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!
Tom felt like a time traveler in the Grand Ballroom of the Titanic watching the doomed dancers in their finery twirl and laugh, watching star-crossed lovers nuzzle each other under the chandeliers, knowing that soon the alarm would sound and there would be panic and the mad scrabble for the lifeboats would begin as the unthinkable happened, as the unsinkable ship sunk to an icy grave.
The unthinkable was happening here, now, to Tom and everyone else in Anderson. Like the dancers on the Titanic, most of the town was unaware of the impending horror. His mother flitted about the kitchen, tearing lettuce and slicing carrots and celery and mushrooms for the salad, checking the roast in the oven, buffing the silverware with a kitchen towel, putting out dishes and finding chips on all the plates and digging through the shelves to find three perfect ones. She didn't know what was going on, and Tom didn't want her to know, not yet.
Obviously she was in love.
It made him feel good to see her excited about something again, but he felt shame, too, that he wasn't the one who'd snapped her out of her grim obsession with Annie. Brant had better not let her down as he'd let Tom down. If he thought for a minute that Brant was just using his mother for sex, he'd kill him. Not that that would do much good, apparently. Not in this town.
Tom peeled the potatoes and whacked them into fourths and put them on the stove in a pan of water. He marveled at the way life went on in its usual patterns while momentous events seethed beneath the surface. Everyone knew that a man had returned from the dead and they realized what an outstanding and uncommon thing that was. The news rattled through the community and set tongues wagging and raised some hackles. But after the gossip and the arguments and speculations, they went back to their houses and their families and their ironing and mending and sports on television, and come Monday morning they'd wake up and go to work or to school just the same as always.
What would it take to break the grip of the mundane? What would it take to shake people up enough to say to hell with school and the workplace and all the stupid minutiae of life, and compel them to dive deeply into unknown waters? A disaster, maybe. A flood, an earthquake, a war.
Miracles were happening in Anderson. Were they good miracles or bad miracles?
Are you a good witch or a bad witch?
Tom told himself that he had to start writing again and get some of this crap out of his head or he'd go crazy, if it wasn't already too late.
He heard a knock at the door and Peg dashed into the bathroom for some last minute adjustments, wondering why Brant didn't give her a warning toot. Tom let Brant in and they had a few hurried words in private while they could. Tom had noticed that Brant's car wasn't out front.
"I parked in the alley," Brant said. "Haws had my house staked out earlier. I spent most of the day with Franz Klempner. He doesn't know anything about Eloise, but Irma had been having nightmares. It had something to do with the Reverend ringing the church bell in the middle of the night."
Tom said, "I heard it! It was ringing the night we buried Haws." He told Brant about his "midnight" theory and Brant said that it fit the facts, what few of them he had.
"Maybe it's some kind of signal or catalyst or something," Tom suggested.
"Irma Klempner might've been able to provide the link, but...."
"Hi, Brant," Peg said brightly as she waltzed into the room. She was so pretty and chipper that Brant's gloom was brushed into the corners of his mind. He smiled at her and offered up a compliment and the three of them shared an awkward moment before Peg rushed out to check on the dinner. She told Brant to have a seat and instructed Tom to find him something to drink. Brant asked for a glass of water. Tom returned with the water and the news that dinner would be another few minutes. They huddled in the living room and tried to keep their voices down.
"Peg doesn't know about any of this, does she?" Brant said.
Tom shook his head. "I keep wanting to tell her. I keep thinking that she ought to know what's going on. But damn it...you should have seen her this evening. You've made her happy somehow. I want it to last as long as it can. Until we know what's really going on...."
"I know what you mean." So, he made her happy, did he? "Still, she's in a position to hear things."
Tom shook his head. "I know her better than you do. It's too soon."
Brant acquiesced. He could hear the resentment in Tom's voice. Brant had given Peg something Tom couldn't. Tom probably knew what a shit he'd been lately and confessing his role in a murder, however accidental, would leave him open to all manner of accusations and I-told-you-so's. Brant had screwed up with Tom once and didn't want to do so again, especially not with things on the mend.
And Tom was right in that he had a clearer picture of Peg's mental state than Brant did. Brant had never believed, as some people did, that God didn't give you more than you could handle. If that were the case, where did all the nervous breakdowns and suicides come from? Between the divorce and the accident, Peg was already walking the edge. He'd let Tom call this shot, for now.
"What did the boys say after I left?" Brant asked.
"They're freaked out. If it wasn't an accident, Galen must've been expecting to come back like Haws did. It's a freaky thought but, shit...anyway, we're going to check it out tonight."
"We're meeting at the mortuary at a quarter to twelve."
"That'll test the 'midnight' theory, too. How do you plan to get in?"
"Kent. He got fascinated with Houdini in junior high, wanted to be an escape artist. He can open about anything."
Brant shivered. "If what I saw of Galen can come back, then anybody can."
He filled Tom in on his other thought, that there could be more Returns than John Duffy and Deputy Haws.
"I've thought of that," Tom said. "For every one we know about, there could a dozen others. People could be dying right and left and coming back before anybody knows about it."
"Or getting murdered. I saw blood stains on the dock this afternoon."
Tom's eyes went wide. "We heard shots across the water. A long ways off. We didn't think much of it. Jesus! Did you look around for bodies?"
"No, I got the hell out of there."
"You should've looked. We'd know who they were if they came back. I'll check it out tonight, before the mortuary."
"Be careful, Tom. If half of what I think is going on is really going on, we should just pack our bags and get out of town while we still can. Right now. Right this minute."
"Mom wouldn't go, not with Annie in the hospital. We'd have to get her released, get her transferred. That'd be a risk. Mom wouldn't do it, not based on what we have now."
That point struck Brant as one more reason to tell her what they knew. He started to say something when Peg appeared in the doorway.
"My, don't you two look serious," she said. "What's the topic of conversation?"
"Politics," said Tom before Brant could answer.
"We're against them," Brant added.
"I don't allow any political talk at my dinner table. It's bad for digestion. Come take a seat. Dinner's ready."
Peg decided early that the meal was a disaster. The roast was dry and the potatoes competed with the gravy in the category of Most Lumps. She noticed that Brant ate around the mushrooms in the salad and neither he nor Tom asked for seconds of anything.
