Make your own free website on Tripod.com

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

 

Nine

"You're shitting us," Darren said. He looked from Galen to Tom, desperate for a sign that this was all some kind of sick joke. A smirk, a snicker, a twitch of the lip. Anything. Finding nothing.

"It's true," Tom said. "Haws is alive."

"Again," Galen added.

Darren regarded Kent and Buzzy. Kent sat on the fender of Darren's Satellite looking so sunken and morose he barely seemed to be breathing. Buzzy sat beside him, his leg twitching nervously, his mind working a mile a minute.

"I don't believe it," Darren said.

"You heard about Duffy," said Tom.

"Yeah, I heard. And I don't believe that crock of shit either."

Galen paced like a caged hyena, his teeth clenched, his breath huffing through flared nostrils. He turned on Darren and punched a palm hard into his chest.

"Fucking believe it!" he said.

"Hey!" Darren protested.

Galen was in his face.

"I saw the asshole! I woke up in the back of his fucking car! The fucker is alive!"

Galen had indeed come to in the back seat of Haws' patrol vehicle and stared up at Haws' red neck, and then Haws had turned around and grinned at him and Galen had figured he'd died and gone to Hell. "Feeling better?" Haws had asked, and all Galen could do was lie there on the stinking seat while his brain performed its impression of the Lost In Space robot blowing a fucking fuse. Haws had reached over and jacked open the door behind Galen's head and said, "Be home tonight" and then told him to get the hell out of his patrol vehicle. Galen had scrambled out of the car without even sitting up, just scooted out like a lizard and flopped onto the pavement and Haws slammed the door shut and drove off, his back tires spinning and spraying Galen with road debris. When he'd stopped shaking, Galen had called the guys and told them to get their asses out to the reservoir pronto, some serious shit was going down.

"You'd better believe it," Galen said, resuming his pacing. Then he yelled out "Shit!" and kicked the fender of Darren's Satellite hard enough to leave a dent.

Darren leaped at Galen and gave him a shove before his good sense had time to stop him.

"Asshole!" Darren yelled and Galen whirled on him and grabbed the front of his shirt and muscled him over against the car and backed him against the window.

"Who are you calling asshole, asshole?" Galen demanded.

"You dented my fucking car!" Darren yelled back.

Galen and Darren faced off for a few seconds and then Galen glanced over at the fender. He looked at the dent as if seeing it for the first time.

"Shit!" he said, giving Darren a shove as he turned loose of his shirt. "Shit shit shit shit!" It looked as if he was going to kick the car again but some force restrained him.

"If Galen says he saw him, he saw him," Buzzy said.

"I saw him, too," said Tom. "He's alive."

"So Galen didn't kill him."

"No, but we sure as hell buried the fucker," Kent said.

"So why didn't he arrest us when he had the chance?" Tom asked. "He saw me there. He didn't even arrest Galen. He just loaded him in his car and let him go."

"He told me to be home tonight," Galen said.

"But he didn't arrest you. He didn't do shit to me. He didn't go after Darren or Buzzy or Kent. Why? What's he waiting for? Maybe you didn't kill him but you put a bullet in his stomach! You think he's just going to forget that?"

"Shut up!" Galen yelled. "How can I think? Shit!" He kicked at some dirt and everybody gave him some time to wind down.

"We're fucked," Buzzy intoned.

"This isn't real," Darren insisted. "This is fucking Twilight Zone shit."

"It's real," Tom said, "and we have to figure out how to deal with it. And we can't do that until Haws makes his move."

Tom felt abnormally calm. After the nightmares and the shock of seeing Deputy Haws alive at the diner, a strange resignation had settled over him. If Haws was alive, they hadn't killed him. So no matter what revenge Haws tried to take, it wouldn't put them in jail for life with no chance of parole. They faced the unknown, but it couldn't be worse than what they'd faced before. It just couldn't.

"I hate this shit!" Galen said.

Galen paced and Tom thought, This is it, Galen, the moment you've been hurtling toward for the past eighteen years. The moment of truth.

