by Doc Quantum
Abigail Arcane Cable pushed open the door to her husband’s room. Matt Cable was sitting up in bed, looking directly at her as she walked in. He wore a faint smile. “Hi… Abby.”
“Hello, Matt,” she said as she looked into his tired eyes and felt completely nauseous. No guilt, she reminded herself once more. “You… look good.” She placed her purse on the ground next to the door and walked over to his bed, stopping at a respectable distance.
Matt simply looked at her, smiling a half-smile that was only a glimmer of the broad smile she remembered. “I’ve seen myself, Abby. I look terrible.”
“Yeah,” Abby said, smiling, “you do. You really do.” She sat down on the chair next to his bed, a familiar place for her this past year.
“I… had this dream, Abby,” Matt said as he laid his head back and looked up at the ceiling. “I dreamed about my father.” Abby remained quiet and listened to him, the two avoiding eye contact. “My father came home in my dream, and I was so happy to see him. Y’know, all the kids had teased me so much growing up without a father. I fought every single one of them until they were black and blue, though, because I knew my father had been a decorated soldier — a hero. And when my father finally came home, it was like a hero from the storybooks I read as a kid was walking into our lives. He was bigger than life, he really was. But in my dream I remembered what happened after he came home.
“It was dark. I must have been seven or eight. And I woke up in the middle of the night. There was this awful sound, like the dog whining or something. So I got out of bed and walked downstairs. And there was the dog, whining and whimpering. He… he had tracked mud all over the floor. I thought to myself, ‘Mom’s gonna be really mad when she sees this.’
“But… but when I walked over to the dog, I realized that he wasn’t moving. He was just lying there. I nudged him a couple of times, but he didn’t wake up; he was just snoring. That’s when I noticed that all the mud the dog had tracked through the kitchen wasn’t brown, like you’d expect mud to be. It was red. And even though the dog was asleep, I could still hear that whimpering sound.
“I went around the corner and saw… it was my father, sitting with his back to me on the steps leading to the basement. My father — he was crying. My father, the hero, the lieutenant — the three-time decorated war hero was sobbing like a little boy. Suddenly, I felt hot tears going down my cheeks, not because I was sad, but because I was confused and terrified. What could possibly make my father cry? And then I saw something shiny move up and down in front of him. I was too scared to look at what it was then, but I caught a glimpse of this hideous creature with sharp teeth and red eyes. I ran.
“I could feel the thing running after me as I ran outside, and when I turned to take a peek behind me, all I could see were these huge, spidery legs like knives thrusting at me. I thought I was going to die. The thing that had made daddy cry was going to kill me. That was when my dream changed, and I was back in bed, just sweating and crying.
“I remember having that recurring dream was I was little. It scared the bejeezus out of me back then. It was strange. My father went away again, and things were never the same. One time my mother brought us to see him in this big, white house. He didn’t look the same as before. His hair was cut in this messy crewcut, and he hadn’t shaved. And he had these bandages around both of his wrists. He couldn’t even look us in the eye. It was the last time my mother brought us to see him.
“A few years later, after I’d begun my military service, I was on leave to visit my mother back home, and I stopped into this bar for a pick-me-up. I took a seat right at the bar and looked over… and there was my father. I recognized him, plain as day, even though he looked so much older. He didn’t look at me, and wouldn’t have recognized me if he had, but just sat there downing drink after drink, staring into space, flinching repeatedly as if there was something coming at him. He didn’t have any bandages any longer, but he looked awful. I… I remember feeling ashamed of him — disappointed. He was so small. Not the hero who had come home from the war when I was a kid. And I walked right out of that bar and never looked back. Of course, I never mentioned anything about it to my mother; I didn’t want to see her cry again. But a few days after, when I got back to base, I received this notice. My father was dead.”
Tears were already streaming down Abby’s face as she quietly listened.
“I remember holding that notice in my hands for a moment, and then just crumpling it up and tossing it away, as if I could toss away his memory as well. It’s strange. I never really thought of him much after that. And my mother and I never spoke of him — ever. I just went on with my life and my career. I’d be the hero my father couldn’t be.
“But… things didn’t work out the way I thought they would. And I — I think I understand my father now. Finally understand him.” Matt looked at his wife. “I don’t blame you, Abby, for seeing me as a disappointment, a failure. I finally understand what can drive a man to the brink. And I… I know about you and… and Alec.” Abby was sobbing by now. “No, it’s OK. It’s all right. I remember the last few months of our marriage, and I can only feel regret at what I’ve done to you — to us. I don’t blame you if you walk out that door and never look back. Not after everything you’ve been put through. You deserve to be… with the one you love.”
Abby just continued to cry.
The Challengers of the Unknown watched cautiously from a distance as a dark, grotesque hand clawed its way out of the packed ground. They heard groans as the thing pushed itself with a great deal of effort out of the grave.
Finally, the thing stood before the four men. It was too dark to see the thing clearly, but it was larger than a normal man and glistened from the distant lights of the Challenger Jet. It stood without acknowledging the others’ presence and waited as if gaining strength. The Challengers could not know at this point what its intentions were.