Conversation lagged. Brant seemed interested in the town's reaction to the Duffy business, but every time he brought the subject up, Tom sidetracked it by complimenting the food he'd barely touched. Peg couldn't seem to start a sentence that didn't begin with "Annie..." and that made her realize how insanely narrow her life had become in the past eight months. She dredged her memory for an amusing anecdote from the diner but couldn't come up with anything that didn't involve Cindy Robertson, another touchy subject with Tom. She tried to tell a joke that she'd overheard Carl Tompkins telling Stig Evans but she only remembered after it was all told that the three guys in the rowboat were Lutheran ministers, which was the point of the whole thing.
She couldn't fathom the reason for Tom's sullenness. She'd have assumed that he was jealous of Brant, but they'd seemed to be getting along so well in the living room. Maybe it was the you-can't-replace-my-father thing. He kept shooting hateful glances at Brant as if mentally kicking him under the table.
She saw echoes of the haunted, escaped convict in Brant's face. He'd said at the diner that he had things on his mind. Apparently a plate full of dry roast and lumpy potatoes wasn't enough to make him forget his troubles, whatever they were. He'd catch himself now and again and make the effort to smile, but clearly something was on his mind.
Something was on her mind, too. As an act of desperation during one of the long, tense silences that had become the hallmark of the evening, she said, "Madge Duffy has some strange ideas."
"Oh?" Brant said.
Tom's jaw tightened the way his father's used to do before he flew into a rage, but Peg couldn't take the strained silence any longer. She had to get this notion out into the open or she'd burst.
"She says that John's changed since he came back. He used to have bursitis in one arm. Did you know that?"
Brant said that he didn't.
"Neither did I, but I guess Madge would know. Anyway, it's gone. Just completely gone. Other things, too, little physical ailments that aren't there anymore. She said...."
Peg toyed with the green beans on her plate.
"She has this idea about Annie. She thinks maybe if it had been Annie instead of John...if Annie had come back...maybe she'd be better. Maybe...."
"Fuck Madge Duffy!" Tom's angry exclamation was like a firecracker exploding under the table.
Peg looked at Tom and saw her ex-husband staring back at her. He wore the same beastly look that she'd seen on Rod a hundred times, usually when he'd been drinking, or when he was laid off, or when fate had dealt him any unjust blow. The look spoke of a savage anger with its roots thousands of years in the past, when the line between human and animal was thin as dust and the difference between survival and extinction depended on sheer ferocity.
"Madge Duffy is an idiot!" Tom continued.
"She was only saying that"
"She was talking bullshit!"
"What did she say exactly?" Brant asked.
"It doesn't matter!" Tom shouted.
He set his hands on the table and leaned toward Peg as if getting ready to pounce. "Annie's gone! You have to face facts, Mom! She isn't going to get better and if you kill herwhich is what Madge Duffy was suggesting, right?she isn't coming back from the dead!"
"You can't know that," Peg replied coldly, returning his stare with one of her own. "John Duffy came back."
"So what? That doesn't make it right! Jesus! Can't you see that? Can't you see how fucked up that is?"
"Tom, maybe we should" Brant began, but Tom cut him off, stabbing a finger at him.
"Brant, shut up," Tom commanded. "I know what you're thinking and you're wrong, so just shut the fuck up!"
"Tom!" Peg admonished.
"It's okay," Brant said.
"No, it isn't okay!" Peg said. "We have rules in this house, and I'm pretty damned sick of being the only one who follows them!"
"I don't need this," Tom said, and he shoved his chair away from the table. It fell over with a bang and he kicked it aside as he marched out of the room. Peg heard the kitchen door slam shut, then the engine of Tom's Honda coughed and roared and finally faded into the distance.
Brant saw that Peg was trembling. She wadded up her napkin and threw it to the table.
"Shit!" she said.
Brant went over and put his hand on her shoulder.
"I am so sick of his shit!" Peg's voice shook with fury.
"Don't be too hard on him," Brant said.
Peg brushed off Brant's hand and turned to look at him incredulously.
"Me, hard on him?" she said. "Weren't you here? Didn't you see that? What did I say that deserved that?"
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to imply that it was your fault. It wasn't. But it wasn't his, either."
"Then whose? Madge Duffy's? Yours?"
Peg got up and started clearing the table, forcing Brant to answer over the clatter of dishes as she angrily stacked plates one on top of another.
"There's something going on in this town," he said. "It's thrown everybody out of whack. You saw the fight at the diner. Everybody's on edge. Would you mind not doing that right now?"
Peg slammed the plates to the table and whirled to look at him, arms folded over her chest.
"Okay, tell me how to raise my kid," she said.
"I'm not telling you how to raise Tom."
"Then what, Brant? What are you saying?"
"I'm just saying that...kids like to think the world is a stable, secure place that makes sense. When they hit Tom's age they start finding out that it isn't so, that it never was that way and never will be. Then there's the Duffy business and the Ganger boy's accident...Tom doesn't know how to deal with it all, but he's grown up enough to think he should. That's all I'm saying."
Peg closed her eyes and sighed. Some dinner. Any normal man would've made his excuses and fled. What planet did Brant come from where people were so patient and kind?
"Oh, Brant," she said. She felt suddenly very tired. "I'm such a mess."
She opened her eyes to see him looking at her and smiling for no damn reason, and when he opened his arms to her she didn't know what to do. He stepped up and embraced her and without thinking about it she threw her arms around him and held him tight. She didn't realize until she did it that this was what she'd been needing for way too long. She wondered if Brant noticed that she'd started crying and decided that he'd figure it out when the tears soaked through his shirt.
Brant couldn't think of anything to say, so he just said "It's all right" about a hundred times or so. Finally Peg pulled away and looked up at him, swiping a palm across her red, wet eyes, and sniffled.
"Dessert?" she said, and Brant said that dessert sounded good.
Peg and Brant sat on the front porch in a swing that groaned under their weight. It had been there for twenty years, long before Peg and Rod moved in, and had seen its share of lovers autumn moons. It was an old-fashioned thing to do, and Brant was thinking that it was one of the finest pleasures life has to offer.