He'd often wondered what force of nature kept somebody like Galen Ganger in Anderson. He'd thought that Galen's rage would have taken him somewhere else long before this. Ironically, he realized, Anderson's provinciality, against which Galen struggled and cursed and railed, was the glue that held him fast. The town was like the forced perspective room in a funhouse that makes giants of midgets. Viewed against any larger backdrop, Galen Ganger would diminish. He might even disappear.

And now, something enormous had come to Anderson, and Galen had set himself against it. It dwarfed him utterly. It was roaring over him like an avalanche. To defy it was useless.

"You going to be home tonight like Haws wants?" Tom asked.

"I don't know!" Galen snapped.

"I think you have to."

Galen stopped abruptly at the words, his back to the other boys, his eyes on the water. The air was heavy and still. Tom felt his palms moisten--Galen did not like being told what to do. He looked at the others and noticed how carefully they avoided his gaze.

After several moments of leaden silence, Galen looked over his shoulder at Tom.

"Fuck," he said flatly. He looked at Buzzy and Kent, both studying the ground, and at Darren who glared at him, still mad about the dented fender, then fixed his eyes on Tom.

"When you're right, you're right, Einstein," Galen said. "It's me and him. That's what it comes down to. Me and him."

Tom nodded.

"Yeah," he said, "pretty much."

It wasn't just Galen and Deputy Haws, of course. It was all of them, and it was something much bigger than the bunch of them put together. He didn't see any use in pointing that out, though, not yet.

They'd find out soon enough.

***

Brant wondered if he should contact the Associated Press.

He'd never had a story go out over the AP wire, and the way news traveled over the grapevine somebody in the outside world would hear of Duffy's return soon enough and he'd be scooped in his own backyard. On the other hand, he didn't want to be branded a kook and the facts in the case were as wonky as a shopping cart. Doc Milford could be counted on for a solid "no comment" and the Duffys certainly weren't talking.

No, if there was a story here, it'd take more digging to unearth it. At least, those were his thoughts as he drove by Carl Tompkin's house and saw him crawl out from under the foundation in coveralls and a filter mask and dragging a five-gallon stainless steel sprayer.

Brant pulled onto the wrong side of the street and rolled down his window and hollered at Carl.

"It's the damned cockroaches," Carl explained. "I've done everything, but with all the cats...I don't want to complain, but you know how it is. Cat food left out all the time, and they eat like pigs. Bernice tries to keep the place clean but...twelve cats. Jeez!"

Brant asked Carl if he'd thought about tenting the house.

"No, that's for termites," Carl informed him. He hoisted the sprayer into view. "I've sprayed with everything in the store, even stuff I'm not supposed to sell without a permit. I thought I had them licked there for awhile, but...." He shook his head. "I could swear I heard them in the night, in the walls, under the floor, made a helluva racket. Regular cockroach jamboree down there. Joists were thick with them when I looked this morning. Damn brazen, too. I shined the light on them and they just stood right there looking back at me like to say, 'What the devil do you want down here?' They're dead now, though. Bernice threw a fit about the poison. Say, you wouldn't want to keep a cat or two for a couple of days?"

Brant said "No, thanks," and wished Carl luck and drove on to the hospital.

He had to wait to see Doc Milford. Annie Culler was having trouble breathing and Doc suspected fluid in her lungs. They'd taken her in for x-rays and Doc had a few minutes while waiting for the results. Brant told him about his interview with John and Madge Duffy.

"It sounds to me like they just want to put the whole thing behind them," he said.

"I wish it was that easy for me," Doc replied. "Did you get a look at him?"

"Just as you said, not a mark on him."

"You're not a religious man, are you, Brant?"

Brant acknowledged that he wasn't.

"Neither am I," Doc said, "not in the strictest sense. Still, there isn't a doctor living who hasn't had a miracle case or two in his career. Someone who shouldn't make it, does. Someone who shouldn't wake up, wakes. The little Culler girl, for instance. I'd bet a dollar to a donut that she never regains consciousness. If she were my own daughter, I'd have pulled her off life support months ago. But Peg has faith, so who am I to say that Annie won't be that one in a million who pulls through against all odds? She could go on to be a normal little girl and a sullen teenager and the mother of three and the first lady President of the United States for all I know.

