Rot

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Booksie Classic


ROT

I
-
The funeral was well attended, of course.
Nearly everyone in town showed up, dressed in their Sunday best, or whatever they considered to be in the same vein. The dead boy's mother had specified that attendees should only wear black in remembrance of her boy, but only a few made the effort and the majority seemed to have shown up to the event unaware that it was a funeral at all.
She couldn't necessarily blame them, as entertainment of any kind was in short supply in the few scattered buildings that passed for their town, leaving many eager to respond to invitations of any kind.
Often times, children's birthday parties had devolved into multi-day festivals of public drinking and lascivious behavior.
The dead boy had loved when that happened, to his mother's chagrin.
"It's just a splash of their true colors," He would say, clapping his hands theatrically to make the zippers on his leather jacket jingle, seeming to laugh in their own way at their owner's enjoyment.
Now those same hands lay folded on his chest, cradling that leather jacket against the cheap suit coat she had bought especially to bury him in.
His friends, what few they were, had balked, instead demanding that he either be buried wearing the jacket or it be saved from the dirt and passed on to one of them, a grim memento of a boy they'd only known for a few short years.
She had refused them all, unable to bear the thought of burying her only boy in the jacket she had given him only weeks before, as a graduation present from the pissant area high school.
The funeral was held on a Friday at the end of June, and she was glad for it.
Only a few weeks in either direction would have landed in close proximity to either her birthday or his, lending an aura of grisly celebration to the tragic proceedings.
As it was, the autopsy had taken an almost unimaginable week and a half to finish, her boy's shattered body sent to be profaned and pieced back together by an uncaring lab tech who probably ate sandwiches before taking out her boy's organs.
In the end, there was nothing in his system, no tumors in his brain, nothing at all to explain why he had simply woken up one day and ridden off on his rusted-together motorcycle only to collide head on with the grill of a tractor trailer minutes later, riding the wrong way on the interstate with his hands thrown to the sky.
The truck driver had offered to pay for the funeral, to attend, probably even to lick the bottom of her sensibly low heels to atone for driving eighty thousand pounds over her boy, dragging his poor hurt body for over a quarter mile before coming to a stop.
She had denied all his requests, even threatening to call the police if he contacted her again, and he desisted.
She held no ill will against the man, she truly believed that, but facing the author of her misery over the body of her son would simply have been too much.
For today, that red faced and blustery man would have to fade into the background as she remembered her boy.

-
She had taken a few Valium early in the day, but they had worn off by the time the funeral began, the sun ducking low behind the hills as the longest day of summer came to a close.
She had to laugh at herself for that. At one point in her life, not long before they had moved to this godforsaken place, she had been the absolute authority on measuring out how many pills it would take to get her through the day.
She had conquered the addiction just in time to feel all the emotions she now was drowning in, and in her mind, God himself laughed from his Throne.
The few people who spoke were good, one or two of them people who her son had considered friends and several more he had simply been too polite to rebuff during his lifetime.
She even managed to force herself up and recount the story of how she had known he would always have a love affair with any vehicle he could get his hands on, just from seeing him flip his tiny red wagon on its side and pretend to work on its undercarriage, an early emulation of his father before he had known all that his father was.
At the end of the story, she attempted a smile, but she felt that her mask of grief dampened the effect.
She had cried all her tears before the funeral, leaking endlessly like a broken faucet with a broken heart, until finally she had had nothing left in her.
The final speaker was uninvited, and unwelcome.
At first, she was surprised when the old woman approached the stage, an elderly woman with a pinched and unpleasant face that her son had often joked about in private (but never with ill will, never that), but as the woman began to speak, she felt her mask of grief writhe and become something more painful, the lines around her mouth her mother had always warned against growing deeper as she found new tears to cry.

-
"In all things, God is great," The old woman said, pausing for a moment.
A few scattered attendees, perhaps not too far from their religious upbringing, responded in kind, a bit too late and out of sync.
"God is great in all things," They muttered, one of the men even clasping his hands behind his back like a child in Sunday school.
The old woman nodded magnanimously, as though she were leading a congregation of hundreds and not speaking into a cheap PA system in a one room church.
"We are gathered her in remembrance of this boy," She gestured almost curtly to the wooden box besides her, its top open and the curve of his waxy forehead gleaming in the light.
"This boy who sought to defeat demons he could not possibly handle on his own and thus ignored the teachings of the Lord."
A few townspeople looked at the floor uncomfortably.
"This boy, this child of God, dealt in sin and drug and fornication, driving out the blessing of the Grace and instead fulfilling the hollow cravings of the flesh!"
She punctuated by pounding her fist on the humble lectern, a scuffed particle board special meant more for school announcements than speeches of fire and brimstone.
"He came to us only a few short years ago, and we tried to turn him aside from his path of deceit, I myself offering him a seat at my table and a lesson in the word of yee-hov-a!"
His mother, sitting frozen with shock in her seat, tried to recall a single moment this woman had ever even spoken to her son and came up empty.
"I ask you all now," The old woman went on, "If this is the future you desire. Do you seek a short and empty life with no comfort but the grave, and Hell beneath? Or do you reject this boy's way of life, and his Whore mother's way of li-"
Before she could continue, one of her son's  friends tackled the old woman off of the stage, and the mother was savagely glad for a moment before burying her face in her hands.

-
The dead boy came back a year later, on the same day the sheriff died.
He came walking down the middle of what passed for the main street, the hard packed dirt kicking up occasionally as one of his feet dragged, leaving a distinct set of unbalanced tracks.
It was high summer once more, and nobody with any sense was out walking, most of the town simply parked and waiting in their homes or businesses for the temperature to become bearable again.
Abe was wiping down the counter of the town's only diner, a simple burger joint built to look like one of the classic trailer-style diners of the fifties, complete with large windows along the entire front, and it was through these that Abe watched the dead boy come.
He felt frozen in place, but his left hand went on busily wiping the same spot on the counter, following the same smooth circular motion as the rest of his mind was occupied by the corpse who had stopped walking and was now staring up at the lettering on top of the restaurant, his face twisted as though attempting to work out a difficult problem in school.
After a minute or so, the dead boy opened the door and came in, his dirty leather jacket creaking as he moved.
Abe managed to stop wiping and simply stood there behind the counter, his free hand unconsciously drawing up to lie on his chest.
The dead boy sat heavily on one of the vintage stools at the counter with no grace in his movement, nearly falling as though whatever had kept his legs moving had simply given out, his chin drooping to his chest like an overtired toddler.
For a long time, there was silence, the diner's only other patrons picking up on the intensity of the room, the middle aged couple quickly shifting to sit on the same side of their booth with both pairs of their eyes trained on the drama at the counter.
Don't look at me, Abe thought, his internal voice almost sounding calm. I'll do anything, I'll go back to church and get baptized, just don't let him look at me.
No one responded to Abe's prayer, and the dead boy lifted his head, his eyes cloudy and gray over what had once been striking blue.

-
"Abe," The dead boy said. "Abe,"
Abe said nothing.
The dead boy cleared his throat, and it was the most awful sound Abe had ever heard.
It reminded him of the way his garbage disposal sounded when he had dropped utensils into it as kid, but still somehow organic, a death rattle in reverse as the dead boy's vocal folds grated with dirt and disuse.
"Water. Water, Abe."
Abe hardly noticed the middle aged couple scattering bills over their table and taking their leave, giving a wide berth to the dead boy.
Abe didn't think they had recognized the corpse, he simply thought they had realized that this drama was nothing they wanted to be involved in, their interest in entertainment quickly retreating behind their sense of self preservation.
While he thought this, his hands had been acting on their own, quickly retrieving a clean glass from behind the counter and filling it with water from the old school soda fountain at the front.
He was surprised to note that they hardly shook as he slid the glass across the checkerboard patterned counter, using the very edge of his pinky finger.
The dead boy didn't seem to notice any of Abe's discomfort, and he simply took the water in a loose, almost comical grasp before draining the glass.
As Abe watched, beads of water appeared at the irregular folds where the corpse's jaw and throat had been stapled back together.
He stepped away without ever quite turning his back on the dead boy, memories of dozens of low budget horror movies playing in his head as he moved.
The dead boy seemed more focused on water, and as Abe watched, he angled his arm around the edge of the fountain and refilled it, leaning across the counter in a posture that was eerily reminiscent of his high school habit of stealing refills while the owner wasn't looking.
Abe didn't think anything could make him feel more disassociated from reality, but that did it.
He turned slightly to the phone that hung inside the kitchen doorway and called the Sheriff.

-
The phone rang out in the office at least a dozen times before Avery could get the damn door unlocked and across to where her desk sat, just in front of the door with the frosted glass reading SHERIFF DAVID GALT.
She set her bag down heavily, then huffed a loose blonde lock out of her face before answering, glaring at the name on the door as she did.
Her shift started at 2pm and not a moment sooner unless he wanted to pay her for another hour, as he damn well knew.
She was already plotting out the reaming she would give him when he came out of his office when she started to process what the voice on the other end of the line was saying.
"Piss off, Abe, this shit wasn't funny when you guys were in school and it's less funny now!" She said, decisively slamming the phone down.
It began ringing again almost immediately, and she ignored it.
She wondered why the sheriff hadn't come out of his office yet, if nothing else but to yell about the racket she was making, then put the thought out of her head.
If he was expecting her to do her job for free, he had another thing coming.
She could just as easily sit at her desk and drink some of the wine from the bottle in her bag as she could out in the parking lot, since she'd hear him making enough noise opening the door to warn her.
she poured some into an anonymous red plastic cup and then kicked her feet up on her desk to watch the phone ring.
-
Sheriff David Galt's mind was in several places.
Some of it was in the ashtray, and a fair amount had splashed across the windshield of his beat up old cruiser, but most of it was painted across the roof of the car, along with the steel buckshot that had freed it from the bony cradle that had held it without complaint for over five decades.
His face, what remained of it, was draped sadly over the barrel of his 12 gauge shotgun, the skin warped and distorted by the shot that had nearly disintegrated the bone and blood behind it. The cruiser itself was parked high up on the hill leading to the cemetery that lay three miles outside of town, where his late wife had been laid to rest nearly twelve years before. He had often visited his wife while working, as so little of his time was taken up by the paltry misbehavior the tiny population could muster, and the townspeople did not begrudge him, his cruiser becoming a far more regular sight parked unobtrusively on cemetery Hill rather than his old stomping grounds on main street, pointing a hair dryer through his window at tourists passing through to make them slow down as they came off the interstate.
With these unfortunate conditions, he wouldn't be missed for hours, his body not found for several days.
The heat of the day was already causing his body to bloat and begin the ugliness of decay, flies from outside already struggling through the tiny openings in his windows to get at the destroyed flesh inside.
Outside the cruiser, a distinctive set of tracks passed by the cruiser, as though a person with a dragging leg had passed near the cruiser on their way into town.
Inside the cemetery, not far from the Sheriff's wife's final resting place, a mound of disturbed earth sat beside the most recently erected headstone, its lettering not yet bleached out by the unrestrained sunlight, with a discarded suit jacket of cheap material beside it.

II
-
Abe stood against the doorway leading into the kitchen, trying fruitlessly to reach the sheriff, his eyes not leaving the dead boy except to blink.
As he waited, several faces appeared at the outside of the windows, peeking in at the dead boy, probably alerted by the middle aged couple as they made their rapid escape.
He tried twice more, then slammed the phone down in its cradle, making the dead boy look up from where had been contemplating his cup of tepid water.
"Abe," He said again, and it was no less disturbing than the first time.
"Y-yeah?" Abe felt himself respond.
"Where's my mom?"
The dead boy forced the question out and then swallowed hard, lifting one hand to his throat as though speaking was painful.
For all Abe knew, it was.
"Y-your mom?"
Abe glanced at the clock over the doorway.
"She's usually down at the church around this time, praying and carrying on about..."
Abe trailed off as he realized that the subject of the poor woman's prayers was now sitting before him, sipping lightly from a plastic cup.
"Church?" The dead boy stiffened in his seat, as though someone had put their palm against his lower back and pushed hard.
Abe nodded, noting that more faces had appeared in the windows.
One brave soul, a sleepy alcoholic named Merle or Earl or something, had even pushed the door open enough to listen in on the drama without disturbing the bell that hung above it.
Abe's face twisted into a grimace as he realized that he was part of it, part of the drama he had fought so hard to avoid in all the years he had lived in this town.
Now look where he found himself.
"Since you've been... away," He explained, "Your mom kinda took to the church, and i think she drank herself out of work, too. I guess it's been kinda tough on her."
He could feel the dead boy's eyes on his face, but Abe refused to meet them.
Of all the unknown things that had so recently entered his life, he knew that looking death in the eyes would lead to either hell or madness.
One could even argue that they were one and the same.
"Away," The dead boy repeated, rolling the word around in his mouth as though sampling a fresh new flavor.
"Where did I go?" He said, almost to himself.
Abe took the opportunity to swiftly move around the counter, giving the same wide space to the dead boy that the departing couple had, and pulled the door open quickly enough that Merle or Earl nearly fell and had to take a quick stagger step inside the threshold of the restaurant before quickly backing away, as though the air of the place had become contaminated.
For all Abe knew, it had, and by simply being in the same room with the dead boy would spell his own doom.
But it was too late for that.
He reached out and grabbed ahold of the food stained tank top the alcoholic wore over his gaunt frame, a thing he would have never imagined even an hour before, then spoke quickly and quietly, in case the dead boy was listening.
"Go. Go get the sheriff. Send someone for his mother. Go now!" Abe said, punctuating the command with a shove.
Merle or Earl didn't argue, despite probably having thirty years on Abe, and pointed at random into the small crowd that had now gathered on the dirt road.
"You! Run t' the church and get that boy's mama."
The man he  pointed at suddenly grew pale and shook his head, but the young boy at the man's elbow raced off without a word, leaving the man bawling his name after him as he ran.
Abe turned around and saw the dead boy kick out one of his legs as though preparing to stand again, then quickly rushed back behind the counter, grabbing the dead boy's half empty cup and refilling it to keep his attention.
"Thanks," The dead boy said, his body returning to that disconcerting posture, like a toy that had been forgotten on a playground by an owner who had ran home to escape the rising night.
"Why are you here?" Abe asked.
The dead boy frowned. It looked like it took effort.
"I was hungry."
Abe froze, and flashes from every violent ending he'd ever seen on a drive in screen began flickering through his mind.
"Are you gonna eat my brains?" He asked.
The dead boy was silent for a long time.
"Would settle. For a burger," The dead boy said, and began making a weird choking noise far back in his throat.
Abe listened to the air wheezing out of the corpse's mouth, as well as a few holes in its throat and possibly under its leather jacket, for a long moment before finally realizing that the dead boy was trying to laugh.
"Oh man," Abe said.

-
The young boy who had run off to the church, a not particularly educated young boy by the name of Dennis, managed to cover the mile or so of dirt road to the old church inside of fifteen minutes.
Despite drawing on the almost bottomless well of energy all preteen boys seemed to share, he was still gasping and panting when he arrived outside the heavy wooden doors, thin rivers of sweat dripping off of him and drying rapidly in the merciless sun.
He took a long moment to collect himself before going in, taking advantage of the small pool of shade cast by the awning over the door, then yanked the door open with both hands and went inside.
As soon as the door shut behind him, he was struck as always by the strange feeling inside the church, a mixture of moods that felt to him like the times as a younger boy when his mother had attempted to cure his bedwetting phase by marching him up and down their road wearing only his underwear and his soiled sheets.
He shook it off as best he could and walked quickly down the carpeted walkway in the center of the rows of pews, making his way to the small door partially hidden by a curtain at the back wall of the pulpit.
He knew the Priestess lived in the church, it had been the talk of the town when she had moved in the previous winter, but he had never seen what was on the other side of that door.
Despite his youthful curiosity, he wasn't sure he wanted to.
After a moment of hesitation, he leaned forward and gently tapped on the door, the closest thing his nerves would let him manage to an actual knock.
He heard a pair of voices talking for a moment, then the door opened just enough to reveal one ancient blue eye almost buried in crow's feet peering out at him.
"What is it, boy?" The Priestess asked.
"There's a man," Dennis replied, sounding unsure even to himself. "At the diner."
"I'm sure there are several men there," She replied, her tone sounding like a warning. "Why did that bring you here?"
"He asked for-" Dennis began, but the Priestess cut him off.
"I'm far too busy to go out and speak, boy, and as you should already know I only take appointments on the weekends."
"He didn't ask for you. He asked for her."
Dennis resisted the urge to backpedal as the old woman's visible eye narrowed, then quickly disappeared as the door was pushed shut.
He pressed his ear to the door and could dimly hear the two voices speaking again, and the thump of a cane as the Priestess moved around.
All at once, he decided that he didn't want to be in the church anymore, and he began quickly walking down the aisle towards the exit, never quite turning his back on that almost hidden door.
He heard the hidden door open just as he laid his hands on the heavy push bar that opened the church's door, but he looked away quickly and walked outside, deciding as he went that he no longer wanted to be a part of whatever was happening today.

