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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

 

Seventeen

Despite their late night, everyone in the Culler household was up and around before eight o'clock the next morning. Brant was in the kitchen making coffee when Peg came in. They exchanged greetings and a quick kiss and a hug. They stood in one spot for more than a minute, holding onto one another as if it might be the last time. Peg sighed and Brant said it felt good to hold a woman who wasn't made of inflatable vinyl. Peg said that surely it hadn't been that long and Brant replied that it had and they kissed again, for real this time.

Tom was upstairs sitting on the edge of the bed, breathing hard. He'd had another zombie nightmare. This time it wasn't just Deputy Haws but Galen and Jed Grimm and Brant and it seemed like half the town who was after him, chasing him through the mortuary, through the park, and somehow he found himself at the reservoir, his back to the water while the zombies closed in. He ran into the water and started to swim, but then he couldn't move his legs and he felt himself spinning down into the black depths, and he couldn't breathe and he knew he was going to die, and he was going to come back, and when he did, he would be one of them.

He went to the bathroom and was going to splash some water on his face but decided, once he was there, on a nice, hot shower. When he came downstairs he could smell freshly brewed coffee and bacon frying on the stove. He walked into the kitchen where Peg sat at the table with Brant. They both looked grim. Tom checked on the bacon, which should have been turned over a minute ago.

"Should I flip this?" Tom asked, and Peg said she'd do it. She didn't get up immediately, though, but sat there looking sadly at Brant, so Tom got out the spatula and turned the bacon over before it burned.

Peg said, "I'm sorry" and put her hand over Brant's. Her took her hand and squeezed it, said, "Me, too." Tom watched them over his shoulder.

"You guys have a fight?" he asked.

Brant let go of Peg's hand and picked up his coffee cup.

"Your mother says she's not ready to leave town," Brant said. "She thinks we're full of beans."

"I didn't say that," Peg protested. "I said I didn't want to risk moving Annie until we knew more."

"Mom, I saw it. I saw Galen come back."

"I know you did. I believe you."

"Then why won't you...?" Tom's voice trailed off. He knew why. "You're thinking about what Madge Duffy said, aren't you?"

"If there's a chance, if there's any hope at all, no matter how slight"

"You can't trust her! Don't you see that? She's one of them! You can't trust anybody in town! Anybody could be a Return! Anybody!"

"He's right," Brant said. "John could've killed Madge"

"I know that! I understand everything you've said...I'm not a child and I'm not stupid!"

"I didn't mean"

"Look," Peg said. She was trying hard to keep the discussion from turning into an argument, but she wasn't going to give in to what the men wanted until she was convinced it was the right thing to do. She was beyond acquiescing automatically to the male of the species.

"You say people are coming back. You've seen them, and it's frightening. Of course it's frightening because it's the unknown. It's something we don't understand. But that doesn't make it bad. Maybe it's the best thing that ever happened to this town. Maybe we aren't even the only ones. Maybe leaving town wouldn't accomplish anything! Whatever's going on, I'm not going to risk moving Annie until I know...until I'm certain it's the right thing to do!"

There was a long moment of silence broken only by the sizzling of the bacon. Tom folded some paper towels and laid the bacon strips out to drain, and Brant sat back in his chair and sighed.

"Well," Brant said, "I guess we've got our work cut out for us, Tom. Obviously you aren't going to school today."

"I hadn't thought about it."

"And this is Peg's day off, right?"

Peg nodded.

"So let's do this: Peg, you check into Annie's transfer. Meanwhile, Tom and I will go to Junction City and look through the morgue."

Tom started to protest, but Brant cut him off.

"I mean the newspaper morgue. Back issues of the paper."

"Looking for what?"

"Somebody named Eloise, for one. Anything about people making miracle recoveries, being pronounced dead and coming back...you'll know it when you see it."

"What about Galen?"

"What about him?"

"He's back. Some kind of shit's going to go down."

"Then it's just as well you won't be here for it," Peg stated. Tom glared at her, but he knew she was right. Peg excused herself and went upstairs to shower.

Brant took over the cooking duties from Tom. He broke four eggs into the bacon grease.