"But John Duffy, he's something else. Duffy's right up there with multiplying loaves and Sunday strolls on Lake Erie. It couldn't happen, but it did."

Doc Milford chuckled.

"I even tracked down his birth record," he said, "to see if he might have been twins. You know, somebody pulling a switch on me. No such luck. Not even a brother or a sister. So, there is no rational explanation for John Duffy whatsoever. Unless you believe in miracles."

Brant shifted uncomfortably in his chair. If Doc was talking miracles, there might be something to it, and that meant the inevitable interview with the local guru. "I guess I'd better see Reverend Small this afternoon," he said. "Come with me."

"Why? Do you need help finding the church?"

"No, but I'd like a doctor there in case I break out in boils. Got a free hour?"

"I'll make one."

***

Brant did not break out in boils or burst into flame when he set foot inside the First Methodist Church, but his stomach did flip-flop and he felt his forehead bead up with sweat. He wondered, because of his obvious aversion to all things religious, if he weren't suppressing memories of being molested by a church leader as a child, but since he hadn't been raised Catholic he didn't think that was likely.

Reverend Small was setting out hymnals for the next day's services when Brant and Doc walked in. The sanctuary smelled, well, like a sanctuary, and the scent was probably what triggered Brant's gastronomic response. It was the unforgettable mixture of wood and Pledge and holiness that defines middle American churches from east coast to west, from North Dakota down to Galveston Bay.

They exchanged greetings and quickly got down to business.

"You have a very spirited community here," Small offered, and Brant smiled.

"You mean that little fracas at Ma's this morning? That was nothing. Wait'll an election year and you'll see some real fireworks."

"What do you make of the Duffy situation, Reverend?" Doc asked. "Are we talking 'miracle' here?"

"Well--and no offense intended, Doctor--but it's either that or gross medical incompetence. Not having been at the hospital...."

Doc whipped the Polaroids out of his inside jacket pocket with a speed that would have dazzled a gunfighter. To his credit, Reverend Small was noticeably unsqueamish as Doc led him through the photos one by one, describing Duffy's state in medical terms that led inevitably to the same conclusion: Duffy was as dead as a holiday ham when they wheeled him down to the morgue. If his death was a hoax, it had taken the participation of John Duffy, his wife, the Sheriff, Doc Milford, Nurse White, and Curtis Waxler the janitor (who had eventually turned up at the grade school playground on top of the jungle gym with no recollection of how he got there) to pull it off. Not to mention the able assistance of a top special effects makeup team.

And for what? If John Duffy were a glory hound of some sort, it might make sense. But why stage such an elaborate hoax just to retreat and clam up like an indicted Senator?

"For one," Reverend Small said, "I'm perfectly willing to accept the notion that the Good Lord, in His generosity, chose to smile upon the Duffy family, if not for John Duffy's sake, then for his wife's. Miracles happen. After viewing your photos, Doctor, I'd say I'm convinced. Thank you."

"For...?"

"For giving focus to tomorrow's sermon. Congregations don't respond well to ambiguity. They worship conviction. A minister who isn't sure about things soon finds himself without a flock."

"Like a shepherd with no sense of direction," Brant suggested.

"That's a good analogy. May I use it?"

Brant nodded his assent. "Myself, I've always been skeptical of people who had all the answers," he said. "Take the good doctor, here. I'm sure he'd freely admit to certain gaps in his knowledge of medicine."

"Medicine often seems to be more gaps than knowledge," said Doc. "Everything we learn somehow raises more questions."

"So it stands to reason that when it comes to comprehending the basic forces of the universe--God, in other words--we pitiful little human beings would be as much at a loss as, say, a housefly to understand Wall Street, molecular physics, or the federal income tax. Yet we're surrounded by people--the holy men of every denomination--who claim to have the inside scoop." Brant shrugged. "I'm skeptical."

"As well you should be," Reverend Small replied. "Nonetheless, your fellow houseflies demand such answers, and we clergy do the best we can to provide them."

