by Doc Quantum
The journey took a long time — too long. It seemed that every time the Swamp Thing was able to travel in secrecy, something came up. He could not help but to think that these swamps were infested with pure evil. It seemed as if all the ghouls and creatures of the night had risen together to slow him down as he traveled through these dark swamps at night, out of the sight of man. At some points he thought he would never make it back home. He was very tired. Physically, he was very similar to how he appeared when he was first born into this life as the Swamp Thing, and indeed he was subject to the same limitations he had been subject to then. He could not leave this body and grow another one where he wanted to go, nor could he cause this one to grow any further or faster than it had already grown to this point. Thus caution returned to him, for he was no longer a god. He was merely another creature of the swamps.
He stopped as he entered the clearing in the wee hours before sunrise. The air was chilly. Mist rose above the murky waters, and the sound of birds singing to one another filled the air but did little to fill the ache in his heart. As he feared, Abby was not waiting for him here at his home in the swamps. Of course she wasn’t, he realized. How could she possibly even know that he was back? He told these things to himself, but he could not shake the belief that somehow she knew he was coming back and that somehow something had happened to prevent her coming here to wait for him.
The Swamp Thing sat down by a tree and tried to regain his lost energy. The battle with the alligator creature had taken a lot out of him, but it was the subsequent taunting of wicked voices in the oppressive air as he walked that had taken the most out of him. As he traveled, his fevered mind had seen apparitions. Arcane, surrounded by demons, seemed to be laughing as he watched his plight. He seemed to see John Constantine sitting in a bar and bragging about how he had suckered him into a fool’s errand that almost destroyed him in the end. And Abby — she was laughing and surrounded by several leering, oiled young men, getting drunk on the wine of her fornications. They were all illusions, however, brought on by he knew not what. Even the trees in the swamps themselves had seemed to be scowling at him and tripping him up as he walked. There was an evil presence in the woods that he had never encountered before this time.
The hypothetical question the Parliament of Trees had posed to him so many months ago lingered in the air like an unanswered query. “Where is evil in all the wood?” At the time the Swamp Thing believed that they had meant to say that the world’s trees, the flowers, and the plants were free from all corruption and were pure and free from the sickly taint of evil. Now, though, he wondered if it had meant something quite different. The Swamp Thing had seen evil in the wood, first in Patagonia, and now here in the swamplands of Louisiana, with the swamp creatures that appeared to have cropped up in his absence. He was too weary and pained to give it any further thought, however.
He began to think about Abby. She was not here, but there was no way she could have known of his return, despite his intuition. She was probably in Houma, where she had been working before his disappearance. He hoped that she had not taken a job elsewhere. No, he thought to himself. This was her home now. If she at all believed that he was coming back, this was where they would meet. And it was a local hospital in which Matt was being kept.
Alec Holland had known Matt Cable in the days when both he and his wife Linda were still alive. Lieutenant Cable had been the government agent who was supposed to have protected them from those who wanted the bio-restorative formula at any price. Unfortunately, Matt Cable was not present at the time Alec and Linda had needed him the most. The Swamp Thing had never held that against him, nor had he resented Matt’s relentless hunting of him in the early days when he believed the Swamp Thing was responsible for the Hollands’ deaths. They had become allies after a while against the horrors they encountered together, along with Abby. The Swamp Thing had loved her even then, but he could never act on that love, believing that the thought of it would be utterly grotesque to her. It was a moot point after Matt and Abby were married, until the tragedy which put Matt into that coma caused a reversal of fortune in which Alec and Abby were able to finally express their love for each other.
The Swamp Thing thought of this and other things as he surreptitiously trekked through the forest toward the town of Houma, clad in an old trenchcoat and a broad-rimmed hat. Few people were yet up at this hour, but already roosters were crowing, and cars began to pull out onto the road, heading for work. He had no desire to interact with anyone at this point but Abby, and he did his best to avoid awaking sleeping dogs.
