From Pleasant's vantage point, the wobbling wagon bounded down the flat horizon like a fattened armadillo; it was a good two miles away, its rocking form distorted by the thick dust which seemed to carry it along in an uneven, angry gait similar to that of an irritated deputy bringing a mortally—and particularly aggravating—wounded criminal into custody.
"You said that grandfather once likened death unto saddling up his horse. What he called leavin' the world behind and takin' his time before doin' so," Jubal said.
"Said that on his death bed," Pleasant agreed.
"What'd he mean?"
"He liked to compare it all to a last ride. But that ain't how it always goes."
"What do you mean?"
"Sometimes, death ain't nice or amusing. It comes in a whirlwind. And you ain't got the time to gear up and put the saddle on. Sometimes, it's just you leaving this mortal coil, bracin' for what comes next, with nothin' under you and nothin' strapped to your back."
"He ever tell you what he saw in the dream before he died?"
"Over there," Pleasant motioned with a lazily arched eyebrow—most of its elasticity lost to the hands of time long ago—a wooden pipe held between tightened lips as he lit the tobacco in the pipe's cradle. After small smoke signals rose from the glowing ash, Pleasant felt an instantaneous calming wash over him as if he was a four-year-old again and his mother was tucking him in for the night. But those feelings were never to be repeated, not by a man well into his seventies, and he knew that. So he moved his tongue around in his mouth, savoring the taste.
The blatant disregard for Jubal's question was noticed and the subject changed. "I'm noticing," the voice of Jubal mumbled beside Pleasant.
"Reckon he's as good as his father?" Pleasant asked.
"Those kinds of apples don't fall far from the tree. Seen it happen too many times for it not to be true," Jubal said.
The wagon limped onward, closing the distance but never really going anywhere, or so it seemed to the two gentlemen. The dust whirling around the wagon took on shapes that appeared recognizable at once before dissipating into formless assemblies of grime on the wind. The phantasmal carriage was led by two horses in perfect unison. Powerful thoroughbreds pulled a pile of wooden scrap which looked as if it had been lackadaisically patched together. The dichotomy alone confused Jubal.
"Looks as if he's—" Pleasant began.
Jubal put up a left hand to silence his father. He leaned forward, the other hand grasping the front porch's splintered post tighter. "In a rush," he muttered, finishing Pleasant's sentence. "What'd you write in that letter?" he asked, turning to Pleasant inquisitively.
"That the b . . . ," he paused, searching for an appropriate and less derogatory term, "the deceased ain't in no hurry." He strained his eyes at the approaching horse-drawn wagon. "Pace shouldn't be this urgent-like."
The individual driving the dilapidated, rickety wagon in the distance was Mr. Braxton Vestal, an unusually thin man, standing at 6'5", whose occupation was a mortician. Cramped in the jockey box, his dangling spidery legs spilled over, nearly causing his toes to graze the barren wasteland. Sweating profusely, hands calloused from the reins, shoulders tired from commanding the direction of the horses (a lone cactus or rock would jump into his vision from time to time and an occasional last minute dodge was required), he looked behind him, eyes wide thanks to an adrenaline-induced state of emergency.
Most undertakers who were around in the year of 1866—shortly after the Civil War—weren't as busy as before and were looking to make more money to supplement the income that they had once made during the violence and carnage of the war. Such situations do force greatness upon others in the arena of inventions (most times out of necessity), and it was no surprise to the universal formulaic design seen throughout history when a man by the name of Thomas Holmes, through innovative chemical know-how, founded the process of embalming. Now this was crucial in the Civil War as the body count significantly increased, and although the embalming techniques had not yet reached the Midwest, they had tickled Braxton's ears quite a bit. That explained the three dollar-gallon jugs of embalming fluid which swished around viciously in the back of the carriage.
Moxley Hotchkiss, a once very lively woman who could turn a head or two as she sauntered by, and who had lived far away from Pleasant's and Jubal's humble residence, was now lying on ice in the cellar, cold and stiff. She was the reason for the mortician's visit. Braxton had been notified by Pleasant, via letter, that there was a particular lady whose body had been unclaimed. And Pleasant made it known to him that he would be reimbursed for his travels, given that it was a distance longer than usual.
Mrs. Moxley's casket, customized and tailored to fit her corpse specifically, was in the back of Braxton's covered wagon beside the embalming containers, but Mr. Vestal wasn't looking back to check on the casket's aesthetic condition; instead, he was looking over his shoulder at the cannibal on the horse only feet away from the wagon's back end.
The horse on which the cannibal, whose wispy hair violated the humid air with a stench that rivaled that of the dead, rode could at once be identified as a rabid animal. Saliva ran over his gummy lips as it bellowed like a pig—the kind of bawl something would make out of anger toward the designer of its deformed body. Sun glistened madly on blood and pus which oozed from its various wounds.