"Even when you have to make something up."

"Unlike reporters, you mean." The preacher smiled.

Doc Milford had been regarding the exchange with amusement. "What strikes me," Doc said, "is how this 'miracle' occurred fewer than two weeks after your arrival. I guess if a preacher wanted to impress his new town, a resurrection's one way to do it."

"Well," Small replied, "with Anderson, I wanted to hit the ground running."

"Maybe I wasn't kidding," replied Doc.

"Maybe I wasn't, either."

The sanctuary fell deathly quiet for some moments. Then Brant's bowels gurgled and he suggested that they'd taken enough of the Reverend's time.

***

It was as if someone had left the window to Peg's brain open and flies had gotten in, but it was only her own thoughts that were swarming. She was worried about Tom's growing bond with the Ganger boy, she kept flashing on the morning's altercation at the diner, she didn't know what to make of John Duffy's miraculous return from the dead, and there was the persistent and familiar question that cropped up at every occurrence of stress: What does this mean for Annie?

If people could come back from the dead, couldn't they just as easily...even more easily...come out of comas?

Why was John Duffy, a known wife-abuser, chosen for this miracle over her own sweet, innocent baby?

Did anything at all make sense? Or was the whole world some sort of monstrous practical joke on humankind?

Against the buzz of thoughts like these, who ordered dressing on their salad and who wanted it on the side could not compete. On top of that the diner was uncommonly busy, and John Duffy was the hot topic at every table. Peg found herself at times wishing the man had stayed dead.

People tend to gather together in a crisis and the fact that they were gathering now made Duffy's return that much more ominous. Peg had to make more apologies to customers that afternoon than she'd made all year to date, which Ma was quick to point out to her. She looked so miserable, though, that he offered to call in Cindy Robertson and let Peg off early. She took Ma up on his offer and left as soon as Cindy arrived. She drove straight to the hospital to check on Annie.

She noticed Brant's car in the lot and learned that he was in Doc's office. The admissions nurse told her that Brant and Doc had just returned from a confab with Reverend Small and Peg could guess the subject of the conversation. She knew Brant well enough to take his visit to a church as another bad omen.

Her outlook, then, was bleak when she stepped into Annie's room and saw the stranger bending low over the bed, obviously not a nurse or even an orderly. She couldn't see his face or what he was doing, but he was dressed in worn-out blue jeans and a shirt that badly needed laundering and Peg's protective instincts kicked into overload. She yelled out, "Hey!" and marched in ready to leap on his back.

The stranger whipped around like a mongoose at the hiss of a cobra. "Mom!" Tom said, "Jesus, you scared the shit out of me!"

Peg was suddenly lightheaded. I didn't even recognize my own son, she thought. There had been a time when she could have picked him out on a playground among thirty other kids at five hundred feet. She'd have known the way he ran, the way he stood and fidgeted with his fingers, his laugh even when mingled with a dozen others. She'd known his every pair of pants and every shirt and how long he'd worn them without changing. She could have picked out his silhouette at twilight, running toward her along the sidewalk or dangling from a tree limb or just sitting on the riverbank lost in his own thoughts. That was years ago, and every year since had seen that intimacy erode, had brought her closer to this single, pulse-fluttering, upside-down moment when she looked upon her son and beheld a stranger.

My God, she thought, I've lost him.

"She isn't breathing right," Tom said. "Listen."

Peg put her ear to Annie's chest and listened to the rasp of her breath. "Get Doc," Peg said, and Tom dashed out of the room. He returned with the doctor and Peg spied Brant hovering around the doorway, watching.

Doc put a stethoscope to Annie's chest and gave a listen. "We detected this earlier," he said. "I think it's just a little water that's collected in the lungs. We x-rayed her to check for pneumonia, but the x-rays were clear. We're giving her a diuretic now. If the drug doesn't take care of the problem, we'll go in with a tube, but I'd like to avoid that if possible."

After a few more reassurances Doc left and Brant entered.

"I don't want to intrude," he said. Peg told him not to be silly and to pull up a chair.

"I understand you've become a church-goer," she said.