Tom said, "I knew she wouldn't leave."

"She just needs more convincing," Brant replied. "I can't say I blame her. We laid an awful lot of stuff on her last night. We have to find out about Eloise."

"Irma Klempner's been out of her gourd as long as I can remember. Eloise could be the name of her sled for all we know."

"Yeah, but it's all we have to go on."

"Well, she's back. Maybe we should just ask her."

"If she's one of them, it's too late. No, the newspaper's our best bet."

"Okay. Big city, here we come."

"It's boring, godawful work, sifting through the morgue. You sure you're up for it?"

"Can't be any worse than school."

"Don't believe it. How do you want your eggs?"

Tom said "over easy" and they spent the next few minutes in silence, eating breakfast, mulling things over, pondering the imponderable. Peg came down dressed in jeans and a t-shirt and drying her hair with a towel, and Brant headed upstairs for his turn in the shower. Twenty minutes later he and Tom were in the car, headed for Junction City.

They'd no sooner pulled into the street when the telephone rang. Peg answered. It was Doris Gunnarsen, and she had remarkable news.

***

The excitement in Doris's voice was infectious. She began with "You remember John Duffy?" as if anyone in town could've forgotten, and slid right into, "Well, it's happened again!" without waiting for a response.

"It's Irma Klempner and the Ganger boy. They're back from the dead, I swear to God. I heard it myself straight from Madge Duffy who got it straight from Reverend Small, and he got it straight from Jed Grimm who was right next door when it happened. Now, I didn't see the accident but you can imagine... I mean, those cars were burning like I-don't-know-what and the bodies... well, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to know what the bodies must have looked like. We're talking crispy critters, here, no disrespect intended.

"So Jed wakes up in the middle of the night and for some reason he's thinking about those bodies in the embalming room. Maybe he had a dream or something, I don't know, but whatever... he wakes up and those bodies are on his mind and he decides to go next door and take a look. And what does he see when he gets there but Irma Klempner and the Ganger boy, alive and whole and as pink as a baby's bottom, standing there outside the mortuary without a stitch. So he throws his robe around Irma and takes them both back to his place and calls Doc Milford.

"Can you imagine? A crazy woman and a teenaged hoodlum in your house, both of them fresh off the slab... you wouldn't find me in that house, let me tell you! But anyway, Doc shows up and runs a few tests and... well, the upshot is that they're both in perfect health. And Irma Klempner! From what I hear she's as clear-eyed and right in the head as Doc's seen her in forty years!

"Can you believe it? I don't know what's going on in this town but it's something else, that's for sure. The Reverend's having a special service this morning, ten o'clock, to announce the news and to, you know, help people sort it out in their heads. I hardly know what to make of it myself. People coming back from the dead... doesn't it give you the shivers?

"Listen, I'd love to chat but the Reverend's depending on me to get the word out. Be a dear and call the diner? See you at church! Bye, now!"

The phone clicked and, without having a word since she answered "Hello," Peg hung up the receiver. She phoned Ma and talked to Cindy who promised to spread the word to the breakfast crowd. She figured that Ma would be willing to close up for an hour or so since he wouldn't have any business anyway. Then Peg ran upstairs to do something simple and quick with her hair and to put on a nicer shirt.

At about a quarter to ten, the church bell started to toll.

***

Brant and Tom drove by the church on their way out of town. Brant slowed for a better look. He recognized Jed Grimm's car out front and the old Chevy pickup he'd seen at Franz Klempner's farm. Tom pointed out Janis Ganger's car.

There were other vehicles, too. Merle Tippert's Studebaker was unmistakable, which made them think that some of the other cars might have been the ones parked at the reservoir all day yesterday. One of them had out-of-county tags and a Hartford Insurance bumper sticker. They attributed it to Hiram Weems who sold insurance and did a little claims adjusting in the area. Brant recognized Carl Tompkins' truck, and Deputy Haws' squad car was there. Others, too.

"If we knew who all those cars belonged to," Brant said, "I'll bet we'd have the beginnings of a list of Returns. They're gathering."