-
At the opposite end of town, Merle Broward was halfway through shoving the worn and swollen door of the Sheriff's office open before Avery had even taken her feet off her desk, and she somehow managed to slam her finger in one of her drawers as she crammed her cup of wine into it, wincing internally at the thought of whatever was in that drawer being soaked in that rotten grape smell.
"Hello? Sheriff, you here?"
Avery got to her feet and shot a furtive glance at the office door, trying to smooth out her face into something less guilty.
No one came out.
Merle got the door most of the way open and squeezed his way in, wincing as the doorknob jammed momentarily into his soft-going-on-mushy midsection.
"Avery, you seen the sheriff?"
She shook her head, then pointed at the office door.
"He ain't been out of his office all morning, that i know of."
"Did you check the cemetery?"
She shook her head again, hard enough to bounce her loose blond curls into a cloud around her head.
"Did Abe down at t'diner try calling up here?"
"Yeah, maybe," Avery muttered, her heart starting to sink.
"Well damn it, girl, what good are you as an assistant if you don't know where the sheriff is?"
Avery bristled at his tone, her annoyance probably helped by the several cups of wine in her blood.
She had known Merle for a long time, had even lifted a bottle or two with him in hard times before she got her office job and benefits, and this was how he treated her?
"Well if I'd known the local drunk had an appointment with his regular cell, I would've had it all made up and ready for you!" She cawed indignantly.
Merle waved her off and started for the office door, and she rose up to block his way.
"No unscheduled appointments!" She said, noticing the way his eyes momentarily squinted as her breath touched his face but too wrapped up in her bruised dignity to care.
"Listen, something crazy is happenin' down at the diner, and if you get in the way of figgerin' it out, I'll throw you to the ground." Merle threatened, in a voice Avery had never heard before, a voice she had imagined no one in town had ever heard from him.
In a moment, his tone had shifted from an amicable booze hound to the type of man who might spill blood as easily as a half finished drink.
More easily, in some cases.
Avery moved aside, and Merle opened the door to the empty office, which some part of her had known to be empty the whole time.
Merle moved around the simple desk and put a hand on the side of the not quite obsolete computer tower standing on it.
"Damn thing hasn't even been turned on today. When's the last time the sheriff hasn't had some website to bother with when he's been in the office?"
He glanced up at Avery, but she didn't get the sense he was speaking to her.
She stayed quiet, her eyes already growing damp with panicked tears, which she chose to attribute to the wine.
"Means he's either out at his place or the cemetery," Merle muttered, pulling the door closed slightly to check the coat hooks behind it.
He turned quickly, none of the usual sloshy amble in his movements now.
"You got keys to the spare cruiser?" He barked.
Avery nodded, her hands coming up unconsciously to rest on her lower belly.
"It's just been sitting out back since the last deputy quit," She said, her eyes on the floor.
Merle shrugged as though this information didn't surprise him.
"If it's got wheels, I can get it going. Hell, if it takes too long, you can shag your fat ass out to the hill, and never mind those fancy heels you got on."
Avery took the insult without looking up.
"Let's go," Merle said, his tone marginally softer. "Go get those keys, I'll meet you out back."
Avery nodded again, then began to move.

The spare cruiser started up with a surprising lack of effort, Merle only having to reconnect a loose battery cable before it whimpered to life.
It ran with a high pitched squeal that made Avery's teeth ache, but Merle pronounced it usable and got out of the driver's seat, leaving the engine running to avoid any more issues.
"Hop in, you're drivin'," He said, moving quickly to the passenger side and opening the door.
"I'm driving?" Avery repeated, hearing how stupid she sounded but unable to stop herself.
"Listen, hon, if we come up on the sheriff and he sees me behind the wheel, he might take me for a threat and put me down before we get a chance to explain what's going on."
"What is going on? You haven't told me!" Avery whined.
"A lot is going on, now hurry the fuck up," Merle said, sitting down and slamming the door behind him.
Avery shook her head and tried to gather herself, then got in the driver's side of the cruiser.
She pulled out with the same caution as an octogenarian driver, but the seriousness of Merle's focus had begun to work on her, and she began picking up speed as they drove out in the direction of the cemetery, in the opposite direction of the diner and all the drama that may be waiting for their attention.

-
Back at the diner, Abe checked the wall clock again, trying to keep his discomfort off his face.
Tony, the short order cook, had picked up on the tension and made his exit shortly after Abe had asked Merle or Earl to go find the sheriff, crushing out his half finished Marlboro red on the corner of the grill.
Abe had known Tony for about six months, and the guy's tattoos and shaved head definitely fit the image of a person who would generally avoid police interaction on any level, so he took over grill duties without a complaint, keeping an eye on the dead boy through the serving window as he made up reasons to keep a wall between the two of them, loudly washing dishes and banging pots and pans together when he was finished cooking.
The dead boy, meanwhile, kept his slumped posture and sat at the counter, staring at a salt shaker with unreadable focus.
Abe had noted the layer of cloudy film that had settled over the dead boy's eyes and wondered what he was seeing, if he could even see at all.
Out in the street, the small crowd that had gathered had began to grow irritable in the pounding sun, several people even growing bored and walking off, as though the idea of resurrection had become embarrassingly boring to them.
"Do you remember anything?" Abe asked, unaware that he had said the question aloud until the dead boy responded, jerking in his seat as though someone had grabbed his marionette strings and yanked hard.
After a long silence, the dead boy replied, "Not much," his tone sounding more alive than it had up to that point, very clearly not wanting any further discussion on the subject.
"Oh." Abe said.
"How about your name and stuff like that?"
"I have... flashes. Minutes from years.
And I remember... you, Abe. Can almost remember me. John."
Abe nodded, not wanting to glance outside again and unable to help himself.
The way the diner was angled, he had a fair view almost all the way down to either end of the road.
He felt his heart sink as he noted the lack of dust rising from the direction of the sheriff's office, although he did not feel much fear of the dead boy (John) anymore, was almost secure in the notion that if John meant him any harm, he would already have attacked.
Abe felt a rising tension in the air, sure that something was coming, but he didn't know what it could be.
He felt sure that no matter what came out of this day, it could not be good.
The faces still waiting at the windows seemed to grow more sour as the minutes passed, some trick of the light stretching them into grotesque halloween masks, or avenging angels looking in on the damned.
-
Merle and Avery stood for a long moment and stared into the cruiser where Sheriff Galt's remains sat, their faces calm despite the medium sized puddle of vomit drying on Avery's overpriced heels.
Merle, a veteran of drunkenness, had simply choked his puke back down and instead began wiping his forehead unconsciously with the palm of one hand, a nervous tic he had picked up decades before in a dusty country where the high sweet smell of rotting flesh was nearly always on the air.
He recognized the smell now, the stench of torn flesh on a hot day, with the coppery smell of spilled blood beneath it. He gathered his nerve and began to step forward, when Avery threw one shaky hand across his chest, pointing with the other to a dirty piece of fabric caught beneath one of the tires.
"What's that?" She said.
Merle stepped closer and picked it up, ignoring her gasp of surprise.
"It's evidence from a crime scene!" She protested.
"Cloth don't hold fingerprints, most of the time," He replied, sounding more calm than he felt.
He shook it out a little and found what he had suspected, a discarded and dirty suit jacket, frayed in some places and moldy in others.
"Well I'll be damned," He whispered, all at once unable to catch his breath.
He knew what would happen next, and right on cue, his vision began to gray out, his balance taking an alarming tilt as he stood.
He nearly fell, catching himself palm first into something sticky on the edge of the cruiser's window, then sharply bit his own lip, hard enough to draw blood.
The one thing this scene don't need more of, he thought, as his vision slowly began coming back into focus.
Avery hadn't reacted as he nearly fell, and he made a mental note not to rely on her for anything important later.
Instead she stepped around to the front of the cruiser, looking in through the windshield at the gore and destruction.
"What do you think happened?" She asked, sounding like the scared girl at a sleepover she must once have been.
"There's a shotgun down in the floorboards, and the sheriff's brains are all over the car," Merle replied, intentionally sounding callous, steeling himself against the trauma.
"Seems like a pretty simple puzzle to solve."
Avery stared into the car a moment longer, then seemed to forcefully pull her attention away.
"Sheriff would never kill himself."
"No," Merle replied, reaching out a hand to try the cruiser's door handle and stopping himself. "And that weirdness at the diner showed up today without a matchin' jacket for his suit pants."
He watched her slowly put the two ideas together, then clap a hand to her mouth.
"Come on," He said, catching her by the elbow and beginning to walk across the cemetery, careful not to step on or over any headstones.
"Where are we going?" She asked, allowing herself to be dragged along."
"Something we both prob'ly need to see in here," He replied, pointing to a mound of dirt piled next to a newer looking stone.
"Oh god," Avery moaned.
Merle cautiously leaned over the grave, avoiding touching any of the disturbed dirt without noticing he was doing it.
A narrow tunnel had been dug out of the middle of the grave, just large enough to admit a slender person who didn't have much need for internal organs, and further down Merle could see splintered wood and something glinting, catching what little light there was in all that dark.
He looked away quickly, sure he didn't want to know what was beneath, and pulled Avery back just before she stepped onto the pile of loose earth, where distorted, clawing finger marks were still plainly visible.
Whatever was going on here, he felt more fear of that hole than he ever had when he spent most of his days with men shooting guns at his head, and he moved away quickly, noting that he had mildly wet his pants.
They made a few dozen feet, more than he expected, before Avery dropped to her knees with a heavy sigh, the tips of her expensive heels digging into the cheap sod.
"I need..." She began, then trailed off.
There was nothing Merle could give her that would help her process the situation.
He watched as her brain worked for a second, knowing she'd either become helpful or hurtful in the face of what was going on.
He had already made the decision to leave her behind if she started slowing him down when she took a deep, steadying breath and got to her feet.
"Let's get back to town." She monotoned, her hands shaking mildly.

Avery stopped for a long moment at the sheriff's ruined cruiser, then made the sign of the cross over herself.
Merle guessed by her technique that it had been a long time since she'd done it, and he shivered as he wondered if the day could get any worse.
"We can't do anythin' for him yet. We'll send out somebody with the wrecker later to get the cruiser back to town."
She didn't acknowledge that he'd spoken, but her hand crept down to where their cruiser's keys protruded from what passed for a pocket on her fashionable jeans.
"Merle?" She called to him, her voice reminding him achingly of another lifetime where he had once had children.
"Yeah, honey?"
He saw the moment when her will coalesced into a sharp point, drawing her finely drawn eyebrows together and her mouth down at the corners.
"Let's go get that son of a bitch."


III
-

Once Abe finally ran out of things to pretend to do in the kitchen, he became uncomfortable in the silence ringing out in the restaurant, which was now empty of all other living things.
He surprised himself by chuckling aloud at his own thoughts, then wished he hadn't when the dead boy's head rose once more, his filmy eyes pointing in opposite directions for a moment before focusing on Abe.
"Something... funny?" He wheezed, as though he had forgotten to inhale before speaking.
Abe shook his head.
"Just thinking to myself."
"You were... funny, Abe. Always funny."
For a second, Abe wasn't looking at a reanimated corpse, with fine grave dust still floating gently through the air any time it moved, but a person he had known.
A guy who had been his own age, had even cut up with him a time or two when they both ended up at the back of the classroom.
John had been a pretty good guy, a little wild and unpredictable, for sure, but never intentionally cruel the way some other people were.
Hell, the way some of them would always be.
Abe didn't think John would've been president or anything, except maybe in a motorcycle gang, but he felt like the guy had had real charisma, the kind of artistic spirit that would've taken him much further than most of the rejects living in this hollow town would ever go.
And a guy in a big rig, probably on his thirty sixth hour awake and treating sleep deprivation by snorting crushed up meth, had run him down in the road like a dog, dragging him so far so fast that the county coroner who had examined the remains had compared him to a bloody jigsaw puzzle in private conversations.
Of course, private never stays that way in small towns, and Abe had heard the grisly comparison secondhand from at least half a dozen sources within two months of the funeral.
Abe looked at what was left of the person he knew, sitting at the counter in his leather jacket with staples holding his various pieces together, and felt pity.
As though a switch had suddenly been flipped, John rose to his feet, moving in an almost human fashion.
"Abe," He said, his voice almost excited underneath the rasp of the grave. "She's coming."
"Who is?" Abe asked, but John only turned and began staggering towards the door.
The watchers outside quickly dispersed as they noticed his intent, then reconvened maybe twenty feet away, many of them wiping sweaty brows without breaking focus.
John stumbled into the door, then opened it and stepped out.
Abe, feeling like an unimportant stage actor, followed after him.

Outside, John looked up into the bright sunshine as though noticing it for the first time, then began walking, the drag of his bad leg on the dirt sounding far too loud in the unbroken quiet.
To Abe, it felt as though the entire town had simply stopped, and although he could still hear the droning roar of vehicles on the highway, the sound was distant, unimportant.
The people in those cars might as well have been in another world, carrying on in their perfectly normal lives and going to their perfectly normal jobs, as though the people in this town who had witnessed a bona fide miracle were somehow immaterial.
Abe held up one hand before his face, feeling woozy all of the sudden, as though reality itself was only dandelion fluff about to be blown away by some unimaginably large child.
Without thinking about it, he brought his hand to his mouth and bit down hard in the webbing between thumb and index finger, tasting soap on his hand and a hint of grease that meant the world around him simply had to exist, that nothing was in danger of shattering and falling all around him.
He steadied himself, then walked over to the crowd of spectators, several of whom were now looking at him with mild concern from watching his impromptu show of near-insanity.
"Where's he headed?" Someone asked.
"Gee, I can't imagine. There's so much to do in this town." The words were out of his mouth before he realized it, and Abe felt his mind steady further, as though his sarcasm had somehow helped him stay in place.
Without another word, he began to walk after the dead boy, and after a moment's confused silence, so did the rest of them.

-
Merle took the wheel on the way back from the cemetery, feeling a strange safety in the knowledge that the only person who would protest against him commandeering a cruiser was now fly food behind them.
Despite only being three miles, the trip seemed to take far longer than it normally would.
 Merle felt his guts tightening up as they went, like how they always did when he was in the service and some shit was about to go sideways.
Before he had taken up drinking as his main hobby, he had looked into it, and the general consensus seemed to be that things like that, the fight or flight reflex, were often triggered by signs in the environment that the subconscious mind had noticed without the rest of the brain noticing.
Without thinking about it, he stepped harder on the accelerator, making them bounce and lean as they moved over the poorly maintained road.
He glanced to his right and noticed that Avery had begun panting lightly, with a thin sheen of sweat beginning to blur the makeup around her eyes.
He reached down and cranked the AC as high as it would go, but he was fairly sure it wasn't the heat outside making her sweat, just her own version of her guts tightening.
"Did the sheriff let you carry a gun?" He asked.
"Why?" She asked, not taking her eyes from the road.
"Answer me first."
"He never let me carry, said my temper would get the best of me on the street, but he gave me one to keep at the office."
"So we need to stop by and pick it up?"
She gave him a furtive glance, then picked her bag up from where it rested between her feet.
"I grabbed it before we left, I wasn't going nowhere with you acting like that without some protection."
Merle opened his mouth, then closed it again and shook his head, wondering how close he had come to getting ventilated by the pretty blonde thing sitting next to him.
"Pull it out for me, I gotta check it," He said, his left hand automatically making the last turn before they got into town.
Avery dug around in her purse for a moment, then pulled the gun, her hand on the grip and the barrel swinging dangerously in his direction before he gently pushed it away.
"Give it to me by the handle, girl, didn't sheriff give you some training on that thing?"
Avery wordlessly placed the small revolver in Merle's free hand.
Merle glanced down as he drove, noting that this particular type of revolver didn't have a safety switch or button that he could see.
"Christ," He muttered, swinging the cylinders out and confirming what he expected, that they were all loaded with small rounds that could do big damage, the brass gleaming in the light.
He took both hands off the wheel for a second to unload the round that would fall immediately under the hammer, then closed the cylinder again.
This way, he could simply pull the trigger twice quickly if he needed to shoot with far less risk of any accidental discharges.
The way the day seemed to be going, anything was possible.

-
Dennis, the boy who had gone to the church to deliver the message, hadn't gone very far after he left the building, simply walking halfway down the block to where a rusty playground still stood behind a franchised fast food restaurant that had dried up and blown away before he was born.
He was sure his old man would greet him with his belt buckle the next time he saw him after the way he had run off from the diner, so he felt no great need to return.
He considered himself too old to play on such things, but he did sit on a dirty swing and watch the road, which he could see quite a lot of in either direction.
Dennis didn't see when the lady came out of the church, the angle was wrong for that, but he heard the flat clap as the heavy door closed behind her, and then counted to thirty slowly before she came into view, moving pretty quickly across the road but not kicking up much dust, with her long dress flying around her.
He could even pick out the faded colors in the tattoos on her bare arms, what his dad called had called whore's markings after he had made a drunken pass at her one evening in the same diner where all the trouble had started today, not long after she had moved here with the older boy.
Dennis could remember that far back, but he had been a lot littler then, just barely out of diapers.
He remembered the older boy quite a bit, they had even talked a couple of times about video games and lamenting the fact that it was impossible to ride a skateboard for any distance in the town.
Once, the older boy had even let him ride on the back of his motorcycle for a few dozen glorious feet.
He had never learned the older boy's name, had been too scared too ask most of the time, but he had a lot of memories with him.
Whoever that guy at the diner had been, he might've looked a lot like his older friend, but that definitely wasn't him, even if he was wearing that same old leather jacket.
That was somebody else.

About five minutes after the lady had walked out of the church, the door boomed again, and Dennis counted to almost a hundred before the priestess came into view, leaning hard on her cane as she moved.
He frowned as he watched her walk.
Nobody had seen her outside of the church in months, he didn't even think she left for groceries.
The lady or somebody who went to the church would always drive half an hour down the freeway and buy all her gross old lady things from the closest grocery store.
As Dennis thought this, the Priestess stopped walking and looked straight at where he still sat on the dirty swing set.
She began to lift one gnarled hand, and Dennis instinctively ran away, leaping over the crumpled back fence to find somewhere else to hang out.
He felt sure whatever was happening today would be figured out by tomorrow.

-
John led a fairly rapid pace for someone who should be bones in the dirt, and Abe felt his face growing steadily more red in the unrelenting sunlight as they walked.
Further behind him, he could hear various people in the group that had followed from the diner huffing and panting, sure that it was the first exercise many of them had experienced in quite some time.
He briefly wondered why none of them had taken their cars, sure that at least one or two among them had semi-functional vehicles, then shrugged.
Today was a day of strangeness, it seemed.
He looked ahead and noticed a slender figure walking towards them, about a half mile down the road.
He saw her hand lift to her forehead to shade her eyes, sure she was wondering who else in this town would be dumb enough to wear a leather jacket in the desert.
The people following behind them noticed her too, and Abe heard a rising chorus of whispers erupt from them as those who didn't recognize her were filled in by those who did.
"Oh boy," Abe said again, picking up his pace to be next to John.
He glanced at the dead boy's sweatless and pale face, and saw no sign of recognition in those cloudy eyes.
He wasn't sure how well John could see, but Abe felt sure that before long either John or the woman now walking towards them would realize who each other was, and then this strange day would get even stranger.
Abe blinked sweat out his eyes as they all waited for whatever was going to happen.
In the distance, he could hear a badly maintained engine, roaring as it grew closer.

