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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!

Risen
by Jan Strnad

 

Two

The sun was going down as Franz Klempner drove his old John Deere back to the house. A jaunty mutt named "Elmer" ran barking alongside.

When Elmer was still living with city folk, confined to a two-bedroom apartment, he had expressed his exuberant personality by devouring anything he could get his jaws around. He began with the sofa cushions. Once those were reduced to shreds he attacked the sofa itself. Soon it looked like a showroom display of innerspring construction. He also munched on remote controls, compact discs, table legs, books, shoes, rugs, fireplace logs, laundry from the hamper, and one afternoon he swallowed the owners' prized cassette of jazz tunes recorded from old 78s that hadn't survived the last move. It may have been while they were unspooling magnetic tape through Elmer's rear orifice that the owners decided Elmer might be better off as a farm dog.

They made a midnight run to the country and adopted Elmer out to the wild, confident that his natural instincts would provide for him.

Several days later Franz Klempner found the half-starved dog lying in his field, too weak to stand. He carried Elmer to the house and fed him beef broth and kippers until the dog dropped off to sleep. When Elmer awoke, it was on an old horse blanket in a warm corner of Franz' kitchen. He'd slept there every night since.

Franz was no less kind to his demented wife, Irma. Both Irma and Franz were in their mid-sixties. They'd been married for forty-seven years. Irma had been insane, to some degree, for most of those years.

It was hard to pinpoint exactly when Irma Louise Pritchett, now Irma Klempner, had gone around the bend mentally. She'd been raised since the age of five by an aunt and uncle in nearby Isaac after her parents died under mysterious circumstances. Maybe those circumstances were buried deep in her brain, and maybe the memory had dug itself loose over time, burrowing up into Irma's conscious mind like a tapeworm that ate away a little more gray matter with each passing year.

By high school she was considered eccentric, which may have been what young Franz found so attractive. Strange, haunted women were a scarce commodity in Cooves County and Franz was hungry for a little adventure. He might have joined the Navy or bummed around the world or gone off to work on the pipeline in Alaska, but instead he married Irma. They exchanged vows in the Methodist church in Anderson.

Certainly by his second or third wedding anniversary, Franz must have suspected that something in Irma's head wasn't wired quite right. For one thing, she'd stopped talking. Not all at once, but gradually, as if her supply of words were running short and finally gave out altogether, a kind of verbal menopause that was complete by the time Irma hit twenty-two.

She had nightmares of a shapeless black thing that threatened to swallow her, nightmares from which she would awaken soaking wet with sweat. She was given to long periods of sitting motionlessly in a corner of the bedroom, her eyes fixed on the door. She became ever more careless about her appearance. By the age of thirty-five, she no longer bathed unless Franz took her by the hand and guided her to the tub, though once she was hip deep in soapy water she was quite able to wash, dry, and dress herself.

It was as if certain relays in her brain had become corroded and undependable. Sometimes she would simply stop and stand in one place until Franz found her and started her going again.

Other times she would scream. For no reason that Franz could discern, she would let out such a blood-curdling howl of terror that he could hear it even over the chugging of the tractor. He'd race to the house to find her wedged into the cupboard or hiding under the bed or cowering in the fireplace, grimy with soot.

And yet, much of the time she functioned, if not well, at least tolerably. Her housekeeping was not the worst in town. She cooked all the meals. She tended a garden. She canned beets and rhubarb and peaches and tomatoes. She liked to rock in front of the fireplace while Franz read to her from the Bible.

Franz knew plenty of couples whose marriages were less gratifying.

Franz tromped into the mud porch, pounding the dirt from his boots and slapping it from his clothes. Elmer the dog bounded in behind him and made straight for the kitchen. Irma's careless attitude toward spills was a godsend to Elmer, who considered the floor his twenty-four hour, self-serve deli.

Franz announced his arrival. His nose warned him that this was a bad cooking day. (He'd disconnected the smoke alarms years ago, never mind what the fire department said.) He washed up and sat down at the kitchen table, his thin hair slicked back and his skin smelling of Lifebuoy.

Irma Klempner set a plate in front of him containing a baked potato and something black that might once have been a decent pork chop. She brought her own plate to the table and began to eat silently. He smiled at her, noticing that her old print dress was buttoned wrong and that her hair was badly in need of brushing. He hoped she didn't see him slip the charred chop under the table to Elmer.

