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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

 

Ten

Brant sat at his desk in the Times office and tried to pretend that he wasn't paying any attention to the teenager huddled in the shadows, knees drawn up to his chest, whose low voice quietly and matter-of-factly detailed one of the most deliciously lurid stories Brant had ever been privileged to hear. Brant's fingers flew over the Mac's keyboard, trying to get it all down and get it right. It seemed typical of Brant's career--and of the whimsical humor of the journalism godsthat Brant was able to obtain this story only by swearing on his dear mother's grave not to publish it.

Tom had objected at first to Brant's note taking, but he accepted it when Brant pointed out that any other activity would arouse suspicion on the part of passersby. Besides, if Brant was supposed to help Tom puzzle something out, having a few written notes would save Tom a lot of repetition.

It was Tom's idea to leave the overhead lights turned off and to locate himself where he was invisible from the street. Deputy Haws drove down Main Street several times every night and Tom insisted that it would do no good for them to be seen talking together. Tom had gone so far as to park his Honda in front of the Rialto a couple of storefronts away, buy a ticket to see A Little Princess, and then sneak out the exit and over to Brant's office, wondering as he did so if he was the first person to ever sneak out of a movie theater. They both realized later that they could have met at Brant's home, but there were risks associated with that, too--where to hide the Honda, for instance--and decided to stay put after they got the basic seating arrangement worked out.

Tom started slowly, but once he'd decided to tell all and let the chips fall where they may, he seemed unable to hold the words in. When he reached the part about Galen kicking Deputy Haws and the gun going off and the deputy falling dead onto the pavement, Brant called a time out. Since Brant had seen Haws himself earlier that day, alive and apparently healthy, he could divine where Tom's story was headed. So many questions rushed into his head, pushing and crowding like lemmings rushing to the sea, that Brant decided to hear the whole story first and try to fill in the whys and wherefores later.

Tom told about burying Haws' body in the woods and then about his and Galen's shock at Haws' sudden appearance at Ma's. Galen's fainting spell made a lot more sense to Brant now, as did Tom's regurgitation. Tom went on to describe later events as related to him by Galen.

"So now it's wait and see, is that it?" Brant asked.

"Yeah."

"Haws didn't say when he'd be stopping by Galen's?"

"Just that he should stay home tonight."

"And Haws never said what he wanted?"

"I don't think it's to give him a merit badge for grave digging."

They sat in the quiet office for some time without speaking, Brant in an island of light from his desk lamp and the glow of the computer screen, Tom hunkered in the shadows.

Brant did not question Tom's story for a minute. Incredible as the story was, he took it completely at face value. Duffy's return had become real enough, and what can happen once can happen twice, but mainly it was Tom's demeanor that convinced him that the boy was telling the truth. Sure, the boys might have been mistaken about Haws being dead. They weren't doctors or coroners or undertakers, after all. But the coincidence was too strong--two people apparently returning from the dead on the same night...it could be some kind of contagious hysteria, he supposed. But that wasn't what his gut was telling him.

As for Tom, he found comfort in the shadows. His heart was lighter now, and Brant wasn't calling him a fool or accusing him of being on drugs or belittling him in any of the myriad ways adults have of reducing a young person's self-esteem to zero. He was glad he'd told Brant about the incident. It was too large a burden to carry by himself, and lord knows Kent and Buzzy and Darren were more problem than solution. And Galen, of course, was the embodiment of the term "loose cannon." As he sat there in the dark, Tom felt that perhaps the worst was over. He'd found a kind of peace.

Then Haws' police car slid in front of the office silent as a shark and coasted to a halt, and Tom thought that he was about to replay his diner performance all over Brant's floor.

Tom hissed to Brant and pointed to the window and Brant saw Haws and jumped in his seat the way the movie audience did in The Tingler in 1959 because the producer had wired shockers into the theater seats. The car door opened and Haws stepped out, and Brant hurried to get his notes off the computer screen while Tom scurried for cover. He punched "command-w" to close the file but the notes stayed right there while the helpful Mac reminded him that he hadn't saved his document. Haws was lumbering toward the office door as Brant punched the "return" key to save the file, but the stubborn notes refused to budge until Brant gave the file a name. The door opened and Haws said, "Evening, Mr. Kettering," and Brant's mind seized up like an overheated engine. Brant always thought that he worked well under pressure but suddenly he was as incapable of thinking up a coherent file name as his Uncle Irvin who'd been dead for twelve years would've beenin fact, the way things had been going lately, Uncle Irvin might've stood a better chance.

