoulder and took aim at Jack Frelich. Then he thought better of it. Even if he did drop Jack with one shot, it would alert Dolores and she'd have time to raise the alarm with anyone inside while Brant was crossing the street. He'd have to get closer to ensure a clean shot and get inside while he still had the advantage of surprise.

Jack and Dolores would be nearly blind under that light. They wouldn't know who he was until he reached the sidewalk in front of the church, even if some kind of general alert had gone out regarding him and Tom. He stepped out from behind the bushes and strode confidently toward the church. He let the rifle dangle at his side as if using it were the last thing on his mind.

Jack and Dolores were engaged in conversation, and Brant was nearly across the street before Dolores noticed him. She slapped Jack on the arm, pointed toward Brant, and Jack turned to look his direction. Brant held up a hand in a friendly greeting but said nothing. Jack did not seem alarmed. The shotgun lay in his arms like a sleeping baby, then it dropped to his side as Jack unfolded his arms and put one hand over his eyes to shield them from the overhead glare, scrutinizing Brant.

Suddenly Jack recognized Brant and stiffened. Brant raised the hunting rifle waist high, pointed it in Jack's direction and pulled the trigger. At that range he couldn't miss. The bullet plowed into Jack's stomach. Brant expended the cartridge and lifted the rifle higher and swung it over to point at Dolores. Her .22 was already on its way to her shoulder when Brant pulled the trigger again and planted a bullet in her chest.

Brant stepped over the bodies and glanced inside to see Jimmy Troost headed toward him at a full run, a few yards from the door. Brant fired again and put his third bullet into Jimmy's belly. Reverend Small looked up from the pulpit where he'd been practicing a sermon before an invisible audience.

Brant thought about reloading the Winchester but that would give Small a chance to run. Instead, he dropped the rifle to the floor and snatched up Jack Frelich's shotgun.

The sanctuary was empty but for himself and the preacher as Brant strode down the center aisle, eyes locked with Small's. With no threat imminent, he wanted to get good and close to his target.

"What are you doing, Brant?" Small asked with infuriating calm.

"I know who you are," Brant said. "I know about Eloise."

"You don't know what you're talking about. Put down the gun."

"What are you afraid of? Being buried alive for another sixty years?"

"You don't understand anything. You don't understand the miracle that's been visited upon this town. You should be joyful, and grateful to Seth for his blessing."

"Bullshit."

"Don't do something you'll regret for the rest of your life. Let me explain. Two minutes...that's all I ask."

Brant had reached the pulpit. He raised the shotgun to his shoulder and took aim. He wasn't giving the bastard two seconds.

Before he could pull the trigger the pulpit exploded at him, blinding him with flying splinters of wood. He turned away instinctively as Small stepped to the side, a Smith & Wesson revolver heavy in his hand. Small fired two wild shots at Brant as he edged toward the sacristy door.

Brant's watering eyes reduced Small to a blurry figure in black. He pointed the shotgun at the blur and fired, pumped another cartridge into the chamber and fired again. He heard Small cry out. He wiped the tears from his eyes and for a moment thought that Small had escaped. His eyes followed the smear of blood on the sacristy door down to the body lying on the floor. Blood seeped from beneath Small's body and crept across the hardwood floor. The body twitched.

Brant approached it warily. The pistol lay near Small's twitching fingers. Brant kicked it away, then nudged Small with his foot. He kicked him hard in the ribs and watched his face for any reaction. None.

Seth was dead.

Brant pumped another cartridge into the chamber and pointed the barrel at Small's head. It was bare minutes before midnight. If Small came back, Brant was ready for him. After that came burial in a deep, unmarked grave, maybe in a field where he would lie, unsuspected and undisturbed, for decades. Or he would cremate the body and scatter the ashes on the wind. Even Seth's powers of resurrection must have some limit.

He heard a noise, the creak of hinges. The sacristy door was opening slowly. He aimed the shotgun at the door. With Seth dead, the other Returns should have died also. Whoever was opening the door might be another survivor like Brant. Either that or something was horribly wrong.

The door opened to reveal Sheriff Clark, his hands raised shoulder high. He nudged the door open with his foot.

"I don't want trouble," Clark said. "You wouldn't kill a man in cold blood, would you? I just want to talk."

"Keep your distance," Brant warned. He would've pulled the trigger but he wasn't sure about his ammunition. He didn't want to spend all his shells on Returns and find he had none left for Seth if he came back. There was also the slight chance that Clark, like himself, had escaped the night's slaughter and wasn't a Return at all.

Footsteps behind him. Brant whirled to see Madge Duffy and Doris Gunnarsen enter the sanctuary. He swung the gun back around to cover the Sheriff. Clark had been joined by Frank Gunnarsen. Both men inched toward him from the sacristy, arms raised. Brant heard the murmur of voices on the stairs, coming up from the Sunday School rooms in the basement.

"Stay back," he warned. Returns seemed to be coming out of the woodwork.

He backed toward the side exit, pointing the gun first one way and then the other. Madge and Doris were joined by three other Anderson women, all dressed as if for church, who had been laying out refreshments downstairs. Bernice Tompkins wore a cotton apron and carried a paper cup of punch. They closed on Brant like gawkers surrounding an accident victim.

