Please note: This Internet publication of Risen is © 2000 by Jan S. Strnad. It is not public domain and may not be duplicated without permission!
From his desk at the Cooves County Times, Brant Kettering could keep tabs on most of downtown Anderson.
The tiny office was one of two dozen storefronts located along Main Street. There was a hardware store, a movie house that charged two dollars a seat and was open only on Friday and Saturday nights, an insurance office, a grocery, the Sheriff's office...the usual assortment of Mom and Pop businesses that had served Anderson for the past fifty years. The only concession to modern times was the video rental store that had been opened by the owner of the movie house whose philosophy was, if television was going to drive him out of business, he'd as soon drive himself.
Parking was head-in and meterless. The streets were wide and lined with mature oaks. The tiny park that made up the town square boasted eight park benches, four trash cans, and a civil war cannon set in place by the local Optimists.
The cannon was aimed directly at Brant's head, a fact that seemed especially profound every Friday around noon when he knew he should have this week's Cooves County Times written and laid out on the Mac. Sloan Malone, the local printer, needed the layouts before lunch if Brant wanted his papers for Saturday distribution. The only way Brant could get a reasonable price on five thousand copies was if Sloan piggybacked Brant's print run with three other regional weeklies. Missing the deadline meant losing money on this week's edition rather than more or less breaking even after paying himself a modest salary as reporter, editor, photographer, typesetter, manager of distribution and executive in charge of advertising sales.
Brant sat and stared at eight empty column inches on the computer screen. He toyed with the idea of a humorous piece concerning the Optimists' cannon. What was so optimistic about setting a cannon in the middle of the town square? Wasn't that, in fact, a decidedly pessimistic act? From whom were the Optimists expecting an attack, the Rotarians?
Experience had taught him, however, that satire did not play well in Cooves County. Such a piece would surely inflame both the Optimists and the Rotarians, and the Times' paltry subscription list could hardly take a hit of that magnitude. After a few tentative opening sentences his finger mashed the "delete" button.
He'd planned to spend a few inches introducing the new preacher, Reverend Talbot Small, who'd joined the Anderson community two weeks before. But he'd put off the interview because preachers made him uncomfortable. They always wanted to know when they'd see Brant in church and Brant would stand there digging his finger in his ear while searching for a polite substitute for "when Hell freezes over." By now, word of mouth had spread whatever tales were worth telling about Reverend Small, which was typical of Anderson. What mere newspaperman could hope to keep up with the network of busy tongues that fueled the local rumor mill?
The tension was making itself felt in Brant's neck. He swiveled his head a few times, then he reached for the telephone to call his stringer at Anderson High School, a senior student named Tom Culler. The school secretary answered.
"Sorry, Brant. Tom's a no-show today," she said.
"Friday Flu. The usual gang's absent. Tom, Darren Coombs, Buzzy Hayes, Kent Fredericks. And the Ganger boy, of course."
Brant frowned. Tom had been a top student and a decent reporter. He'd written a column during his junior year, "My Town," that featured probing portraits of Anderson's notable citizens and their ancestors. Probing turned out to be even less popular than satire in Anderson. When Tom's research linked the current mayor's great-grandfather to deliberate attempts to spread smallpox among the local natives back in the 1850s, Brant had had to pull the plug on "My Town" or face the wrath of the entire Anderson political machine, such as it was. In a town this size, you either got along or you got out. Brant hadn't come to Anderson to make waves and "My Town," though cleverly written, was making new enemies for the paper with every edition.
He'd regretted that decision ever since. Yanking Tom's column was all the proof Tom needed that the entire adult world, and especially that of Anderson, was composed of crooks and hypocrites. Brant, an outsider, had been young Tom's lifeline out of cynicism, and Brant had cast him adrift.
In place of his final "My Town" column, Tom had submitted a poem by Emily Dickinson that began, "It fell so low in my regard/I heard it hit the ground." Brant printed the poem despite a prudent policy against verse of any kind. Since then he'd been flooded with unsolicited doggerel praising babies, pigs, springtime, summer, fall, winter and grandmother's old gnarled hands. As penance for what he'd done to Tom, Brant forced himself to read every one before rejecting it.
Tom's contributions to the Cooves County Times, which previously had included items on the new low-fat menu at the school cafeteria and the alarming rise in restroom vandalism, ceased abruptly. Brant was calling Tom now out of sheer desperation. Learning that Tom was hanging with the likes of the Ganger boy awakened a new guilt and Brant hung up the phone feeling like a hundred-seventy-five pounds of horse manure.