"Working late," Haws observed, heading his way, his footsteps crackling on the ancient linoleum. Brant said "Yep" while he trilled his fingers along the keys, named the file ";lkj" and punched "return" and the notes disappeared just as Haws leaned over his shoulder to peer at the now-blank screen. "Just finished up," Brant said.

Haws grunted and stood back. He cast a look around the darkened office.

"Dark in here," he said.

Brant stared at Haws' stomach. There was a hole in Haws' shirt, neatly patched, like a little porthole over his navel.

"What?" said Brant.

"I said it's dark in here. Saving on the juice?"

"Yeah. Saving juice." Brant had never been a good liar. He felt like he was diving off the high board and making a belly-flop landing in a dry pool.

"Um-hmm," Haws said skeptically. He took a few steps toward the dark corner where Tom had insinuated himself and now stood, his back pressed against the wall, holding his breath and hoping he wasn't sweating too loudly.

"I don't mean to be rude, Deputy," Brant said, "but I have work to do. If there was something you wanted...."

"I thought you said you were finished."

"I was. With that. Now I have to do...something else."

"What?"

"What?" Brant echoed.

"What do you have to do?"

Brant feigned a laugh. "Maybe I should have my attorney present," he said. "This is beginning to sound like an interrogation."

Deputy Haws showed his teeth. An anthropologist from Mars might have called it a smile. "Just making conversation," he said. "It's the uniform. It makes people nervous."

"That it does," Brant said, thinking of the hole in Haws' shirt.

Haws took another couple of steps toward Tom's corner, squinting into the darkness.

"Lose something?" Brant asked.

"The Culler boy," Haws said. "He couldn't've snuck in here, could he, while you were working?"

"No. Why? Is he missing?"

"Tippert remembers him buying a ticket, but he didn't see him leave after the show. All this computer gear of yours makes a pretty tempting target."

"He might've left early."

"Motorcycle's still parked out front."

"Maybe he's hiding in the theater," Brant suggested. "Maybe he was going to vandalize the place after Tippert locked up for the night."

Haws halted in his tracks and whirled to look at Brant. He aimed a meaty finger at him.

"You could be right about that," Haws said.

"Yeah," Brant drawled, "if I were you, I'd check that theater from stem to stern. You know, I think I might remember seeing him at the hardware store earlier. Buying spray paint."

Haws' brow furrowed. He shot Brant a quick "thanks" and strode out of the office. He got back in his patrol vehicle and drove the hundred feet to the Rialto. Brant watched him from the front window as he tried the theater doors, found them locked, then returned to his car and drove off to bother Merle Tippert for the key.

"Coast is clear," Brant said.

"I've gotta go," Tom said, emerging from the shadows. "Listen...what about tonight...you know, about Haws and Galen?"

Brant pressed his lips together, thinking. "I don't think there's anything to worry about," he said after a few moments. "Haws seems as thickheaded as ever. He was probably just trying to throw a scare into the Ganger kid."

The Ganger kid, Tom thought. Et tu, Brant?

Tom was surprised when Brant held out his hand. "Thanks for telling me about Haws. I saw the bullet hole, by the way."

Tom shook Brant's hand.

"So what do we do?" Tom asked.

"Let me think on it. Peg asked me over for Sunday dinner. I thought I'd take her up on it. We can talk then, okay?"

"Yeah. We'll talk then."

Tom sneaked out of the Times office and dashed over to his Honda. He drove off, his thoughts bubbling like a stew. His mom and Brant Kettering. When they'd had one date and then never a second one, he'd figured they hadn't hit it off. Now she was inviting him over for Sunday dinner, the most serious dinner of the week. Had something been going on that he'd missed?

Man, life was getting more complicated by the minute.

***

Madge had never shot a pistol before but there didn't seem to be any trick to it. She could see that it had bullets in it, and she'd seen the men on television pull the thumb-thing back until it clicked. She did that and the thumb-thing stopped and she noticed that the trigger had moved back quite a bit.

"Ready to rock and roll," she said.