"It was a stupid thought," Peg said after a long period of neither of them saying anything. "About Annie. I don't blame Tom for getting upset."
"It's not all that farfetched," Brant said. "If John Duffy can get his throat cut and come back from the dead, you'd have to think that anything was possible."
"Are you saying you believe in miracles?"
"I believe things happen that I don't understand. What I can't figure is why Duffy would be the one it happened to."
"I don't think it was meant for John's benefit. He was brought back for Madge. Otherwise she could've spent the rest of her life in prison. I think it's her miracle."
"She deserved it more than John did," Brant said. "But still, why Madge? What makes her so special?"
"She's a good person."
"So are a lot of people. You're a good person."
"I try," Peg said. "Maybe if I keep trying, I'll get a miracle of my own."
Brant was finding it hard to keep biting his tongue. He had to beat down the urge to tell her about Haws and the Ganger boy and about all his fears and suspicions. On the other hand, he didn't want to be the one to rat on Tomhe wanted and needed the boy's trustand didn't want to sound like a paranoid idiot. As if those reasons weren't enough, he wasn't sure Peg could take any more pressure. Her daughter was in a coma, her son could be the poster boy for teenaged angst. She didn't need something else to worry about, especially something as unsubstantiated as his anxiety over the Returns.
What had they done, actually, for a fact? Nothing.
"Don't wish for too hard for a miracle," he said. "It might not look so good to you, once it came."
"But I do want it, Brant," Peg said. "I want it more than you can imagine. Like you probably wanted a BB-gun and tickets to the Beatles and your first woman, all rolled into one and multiplied by a hundred. I think about the way she used to be, how curious she was about absolutely everything. I can still see her when I peek into her bedroom at night. She's all I think about. I'd do anything to get her back. I want it so bad...."
She felt herself choking up again. Brant must have noticed because he folded his hand over hers and smiled at her. She smiled back and he put his arm around her. She scooted over closer to him and before she was sure it was going to happen, they were kissing.
Down the street, sitting in his patrol vehicle with the lights out, Deputy Haws watched. He'd stopped by to check on the Culler kid and he'd spotted Brant's car in the alley. Funny place to park, as if Brant was hiding or something. He must know that Haws was looking for him, but he must also know that he couldn't hide forever, not in a town the size of Anderson.
Haws fingered his police special. He could do both of them right now. But Seth had warned him against converting Peg. Seth was saving her for some reason, and Haws did not question Seth. It would be so easy, though, to sneak up behind them and put a bullet in each head. If they were kissing he might get both with one shot. He'd have to line it up just right, but it could be done.
No doubt about it, it could be done.
Frank Gunnarsen hadn't wanted to stop by the Duffys' house for coffee after dinner, but his wife Doris insisted. It wasn't every day that they were invited. In fact, Frank and Doris hadn't exchanged more than six words a month with the Duffys in all the years they'd lived next door.
Doris didn't like John Duffy. She'd heard the gossip and knew it was true by the look in his eyes the day she showed up at their door with a fresh peach cobbler. Bernice Tompkins had told her about bumping into Madge Duffy in town and that she had a black eye she tried to hide with makeup but you could still see it as plain as day. The Duffys had lived in Anderson for a few months, at that time, and Doris had heard John's yelling from time to time, but this was the first concrete evidence anyone had of physical abuse. It had to be verified before Doris could pass it on, naturally, so she had rushed home and whipped up the cobbler and taken it over to Madge with her story all ready.
"You know how it is with peach trees," she planned to say, "it's feast or famine. We're practically swimming in the darned things now so I just thought...well, here. I love to bake but Frank's already eating peaches for breakfast, lunch and dinner."
All the time, of course, she'd be checking out Madge's eye for herself and when she got home she could start making her calls.
It hadn't worked out that way because it was John who answered the door. The way his eyes seemed to burn right through her, she knew he was a wife-beater and he knew that she knew and that frightened her. Besides, she could smell the bourbon on his breath and that made him even more unpredictable. Instead of her elegant story about the peaches she mumbled something that probably didn't make any sense and shoved the cobbler at him and practically ran back to her house.
Later she caught sight of him scooping her beautiful peach cobbler, one of the nicest she'd baked, into the trash, though Madge returned her baking dish a week later ("after the swelling had gone down and the bruise had healed, no doubt," Doris had told Bernice) and lied about how delicious it was.
Doris kept her distance after that, and Frank was never one to socialize, preferring to come home from work and put his feet up and watch television over going out and seeing anybody. To him, visiting with people was a chore. "It's all that talk," he complained, and Doris never understood what was so hard about talking, it came so naturally to her.
When Doris learned that Madge had cut John's throat, she breathed a sigh of relief. It was like living next door to a time bomb, being neighbors with the Duffys. She felt sorry for Madge, figuring that she'd go to prison, but they'd never gotten close and maybe somebody less troubled would move into the house now, somebody Doris could talk to over the fence and sit beside with a glass of lemonade on a hot summer's afternoon and have over for coffee on Saturday mornings to catch up on the week's happenings.
Then when it turned out that John wasn't dead after all and Madge was being released from jail, she felt let down. It had annoyed her that Madge couldn't tear herself away from her no-good husband, and now Doris was even more annoyed. Couldn't the woman do anything right? As the facts poured in over the telephone line, however, it seemed that Madge had done a pretty thorough job of killing John after all and that, through no fault of her own, the man had somehow cheated Death.
In short order Doris and Frank found themselves living next door to celebrities of sorts. People slowed their cars as they drove by, and the telephone hardly stopped ringing as everybody called to find out the latest. Doris would tell them, "I haven't heard anything, not a peep," or "He's outside, working on the porch railing. Yes, right this very minute, he's hammering away loud enough to...oh! I almost said 'wake the dead!'"
Doris was spending so much time on the phone that her ear started to hurt. She told Frank that she was thinking of buying one of those headphone-things so she could do her cooking while she talked and not get a crick in her neck, or at least one of those stick-on shoulder pads. He'd just harumphed and clicked the channel changer, looking for a game.