"But for what?" Tom asked. For some reason he thought of the crows massing on the jungle gym in the Hitchcock movie.

"Maybe we should stay and find out."

Tom shook his head "no."

"Let's do this newspaper thing," he said. "It's all just guess and speculation until we get some facts. Find out who Eloise is, or was. See if there's any record of this kind of thing happening around here before. Anything we can use to convince Mom to move Annie."

Brant told Tom about his alternate plan, to lure Peg into the car under false pretenses and drive her out of town.

"Wouldn't work," Tom said. "Mom would jump out of a speeding car for Annie."

Brant noticed the bitterness underlying Tom's remark.

"She spends a lot of time with Annie, doesn't she?" Brant said. "Too much, maybe."

"It's her obsession. It's like, if she's awake and she isn't at work or with Annie, she thinks she's doing something wrong. As if it was her fault Annie's in a coma."

"Not that I'm any expert on the female psyche," Brant said, "but it seems like some of them have a special gland for producing guilt. Peg's probably played the 'if' game so much about the accident that she feels responsible. You know'If I hadn't divorced Rod, this never would've happened.' 'If I'd gone to pick her up instead of letting Rod drive her....'"

"Right, right. I keep telling her, 'Mom, it's not your fault.' But she won't listen."

"She's got the gland, for sure. It doesn't make her a bad person, though."

"I didn't say she was. It just gets frustrating, that's all."

"Tell me about it. I tried for months to get a free day out of her. In a way, you lost both parents in that wreck. She's as much a victim as your dad was, only she has to go on living and deal with the aftermath. It's tough as hell."

"I guess so. I never thought of it like that."

They didn't talk for the next few miles. When they hit the highway and passed the sign telling them Junction City, 62 miLES Tom picked up the conversation again.

"I love my little sister," he said. "I always did. But the way she is now, it's like she's dead but some part of her brain didn't get the message. Do you think she's got a chance?"

"There's always a chance. Very small, of course."

"You read about people coming out of comas after years."

"You read about them because they're news. They're the exceptions. You read about people who win the lottery but nothing about the thousands of losers. That's what the news is all about, life as it isn't. A reporter in the city spends all his time looking for the hook, the angle, the sensation. You can start to feel like a charlatan after awhile."

"Is that why you came out here and started the Times?"

Brant shrugged. "I probably romanticized it. I thought it'd be spiritual somehow, immersing myself in births and deaths and farm sales and hail damage and high school graduations. There's just one problem with reporting life as it really is."

"What's that?"

"It's real damn boring."

Tom let out a short laugh. "Yeah, that's Anderson."

"I have to admit, this 'Returns' thing had me fired up as a reporter. For a time."

"What about now?"

"Now?" Brant considered the question. "Now I just want to get out of it alive."

"I thought that was the problem."

Brant gave Tom a questioning look.

"An excess of life," Tom explained. "The wrong life. Like a cancer or a virus."

Brant glanced over at Tom. "Jesus," he said, "you put your finger on it. The Returns are like a virus, some kind of strange thing that isn't living or dead but capable of taking over living cells. You know, viruses can lie dormant for years. Then they find a suitable host, start reproducing, and all hell breaks loose."

"You think this is a virus?"

"Not in the strictest sense, no. But metaphysically, maybe. Maybe that's not a bad way of thinking about it. I mean, what do the Returns want, the ones we know about?"

"Nothing," Tom said, "except maybe...."

"Except to make more Returns. Maybe that's all that matters to them."

"Shit," Tom said. He thought again of the ripples that didn't die out, that got stronger and spread wider and farther, never stopping. "Shit," he said again. "It'd be like a virus that nobody was immune to. It could mean the end of the world."

"Yes, it could," Brant said.

***

The church was packed. Even people who hadn't attended Sunday's service were gathering to hear about the latest miracles. The parking lot was full and people were parking along the street for several blocks in either direction. As Peg hurried toward the church she fell into step with Bernice Tompkins and her husband, Carl.

"Can you believe something like this is happening in Anderson?" Bernice asked. "I think everybody in town's here. I told Doris when she called that if I got Carl to come to church, it'd be another miracle. But here he is!"

