Make your own free website on Tripod.com

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

 

Day Five

Tuesday

Twenty-Five

Returns walked the streets as if someone had declared a holiday, and maybe someone had.

Tom drove through the city-wide come-as-you-are party as if he had all the time in the world. He saw Toby Morris who worked at the gas station comparing bloodstains with Pete Klassen, one of the nation's few surviving milkmen. Someone had put a bullet straight through the embroidered name patch on Toby's gas station shirt, and Pete proudly displayed the entry and exit holes in his blood encrusted milkman's cap.

Tom saw Lucy Haws, the deputy's depressive sister, strolling down the street in her night clothes, greeting everyone she met with a smile and a wave. He saw Ma from the diner and Merle Tippert from the movie theater and Nathan Smart who played the accordion and his wife Opal who could not be beaten at bridge. Tom wondered if Nathan had squeezed the life from his wife as he squeezed music from his instrument, or if Opal had poisoned the hors d'oeuvres at their weekly bridge game with Opal's sister and her husband.

He saw Bernice Tompkins in a car full of agitated cats, driving slowly and looking from side to side, searching for her husband Carl whose thrice-killed body lay cooling in an alley five blocks away, the only true corpse in a town populated by the dead.

He saw Ira who delivered the mail and Franco who cut his hair. He saw his teachers, his classmates, the people he'd known since he was a child, the people he now recognized as the touchstones of his life.

He knew them all from the schoolyard, the neighborhood, the stores, the softball games, the picnics and county fairs. He knew them as the men who populated Carl Tompkins' hardware store and talked about feed and tools and harvests and wives. He knew them as the women who gathered in twos and threes to gossip and laugh and brag on the children who, at other times, would surely drive them to drink. He knew these people as he knew every lamp post on Main Street, every storefront, every common and boring and steadfast thing in his life, only he no longer knew them at all. With the turning of the earth and the tolling of a bell, they had become something alien, something deadly strange.

They would kill him if they knew he wasn't one of them. So Tom drove slowly, as if he, too, had been invited to the party. When they waved, he waved back, smiling, shooting worried looks at Peg in the passenger's seat.

She stared out the window, her left hand nervously massaging her right. The veil was lifting. She registered the bloodstains and the ripped clothing. She recognized the perversity behind the teeming midnight streets. But the underlying sense of it eluded her. She did not comprehend the why or how. She did not knowor could not summon the concentrationto force onto her face an answering smile or lift her hand in a mock-friendly wave.

It was only a matter of time before someone noticed her detachment. The lethal accusation would sear through the air and ignite the crowd. Returns would swarm the car like locusts, clawing at the windows, tugging at the doors. Someone would have a gun....

"We have to lay low," Tom said. "You need time to clear your head. We'll get a chance to make a break for it soon. They have to sleep sometime. They're still just people, despite everything. They have to sleep."

"Annie," Peg said.

"We'll find Annie when your head's clear," Tom said.

He pulled in behind Ma's Diner and dug through Peg's purse until he found her keys. One of them opened the back door and they slipped inside. He sat Peg in the kitchen and went around to the front and snagged several packets of the No-Doz they kept by the cash register. He poured Peg a glass of water and fed her four of the caffeine pills, then decided what-the-hell and gave her four more.

They sat in the darkness of the kitchen and, through the service window, watched the parade of townsfolk march by. Tom heard the church bell ringing, drawing Returns from all corners of the town, luring them out with its Pied Piper tones. It seemed that half the town passed by the diner window. The Meyerses, the Verheidens, the Coles, the Hogans, the Nowlans, the Cardenases. All the familiar faces, the children and grandparents, the high and mighty, the lowly, the pleasant and the mean of heart. All passed by, happy and sinister and murderous as crows. They didn't look in the diner window to see Tom and his mother hunkered in the dark, afraid, wondering if they were the last doomed souls in a town gone mad with life.