So when Madge called her and invited her and Frank over for coffee after dinner, she'd accepted at once. Imagine! A chance to hear the whole story directly from the horse's mouth! She'd been watching from the window when the Duffys gave Brant Kettering the cold shoulder, and now she was being handed the inside scoop on a silver platter. Maybe she could sell Brant the story. "Personal Interview with Madge and John Duffy" read the headline in her mind, "by Doris Banks Gunnarsen." Or maybe she'd leave off the "Gunnarsen" and write under her maiden name as other independently minded women did. Wouldn't that be a kick in Frank's pants!
Frank had told her, of course, "You go if you want," but Doris said, "What, me go all alone into that house? Do you think I'm out of my mind?" Frank moaned and grumbled but he put his shoes on after dinner and Doris handed him a clean shirt and they were off to the Duffys'.
There was something different about them, no doubt about it. Madge had lost that hunted look she'd always worn, the worried brow and a slightly hunched-over way of carrying herself, as if something was going to leap out and get her. She was relaxed and exuded a charm that quickly put Doris at ease. As for John, he looked like an ordinary human being, which for him was a step up. If Madge had looked like something's prey, John had always looked like the predator. But this evening he seemed more like one of those full-bellied lions on the nature shows that scratches its back in the grass and lets the little cubs tumble all over it without a snap or a snarl.
They talked about almost everything there was to talk about in Anderson except the main topic of conversation, which was John's return. Doris had enough good gossip at her disposal to keep the ball rolling and the Duffys had all the right reactions to the various tidbits of news: it was shocking, the Maeders girl getting pregnant out of wedlock and the abortion on top of that; it was a disgrace that Carl Tompkins didn't give his number-one man at the hardware store, Jimmy Troost, more of a raise after all his work getting the place in shapeeverybody knew who really ran that store; the new reverend seemed like a good egg, if a little young, but then the whole world seemed to be getting younger these days--they couldn't be getting older, could they? And so forth.
Sitting there in the living room, sipping coffee with the Duffys, Doris felt that a corner had been turned. Madge might be the neighbor she'd always wanted after all, and if John and Frank could find common ground, they might all become fast friends.
After a time the women retired to the kitchen, ostensibly to make a fresh pot of coffee but really to get away from the men. Once the women were out of the room John offered Frank a taste of the good stuff and Frank gratefully accepted, and they headed for the basement. John hollered in to the kitchen that he was going to show Frank the workshop and to give them a yell when the coffee was ready.
John's workshop consisted of a handmade table with a vise screwed into the top that had been there when they moved in and an assortment of familiar tools hung in no particular order on a pegboard. A gray wooden cabinet, another legacy from the previous occupant, held a bottle of Jim Beam. John rustled up a couple of glasses and handed one to Frank, advising him that he might want to wipe it out a bit. Frank gave the glass a perfunctory swipe with the tail of his shirt and said that it didn't matter, the whiskey would kill the germs anyway.
After a couple of shots, Frank ventured to ask John how he was feeling.
"Never better," John said. "You can call me crazy, but the whole business was the best thing that ever happened to me. It opened my eyes. There's a whole world out there we don't even know about. Another?" He hefted the bottle of Beam.
"Don't mind," Frank said, holding out his glass.
John poured it a little higher this time.
"Now I hope you don't take this the wrong way," John said, "but when Madge said she was inviting you over, I kind of didn't think much of the idea. We've been neighbors for some time and I'd gotten the feeling that you were a little stand-offish."
"Well, you know how it is," Frank said. He started to talk about working all day and coming home and just wanting to put your feet up and watch a little television, but he remembered that John had been out of work a good many of the months they'd lived next door, so he let his comment hang and hoped that John would put his own spin on it.
"Don't I though," John said. "I said that you'd never invited us over to your place, but Madge said, 'The phone works both ways, you know,' and I had to admit she was right. Once I figured out what she meant, anyway."
The men had a good laugh.
Frank said, "Doris did bring over a pie or something once."
"Did she?" John said, cocking an eyebrow. "She did, didn't she? I think I remember that now. Yes sir, you're right! I'd completely forgotten about that pie."
They drank a toast to the pie and John poured another splash of whiskey into their glasses.
It seemed like he and John Duffy were getting along pretty good so Frank decided to go for the gusto and asked him what it was like being dead.
John's face took on a thoughtful look. "I don't remember much about it," he said. "I remember darkness, and a kind of sense of things I couldn't see moving around. There were sounds but I couldn't make out any of them. I hadn't heard sounds like these before. It wasn't good, I can tell you that.
"When I woke up...that's what coming back was like, it was like waking up...I didn't know what had happened at first. You know how it is when you wake up in a strange place and you're kind of fuzzy for a bit. It was like that. I'd gone to sleep on the sofa and I woke up in the morgue. What came between I didn't remember right off the bat. It came back to me in bits and pieces."
Frank shook his head. "I don't know," he said, "but that I'd be pretty disturbed."
"I would've been, but for Seth," John said.
"Seth? I don't believe I know any...."
"No, you wouldn't. Seth was my guide through the afterlife. It was Seth who brought me back. Seth showed me the error of my past life and the path to follow in my new one. He brought me and Madge back together again."
John stood up and offered Frank another whiskey. Frank's brain was afloat by now, but not unpleasantly, so he accepted just a drop more. John poured it and put the lid back on the bottle and set it back in the gray cabinet. He picked up a claw hammer that was lying on the shelf.
"We'd drifted pretty far apart," John said, turning to face Frank. "It was my fault, I suppose. You have to make the effort to stay connected, it doesn't just happen by itself. You have to work at a marriage. I guess I'd let things slide. But we're working it out. Things have been better since I came back."
Frank was listening to John but he was concentrating more on not falling off the metal stool he sat on. He used to have a good head for liquor but Doris didn't like the smell of the hard stuff so Frank had gotten into the beer habit. The Jim Beam was hitting him harder than he'd expected.
He was staring down at the floor through most of John's talk about marriage. He raised his eyes to an unbelievable sight. John Duffy had a hammer in his fist and was raising it up and bringing it down like he was going to hit Frank in the head with it.