And he still had eight column inches to fill.
Bleakly he dialed the number for the parsonage and offered his belated welcome to the Reverend Small.
Brant finished modeming his layouts to Sloan Malone and locked up the office behind him. His neck was tight as a piano wire after the Reverend Small interview. Of course the Reverend had asked when he'd see Brant in church.
"I'm not much of a church-goer," he'd mumbled, meaning, "If you ask me, the church has been responsible for more misery in the form of guilt, shame, and outright bloody warfare than it could make up for with a thousand years of hospital visits and youth volleyball nights, so don't expect to see my hands passing around the collection plate this Sunday or any other."
Brant was swiveling his head and concentrating on the crunching, popping noises from his neck when he stepped into the path of the local mortician, an exuberant and smiling man named, inappropriately, Jedediah Grimm.
Brant was in his late thirties and Grimm was easily ten years his senior, but Grimm's vigor put Brant to shame. Grimm's barrel chest produced a loud, full voice that would have been at home behind Reverend Small's pulpit. Brant couldn't imagine Grimm speaking in the hushed tones of a mortician comforting the bereaved and, since Brant had no family within a five hundred mile radius, he didn't expect to see Jedediah Grimm at work until Brant's own interment, at which point he'd hardly be in any position to observe anything.
"Whoa!" Grimm said as if reining in a team of Clydesdales. His brawny hands caught Brant in the chest and Brant felt immediately puny and foolish. "That neck again?" Grimm asked.
"Nothing a potion of lime juice and tequila wouldn't cure."
"All it wants is a twist," Grimm offered. "Let me give it a try."
He spun Brant around but Brant ducked skillfully before Grimm could lay hold of his head.
"No offense, but I never take medical advice from a mortician," Brant said.
"Maybe you should have Doc Milford take a look at it. He'll tell you it only wants a twist."
"Maybe I will."
The two men waved their good-byes as Brant headed across Main Street toward Ma's Diner.
The bell on the door announced his arrival. The sole waitress, Peg Culler, turned and gave him a smile. "Hi, stranger," she said. It was their personal joke, a reference to Brant's lack of tenure in Anderson.
Peg remembered their first meeting clearly. She'd told him to sit anywhere and she'd be right with him. He'd said, "Great, but who's going to bring us our food?" Peg was busy juggling four lunch specials and two boats of gravy on the side and didn't realize for a couple of minutes that she'd just been flirted with, however clumsily, by an attractive out-of-towner. By the time it dawned on her, Brant was sitting at the counter and had already helped himself to a menu. He looked up sheepishly as she approached.
"Sorry about the wisecrack," he said.
"Oh, no. It was funny."
"You didn't laugh."
"Well, not funny exactly, but...." Words failed her.
"Droll? Witty? Clever? You can lie and say 'yes' at any time."
Peg laughed genuinely. The stranger had smiled an easy smile and asked what was good.
"The chicken fried steaks come frozen, so they're safe. There's not much damage you can do to mashed potatoes. The gravy's not bad...it's Heinz...and the green beans are straight from the can."
"I take it Ma's cooking isn't exactly Cordon Bleu."
"If that's French for 'edible,' I'd say no," Peg said. The stranger's eyes were a lovely chestnut brown.
"Recommend the meat loaf?" he asked.
"Were you going to eat it or poison a gopher?"
"I'll take the chicken fry."
Peg had spent the next thirty minutes in a state of grace. Her feet stopped burning and she lost that persistent ache in the small of her back. Even the lousy twenty-five cent tip at table number one didn't bother her.
And for thirty minutes she didn't think about Annie.
Eight months ago:
Rodney Culler chipped at the ice on the Ford's windshield with the corner of his ice scraper. The snow was no big deal, just a two-inch layer of fluff you could brush off in a moment. But the ice beneath the snow was a quarter inch thick, and breaking it out was a pain in the ass.
Inside the car, the defroster exhaled air only slightly warmer than that outside, which was two degrees Fahrenheit. With the wind chill, it was cold enough to freeze the nipples off a mastodon.
Normally Rod would've just started the car and let it run with the heater on for twenty minutes if that's what it took to loosen the ice without all this damn chipping, but he was late getting Annie back to Peg's and she'd give him hell for making her worry. He could call and let her know they'd be late, but then he'd have to talk to her and he was still too pissed off about the divorce to want to do that.