Finally, he found himself standing before the place where Abby had lived. After a few glances through the windows, he knew she was not there. He did see a familiar-looking woman asleep in a bed, but he was certain that it was not Abby and was too tired to discover her identity. With little time left, he discounted all further possibilities except for the hospital where Matt was being kept. Perhaps she was there, he thought desperately, a sinking feeling of dread hitting him suddenly.
He was used to slinking in shadows in disguise as he had in the early days, but never had he felt such fear of getting caught. He had no way of telling how vulnerable this body was, now that he had returned. He found his way to the hospital with little problem. But what he saw when he got there hit him to his very core.
It was Matt Cable, awake and looking like his old self once again, talking enthusiastically with Abby as she helped him into her car. So it was true. The feelings of dread and loss he had ever since getting back to this world were because of this. The shock of it passed quickly enough for the Swamp Thing to turn around after one long look as he watched them drive away. He felt angry in one way, and happy in another, because his old friend Matt was all right, but mostly he felt numb. He would have been better off staying in space.
An hour later, the Swamp Thing made his way back to his former home in the boggy swamplands outside of Houma, planning on taking one long, last look before abandoning it forever. When he spied a shock of blonde hair behind a trail of blue smoke, just above a trenchcoat, he suddenly had a feeling of déjà vu.
“Constantine…” he growled. “Why am I not… surprised…?”
“Welcome back to the planet Earth, mate!” John Constantine said, dropping ashes onto the forest floor. “You’ve been gone a long time. Noticed anything different since you’ve been back?” The Swamp Thing stalked past him and said nothing. “Been to see Abby, have you, then?” The creature stopped. “Blasted shame, that. But, hey, it leaves you free to carry on with your true purpose in life.”
“And what… might that be…?”
“Wish I could tell you. That’s really something each of us has to figure out for ourselves, though, innit?”
In a second, the Swamp Thing was standing in his face, anger steaming from his nostrils. “I have no patience… for your games, Constantine…!”
“Easy now, big fellow,” Constantine said, nonplussed. “You’re right, though. The time for games and trickery is over. I think it’s time you learned the truth.” He took another drag from his cigarette and blew it in the Swamp Thing’s face. “The Parliament wants to see you.”
The Swamp Thing hated feeling like someone was constantly pulling his strings to and fro. It had been more months, years even, than he could remember since he could do anything but react to situations which were thrust upon him, rather than take the bull by the horns, so to speak, and make his own destiny. Too many things had happened to him over the years, but few of them had been his choice. Now that he was back, and some of his choices had already been made up for him, he wanted to choose his destiny from now on.
“No…” he said, turning around and walking away once more.
“If this is about Abby, guv, it’s not worth it. She was bound to leave you sooner or later. Now come on. I’ve got transport waiting for us.”
“Do not tempt me, Constantine… I have been through… too much to put up with you… any longer…”
“Trust me, tall, dark and gruesome, you’ll want to hear the answers to all those unspoken questions rattling around in your vegetable brain,” John said, smirking. “I know you too well.”
Several minutes later, the two stepped out into a clearing, where a scientifically advanced jet sat awaiting them. Four men stood in front of it.
“I thought I told you… to leave me…” the Swamp Thing said as they walked up to the four men dressed in purple jumpsuits.
“Hey, we couldn’t leave an old pal alone just when he needed us most,” said Rocky Davis. The other members of the Challengers of the Unknown agreed.
“You seem to… know everyone, Constantine…” the creature said as the group boarded the jet and buckled themselves in. “I suppose I… shouldn’t be surprised… that you know the Challengers… of the Unknown…”
“The unknown is my stock in trade, squire,” John Constantine said enigmatically and smiled as he set his seat back far enough to take a nap.
Within minutes, the Challenger Jet, with all its passengers, took off vertically into the air and then proceeded to head south.