Brant laughed and told her about his visit to the Duffys and his and Doc's conversation with Reverend Small, and Peg filled Brant in on the general buzz at the diner. Tom listened with what Peg took as polite interest. She expected him to excuse himself at any moment, but maybe the gathering instinct was working on him, too. Something had brought him to the hospital, and something held him here now. For some reason the image of crows grouping on a wire before a storm came into Peg's mind.

"The big question in town," Peg said, "seems to be, 'why Duffy?' What makes him so special?"

"It certainly wasn't his karma," Brant agreed.

Tom studied the pattern of the tiles on the floor. As usual, the populace of Anderson was off on a tangent. Duffy wasn't the only one chosen, but how was anyone except Tom and the other boys to know that? Not that Deputy Hawg was any more deserving of divine intervention than John Duffy was, but if anybody was likely to figure this thing out, it might be Brant, and he was as far off base as everyone else.

As usual, Tom felt himself stuck between a rock and a hard place. Brant needed facts that only Tom was able to provide...well, that only Tom was likely to provide. He might do it, too, if Peg weren't there. She'd run to the Sheriff for sure, Galen being involved and all. For that matter, so might Brant. Then again, Brant would grasp the concept of confidential sources, or should, anyway. There was a time when Tom would've taken Brant into his confidence immediately, but that was before the "My Town" business. Brant might not have the guts to do what was needed now, but who knew what was needed? Damn, this shit was confusing. Tom felt himself sliding into the Blacklands, but he fought it. This wasn't the time or place....

"Tom?"

Tom started. He hadn't noticed that Brant was speaking to him.

"Sorry," Tom said.

"Lost in thought?" Peg asked. "I know how it is. I was the same way all day."

"I was just going to get us some coffee," Brant said. "Want a cup? It's even worse than Ma's."

"I'll go with you," Tom said. He got out of his chair and then for some reason he bent down and kissed Peg on the forehead. It took her by surprise. He hadn't done that since...ever. "Back in a minute," he said.

"I'll be here," Peg said.

Brant and Tom left and Peg was grateful for a few minutes alone. For one thing, she felt like she was going to cry, and she wanted to give in to it this time, and she wanted to have it over with before they got back.

***

"What's on your mind?" Brant asked.

He and Tom stood in front of the coffee machine in the waiting room. Brant held one cup of foul black liquid in his hand and another was filling as they watched. Clearly there was something Tom wanted to tell him that he couldn't bring up in front of his mother. While eager to rebuild the bridge between himself and Tom, Brant still hoped that Tom's next sentence wouldn't contain the phrases "a few bucks," "there's this girl," or "a single homosexual experience." What Tom did say was not much of a relief, though.

"Can you keep a secret?" Tom asked.

"Helluva thing to ask a reporter," Brant said. "But if it's something personal...." He pried the second cup of coffee out of the machine.

"It's about Duffy. I mean, sort of. I think it's about Duffy." Tom was well aware that he sounded like a typical tongue-tied teenager and he struggled to transcend the stereotype. "It's serious," he continued, "and I need advice, and it might help you...figure things out. But I need your word."

"To keep it to myself?"

"Right."

"I don't know, Tom. I want to help, and if you know anything that'd make sense of this Duffy business...."

Tom told himself that he was an idiot. Brant was no different from any other adult in Anderson. "Forget it," he snapped. He spun on his heels and was headed for the door when Brant called after him.

"Wait!"

Tom turned and glared at Brant as the reporter hurried to catch up with him, scalding hot coffee spilling across the backs of his fingers.

"This secret," Brant said, "were any laws broken?"

"Yes."

"Was anybody hurt?"

That was a tough one. "Not permanently," Tom said.

Brant thought it over for a second. "Okay," he said, and then he told Tom to meet him in front of his office in an hour. Tom nodded his agreement and headed into the deepening twilight.

So he had an hour to think about what he was going to say, if he decided to show up at all.

***

Peg was reading to Annie when Brant got back to the room. He entered quietly, set the coffees on the bedside table, and peered over Peg's shoulder.