"Hey," Frank said, and then the hammer crashed against his skull and there was a crunch and Frank was falling off the stool and onto the concrete floor. Lights danced before his eyes and there was a roaring in his ears and a godawful pain in his head. He was aware of a blur of motion, the hammer rising and falling. His face mashed itself against the cold floor and a liquid, warm and sticky, flowed over it and into his mouth. When he tasted it he knew it was blood. Then everything went completely black.
Madge called from upstairs that the coffee was ready and John said, "Be right up." His hand was dripping with blood and bits of Frank Gunnarsen's brain. He rinsed it and the hammer in the Fiberglas sink. Frank could clean up the rest of the mess when he came back. Madge would take care of his bloodstained clothes.
John trudged up the stairs clinging to the handrail. He felt buzzy and agreeably woozy, either from the whiskey or the exercise, he didn't know or care which. He walked into the kitchen where Doris Gunnarsen sat at the table, her head flopped back with a telephone cord wrapped tightly around her throat, tongue protruding from her gaping mouth. John nodded toward the cord.
"Better get that loose before she comes back or it'll strangle her again," he said.
Madge filled their cups. "Plenty of time for that after coffee," she said, smiling, then she added, "It was a nice evening, wasn't it?"
Lucy Haws was used to being cared for by her brother Harold. He'd done it as long as she could remember. He sheltered her from their mother's alcoholic rages. He went with her to pick out her school clothes and he kept them clean and neat. He tried to help with her schoolwork but he was such a poor student himself that, even with a two-year lead (which would've been three if he hadn't repeated), the experience was too painful for both of them. He ended up telling her just to do her best and not to worry about it. He'd be the one signing her report card, anyway.
It was evident early on that Lucy wouldn't find a man. She wasn't pretty but she wasn't horrid, and she wasn't smart but she wasn't stupid, so there was certainly someone out there for her if she troubled herself to look and didn't set her standards unreasonably high.
No, Lucy's problem was of the emotional sort. Put simply, she didn't have many, or maybe she did but they were of such a low intensity that most people failed to notice them at all, like earthquakes at the bottom end of the Richter scale. She didn't attract men naturally and didn't feel compelled to attract them through cosmetics or sex. Men didn't seem worth the energy it would take to snare one and then put up with his demands and messes and idiosyncrasies. A lot of things were that way, like pets and cars and motorboats and fancy clothes and nearly everything, come to think of it.
Lucy settled easily for not much. She had to eat, she had to work, and she had to pass the rest of her time tolerably. But she didn't expect romance or success or children or status in her community or wealth or anything, really, except for what she had: a roof over her head and a television set that worked. When Harold bought cable for her, she felt like someone had gifted her with the Hope diamond, it was so far above her expectations.
She was proud of her big brother. People had expected him to wind up on the wrong side of the law but instead he'd embraced it, and now people had to do what Harold...what Deputy Haws...told them to do. He'd become a big shot, but you'd never know it from the way he treated Lucy. He still looked after her. He was still probably the only person in town who cared if she lived or died.
She heard him come home around eleven o'clock. He'd usually busy himself downstairs for awhile before coming up to bed, but he'd always take a moment to look in on her. If she was still up they'd have a few words and then he'd say goodnight. He wouldn't kiss her, he never had and never would and she never needed it to know that he loved her.
Harold came straight upstairs tonight. She thought, as she followed his heavy footsteps on the stairs, that it must have been a busy evening for him to want to go straight to bed. She hoped those boys hadn't been giving him trouble again.
The floor boards squeaked in the hallway and pretty soon he was standing there at the open door. He didn't look tired at all. In fact he was smiling.
"Hi," she said.
He walked in and sat on the edge of the bed. He had a different look on his face, like the way he'd looked when he told her they were coming out to install the cable TV.
"You have a surprise for me," Lucy said. "I can tell by the look on your face."
"I could never hide anything from you," Harold said. "Close your eyes."
She did. "Should I hold out my hand?" she asked.
"No," he said. "Lean up."
She leaned forward and he took the extra pillow from behind her head, the one she used when she watched television.
"Lie down," he said, and she thought that was strange but she did as he told her.
"Are you going to smother me with that pillow?" she joked.
She felt the pillow come down over her face.
"Yes," he said, and he leaned on it with all his weight so she couldn't draw a breath, and no matter how hard she kicked and pummeled and tried to yell out that this wasn't funny, he wouldn't let up.
Clyde Dunwiddey stood at the front door of his house and stared through the screen at the quiet town beyond. It looked to him as if time were standing still. No cars plying the streets, no boys skateboarding along the sidewalks. Cicadas buzzed and crickets chirped to tell him that life did proceed, if invisibly. A bat flashed from a tree and was gone again by the time Clyde swiveled his eyes to look at it.
This was a time of hidden songs and furtive flights, of mice dashing along baseboards and cats skulking through quiet yards. It was a time for the night predators to emerge from their dens to prey on the sleeping, a time for the dark-adapted seers to roam, seeking out the blind.
The air was cool, bracing. "Nice night," he said. His mother, sitting in her rocking chair with her knitting in her lap, didn't answer. "Odd to see it so clearly, instead of through an alcoholic haze."
Not that he was completely sober, but neither was he drunk as a skunk as he usually was by this hour. He felt that something within him had changed. He still enjoyed the taste of liquor and the burn as it slid down his throat, but the compulsion for more and more and more had slipped out of his being the way a bad dream fades under the morning sun. He gave credit for this cleansing to Seth.
Seth had healed that part of Clyde that was, by nature, defective. Many inducements to alcohol remained, but the addiction was gone. Captain Humphrey would see much less of Clyde Dunwiddey in the months and years to come, that was for sure.
"You're usually in bed by this time," Clyde told his mother. "I guess I haven't given you much to stay up for. Things are going to be different from now on, though. No more binges. No more staggering home after the Captain kicks me out. We'll have more money, too, without me spending it all on booze. I'll put it into fixing this place up. I didn't realize how I'd let it run down. The first thing I'll do is give it a coat of paint. It's an embarrassment, all the other houses on the block look so nice and ours...."
His voice trailed off. The house seemed like a metaphor for Clyde himself. He'd spent decades nurturing his addiction and letting the rest of himself decay. That was over with. He had his priorities straight now.