Time and caffeine were having their effect on Peg. She sat attentively as Tom told her about his and Brant's research in Junction City, about Eloise and Seth and Donald Pritchett, about their encounters at the roadblock and with Josh Lunger and Cindy Robertson. The flood of reanimated souls outside the diner window slowed to a trickle. Tom started to tell Peg about Reverend Small, but he stopped when she shook her head.

"It isn't Small," she said. "Seth is no stranger."

"But everything started happening when Small moved to town. Before that"

Peg interrupted with a voice flat with resignation. "They moved the cemetery more than two years ago, before construction ever began on the nuclear plant."

Tom's stomach did a flipflop.

"Jesus," he said, turning the new fact over in his head. Seth had been loose for two years. He'd been biding his time, studying the town, planning this night for two years. For one wild moment Tom suspected Brant. He'd shown up in Anderson two years ago. Who better to study a town than a reporter? But no, it didn't make any sense. If Brant were Seth, he'd have killed Tom long ago, when Tom first came to him with his fears. He tried to think of other newcomers, but Tom was sixteen years old two years ago, more keenly aware of the comings and goings of baseball players, rock musicians and super-heroes than of the adult population of his home town.

"Who else could it be?" he asked.

"It doesn't matter," Peg replied.

Tom stared at her incredulously, thinking that the tranquilizer hadn't worn off completely. She still wasn't thinking straight, didn't understand any of what he'd told her.

"Mom, listen to me. Seth is the key to everything. We have to kill Seth to put an end to this nightmare!"

"There's no end. One nightmare or another, that's all. Take your choice."

"You're not making sense."

"I don't think you and I would choose the same nightmare."

"It's the drugs. They're still messing you up."

"What was that?"

Peg turned, alert. Tom froze, listening hard.

"Something at the back door," Peg whispered.

Tom went to investigate. He put his ear to the door for long seconds but heard nothing.

"Probably just a cat," he said to the darkness. Then a bell tinkled and Tom turned to see Peg throwing the front door of the diner wide. He called after her as she ran for the street, toward two figures standing silently in the middle of the road. Brant and Annie. Tom spat an oath and gave chase, the shotgun in his hand.

Annie ran to her mother and launched herself into Peg's arms. Mother and daughter held each other tight. Peg peppered Annie with kisses and murmured her name over and over. Tears from Peg's eyes dampened Annie's face and Annie said, "You're getting me all wet!" and Peg laughed and said she couldn't help it, she was just so glad to have her back.

Tom glared at Brant and ordered him to step away, aiming the shotgun at his head. Brant only smiled and shook his head.

"You know the gun doesn't intimidate me," Brant said. "Besides, I'm not here to convert anyone. Not you, not even Peg. If Seth had wanted to convert your mom, he could have done it long ago."

"So you're one of them."

"They converted me before I could reach Reverend Small, and now I'm glad they did. But none of that matters anymore, Tom. I'm not here as an enemy." Brant put his arm around Peg. He drew her and Annie to his side.

"I want to heal, not destroy," Brant continued. "Your family is broken. You know how nothing's been the same since the accident. Your father's dead and, unfortunately, there's nothing I or Seth or anyone can do about that. I know that I can't take his place, not completely. But I can be here for you and for Peg and Annie. We can be a family, Tom, whole and strong again, living in a wonderful little town. You don't even have to be converted, not if you don't want to."

"Bullshit. Seth is a cancer. Cancer doesn't make deals."

"Come with us to the church. Come and see for yourself. There's no evil at work here. The church is overflowing. Everybody's there. They're singing hymns...you can almost hear them from here. The town's come together like never before. Anderson will be a better place to live than ever, because we're united in our devotion to Seth. We're of one mind."

"Everybody thinking the same, believing the same."

"Exactly!"

"Sounds like hell to me," Tom stated. "I'll keep my own mind, thank you."

Brant sighed.