"I'll give your hair a brushing tonight," he said. Irma didn't appear to have heard him, but she liked to have her hair brushed and later she would bring him the brush herself if he forgot. In this and other subtle ways they communicated, however obliquely.

They retired to the living room after dinner. Franz lit some kindling under a log in the fireplace and when the fire was roaring to his satisfaction, he took his seat under the reading lamp. Irma sat in her rocker and Franz read to her from John.

He read, "'Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die."'"

If he had been watching her, Franz would have noticed the sudden tightness around Irma's mouth. He would have seen her wrinkled lips pucker as she sucked at her cheeks, and he'd have seen her breath turn quick and shallow. But when reading the Bible, Franz sometimes felt himself transported. The room he was sitting in would vanish like an old dream, and Franz would be striding boldly among the Pharisees or giving sight to the blind or staggering down the streets of Jerusalem under the weight of his crucifixion cross, bound for Calvary. Tonight he was at Jesus' side for the resurrection of Lazarus.

"'She said to him, "Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world."'"

Irma gripped the arms of the rocker. Her fingers closed around the carved wood and squeezed it hard. The veins and tendons stood out under her thin, aging skin. She began to rock harder.

Franz continued reading. He read how Mary came to Jesus and fell at his feet, weeping in lamentation over her dead brother, Lazarus. He read how the Jews followed Jesus and Mary to the tomb of Lazarus and how Jesus commanded the stone over the tomb to be removed.

"'Jesus said to her, "Did I not tell you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?" So they took away the stone.'"

Irma's old woman heart beat fast in her chest. Her body felt cold and frail. The dark unnamable thing rose from the horizon, blotting out all light, and towered over her. She saw it as clearly as Franz saw the words on the page before him, and when she closed her eyes she could feel it closing on her, engulfing her, swallowing her whole....

"'When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!"'"

Irma felt the dark nothingness wrap around her and squeeze her in an icy fist. Her body was paralyzed, unable even to squirm in the grip of the thing. She felt herself being drawn away, down, down, down into the lair of the thing. In another instant she would disappear into the subterranean nether world beneath the feet of the living and dissolve into the suffocating being of the thing. She drew in her breath, filling her aging lungs until she felt they would burst.

Irma screamed with the terror that inhabited every nerve and vessel of her fragile body. She screamed from deep within her soul, screamed to shatter the grip of the black encompassing thing, screamed for her life.

Franz leaped from his chair and took his wife of forty-seven years in his arms. He held her close and whispered soothing words into her ear. He knew from experience that the words didn't matter. It was the sound of his voice that would draw her back from whatever oblivion she had witnessed. Just soothing words, nothing words, words spoken with love.

But tonight there was something sinister in the air. A sterile coolness. The dead smell of an ancient tomb. Something that whispered of death without redemption, of purgatory. Something that made Franz Klempner shudder and made Irma Louise Klempner scream and keep screaming until sheer physical exhaustion overcame her and she collapsed, spent, in her husband's arms.

***

Tom Culler took another swallow of beer and marveled at the profound effect digging a hole and filling it with water could have on a community of human beings.

That's all the Cooves County Reservoir was, really, just a hole with water in it. At some point in the history of Cooves County a bunch of enterprising men known as the Army Corps of Engineers diverted water from the river and regulated its flow into a big hole they'd dug in the countryside, and the reservoir was born. Trees were planted along the shore and a road was graded into being between the reservoir and the freeway, and the reservoir became a recreational lake. Bass were dumped into the water annually and pulled out again one by one by fishermen. Boats were launched, canoes paddled.

Area nudists had claimed one tiny cove as their own. They built a dock and were the scandal of the county for doing sober and in the daylight what decent folks did only after dark and half a bottle of Jack Daniels.

For many teenagers the reservoir was the makeout point of choice. These days, of course, a lot more went on than mere making out. Guilt--even Protestant guilt, which is a ninety-eight-pound weakling next to its muscle bound cousins in the Jewish and Catholic faiths--was still a force to be reckoned with, and the natural setting lent a certain wholesomeness to all sexual proceedings, even the clumsy backseat fumbling of the young. Somehow slipping your hand under a girl's shirt didn't seem quite so sinful under a full moon beside a body of water under maples and oaks murmuring in the breeze.