He looked over at his mother, still in the chair where she'd been sitting when he strangled her. He'd slipped up behind her as she worked on her knitting and wrapped his necktie around her baggy-skinned throat and pulled it tight. She was frail and didn't put up much of a fight. When it was over Clyde had put the necktie in his pocket and opened the front door and gazed out at the night. It was so peaceful, so eerie.
He pulled the necktie out of his pocket and ran it between his fingers to smooth out the wrinkles. He looked at himself in the hallway mirror as he tied the tie, then loosened it a bit. He pulled his shirt tail out part way and mussed his hair. He always looked disheveled when he left the Tavern late so he should look disheveled now.
He had to pay a call on the Sheriff, and then he could go to bed.
It was around ten o'clock and Sheriff Clark was turning out the lights and calling it a night when seven-year-old Josh Lunger, dressed in cartoon character pajamas, hit the door running and rushed in as if the Devil was on his tail. Clark tried to calm him down and get a few coherent words out of him but it was plain that the boy was scared to death. The Lungers lived out on the edge of town so Josh had made quite a run. The cuffs of his pajamas were wet with dew.
"It's all right," Clark said, "you're safe here. Nobody can hurt you here. Calm down. Take a deep breath and tell me what happened."
The boy swallowed hard and wiped the tears off his face with the back of his hand. It took him a few minutes to get his wind back. Clark sat the boy in a chair and draped a blanket over his shoulders and told him to take his time and tell him what happened. Josh was almost settled down when Clark made the mistake of asking him where his mother was.
Instantly the boy was out of the chair, his eyes wide with panic, and yelling, "She's the one! She tried to kill me! She choked me! I was just laying there asleep and I couldn't breathe and I woke up and she was choking me! You gotta help me, Sheriff! She's trying to kill me, I swear it, she's trying to kill me!"
"Are you sure it wasn't a bad dream, Josh?" Clark asked. The Lungers were a good family with no history of abuse, rock solid, no drinking or criminal offenses.
"No! It happened! My mom, she tried to choke me, I swear I'm not making it up!"
Sheriff Clark put his finger under Josh's chin and lifted it. There were red marks on his throat and the beginnings of a couple of thumb-sized bruises. He looked at the side of Josh's neck and found more marks, marks that could've been fingers squeezing tight. He decided he'd better call Doc Milford.
"Hold on a minute, Josh," he said, and he went to the telephone and dialed Doc's number. He described the situation and Doc said he'd be right down to take a look. Before Clark could hang up the phone, Josh screamed.
His mother's car had just pulled up to the curb.
Josh ran to the Sheriff and wrapped his arms around Clark's legs, begging him not to let his mother get him.
"I won't let her get you," Clark promised, but he knew that unless Doc could tell him something about the marks on Josh's neck, something that pointed clearly to child abuse, chances were excellent that Josh would be back in the custody of his parents within the hour.
The telephone rang. The Sheriff thought it might be Mark Lunger, Josh's father. If Josh had suddenly gone missing, Mark might stay at home working the phone while Carol, Josh's mother, drove around looking for him. Clark answered "Sheriff's Office" but even as he was speaking the caller hung up. He clicked the button a couple of times but there was no response. Funny. That was the second such call he'd received that night. Probably the same person, dialing a wrong number, but it set off a warning buzzer inside Clark's head. He made a mental note to remember these calls, and he checked the clock to see when this one came in. Ten after ten.
"So there you are," Carol Lunger said, and she strode into the Sheriff's Office toward Josh. Josh cried out and hid behind Clark's legs, pleading with Clark to keep her away.
"I think you'd better keep your distance, Carol," Clark said, "until we find out what's going on here."
"He had a bad dream, Sheriff, that's all," Carol replied calmly, but with a thin edge of annoyance creeping into her voice. "He woke up screaming and I rushed into his room. He was in bed, and his pajama top was all twisted around his throat...."
"No!" Josh screamed. "That isn't what happened! She's lying!"
"He was choking, having a nightmare."
"No! She's lying! It was her! She was choking me! It was her!"
"Josh, stop this nonsense immediately!" Carol commanded. She took a step forward and reached for the boy but Sheriff Clark interposed himself between them.
"I can't let you have him," he said, "not just yet."
"I demand that you release my son!" Carol said, drawing herself up tall.
"We'll see," Clark said. "Doc Milford's on his way over. He'll tell us if the marks on Josh's throat could've been made by pajamas."
"Are you accusing me of child abuse?"
"I'm not accusing you of anything. When Doc gets here"
"This is ridiculous!" Carol snorted. "He had a bad dream! That's all there is to it!" She looked at Josh. "Tell them, Josh! It was just a bad dream!"
The boy wasn't about to say anything of the sort, Clark could tell. He was genuinely afraid for his life. And the marks on his neck and throat didn't look a damn thing like a pajama top.
Doc was taking his own sweet time getting there so Clark sat Carol Lunger down at Haws' desk to wait. Carol asked if she could call her husband and Clark said she could. This was developing into a fine mess. Stir in one irate father and things were sure to get fiery. He wished Doc would hurry it up and verify his suspicions. The red marks looked like finger bruises to him and it was certain that young Josh didn't try to strangle himself.
As he looked at Carol Lunger he noticed that the makeup over part of her face was extra heavy. She might be covering up a mark of her own, where Josh had struck her, for instance, trying to get free. He'd ask Josh about that later.
Sheriff Clark didn't like what was happening in his town, and he didn't even know what it was. Madge Duffy's murder of her husband was unusual enough. Having the deceased seem to return from the dead was damned disturbing. The business with the Ganger boy and Franz and Irma Klempner smelled fishy as all get-out, and now this, a boy from a perfectly healthy family claiming that his mother tried to strangle him to death, and with the physical evidence to substantiate it.
Something was going on. Something dark and evil. And all Sheriff Clark had to go on in figuring it out were a bunch of bizarre but unrelated incidents and about a hundred tiny hairs rising on the back of his neck.
Mark Lunger showed up and demanded to know what the hell was going on. If he felt any relief at the sight of his missing boy, he didn't show it. He threatened Sheriff Clark with a lawsuit that would make his head spin and Clark replied that that was his right, but until Doc Milford arrived he wasn't releasing Josh to anybody.