"I know," he said. "I know how strange it sounds. I was skeptical myself, you'll remember. I fought against Seth, but I'm glad I lost. Seth is the way, Tom. Seth is the answer."

Tom stepped forward, keeping the shotgun trained on Brant's chest.

"Let go of my mom. She and Annie are coming with me."

Annie squeezed Peg tighter.

"No," Annie said, defiant and afraid.

Peg shot a reproving look at Tom and said, "You're scaring Annie."

Annie scares me, Tom thought, and he said, "She isn't Annie, Mom. She's a thing back from the grave. She's a walking corpse."

Peg shook her head angrily as Annie started to cry.

"I won't let you ruin things for us, Tom! Annie's back! I don't care how or why!" Tom started to protest but Peg cut him off. "I said I don't care!"

Brant took a step forward.

"If you won't listen to us," he said, "maybe you'll listen to your friends."

Tom heard a footstep behind him. He whirled to see Galen Ganger's fist fly toward his face. The punch connected and Tom staggered back. He tried to raise the shotgun but Galen's hand clamped over the barrel as his knee dug into Tom's diaphragm, knocking the wind out of him. Galen yanked the gun from Tom's hands. He swung the stock around and connected with the side of Tom's head.

Tom stumbled dizzily. He lifted his eyes to see his other friends circling around him. Darren, Kent, Buzzy...they closed in, hands hardened into fists. Shock dulled the feeling of the blows they hammered on his body and head. He was aware of Galen shoving the others aside to pummel him with short, hard jabs to the stomach, to raise a knee into Tom's groin. Tom tried to fight back but his arms refused to lift. He had gone numb, unable to fend off the punches that came at him from every side.

His knees buckled and Tom fell to the ground. Through swelling eyelids he glimpsed his mom and Annie, Peg turning away, Annie watching his beating with emotionless fascination. He saw Brant lead them off.

As darkness deep as the Blacklands closed around him, Tom knew where they were going.

They were going to church.

***

He was neither dead nor undead, and he felt like hell. The pain when he tried to open his eyes was excruciating, so he left them closed. His arms and legs did not want to move, so he quit trying. He lay on a cold floor with the smell of linoleum and sanctity in his nose and knew where they'd taken him, that they hadn't killed him yet, that something special and terrible lay in store.

A voice whispered into Tom's ear, a snakelike hiss.

"I know you can hear me. You know my name and you know my work. You nearly found me out, you and Brant. You got so close, thanks to your visit to the madhouse. I should've taken care of Donald Pritchett when I had the chance, but I didn't want to do him the favor. I wanted him to suffer for what he did to me."

Tom did not, could not answer. His brain couldn't deal with the onslaught of sensation and thought and fear and confusion and outrage flooding through it. Maybe Doc Milford had given him a shot. It was all Tom could do to listen and try to understand the words. He could not identify the hiss of a voice, was not even sure whether it came from outside his head or in. He felt the world spinning beneath his prone body on the cool, cool tile.

"Can you imagine what it was like, waking every midnight in that too-short box? Imagine your legs healing and breaking, shattered by confinement, your lungs aching for air that had staled ages before. Every night you wake to the darkness and the damp, to the encroaching earth, your eyes and ears and mouth filled with vermin and decay. Every night the same suffocating death and a moment's respite, then another terrible wakening as the nights and years course by in breathless succession. Can you imagine the never-ending pain, the horror?

"That's what Donald Pritchett did to me, and that's why I let him live. I'll never admit him to my congregation, never. Never."

The world continued to spin, swirling the whispered words around inside Tom's head.

"I've had fun in your little town," the voice continued. "Madge Duffy, the long-suffering murderess, driven to follow in her mother's footsteps. Bernice Tompkins' hands around the throats of her beloved felines. Your own mother, pulling the plug on the object of her obsession. I love women, I honestly do. Men are so easy and uncomplicated and dull. It's the women who give life its color and texture, who make it all worthwhile.