No good free thing exists without opposition and the Cooves County Reservoir makeout point was no exception. Local authorities had tried to close the lake road after dark with a padlock and a chain strung between two poles set in concrete, but the effort was doomed from the outset. Horny teenagers quickly dug out the poles and left the whole works on the nudists' dock, hoping the nudists would get the blame. (They didn't.)

The authorities tried two more times to block the road and each time the roadblock found its way to the nudists. The third time it stayed on the dock until the nudists got tired of it and coiled it up on the shore. There it remained, finding function at last as a home to various beetles, snakes and pill bugs.

Tom turned these thoughts over in his mind until they seemed profound. They might have formed the spine of a "My Town" column if he was still writing it, if Brant Kettering didn't value subscription revenue over Truth. Tom should've known that Brant was a man of tin. Who else would end up in Anderson, the middle-aged owner/editor of a no-account weekly? That Tom had been taken in by such an obvious fraud made him feel even more like a smalltown hick.

Then there was the whole Cindy affair.

Cindy Robertson was the other waitress doing time at Ma's Diner. She was a pretty redhead with a sweet body that tended to plumpness, which was fine with Tom who never cared for those boyish, thin-as-a-rail women in women's magazines anyway. Cindy had a quick mind and she made Tom laugh and she was the best kisser Tom had discovered in Cooves County. He'd been on the verge of discovering what other powers she possessed when he'd backed away instinctively.

Cindy was not going to be a casual thing, he could see that. He felt her pulling at him quietly, with a kind of gravity or magnetism or something, not with anything she said or did but simply with who she was. And unfortunately, who she was, was an Andersonite. She'd grown up in Anderson, was being schooled in Anderson, worked in Anderson, and worst of all seemed perfectly content in Anderson. Tom knew that Cindy would not be one of that majority of young people who moved away at the first opportunity. Even if she went to college, and she was certainly smart enough for that, she'd be back. Some mis-wired circuit in her brain actually liked small town life. She'd found her little plot of earth, it nurtured her, and she would gladly live there for the rest of her life, which struck Tom as a fate worse than death.

So he'd broken it off with her on the basis of a gut level feeling and left it until later to figure out why, when it was too late to explain. She'd run for her house trailing tears, with no notion of what she'd done wrong and no explanation from Tom to help her understand, and they'd barely spoken since.

After that, Tom had spent more time with the guys, all of whom shared his disdain for Anderson and his longing to be anywhere but.

"I've got to get out," he said aloud, to no one.

"I hear that," replied a voice behind him. Tom jumped. He'd known that Galen Ganger was there. They'd been passing a joint around only minutes earlier. But Tom's thoughts had led him to the edges of the Blacklands, a barren place inside his skull where he was the only occupant. Galen's sudden intrusion snapped him back to reality. "Anderson sucks." Galen punctuated his observation with a resonant belch fueled by a belly full of Coors.

The other boys muttered their agreement.

Darren, Buzzy and Kent sat on the hood of Darren's '66 Plymouth Satellite swigging beer. Darren figured he had about three thousand bucks invested in the Satellite, starting with the thousand dollars he'd paid for the body sans motor and transmission, then adding another couple thousand in swap meet parts, a '68 Chrysler engine, and fifty bucks worth of paint that he sprayed himself. He liked his car but he wasn't fussy about it the way Galen was about his '68 Charger with the overbored 440.

Buzzy drove a '74 Vega with a 454 big-block Chevy engine that, when it wasn't sitting in pieces in his father's garage as it was now, would give Galen's Charger a run for its money. Kent's taste ran to his '72 Super Beetle in which he was installing Weber dual carbs. He'd gotten as far as removing the old carburetor and opening the package from Fast Freddy's, but he didn't have the 12mm socket he needed and he wasn't too sure about relocating the coil to clear the linkage, so the project languished and Kent had been, for the last three months, without wheels.

Tom Culler rode a motorcycle, a used Honda he'd bought to dispel his egghead image and to keep from having to share a ride with Galen, Darren or Buzzy. Motorcycles were dangerous, but riding with any of his friends was pure suicide.

Car talk dominated the boys' conversation. Sex came in a close second. Everything else squeaked in around the edges.

Sitting on the fender, Darren blew a fart that rattled the sheet metal and prompted a lot of arm waving. Kent commented that it was lucky they weren't still smoking or they'd all have gone up in flames.

"That really happens to some people," Buzzy said. "They just go on fire for no reason."

"Bullshit," Galen said.