Annie waited impatiently inside the front door. All bundled up in her down parka and wool muffler and snow boots she looked like a stuffed doll, arms practically perpendicular, legs all but immobile. Rod didn't know why Peg made her wear all that crap, like she was going on a damn polar expedition or something, when all she had to do was dash from the front door to the car, then from the car to Peg's. He'd said as much when he'd picked Annie up, and Peg had stubbornly kept adding layers to Annie's outfit.
"What if the car breaks down and she has to walk?" Peg had asked.
"Jesus, Peg, I just live in Isaac. It's thirty fucking miles, not halfway across the Arctic continent."
"You never know. It pays to be prepared."
"Whatever." In the end it was easier to just give in. That was his problem with Peg. He'd always just given in. It made him feel like a pussy just thinking about it. Maybe if he'd slapped her around a little....
Ah, the hell with it.
Chip chip chip. The heater was starting to loosen the ice from underneath. A big chunk broke away, clearing a space big enough to see through. Good enough. Rodney Culler beckoned to his daughter to come on. She did, and of course she left the door open.
"She's only five." Rod could hear Peg's voice in his head as he ran carefully up the frozen walk to close the front door.
"Old enough to know how to close a damn door," he muttered.
Annie had stopped halfway down the walk, waiting for him to catch up.
"What're you waiting for?" he said, giving her a nudge. "Come on. We're late." He ushered her into the car and slammed the door, hurried around and jumped in behind the steering wheel, thinking that he should get some thermal underwear, he was freezing his goddamn nuts off.
He'd moved out of their house in Anderson before the divorce, as soon as Peg informed him, after seventeen years of marriage, that "it wasn't working out." Rental housing was at a premium since work began on the nuke plant and hundreds of construction workers had moved into the area. He'd been lucky to find a spare bedroom to rent in Isaac, upstairs in the house of an elderly widow. It had been her husband's "snoring room" where he'd been banished for the last twenty-two years of their marriage. The husband had died of pneumonia, which Rod could well believe considering the gale force wind that whipped through the room on these winter nights.
The highway to Anderson was black and slick in spots. The county did a pretty good job of keeping it clear of snow, but now and again Rod would hit an icy patch that spun his wheels for an instant. No big deal, but it made him long for the 4x4 he'd had his eye on before the divorce.
Annie sat silently beside him. She stared out the window at the piles of snow heaped along the roadside by the plows. They were dirty and ugly now with exhaust. Beyond them stretched pure country black.
She seemed to be handling the divorce well, but with a kid this young, who knew what was going on in her head? At Annie's age it was all pony-this and dolly-that. Rod couldn't relate to any of it and, truthfully, would've been happier with another son.
Tom had turned out good, at least so far. The trouble he'd gotten into was minor. God knows Rod was no angel himself at that age, and he'd turned out okay. At least, in his own opinion he had. Peg obviously disagreed.
These thoughts and more were churning around inside Rod's head as he closed on the bridge that spanned the drainage canal. It looked dry and clear and Rod hit it at sixty.
Sheet ice was a fucker, that's for sure. You don't see it, it just sits there invisible on the road, waiting for you, and the instant your wheels hit it you know you're fucked.
Annie's eyes went wide as the Ford lost traction and the rear end slid around and Rod was suddenly cursing as he spun the wheel and pumped the useless brakes. Annie clutched the arm rest and stuck her feet out to brace herself against the dashboard as the car spun around like a carnival ride. The bridge railing flew past the front window and she looked briefly down the road they'd just traveled as the car continued spinning and flying and then there was the railing again and she had to shut her eyes to keep from getting sick.
Rod spun the wheel one way and then the other. It was as if the whole mechanism had come loose and he flashed on spinning the steering wheel of the kiddie cars at the amusement park when he was small and how frustrating it was that it didn't make any damn difference what he did, the cars just kept circling. He felt small again and just as helpless as the Ford spun around once more, spinning and hurtling unchecked across the ice. Annie was screaming and Rod couldn't remember if he'd made her buckle up.
Suddenly the bridge railing shot toward them and there was the impact of metal on metal and a post broke and the car was in the air and Annie was screaming and there was a loud crunch and a shattering of glass and the next thing he knew he was opening his eyes and it was quiet and Annie wasn't moving and something in his chest felt really, really fucked.
And God help him, his last thought as darkness closed in was that Peg was going to kill him.
Peg saw Brant heading toward the diner from the newspaper office. She stole a peppermint from the basket by the cash register and popped it into her mouth. She looked away so that she could turn and smile at him when the bell on the door announced his arrival.
"Hi, stranger," she said. "What'll it be?"
"Something to rot my gut and make me forget my troubles," Brant replied.
