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

 

Twelve

Galen floored the accelerator and heard his Charger roar and felt the satisfying press of his body against the seat. He felt like an astronaut lifting into the cosmos. Indeed, this was the beginning of his own journey into the Great Unknown.

It was a kick, roaring through town on an otherwise sleepy Sunday morning without worrying about Deputy Hawg lurking behind every bush. But even more, Galen felt like a revolutionary.

His rebellion up to now had been random and unfocused, a stubborn digging in of his heels and thumbing of his nose at a bunch of narrow-minded old farts who'd gotten stale and set in their ways long before their time. Even the so-called young people in Anderson were old, old because they were afraid to be young. They were afraid to step outside the limits and do their own thing, to run right up to the edge and leap off, screaming and kicking, into the abyss.

Not Galen. He embraced the unknown, and he rebelled against everything comfortable and safe.

Today he rebelled for a larger cause. The exact nature of that cause and the motives of its mysterious leader, Seth, weren't clear to him, but Galen could feel the force of it, like a thunderstorm gathering on the horizon, and he wanted to be part of it, wanted it to be part of him.

He sure as hell didn't want the revolution to happen without him.

He hit the access road to the highway and squealed around the corner, running the stop sign. He knew the direction the Klempners would be taking and followed in their path. Soon he caught up with the old man, a positive hazard on the two-lane blacktop as he poked along at forty miles an hour, barely staying within his own lane as he wove back and forth between the lines, his bald head visible over the headrest.

Galen kept up his speed as he closed on the station wagon. He flashed his lights and honked his horn as the distance between the cars narrowed. It was almost as if the wagon was sitting still as Galen's Charger closed the gap. He jerked the wheel at the last minute, just seconds before the Charger climbed up the wagon's rear bumper, and pulled into the on-coming lane. He honked the horn and gave Franz the finger as he roared past. The old man just stared straight ahead, colorless lips pressed together tight, cloudy eyes glued to the road. Galen wondered if the old coot had noticed anything, if he ever looked in the rear view mirror to see the Charger bearing down from behind, if he could hear the horn honking or see the flashing lights, if he even knew that Galen's upraised middle finger meant "stick it up your ass!"

Galen yanked the wheel hard as he cut in front of the Klempners' wagon and then roared off ahead of them. In case the old man hadn't seen it before, Galen stuck his hand with the upraised digit out the window and pumped it up and down.

The Charger left the Chevy wagon in the dust. In just a couple of minutes, the Klempners had disappeared from Galen's rear view mirror, as if they'd never existed.

***

Franz Klempner was old but he'd had stature in his time--he'd never be one of those shriveled husks who had to peer through the steering wheel to see the road. His vision was clouded a little by cataracts and the Chevy station wagon's steering hadn't gotten any tighter over time, but Franz felt that he was a good enough driver, even if his reflexes weren't as sharp as they used to be, if he just kept his speed down. He had common sense and wasn't out to prove anything with his driving, didn't have all that macho bullcrap stewing in his head like the teenage boys who were the real menaces on the road.

He looked over at Irma sitting there like a statue.

"You only hurt yourself with that crazy talk, you know," he said. His voice had an edge to it, but darn it, he had a right to be mad. He'd dressed her and prettied her up and driven her all the way to town to go to church, and then she'd made a damned fool of herself in front of the whole congregation.

"How can I take you to church if you're going to make a spectacle?" he asked.

Irma was deathly silent. She sat there cocooned in her own dark thoughts.

"Who the hell is Eloise, anyway?" Franz said. "You don't know any Eloise."

Irma turned her head to look at him and Franz glanced over at her, reluctant to take his eyes off the road, things changed so fast. But he stole a glance at her and what he saw in her eyes made the blood rush to his head. What he saw in those eyes was fear. No...more than that. It was terror, nothing less.

His eyes burned, seeing the awful fright that resided in his wife's soul. It made him want to cry. He made sure the road ahead was straight and then he took one hand off the steering wheel, something he never did, and reached over and patted her arm.