"No, it's true. They call it something."

"Spontaneous human combustion," Tom said.

"Bullshit. People don't just explode."

"Tell him about it, Tom," Buzzy said. "You know this shit."

All eyes turned to Tom, the former honors student. He sighed. It seemed like he was always playing Mr. Wizard for his friends.

"The human body's a controlled chemical reaction. We burn calories for fuel. That's why we have a temperature...ninety-eight point six, more or less. Only some people's thermostat goes haywire and their temperature goes up and up and doesn't stop. Eventually they literally burst into flame."

Galen stared at Tom. He cast his gaze around the group of boys, fixing each one for a moment before returning to Tom. "You're shittin' me," he said.

Tom shook his head. "It's the truth."

Galen considered for a moment, then he raised his beer can high and grinned. "To spontaneous human fucking combustion!" he yelled. The boys clinked their cans together and drank.

Galen sidled up next to Tom, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "Just one thing," he said.

Galen's arm whipped out and locked around Tom's neck. He bent Tom double and squeezed hard enough to show he wasn't kidding around. The other boys stiffened, but they didn't intervene. They'd learned better.

"If I find out you were shittin' me," Galen hissed through clenched teeth, "I'll break your fucking neck, you get me?" He squeezed harder, and Tom protested.

"I wasn't shitting you!"

Galen let Tom go. Tom backed away, saying, "Jesus, Galen!"

Galen took several animal steps around the small group, glaring a warning to each of them in turn, breathing hard through his nose. "And that goes for the rest of you, too," he said. The boys studied the ground intently.

The night grew quiet. You never knew what would set Galen off. These rages would just come over him and there was nothing to do but ride it out. Galen drained his Coors and threw the can in the water.

"Let's wake some people up," he said.

Darren and Buzzy got into Darren's Satellite, Galen and Kent rode in Galen's Charger. The engines roared to life and the cars peeled out, spraying dirt.

Tom, still smarting from his humiliation, kick-started the Honda and followed, wondering what in the hell he was doing but, at this moment in time, not really giving a good goddamn.

***

Annie Culler, five years old, lay in the hospital bed. Her eyes were closed as if she were asleep. They had been closed for eight months. Her face had become gaunt, her eye sockets sunken and gray.

The exuberant, teasing, giggling, willful little girl she had been was gone, and only the shell that had contained her spirit remained. But still the body lived. Doc Milford called it a "persistent vegetative state," but even that term couldn't capture the languor of her being. A vegetable was aware of the sun and the earth and the water and air. A plant could turn its face to the sunlight, could reach out limbs to gather the bounty of life, could seek and aspire and attain.

Annie did none of these things. She had not done them for eight months and was not likely to ever do them again.

The nurse's aide wadded Annie's old, soiled linen into a ball. She muttered to the orderly she glimpsed standing in the doorway.

"Hopeless," she said. "Waste of hospital resources. Ought to just pull the plug and be done with it."

"Not everyone considers her case hopeless," came the reply.

The nurse's aide looked up, startled. The uniformed figure in the doorway was not the orderly but was Peg Culler, still dressed in her waitressing outfit and destroying her with a look of perfect detestation.

"If you think you're wasting your time here," Peg continued, "maybe you should be the waitress and I should be the nurse."

Reddening, the nurse's aide hurried from the room clinging to the dirty bedclothes as if to a life preserver. She felt Peg's eyes on her neck as she stuffed the sheets into the basket and wheeled it away.

Peg's face softened as she looked on her daughter, her baby. Her precious. She walked over and brushed the hair off Annie's forehead.

"Hi, sweetie," she said.

Annie gave no sign that she heard the words or felt the warm kiss on her cool skin or sensed in any way her mother's presence. But still Peg pulled the plastic chair up close to the bed and withdrew the book from her purse, and, in her clearest voice, began to read.

***

Madge Duffy had turned herself in around two o'clock, announcing to Sheriff Clark that she'd murdered her husband.

She'd actually done the deed an hour before. But whereas it had taken her only a moment to decide to open his neck with the filet knife, it took longer to figure out what to do next.

Madge did not want to be one of those people who blamed everything on the Negroes. She didn't want to concoct a black-skinned killer who fought with her husband and fled, though that was her first instinct. If they found her out later to be a murderess, she didn't want them heaping the name "racist" on her, too.