"You and your mother are the last. Your time will come soon, and hers will follow. You're my last indulgence before the next campaign.

"Listen. The congregation is singing. Do you recognize the hymn? I love the way it sounds, issuing from so many solemn throats, like a dirge."

The voice sang huskily into Tom's ear.

"Come, come, come, come...."

A wave washed through Tom from his toes to his head and deluged his brain. The voice was drowned in the crashing surf. Tom fell into the darkness, fearing where he would emerge.

***

Brant took Peg's hands in his and told her what to expect.

"He'll be sedated. He won't feel anything. Reverend Small will call you forward and place the knife in your hands. One thrust, right here, up into the heart, and it'll be over."

Peg shook her head.

"I can't do it. I won't."

"You have to. They need this. Seth needs it. It's an act of faith. It demonstrates your good will."

"I can't kill my own son, Brant!"

"You aren't killing anyone. Seth will bring him back. Tom has to be converted, as I was, as Annie was, as we all were except you. How can Seth trust you if you don't trust Seth?"

"It's impossible. I can't."

"You have to stop thinking of it as killing. It's like when you were a kid and you became blood brothers with someone. You pricked your fingers to let blood. It's a ritual, nothing more. Seth will watch over Tom. Seth will restore him. He won't feel a thing, I promise. Doc's seen to that. We can't trust Tom. He isn't one of us. He will be converted, Peg, with or without you."

"Why doesn't Seth just kill me, too, and get it over with?"

"It isn't our place to question Seth's will. He has reasons that we can't comprehend. Fulfillment lies in doing his bidding, and this is what he has commanded. I don't understand it, I don't pretend to. But I don't have to understand to know that it's the right thing to do."

"Do it, Mommy."

Annie had sidled up. She stood on the chair next to Peg's and put her arm around Peg's shoulder.

"You have to do what Seth says," Annie said.

Peg felt the tiny fingers on the back of her neck, stroking her gently. Seth had worked this miracle. What further proof could she need? Her little girl was standing beside her as big as life, playing with her hair the way she always did. Her skin was pale from her long convalescence. It made her eyes seem so dark.

"I believe what you tell me," Peg said, "that Seth will bring him back. I just don't think I can do it. He's my son. Even if he weren't, the thought of taking a knife and...and...."

A door opened and the voices of the congregation, joined in a hymn, flowed in. Peg looked up. Reverend Small had entered, walked over to her. He picked up Annie and sat beside Peg, Annie on his lap.

"She doesn't think she can go through with it, Reverend," Brant said.

"But you must," Small said to Peg. "I know it's difficult. It's almost too much to ask. But Seth never asks more of his followers than they are able to give. You'll find the strength."

"But why? I don't understand!"

"Nor did Abraham when God required him to sacrifice a son. Seth asks far less. Tom will be returned to you. It's just a ritual, a step in a passage from one state of being to a higher state. You're helping Tom, actually. He's in pain now. He suffers from many inner demons. It's within your power to banish those demons, Peg. I know it feels strange. I myself converted many of the people who sit outside this room, and every one has thanked me for it. You have to trust Seth implicitly. Trust him with your life, with your children's lives."

He looked at Annie, smiled, and she smiled back. The sight brought grateful tears to Peg's eyes.

Peg and Brant and Reverend Small spoke for several minutes while the congregation intoned their hymn, concluded it and began another.

There's a church in the valley by the wildwood....

"Come," Small said. He stood and extended his hands. Peg reached out for them, and Small gently lifted her to her feet.

The voices behind the door chanted.

Come, come, come, come....

***

Tom floated over the heads of the congregation on a sea of hands. He stared up at open beams and stained glass windows dark with the night, his head spinning, while many hands conveyed his body like a slab of meat down the length of the sanctuary.

Voices droned in his ears along with an industrial pounding like a great machine, but it was only blood pumping through damaged vessels to a brain knocked senseless and slowly, by painful degrees, groaning back to life. The smell of too many bodies in too small a space was suffocating. His stomach churned and sent bile traveling up his throat to burn bitterly on his tongue. He swallowed, fought down the nausea.