The boy was terrified. With every passing minute Clark grew more certain that handing him back to his parents would be the worst thing he could do. Maybe there was a relative who'd put the boy up for the night.
What was keeping Doc Milford, anyway? It was after eleven o'clock.
The sight of Clyde Dunwiddey staggering down the sidewalk toward the jail was reassuringly familiar. Some of the old patterns still held, anyway. Clark checked that cell B was ready and unlocked so he didn't have to spend any more time with Clyde than necessary.
Clyde stumbled in and Sheriff Clark said, "Evening, Clyde," and Clyde gave him a drunken wave as he "headed for the hoosegow."
Mark Lunger chose that moment to get belligerent again.
"Look here, Sheriff, this is no place for a young boy!" he yelled. "There's school tomorrow and he needs his sleep! He shouldn't be hanging around jails with derelicts!"
Carol Lunger joined in and soon they were both yelling at Sheriff Clark while Josh cowered behind Clark's legs. Clark decided to fight volume with volume and yelled back and didn't notice Clyde Dunwiddey lifting the shotgun out of the rack on the wall until he pumped a shell into the chamber and aimed it at him.
Sheriff Clark drew his police special and got off a round as Clyde pulled the trigger and sent a flurry of pellets into Clark's gut. The Sheriff's shot hit Clyde in the leg and Clyde cried out and nearly crumbled, but he caught himself with one hand on Clark's desk. Bracing himself against the desk, Clyde pumped the shotgun again and fired, this time hitting Josh Lunger in the throat and throwing his blood all over the office walls.
Clark's head was spinning and he was kneeling on the floor, but he and Clyde traded shots again. Both shots connected and the two men collapsed as one, stone dead.
Carol and Mark Lunger surveyed the damage. The walls dripped blood. Their son Josh lay on the floor, his head nearly severed from his body. This wasn't the way they'd wanted it to be, but come twelve o'clock they knew that everything would be set right. Seth had promised.
Doc Milford drove up at last. He walked through the front door, looked around, and whistled. He saw the Lungers standing in the corner, holding hands.
"Do you know Seth?" he asked, and the Lungers allowed that they did.
"It wasn't supposed to be like this," Carol said.
"It'll be fine," Doc said, "come midnight."
He adjusted Josh Lunger's head squarely onto his shoulders, and then he turned out the lights so no one driving by would notice anything amiss. In case someone did poke his nose in the door, Doc picked up the shotgun and pumped a fresh shell into the chamber. He and the Lungers took seats in the dark office and waited.
Bernice Tompkins couldn't sleep.
"I can't find him anywhere," she said. "I haven't seen him since noon." She was looking for Groucho, a black-and-white cat with a dark patch over his mouth that had earned him his name. He'd shown up last summer and, recognizing a good thing when he saw it, had made the Tompkins house his own. He had gotten heavy over the last year, and it wasn't like him to roam. Bernice could always count on spotting Groucho lounging in the shade in the summer or hogging a sunbeam in the winter. He was less like a pet and more like something someone forgot to put away.
"He'll turn up," Carl said, turning over and adjusting his pillow. It's what Carl always said and he was always right.
"But it isn't like him to stay out late," Bernice insisted. "Something's wrong." Then she added almost under her breath, "Something's wrong with the whole town."
"There's nothing wrong. Go to sleep."
"There is. I can't put my finger on it, but it's there. Something in the air, like a storm ready to break. And that business with John Duffy. It isn't natural. The cats feel it. They've been nervous the last three days. You've seen how they pick at their food."
"Uh-huh," Carl said, though he had noticed no such thing. They were still eating him out of house and home, as far as he could tell.
"Now this. I'm worried about him, Carl."
"Bernie, I'm not getting up and looking for a cat in the middle of the"
"I'm not asking you to. I'm just saying that something's wrong, is all. I don't know how you can sleep, anyway, with Groucho missing."
Bernice threw back the covers and got out of bed, displacing Sputnik and Heather and Zoe who liked to sleep on and around her legs, and annoying Pumpkin who was curled up in the crook behind Carl's knees.
"For gosh sakes, Bernie, what are you doing?"
"I'm going to look under the house. Remember the time he got trapped there? You were looking for that leak and when you left you put the screen back on and Groucho was trapped inside. I still think you did it on purpose."
Carl sat up, which caused Pumpkin to stand and glare at him impatiently.
"I did no such thing," Carl said. "And you're not going to go crawling around under the house at this hour! It's insane!"
"I'm not going to crawl around. I'm just going to peek in. Where's the flashlight?"
"Use the rechargeable. It's plugged into the socket by the back door."
"You're really going to let me do this myself, aren't you?" Bernice said. "Any decent husband"
"All right, all right!" Carl complained, throwing back the covers and swinging out his legs. He found his house slippers and pulled on a robe. "I knew I'd get sucked into this one way or another."
He yanked the flashlight out of the socket and walked out the back door with cats milling around his feet. Bernice followed him calling for Groucho.
Carl went around to the back of the house where the access door to the crawl space was. He'd been under the house the day before, spraying for cockroaches, and he hadn't done a perfect job of putting the door back. The door was a window screen, actually, and it had plenty of "give" in it. A space on one side could have admitted a cat. It was only a couple or three inches but he'd seen the cats squeeze through smaller spaces, and if Groucho could've gotten in, he could've gotten out again. But Carl was there now and he might as well look around for Bernice's sake. He pulled the door off and set it in the wet grass and crouched down to peer inside.
"Groucho?" he called, shining the flashlight around. Bernice peered over his shoulder, saying, "Here, kitty, kitty, kitty!" The light bounced off concrete blocks and pipes and wires and joists, all dripping with spider webs, but there was no sign of Groucho. Carl couldn't see into the farthest corners, of course, and he wasn't about to get down on his belly in his pajamas and crawl inside, but if Groucho was in there and wanted out, he'd have seen the light and heard Carl and Bernice calling to him and he'd have shown himself.
"He isn't under here."
"Are you sure? How can you see from way out here?"
"Bernice, I am not crawling under the house in my bathrobe. It's filthy under there." He gave the crawl space another sweep with the flashlight and this time the light came to rest on a skeleton lying in one corner. "Well I'll be damned," Carl said.