The cannibal atop the abomination growled at the carriage, a simultaneous attempt to scare the mortician into submission and to quicken his own steed's pace.
"He's being chased by someone," Jubal pointed out, took a step inside the front door and grabbed an 1863 Springfield rifle musket.
"Wait a damn second," Pleasant said, taking a step in front of his son, blocking Jubal's view, placing a calloused hand on the barrel. "That comes later."
"If we don't kill whatever's behind him, that time won't come," Jubal said, his youthful impatience getting the best of him, concentrating his ill-focusing optics on the chase which was now only a mile away. He noticed something in the pursuer's hand. "The hell's he carryin'?"
The cannibal raised something—a Molotov cocktail lit ablaze—bright and glowing above his head. From their earshot, the two gentlemen on the front porch could hear the maniacal laugh as it poured from the cannibal's throat in an acidic procession of gurgling grunts and wheezing inhalations. Then he launched the object from his hand. It landed in the back of the carriage, the flames immediately engulfing the cloth. The explosion of flames temporarily muted the hilarity induced cackling from the hunter.
The mortician placed both reins in his right hand, balanced himself on the footrest just below the jockey box and leapt for whichever of the two thoroughbreds would take him.
Jubal descended the porch's steps with hurried feet. "That man's more important than anything we got at the moment." He took a few steps in the hot dirt and took aim.
Mr. Vestal had indeed landed on one of the horse's rear, albeit messy and nearly breaking a hip in the process, and clung to the horse with tufts of mane clutched in his hands. "Good boy, Pilot," he spoke to his companion, his mouth inches from the animal's ear, his belly flat over the horse's back. However, unsolicited heavy breathing interrupted the short-lived victory of having just survived leaping flames at his back.
It was the cannibal, grinning from ear to ear.
"He's next to Braxton. Can't get a clear shot, right now," Jubal commentated. "Shit."
Only five hundred yards away, the nameless cannibal and Mr. Vestal were side-by-side.
"See if he can get it himself," Pleasant suggested.
Jubal shot a look over his shoulder, an eyebrow raised in shock. "You're crazy. We need this man."
The cannibal's condemned horse galloped at a pace that nearly bucked its owner off. Braxton couldn't remain steady on his own steed and, the carriage a huge ball of sun behind him along with the two horses clumsily falling out of order, decided it was time to bail. Instead of the fast, hard ground beneath him, he needed something a little softer on which to land. Braxton's anxious eyes leapt into the man-eater's hungry ones and then the mortician jumped on the back of the diseased horse which instinctually veered away from the carriage as Mr. Vestal's vehicle crashed in flames, the horses falling over each other, collapsing in a mound of fatigue.
The cannibal and mortician, now sharing the same horse, continued in the direction of Pleasant's and Jubal's cabin, now only fifty yards away.
Shocked by the surprisingly fearless (really unplanned desperation) junction of the two riders, the cannibal whipped his head around and bit into Braxton's shoulder, his putrefied teeth sinking deep into the muscle. He tore the meat from Braxton, his one-track mind sending him into a concentrated feast which included his mouth munching and his hands holding the spills. Braxton leaned back in agony and fell off the horse, landing flat on his back.
Suddenly, the cannibal's head exploded as a bullet found its mark and his body fell off the horse lifelessly. The horse, his equestrian now having relinquished him of his duties, road away, vanishing in the distance.
Jubal stood like a statue, smoke billowing from the rifle's muzzle, he dropped it and ran over to the mortician.
* * *
"That's one way to make an entrance," Pleasant said, his voice reaching Braxton's deep sleep and awakening him. As if leaving a nightmare, Braxton quickly sat up in bed.
"Careful, now. You're badly injured," Jubal said.
"What . . . ?" Braxton couldn't finish his question as his shoulder throbbed, the blood pulsing, thudding like horse's hooves. He let out a sore cry and fell back on the bed.
"Shot him clean through. He ain't comin' back," Jubal informed Braxton.
"I . . . I . . . apologize," Braxton said through clenched teeth, his eyes closed.
"Rest here for the night. We'll wake you in the morning," Pleasant said, his worried eyes looking at his son, Jubal. "Just don't die."
* * *
The next morning, after sharing breakfast and a pot of coffee, Braxton said "Thank you for your help. I was on my way here when I came upon a body, one that I perceived to have been long dormant. The body was that of the man you shot. Some sort of crazed lunatic. Fought me. We scrambled. I got back on the carriage. Riding away, I heard a whistle and then heard hoof."
"Those kind are out here. But not in here, Mr. Vestal," Jubal calmed his visitor.