"Biggest thing that's ever happened in this town," Carl said.

"You don't think it's a little creepy?" Peg asked.

"Creepy!" Bernice laughed. "I guess you could call it that, but I suppose the people who saw Lazarus rise from the tomb thought that was pretty creepy, too."

"Biggest thing to happen in the whole state," said Carl. "You watch. It won't be long before the tv networks pick this up. They'll all be here. NBC. CNN. You just watch."

"I imagine you're right," Peg said.

"ABC. Fox."

"The shows, too," Bernice agreed. "What's that one... Hardline?"

"They'll be here, soon as the word gets out."

"I just hope they don't make us all look foolish the way they do."

"There's nothing foolish about coming back from the dead. I expect they'll treat it like a joke at first, but once they see that it's on the level...you watch. It'll be big."

By the time Peg reached it, the sanctuary was standing room only. She looked around and spotted John and Madge Duffy in the pews. Madge sat with her back as straight as a wall, and Peg knew that she was beaming with pride. As a murderess, she had been shunned by polite society; John's return had granted her a kind of "social pardon," but at the cost of identifying herself with an oddity, acknowledged by the mainstream, perhaps, but separate from it. Now she and her husband were at the forefront of an apparent movement, and their social coin had soared in value.

The Duffys sat next to Frank and Doris Gunnarsen. Frank Gunnarsen, John Duffy, Carl Tompkins...the room was filled with husbands who generally chose the sports section of the Sunday newspaper over the word of the Lord. As Peg scanned the crowd she located quite a number of newcomers. Merle Tippert, who never missed a chance to disparage organized religion, was there, as was Deputy Haws' reclusive sister, Lucy, and that salesman who breezed through town every so often. Others, too, who Peg knew by name or only by face, swelled the ranks.

Doc Milford worked the center aisle, smiling and shaking hands like a politician. This was his moment of vindication. Everyone who'd seen the bodies of Irma Klempner and the Ganger boy knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that these two people were as dead as a pair of roasted game hens. If they'd returned the way Doris Gunnarsen and the grapevine said, it couldn't be because an aging dipsomaniac who should have retired from medicine ten years ago had forgotten to feel for a pulse.

Sheriff Clark and Deputy Haws handled crowd control. The rules about maximum occupancy and fire aisles had flown out the window as more people crowded their way in. The sanctuary began to resemble an overloaded ferry boat headed for disaster, people were wedged in so tightly, until Clark and Haws moved some of them outside while Jimmy Troost hooked up a makeshift speaker system so the latecomers on the lawn could hear the Reverend's address.

The place roared with conversation. Gone was the reverential silence of the sanctuary, the hushed tones and breathy whispers, replaced by a clamor as pounding and energetic and incomprehensible as the din of an engine room. People wore jeans and t-shirts, baseball caps, boots and sneakers, khaki pants and slacks and house dresses and work uniforms. They jostled and angled for position. They joked and scoffed and fretted and proclaimed.

It seemed to Peg as if the entire town had been resurrected. A few days ago, Anderson had been a sleepy little town massaged by the humdrum into a state of relaxation so deep it could have been mistaken for a coma. Now it was alive and buzzing. Peg's heart was beating fast as Reverend Small led Franz Klempner and the Ganger boy's mother in from the sacristy.

Franz looked like hell. His eyes were dark and he moved slowly and stiffly, as if every joint and muscle in his body ached, which they probably did. He seemed to have no strength as Small helped him to sit down in the front pew where spaces had been reserved for the two of them. Franz, even in his so-called "declining" years, had shown the vigor of a much younger man, but this morning he looked his age and more. The shock of the accident on his body was taking its toll, as was the shock to his spirit upon learning of his wife's return.