"We'll be home soon," he said. "Everything will be all right then."

Something attracted his attention in the rear view mirror. It was a car flashing its lights.

Franz was used to cars flashing their lights at him, unable to pass on the two-lane road, in a hurry to get somewhere and wanting him to pull over and let them by. He did it, too, most of the time.

But this driver had plenty of room and there wasn't any traffic at all. Why was he flashing his lights that way? And honking, too, like a dang fool. Was something wrong? Was he trying to point out a loose wheel or something Franz couldn't see? Maybe he should pull over after all.

Then he saw the Ganger boy's face behind the wheel, lips curled in a snarl the way they always were. He saw the contemptuous grin and he could guess at the black thoughts circling in the boy's brain. He knew what kids like that thought of old people, as if brute strength and vigor were the measures of a man, as if they themselves would never be old. He thought of that moronic phrase they bandied about these days, the one about dying young and leaving a good-looking corpse, as if getting old was a fate worse than death, as if life had no value if you weren't a young buck raging with hormones.

Franz noticed and thought all these things in an instant. His eyes didn't see sharp but they saw deep, and there was nothing wrong with his mind. He knew where he stood with kids like the Ganger boy. The best thing to do was to ignore them, just pretend that you didn't see, didn't hear, didn't know.

He locked his eyes on the road ahead. Ganger's car roared to within a few feet of the station wagon and then pulled suddenly away and in an instant Franz and the Ganger boy were driving side by side. Ganger made an obscene gesture but Franz kept staring straight ahead, eyes fastened on the blacktop. Irma seemed genuinely oblivious to the drama unfolding just over the white line.

The Ganger boy pulled ahead of Franz and swerved his car in front of the station wagon and zoomed off down the road. Ganger stuck his hand out the window and repeated the pitiful gesture that passed, on the road, for eloquence. Soon the boy's car was well ahead of him, and in another couple of minutes it had disappeared from sight completely. It was over.

Franz looked over at Irma. Her expression hadn't changed for better or worse. Soon they'd be home and Elmer would bark his greetings to them and Franz would make them some tea and she'd calm down. Maybe they'd go for a walk through the field, it was such a warm, pleasant day, almost hot which was strange for this time of year. Yes, that was what Irma needed. Some tea, and then a nice little stroll in the warm sunshine.

Franz squinted and peered into the distance. A car was approaching. It was that boy's car again, and the damn fool was driving on the wrong side of the road.

***

When he was sure he was out of the geezer's sight Galen hit the brake and spun the wheel and the Charger's tires squealed as it skidded in a sharp turn that left it pointed in the opposite direction. Galen slammed it into gear and laid rubber as he headed back toward Franz Klempner and his bugfuck wife.

Some tiny voice in the back of his mind told him this was crazy. It was a voice that rarely spoke to him anymore. After years of being ignored it had at last gone mute, but what he was doing now would surely and truly and irrevocably put an end to the being that was Galen Ganger. He wasn't just flirting with death this time but embracing it, plunging into it like a circus performer into a barrel of flaming water. Blood rushed from Galen's pounding heart and pulsed in his ears and made him deaf to the voice of reason. This was literally the thrill to end all thrills.

Until Seth brought him back.

Galen thought about Clyde Dunwiddey. He saw his skull explode from the bullet hit and his body slump in death, and he saw the wound heal and Clyde rise at the stroke of midnight. Galen had seen the power of Seth. He'd seen it in Deputy Hawg and again in Clyde, and it had made him a believer.

He glimpsed the Klempners' Chevy in the distance as he topped a small rise. His mouth spread into a grin. He floored the accelerator and watched the needle climb past the eighty mark and ease toward the ninety. The Charger vibrated from the effort and Galen knew that, in its untuned state, it would never hit its top speed, but this was good enough. Plenty good enough.