She'd never liked rock and roll, of course. She always used to say, "Give me Patsy Cline over the whole lot of those skinny boys and their noisy guitars. Why, they don't even sound like guitars, they sound like something's wrong with the speakers. I don't see how people can stand to listen to that stuff." She imagined it was rock and roll that Bobby Speers played over the radio in his red Mustang convertible that had seduced Elaine Mathewson. Las Vegas was probably full of people in red convertibles playing rock and roll.

But here she sat on the edge of her bed with a loaded pistol, ready to rock and roll for the first and last time in her life.

She pointed the pistol at her temple and held it there for maybe half a minute. Then she remembered reading about how sometimes people did that but the bullet just bounced off their skull and they woke up in the hospital still alive and embarrassed that they'd caused everybody so much trouble. Madge didn't like the idea of bothering all those people for no reason, so she lowered the gun and tried to remember the other way people shot themselves, the better way. After some consideration she remembered that they put the gun in their mouths.

Madge got up and opened the bedroom door a crack, just enough to see if John was out there. She didn't see him and so she tiptoed to the bathroom. Maybe he'd fallen asleep on the sofa.

She reached the bathroom and closed the door behind her before turning on the light. It was a habit she'd gotten into because John said that the light from the bathroom in the middle of the night was like a searchlight in his face.

She set the pistol on top of the toilet tank and ran water in the sink until it was warm. She dampened a wash rag and soaped it up, then washed the outside of the gun barrel thoroughly. There was no way she was putting that filthy thing in her mouth without scrubbing it first.

When the gun barrel was washed and dried she tiptoed back to the bedroom and fluffed some pillows up against the headboard and sat back with the pistol in her lap. She looked at the glowing numbers on the alarm clock and saw that it was after eleven o'clock. She hoped the sound of the gun didn't wake the neighbors.

She laid the barrel of the gun on her tongue, closed her eyes, and squeezed the trigger. Before she thought it would happen the thumb-thing snapped forward and that was that.

***

It was late and Doc Milford was drunk and he knew it and he didn't care.

The fireplace in his study roared, warming Doc's feet through his socks. He swallowed the last of his Glenlivet and set the glass on the end table beside the mammoth, probably hideous, old overstuffed chair that had been his for thirty-some years.

It had been a rough day.

Merle Tippert had come in that afternoon complaining of chest pains. It turned out to be heartburn--he'd had sausage with his waffles this morning, Doc guessed--but Tippert had to get in his dig.

"You going to declare me dead?" he asked. "I'd sure like to know when I walk out of here whether I'm dead or not."

Doc had smiled.

Vance Stephens had been rushed in with the end of his finger half off from cutting a bagel. He said he was glad Doc could see him right away because he always fell sleep in the waiting room and he was afraid he'd wake up in a pine box.

Doc had smiled.

Even little Josh Lunger who'd sprained his wrist when he fell off the garage roof had told him about all the comic book characters who'd died but come back in the next issue.

And Doc had smiled.

So it had gone all day long. Everybody had a quip and Doc had a smile for every one of them. He got through the day by telling himself that this, too, would pass, but he wondered if he was lying. Small towns had long memories.

This was no way to end a long and, by local standards, distinguished career.

Doc became aware of a draft in the room and assumed that one of the French doors had blown open again. He heaved himself out of his chair and stood for a moment to let his head stop spinning, then walked carefully over to the French doors that his late wife had insisted on installing against Doc's better judgment. He thought they were too easy to get into from outside, a security risk, but she liked the way they opened onto the garden. He thought of her whenever he looked through those doors. Some of the hardier perennials still came up, but most of the flower beds had been taken over by some kind of little white-bloomed weed that she used to complain about. Arturo, who he hired to mow the lawn and trim the bushes, kept the jungle at bay, but he lacked the artistic touch. The garden was neat but uninspired now and it made Doc miss his wife very much.

The doors were latched but unlocked, so he locked them and moved himself toward the bedroom. He noticed as he glanced up that one of the dueling swords that he kept on the wall, crossed of course, had fallen down. Strangely, he didn't see it on the floor. Well, he was drunk and it was late and dark, and swords don't walk off by themselves. Not like corpses, he thought ruefully. The sword would show up.

As Doc made his way down the hall he became aware of a presence waiting for him at its end. He would have been more alarmed if he weren't in the habit of seeing his wife's ghost at times like this, when he'd been hitting the scotch.

"Hello, Ellen," he said warmly, and he was about to apologize again for neglecting the roses when the figure stepped from the shadows and Doc started.

"Reverend!" he exclaimed.