"Looked out the window this morning. Foxes had taken the best of him off with 'em," Pleasant said as he swallowed the rest of his coffee.
"I'll have to go back into town and get another casket and order of embalming fluid," Braxton said.
"I'll write to Chasin, next town over. See if he can accommodate you," Jubal said.
"She in an airtight container?" Braxton asked.
"On ice," Jubal said.
"I'll have to take a looksee," Braxton replied. "See if she's too far gone. Decomposed, I mean."
Father and son shot an agreeable look and nodded. "This way," Jubal motioned.
Minutes later, Braxton found himself in the cellar, surveying the body.
Pleasant said "Look just like your father."
Confused at the observation which seemed to come out of nowhere, Braxton replied with a "Yeah." His eyes scanned Moxley Hotchkiss' corpse which was covered in mounds of ice. Braxton pushed the ice over her face as if smoothing off excess sand in the building of a castle on the beach. The nose was extremely decayed as if her body began rotting a few days before they put her on ice. "Who is this woman?"
"Sound like him to," Pleasant said, ignoring the question.
"Who is she?" Braxton pressed.
"Kin to us," Jubal responded. "Cousin."
"Shit, I 'member when your daddy performed one of them miracles we all read about in the stories. Had a harelip, he did. Man had a speech impediment. Couldn't cure himself, but knew how to get others over the ailments they was born with," Pleasant said, admiring the humble, selfless character. "You ever do the same?"
Braxton shot a quizzical look at the old man, then at Jubal. "What y'all brought me here for?"
"Wondered if you raised the dead like your father," Jubal answered.
"Exactly who you want raised?" Braxton asked the obvious.
"This here woman," Jubal quipped.
"She ain't too long dead. And if memory serves me correct, your daddy made an arm grow back, 'bout oh," Pleasant paused to collect his thoughts, his eyes wandering heavenward, "fifty years ago. I was a kid," he said, his eyes meeting Braxton's. "Hadn't seen anything like it. Never seen him after that one. Read about him in the papers though."
"You think I can do what he did?"
Jubal motioned to Pleasant, a signal that told his father to stop the reminiscing, forego the stories of long ago, and get to the point. "We figure you ain't fall too far from the tree. Got a little juice in the hands from your father, do ya?"
"Never." Acid rose in Braxton's throat.
"Relations are a powerful thing, Mr. Vestal. You're lucky. My daddy was a farmer. That's all I ever done. Ain't as good, though. Still tryna' farm like him," Pleasant said. "We want you to bring this girl back to life."
"Got reasons?" Braxton pressed.
"Plenty. None of which are your concern."
"We want you to give her life. Breathe a little into her. Just like your dad when he travelled down in the south."
"I ain't like him. I come to bury. Not to raise," Braxton said, his voice hinting a little regret.
"Raise her or you'll be six feet under, yourself, within the hour," Jubal said.
"I don't have the same thing he had. Don't believe like him. You're talking to a man who's no closer to the truth than an elder is his youth. I'm afraid you've made a grave mistake," Braxton said.
Jubal walked over to the mortician, grabbed Braxton's right hand and, almost yanking his shoulder out of socket, placed the visitor's digits on Moxley's cold face; Braxton's hand hit a stone. And the stone face didn't move. And the stone was a maddened beast of hardened flesh that felt as if it would jump out and take his breath from his lungs and make him join the rest.
And the room spun.
And the alcoholic touch burned his soul.
And his soul made a shudder.
"The hell is this?" Braxton asked.
"Bring her to life or we'll kill you," Jubal said.
"Look, I ain't doing this shit. You think you're gonna make me do this? I seen what's on the other side. Don't mean a damn bit that I believe like my father. I seen these people raised from the dead before. What they seen on the other side? It's somethin' that won't ever leave ya. It's somethin' that will make them go crazy when they wake."
"And what's that? What do they glimpse on the other side?" Jubal asked.
Braxton's thoughts raced like lightning through his head, remembering his father's miracles across many landscapes of America. "Themselves."
"You speakin' in riddles now, Mr. Vestal," Pleasant said.
"Themselves. And the hate that burrows inside doesn't wear off. It lives on," Braxton said.
"Just what do they see?"
"A version of themselves."
"What's this woman seein' right now?"
"Her face on the body of another. Her face on the figure that tortures her. Several figures. They torture her—her very own likeness atop the bodies. They stare. They mock. They beat. Drive her insane. And their faces, the same as her own, make her hate herself. For millennia."
"Millenia? It's only been a few days since she's been dead."
"Eternity doesn't pay any mind to time. What's not here is happenin' there. And vice versa."