It occurred to him then that he was making the supreme sacrifice. Not his life, which he would get back, but his car. Unless Seth had the power to bring back totaled cars, this was the last ride Galen would ever take in his beloved Charger. The grin fell from his face. So the ultimate thrill had its price.

He nodded. Very well, then, he thought, if that's the price of the ticket, that's what I pay. He reached down and patted the seat beside him. You were a good old girl, he thought, and this is an honorable end.

The Charger and the station wagon approached each other on a nearly level stretch of blacktop. The old man could surely see him now, and even an old buzzard like that would realize soon enough that they were headed for a crack-up. For good measure, Galen flashed his lights a couple of times and then left them on, brights included.

He took a fraction of a second to check the gas gauge. More than half full. Good. Though he wouldn't see it himself, he hoped for a nice fiery finish.

Why wasn't the geezer honking? Galen had played chicken with unsuspecting travelers before and they always laid on the horn. Nobody was going to back off because he got honked at, but it was part of the ritual. Maybe Klempner was blinder than Galen thought. Maybe taking the old man out was the biggest favor Galen could do for Anderson.

***

The boy is crazy, Franz thought as the Charger roared toward him.

He'd had young Turks play this game with him before. They'd flash their lights and honk and threaten to run him off the road, but they didn't know Franz. They didn't think about what it must have been like growing up in the mid-40s when all the world was at war with Germany, growing up in the United States with the first name "Franz." He'd gotten into plenty of scraps, you'd better believe it, and he'd learned quick not to ever back down or they'd beat you that much more. He'd learned to ball his hands into fists or grab a stick or a length of pipe and lay into them, however many they were, with everything he had, not to think he was getting out of it but to concentrate on getting through it. The bullies learned something, too. They learned not to pick on Franz unless they were ready to go home with a bloody nose or worse.

But this Ganger boy, he didn't see the bantam rooster that still lived inside Franz Klempner. He saw an easy target, somebody to push around. Well by God, he was going to learn different.

Franz didn't honk, he didn't flash his lights, he didn't accelerate. But he kept going. He squinted his eyes and looked straight into the on-coming headlights and he gripped the steering wheel tight and he just kept going, knowing that the boy would turn away at the last second. The boy wanted to live, and once he saw that Franz wasn't budging, he'd yank the steering wheel and his car would leap into the other lane and the contest would be over. Franz just had to get through it, that was all.

So he kept going and the Charger kept charging and soon there was no more than a hundred feet between them. The boy had to turn away soon or it would be too late. He was cutting it too close. Too close!

Crazy! Franz thought as the Ganger boy's grinning face raced at him, and he knew in that split second that this was not a game, that it had never been the boy's intention to turn away. This was suicide, and the boy would take Franz and Irma with him.

Franz mashed the brake pedal hard and the Chevy's tires cried out as they slid on the blacktop. He cranked the steering wheel and the wagon spun but the Charger was on top of it in a heartbeat. Franz heard the tortured metal scream as the cars hit, their massive, steel frames crunching. The steering wheel collapsed under Franz' momentum and his rib cage cracked and out the corner of one eye he saw Irma's body fly forward and hit the glass and he heard the glass shatter.

When he opened his eyes he saw that his car and the boy's had become one twisted mass of metal. Only a miracle had left him more or less intact. Irma's body lay across the hood on a bed of broken glass. Flames licked out from the burning engines of both cars. Blood was everywhere, everywhere. He couldn't see straight, couldn't focus his eyes, and maybe that was a blessing. Blindly he fumbled for the seat belt and freed himself.

The door was jammed shut but the window glass was gone. Franz crawled out of the wreckage, knowing that his chest hurt and unable to feel anything at all in his legs. He hauled himself out and tumbled through the window and onto the asphalt. He tried to stand but his legs went out from under him and he fell to the ground. He must have passed out because, when next he opened his eyes, he was lying on the highway and the car was burning and somebody was yelling, "Get him away from the car! Get him out of there!" He felt hands grab him under the arms and pain shot through his body like fire. Then he heard a loud ka-whumpf! and the wreckage that had been the cars and his wife and the Ganger boy became a flaming torch.