-
Oh dear god, Mary thought, Is it him? It that him?
Ever since the last few shovelfuls of dirt had closed off her son's casket from the world above, she had seen his face in dozens of places.
Men on the street had worn his face, perfect strangers looking at her through his dark brown eyes with his unruly brows arched inquisitively as they noticed how long she stared at them.
She had even seen him drawn twenty feet high on a billboard looming over the freeway, his beautiful crooked nose and acne pitted face replacing some generic movie star giving fuck-me eyes to an equally gorgeously unremarkable actress.
The hardest part was always the children who had worn his face, the younger version of him that was sweet and boisterous and beautiful in the way that all young children were.
She had often held back from wishing them away in the early days of her sorrow, clinging to what was sure to be one of her last chances to see his face written in young flesh.
She had mostly gotten control of the issue after half a year or so, sometimes needing to blink her eyes aggressively for almost a minute before she could get the false faces to fade.
She began to blink as she moved closer to the two figures, at first just fluttering her lashes but gradually becoming more forceful, unconsciously biting her lower lip as she walked.
"Come on, come on," She said under her breath, sure that her technique would work as it always did.
Instead of fading out as he grew closer, the false face stuck fast, probably held in place by the dirty leather jacket this strange man wore in the desert heat.
It does look a lot like his, She thought, then shook her head hard to negate the idea.
She didn't need to start crying today, not with as many chores as she had yet to do back at the church.
In the past year, Mary had come to know herself with more depth than she had since she was a teenager, and she knew if a single traitorous tear managed to escape, she would be a sobbing, swollen eyed wreck for at least two hours.
Far too long to let Priestess go without attention.
So she could not lose control, no matter who this person was.
But.
The false face continued, only growing sharper as she walked, making her speed up into a near jog.
Finally, they were only a few dozen feet apart, and the false face faded away, but the face beneath was only different in its paleness and the heavy staples holding it together at the jaw, and oh my god, that was her son, it was John.
She had refused to even look in the casket at his viewing to avoid seeing that poor hurt thing that was left of him and now he was here, walking towards her in a strange shuffle that meant he had hurt some part of himself screwing around with that damn bike like he always did and she would have to get the first aid kit out but that was wrong too, he was supposed to be dead and long gone from the world.
"John?" She asked, terrified of the answer.
From somewhere nearby, a car horn began to blare.
-
At the sound of his mother's voice, John staggered, his weight shifting as though he had been pushed hard.
Abe took a step towards him, but the dead boy straightened up, his leather jacket creaking as he moved.
He backed up a few steps to give John some space, throwing out his arm to stop the most eager members of the group that had followed them.
A long way back towards the church, a frail figure walking with a cane began shouting furiously and waving her arms.
Abe couldn't pick out most of what was being said, but he recognized John's mother's name in the noise, figuring that the yelling figure just about had to be the old lady.
"You," John said, raising his arms as he continued to walk towards her.
"John!" She shrieked, raising her own arms as though she intended to lift him from beneath the armpits in the way of a parent with a much younger child.
Just before their outstretched hands touched, a dirty police cruiser raced into sight, dragging a long plume of disturbed dust behind it, its grille coming dangerously close to knocking John over.

-
Before anyone could react, Merle flew out of the driver's seat, with Avery from the sheriff's office coming around from the other side, almost bumping into Mary as she ran.
"Stop right there, boy!" Merle said, pointing a small silver revolver at John.
Abe and the others took several rapid steps out of the line of fire, but the drunk only seemed focused on John, moving forward and prodding him with the barrel of the gun.
"Get down on your knees right now!" Merle yelled, cocking the hammer.
Mary stared at him from the other side of the cruiser with wide, wet eyes.
As Abe watched, a single tear escaped from the corner of her left eye, leaving fine tracks in the dust on her face.
John gave no sign that he'd even heard the command, simply staring ahead with his arms still raised.
"I will shoot you, get down right now!" Merle said, his voice cracking with strain.
Finally, John turned his head, fixing his faded eyes on the drunk's face.
"Why?" He asked.
There was a long moment of silence, and then Avery spoke.
"Ohmygod," She said, all in one breath.
She had moved closer and looked directly at John's torn face as he spoke, taking in his graveyard pale skin and open wounds for the first time, seemingly afraid to meet his dead eyes.
"It's you. You should be dead."
"I... am." John replied.
"Ohmygod," She said again.
"Quit that!" Merle said sharply. "I need you to cuff this guy!"
"I don't have any cuffs," Avery replied, in the tone of someone who believes she is dreaming.
"Sheriff said I couldn't have none."
"Goddamn it," Merle cursed, removing his belt with his free hand without lowering the gun.
"Put your hands behind you!" He commanded.
John did nothing, only stood there and stared.
"What's going on?" Mary said, speaking more to herself than the people around her.
"We have to take him in," Merle said, trying to force John's hands down without any noticeable success. "He's a danger to all of us."
He beckoned Avery forward, then handed her the gun.
"Hold this on him while i get his hands. Don't shoot anyone, but especially not me."
He tried to push John's left arm down with both of his and didn't manage to budge it.
"Get those fucking hands down!" He snarled.
He heard a dry click as the hammer of the revolver fell on an empty chamber, and he instinctively flinched away as Avery pulled the trigger again, nearly dropping the weapon from the force of the recoil.
 "That's your only warning!" Avery yelled, trying to project authority and only sounding shrill.
Abe, who had dropped to the ground when the gun went off, stood back up just in time to see a small curl of smoke rise from a neat hole in the back of John's jacket, dead center on John's right shoulder blade.
That wasn't a warning, He thought, sounding strangely calm to himself, despite the ringing in his ears.
Merle spun without rising from a crouch and snatched the gun from Avery's hand, fiddled with it a second, then dumped out the shells into his palm.
"Next time, wait for my fuckin' signal before trying to blow a hole in somebody!" He yelled, causing Avery to flinch again.
Throughout the drama, and even while being shot, John only continued to stare ahead, his arms out before him in the classic zombie stance, looking about as serene as a dead person could be.
Abe saw Merle forcefully regain his composure, then spoke quickly as the older man began to reach for the dead boy's arm again.
"John, you better go with them," Abe said, his voice sounding strange and far away to his own ears.
"They're not gonna leave you alone."
The dead boy turned slowly to look at Abe, who felt more than heard the shuffling as the crowd behind them took another reflexive step backward beneath that cloudy gaze.
"I guess... not." John said, lowering his arms.
Merle quickly tied his hands together with his belt, then prodded John hard in the back, apparently to make him move.
John stood still for a moment longer, long enough for Merle to cast a nervous glance at the gun he now carried in his waistband, then walked over to where Avery had opened the rear door to the cruiser.
"What did he do?" Mary asked, again in the voice of someone waking from a deep sleep. "Why is this happening?"
"He killed Sheriff Galt," Merle said. "Blew his fuckin' brains out in the cemetery."
The two unlikely deputies quickly climbed back into the cruiser and began driving back towards the sheriff's office, leaving the small crowd  to stand in numb silence, punctuated only by Mary's  loud, wracking sobs.

IV
-
9 Months Ago
-
Separated shoulder. bruised ribs. Cuts that weren't painful. Bruises that would take months to turn an ugly green color, then piss yellow, then finally fade.
She hadn't broken anything when that fool boy had tackled her offstage while she was sermonizing for the young sinner, which she had decided to do after much prayer, resisting the urge to be humanly vindictive and simply not attend.
After all, suicide was a mortal sin, an express ticket, as the younger fools called it.
In the end, her better nature had won out, and she decided to live up to the very definition of the word Christian; one like Christ who would offer shoes to the homeless and faith to the godless.
She had really only been clearing her throat when the boy had jumped on her, opening the canals so she might birth a fresh inspiration onto those who had scorned her to no end, but she did not blame him.
God had taken everything from many of his people to see if they'd curse his name, and though she had loved and lost in her time, she considered herself no different from those wretched few, singing praise songs with blood pouring darkly inside their clothes.
She, Esther Rain Huckitt, would rise above the tribulations and be born anew in God's endless love.
But Lord, was it tiresome picking out her groceries, as few and light as they may be.
She had turned the corner into her eighth decade not long before, but she had only begun to feel it once she had been released from the hospital and the flow of God's blessing in her IV had been stopped.
When she had entered the needlessly large grocery store, a young man in a yellow vest had offered her a small motorized cart to do her shopping in, and though it had pained her, she had refused both the cart and his offer to carry her items for her as she shopped.
She would take in every drop of God's pain, and never mind how old she was, just the way she had been taught.
"I'm not dead yet, son," She had told him, "But I won't be worried when I am, for I know where I'm headed. Can you say the same?"
The boy had shrugged her off in the same way they all did, and though she had heard his sniveling voice and the laughter of his coworkers as she walked away, she did not grant them the blessing of a reply, a gentle correction from the path their sin would undoubtedly carry them down.
She would give the boy the freedom of his choice, as the Creator had done before her.
Esther was in the middle of reaching towards the least dented can on a high shelf when a voice spoke behind her.
"Can I get that for you?"
She turned, a refusal already on her lips, but stopped before letting the words loose.
Behind her, looking miserable and swaying slightly in the aisle, was the sinner's mother.
She recognized the jet black head of hair from the funeral, although it appeared to have not been washed since that day.
"If you don't mind helping an old lady," Esther said, putting on her best smile.
She needn't have bothered, as the woman behind her was clearly not in her full mental capacity, lost in the torment of grief, possibly with some of God's blessing of her own in her veins.
Nevertheless, she stepped forward easily enough and grabbed the can, passing it to Esther without ever making physical contact.
"Are you okay, dear?" Esther asked, tucking her small billfold into the loose pocket on the front of her dress to extend both hands to the woman.
"No, I don't think I am." The woman said, taking ahold of Esther's spotted and wrinkled hands in her own youthful ones without seeming aware of it.
Esther felt God's inspiration spreading through her, so she opened her mouth and let the words flow freely.
"God's love is for all of us, dear. If you take one step toward Him, He will take two steps towards you, and I'm sure whatever pain is in your heart cannot possibly be stronger than Him. Go ahead, speak."
The woman's brow furrowed, and she shook her head, still not looking at Esther with her over sized pupils.
Esther felt a moment's annoyance, then banished it.
This woman was important, she could feel that.
She squeezed both the woman's outstretched hands, hard enough to receive a growling warning from the demon of arthritis that lived in her joints, but ignored it.
"It's okay," Esther said.
Finally, the woman spoke.
"My son... died. He's been gone for months. But it doesn't feel that way."
She pulled her hands away, then held them tight against her chest, rocking them in a way any parent would know.
"I still feel him. Right here."
"Loss can take its toll," Esther replied, not actually offering any comfort to the woman, but speaking softly.
"And I promised him when he was in the hospital, when he wouldn't wake up and he was all full of tubes, I promised him I would take care of myself whether he lived or not.
But I haven't been."
Esther could tell that just by the thin layer of sweat that seemed to coat the woman's entire body, the way her red and irritated eyes kept darting all around, unable to focus on any one thing. Still, she held her silence.
"I can't feel anything, there's no life left in me. I'm just walking around hollow. hollow."
Esther reached out to the woman and took hold of her shaky hands again, holding tighter when she tried to reflexively pull away.
"Praise God," She began, letting the words hang on the air.
"Praise Him for bringing this lost soul into my arms on this day, in the depths of her sorrow and pain. Praise Him for allowing me another opportunity to lift a sinning spirit onto the path of righteousness, and thereby open the way to God's holy kingdom."
The words were automatic, she barely even had to think as she spoke, but the tone she used was comforting, and she could feel the woman leaning in to hear her quiet words.
"I can help you. I can help you get right with the souls in heaven and the bodies on earth, and cast off whatever wicked demons might assail you. I can help you through your grief, and even promise that your son might have found a place in the afterlife, surrounded by loved ones and bright light,"
Esther didn't feel the need to specify that the boy just about had to be in Hell, along with his weak bloodline.
"And even get off whatever you took to dull your mind today. I can help you take each one of God's beautiful days as it comes and without artifice or drug. Would you like that, dear?"
The woman didn't speak, but nodded, a single tear creeping from the corner of her eye, smudging mascara that seemed to be in the process of fusing to her eyelid.
"What's your name, dear?" Esther asked.
"Mary," The woman said quietly, her voice wavering with emotion.
"Mary," Esther repeated, and smiled down at the hands trapped within hers. "Come with me, dear."
-
Today
-
Esther gave the weeping woman a few minutes to snivel in the road, then called her name sharply.
As she moved closer, planting her cane with dogged determination despite being painfully aware of the sunlight casting its rays onto her scalp, she saw a few members of the group suddenly peel away and begin walking off in different directions, looking down at the dirt as they left.
She recognized them as a few people who had refused her invitation to the church multiple times, but let them go for now.
She could afford to be patient with the nonbelievers today, as all it took was one evening in the light of the lord to open their eyes.
When she finally got to where Mary sat in the road, she looked at the woman critically for a moment, then reached down and clasped one of her gnarled hands around Mary's wrist, pulling the larger woman to her feet in one smooth motion that Esther's lower back did not appreciate.
"Come now, dear. You need time to calm down, and talk to the Lord."
She felt eyes on her and looked up to see a young man still standing in the road, staring at the two of them.
She hadn't seen what had happened exactly, just another one of the young fools of this town getting arrested for some asinine reason, and she supposed the boy staring at her was one of his fool friends.
"Go on, boy," She said, taking in the dirty cook's apron he still wore. "Get back to work."
The boy opened his mouth to speak, then decided against it.
Instead he took off the thin framed glasses he wore, cleaned them on his marginally less dirty shirt, and walked away.
Smart.
Maybe a half dozen of the onlookers still stood in the street, most of them seeming rather aimless now that the excitement had ended, and Esther addressed them all before they could drift away.
"I'm having a special sermon tonight," She said, raising her voice to be heard and obeyed. "I expect to see all of you and your families there."
Some of them muttered vague agreements, and they all began to disperse to whatever they did during the day.
Mary was still sobbing next to her, but had reached some level of self control, weeping quietly into her own palms, bent at the waist as though in the grip of some great pain.
"What's the problem, girl?" Esther asked, her voice much sharper than it had been while there still had been people to overhear. "Spit it out!"
Mary shook her head, apparently unable or unwilling to speak.
"Come on, there are things to prepare for tonight. Lord, I wish this nonsense had happened on a day when my hip was in a better mood."
The older woman took hold of Mary's wrist again and began walking, giving her the option of walking or being dragged, and Mary hesitated only for a second before following along.
As they walked, Esther took advantage of the younger woman's quiet tears to plan out her sermon for the evening.

-
Abe knew he wouldn't be going back to work today, and he only stopped into the diner long enough to ditch his apron and lock the place up.
He wasn't worried about getting in trouble for closing early, although he wouldn't care if he did. The owner was a rich guy who lived a few hours upstate and only stopped in once a month to eat and pretend to go over the receipts, and what had happened today felt bigger than anything that man could say or do.
He found himself debating whether or not to bring one of the kitchen knives with him, their razor sharp edges glinting invitingly, then stopped himself.
Nothing had threatened him today.
Why would he need a knife?
No, what he needed to do was go up to the sheriff's office and do what he could to help figure out that craziness.
He wasn't sure he could help at all, but he felt in some way that he should at least be there to make sure John didn't hurt either of those people.
Abe didn't like Avery much, and he liked Merle less, but he didn't think they deserved to be hurt for getting into a situation they didn't understand.
Hell, I don't understand it much myself.
That decision made, he locked the door behind him as he walked out, ignoring the few people who had been waiting outside and had not been apart of the earlier drama.
He considered going to the small single wide trailer he called home, then decided against it.
Once he got there, he'd be outside of everything that was happening, and he felt sure that would be unwise.
Besides, now that the dead boy was out of his sight, Abe felt a strange need to see him again, despite all the fear and uncertainty he carried with him.
They had been friends, after all.
He felt sure that whatever was going on, he needed to see it out, and be there for his old friend one more time.
-
Avery and Merle managed to get the freak back out of the cruiser with minimal difficulty, and he opened the damaged door into the sheriff's office with an ease that made them exchange a concerned glance, even walking into the cell himself with his weird broke leg-shuffle, but absolutely refused to empty his pockets or strip down when Merle told him to.
Avery saw no compliance in those weird, unfocused eyes, and she knew from dealing with the drunks the sheriff had brought in from time to time that it was better not to invite that kind of struggle.
She thought back to the way the guy had opened the office door, and how Merle hadn't been able to get one of his arms down even using all his strength, and shivered.
She had tugged Merle's sleeve to make him stop yelling through the bars of the closed holding cell at the freak, who had sat down on the cot bolted to the wall and hadn't moved since.
She thought he looked a lot like the toys she had as a kid that would talk and walk on their own with batteries in them, but if you took out the batteries they just became expensive doorstops and things for her elder brother to melt with his lighter.
They had stared awkwardly into the cell for a while after, neither of them quite sure what to do now that they had caught the guy who shot the sheriff, but his complete lack of movement had made them both uneasy, sending them further away and around the corner, where Avery's desk waited.
Not coincidentally, her mostly full bottle of wine was still waiting, too.
Avery was the first to speak, pouring a good amount of wine into the cup she had recovered from her drawer.
"So what do you think is wrong with that guy?"
Merle waited until she had poured her drink, then drank directly from the bottle, tilting it back like a pro.
"How do you mean?"
"He ain't really dead, is he? Do you think he faked it somehow?"
Merle took another drink, a full quarter of the bottle disappearing down his throat.
"Dunno," He said, "But that hole you put in his coat is real enough."
Avery felt her face flush, and she looked away from his bloodshot eyes.
"It was a warning shot," She said, hating the whiny tone of her voice.
"I emptied out that first chamber in case you lost your cool with that gun, and you tried to shoot him twice."
She didn't reply, made herself look busy by refilling her cup.
"What bugs me is that hole is on the front and back of the jacket. You had to have hit him right through one of his lungs, but he's still kinda walking and kinda talking."
Merle rose and began to pace, seeming to speak more to himself than to her.
'Then there's those staples in his jaw. They go all the way under his chin, and I'm pretty sure they're holding his whole face together. I seen a lot of shit in a lot of places, and some men can keep walkin' with their guts dragging on their shoes and a smile on their face, but the shock eventually wears off and they drop. He hasn't dropped. He's walkin' with too much trauma to make sense."
Avery considered her cup, then finished off what was left of the wine, drinking straight from the bottle.
"Shoulda saved that," Merle said, "It's gonna be a long night."
He gestured out through the office's excuse for a window, a dirty square foot of plexiglass mounted into the wall high above her desk.
In the distance, the edge of the sun had finally begun to dip below the horizon, sunset finally beginning in earnest.
"I've never been known for my restraint." She replied.
Merle shrugged, then surprised both of them by laughing.
"I got more nearby," He said.
He stood up, then nearly fell back into his seat when a firm hand rapped against the door.
Neither of them responded, and Avery glanced into the cell to see the weird guy's head rising from his chest, those horrid staples in his face glinting in the harsh fluorescent lights.