"Those on the other side are placed in a room full of mirrors after the torturous ages, only to look at themselves, at their faces and forms. The hatred they have stored for themselves for having tossed themselves in such a predicament haunts them forever because they are the ones responsible for it all. And after millennia, their very soul is driven insane. And they fade into somethin' else."
"And you know this how?"
"Heard it as testimony from the ones my father raised."
"Then raise her. You believe in the stories. So raise her," Jubal pressed both of Braxton's hands on Moxley's face, pressing into her forehead, smearing the cartilage on her nose. "Pick her up from death or you'll join her."
Braxton's eyes burned into Jubal's. "Thing about faith is it ain't genetic. Lost everyone I love. Not gonna owe any allegiance to somebody who coulda protected 'em." Braxton paused and looked at the cold lump of coal that was Moxley's corpse. "Just why do you want to see her? What you got for her? Or what do you need from her?" He turned his gaze back to Jubal's face sprayed with sweat.
The butt of Pleasant's pistol, previously holstered and tempting a meeting with dust and rust, fell against Braxton's temple like the Titanic and its nemesis, cracking his consciousness into pieces, leaving only blackness as the residue of what once remained.
* * *
After much deliberating, and saying things like "enough is enough" and "time's runnin' out, Jubal, look at her! Ice is meltin' and she's gonna' be rotted through before long," Pleasant took to his horse and disappeared.
* * *
When Mr. Vestal awoke, the air smelled of sulfur and his hair stood on end from the static electricity surging along the walls in the cellar. Pleasant and Jubal were on their backs, pinned to the ground by an invisible force, their hair blowing wildly in waves as if they were underwater. It was as if the room had been filled with an otherworldly type of material. A dreadful feeling overwhelmed Braxton's senses. He was a penny lost at sea, as worthless in the real world as he was in the world for which he was not yet made. His value lost all and the weight and realness of the room fell on his shoulders. It was as if air had been replaced with oxygen that he had never breathed before, making his body literally feel heavier as his lungs expanded. It was as if the outside world was no longer exciting and the room that held the mortal beings was the only thing that made any sense.
Immediately, he knew from whence this reality came, from whence it poured, and how it got there.
Then he sat up, his eyes chasing the power surges that ran along the floor like electric snakes (his blurry vision never truly coming into focus), weaving around the feet of the unknown man standing next to the tub of ice in which the corpse resided, bumping into Braxton's fingertips. "What'd you do?" were the first words that crept slowly from the mortician's numbed lips.
A man who Braxton had never seen before stood motionless in the swirling of the air, his hands on Moxley. He turned his head and his eyes, lit ablaze with blue fire, the flames leaping from the lids, engulfing the lashes like burning butterflies that never adjusted to ash, met Braxton's. "What have you done?!" the mortician screamed, the sound of his voice nearly ethereal and soundless in this newfound atmosphere. He leaped to his feet and hobbled hurriedly to the stranger.
"Resurgam," the stranger said confidently, ending his muffled speech.
A gushing of energy heaved itself in one splash of irrefutable force, knocking Braxton back to the ground, his body sliding over the uneven dirt floor. He slid into Jubal, nearly knocking heads with his traitor.
"What is this?" Braxton yelled next to Jubal's ear, the question barely audible, veins bulging in his neck.
"Had to get someone who'd bring her back. Dad kidnapped . . . "
"A man who could do as you requested?"
"A man of faith."
"Who is this guy?"
"I . . . I don't know. Some pastor down the road. We put a gun to his head. Then he started doin' what I heard your father used to do. Then somethin' else took over. He's not himself!"
"Tell him to stop!"
"Can't," Jubal said, breathing as if he had been chased by some cannibal in the open desert.
Pleasant lay unconscious only feet away. And if Braxton's eyes didn't deceive him, his chest did not fall with any type of rise.
The room suddenly became dark, save for the light that ghosted along the stranger's silhouette. The three men on the floor felt lightheaded as if they were losing blood. Their very essence edged away from their bodies as if the reality had left and they truly felt like the penny lost in the ocean, insignificant. They could have crawled inside themselves and never been found again.
The other world had entered and they were now a part of it.
From the corner of the room, a gargantuan spider revealed itself, the legs covered in human fingernails that appeared as if they were growing from the tungsten-like skin. The creature scurried closer to Braxton and Jubal and stopped abruptly, staring at the two men. Moxley's face masked the top of the spider's miniscule humanistic head. And her eyes burned with a certain sense of loss, her head twitching in several directions like a house fly.
Then the abomination jumped toward Braxton and Jubal.
A rifle blast rang out from a now-conscious Pleasant who stood like the statue whose original marble could not be duplicated in his own son's courage. The projectiles collided into the spider like hot coals heaved into the cold snow.
The room went dark.