He arrived at the back of the sanctuary. A chorus of voices from outside rose like the roar of hungry animals. He thought for a moment that he would be tossed outside, thrown to the lions and devoured, but the hands spun him around. They grabbed his shirt, tore at it as he passed, ripped it off his body as they propelled him toward the pulpit where Reverend Small shouted and gestured and banged his fist and called for blood.

His head lolled and he saw, upside down, the faces watching his nightmare journey. Galen and Brant waited for him. They grabbed his arms as he came to them over the sea of hands. They held him tight, arms twisted behind his back, kept him on his feet as the swelter and the voices and--he was sure of it now--the drugs dizzied his head and weakened his knees.

With great effort Tom lifted his chin and gazed out over the assemblage. His eyes swam in and out of focus. By ones and twos the faces came and went in the hallucinatory fog. Doc Milford. Deputy Haws. Old Merle Tippert. Clyde Dunwiddey, alarmingly sober. Franz and Irma Klempner, holding hands. Josh Lunger, who had tried to kill him, standing between his parents. Darren and Kent and Buzzy. Cindy, who gave him a reassuring nod and mouthed the words, "I love you."

He scanned the less familiar faces. One of them had hovered behind him and whispered into his ear a story of premature burial and lives corrupted and souls destroyed. Which one was the whisperer from behind? Which one was Seth, the resurrector? Which one had infiltrated and murdered his town?

The preacher's voice thundered and the congregation echoed its response. Isolated words penetrated Tom's consciousness.

Glory.

Dominion.

Seth.

Blood.

Flesh.

Sacrifice.

Blood.

Seth.

Blood.

Blood.

Blood.

A knife appeared in the preacher's hand. It gleamed in the spotlight. A name was called and a figure pulled itself from the mass and stepped forward. Tom focused on the figure as the knife passed from hand to hand.

Peg.

She turned her head to look at him, tears streaming from her eyes. She looked over her shoulder and the gathered mass shouted its encouragement. Her eyes remained long on a single face. Tom followed her gaze and discovered Annie. Sweet Annie, standing on the pew at the front of the sanctuary, her voice joined with the chorus, chanting, calling for Tom's blood.

The world shifted and Tom closed his eyes to the swirl of faces. He opened them again to see Peg approaching with the knife clutched in her hand, borne on a wave of chanting voices. He saw Annie in the front pew, and beside her was Doc Milford, and on the other side, moving closer to fill the space left by Peg, was Jed Grimm.

Grimm smiled at him.

Grimm. Grimm had come to town...when?

Two years ago, give or take.

Two years.

"You," Tom said too softly to be heard, his eyes locked onto Grimm's.

Grimm winked.

Then Peg was standing in front of him, blocking his view. Her breath was on his face, her lips brushed his cheek.

"Mom," Tom said, "Don't." He looked deeply into her eyes and she into his, soul searching for soul.

The smallest of motions--Peg shook her head.

The knife glistened, flashed, and struck like a snake.

***

"For the common person, nothing is more terrifying than death."

Reverend Small spoke to a standing room only crowd in the sanctuary. His voice was translated over wires to loudspeakers outside the church where believers had gathered on the lawn. Peg, as guest of honor, sat in the front row of pews with Annie and Doc Milford.

"For those of us who have made the farthest journey," Small continued, "death is a viper without fangs. Death holds no terror for the children of Seth.

"For we have seen the terrible dark plain. We have heard the shuffle of the great beasts. We have endured the cries of the damned.

"And we have been delivered by the power and the blessing of Seth back into the world of light and warmth, back into the world of life!

"Seth is our savior! Praise his glory and his name! Hallelujah!"

"Hallelujah!" the congregation replied.