Janis Ganger appeared shaken. She wore the same dress she'd worn to church the day before, and even from the back of the sanctuary Peg could tell that she was not quite there, as if she were watching herself from some hidden corner and operating her body by remote control. Awakened in the early morning hours to find that her son was back from the dead, then rushing to the funeral home to witness the miracle herself, then hours spent wide awake in her living room smoking cigarettes and nipping at a bottle of Gilbey's gin while Galen lay in bed asleep, all of it had left her feeling dissociated from the events playing out around her. It was all happening without her, had nothing to do with her except for the accident of birth that linked her and one of the morning's celebrities. So complete was her estrangement from her son that coping with his death had been easier than this, his unexpected and (yes, why not admit it?) unwelcome re-entry into her life. Yesterday had been a day of closure. Today was a day of riddles and uncertainties and doubts, and she had to fake her way through it in front of the whole town, nursing a hangover and draped in a day-old dress.

Reverend Small stepped to the pulpit and waited for the crowd to quiet down. He spoke a few words to test the sound system, made sure the people on the lawn could hear, and began his speech.

"Just over twenty-four hours ago," he began. "I stood at this pulpit and addressed a similar groupmany of you were among themconcerning a miracle. It was the miracle of John Duffy's return from the grave.

"Today, that miracle has been repeated twice over. Killed in a tragic automobile accident, their bodies burned beyond recognition, there could be no doubt but that the spirits of Irma Klempner and Galen Ganger departed their physical bodies to join the Holy Father in Heaven.

"For reasons unknown and perhaps unknowable to mortal man and woman, the Good Lord saw fit to return those spirits, those souls, to Earth. The bodies that had housed them were ravaged beyond the skill of any surgeon to repair. But God is no ordinary physician. He healed those bodies as you or I would rebuild a house or, more appropriately, a temple, for the body is the temple of the soul, and it is well within the power of the Lord to restore that temple to its former glory, whatever violence it has suffered.

"It is normal to fear that which is beyond our comprehension. From the time when our earliest ancestors huddled in caves, terrified of the thunder, fear has been the curse of humankind, for there are so many, many things even to this day that we do not understand. But the Lord gave us courage, also, and even more importantly, he gave us the faith to accept these things as part of His grand scheme for the universe, to accept them and their goodness as His work.

"I urge you, in God's name, to cast your fears aside and to welcome Irma Klempner and Galen Ganger into your hearts. Welcome them for what they are, the work of our heavenly Lord and Father from whom all good things must come. Welcome them as living testaments to the faith that you nurture in your breast. Welcome them as you would a newborn child, for they truly are reborn. Welcome them as Irma's husband, Franz, and Galen's mother, Janis, welcome them. Welcome them as the true miracles they are. "Welcome them now."

Peg had not noticed Ruth Smart at the organ, but now the strains of "Holy, Holy, Holy" filled the sanctuary and Reverend Small turned toward the sacristry door. The door opened and Galen Ganger stepped through followed by Irma Klempner.

Galen's hair was trimmed, washed, and neatly arranged. Peg wondered what barber or stylist had been summoned in the middle of the night to tidy the boy up, and then she remembered that one of Jed Grimm's talents was preparing corpses for public viewing. He was probably a pretty fair hand with a pair of scissors. Galen wore a button-front shirt instead of his usual ragged tee, and slacks that Peg could not imagine were his own, probably borrowed for the occasion from Reverend Small, who was about Galen's height.

But the true miracle was Irma Klempner. She wore a plain house dress, her Sunday best having burned in the crash, but she carried herself with the compsure of a seasoned socialite. She graciously accepted Small's arm and smiled at him, a genuine smile for the man who, a day earlier, she'd branded a "devil" and "Satan."

The crowd buzzed. Heads craned and someone lifted himself out of his seat ever so slightly to get a better look, and the person behind him stood up, and soon the entire assembly was on its feet jockeying for a better view. Franz rose slowly and painfully and stepped forward and took his wife in his arms and they embraced. Galen held his arms out to his mother. Janis Ganger must have been moved by the sermon because she stood and, with tears streaming down her painted cheeks, took his hands in hers. She drew him close and held him as she had not done since he was a little boy.

It was enough for Peg. As everyone else surged forward and Reverend Small and Sheriff Clark tried to throw together a reception line of sorts, Peg slipped out of the sanctuary and hurried along the sidewalk toward her car, anxious to spend the rest of the morning with Annie.

 

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