-
Abe debated for a few minutes after he got to the sheriff's office, trying to decide whether or not he should just open the door and walk in.
Then he remembered how shaky Avery's hand had been with the gun in it, and also the fact that she'd shot at John for no apparent reason, and the decision became a lot easier.
He rapped his knuckles against the door, trying to make it sound more confident than he actually felt.
He heard a pair of muffled voices, then the sound of heavy footsteps crossing the cheaply made floor.
Finally the door began to open, jerking a few inches at a time as Merle struggled with it.
"What d'you want?" The drunk asked, and Abe instinctively leaned away from the cloying stench of wine on the older man's breath.
"I want to see him."
"Who?" Merle asked, seeming genuinely perplexed.
"Take a guess," Abe said, stepping up to the door and beginning to push against it, so that Merle would either have to help or be knocked over.
"Hey now!" Merle protested, stepping further away so the door could open.
"This guy killed the sheriff out in the cemetery! Shot him in the fuggin' head, like a rabid dog!"
Abe paused in the doorway.
Throughout his entire thought process up to this point, he hadn't even considered what his old friend was accused of doing, or even whether or not he was guilty.
He thought for a moment.
"Have you guys called the state police or anything?"
Merle frowned in a way that said he hadn't.
"We were just about to, but you interrupted us with all your bangin' on the door," He lied.
Abe glanced towards the receptionist's desk, where Avery was trying to hide an empty wine bottle beneath an empty file.
"Okay," He said. "Don't let me stop you."
Merle made no move to pick up the phone, and Abe felt a moment of disdain for the man.
He stepped around the drunk and began walking towards the back half of the office, where he assumed the holding cell would be.
"Where you goin'?" Avery asked. "That thing in there is dangerous."
"He's already in a cell, I don't think he can get out."
"What if he bites you and gives you what he has, like some type of zombie or somethin'?"
Abe guessed he and Avery had seen some of the same movies, and for some reason this made him feel sickened even more by her obvious inebriation.
"Then I guess we'll be in a pickle." He said dryly.
Avery reached for the wine bottle again, then set it back down again when she remembered there was none left.
Behind him, Merle opened the door again and walked out, and Abe walked around the corner to where his old friend waited.

John's head was up, and he was sitting more like an actual human than a broken doll for once.
Abe thought it was strange that a dead person should look so lively, then remembered how surreal the entire day had already been.
"Hey, John." He said.
"Hey, Abe." Came the reply, more quickly than the dead boy had spoken before.
"You doing okay in here?"
"I think so."
The hallway that branched off to the holding cell was fairly narrow, and Abe wasn't afraid, exactly, but he did feel very aware of the fact that there wasn't enough room to be out of arm's reach of the bars of the cell.
They were an older, surplus frame that the sheriff had probably picked up at a liquidation sale, and some of the spaces between the bars had to be at least ten inches wide, covered in rust and the remains of flaking white paint.
"Sorry you missed your mom," Abe said, not sure what else to say.
"I didn't." Came the reply.
"Yeah, I guess you guys did get pretty close. Maybe she'll come and see you in here."
"No," The dead boy said, his tone suddenly grave. "She never wanted... to see me in here. Wouldn't even bail me out."
Abe didn't know how to respond.
He glanced down the hallway, then turned back to see the dead boy rising from his seat.
"So,. They're saying you killed the sheriff out on the hill."
Abe wasn't sure what response to expect, just knew that he had to say it.
Would a dead person be afraid of the death penalty enough to lie?
He watched John for any sign of a reaction, or even guilt, but that dead face wore no expression.
Those dead eyes revealed no secrets.
"He saw me. Saw me getting out." John said.
Abe puzzled over this response.
"Out of where?" He asked.
"The earth." John replied, his voice sounding almost lively.
"Oh. Of course." Abe replied, casting another nervous glance down the hallway.
When he turned back, the dead boy had moved closer to the bars, only one step too far away to reach out and take hold of Abe's shirt.
"But he didn't... like what he saw."
Abe swallowed hard, the sound too loud in his own ears.
"Did you get in a fight with him or something?"
"He asked... a question. I didn't want... to answer."
"Was he dead when you left?"
"Yes, i... think so."
Abe felt as though someone had punched him hard enough to force the air from his lungs, a feeling he dimly remembered from his high school days.
"John, did you kill him?"

A few minutes later, Abe walked at a carefully non-threatening pace back out to where Avery and Merle sat, now trading a battered steel flask back and forth across the desk.
"You guys call the State cops yet?" He asked, mindful of the fact that the shiny revolver was now laying out on the cheap wood between them.
Avery looked at him with eyes as bloodshot as Merle's nearly always were, her lower lip wet with spit and trembling slightly with indignation.
"We were about to call 'em, 'til you came barging in!"
Abe held up a hand in a gesture he hoped would pacify her, realizing that she was more drunk than she first appeared.
"I'm just saying, whatever is going on with John is bigger than we can handle, and that's not even including the sheriff."
Merle caught him looking at the gun again and chuckled unpleasantly before reaching down and picking it up.
"Don't be worried about this thing, boy. Worry about that freak in the cage back there. He tell you he killed the sheriff?"
Without looking away, Merle flipped the cylinders out of the revolver and dumped the remaining shells into his palm.
"I think we need to get the state cops out here," Abe repeated.
"Whatever comes next can only be weirder, and that's saying something."
Merle shrugged, settling lower in his hard plastic chair.
Abe looked to Avery, but she seemed unable or unwilling to meet his gaze.
He supposed he should've known better than to ask a couple of drunks to talk to the police.
"Hell with both of you," Abe said, walking towards the door, very intentionally not looking back towards the thin hallway where he knew the dead boy waited.

-
The bells rang loudly from the church, despite the fact that it did not have a bell tower.
After a minute or so, The Priestess flicked the simple wall switch to its off position, silencing the loud ringing that came from half a dozen loudspeakers placed in strategic locations around the outside of the building, calling the faithful to their seats.
She needn't have bothered, as the people who had come to love her sermons had become almost excessively punctual, but there were still rituals to be observed, and she would not deny them that.
She started her sermon ten minutes later than her usual time, not switching on the overhead lights so that the only illumination came in rays of fading sunlight through the high windows, and the congregation was buzzing uncomfortably when she came out of her quarters.
As the door slammed shut behind her, silence fell, and she felt the not-entirely-pleasant weight of all their eyes upon her.
She mounted the small stage and approached the podium, not looking out at them until she was behind her place of power, as she had always been taught.
Out in the pews, she saw most of the people who had been a part of the drama earlier, a few regular members of the congregation who were at her beck and call, and even a few new faces that she hadn't gotten around to recruiting.
A small girl seated near the front was idly swinging one leg over the edge of the pew, her pink sneaker tapping gently against the back of the seat in front of her.
The Priestess stared at her, and the girl stopped mid-swing.
Perfect.
"In all things," She began, "God is great."
"God is great in all things," Came the immediate reply from her audience, although many of them were out of sync.
This would not do.
"In all things, God is great!" The Priestess yelled, extending one arm to the high ceiling, and the heavens above it.
This time, all the responses came in perfect sync.
The Priestess paused for a moment, appearing to collect her thoughts, but really just playing the room.
"I know many of you came here today for answers," She said, speaking at a moderate volume and letting the room's acoustics do the work.
"After the events of this afternoon, how could you not? When there is no answer to be had, the unsure must turn to the Lord."
A hand rose from the crowd, as though she had cued it, and she pointed curtly at the dirty man who sat three rows back.
"I wanna know what was wrong with that guy today. I coulda sworn he died last year, but there he stood in the street, big as life and twice as ugly."
The room began buzzing again as those who had been there shared the story with the people who hadn't, as though most of them hadn't already discussed it on the way to the church.
She counted out a full minute, then raised both hands, calling for quiet.
"I know what many of you think you saw today, and I saw that man up close as well, riding away in the police car."
Some of them had definitely seen her arrive after everything was over, but no one protested her story.
That was not the way they did things.
"I wanted to reassure you that he is not the same boy who was laid to rest last year, beneath the gaze of our Lord."
The room looked ready to buzz again, but she pressed on.
"No, he is not that child of God. I saw his face up close, and though he wore some form of mask or tasteless makeup, it cannot be him."
She saw most of them already agreeing, but a few people still wore uncertain expressions.
"There is no way that the Lord called him forth from the earth as he did Lazarus, and that is a fact."
She leaned out towards the congregation, speaking in a tone that clearly said she had a secret to share.
"It's simply not possible, as the only time the Word mentions the dead rising once more among the living is in Revelations, at the End Times, and surely if they were here and the Lord Himself was once again working His wonders upon the world, He would've already called to us, His most blessed children. No, the time for the great Reaping is not here, and whoever that man is, he is not of the afterlife. He is a simple con man, a liar who came to this town to scare you all and drive a stake into the heart of the poor dead child's mama, who was among those that saw him today."
The Priestess did not often carry her cane onstage with her, but she had brought it along for a singular purpose during this sermon, and she very deliberately rapped it twice on the carpeted floor as she spoke.
At her call, the door to her quarters opened, and Mary stepped out, carefully holding a large bowl in her outstretched arms.
She was still a mess, her eyes swollen from her tears and long marks on her face where she had clawed at herself, but the expression she wore was perfectly calm, if not happy.
As she stepped out, every eye in the room turned to her, tracking the bowl she carried like a pack of hungry dogs.
The Priestess watched them watch her, then began to speak again.
"Tonight we must drink of God's Divine Love, and share in our fellowship in spite of this strange con man who has come to bother our peace. Whoever among you wishes to be first, step forward."
There were sounds of quiet struggle, then the same dirty man stood up and began walking down the row of pews to where Mary stood.
"Inallthingsgodisgreat," He muttered, all in one breath, then took the bowl from her arms.
He lifted it to his lips and drank, swallowing greedily in the new silence.
"We must all come together in the face of this new problem, for our pain is the Lord's pain, and our strength is His strength."
The man walked with the bowl to where his closest neighbor sat and reluctantly handed over the bowl.
It began to make its way around the room, and she heard many shortenings of the Lord's Words before they drank that would need to be addressed later.
Still, there were more pressing needs to attend to.
"Share in his strength, and release your fear," She said, "There is no man that can stand against Him, and we carry His strength as the very breath in our lungs."
The Priestess carried on speaking for a few more minutes, really just riffing on the same concepts to fill the otherwise silent room, until the bowl made it all the way around her flock.
As she watched, the young leg waving girl stood from her seat and carried the bowl up to the front of the stage, wobbling slightly as God's love began to take its effect.
She took the bowl and finished off the contents, smiling as she felt the pain in her leg and back turn tail and slink away, as David had triumphed against the lions in their den.
The people were under her control, and all was right.

V
-
Mary spent the entire service working up her nerve, steeling herself for the conflict that was sure to follow her request.
After the last of the flock had left, she locked the large doors behind them and walked back over to where The Priestess still stood, sweat standing out on her wrinkled forehead and making her thin hair stick to her skull in lank clumps.
"Fill the bowl again, child, I will need its help tonight."
For a moment, the words were at the edge of her tongue, waiting only to be given voice, but instead Mary only nodded demurely.
 She lifted the heavy bowl again and walked back into the Priestess's humble living quarters, where a much larger jug of the Love sat alone on a small table, sticking out among the otherwise spartan decorations.
Mary filled the bowl again from the spigot set into the side of the unremarkable steel jug, then set the bowl at edge of the table before crossing to the massive bed taking up most of the central floor space, lifting the hem of her dress to kneel at her usual place.
A few minutes later, the Priestess entered, her cane thumping on the floor in time with her shuffling footsteps.
Mary opened a drawer in the small nightstand beside her and pulled out the small bottle of lotion that sat inside just as the Priestess sat on edge of the bed, leaving her legs hanging.
Without speaking, Mary began to massage the Priestess's lower calves, working in the same steady rhythm she had fallen into over the past months, ignoring the strange feeling of the older woman's protruding varicose veins, as she always did.
As she worked, the Priestess began speaking, not in her loud and carrying performance voice, but the low, almost guttural tones she adopted when she was speaking primarily to herself.
Mary resisted the urge to simply tune it out and focus on her work, as she usually did, then surprised herself by interrupting after only a few minutes.
"I need to go and see him," She blurted, her hands still working on the wasted muscles before her.
The Priestess carried on muttering to herself as though she hadn't spoken.
"I need to go see him." Mary repeated, more assertively.
The older woman broke off cleanly in the middle of a sentence, then gave Mary a surprised look.
Mary thought back for a moment, realizing she hadn't said anything during this particular ritual since the first week she had done it, first working through her revulsion and then accepting it as penance.
"See who, girl?"
Mary hesitated.
"That s-stranger."
Why would you do that?" The old woman asked, subtle venom in her voice.
Mary was struck by a sudden burst of inspiration and spoke without hesitating.
"I think he stole from my son's grave. That jacket he wore, did you see it? It was at the funeral."
The Priestess began rubbing her bad leg with one hand without seeming to be aware of it, her face twisting as she reached the more sensitive places.
"Perhaps he did," She replied, "But the police have him now. He will be taken care of."
Mary could've pointed out that no actual police had been there, but instead she chose a different tactic.
"I need to be sure. Sure that he was just a liar in makeup and not, you know, a true Resurrection."
The Priestess looked down from her perch, making eye contact with Mary for the first time in perhaps half a year.
"I suppose Pandora still has her distant daughters," She said, her brows furrowed with thought.
Mary felt a surge of hope within her, which curdled and died as the old woman spoke again.
"No, girl. I don't think you need to take this trip, but simply trust in my word, the word of God's chosen, that this man has simply tried to trick this town and its people and remove them of their money and peace."
Mary fought to avoiding showing any emotion through the fading effects of God's Love, though she did have to turn away slightly to wipe away a traitorous tear before the old woman noticed.
She had felt her tolerance to God's Love growing as time passed, relaxing her face and mind from the frozen mask of bliss that the effects of the drink gave her and all the others, but she had kept it a secret from the Priestess, never quite knowing why.
"Come, dear," The Priestess spoke, putting on her best grandmotherly tone, the one she used that reminded Mary of a spider looking over its tightly bound prey.
"Drink of God's Love with me, that he might show you his true vision for you."
Mary stood, unable to process this stroke of blind luck, and retrieved the bowl from where it still sat, filled to the brim.
The Priestess drank greedily, her wrinkled lips sucking at the not quite clear fluid until nearly half the bowl had been emptied.
Mary took the bowl back and took a long swallow, intentionally making it appear as though she was drinking more than she actually was.
The old woman grabbed the bowl back as soon as she'd finished, almost aggressive in her motions, then quickly finished off the rest.
Mary staggered slightly as the effects of the drink began hitting her anew, making the world around her seem soft and out of focus.
After a few seconds, the Priestess slumped back in her bed, snoring with her mouth agape, her mostly empty gums on full display.
Mary stood with one hand braced against the nightstand for a while, fighting off the urge to fall asleep herself.
When she felt mostly under control, she replaced the drinking bowl on the table, taking slow and methodical steps.
Once that was done, she took a deep, steadying breath, then began walking towards the door leading out of the small room, unsure of what awaited her on the other side.

-

A cool breeze had begun blowing through town as true night rose, and Mary was grateful for its touch.
It seemed to help her stay mostly centered as she walked, and she needed the help, her feet occasionally wandering off course as she moved.
There weren't any street lights to guide her way, but she knew the general direction of the sheriff's office, thankfully having never experienced what passed for the law in this town.
She walked as fast as she could, intentionally not pausing to be fascinated by her own reflection in the windows she passed, as the God's Love insisted she should.
The hardest test was definitely the diner and its long row of reflective glass gleaming in the night, but she hunched her shoulder against its call and kept moving, eventually reaching the sheriff's office.
She had just reached out a hand to knock on the office door when a figure emerged from the shadows around the edge of the building, one hand extended towards her.
She took a few steps back as the figure moved, then sighed in relief as she recognized him as the kid who worked in the diner, the same one who had been closest to the person in her son's jacket today, still wearing his goofy apron.
"Are you going to see him?" He asked.
"Of course," She replied, hearing the slur in her voice and hating it. "I need to know if it's really who I think he is."
The kid shook his head.
"I spent all day talking to him and I'm still not sure who he is."
Mary frowned.
"Why tell me this? Why even get in my way?"
"I just wanted to warn you. He's not... who he was. I think he's someone else now."
"Whatever, kid. If that is him, something beats nothing."
Mary turned and knocked hard on the door, her fist seeming to rise in slow motion as she watched.
"They're drinking in there, they won't hear you knocking." The kid spat. "Fucking disgraceful."
"Your best bet is just to walk right in there. I made sure they didn't have any loaded guns on them."
The kid tried out a weak smile, but it died a quick death.
Mary nodded and tried to open the door, which held fast with the knob turning freely in her hand.
"Push hard," The kid advised, so she did.

-
Avery and Merle jumped to their feet as the door began jerking open again, then sat down just as quickly when they recognized who was coming in.
"Where is he?"
"Who?" Avery asked, contemplating the empty flask.
Mary rolled her eyes, hating herself for recognizing the couple as fellow travelers in her former path.
"The only guy you arrested today."
Merle gestured with one hand to the hallway leading off beside the sheriff's office, and Mary began walking towards it without saying another word.