"Stay back," Brant said again, but they continued to advance. Brant was baffled. They were Returns, they had to be. So why did they fear the gun? Did they know that, with Seth dead, this life was their last? Without Seth to sustain them, would they expire at midnight? It frustrated him that didn't understand what was going on. He was sweating harder now than when he'd shot Small.

Suddenly strong arms closed around him from behind and pinned his arms to his side. The Returns surged forward. Brant closed his finger on the trigger and blasted a hole in Sheriff Clark's gut. Clark went down. The other Returns stepped over his body without a thought.

Frank Gunnarsen grabbed the shotgun and wrested it from Brant's hand. Madge Duffy clawed at his face. Frank drove the butt of the shotgun into Brant's stomach. The air whooshed from Brant's lungs and he fell limp. The arms holding him let him slide to the floor. He looked up to see Jed Grimm. Behind Grimm, the side exit door closed automatically and clicked shut. The others had been a distraction that allowed Jed to slip up on Brant from behind. They didn't fear the gun. They didn't fear death. They were sustained by the power of Seth. The undiminished power of Seth.

"Looks like you shot the wrong man," Jed said, bending down.

The Returns clutched Brant's arms and pinned his legs. They lifted him to a sitting position, twisting his arms until he thought they would pop from their sockets.

Grimm's huge fingers reached for Brant's face, closed over it, gripped it tight. Grimm's other hand grabbed the back of Brant's head.

"How's that stiff neck, Brant?" Grimm asked. "You've been under a lot of pressure lately. It feels tight. I think it wants a twist."

Grimm twisted Brant's head like an oil field worker closing a wellhead. The neck cracked, bones broke, tendons snapped. Brant saw the room spin and go sideways. Then he was looking up at his own shoulder, his head resting loosely against his chest. Behind him he saw Madge Duffy's upside down face smiling at him. Next to Madge, crowding in for a better look, Bernice Tompkins took a loud sip of punch.

***

With every corner he turned, fate seemed to move Tom further away from the access road to the highway. Peg sat beside him and stared out the window. Did she notice the two dead bodies inside the car with the shattered windows, or the corpse slung over the Optimists' cannon in the Square? Did she realize how warped the world had become, how tranquil little Anderson had been transformed in the space of a few days into a deadly caricature of itself, an image in a strange and malevolent mirror?

If so, she showed no sign of comprehension. Gunshots peppered the stillness, some in the distance, some alarmingly near. Every pair of headlights he glimpsed convinced Tom to duck the car into the next alley or to douse his own lights and cruise invisibly down another dark street.

He became aware of a pair of lights in the rear view mirror. He watched as the car passed under a street lamp. He recognized it as Carl Tompkins' Acura, an import that had foreshadowed Carl's stocking of Japanese power tools at the hardware store. It was a four-banger and Tom could have left it on a straight-away, but this was no time for a race. Tom was trying to remain inconspicuous. Tom turned the corner and the other car followed.

Tom turned into an alley and the Acura dogged his heels. It was on his tail, all right. He had to lose it. He glanced over at Peg. He'd strapped her in earlier, when he'd turned off the lights and cut the engine and fought the sudden loss of power steering to muscle the Impala into a shadowed driveway and wait for a car to pass. If the cat-and-mouse with Carl turned into a Hollywood car chase of screaming tires and battered steel, at least she wouldn't go flying around the passenger compartment.

He barreled straight through the alley, shout out the other end, bounced on worn-out shocks over the street and plunged into the alley on the opposite side. Carl did the same. He must have had the accelerator pushed to the floor as the Acura closed the space between them.

The Impala was doing sixty down the second alley with the Acura biting at its tail when Tom hit the brakes. The Impala skidded to a halt, kicking up a cloud of dirt, and Tom fought to keep its nose pointed straight ahead. If the car went into a spin, his plan would go bust.

Carl hit his brakes too late. The Acura rear-ended the Impala with a crunch of metal and a loud pop and the swelling air bag smashed Carl back into his seat. He fought it down, cursing. He opened the door and stepped out to face Tom and stare into the barrel of the brand new .22 he'd loaned to Mark Lunger.

Tom put a bullet squarely into Carl Tompkins' forehead. He watched the body fall to the ground, then he rolled it over on its back. Carl's eyes were wide and unseeing. Tom examined the rear end of the Impala. It was damaged but drivable.

He returned to Carl's body, the .22 in hand. Across town, the church bell tolled. Carl's body went into the spastic dance, drew in air to fill empty lungs. Tom watched in fascination, unable to tear his eyes away from the spectacle. He watched the hole he'd put in Carl's head close. He watched as new skin grew to cover the exposed skull. He watched as Carl opened his eyes and registered the gun pointed at his head.

"Shit," Tom said, pulling the trigger. Brant had failed. Anderson belonged to the Returns.

Tom checked Carl's car for weapons. He found a shotgun and a 9mm pistol. He took both and hurried back to the Impala.

Peg stared at him as he climbed in. The fog over her brain seemed to be lifting ever so slightly. She was fighting it hard, forcing herself to focus her eyes and her mind.

"Tom?" she said, puzzled.

"It's all right, Mom," he said as he started the engine. "Everything's going to be all right."

Even in her drugged state, Peg could tell when her boy was lying.

 

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