Nine p.m. There’s hardly room to breathe. It’s hot in here. Too many are pressed inside this family room. Too many wait outside in the hallway, up the stairs, and a few even linger outside near the open door. Their worried glances fall over Preacher James, who sat in the corner near the front. They don’t trust him. Should I?
Jacob stood calmly in the front. Jenny was seated in a chair nearby with Marty on her lap. The blind woman sat in a corner, ignoring me. Her gaze was set on Jacob. She was no blind woman. She made him nervous now. The preacher too. Who was she really, and she looked right at me. She can’t read minds. Can she?
“You all understand why I have called you here to my house.” A wave of murmurs was his answer. “And I’m sure you have heard the rumor.” Jacob paused for a moment. “Nathaniel is coming here.” Gasps and cries filled the room. “We have spoken about this before, but I’m sorry. It’s time. Time to face our enemy.” He looked around the crowded room and then glanced over at the preacher. “We have to fight. We have to fight him and win for us and for this world. Nathaniel can’t survive.”
“But do we need him?” One man pointed a finger at the preacher. “He’s the enemy too.”
“Maybe,” Jacob agreed, “but we do need him.”
“After what he did to Marty,” a woman asked.
“Yes,” Jenny replied, surprising Jacob. “I hate the idea.” She glared at the preacher. “We can’t win this without him.”
“What makes him so different,” another asked.
“And why is Nathaniel coming here,” someone else said.
“Because of me,” Preacher James said. He stood up from his seat and walked over to Jacob. “May I?” Jacob glanced over at the blind woman, who had resumed gazing at him. “Please?”
“Go ahead,” but Jacob only took one step away from him.
“I know that some of you don’t believe.” The preacher glanced at Jacob. “You don’t believe in the tree on my back.” Groans and mutters were his response. “It’s okay, if you don’t believe. My flock does, and they are close by, waiting to help.”
“Sure, they are,” a man snorted.
“The tree on my back represents bloodlines. Arcadia’s bloodlines, and I have gathered those represented here and now to stand and fight with me. That is what draws Nathaniel here for he is afraid. He can kill a Returned with the snap of his fingers. I have seen it. He can bend others to his will, but anyone, whose bloodline is consecrated here in Arcadia, he has no power over. He is powerless, and with us all together, we can defeat him. We can kill him.” Now, he had their undivided attention. “I would like to read some names, and I ask those that I call to stay here with Jacob and I. We are the last line of defense. If Nathaniel breaks us, we lose, so does the world and the living.”
“What happens, if we win,” one woman asked. “The world sees us as a threat now, as its enemy. What happens when this is all over?”
“You go home,” the blind woman responded, ignoring everyone’s gaze. She said no more.
The preacher shook that odd comment off. He pulled a piece of paper from his pocket and started to read off a variety of names. He was nearly done when I heard my name called. He met my gaze and held it for a moment. He then finished his list and placed the paper back in his pocket. “It’s going to be a long night,” he said, “but tomorrow will be a very, very long day. We need you all here by daylight. Right, Jacob?”
“Right. Sanctuary is not too far from here, so I ask that those, who were not called, to go there and try, try to get some kind of sleep.”
“Do we need guns,” a young man asked. “How exactly are we doing this fight?”
“I’m not sure.”
“You’re not sure, Jacob? You’re asking those, who are not on the preacher’s damn tree, to sacrifice ourselves, and for what? What? Just to have us roll over and die,” another declared.
“You’re already dead,” the preacher said. “All of you, or have you not figured that out yet? Have you not died after returning and returned again?”
“Yeah,” one woman said. “But if Nathaniel makes us disappear, there is no returning from that, so how do we fight someone, something like that?”
“I don’t know,” Jacob replied. “We have to. It doesn’t matter who is on the front lines or last. What matters is tomorrow. If we don’t find a way to fight him, to defeat him, then we don’t have to worry about returning ever again. There will be no world to return to, no families, friends, no one. This will be his world, and his world is Death. So, I ask you. I ask all of you to stand with me. Fight, and if we must die, then we die, fighting not rolling over in defeat.” Jacob took a step closer. Now, he stood beside the preacher. He gingerly put a hand on his shoulder, surprising the preacher. “Stand and fight with us.”
In response, those around me slowly stood. They were scared, skeptic, worried. They stood regardless. I stood with them, clutching you dear diary, but I stood. And slowly, they parted, flowing outside into their waiting vehicles, and disappearing into the dark. I remained along with those, whose blood pumped and pounded through this town called Arcadia. It was up to us.
It must be two a.m. now. I found Preacher James standing by the family room window. He looked tired, but he was determined not to sleep. He glanced at me, and after a long moment, he looked away. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched me curl up on the couch nearby, but he did not say anything. It was like he was waiting for me to speak first, and I did.
“Tell me about Nathaniel,” I said.
He sat beside me. “Nathaniel started out as a normal, healthy baby. He had everyone fooled, everyone except me. When he was supposed to turn one, he turned eight. He turned eight-years-old. Nobody could explain it, and still, he was a normal, healthy boy.”
“If you were away, how do you know this?”
“Just because I was locked up doesn’t mean that I didn’t know what was going on.”
“You had spies here in Arcadia.”
“My flock are not spies.”
“So, he turned eight. What does that matter?”
“It matters because when he was supposed to turn eight, he turned sixteen. Now, he’s twenty-four. Don’t be fooled by his appearance. He’s not a normal, healthy boy.”
“Marty severed that limb on your back. Your tree.”
“What about it?”
“Haven’t you wondered why he came back as a twelve-year-old boy?”
“I have not.” The preacher rubbed his chin. “How did someone like you become a Returned?”
“I wish that people would stop asking me that.”
“I’m sorry. If it’s a sore subject…”
“I was murdered.” He fell silent. “Someone killed me.”
“I’m sorry.” He touched my hand. “I really am.”
“Thank you,” but I looked away when saying that. I did not want him to see the tear running down my face, but he did.
“Have you figured out why I have not aged?”
“No. That I don’t understand.” Now, I looked at him. “How have you not aged?”
“Time is relative.”
“Einstein. He believed that there was no division between past and future. There was just existence, and we exist beyond death. We have returned to the now, but the now does not hold us. If we believe that it does, then we age like others have aged, but if we let go, we don’t age. We just exist. Have you never read Einstein?”
“Well, when you’re locked away for a long time, there’s nothing to do but read.”
“How did you get out?” He moved away from me. “How did you escape?”
“A guard screwed up.” He resumed standing before the window. “I seized the opportunity.”
“To do what?” I now stood behind him.
“To kill myself.”
“Because I knew that I would return, and I did. Why do you think Marty is twelve?”
“I don’t know.”
“Yes, you do.” He stared hard at me. “Why?”
“I think he’s supposed to kill Nathaniel.”
“Let’s hope so. Now, you should really try to get some sleep.”
“What about you?”
“I don’t sleep. Not anymore.”
“I glanced at your diary. I know who you are really writing for.”
“No, you’re not,” and I walked away.
I could feel his eyes following me out of the room and up the stairs. He liked me. I liked him. I did not trust him especially after admitting to reading these pages. These pages were not meant for him. Did he know? He remained standing in front of the window.
“And I looked, and beheld a pale horse. His name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him,” the preacher said.