"Hal'lujah!" Annie cried. Peg started at the enthusiasm behind Annie's cry. Annie had always been such a wiggle-worm in church.

"What are we to do with this blessing? Is it ours to keep secret, to withhold from those unblessed and unknowing of Seth's love?

"No!" Small banged his fist on the pulpit. "No! It is not a treasure to be hoarded by the few! It is a treasure to be shared with all, for the more who share in Seth's blessing, the greater it becomes!"

There was a collective gasp. Peg's heart stopped in her chest as Tom was led out, supported on one side by Brant, on the other by the Ganger boy. He showed the marks of his beating, and he looked drugged.

"Behold, the infidel!" Small announced. He gestured toward Tom. "Behold one who would reject Seth's glory! One who would thwart the dominion of Seth! Behold one who would consign you to death everlasting!"

Peg wished she could seal her ears against the chorus of jeers that issued from the congregation. They leaped to their feet, booing and hissing, reaching for Tom. They don't know I'm not one of them! Peg thought. A reptilian hiss sounded in her ear, and she realized that it was Annie. The voice and the empty eyes were parts of the same dark creature. Peg was less sure, studying the fresh, hissing face, that this creature was her daughter.

Peg closed her eyes. The heat, the sweat, the lack of oxygen made everything seem so unreal.

Of course the creature was Annie. It was the flesh of her flesh. It was....

When did she stop thinking of Annie as "she," and start thinking of her as "it?"

Peg opened her eyes to find Tom gone. No, there he was, floating over the congregation like a supine Christ. Reverend Small was preaching about blood. The blood of the lamb. The weakness of flesh. The need for sacrifice. He read from the Bible. Ezekiel.

"'I will drench the land even to the mountains with your flowing blood!'" he proclaimed. He seized the Bible in one hand and waved it aloft. "So spake God to Pharoah! But Seth is not a vengeful God! His blood-letting is not an act of retribution, but an act of love! To spill the blood of the infidel is to embrace him! It is to open our hearts to him and say to him, 'Welcome, brother! Through your blood shall you know Seth and taste his glory and his greatness!'

"Open wide the mortal vein! Rend the impermanent flesh! Let flow the blood that numbers our days and condemns our souls to the eternal void! Cast out the life that fails and admit life everlasting through the blessing of Seth!"

The words struck Peg like stones. She knew what was required of her, and she did have faith in Seth. Tom would be restored as all the others had been. She was surrounded by the proof of Seth's power. Reverend Small's speech had her heart pounding, but had it given her the strength she needed to carry out his will?

The millipede hands of the congregation transported Tom in her direction. She watched him approach, arms spread, head drooping, his eyes black with delirium. He didn't know what was going on, he couldn't or he would have fought it. Tom would never go gently. Seth could convert the entire town but Tom would resist to his last breath if he thought Seth was wrong. Peg herself had taught him that a hundred people doing something wrong didn't make it right.

But Seth was right. Annie was the living proof.

Peg rose as Tom approached. She stretched out her hands to support him. His eyes did not meet hers, and she wondered if he would recognize her touch. Of course not, not in a mass like this. It was pure romanticism to think otherwise.

Brant and the Ganger boy stepped forward to receive Tom. They stood him on his feet and held him there. Peg started as hands wrapped around her neck, but it was only Annie, beaming, her mouth stretched into a wide grin. She gave Peg a hug.

Peg turned and buried her face in Annie's hair. She'd always loved the way Annie smelled, even when she'd been playing hard. It was an intimate scent, a blood scent that united mother and daughter on the most primitive level. Peg drew on that scent now to give her strength.

But the scent was wrong. It was cool and distant, and sterile somehow, not antiseptic like the hospital, but lifeless the way Peg imagined the North Pole must smell, or the peak of Mt. Everest or the sands of Mars.