She nearly walked past the small cell without noticing, then backstepped.
In the cell, a slumped figure sat on the bunk against the back wall, his long-ish hair hanging over his face.
She definitely recognized the jacket he wore, the uncommon buttons and decorative zippers in their not quite random placements, despite the layer of dirt that seemed to coat his entire body.
"Hey," She called.
The figure didn't move.
"Hey, did you steal my son's jacket, asshole? I buried him in that fucking thing, I know every inch of it, and if you-"
She froze as the figure looked up at her, the staples in his face glinting harshly in the overhead light.
She felt her knees weaken as she looked upon his face, the one she still saw in her dreams every night, and she dropped to a sitting position in front of the cell, putting one hand flat on the cold linoleum to avoid going flat on her face.
"It's my... jacket." He said, his voice sounding harsh and broken in the way it had once been when he'd screamed his lungs out at a rock concert.
He hadn't been able to speak above a whisper for over a week, but seemed to enjoy every moment of it.
God, he was only fourteen that year.
She stared at this impossibility as he sat on the bunk, the hands she had once held as they crossed streets resting lightly on the knees she had once bandaged as he learned the dangers of play.
She tried to speak, but could not find any air in her lungs, and all that came out was a hollow moan.
"I remember that." He said. "I got... all scraped up. You told me... not to hide it. When I hurt."
For a second, her vision tilted dangerously on its axis, and she fought to speak, to say something, anything.
"How?" She asked, only managing a long exhalation through vocal chords that seemed to have seized.
Hoooow.
"I don't... know. Just woke up." He replied, standing up and beginning to walk over.
She saw the strained way he moved and felt an ice pick puncture her heart.
There had been so much damage when he'd been hit, really only his clothes holding him together.
Yet now he was standing before her, damaged and dirty, but not what she had thought.
Clearly, there had been some mistake and he had simply been in a coma, sleeping peacefully beneath the earth until his mind and body had healed enough to arise.
This was the only explanation that made sense.
"No." He said, seeming to respond directly to her thoughts. "I wasn't... asleep. I died."
He reached out his hands to her through the bars of the cell, and she took them, interlocking her fingers with his.
She felt the pad of her thumb brush against a knot of scar tissue on his hand he had somehow gotten from moving a washing machine, during one of their many midnight evictions.
The feeling of that old, dense scar on her skin made the situation real to her in a way nothing else had, even when she had seen the hideous road map written in his flesh where his pieces had been sewn back together.
She felt fresh tears begin to pour from her eyes, and all at once she was completely sober, the effects of God's Love disappearing as she reveled in her own.
She gripped his hands and felt him pulling slightly, helping her back to her feet.
"I don't understand any of this," Mary said, through lips that felt numb. "Isn't that silly?"
"The old lady," John said. "She's not... helping."
Mary looked up in surprise. She could swear the Priestess had been far down the road before he had been arrested.
"She's... lying."
She was about to ask how John had even seen the old woman when she realized how quiet the sheriff's office had become.
The sounds of Merle and Avery's quiet conversation had drifted off to nothing while they spoke, and she could almost feel the weight of the silence as the two of them clearly tried to eavesdrop.
"I need to get you out of here," Mary said, loud enough to be overheard.
"They think I... killed someone."
"Did you?" She asked.
Before he could respond, Merle and Avery came staggering around the corner, each of them leaning on the other as their drinks caught up with them.
"You can't take him," Avery said, tossing her blonde hair almost hard enough to bounce her skull off the wall. "He's a c-criminal. The state cops are on their way to get him."
Mary let go of John's hands and turned, taking a quick step forward to stand almost nose to nose with the other woman, who stood several inches shorter than her, even in her fancy heels.
"You have no proof, and the two of you ain't cops. Just a couple of drunks."
She stared into Avery's watery blue eyes, feeling a moment's savage glee when Avery looked away.
Merle stepped between the two of them, bumping Avery's slight frame backward with his meaty bulk, towering over Mary, his hand resting lightly on the handle of the revolver that had migrated from the desk into the front of his dirty jeans.
He made no argument, only presenting his closed off body language and hardened glare to get his point across: No one was getting past him.
"Mom?" John said, sounding almost alive.
Mary turned to answer him, and Merle chose the same moment to try pulling the gun from his belt, struggling as it caught on the inside of his pants.
John placed his hands gently against the inside of the cell door and began pushing, without any noticeable exertion.
The sound of the steel latch first bending and then breaking was strangely amplified in the small hallway, and Merle made the wise decision to leave the gun in his pants, backstepping almost quickly enough to crush Avery against the wall before turning the corner and back out into the office area.
John stepped through the newly opened cell door, and Mary shrank away to let him pass.

-

Abe couldn't hear much from outside, but he jumped to his feet as the shrieking protest of tortured steel began to come from inside the office, feeling sure that gunshots would quickly follow.
Instead, he heard the sound of a couple of drunken voices being raised, and he quickly debated whether or not to re-involve himself in the drama.
He had just reached for the door knob when it turned, the door opening easily.
Abe backed up to let Mary walk by, followed closely by John, who closed the door behind him with minimal effort.
As she passed, the woman made fearful eye contact with him, and Abe was suddenly unsure which of them was leading.
"Hey, John," He said, without hesitating.
The dead boy turned.
"Hey, Abe. We're headed... home. You... coming?"
Abe glanced at John's mother, who nodded, her eyes still wide.
"Sure, man. Got any burgers?" Abe said, trying to keep his voice light.
Whatever had happened in the office had made Mary afraid, and he had no intention of making it worse.
John made that strange laughing sound, and they began walking away, with Abe casting several backward glances, sure they would soon be followed.


VI
-
Abe followed along for a few blocks, then stopped short.
"Wait, they still think he killed the sheriff," He said.
"He didn't do it," Mary replied, her tone becoming rapidly hostile.
"I don't think so either," Abe replied, his tone gentle, "But if we're heading to your house after breaking him out of jail, that's the first place they're going to look. Do you want to see more of what happened earlier?"
Mary nodded, more to acknowledge his point than to agree with him.
"Where can we hide? Your place?" She asked.
Abe shook his head.
"The second place they'll look. I was pretty much arm in arm with him all day."
There was another reason he didn't want to mention, but Mary thankfully didn't pursue it.
The vast array of potentially offensive horror memorabilia all over his trailer would not have won him any points with her, although he didn't think John would care.
While the two of them spoke, he stood passively a few feet away from them, seemingly enthralled by his reflection in the shattered windshield of a mostly wrecked car.
Abe thought for a moment.
There weren't any places in town that they wouldn't be noticed, especially once the two idiots in the sheriff's office regained their wits, and he was fairly sure that Mary lacked the ability to fully leave the town.
To his knowledge, she had all but abandoned her home and job in order to more fully serve that crazy old bat at the church.
 He turned  nearly a full circle on his heels, looking at the mismatched and worn out buildings around them, when inspiration struck.
"That old fast food place, it's been out of business forever. You could sneak in and hide out for a while, until you work out a plan to get out of town."
Mary laughed, a sound that was almost completely devoid of humor.
"I can't leave this place any more than you can. But that's a start."
The three of them walked without speaking again, avoiding what few people were still out.
For once, Abe considered the lack of streetlights on the main road a good thing, as most people had already retired to wherever they called home.
When they reached the dead restaurant, Abe stepped over the fallen fencing around to the back, avoiding the now sinister-looking playground equipment.
He tried tugging on a few of the boards fastened over the spaces where windows had been, with little success. Whoever had been in charge of sealing up the place when the last of the tables and chairs had been carted away had done an unfortunately thorough job.
"That... one." John said, pointing at a smaller board that had been set at about waist height.
Abe pulled on the board gently, and it swung away from the wall easily, exposing near pitch blackness within.
He looked up and saw what he'd expected, that three of the four fastening screws had been removed at some point.
"How did you know that was open?" Mary asked.
Abe turned in time to see John do a rough approximation of a shrug.
"I just... knew."
Abe shrugged in response.
"Makes about as much sense as anything else that happened today. Come on, give me your hand. I get the feeling we're both going to have to help him through."

Once the three of them were inside, Abe looked around, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the dark.
In one corner, he found a pile of cardboard arranged in a rough pallet, with crude drawings in a child's hand on both walls near it.
Large pairs of drooping breasts stood, apparently doing battle with an army of phalluses approaching on their left flank.
Abe lifted one corner of the cardboard and found another thing he had expected, an ancient pornographic magazine that was thankfully only wet with mold, laying on top of a more modern flashlight.
He turned on the light and flipped through the magazine idly, giving John and his mother a bit of space, then poked around what had formerly been a kitchen area.
Besides rusted pipes and cast off wiring, there wasn't much left in the place.
He went over to the restroom door and tried opening it, but was stopped after only moving it a few inches, apparently blocked from inside.
He decided there wasn't anything in there he needed to see, and walked back over to his two co-conspirators.
"The place is empty, if not clean," Abe said.
"It's definitely not the Hilton," Mary said, and surprised them all by laughing, a real laugh with only a slight tinge of hysteria to it. "But what do I do with him now? What can we do?"
 "Do you have any money saved? A car?"
Mary shook her head.
"I spent everything I had over the past year, trying to make it up to her for getting hurt at his... funeral."
"Why did you want to make it up to her?" Abe asked, the question slipping out before he could stop himself. "She was being a real bitch at that funeral."
Mary wrapped her arms around herself as though she were cold, although the temperature hadn't yet dropped to its desert night lows.
"I felt bad. I spent a lot of time ignoring the people I hurt before we came here, and I guess i thought, maybe this was God's way of letting me make up for it?"
"And that old lady manipulated you. The whole town. Started calling herself a Priestess and giving out that weird ass drink."
She jerked as though he had struck her when he mentioned the strange brew, but Abe didn't push it.
"Another reason I can't go anywhere." Mary whispered. "I came all the way out to the middle of nowhere just to find my same old self."
Abe pondered what she could mean by that, but didn't ask. Much like the restroom door, he probably didn't want to know what was behind it.
"That old lady passes a collection plate, right? Maybe you could get that money and get out of town."
"I would be stealing from a church!" She protested.
"I'm sure God wouldn't mind, if He saw what she'd done to the place," Abe pointed out.
John startled them both by interrupting.
"Do you guys... think there's... any food here?"
Abe glanced at where John stood, almost perfectly still, only illuminated by faint moonlight from outside.
"Do you actually need to eat?" He asked.
"I... don't. But it... feels good. Feels... alive."
Abe couldn't think of a response for that.
Behind him, he heard Mary take a deep, steadying breath.
"We all need to get out of here. Far away from this toxic little town." Mary said, her voice almost confident.
Abe thought it over, the idea of leaving with John and his mother, just loading up and putting it all in the rearview.
He had moved to the middle of nowhere with both parents as a younger teenager, then stayed behind when they split up and moved away, never sure why he had done so.
He was only mildly surprised to realize that he had no great love for the town or its people.
Mary saw the realization in his eyes and gripped his shoulder, her eyes alight in a way they hadn't been before.
"You can come with us, Abe. John likes you, and I'll never forget that you were the first person he came to find when he woke up. I'll do it, I'll empty the collection box and take off with the two of you. Hell, you two can have bunk beds wherever we end up."
Abe felt strangely flattered, and he smiled at her.
She seemed to take this as agreement, and she embraced him for a short moment, her thin body already seeming to shake with anticipation.
"So... no food?" John asked.

-
Mary set out after embracing John for much longer than she had hugged Abe.
He bore this stoically, not seeming to notice her arms around him and simply standing with his own arms at his sides.
She had looked up into his torn face once more, then left, walking swiftly down the road to the church.
Her high from the God's Love had faded much earlier, and she could already feel the shakes setting in, making her twitch as she walked.
She walked with her arms wrapped tightly around herself, fighting against the surge of pain in her torso that always seemed to follow her coming down.
She staggered once or twice on the way, but still managed to keep her purposeful stride.
She would empty the cash box, steal everything the Priestess had taken in exchange for selling her own image of God's Words, gather up whatever few belongings she had in the church, and be gone before the old woman even woke up.
Mary knew first hand how hard it was to awaken from the sleep of God's Love, and she doubted any noise she could make would be enough to rouse the Priestess.
She pushed open the heavy doors without struggling, as she normally did, letting them boom shut behind her as she moved down the aisle between the pews.
She broke into a light jog about halfway down, then forced herself to stop as she reached the door to the old woman's room, absently wiping at her sweaty face with one shaky hand.
The door was never locked, much like the doors into the church.
The old woman seemed to have far too much faith in the fear of the people she had ensnared.
It made Mary's job easier, and she walked in without issue, stepping lightly out of habit.
The room was still dimly lit by a candle on the night stand, and the old woman lay on her bed with one arm thrown over her upper face, her mouth open and snoring in a distinctly unlovely fashion.
Mary paused, staring at the woman.
She had been her main companion for most of a year now, bathing and cleaning and massaging and even changing the old woman on days when her joints were too bad for her to do it herself.
Yet so much had changed when the old woman had denied Mary's son in the house of god, calling him a liar and a charlatan and a monster, proclaiming him to be nothing more than a con artist in a mask.
Mary stepped over to the old woman's bed, tempted for a moment to simply stuff one of the unnecessary number of pillows on the bed down the old bitch's throat and be done with it.
She was unconsciously reaching for one when a glimmer of light caught the corner of her eye, and she looked up to see the drinking bowl still sitting on the table, its silver edge gleaming in the soft light.
She was conflicted for a moment, then clasped her hands to her stomach as a rolling joint of pain struck her torso, almost driving her to her knees.
First God's Love, then gather her things and the money and get out of here.
The old woman didn't have much left in her tank anyway.
Mary walked over and lifted the bowl, getting what felt like half a swallow, before the old woman suddenly spoke.

-
"She returns," The Priestess said, sitting up in her bed.
The foolish girl froze with the bowl to her lips, then slowly lowered it.
"Where did you go, my child?" The Priestess asked, her voice all honey and venom.
Instead of telling her, Mary placed the bowl on the table.
"I'm not your child, you old bitch." Mary said.
The Priestess recoiled as if slapped.
"You dare, You dare to curse me in God's house?" She asked.
Mary ignored her, walking over to pick up a pair of sensible shoes she'd left in the corner of the room, then bending to pick up a light cardigan.
"You will answer me, in His name!" The Priestess commanded.
"I went to find my son, and I found him, and I'm leaving this place with him tonight," Mary spat, picking her purse off of where it hung on the edge of the Priestess's bed.
"And I'm taking the fucking cash box."
"My child, this is simply God testing your faith! It is an unforgivable sin to steal from His house, where He loves you as a guest and as his own blood!"
The Priestess noticed a slight drop in confidence in the younger woman's movements as she gathered her things, so she kept talking, picking away at her resolve.
 "That monster is not your son, he is simply a deceiver and a destroyer," She went on, throwing back the blankets over her lower body.
"He has only come to spew forth his acid tongue and break you away from God's Love,"
It was a calculated blow, but it worked.
Mary froze in what she was doing and turned to drink from the bowl again, her shaky hands giving her trouble as she lifted it.
The Priestess slid off her bed and moved across the room far more quickly than Mary or anyone else in town had seen her move, picking up her cane as she passed.
Mary had time to lower the bowl and give a questioning look, just before the heavy brass handle of the Priestess's cane collided with her temple.
She dropped to the floor, spilling the bowl and its contents all over the carpet.
Mary reached out slowly for the bowl and had just touched the edge when the cane struck her again, this time in the small of her back.
She opened her mouth in a soundless scream, her body arching in pain.
"I have spared the rod for long enough, my child," The Priestess said, kicking the bowl aside to squat easily in front of Mary.
"You have proven time and again that your faith and loyalty are fickle things, that your soul can be bought by anyone who knows the price of it. I did my best in His name, but this last betrayal is too great to be borne!"
Mary's head rolled bonelessly on her neck as she tried to focus, but the blow to her head had done its job.
She tried to sit up several times, each time sliding back to the floor and making doglike whimpers of pain.
"It is not for me to choose, my child. I will leave the decision to Him whether or not you shall be cast out of His home!"
As the Priestess watched, Mary's eyes snapped into near focus, and she managed to mouth two words through her pain, her body still too damaged to push sound through her vocal cords.
Fuck Him, Mary's lips said.
The Priestess recoiled, her face contorted with anger.
"Have it your way then, child. You have rebuked God's Love, but still He offers it to you, as he does all his children. I am simply the messenger, born to show you the way and deliver His Love."
The Priestess walked over to her nightstand and opened the lower drawer, collecting a bottle of some clear liquid and a brick of thick white powder before walking back to where Mary still lay.
She began pouring the strong smelling liquid into the drinking bowl, emptying the large bottle.
Once it was empty, she did the same with the powder, crumbling the brick into the bowl until the mixture nearly touched the rim.
"Here it is, child." The Priestess said, jerking Mary into a sitting position against the wall.
"Here is God's Love, made to fill you up."
Mary's eyes widened as the old woman brought the bowl to her mouth.
She only managed to say "Esther-" before the Priestess began pouring, and the world began turning gray around her.

-
In the restaurant, John jerked as though being electrocuted. Abe, who had been dozing in a corner, jumped to his feet just as John went to his knees, his head tilted back as though someone had ahold of his chin.
In the dark, Abe could only see his silhouette, but that was enough to fill him with fear.
"John? You okay?"
The dead boy didn't seem to be able to respond.
Abe turned the flashlight on and pointed it at the floor near John, feeling a strange reluctance to look him in the face.
John made several choked sounds deep in his throat, as though trying to swallow some large object, then slumped to the floor.
"John?" Abe called again, feeling helpless.
The dead boy didn't move.
Abe steeled his nerves and walked over to where he had fallen, now mostly hidden in a pool of darkness.
Abe shined the light directly on John, revealing his open and unblinking eyes, and his parchment-dry lips moving soundlessly, appearing to try and speak without sound.
As he watched, a tear made of some ugly, viscous material crept from the corner of John's eye, followed the path of his nose, then fell off onto the floor.
"John? I need you to answer me."
John remained as he was, perfectly still aside from his lips, which remained moving in some silent recitation.
They remained this way for a while, Abe was never sure for how long.
Around ten minutes in, the small flashlight flickered and went on, and no matter what Abe did, he could not resurrect the light.