Reverend Small said "hello" and drew closer. When Small was less than a stride away he produced the missing sword and ran it smoothly through Doc's abdomen and then jerked it up hard until it came to halt at his sternum.

Doc's jaw dropped open in bewilderment, then he fell to the floor. Reverend Small withdrew the sword as Doc fell, watching Doc's demise with something close to distraction. He knelt beside the body and lay the sword across Doc's bloody chest.

He checked his watch. Eleven-thirty.

Haws should be picking up the Ganger boy about now.

***

Galen Ganger took another deep drag on the joint.

His mother had gone to bed two hours before. She liked to be well rested for church. It wouldn't do for her friends to see her with bags under her eyes. She lay upstairs wearing the gel-filled mask that she cooled in the refrigerator during the day, under the spell of the sleeping pills she bought over the counter, the sound of an artificial sea broadcast to her ears from the plastic synthesizer box beside the bed. Her bathroom was an arsenal of creams and lotions and pastes and jellies designed to keep time at bay.

Time was the ravager that Galen's birth had loosed upon his mother's body, to hear her tell it. His fault were her splayed hips, the stretch marks on her tits, the cellulite in her butt, the bulge of her abdomen. She had been young when he was conceived and would have remained young eternally if not for his departed ("not dead, just departed," she liked to say) father's vicious seed that battled its way through a defective diaphragm and up her uterus to fertilize the innocent egg that waited there, creating the metabolism-shifting, flesh-rending, fat-producing creature that was himself.

She didn't know that her son was waiting for a dead man to knock at the door. She and Galen had little to say to one another. She'd snip at him about drinking the last of the milk and he'd snarl back something obscene, and every now and again they'd rage at one another like mad dogs, and that was the mother-son relationship as practiced in the Ganger household. She predicted that Galen would meet an evil end. It was the only thing they agreed on.

The means to that evil end was even now pulling up in front of the house. Deputy Haws had wrangled a key to the Rialto out of Merle Tippert, interrupting the evening news to do so, and returned to find the Culler boy's motorcycle gone. Haws played his flashlight around the outside of the theater but found no graffiti, and he checked the inside and everything seemed to be in order. He didn't waste any more time on Tom Culler. He had bigger fish to fry.

Galen heard the car door slam. He snuffed out the joint and tossed it and the ashtray in the Tupperware container he used for a stash box and slid the container under the sofa. He wiped his sweaty palms on his jeans and waited for the inevitable knock. It came.

Galen opened the door and Haws said, "Let's go," and that's what they did. As he walked down the sidewalk to the street, Galen felt as if he were a condemned man marching to the gas chamber. The solemn way in which Haws held open the door to his patrol car reinforced that feeling. Inside, the car smelled like fast food and old farts, which shattered the gas chamber illusion without improving on it.

Haws drove slowly down the dark streets of Anderson. They were deserted, naturally. Cars were safely parked in driveways or garages. Lights glowed from a few houses but most were dark. Main Street and the town square looked like a miniature set waiting for a giant hand to reach in and reposition a tree or move the Optimists' cannon to the other side of the park. The Rialto's marquee was dark. The sole lighted storefront was Captain Humphrey's Tavern, Anderson's only bar.

The Captain, as he liked to be called though he'd never sailed any ship larger than a bass boat, had grown adept at turning Clyde Dunwiddey out before he reached the vomitous stage. Clyde was staggering down the street in a style he'd learned from Hal Smith, better known as "Otis" on the old Andy Griffith Show, when Haws caught up with him. Haws turned on the flashing lights to catch Clyde's attention and pulled up on the wrong side of the street. Clyde angled their direction.

Clyde collided with the driver's side of the car and leaned in to exhale fumes at the deputy. Galen could smell Clyde's breath even in the back seat. It did not smell like roses.

"Where to, Clyde?" Haws asked.

"Headed for the hoosegow," Clyde's tongue replied by habit.

"I'll take you," said Haws. He unlocked the back door with the power switch and Clyde yanked it open and fell in. Galen gave him as much room as possible, wondering if this was part of whatever torture Haws had in store for him, making him ride with a stinking drunk who'd likely urp in his lap.

Haws drove around the town square and headed along Main Street. He passed the Sheriff's Office without stopping. Galen noticed immediately but fuck if he was going to say anything about it. Haws was calling the shots and Galen knew it. The deception didn't sit well with him, though. Clyde didn't know the difference but at that point in the evening Clyde probably didn't know his own name.