Peg drew back and Annie asked her what was wrong. Peg forced a smile and said, "Nothing, sweetie." She heard Reverend Small mention her name but she couldn't take her eyes off Annie's face, that perfect little-girl face, suddenly grown-up solemn and concerned. Annie looked over Peg's shoulder, toward the pulpit, and her eyes widened with delight.

"Look, Mommy!" Annie exclaimed, pointing. Peg turned around and lifted her eyes to see Reverend Small holding a long, thin knife, the blade ceremonially curved, inscribed with symbols Peg could not decipher.

She had not been listening to the words, but she knew what was expected. Doc Milford nudged her, and the voices of the congregation lifted her to her feet and moved her toward the pulpit. She glanced at Tom. He seemed to be struggling to comprehend what was going on. The knife caught a beam of light and reflected it onto his face. He winced but did not look away. He focused on the knife and the curved blade and the hands that offered and received it. Then his eyes met Peg's and Peg felt the tears pouring out and streaming down her cheeks.

She gripped the knife hard. She looked over her shoulder at the congregation, then to Annie. Dear Annie. Angel. She stood on the pew between the doctor and the mortician, chanting along with the crowd a single word that, through repetition, had become a thought-paralyzing mantra.

"Blood, blood, blood...."

Peg stepped toward Tom, sustained and propelled by the chanting. Tom's eyes were closed as she approached, for which blessing she was thankful. They opened lazily as she drew near, but their gaze washed over her like a searchlight on an empty yard. When they stopped, Peg knew he was looking at Annie. She wondered what he saw--his little sister, or the thing she had become? Tom opened his mouth to speak. His lips formed a word that emerged almost soundlessly.

"You," he said, but not to Peg. To the person behind her shoulder. To Annie?

Peg planted her feet directly before Tom and leaned close and kissed him on the cheek. She fastened her eyes on his, waiting for the moment of contact, resolving on the spot that there must be connection. She would not insulate herself from his shock or his pain or his terror. She would spare herself nothing.

She tried to tell herself that it would be fine once he came back, but then she thought of Annie. Her newly-born doubts crept in and nibbled at her resolve. Annie was changed, she was, there was no denying it. Tom would be changed, too.

The moment came and Tom's eyes locked with Peg's. She gripped the knife harder and let the crowd's voice flow into her arm for strength. She pressed the knife against Tom's skin, aimed the point at his heart.

"Mom, don't," he whispered. The words shattered Peg's determination. Cracked and weakened by doubt, it flew into a thousand pieces. She shook her head.

No.

No, she wouldn't.

Fuck Seth.

The knife flashed and bit deeply into the Ganger boy's side. The boy cried out and let go of Tom and staggered toward the pulpit. Peg felt the knife slip from her fingers but she did not hear it hit the floor. A man screamed and she saw that it was Brant and his face was bleeding and Tom held onto the knife that dripped blood. Then Tom knocked her aside and she fell to the floor. When she looked up, she saw Tom sinking under an onslaught of bodies, the center of a whirlpool of screaming faces and pummeling fists.

Then the horror began.

***

The instant that Galen's grip on his arm relaxed, Tom saw as if in a vision what he needed to do.

He caught the knife as it fell from Peg's hand and twisted sharply, muscling into Brant. Brant's half-nelson hold on Tom's arm tightened but Tom reached around with the knife and cut a gash into Brant's forearm. Brant yelled and Tom squirmed free. He shoved Peg aside and dove into the pews, squarely at the disbelieving face of Jed Grimm.

Tom buried the knife deep, up to the hilt in the mortician's throat. Grimm bellowed. The voice that emerged gurgled with blood. It was an ancient, animal cry of rage and pain.

Grimm threw out his arms and Tom felt himself lifted off his feet and flying backwards through the air. He landed hard. Immediately Returns swarmed over him, pounding him with their fists, biting and scratching and screaming his name. Suddenly Annie's face was an inch from his, contorted with rage. Her tiny hands clawed at his face.