"She's almost here." John said, no trace of a slur in his voice.
"Who? Your mom?" Abe asked, not sure how he'd react if someone else had found them.
Instead of answering, John stood and walked back towards the window they had entered through, seeming unbothered by the lack of light.
He stood there for several minutes, and Abe pressed the button on the flashlight several times with no luck.
In time, Abe became aware of a scraping sound, as though someone were walking along the outside of the building with their body sliding against the wall, amplified in the otherwise total silence.
The scraping stopped, and he dimly saw the board over the window twitching, like a toddler pulling at their parent's clothing.
John pushed the board hard enough to break the final screw and send the heavy plank tumbling into the weed choked back lot, narrowly missing a slender figure Abe could vaguely see in the moonlight.
The figure put one hand on the edge of the window, and John pulled his mother through easily, her bare feet flailing gently as she attempted to help.
"John?" Mary said, her voice sounding small and unsure.
The dead boy held his mother like she must have once held him, looking down into her pale and sweaty face.
"Is she okay?" Abe asked, dumping out the batteries in the flashlight before rubbing them against his shirt and putting them back in, trying again to bring the light back to life.
To his surprise, the beam shone out brightly when he pressed the button, and he trained it on John and his mother.
By the light's glow, he could easily see the answer to his question.
"Oh, man," Abe said as he took in her condition.
Mary's face and exposed skin had become the color of old chalk, aside from a bluish tint on her lips and eyelids.
As he watched, she slowly lifted one arm to wrap around John's neck, and Abe could see the same bruise-like tint beneath her fingernails.
"We need to get her to a hospital, John, right away!"
Mary shook her head without opening her eyes, weakly struggling in John's arms.
"No... hospital. No... cops."
Abe froze at the sound of her speaking in the same patterns as her dead son.
John slid down against the wall to a sitting position, still holding his mother like an overgrown toddler who had exhausted their strength at play, his bad leg seeming to be no trouble for once.
The flashlight flickered again and died, and Abe was suddenly struck by the urge to throw it as hard as he could.
"I know... what this is. Done it... twice before. But I don't think... I'm coming back... from this one." Mary spoke as though every word carried some unimaginable weight, and her strength was rapidly fading, this one coming out as a soft movement of her lips with a whisper between them.
John adjusted one arm so his mother's head was on his shoulder, rocking slightly.
At some point, she managed to reach one hand up and lay it gently on the side of his face, in one of the only places that didn't have staples or damage.
"It's okay." He told her, moving so that none of the metal zippers on his jacket were digging into her skin.
Abe didn't really think it mattered at this point, and he felt himself starting to grey out again, sliding down to the floor beside them instead of trying to fight it.
"What... comes... next?" Mary whispered.
For a long time, John didn't respond, the three of them sitting in the dark with only Mary's erratic breathing to break the silence.
"You'll love... it." He finally said. "It's rest. We all get... to rest. No... judgment. No pain. Just all the... best memories. As far as the eye can see."
There was more, but Abe could never seem to remember what had been said.
As far as he could tell, Mary's last words weren't words at all, just a low hum from between her lips as she tried to agree with something John had said.
hmmmmm.
John kept talking, in his dragging and strained way, until her hand dropped from his face.
Abe had no idea what to say, and he stayed quiet as the dead boy lowered his head over Mary's body, still rocking slightly.
For a long time, there was nothing but the two dead people and Abe, silent again in the dark.

-
At some point, Abe dozed off with his own tears drying on his cheeks, but was awakened by the sound of movement in the dark.
Before he could call out, he felt strong hands encircle his wrists, jerking him forward into a sitting position.
"Wha-" He began, but the word died in his throat as he saw how John had changed.
Up close in the moonlight, he could see dark blood leaking from the holes in the dead boy's face, along with fluids of various colors.
Deep in some of the wounds, he could see the off white of exposed bone, and the line of staples holding his jaw together had come undone, turning his lower face into an obscene, flapping horror as he spoke.
"I need to show you, Abe. Need to show you."
Without warning, John pressed his damaged and bleeding forehead to Abe's, forcing an automatic gag of revulsion from his throat as he felt the slick warmth dripping down his face.
Warmth? He thought.
Then he was gone.

There was a sensation of rapid movement, although the feeling of the ground never left his back and legs, and Abe sat up feeling as though he had traveled some unimaginable distance without moving a single inch.
In a way, he had.
Above him, the sun shone with all the fire and fury of a summer day in the desert, but he could not feel its heat.
He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and opened them again, but the scenery didn't change.
"Strange, isn't it?" John asked.
Abe flinched and nearly fell over, but the other boy steadied him with a laugh.
a living laugh.
"John? Where are we? Am I..." Abe trailed off, afraid to finish his question.
"Nah, you're not really dead, just kinda dead. Dead enough to talk to me where I am, which suits our purpose. Sometimes coma patients show up here, and boy, is that a treat. Let me tell you, you've seen one pair of white guy butt cheeks in a hospital gown, you've seen 'em all!"
John let out another of those strange living laughs, and Abe gathered the courage to look at him.
When he did, he let out a gasp of surprise.
John looked perfectly there, all of his wounds and injuries gone as though they'd never been, torn flesh and gaping holes that might have been from a dream he'd had as a child.
To Abe's eyes, he looked somehow more present, more there.
This was how John had looked for his best hour on the best day of his life, and Abe could scarcely stand to look at him directly, focusing off at a point behind him.
Some distance away, the flat desert was broken up by a single hill thrusting rudely into the sky, in protest of the emptiness surrounding it.
"Are we where I think we are?" Abe asked.
"This ain't Las Vegas, kiddo." John replied. "But your own mind is usually responsible for the surroundings. I really can't see all that much around us."
As Abe watched, ugly buildings the size of toddler playhouses began to rise from the earth, completely silent as they grew like massive weeds.
He recognized the trailer that housed the sheriff's office, the diner where he had been working at the start of this endless day, and even a few shapes he supposed were meant to be cars, all growing in miniature around them.
Much the same way that John was vibrantly there, these buildings looked better than they ever had before, gleaming and new in spite of their scavenged and crude aesthetic.
Abe turned towards where the church should be and caught a glimpse of some unimaginable darkness floating in a cloud in the same spot, looking like a child's hand had simply scribbled out a part of the world with a crayon, before John's hand gently turned his face away.
"Get thee behind me, man." John said. "You don't want to look down that way, especially not at night."
"But it's not-" Abe began, then noticed how his shadow had grown, stretching out before him.
"Time is different here," John said, "It's the measurement between two events, but when all your events are used up, what can ya do?"
"Why did we come here?" Abe asked. "When can I go back?"
"You're not asking the right question, buddy." John replied, a touch of irritation in his tone.
"What's the right question?" Abe asked, but John simply shook his head in his peripheral vision.
"There are rules to this shit, I can't just give you everything. Spoiler alert!" John laughed again.
Abe took a second, mulling it over.
As he watched, his shadow stealthily grew by a few inches.
What could be so important that he needed to know?
Was he supposed to ask what came when he died?
Perhaps the point was that the entire situation had nothing to do with him, that he was only supposed to learn something to share with someone else.
"Bingo," John said, startling him. "But it has a lot to do with you. It's why I could only come to you first."
"I know what I need to ask," Abe said.
John bowed at the waist, a flourishing movement that reminded Abe of movies he'd seen with butlers.
"Your wish is my command, man."
Abe took a deep breath, then spoke.
"What happened to the sheriff?"
John smiled, and Abe saw his shadow shrink in response.
There was a feeling like someone had jerked him by the back of his belt, and suddenly the two of them were standing on top of the hill Abe had noticed, looking out at a sea of pristine white headstones.
He stopped to read one and was surprised to find that he couldn't despite the name being written in plain english.
The words somehow kept slipping away.
"Trade secrets, Abe," John explained. "There's a lot in here that are still walking around town. Look."
John pointed across the cemetery, where a thin white arm had suddenly burst from beneath a grave.
As they watched, a figure clawed his way out, and Abe knew who it was before he saw the figure's face: John, as damaged and dirty as he'd appeared at the beginning of the day.
"Guy's got taste," John noted, as the corpse ditched the suit jacket he'd been buried in and shrugged on the leather jacket.
The figure began lurching across the cemetery, seeming to be led by some internal compass.
"Listen, man. I hope you get that that guy down there... He's not all the way me." John said, his voice suddenly pensive.
The two of them watched as a police cruiser grew from the earth and a figure stepped out, a lean man in a brown uniform.
The sheriff held his hands out like he was aiming a gun and pointed at the lurching corpse.
He yelled something, and the corpse walked over to him.
"That's my body, but I'm not really in the driver's seat. I had to give permission and go along, but that's it. I'm just kinda being a tool in a gardener's hand, you know?"
In front of them, the sheriff continued speaking, then lowered his gun.
It seemed important that Abe acknowledged John's words, so he turned to look fully into his friend's face, ignoring the sensation that felt exactly like when he'd stared into the sun as a kid.
"I've always known you were just a tool, buddy."
John laughed easily and clapped one hand to Abe's shoulder, and at the same moment, there was the roar of a gunshot.
Abe stared into the cruiser, where the sheriff's form now sat with most of his head missing and his chin angled up, as though something were beneath it.
The corpse was nowhere to be seen.
"So you didn't kill him," He finally managed to say.
"Ten points for Captain Obvious." John replied, his dry tone reminiscent of many days they'd spent in class.
"Then what happened?" Abe asked.
"He asked the right question. You know he had a dead wife, right?"
Abe nodded, still staring at the cruiser.
As he watched, the sheriff stepped out, his head fully intact, leaving a dense shadow in the driver's seat.
The sheriff wandered off into the distance, disappearing over the curve of the hill.
"Can I ask you a favor, Abe?" John asked.
"Do I have a choice?" He replied warily.
"We all have free will, I promise you that." John replied, and for a moment his voice seemed to double, as though two sets of voices were speaking through his mouth.
Abe took this as steadily as he could.
"What's the favor?"
"Take care of my mom's body. They're never gonna get mine back, not after what's coming, so my grave will be left open. Just don't leave her in that old burger pit alone. She lived too much of her life that way."
Abe nodded, glancing up at the sky just in time to see the last of the sun disappear over the horizon.
He turned and saw that all of John's wounds had reappeared, the dead boy looking at him steadily through clouded and sunken eyes, and felt a chill run through his body.
"One more thing," John said, gripping Abe's shoulders tightly, his head dipping in as though to rip out Abe's throat with his teeth.
Instead of attacking, John began to whisper, and the false world around them decayed and disappeared as quickly as it had come.

-
Abe's legs kicked weakly at the restaurant floor as John spoke, his eyes rolling and unfocused like a scared animal.
He whimpered and whined, but the dead boy still held him close, hardly slowing down his speech even when Abe's bladder let go and the yellow smell of urine began to fill the room.


VII
-
At some point, Abe's unconsciousness turned into real sleep, and he awoke hours later to a thin ray of afternoon sunlight falling perfectly across his eyes.
He sat up and winced at the pain in his back and neck from slumping against the wall, then quickly ignored those minor annoyances in favor of the waves of pain coming up from his left leg.
He was too afraid to look for several minutes, but managed to force himself to roll up his pant leg, wincing at the smell of piss, and see what was wrong.
Nothing.
His leg looked fine externally, and he rolled it around experimentally to see if he'd broken anything in the previous night's excitement.
Again, nothing.
Strangely enough, he couldn't remember much of what had happened the previous night.
He looked around for John, but the dead boy was nowhere to be seen.
He felt an unexplained wave of fear as he thought of his old friend, and wondered where it had come from. The last thing he could remember was John sitting and rocking there in the corner with-
Abe peeked at the place he remembered John sitting, caught a glimpse of a pair of lady's shoes with the lady's legs still in them, the skin of her exposed shins turning an ugly purplish color on the side closest to the floor, where her blood had no doubt been pooling as her body went about the business of death.
He felt the sudden urge to look into her eyes and see what was there, but he jerked his attention away before anything happened he could not take back.

-
Merle awoke with a start, as he usually did, rising to a sitting position and throwing half of a punch before reality reasserted itself, and he opened his eyes to see the plain old sheriff's office around him, nonthreatening and mundane.
Beside him, positioned in a way that clearly suggested they'd fallen asleep on somewhat intimate terms, Avery snored on, her brain apparently no quite ready for the hangover Merle now felt.
The sunlight pouring in through the small window was already too much, and the mere thought of stepping outside sent shudders of revulsion through him.
He tried to turn over onto all fours, nearly toppled into a stuck tortoise position, then got to his feet with the help of all four limbs and the edge of Avery's desk.
He staggered towards the closet that passed for a restroom in the sheriff's office, hitching at his poorly fitting jeans as he went, then managed to drop to his knees in time to keep most of his vomit inside the toilet bowl.
He took in the sight of blood mixed with everything else his body had rejected with indifferent eyes.
Whatever was bleeding inside him was just another thing he never wanted to know about.
He puked again, then fought his way back to a standing position and rinsed his mouth in the sink, wincing as the cold water hit an exposed nerve from a tooth he had broken at some point.
He considered taking a quick bird bath in the restroom sink, then decided against it.
Instead, he drank water from his cupped hands, fighting back his gag reflex long enough to keep it down.
When he walked back out into the office, Avery was sitting up and looking around in a way that said she wasn't actually seeing anything, her eyes squinted most of the way shut.
"You look worse than I feel," She commented, her voice raspy.
"I can smell your breath from here," Merle replied, walking across the room and offering her a hand.
She took it and rose to a standing position just long enough to fall into her desk chair.
"I thought you did this a lot, Merle. You should be used to it."
"You never get used to it, you just learn to live with it."
She considered this, then slowly laid her forehead on the cool wood of her desk.
"I'm gonna check on the weirdo. Had a weird dream that he broke out somehow," Merle said, taking a few experimental steps.
His balance held, surprisingly.
As he rounded the corner, he heard Avery's voice behind him.
"I think I had the same dream. Weird, huh?"

-
Esther was usually awake for hours by the time most of the people in town were just getting out of bed, and today was no different.
She had slept for a few hours after the foolish girl had staggered off, secure in the knowledge that God's Love would still her voice before she ever found anyone to tell about her experience, her wrinkled hands clasped tightly on her chest.
In the way of the elderly, Esther could not sleep for long, and she rose before the sun did, scrubbing at the carpeted floor of her quarters to get rid of the overpowering smell of the mixture that had spilled on the floor while she gave the girl her drink.
She did as much as she could, and the room began to smell like lemon pledge and God's Love together, instead of only smelling like God's Love.
She hummed as he worked, her arthritis for once giving her no issues as she set about cleaning in His house, and she was not surprised to find herself singing aloud after a while.
Something about serving Him had always been good for her, both body and soul.
Her harsh and braying voice rang out in the small room as she slowly purged any sign that Mary had ever been here.

-
Dennis awoke in total silence, feeling a not-quite-comfortable chill nibble at his exposed feet, and he weighed his options for what felt like a long time before getting out of his racecar bed.
Finally, the need to use the toilet outweighed the need to stay in bed, and he carefully tiptoed down the hall to the sliding door that led into the restroom.
Thankfully, it was left partially open, and he managed to squeeze in without moving it, although there was a scary moment when the belt loop on his jeans caught on an exposed screw.
He managed to reach back and free himself, then used the toilet as quietly as possible.
As he held out one hand to lower the toilet seat, it slipped from his hand and clattered loudly against the porcelain, shattering the silence.
He prayed to no one in particular for one second that no one had heard, but it was too much to ask.
There were the sound of heavy footsteps, and the sound of his mother's bedroom door opening.
He saw his fatal mistake as the bathroom door slid open behind him, and he reached for the toilet's flush handle a split second too late.
A heavy, calloused hand collided with the nape of his neck, and Dennis fell into a heap between the tub and the toilet.
"How many times, boy? How many times I told you not to make no noise when I'm sleepin'?"
The voice was raw and angry, a different voice from the man who had been here last week, but Dennis was too rattled to make a comment on it.
"And you didn't even flush the fucker! I work all day and pay the bills just for you to think you're too good to flush?"
Dennis braced himself, and a bare foot collided with his midsection, forcing what felt like all the air in his body out through his mouth in a harsh exhale.
"Rick! Rick, come back to bed, sweetie." His mother's voice sounded spacey, unconcerned.
Rick cocked back his foot again thoughtfully, then decided against kicking Dennis again.
"Git up, boy. You got chores to do, and we got church later."
 
-
Mary did not wake up.
She continued to lay as she had throughout the night, watching with uninterested eyes as the world went on without her.
At last, she could see every answer to every question, every path and every possibility laid before her.
It didn't seem like much, definitely not worth the problems people made for themselves in the living world, but of course now she could afford to be judgmental.
All her clocks had stopped, her calendar forever reset to no day in particular in the year of who gives a fuck.
She could dimly feel as the blood in her body fell to her lowest point, as her muscles became locked and rigid, raising her head off the floor and bowing her spine slightly.
She could feel the call of whatever came next becoming impatient behind her, but she stayed behind as long as she was able, taking in all the sights she could.
She had a feeling that her son had gotten lucky in coming back, and that this would be the last of the living world for her.
Mary drank in the sight of the world she was leaving,
and if she could have wept, she would have.

-
John sat hidden beneath a tree behind the church, alternating between waiting and listening to the Voice as it told him what everyone in town was doing.
He occasionally touched the gory mask that he face had become, blood and pieces of flesh slowly falling in a constant, grotesque rain, glad his mother hadn't seen him that way.
The Voice had shown her mercy in that, at least.
The feeling of the Voice was strange, like a person standing too close and whispering in your ear but somehow from within your body, their left hand tightly wrapped around your beating heart.
John was aware on some dim level that he was not fully in control of his own body, but also knew that the Voice could not get him to do anything he did not agree to, and the awareness gave him comfort.
In the time since he had been reawoken, he had eaten, but it had tasted like ash in his mouth.
He had drank water, but felt no hydration from it, it simply sat somewhere inside of him, sloshing uncomfortably when he moved.
He had even tried sleeping against the wall of the dead restaurant, but it had given him no rest.
Despite being in the living world, he was nowhere near it, and he would've wept if his eyes still functioned that well.
Instead, he could see only through a dark grey haze, acting and reacting purely based on what the Voice showed him, watching the world through Its descriptions.
He felt some hesitance at the idea of entering the church, felt sure that he would absolutely be rebuked by whatever force was there, but the Voice said it had to be done.
Unconsecrated, the Voice whispered from inside him, and he felt his body try to shiver.
I'm not sure I can do this, John thought, knowing it was useless to protest.
You will do this, the Voice replied, sounding as assured as a disembodied sound was capable.
These people think I'm a monster.
You are. My monster.