Ace Morgan broke the silence. “Hello. Uh… do you speak English?”
“Of course it doesn’t speak English, Ace,” interrupted Prof Haley. “It’s probably not even from this planet.” He held an energy detector in his hand and found that the thing before him matched the energy signature that he had detected as it entered Earth’s atmosphere and disappeared in this area.
“Deee… deee… eyyye…” the thing croaked in a rumbling sound, almost a voice.
“Izzat your name? Didi-eye?” asked Rocky Davis.
For the first time, the thing seemed to become aware of the others. He looked up at them.
“Careful, guys,” Ace said quietly, motioning them back.
“That’s it,” said Red Ryan, grabbing his gun.
“Oh… my… God…” gasped Prof in realization. “Red, no!” Prof Haley pushed Red’s arm away before he could shoot.
“What th’–?!” exclaimed Red. “What did you go and do that for?”
“I can’t believe it…” said Ace suddenly, looking into the thing’s eyes.
“You see it, too?” asked Prof.
“See what?” asked Red.
“Don’t you recognize ‘im?” said Rocky. “It — it looks like…”
Prof motioned for the others to be quiet. Then he took a step toward the thing and said, “Dr. Holland? Dr. Alec Holland?”
A glimmer of recognition registered in the thing’s eyes. “Yesss…”
“Swamp Thing?” said a shocked Red Ryan. “I thought he was d–“
“Shh!” Prof interrupted.
“Do you remember us, Dr. Holland?” said Ace. “We’re the Challengers of the Unknown. We were… once your friends.”
The Swamp Thing looked at him with red eyes. Finally he spoke in his slow, halting way, “Yes, I… remember…”
“What happened, Dr. Holland?” asked Prof as he took a tentatively closer inspection of the creature who was once their ally. “What is your last memory?”
“I was… running… towards A-Abby… we kissed… embraced… then… then… confusion… fire… pain… I heard Abby… screaming… I was trapped… in my body… there… was no place… to go… but there…” He slowly lifted a large arm and pointed to the starry sky above.
“We saw what happened on TV,” said Rocky. “Sorry, pal.”
“My thoughts… were… only on… revenge… upon those who… did this… to me… to… us…” The Swamp Thing paused, and his eyes darted around. “Where… is… where is… Abby…?”
“Abby?” muttered Red. “Your woman?”
“Right,” said Rocky. “Remember that court case? She was there when… when they firebombed our pal, here.”
“We’ll bring you back to your woman, Dr. Holland,” said Ace. “You have our word on that.”
“Thank… you, my… friends… but… I must do… this alone…” said the Swamp Thing in his low, rumbling voice. He stood completely still. The Challengers looked around at each other, confused and waiting for something to happen.
After several painfully quiet moments, the Swamp Thing finally said, “Something is… wrong… the Green… it is… denied to me… I… cannot leave… this body…”
“Why would you think you could?” asked Ace. The Challengers had known Alec Holland from a time before he had learned that he was a plant elemental and could transfer his spirit elsewhere to grow a new body from whatever vegetation was readily available. He had done so spectacularly in Gotham City, for instance, when he grew a thorny, flowery body out of a bouquet of roses. But the Challengers knew little of this, and would have been unaware that any powers the Swamp Thing displayed then were permanent.
“You do… not understand… I…” Holland stopped speaking suddenly, as if realizing where he was for the first time. “Here…? But… no… oh, no…”
He turned and looked down at the desecrated grave at his feet. There was quite a bit of overturned soil, but no trace of any body at all. And there certainly was no skeleton.
“This… grave. It is… mine. I… buried… Holland here… How can this… be…?”
“I thought he was–?” Rocky whispered to Red before the other shushed him.
“I do… not understand… what is… happening… what has… happened…”
“That makes five of us, Doc,” said Ace. “Don’t worry, we’ll help you figure it out. You’re among friends now.”
The Swamp Thing glared at the man. “Friends…? I have no… need of… human friends… Please… leave me… leave… now…”
“Dr. Holland, we–“
“Leave… now,” Swamp Thing said in a loud, threatening tone that sent chills down each man’s spine. “I cannot… guarantee… your safety from… me if… you do not… leave…”
“You heard the man,” said Ace, the Swamp Thing wincing at the use of the word man. “Let’s leave him to his privacy; he’s earned it.”
The Challengers respectfully nodded at the swamp creature and turned to leave, piling back into the Challenger Jet.
“I don’t think it’s wise to leave that man alone at a time like this, Ace.”
“Neither do I, Prof. That’s why we’ll be tracking his movements. We promised to help him, and we’re going to stick to that promise.”
The Swamp Thing then made an agonizing noise that, if there were any human ears to hear it, would have reminded one of a suffering animal in anguish. The creature was not animal, but he was certainly suffering. Within him, though, burned a determination to return to his home, the home he had made for himself before he was forced away from this planet. If Abby were anywhere, she would be waiting there for his return.
The creature who wore the form of man began walking south through the murky swamplands, avoiding all signs of civilization.