Haws took the access road to the highway and Galen guessed that he was returning him to the scene of the crime. Instead, Haws drove a few miles and then cut the wheel hard and turned onto a dirt road that ran along a windbreak of trees between a pair of fields. He drove another half mile or so and put on the brakes.

Galen saw that Clyde had fallen asleep. He lay with his head on the rear window shelf, mouth open, snoring. Haws turned around and smiled at Galen and asked how he was doing and Galen said he was fine.

"Good," Haws said, and then he produced his police revolver and aimed it at Galen's face. Galen's heart stopped in his chest.

"You wouldn't shoot me," Galen said, not believing a single word.

"Wouldn't I?" Haws asked. "You did a pretty lousy thing to me, kid." Haws rearranged himself on the front seat, rested his gun hand casually on his forearm as he spoke his piece to Galen.

"I never meant to kill you," Galen began, but Haws cut him off with a curt "Shut up."

Haws continued.

"Let's get one thing straight," he said. "You're dog shit. I'd scrape you off my shoe right now if it was up to me. This would be a pretty fair little town without the likes of you and your gangster buddies. I'd pull this trigger right now. Don't move."

Galen was dizzy with fear as Haws stepped out of the car and pulled open the back door next to the drunken Clyde. He held the gun on Galen as he grabbed Clyde's arm and dragged him out of the car. Clyde fell on the ground and woke up and muttered some jumbled syllables of protest. Haws put his foot on Clyde's chest and held him down. It didn't take much effort.

"Get out," Haws said to Galen. Galen climbed over Clyde and Haws backed off a few feet. There was no way Galen could get the jump on him, not with the pistol pointed straight at his chest.

"Can you imagine what it's like waking up in a grave?" Haws asked. "Can you imagine laying there, covered with dirt? Can't move. Can't see. Can't breathe. There's no way for you to know what that's like, no way at all, unless you was to experience it for yourself."

He's going to make me dig my own grave, and then he's going to bury me alive, Galen thought. Well, fuck him! I'd rather be shot!

Haws checked his watch.

"It's time," he said, and he angled the barrel of the gun down to point at Clyde Dunwiddey's head. He pulled the trigger. The gun barked and Galen cried out and bits of skull and hair and flesh flew as a hot slug of lead drilled its way straight through Clyde's besotted brain and planted itself in the ground. Clyde's body jerked once and his jaw went slack and air hissed out as his lungs collapsed, and then he lay still.

Galen backed away as Haws raised the pistol. He lifted his hands. "Don't," he pleaded, and again Haws told him to shut up.

"Is he dead?" Haws asked.

"Fuck yes he's dead!" Galen replied, his voice creeping up an octave.

"Like I was," said Haws. He checked his watch again and Galen thought for a moment about running, but he knew that Haws would just shoot him in the back. For some reason Haws was keeping him alive and it'd be stupid to try anything now. He noticed that Haws was unbuttoning his shirt and Galen thought, Oh, Jesus, he's going to fuck me!

"Look at that," Haws said, exposing his belly. "Not a scratch. Can you believe it?"

From town, the bell of the First Methodist Church began to toll. "Midnight," Haws announced, and he pointed to Clyde with the pistol. "Watch," he said.

Galen looked down at the body at his feet. It twitched a time or two and then started convulsing like an epileptic in the throes of a grand mal seizure. Galen leaped back and yelled out "Holy shit!" as Clyde's corpse flopped around spastically before him.

Then Clyde's body stopped its dance and something even more astounding made Galen's sphincter tighten. The bullet hole in Clyde's shattered skull was closing. Even as Galen watched, shattered bones knit themselves together and flesh grew over the mended skull and hair pushed itself up through the new skin and in a matter of moments--before the church bell had finished tolling--Clyde Dunwiddey was a whole man once more.

Clyde opened his eyes and looked around, stared up at the trees and the sky, turned his head to look out over the dark expanse of field. He felt the cold ground under his palms and registered the grinning deputy and the scared-shitless teenager gawking down at him.

"What's going on here?" he said, befuddled but with no hint of drunkenness in his voice.

"Welcome back, Clyde," Haws said. He clapped Galen on the back. "Let's have a talk," he said, and all Galen could do was nod his head dumbly and walk with Haws back to the patrol car, Clyde Dunwiddey following like some dumb animal.

 

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