The trip toward the continent of South America and specifically the Brazilian rainforest near the river Tefé was a quiet one. Ace Morgan piloted the jet the whole way there, Prof Haley had a notebook with him in which he worked on one of his projects, Red Ryan listened to music through a Walkman and headphones, Rocky Davis was reading a copy of G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, John Constantine slept most of the way there, and the Swamp Thing did nothing but remain completely still.
Inevitably, his thoughts were on Abby and Matt. He was not sure what he was supposed to feel at this point. It was true that he and Abby had shared a special bond of love — grim thoughts of the Beauty and the Beast came to his mind — but she had been with Matt for a long time earlier. Circumstances had been such that anything that was between herself and Matt was long over, but with Matt appearing to be not only healthy but also back to his old, capable self, how could she not return to him? The choice between a strong, healthy man and a monster from the swamps was no choice at all. They had never had a conversation about the possibility that Matt might ever get better, and that made him wonder. Was that because they both believed he would never wake up, or was that because neither of them knew what would happen if he did?
Well, the point was moot, he told himself. He had no right to her any longer. He had no right to expect to have a relationship with a human woman. He was only a swamp monster. And he knew that he had never been human at all. Jason Woodrue’s report had confirmed that for him. Alec Holland had died in the swamps in 1979 and had gone on to meet his reward at the same time he — a rare form of intelligent plant-life — was born. Holland’s presence in the afterlife when he visited the realms of Heaven and Hell had only confirmed that. In some ways, it had given him a measure of freedom, but at first it was so much of a shock to his system to learn that he had never been human and could never be human again. He had gone into a state of paralysis and had allowed himself to be rooted into the embracing soil in the ground. And there he would have stayed had Abby not needed him. What was keeping him from returning to that motionless state once more, now that she had returned to her husband? After all, he was only a plant. And plants were supposed to be planted.
And yet another memory returned to his mind, unbidden — a memory that had been buried ever since he had learned the truth about himself. This memory only now surfaced, most likely due to the presence of his friends in the Challengers of the Unknown. He had once become human again. Yes. Only a year and a half after the Swamp Thing was born, he returned to his hometown of Quinn, Oregon, and was reunited with his brother Edward, who discovered a scientific method that had been successful in returning him to human form once again.
How in the world could he have forgotten that? But that was impossible. If he had never been human originally, how in the world could he possibly ever have become human again? The paradox made absolutely no sense to him. And why had he not remembered this when he read Woodrue’s report that said the Swamp Thing had never been human? He should have known it was a false conclusion right from the start. Yet he could not deny that he had apparently met the soul of Alec Holland in Heaven. How could he, then, be Alec Holland? Confusion reigned in his mind until he thought it would burst.
The memory of his time as a human recalled to him another person he had forgotten: Ruth Monroe. She had been the lab assistant of his brother Edward’s, and indeed there was a romantic connection between them until he came along. Once again human, Alec and Ruth had fallen in love. Edward was terribly jealous, although he remained courteous to him and attempted to hide his true feelings.
Alec Holland was an expert in biochemical anomalies, which was why that man named Clayburn from the Challengers of the Unknown then came and asked for his help. Unfortunately, for some reason unknown to him, the process that had made him human once again began to quickly reverse shortly after he left with the man. The arrogantly wealthy Clayburn was soon afterward forcibly ejected from the ranks of the Challengers, and the Swamp Thing accompanied them on a couple of cases as a replacement and unofficial member before finally leaving them to return to his life of wandering.
He had never seen either Ruth or his brother Edward ever again after that. Had he subconsciously repressed the memories of his time as a human once again, due to its being too painful to think about? Or was there some other explanation? Ruth had been the first woman he had really fallen in love with since Linda’s death. But he had completely forgotten about her by the time he and Abby began their star-crossed relationship. Why was that?
Swamp Thing turned these thoughts around and around in his mind several times, over and over, until finally he was awoken from his reverie by a hand on his shoulder.
They had arrived at a clearing not far from the sacred grove of the Parliament of Trees. Perhaps it was here that he would finally learn some answers.