John tried to shiver again, and from somewhere inside him, the Voice laughed without humor.

An hour or so later, the Voice showed him the drunks who had taken over the sheriff's office run outside, apparently trying to look in all directions at once.
They yelled at each other for getting drunk and falling asleep, then finally tried to call in some real cops, only to get no answer, the phone completely dead.
John felt sure the Voice had interfered somehow, but did not ask.
The drunks decided to go back out to the cemetery and recover the shotgun from the sheriff's cruiser, and John winced from the mental image the Voice gave him, a picture of the Sheriff's corpse, all bloated and covered in flies and beginning to rot.
John turned his attention back to the church, and the woman inside.
He couldn't feel any anger for the Priestess, even though she had murdered his mother and poisoned the town for far longer than she would've gotten away with anywhere else.
The Voice somehow blocked those feelings from within, and John only felt a sense of emptiness where his thoughts touched her.
Soon, the Voice told him, and he listened.

-
After a while, Abe could stay in the restaurant no longer, not with the corpse seeming to look directly at him no matter where in the room he stood.
He knew it was a terrible idea, but he wanted to go home and have some tiny moment of normalcy, or at the very least get out of his piss stained clothes.
He got up and went to leave through the open window, then turned back.
Without thinking about it, he dragged the piece of cardboard over Mary's body, feeling a strange sense of obligation.
Once finished, he turned and climbed through the window, landing awkwardly on the cracked pavement.
He looked around and didn't see anything out of order, then walked around the corner of the building to where he could see the main road.
No one appeared to be out and about, which wasn't unheard of for this late in the afternoon, but the strange chill in the air had no right to be there, and he crossed his arms over his chest for warmth.
He took a few steps out towards the street and looked down towards the diner, and the sheriff's office beyond.
The cruiser wasn't in the spot it had been parked last night, and he felt that it was a sign he should take his chances on getting home.
He wasn't sure how much Merle and Avery remembered of the night before, but Abe did not want to find out, especially without John nearby and a dead body in the building he'd spent the night in.
He took off at a brisk walking pace, wincing at the fading pain in his leg and resisting the urge to look around and seeing if anyone was noticing him, which was sure to get him noticed.
He took a right at the town's only cross street, where only a few blocks would bring him down to the decrepit trailer park he called home.
As he made the turn, he caught a glimpse of sunlight reflecting off of glass in the distance, in the wrong direction to be coming from the highway.
He squinted, which didn't make his vision any better, but he did pick out the glint of a rack of lights on the roof of the far off car, which made it more than likely the sheriff's cruiser.
He picked up his pace as much as he could without his leg giving out on him, gritting his teeth against the pain.

His trailer wasn't terribly far into the trailer park, which sprawled over nearly two acres, but he was still panting and red in the face by the time he reached the steps leading up to his front door.
He pulled his mostly empty key ring from his pocket and opened the door.
He caught a glimpse of a figure when the door opened, grotesque and misshapen with arms out and reaching for his throat, and flinched hard enough to nearly fall over the short railing and into the dirt below.
He managed to stop himself and take a second look, where the late afternoon sun revealed the figure to be nothing more than Frankenstein's Monster a la Boris Karloff, blown up to nearly life sized and affixed to his wall.
He had placed the poster there as a goof when he had first moved in, gleefully showing off in the first home he could call his own, but today seemed to be the worst day possible for any jump scares.
There was real fear to be felt, a strange tension carried on the unseasonable cold wind, coiling at the nape of his neck like a venomous snake waiting to strike.
He walked inside the simple trailer, feeling the stress that had followed him since John had shown up in the diner begin to release as he found himself back on familiar ground.
His knees unlocked and he nearly buckled, but instead recollected himself and walked down the hallway to his meager bedroom-living room-kitchen area, passing rows of movie monsters in various arrangements along the walls, stopping to pat a three foot bust of an alien in place of honor beside his bed.
He gathered a change of clothes, not really paying attention enough to make fashion decisions but just enough to avoid picking out a pair of shorts, which would not do well in that strange wind.
He pulled aside the loose curtain that hung in the doorway of the small alcove that passed for his bathroom, stripping and tossing clothes haphazardly into the bedroom area, then got into the shower, clenching his teeth against the momentarily freezing water when it hit his skin.

-
Outside the trailer,  the spare police cruiser rolled to a stop, and Merle got out without turning off the engine.
Avery got out from the other side, crossing her arms against the cold.
"You sure he's in there?" She asked.
"No, but those two freaks spent all day yesterday damn near arm in arm, and we already know he ain't working the diner today. It's a good place to start looking."
They both flinched when the sound of thundering water began emanating from inside the thin walled trailer, and Avery nervously cocked the hammer on the revolver she carried once again.
"Careful with that thing, girl. You got out of hand with it yesterday, and we're lucky you only shot a guy who could take it without dying."
Merle reached back into the car to grab the shotgun they had retrieved from the sheriff's body, fighting back a groan of disgust when his hand brushed a place near the pump where the sheriff's brains had dried onto it, checking its safety with far more precise movements than Avery had shown with the revolver.
"Let's go see who's at home."
-
Abe poked his head out from behind the shower curtain nervously, sure he had just heard a car pull up outside.
When nothing happened, he chuckled to himself.
After all that had happened so quickly, he was sure he was entitled to a few frayed nerves.
He nearly had himself convinced it was nothing until he heard the sound of a shotgun pumping.
Without a moment's hesitation, he shut the water off, brushing back his still soapy hair with the palm of one hand and reaching for the boxers he had grabbed with his other hand.
He heard the sound of heavy footsteps mounting the steps outside his door, and he began frantically yanking his jeans on, sure nothing good could be on the other side of his front door.
A heavy hand knocked on the door, making the frame rattle slightly.
Abe hesitated.
The hand knocked again, and still Abe could not find it within himself to answer.
Instead of knocking a third time, a heavy boot collided with the door, breaking the cheap lock and sending it into the wall behind it nearly hard enough to slam it on the person trying to get in.
Merle stopped the door with the barrel of the shotgun, then walked inside, his movements sharp and precise as he checked the wall behind the door, the hallway, and then into the studio area.
Abe heard Avery squeak in fear when she saw the poster across from the door, and felt savage enjoyment from it.
That's what you get, He thought, yanking a loose t-shirt over his head.
"I know you're here," Merle called.
Abe narrowly avoided catching himself in his zipper, then slid the bathroom curtain back and walked out, his hands instinctively rising to shoulder level when he saw that Merle was tracking his movement with the shotgun, his cheek laid along the stock so that the barrel would follow wherever his eye went.
"Hi, guys," Abe said, looking past the two of them to where his damaged door stood.
From what he could see, the lock wasn't just broken, the damn door itself was nearly folded inward.
"I suppose you're wondering why i asked to meet you here."
Avery laughed harshly, then slapped herself on one cheek with the hand not holding a revolver, not seeming fully in control of the action.
"This ain't no time for jokes, boy," Merle growled, his bloodshot eyes glaring above his tangled mass of beard. "We need to find your freaky friend. Now, he's either here, or you know where he is. Tell us, and we can be on our way."
Abe shrugged, his hands still raised. "I haven't seen him since last night."
Merle raised the shotgun so there was no mistaking where it was pointed, and Abe swallowed hard at the sight of that black mouth gaping at the end of the barrel.
"Don't lie to me. We don't want you, you ain't nothing but a piss hole in a snowbank, but the other guy killed the sheriff, and he needs to go back into a cell."
"Did you guys call in the state cops yet?" Abe asked, not sure why it mattered.
"The phone was down," Avery said, earning a dark look of her own from Merle, who quickly turned his focus back to where Abe stood.
"Then you guys are still acting on your own. You aren't cops, and everything you've been doing is technically illegal."
"I'm a representative of the sheriff's office!" Avery said indignantly, and Abe saw a flicker of doubt in her face.
"Try that when the real cops get here, Avery. You'll be lucky not to be in a cell right next to John,"
Abe was prepared to shovel on the bullshit until he could hopefully talk his way out, but Merle chose that moment to take another step forward, his entire focus on Abe.
Merle planted his foot onto Abe's discarded shirt from the day before, and the fabric slid on the cheap linoleum floor, dropping Merle heavily to one knee.
At the same moment, there was a noise that sounded like a clap of thunder inside the tiny trailer, and the alien bust beside Abe's bed disintegrated as though crushed between a god's fist.
Holy shit, Abe tried to say, but couldn't hear himself.
He looked up and saw Avery had dropped to the floor in a ball, then looked to where Merle was still struggling to his feet, using the shotgun as a makeshift crutch.
Without pause for thought, Abe ran between them, trying to cover his vital organs with his hands as he moved.
When he made it to the door without being shot, he didn't look back, simply continuing on down the road and doing his best to ignore the pain in his leg.


VIII
-
At last, the Voice told John it was time.
He rose from his seat beneath the gnarled tree, brushing at his pants out of pure reflex.
Given where he had worn them, there was no chance of them ever being clean again.
He walked at a decent speed, not hurrying, not wasting time, and in a few seconds he was at the back door of the church.
He hesitated over the door handle, not sure what would happen when he attempted to enter the church, then simply turned the knob, breaking the simple lock and opening the door.
Surprisingly, nothing happened.
Unhallowed, The Voice whispered, and he felt his face twist in revulsion at the sound of the word.
He started to walk in, then stopped.
Without knowing why, he gathered some of the blood still endlessly leaking from his chin in his cupped palm, then slowly spread it across the top of the door frame.
There. Now he could enter.
He walked into a plain kitchen area that seemed to be mostly unused aside from a dirty microwave sitting beside a pristine stove, its door ajar and a dim light glowing from inside.
John kept walking and passed through a smaller sitting area that was probably used for bible study, then walked out into the church itself.
Its pews looked strangely lonely without anyone in them, and the podium stood empty, waiting.
There was a distinct feeling of something gathering in the large room, a moment in time that had yet to arrive, and he felt afraid of it for some formless reason.
The shadowy corners themselves seemed to be watching him, and he walked as quickly as he could, his damaged leg dragging pathways into the lush carpet.

-
Esther paused at the sound of footsteps outside her door, then carefully set the glass of wine she'd been nursing on her end table, next to the sandwich she had made herself but had no taste for.
She waited for the knock that was sure to come, arching her brows in faux annoyance and beginning to work her mouth into an uninviting frown.
Instead of a knock, the doorknob began turning.
"Who's there?" She yelled. "I'm not taking appointments, you'll get your damn brew toni-"
The door opened, surprisingly gently, and there he stood.
The con man, the liar, the deceiver who had come forth to drive fear into her flock.
She had to admit, his makeup was pretty good, and the smell of rot that followed him was a nice touch.
She supposed he kept a dead rat in his pocket, the way her pa used to when he went panhandling, so his marks would give up the cash just to drive him away.
"Esther." He said, and she frowned, not sure when he would've heard her name.
The only person who knew it was-
"Oh, did Mary send you? That lying sinner, who left here stumbling and on her way to her vices? I told her a thousand times if I told her once, she needs to get her act together in order to carry on working with me here in the church. God's love has its limits, as I'm sure you understand." Esther spoke quickly, trying to take control of the conversation before the con man had an opportunity to speak his swill.
Even knowing all the tricks, she didn't want him to have the chance to con her.
Instead of interrupting, the con man waited until she finished speaking.
"Esther... Rain... Huckitt." He said, drawing out each word, seeming to struggle with speaking clearly.
She felt a shiver in her spine as he said her full name, in the exact way her daddy had taught her to say it nearly six decades before.
As she watched, the blood he'd smeared all over his face began to drip off onto the floor, and suddenly she wasn't as confident as she had been only moments before.
Esther got to her feet as quickly as she could.
"I have no time for the likes of you, con man. Just knowing my name won't win you any points with me, and liars and thieves are unwelcome in God's house. Go back the way you came and cease your trespass."
The con man shook his head slowly, once to the left, and once to the right.
"No." He said.
"What do you mean, no?" Esther asked, her voice rising on its own. "This is my church, this is God's house, and I am telling you to leave immediately!"
"God doesn't... live here. You... cast him out. With sin."
The con man covered the space between them in a few short movements, then lifted Esther by her nightgown as easily as she might carry a newborn, holding her against the wall with no apparent effort, her feet swinging a full foot above the floor.
"You are... no Priestess." He said, and Esther could see the staples in his chin through the inside of his mouth, which was strange, since she didn't think they even made makeup that good.
From this close, she could tell the smell of rot wasn't coming from a hidden animal, but from his skin, and what she had thought was makeup was too ugly and broken and detailed to be makeup, and as she stared into his face, she saw the staples in his chin loosen and fall out, releasing the two halves of his jaw into a distorted monstrosity with a gaping hole behind it.
His lower teeth were gone, and his tongue lay dead in his mouth like a drowned animal, and the darkness in his mouth went on much too far to be real, yet still Esther held onto her denial.
She carried on trying to rationalize the horror before her even until the two halves of his jaw locked onto her face, collapsing the bones in her face easily and forcing her face into that impenetrable dark that didn't just end at the back of his throat, but went on and on infinitely, not unlike the shadows at the bottom of a grave.

-
Abe kept running until his leg completely gave out, and he fell to one knee in the dirt road while holding one hand to an aching stitch planted deep in his side.
He hadn't paid much attention to where he was running to, but he knew the area pretty much like the back of his hand, and he only had to look around for a few seconds to figure out where he was, just on the other side of a slope that climbed up towards the highway and became an emergency braking path for big rigs, which put him technically outside the town.
Strangely, the cold wind had dissipated as he ran, and he could feel himself already beginning to sweat through his shirt from the heat of the day.
He looked around for the closest source of shade, and couldn't find anything taller than a desiccated bush.
He lay flat on his back with his head beneath the bush, squinting against the rays of sun that managed to force their way through the loosely clumped branches that had at some point probably borne leaves and trying to catch his breath.
As close as he was to the highway, he didn't notice the drone of passing cars until he actively thought about it, and was surprised by how loud it was.
He felt some dim memory of it sounding just as loud in town, but felt sure he was mistaken.
He touched the top of his head, where his hair had already become completely dry, then briskly slapped himself in the cheek, once to the right and again to the left.
Abe felt off balance again for a second, but regained his focus, even managing a half smile as the stitch in his side relaxed.
He looked again towards where he knew the highway to be, considering his options.
He could do it, just walk over the next rise and onto the side of the road, where he was sure his mostly hygienic appearance could catch him a ride within only a short while.
Walking to the next town was out of the question by about fifty miles, but he felt fairly certain that some kind soul would have mercy on him.
And then? He could go anywhere. He could settle somewhere it never got as hot as it did here, where there was more people and even actual snow.
Hell, he could head out to California and meet some movie stars.
Anywhere but here, in this cast off town with its toxic people who he had never felt less attached to.
Abe was beginning to climb to his feet to take the first step towards the highway when a bolt of pain flared in his leg, dropping him to the dirt once again in writhing agony.
He screamed and flailed on the ground for what felt like several minutes, and the pain rose to an unbearable peak before cutting off all at once, as though someone had reached into his brain and flipped a switch.
He was terrified to look down at his leg, sure he had been shot or possibly even struck by lightning, but yet again, there was no visible damage.
Only his plain old leg, in one piece beneath his sweat stained blue jeans.
Abe pulled his knees into his chest and began rocking gently, wiping at tears on his cheeks that had fallen at some point in his writhing.
No, he didn't think he would be able to leave the town.
Not until whatever was going to happen was already over.

-
John flicked the switch hidden artfully behind the door of the small bedroom, and the loudspeakers around the church began to ring with the sound of bells that had no business in this town.
It was a few hours before the usual gathering of the congregation, but he was not deterred.
The people here had been trained to respond to the bells in the way of dogs trained to attack on command, and he felt his distorted face twist into a look of disgust as he thought of them, dripping more blood on the carpet, where it mixed with Esther's.
He had mostly forgotten about her, focused as he was on waiting for the Voice to give its next command, and he resisted the urge to look at what was left of her, still slumped against the wall where he had dropped her.
To look is to Sin, the Voice whispered from somewhere deep within him.
John let the bells ring out for nearly five minutes, surely awakening everyone in town, then shut them off.
Without looking, he dragged a sheet off the bed and draped it over Esther's body.
Behind him, he could sense a presence lurking in the corner of the room, staring at him with naked hate.
"You're ... dead. Dead like... me. Move on." He said, not turning around.
The presence did nothing, only continued to stare, now with a tint of confusion to it.
John tucked the sheet beneath the body, still resisting the urge to look into the pieces of its dead face, and walked out of the room, dragging the corpse behind him.

-
The congregation showed up by ones and twos, many of them still wearing their pajamas and looking confused.
Still, there was a wretched eagerness in their faces, and many of their hands were shaking, or their feet tapping quickly against the floor beneath the pews.
Dennis arrived on foot with his mother, and her boyfriend Rick not far behind them, his eyes squinted against the sun and the fading remnants of a hangover.
As his mother pulled open the heavy door, fighting against the cold wind trying to hold it shut, Dennis felt a moment's reluctance.
"Do we have to go in today?" He asked, backing away from the yawning mouth of the doorway.
"Dennis, what's the matter?" His mother asked, still holding the door open.
"I don't... It just feels weird. Different."
Sharp bristles brushed against Dennis's face, and a gravelly voice stage whispered into his ear.
"Your ass is going to feel different if you don't get it inside right now. The both of you." Rick said, his voice filled with venom.
His mother held the door for a middle aged couple to walk in ahead of them, and the gentleman of the pair gave Rick a sidelong glance as he passed.
Dennis's mother smiled at them in an apologetic, noncommittal way, then the three of them walked inside.
Dennis brushed his fingers gently against the inside of the doorjamb as he passed, not sure why.