Bright light, white hot, washed over him and a jumble of voices filled his ears. Then everything turned into a loud, chaotic roar and he let go, he didn't care, he just let go and the black wave washed over him and, for a moment, nothing hurt at all.

***

This was the way life was supposed to be.

The sun shining and water gently lapping at the dock and a warm breeze sighing over your naked body. It didn't seem to Merle that it was so much to ask, just to be left alone when you needed it, to get rid of the press of the city and strip bare and bask in the sun for a few hours like a lizard or a butterfly or a lazy old dog. Harming no one, not meaning to offend.

So why were Merle and his fellow nudists so persecuted?

They'd been granted the dock, but it was a fragile treaty, written on the wind. Every time some Mrs. Grundy filed a complaint with the county they had to go through the same song and dance to keep their hundred square feet of space, even though it was set back in the farthest cove where only the most diligent seekers could find them. As if it was going to kill anybody to glimpse a bit of bare skin now and again, anyway.

It was one more sign that civilization was going to hell in a hand basket, according to Merle.

Merle Tippert, the town grouch, wasn't what most people thought of when they thought of nudists.

They might think of well-proportioned young women playing volleyball or riding horseback or sunning themselves in the company of other well-proportioned young women. Certainly that was the image promoted by the "social documentarians" who published nudist magazines in the 1950s, before Hugh Hefner demonstrated that you didn't need an anthropological reason to print pictures of naked young ladies.

They might think, right or wrong, of bare bodies engaged in fruity New Age rituals involving body paint, Gaia the Earth Mother, and flutes.

But they certainly did not think of an ancient grouser sitting naked on a dock at the Cooves County Reservoir. Merle with his family-rated movie house would seem like a particularly unlikely candidate for parading around nekkid, as uncomfortable as he was with sexual matters. But as any true nudist (or "naturist" as the group preferred to be called) could tell you, the surest way to short-circuit sexual impulses was to eliminate the tease factor, for what is sex without mystery?

That most people could not think of nudity without connecting it to sex was more evidence to Merle that most people had shit for brains.

Merle was not alone on the dock this Sunday afternoon. Also enjoying the unseasonably warm weather were Jack and Dolores Frelich--he was an engineer on the nuke plant construction project, she was a bookkeeper there--and Hiram Weems, an insurance agent for the tri-county area who made a point of stopping by when he was in the vicinity, weather permitting.

Merle sat on the edge of the dock on a ragged towel he kept for this purpose and dangled his feet in the water. Sometimes fish would nibble at his toes, but he didn't mind. He wished that he and his Indian maiden, Princess Tall Pine, had had a lake such as this to swim in back in 1932. Back then, when there was still a decent patch of country between towns, this land had belonged to farmers like his father and mother, and kids like Merle grew up half wild. Trees grew along the river and he and Princess Tall Pine spent many hours among them, running from the cavalry and building lean-to houses and cooking meals stolen from their families' kitchens. They ran around naked much of the time, sometimes fashioning loin cloths out of rags, but there was nothing dirty about it. They never even played at any of the sex games kids play. Theirs was a pure love, innocent and timeless. Naked was the way to be when you were seven years old and lived in the woods and you were Indians and it was 1932.

Princess Tall Pine's Christian name was Ellie Driscoll and she was one of seven Driscoll kids whose parents farmed a poor piece of dirt not far from the Tipperts' place. Her hair was dishwater blonde but Merle always thought of it as jet black as befitted an Indian princess. Merle's Indian name changed from day to day. Often he was the powerful Great Bear, sometimes he was Sees Like A Hawk, sometimes Chief Many Scalps. Ellie was always Princess Tall Pine.