"'So Booboo Bunny,'" Peg read, "'although she was very afraid, poked her tiny pink nose out of her den and said, "What do you want, Mr. Bear?" Mr. Bear smiled his best smile and said to Booboo Bunny--'"

Brant put his hand on Peg's shoulder and read, in a voice that he hoped was suitably bear-like, "'Come out, come out, Booboo Bunny! I want to see your long, beautiful ears!'"

Peg smiled up at him. He gave her a look of mock reproach and she quickly jumped into the role of Booboo Bunny.

"'"Do you really think I have beautiful ears?" asked Booboo Bunny. And she poked her head out of her den just far enough to show Mr. Bear her tall, fluffy ears.'"

"'"Oh, you have very soft, fine ears!" said Mr. Bear, "but I'm sure the fur on your lovely neck is even softer and prettier!"'"

Peg felt the hair on her neck stand at attention as a chill ran up her spine. "'"Really?" said Booboo Bunny. She took the little-bittiest bunny hop and eased her neck out of her safe, warm den....'"

***

Madge Duffy nursed her bruised jaw with the ice pack. John sat across the kitchen table from her, looking sorrowful.

"I said I was sorry. I just lost control for a minute, that's all," he said.

So this was the way it was going to be. Abuse and control, the same as always, followed by remorse that appeared genuine yet failed to move Madge emotionally--except to instill in her a profound sorrow for her never-changing state.

She wondered: What kind of half-baked miracle was it that taught a man remorse but left the evil within him intact?

She didn't know if she could endure more years of this life. Was this living, to be reduced to a machine that followed orders like a robot, to be a punching bag for a sick man's anger? Was this the Madge she wanted to be, would consent to be, would settle for being for the rest of her days?

She glanced over at her husband, whose head was bowed in shame. He'd apologized for hitting her and she hadn't said a word. She'd just calmly walked into the kitchen and taken the familiar ice pack out of the drawer and filled it with cubes from the freezer and sat down to think things over. He'd come in and sat across from her and for half an hour neither had uttered a syllable.

Odd state of affairs, sitting at the table with a man who, about this time the day before, she'd killed with a kitchen knife. Yes, killed. Who would have thought she'd be capable of such an act? Yet she had done it, and she would do it again, do it in a New York minute, if she thought there was any point. But who's to say he wouldn't come back as often as she could murder him? He was like a stain that wouldn't come out, or that crack over the mantel that, no sooner would she get a coat of spackle and paint over it than the house would settle another sixteenth of an inch and there it would be again.

It was just hopeless, her situation. Hopeless. She thought about the pistol that John kept in the drawer in the night table beside the bed.

She wondered if this was how her mother had felt. Had she sat in her own kitchen with an ice pack on her jaw while the poison under the sink whispered to her?

"I'm going to go lie down for awhile," she said flatly.

John watched her leave. Moments later he heard the bedroom door shut.

***

In some ways, this was the part Seth loved most--early on, when there was time to play.

Soon enough events would whirl and spin under their own momentum. Soon enough they would tear through the middle of town, crashing and roaring and ripping up lives by the roots, tossing them this way and that, exuberant and destructive as a storm. Death would crackle like lightning, victims would howl like the wind. It would be a fine spectacle and he anticipated it eagerly.

But now, he played a gentleman's game of carefully maneuvered pawns and cunning traps. Now was the time to manipulate, to roll the first pebbles gently down the hill and delight in the mathematical beauty of their inevitable collisions.

John Duffy was such a stone. No doubt, a miserable stone at this point, stupefyingly predictable and dull. But Madge was a delight. A good woman by any measure, she'd surprised him with the delicious murder of her husband. And now...well, that remained to be seen.

Then there was the Ganger boy. If any soul in Anderson was ripe for seduction, it was the Ganger boy.

Twilight, and the air was getting chilly. Seth started a fire in the fireplace and poured himself a glass of a surprisingly piquant pinot noir from California.

And Peg Culler, he thought.

Yes. That would be the test, wouldn't it?

 

Go Back to Chapter Eight
 

Go to
Chapter
Ten