Once they took their seats, Dennis climbed up onto his knees in the pew and looked around at the congregation.
There were more people here than he'd seen at church before, even more than he'd seen in one place in town, and still more of them gradually walked in, taking seats in the pews or standing in the back when there was no more room.
He wondered why so many were here, then remembered that the bells had rung for a long time, and probably more people had heard it than usual, or maybe just wanted to see what the noise was.
He was still looking around when he heard the sound of the Priestess's cane, thumping as it hit the stage behind the podium.
Instead of the door behind the podium opening, there was a long silence, drawn out into breathless anticipation.
Dennis felt his own breath catch in his throat, and then a monster came walking out, not from the Priestess's room, but from the other side of the podium, where the kitchen was.
As the gasps and shouts began coming from the grown ups around him, Dennis slid down into his seat, staring at the monster's torn and bleeding face as it limped onto the stage, carrying the Priestess's cane in one hand and the drinking bowl in the other, pressed loosely against his side.

-
Oh God, what am I doing? Why did I come back here? I need to get John and try to get out of town as soon as possible, this is stupid!
Abe tried his best to leave, to run, at least to hide behind something, but his feet stayed planted as they were, across the road from the church.
He watched as what looked like nearly everyone in town entered the church, trying to figure out what had brought him here.
He hadn't made a conscious decision to come back here, yet here he was, out in the open where anyone could see.
He tried looking away from the church, which he also seemed unable to do, his body beginning to tremble as he fought against whatever force was holding him in place from within.
It seemed to be mainly focused in his injured leg, extending outward and weakening as it reached his other extremities.
Abe paused in his struggle for a moment, then redoubled his efforts, actually managing to take a lurching half step before the force took hold of him again.
What is this? What's going on with me?
He heard the sound of an engine growing closer behind him, but he still could not force himself to look in another direction.

-
Merle and Avery had been ready to give up and go back to the sheriff's office to lick their wounds, accepting that the freakshow and his buddy had managed to get away from them.
Hell, they weren't cops, just a couple people under tough circumstances.
Merle knew for a fact his days of chasing and shooting were behind him, and even though Avery had been helpful, he doubted she would ever get a badge of her own in the normal scheme of things.
They had lost the kid at the end of the road, where he had jumped a fence and disappeared into someone's backyard, and neither of them felt like running and jumping would do anything to help their hangovers, which they were barely keeping at bay with liberal applications of Tylenol and sips from the sheriff's personal flask.
"Where do you think he went?" Avery asked, and Merle was in the middle of grunting out a reply when those goddamn bells began ringing at the church.
Merle had to pull the cruiser over and park it as his mainly liquid breakfast threatened to eject itself from the sheer cacophonous volume of the speakers, making his head feel like it was being crushed in a vice.
He looked to the passenger's side, where Avery had curled into a miserable ball on the seat, her knees drawn up and her hands pressing futilely against her ears.
Merle did his best to cover his own ears, but the sound seemed to bury itself deep in his skull and vibrate off the bones in his jaw, even making his fillings begin to ache.
He knew the bells weren't actually that loud and that their main problem was from the alcohol they'd consumed, but his logical knowledge stood no chance of convincing the rest of his body of this simple fact.
They tried to wait it out, but Merle eventually noticed that they seemed to be ringing out for far longer than usual.
After several minutes, the bells cut off as quickly as they'd begun, leaving a deep silence behind.
Merle sat up and turned the engine back on, turning the heater up against the chill.
He began driving, and a minute or so later, Avery unfurled herself.
"Where are we going?" She asked, her voice still in a pained whisper.
"The church. Those bells went on way too long."
"So?"
"So either someone broke in and started screwing with them, or somebody needs to put the fear of God in that old woman. And I highly doubt it's not related to the rest of the weirdness going on."
Avery sat up a little straighter and nodded, clearly trying to project some sort of game face.
As they drove closer, Merle noticed a lone figure standing across the road from the church.
He squinted, trying to make out who it was, but all he could see from this distance was a crown of shaggy black hair.
Still, there was something familiar about the guy standing there.
He needed to get closer to figure it out.

-
Abe heard the sound of car doors opening and closing, but still he could not move.
He began straining again, gritting his teeth as his leg flared up.
"Hey, bud, what's going on at the church?"
The voice was conversational but gruff, and the sound of it gave Abe a chill, making him stagger slightly.
Wait, He thought.
He turned to look at the speaker, and he and Merle recognized each other at the same moment.
"Shit!" Merle shouted, raising his shotgun.
Somewhere behind him, Avery was yelling something too, but Abe didn't stick around to find out what it was, and he took off, limping heavily on his bad leg.
It was still too weak to carry him for a long distance, and he made a snap decision to race into the church, where he knew no matter what happened, there would be witnesses.
He was across the road and opening the door before Merle had taken more than a few steps, and he raced inside, noticing as he ran down the center aisle that no one in the church had turned to look at him as he entered in the middle of their service.
He followed their gaze to the front of the room, where John stood at the podium, a cane beside him and some kind of bowl balanced in one hand.
"John! We gotta get out, they're right behind me!" He called, slowing down as he reached the end of the aisle.
John only shook his head, his cloudy eyes closed.
"You shouldn't... be here. This isn't... yours."
"What are you talking about? Merle and Avery are still trying to find you, we need to just get out of town before the state cops show up!"
Abe tried to speak as clearly as he could, trying to force John to understand their predicament, but still the dead boy did not move.
"This is not... your time."
Behind him, Abe heard the church door open once more as Merle and Avery entered, and he tried one last time.
"Please, please John!"
"There he is!"
"Put your hands up, freak!"
Abe's voice was lost as Avery and Merle yelled at the same time, their voices echoing around the room.
John's cloudy eyes met Abe's, and for a moment it seemed like the entire world had gone silent around them. Abe could even hear the sound of his own heart beating in his chest.
"Go... ahead. I'm right... behind you."
John gestured with one hand, and Abe felt himself being pulled as though someone had a fistful of his shirt, dragging him around the side of the stage.
"John!" He yelled, but he had already lost sight of the dead boy.

Later he would say he walked out by himself, but privately Abe knew that his feet had only touched the ground a half dozen times between the podium and the back door of the church.
He remembered shrieking as he passed through the kitchen and saw what was left of the old woman, lying discarded in a corner with the top third of her head torn off, but that was the only memory that stayed, despite all effort to the contrary.

-
"Your buddy left you behind, freak. Why not just give up and come back to the sheriff's office, and we can all wait on the state cops together?"
Merle's voice sounded friendly, but his cheek was laid on the stock of the shotgun again and the barrel was trained on John's face from no more than six feet away.
Avery stood beside him, holding her revolver with outstretched arms.
"You will never leave this place." John said, feeling his mouth move without being in control of it.
"Is that a threat?" Merle shouted, pumping the shotgun.
At the sound, the paralysis in the room began to break, and people began shifting away from the center aisle where all the drama was happening.
"I do not threaten you. I have come to show you the way, Merle. Will you follow me?" John said, letting the words of the Voice flow through him.
"I ain't going nowhere with you, freak. 'Cept straight to jail."
It was strange, as John felt the Voice speaking through him, it seemed to grow in strength.
John smiled, stretching the torn pieces of his face into something even more horrific.
"The laws of this place mean nothing to me. This world is a shadow of a shadow, there and gone in a single blink of an eye."
He turned and began speaking directly to the congregation, still loosely holding the cane and the bowl in his hands.
John felt himself being shunted aside from within his own thoughts, forced into the passenger seat of his own body, but the strength of the Voice was such that he could not even feel his own fear.
"You people, you come to this place not for the Word, but for a reflection of your own Sin, for someone to pat your back and tell you that God forgives you.
He does not. As He once did unto Sodom and Gomorrah, he has sent his wrath upon you, for committing many great Sins."
John tipped the bowl forward, and Esther's blood began to spill out in a steady stream, coating the carpet in front of the stage, splashing onto the legs of the closest pews.
"I have already punished your charlatan, the one who called herself a priestess and spit in His eye. Come and see."

-
At the sight of all that blood, at least a gallon of it, the congregation began running for the exit.
In their wild rush to escape, Dennis fell and was stepped on repeatedly, someone's heavy boot landing squarely on his head and driving his teeth through his lower lip.
He cried out, but his voice was lost in the shouts and screams of the fearful people around him.
They reached the large church doors and collided against them, those unlucky few at the front being crushed against the heavy wood by the ones behind, the doors seemingly held shut by iron bars from the other side, refusing to budge even an inch.
One man ran for the back door, but came racing back when he saw the state of Esther's body, still laying on the kitchen floor like cast off trash.
Merle and Avery hesitated only a moment, then began shooting, emptying the shotgun and the revolver into the dead boy as he stood passively on stage, not reacting even when a lucky pair of shots first put out his left eye and then took off the rear corner of his skull.
He did not go flying backwards or flinch, simply stood before them and took their assault head on, and before long their guns clicked empty.
The two of them traded a look, and realized at the same time that neither of them had brought any extra ammunition.
"You can't kill what's already dead," John said. "I am brought forth for a single purpose, and I will not rest until it is done."
He waved one arm negligently, and never mind that the arm was still only attached by a long string of sinewy flesh, the bone and muscle already devastated by gunfire.
At his gesture, the congregation moved away from the church doors, many of them screaming and struggling, their mouths the only thing still under their control.
They moved as though dragged by an unkind child playing with broken toys, some of them even unconscious with their lower legs sliding along the floor.
They each returned to their seats and sat staring straight ahead, their eyes casting around the room wildly, looking like mannequins that had been granted tortured, painful life.
"You people." John said, then fell silent.
His remaining eye landed on a young boy laying slumped in a pew with blood all down his chin, and for a moment he felt doubt, felt his own control of his body beginning to grow.
No. It must be done.
He wasn't sure whether it was his own thoughts or the Voice speaking from within, but at this point it did not matter.
"You people came here, knelt at her feet, took in her drugs, nourished your flesh with her hate. You came here for knowledge, for absolution, to pretend like you weren't exactly who you are. I am afraid you were misled, and have Sinned before God in his own house.
I am sent here to grant you the knowledge you seek, to spread wide the curtain between here and the next world, showing you that which no living person should know. The same story I told your sheriff, and he could not bear to know where his wife had gone when she died. That is why he shot himself."
John held the old woman's cane out in one hand, then clenched his fist, shattering it.
"Death is destruction. it is the end of all things and will come one day even for God in His throne. On the other side, there is infinity. Endless, formless eternity, going on as far as the brain can imagine. A hundred billion souls outside the world, unable to see or breathe or think. There is a constant noise, a dull roar that only becomes individual screams when you truly open your mind to it, and by then, it is too late. You will have joined that choir. The answer to what you all want to know, is that there is Nothing waiting for you on the other side. Not even Hell. Just pure time, and dark, and noise."
John could see their reactions as his words sank in, and felt savage glee that had nothing to do with his mission.
Several women burst into tears, sobbing with wide eyes as they still could not move their bodies.
One man began to scream, a long, ululating note that seemed to go on endlessly.
The small boy with blood on his chin continued to bleed.
"You have attacked me with the weapons of your world, and they have done nothing, nothing against me. I come bearing the strength of His arms, speaking with the breath of His lungs, and the weapons of His mercy."
John held both arms up, and fire burst forth from the various holes in his body, from the bullet wounds first and then from the seams where he had been sewn back together, engulfing his head in a hellish halo.
As it burned, he felt himself shrinking away, becoming a mere pinprick of consciousness in the back of his own head.
The congregation went on screaming, and crying, and bleeding, and one man was even trying to recite the Lord's Prayer through his clenched teeth, but it was all for nothing.
Once the blaze had engulfed him, John could feel himself beginning to leave his body for the second time, and welcomed the rest.
He lowered both arms at the same time, and the fire leapt forward, catching the podium and carpet alight, quickly beginning to rush towards the pews and the congregation where they still sat.
The fire burned with far more heat than any human made flame, and made quick work of them all, melting flesh and bones and teeth into nothing before continuing on, climbing in all directions to consume the church itself.
In spite of the blaze, John began to weep, his body shaking and gasping without producing any living tears.
He was one with the fire, and he burned on.

-
Abe regained control of himself as soon as he was outside the church, and he quickly turned around and tried to get back through the kitchen door.
He yanked and punched and kicked to no avail, the wooden door remaining impossibly solid.
He ran around to the front of the church and tried the larger doors, but he may as well have been trying to lift a car by himself.
He had been considering going across the street to where the cruiser was still parked and driving it through the doors when the screaming began.
On the other side of the door, a chorus of voices suddenly rose, and he heard the sound of running footsteps before people began kicking and slamming into the doors from the inside, trying desperately to get out.
In the midst of the screaming, he heard gunshots, almost a dozen of them, and realized who they must be shooting at.
"John!" He yelled, trying again to open the doors, pulling until his arms felt like they were separating from his shoulders, but to no avail.
He abandoned the doors and limped across the road to where the cruiser was parked, but even Merle and Avery weren't dumb enough to forget the keys in it.
He stumbled back across the road and reached for the door handle, but pulled his hand away a second later as the plain metal grew incredibly hot in the blink of an eye.
The screams from within the church had already begun to die out, and he could hear individual voices crying, and yelling, and one strange voice laughing from somewhere within.
Abe tried to peak in through the dense stained glass near the door, but all he could see from within was the light of a fire, flickering and dancing as it consumed all within.
He found himself nearly entranced by the flame, and stared into it for several seconds.
When he blinked, it was imprinted on his eyelids.
He wasn't sure later how long it took the church to burn, but it was long enough that his eyes and throat began to feel scorched from the heat, the skin of his face and neck turning red and peeling even as he stood without moving at the window.
He thought he could make out a figure standing roughly where John had been, still standing stark and black, silhouetted in the flame.
The figure seemed to look directly at him, raising one arm in a silent goodbye, then fell away to ash.


TRUCK DRIVER
-
Michael had told everyone who asked about it that he'd never take that exit again, or pass by that small town. He made most of his money by being far ahead of schedule compared to most other truck drivers, who could be eccentric at best, and there was a much faster freeway he could take that would take him on the other side of a hill from the highway where it had happened, and anyway the kid he had hit was long gone, and the kid's mom had refused to ever answer his letters or phone calls, even slapping him across the face when he had showed up in person a few days before the funeral.
Michael had taken the slap easily, the woman had clearly been too distraught to put much force into it, and besides he felt like it was the least he deserved.
The accident hadn't been his fault, the kid had ridden the wrong way on the highway for almost a mile, narrowly being avoided by several other motorists who later came to Michael's defense when the cops wanted to press charges, but Michael still had a hard time with the guilt.
He had gotten better in the past year, with the help of his therapist, and he chuckled darkly at the thought of what she might say if she saw him now, dropping the rig into low gear and taking the exit he swore he'd never take again, the one that would take him to the place he swore he'd never go again, for his sake as much as the woman's.
He had some half baked idea of stopping at the diner he had seen when he had last visited, maybe talk to some locals about the kid without telling them who he was.
He had no idea why he wanted to do this, it was an impulsive, self destructive idea with a strange allure to it, that he knew nothing good would come from, yet he still kept driving.
He had around forty thousand pounds of fresh produce riding behind him in the trailer, and an appointment at a yogurt factory in Arizona in about half a day, but right about now nothing seemed better than stopping in the town and seeing what he could see.
And hey, if the woman showed up for some reason, maybe now they could have a conversation, he could maybe ask about her son and what he had been like before he had gotten caught up in the wheels of Michael's rig.
There was some form of closure to be had, he was sure of that.
He just had to wait on it.
Michael thumbed a well worn bible resting on his dashboard, feeling slightly comforted in his thoughts.
As he got onto the same stretch where it had happened, he looked over at the town, which looked the same as it had a year before, a strange collection of mismatched buildings that looked a bit post apocalyptic, and he doubted any code inspectors had even been brave enough to visit.
He turned his head slightly and caught sight of a strange mass of darkness hovering over the south end of the town, almost blending in with the darkening sky.
As he came closer, it became what he suspected, a gray cloud that could only mean something on fire, and a decent sized something, going by the size of the smoke cloud.
Michael considered whether or not he should stop and offer what help he could, but the color of the smoke suggested that the fire had already exhausted its supply of fuel and gone out.
Instead of exiting into the town as he had considered, he kept driving, passing a few more scattered communities as he went.

About an hour down the road, he caught sight of a skinny, dark haired kid walking along the shoulder of the highway, his shoulders slumped while he jabbed his thumb out at every vehicle that passed by.
Without thinking much about it, Michael slowed and then came to a stop a few dozen feet ahead of the kid, throwing his hazard blinkers on to warn off any other drivers who might not notice his eighty foot trailer.
The kid didn't pick up the pace and run to the door of the rig, as most hitchers would do, fearful as they tended to be that the potential ride would change their mind.
Instead, the kid kept his plodding pace in Michael's side mirror, only raising his head when he came level with the door.
Michael unlocked the door and the kid climbed up, moving like he was much older than he looked, with a bunch of pulled muscles to sweeten the deal.
"Where you headed, kid?" Michael asked, lowering his hand beside his seat to where a heavy wooden tire checker was hidden between his seat and the door.
The kid turned to look at him, and Michael pulled his hand back.
No one as tired looking and dirty as this kid was could be much of a threat, especially with tear tracks visible in the soot on his cheeks.
"California, I guess."
The kid's voice sounded like he'd been yelling his lungs out at a rock concert all day, and coupled with the soot and general sketchy vibe of the kid, Michael made a deductive leap and figured the kid was probably from the same town where he had seen the fire.
"I don't see many hitchers without a backpack." He said, his tone even.
The kid only shrugged, staring straight ahead as though desperate to get moving again.
Michael hesitated, then asked a question he could guess the answer to.
"Did you set that fire back there?"
"No," The kid said. "I just needed to move on."
Michael, who had moved on from his own hometown a few decades before under equally suspicious circumstances, nodded and got the rig rolling again.
"Let's get going, then."

-
 


Submitted: April 03, 2021

© Copyright 2021 Ruben Hernandez. All rights reserved.

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