Tom placed a hand on her chest and shoved her away. His fists lashed out at the twisted faces, connected with the satisfying crunch of cartilage. He bit at the finger pulling at his mouth and tasted blood on his tongue.

He caught a glimpse of Jed Grimm writhing on the floor, blood spewing from his ravaged throat, choking to death as his lungs pulled in blood and expelled it in great, heaving gasps. Doc Milford flung himself on top of Grimm's convulsing body, stuck two fingers into the wound and tried to hold open the airway, but too much blood had already filled Grimm's lungs, too much blood continued to pour into the gash.

Tom rolled into a fetal position, hands curled over his head, and accepted the blows that rained on his body. Fists pounded and feet kicked and he heard a rib crack but he stopped trying to defend himself. He couldn't beat them all. His only hope was to wait it out.

A woman's shriek sounded above all the rest. Moments later the blows ceased and Tom dared to lift his head.

The shrieking woman was Madge Duffy. Her husband John stood with his hands at his throat, desperately clutching parted flesh that had split from one side of his neck to the other. Blood gushed between his fingers. His face wore a look of disbelief and terror as his legs gave way and he toppled to the floor.

Madge fell silent as the back of her head simply disappeared, and she crumbled to the ground.

Cries and moans rose around Tom like tormented ghosts rising from the grave. Everywhere he looked he saw ripped flesh and blood oozing from resurrected wounds.

Deputy Haws clutched his stomach over the neatly patched hole in his shirt. A wet puddle of blood soaked through from the gunshot wound in his belly. Beside him, his sister Lucy gasped for breath that would not come.

Clyde Dunwiddey collapsed with a hole in his forehead and the back of his skull missing.

Frank Gunnarsen's head was a bloody, pulpy mess as he fell.

Cindy Robertson sat upright in a pew and looked at Tom with eyes burning with the sting of betrayal. Blood issued freely from her slashed throat. She did not try to staunch its flow. Her lips formed the question "why," then her eyes died and her head lolled quizzically to one side.

Reverend Small's hands clung to the pulpit as he slipped to the floor.

Doc Milford clutched his gut and fell to his knees, then pitched face first onto the hardwood.

Galen and Darren and Buzzy and Kent screamed in agony as their bodies burnt themselves black. Fat crackled and skin crisped from an invisible heat. Tom turned away, but not before he saw Galen's eyeballs explode in their sockets.

He saw his mother sitting on the floor beside the pulpit. Brant lay beside her, his head cocked at an impossible angle. In her arms, Peg held Annie, cradling her head with one hand. She rocked back and forth and sang in a sweet voice that propelled Tom back to his own childhood, when he was the one she'd cradled and rocked and sung to sleep.

The floor heaved and swayed beneath him as he staggered over to her. His head throbbed and he ached everywhere he could imagine. The stench of the burning bodies tightened his throat so that, when he spoke, his voice was weak, barely more than a whisper. He held out his hand to Peg, but she didn't seem to see it. Her eyes were blank. Tom knew the dark dimension that had claimed her mind. She had taken up residence in the Blacklands.

"Come on," he said. Peg continued to rock the child in her arms, singing sweetly. Tom moved to her side and helped her to her feet.

"We have to go," Tom said. He guided her down the aisle between the pews and the stained glass windows, past Franz Klempner lying on the floor, the charred body of his wife clutched to his bloody chest, past Merle Tippert and Jack and Dolores Frelich, past Mark and Carol Lunger and their son Josh in his Spider-Man pajamas soaked with blood, past all the bodies in all the many contortions of death.

They picked their way across the lawn in front of the church, threading a path among the corpses that had gathered for the midnight service. He found a car with keys in the ignition and drove his mother and sister home.

He left them in the living room. Peg sat in the easy chair and sang to Annie as Tom picked up a few items and headed back to the church. It was the last place he wanted to go, but his work for that night was not yet finished.

He still had to send a man to Hell.

 

Go Back to Chapter Twenty-Four
 

Go to
Chapter
Twenty-Six