One day Ellie's younger brother got tonsillitis and the doctor came to the Driscoll house to snip out the boy's tonsils. They had him breathe chloroform until he was woozy and laid him on the kitchen table and the doctor performed the surgery. Even though Ellie wasn't sick, she was the only other Driscoll kid who hadn't had her tonsils out and so the doctor snipped her, too, while he was there.

Ellie's brother recovered but Ellie caught some kind of infection and they took her to the hospital to die. They didn't let Merle see her but they said he could go to the funeral. He saw the doctor there and glared at him all through the service. Outside the cemetery, as they were leaving, Merle chucked rocks at the doctor's car until his father boxed him on the ears, saying, "What's the matter with you?" and commanded him to show some respect for the dead.

Merle, now in his early seventies and never married, muttered the word "doctors" and leaned over and spat into the reservoir. His old tanned hide was loose and baggy and folded many times over his pot belly and a lot of folks would have found it a disgusting sight, but Merle thought, So what? He came into the world naked and, God willing, he'd go out the same way. Who cared what anybody thought in this ass-end-up world anyway? In his mind he was still young and he still sported with Princess Tall Pine in a world that existed only in the memories and dreams of old coots like himself.

He jumped at the explosion behind him.

"What in the hell--?" he said and he turned around to see Deputy Haws standing over the body of Hiram Weems, the traveling salesman, holding a smoking pistol. Jack and Dolores Frelich stared at the deputy in stunned disbelief. Haws moved his gun over to point at Jack and shot him through the forehead. Dolores screamed and tried to get up and run but she was too slow. Haws fired again, shot her right through the chest, and she fell to the dock with a dead thud.

Merle took all this in and couldn't believe it. He couldn't get his mind around it somehow, it made no sense. He didn't have time to summon up remorse at the loss of three lives or even to be properly frightened for himself. Then the gun barrel was pointed in his direction and Haws was looking at him coldly and there was another explosion.

Merle knew he was dying as the impact caught him in the sternum and blew him off the dock. He fell into the cold water and blood streamed from his chest. He surfaced, gasping for air, and Deputy Haws stepped over and got down on his hands and knees and reached down, laid a heavy hand on the top of Merle's head, and pushed him back under. Merle struggled but couldn't break the deputy's grip. After a few moments he gave up. He floated there under the surface, his chest on fire, and watched his blood gush into the water and swirl before his eyes. He watched it and he felt the coldness creep into his limbs and he thought, Here I come, my princess, here I come....

***

In the office of the Cooves County Times where Brant had gone to write up his impressions of the morning's service while they were still fresh in his mind, the phone was ringing. Brant didn't answer. He'd already heard about the accident that claimed the lives of Irma Klempner and the Ganger boy and put Franz Klempner in the hospital, and he was busy in the bathroom with his bowels doing a damn fine impression of Mt. Vesuvius. They always turned volcanic when events weren't adding up the way Brant wanted.

He sat on the toilet and thought about all the things that were vexing him:

--That people were coming back from the dead.

That Deputy Haws could be murdered and return and not tell anybody about it, not even his boss and supervisor, Sheriff Clark.

That Haws had met with his alleged murderer, the Ganger boy, outside the church just a few minutes before Ganger's so-called "accident."

That Irma Klempner perished in a car crash before Brant or anyone else could ask her about the enigmatic "Eloise."

--That Haws knew that Brant had seen him with the Ganger boy and might do something about it.

It was all very strange and unsettling and terrifying. No wonder Brant's guts were in an uproar. They didn't want to believe what seemed to be going on any more than his brain did.

Brant sat with his spinning head in his hands, his pants wrapped around his ankles and a telephone ringing off the hook on the other side of the wall and his bowels threatening to blast him halfway to Timbuktu. He rubbed the palms of his hands together. They were sweaty and cold.

He felt like a condemned man. He sensed unknown forces descending on him as Galen Ganger must have descended on the Klempners, swooping in like a hawk on a field mouse.

He had to do something, and soon. But what, damn it?

What?

Go Back to Chapter Eleven
 

Go to
Chapter
Thirteen