She worked on the problem as she picked things up and did a little dusting. The air seemed musty, so she opened a window. She knew that you weren't supposed to touch anything after a murder but she didn't want the place to be a total mess when strangers started tramping through gathering evidence and drawing outlines around things in chalk.

The sofa where John had fallen asleep, dead drunk, and the carpet in front of it were total losses because of all the blood so she didn't even bother with those.

She finished the dishes and left them in the drainer. By then she'd pretty well decided to make a clean breast of everything and just take her punishment. It was her first offense so maybe they'd go easy on her. She was barely forty so even if she got fifteen years and served, say, eight of them, she could return to society (if not to Anderson) and live out her remaining twenty or thirty years knowing she'd paid her debt.

What were eight years, anyway? She'd been married to John for twenty, and they'd just flown. It didn't seem so at the time but looking back, the years whizzed by in a gray blur with very few high points to mark their passing.

Surely women's prison wouldn't be any worse than being married to a man who argued with her over every little thing and took his fists to her when he was drunk. She imagined prison as a kind of church social where she'd meet women of a like mind. They'd sit at folding tables and talk about their lives. The only difference would be that they'd wear uniforms, and she imagined that most women in prison smoked. She might even take it up herself, just to fit in.

She put on a fresh dress, worked on her hair a little, and then phoned Sheriff Clark.

"I've murdered John," she said. "I expect you'll want me to come in."

The Sheriff had told her to just stay put and he'd come to her. He showed up a few minutes later. She met him at the door and escorted him to the scene of the crime.

The Sheriff's mood had been black that day, he didn't know why. Staring at John Duffy's body swarming now with flies, he felt strangely unmoved. He knew that Duffy beat his wife and that she never had and never would press charges for fear of reprisals. The law couldn't have held onto Duffy for long, and a restraining order wouldn't mean squat to him once he got some booze in his belly. If she'd run off, he'd have gone after her and that would've been unpleasant, too. It could easily have been Madge Duffy lying somewhere dead instead of John.

He also knew that Madge's mother had committed suicide when Madge was a teenager in order to escape an abusive domestic situation. Apparently Madge had decided not to follow her mother's example. Madge was a decent if limited woman who'd married wrong, and she'd dealt with the problem the only way she knew how. Too bad she had to pay such a stiff penalty for it.

"Are you sure you did this?" the Sheriff asked. "Are you sure it wasn't a prowler, maybe? Somebody John caught in the act of burglary?"

Madge shook her head "no."

"I did it. There's the knife. I expect my prints are all over it."

Well, what could you do with somebody like that? Sheriff Clark handcuffed her according to the rules and took her to the jail. From there he called Doc Milford and Jedediah Grimm.

Now the dark had settled in. Madge Duffy lay asleep in the cell. She'd been understanding when the Sheriff told her no, she couldn't have her knitting supplies. He'd loaned her a book but the type was small and the light in the cell was no good and so she'd gone to bed early. He'd made a special trip back to the house for an extra blanket and her special pillow, the one she slept on for her neck, and she seemed comfortable enough. She didn't cry, which struck Sheriff Clark as odd.

Odd, too, was the feeling in the air. The Sheriff couldn't give it a name but it gave him the shivers. Something was going to happen tonight, he was sure of it. He'd even sent his deputy out to patrol the streets despite his protests that it was a waste of manpower.

Which it probably was. Probably, nothing would happen. Even if something did happen, Deputy Haws probably couldn't cope with it. The deputy wasn't good for much, but the job paid poorly and the Sheriff hadn't been flooded with applicants. Haws was a uniform on the street, at least.

Sheriff Clark was pouring water into the coffee pot when he heard the siren in the distance. It was drawing closer. He went to the door and stepped out in time to see the Ganger boy's souped-up old Charger tear down the street, followed by Darren Coombs' Satellite, both cars honking and the boys yelling out the windows. Tom Culler came next, quiet but riding hard, practically laying the Honda down as he rounded the corner.

Deputy Haws was in hot pursuit, the lights flashing and siren blaring.

Sheriff Clark considered joining the chase but remembered Madge Duffy in the cell. Besides, he could see Clyde Dunwiddey staggering drunkenly toward the office. He went back inside to put sheets on the cot in the second cell and the old soup pot beside the bed in case Clyde had to vomit in the middle of the night.

As he made up the cot, he prayed fervently that Deputy Haws didn't do anything stupid.

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