"What is it? Is it him?" Bernice asked anxiously.
"I don't know what it is." The skeleton was almost out of the flashlight's range and Carl couldn't get a good look at it from where he sat. He duck-walked another step closer and bent his head down, poking it just inside the access hole. He smelled the lingering perfume of poison mixed with the dusty, musty odor of the crawl space. "It's some kind of skeleton," he said.
Bernice drew in a breath of horror. "Oh, Carl! You don't suppose?"
"No, no, it couldn't be him. It's picked clean, like something in a museum. It's been here awhile. Could be a squirrel. Or a skunk. Possum, maybe."
"Can you reach it?"
"Not from here."
"You have to get it out! I don't see how I can sleep tonight knowing that thing's under there!"
"It's been under here for weeks, maybe months. Funny I didn't notice it...." His voice trailed off. He didn't want Bernice to know that he'd just been under the house spraying poison around.
Then he got to thinking: Where are the dead roaches? He shined the flashlight around the sewer pipe where he'd seen so many of them. He'd hit them with the spray, he'd watched them die and drop off into the dirt. There should be hundreds of roach corpses under there. Where had they all gone? There wasn't a one that he could see.
Bernice could tell that he was puzzling over something.
"What is it?" she said.
"Nothing. Just looking," Carl replied. "I thought he might be hiding behind a pipe or something."
He backed out of the access hole and stood up, his legs and back aching. He stretched, swiveled his shoulders.
"He isn't under there," Carl said. He bent down and replaced the access panel.
"You're sure? Absolutely sure?" Bernice asked.
Carl's house slippers were soaked with dew and he was anxious to get them off and to warm his feet up under the covers. He was wide awake now, of course, and worried about the roaches. He didn't understand where they could have gone. He'd seen the cats eat bugs before. Could Groucho have gotten under the house somehow and gorged himself on dead roaches? Was he lying under a bush, dead from ingesting bug poison? But Groucho couldn't have eaten every single one.
It couldn't possibly be Groucho's skeleton under there. It couldn't.
"I won't be able to sleep a wink," Bernice said, "knowing poor Groucho's out there suffering."
"Groucho's probably out there getting laid," Carl muttered under his breath. He left his wet slippers by the back door and tiptoed across the cold hardwood floor of the hallway to the carpet of the bedroom. He dived beneath the covers and kicked his feet to warm the sheets that had cooled in his absence. He heard Bernice opening cabinet doors and running water in the kitchen. She was probably taking a pill.
"I took a pill," Bernice said as she crawled into bed. "Otherwise I'd toss and turn and worry about Groucho all night."
Bernice found a reason almost every night to take a pill.
"He's fine," Carl said. "You'll see. He'll be here for breakfast in the morning."
Carl leaned over and gave his wife a kiss and said "Goodnight." He turned his back to her and pressed his butt against hers and lay that way for a few seconds. Then the arm he was lying on started to hurt and he turned onto his back. He didn't like sleeping that way but he had a pinched nerve or something in his left arm that bothered him when he slept on it. He'd been meaning to talk to Doc Milford about it but he knew that Doc would just tell him it was old age creeping up, and Carl didn't want to pay good money to hear that.
It took Carl about four minutes to go to sleep. Bernice was asleep sooner than that, not because of the pill that hadn't even entered her system yet, but because she knew she'd taken the pill and therefore had an excuse for not lying awake worrying about Groucho any longer. Heather and Zoe and Pumpkin returned and took up their places on the bed covers. By eleven o'clock, the Tompkins household was sleeping soundly.
None of them noticed the first cockroach slip under the carpet by the wall and into the bedroom, its antennae feeling the air for signs of life.
Following the first cockroach there came another, and then a steady stream of roaches flowed into the bedroom with a mathematical precision that would have impressed Clyde Dunwiddey. Their numbers seemed to explode exponentially as they poured from the walls, skittering through every crevice. They moved like liquid, oozing up through the cracks and over the carpet toward the bed where Carl and Bernice slept, deep in their dreams.
The cats woke and meowed in alarm. They padded around on top of the bed, meowing, but Carl was a heavy sleeper accustomed to ignoring cats, and Bernice would not be roused from her drug-induced slumber. Heather leaped from the bed into the sea of roaches and bounded out of the room. Zoe and Pumpkin followed her.
The roaches engulfed the bed posts. They clambered over one another as they climbed, their sharp insect legs scritching against the wood and scratching for purchase on the slippery shells of their brethren. Roaches swarmed over the bed from all four corners and engulfed the sleepers. They crawled into ears and nose and mouth, slid under the sheets and inside Carl's pajamas and under Bernice's night dress. Their mandibles tore at soft flesh.
Carl was suddenly aware that he couldn't breathe. He woke with a mouth and nose stuffed with wriggling roaches. He tried to cough but he couldn't dislodge the roaches from his throat. Vomit rushed up his esophagus and into his mouth and slipped down his trachea into his lungs. He crunched roaches between his teeth as he heaved and more roaches descended over his face, pouring in from everywhere. He dug at them with his hands as he tumbled out of bed and onto a floor undulating with roaches.
He groped for the light switch and flipped it on, hoping the light would scare them off. He saw that his bed had become a sea of roaches. He saw Bernice's body as an unmoving lump beneath the mass of insects, already dead. The sleeping pill had spared her this horror.
The roaches bit at his eyes and Carl squeezed them shut. He couldn't get a breath, couldn't expel the roaches from his airways. He brushed frantically at them as they swarmed over his body. He staggered over the carpet of roaches that crunched and spat gore with every step. His chest was on fire. His stomach heaved. He doubled over, gagging. His foot slipped, and he felt himself falling, falling. He landed on his back in the middle of the writhing mass.
They swallowed him whole. They covered his eyes and face and crawled deeper into his ears. He heard their clicking mandibles through a hurricane roar as they dug in. He was dizzy from lack of oxygen, his head swam. He knew he was dying, knew that Bernice was already dead, knew what had stripped the flesh from the skeleton in the crawl space, knew that the same fate lay in store for him, for Bernice. He knew that nothing in death could match the horror of these, his last living moments.
Oblivion came as a blessing.