"One lunch special, coming up. Cuppa decaf?"
"If that's the best you can do."
Brant gazed at Peg while she poured the coffee. She was pretty enough, getting a little full in the hips but that was okay. His own figure would never land him a role in a Hanes commercial. Peg was bright and made him laugh, which wasn't that easy these days. All in all, he'd be quite delighted to spend his declining years--and he hoped to have seventy or eighty of them--with this woman.
"Hey, when are we going out again?" he asked. "How about Saturday? We'll drive out to Junction City, take in a movie...."
"Can't. I'll be--"
Brant finished her sentence with her: "At the hospital."
She smiled at him. Any man in his right mind would've quit asking her out after hearing the same refusal so many times, but not Brant. Not yet. The day would come, though. She wouldn't notice it at first, but then, in the middle of filling a sugar dispenser or washing her hair, she'd realize that Brant hadn't asked her out in a long time, and she'd have to acknowledge that some invisible marker had been passed in her and Brant's lives, and that the days of courtship were over.
She'd gone out with him once, while the giddy feeling was still in her head and the butterflies fluttered in her stomach, and it had gone well. She sensed a kind heart behind his cynicism and a strength of character that needed only true adversity to bring out. Unfortunately Brant had never been tested, only aggravated, worn down like a pair of shoes. So he ended up in Anderson, where life didn't walk so fast because there wasn't much of anyplace to go.
She'd only realized all this later, as she'd gotten to know him better a few minutes at a time. Her son Tom had seemed mightily impressed by Brant for awhile, but then there was that trouble over the "My Town" column and Brant's stock bottomed out in Tom's eyes. It was all or nothing with Tom, as with most teenagers.
Peg was willing to accept Brant's apparent lack of ambition, especially in Anderson where ambitions ran along the lines of big fish and bumper crops and where pulling a weekly newspaper out of thin air was something of a miracle. And she felt confident that, in a time of crisis, he'd rise to the occasion and get them through.
But Peg's crisis point was in the past. Her husband was dead, her daughter in a coma, on life support. All that was left was getting through the daily grind of battles with hospital staff and insurance companies and the slow erosion of hope, and she wasn't sure that Brant was up to that particular task.
Besides, it made her feel guilty to be out and having fun with a man while her daughter lay in a stark hospital room, oxygen being pumped into her lungs, nutrition dripped into her veins from a tube. Could Annie hear? Did she think? Did she know when Peg was there and when she wasn't? On the chance that she did, it was Peg's duty to be there. Every day, every hour she could spare.
So she and Brant carried on in a kind of Moëbius strip of flirtation that went nowhere but back around to where it began. Outwardly he seemed to accept this pattern as well as she did, but Peg knew that it would wear thin in time. He'd stop making eyes at her and then it would be just friendship between them. Maybe he'd find a younger woman and they'd move away, and that would be that. Sad and bittersweet.
"How is Annie?" Brant asked.
In the kitchen, a crusty Asian man named Ma plopped the hamburger and a scoop of cold french fries on a plate, set the plate on the warming shelf and called to Peg through the service window.
"Order up!" Ma said.
Peg gave Brant a smile as she turned away.
As he watched Peg deliver the hamburger, Brant ruminated on how much he'd like to feel his hands on her buttocks, which he imagined as cool and white and smooth as silk. Then he considered what beasts men were, himself in particular.
Brant was digging a fork suspiciously through his chopped sirloin, thinking he'd just felt something in his mouth that was shaped oddly like an insect leg, when the shift occurred. So he didn't notice.
Peg was wiping the crumbs and water rings off the booth in the corner when it happened, and she didn't notice, either.
Doc Milford was checking Annie Culler's feeding tube and Deputy Haws was sleeping late to prepare for the night shift and the five boys who'd gypped school were passing a joint around and pooling their money for a twelve-pack when it happened, and none of them noticed.
In fact, no one in the entire town of Anderson noticed.
But there were artifacts:
Ants in a colony out by the reservoir began to feast on their eggs.
A flock of crows descended on a mockingbird and pecked it until nothing recognizable remained.
Merle Tippert's stubborn old dog that everyone said was too mean to die lay its chin on its paws and quietly gave up the ghost.
A young boy on his first hunt found the courage to pull the head off a wounded quail, something his father didn't think he could do.
And Madge Duffy, her face still swollen from last night's blows, put a kitchen knife to the neck of her sleeping husband and sliced his neck from ear to ear.
Ripples of a decision....
Seth had decided to begin.