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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

 

Eighteen

Franz Klempner lay in bed with the Bible in his lap, more exhausted than he had ever been in his life. Farmers are used to feeling physically spent at the end of a long day, but the past eight hours had been too much for Franz.

First he'd been roused in the middle of the night by Elmer's passionate barking and somebody's pounding on the front door. Franz thought his house was on fire. He'd clawed his way out of a deep sleep and heaved his aching body out of bed, his heart racing, and shuffled across the cold wooden floor while his muscles protested every step and his nose tested the air for smoke.

He'd flung open the door and there stood Reverend Small. The light was dim under the crescent moon and Franz had navigated his way to the door without turning on a light, so at first he didn't recognize the woman who stood just behind the preacher. When she stepped forward and said his name, he figured he was dreaming. Things like this don't happen.

"Irma," he said, and she'd smiled at him. The simple exchange of a word and a smile was a miracle to Franz. It was like turning the key on his pickup truck and having the engine grab and start in an instant. He was used to cranking it for awhile first and fiddling with the choke knob until he coaxed a few labored coughs out of the engine, and then having it die a time or two before it was finally running strong, and that's what it was like talking to Irma. Most times she didn't respond at all, and when she did, it could be with tears or a laugh or anything in between, there was no telling. To speak her name and receive a smile was a transaction of such clarity that it took him aback for a moment, adding to the dreamlike impression.

Elmer kept barking. Franz assumed he was barking at the Reverend, a stranger to Elmer, and told him to hush up but it did no good. When he looked down at the dog with the intention of thumping him on the head, he saw that it was not the preacher that had riled Elmer but Irma.

"Hush, Elmer! Hush!" Franz had scolded. The dog stopped barking but paced behind Franz, whining nervously.

"God has granted you a miracle, Franz," said Reverend Small.

Irma had moved closer and took one of Franz' hands in hers. Her touch was warm, her skin soft. She lifted his hand and brushed the back of his fingers against her cheek. She looked up at him with clear, blue eyes.

"It's the miracle you've prayed for," she'd said. "You've been asking the Lord to make me well for the past forty years, and now your prayers have been answered."

"This is a dream," Franz had replied. He took Irma's face in his hands and stroked it with his thumbs. She smiled at his touch, tears welling in her eyes, and rushed forward to bury her head in his chest. His hands fluttered for a moment before settling on her back.

"Then hold me till you wake," she'd said.

Franz had wrapped his arms tighter around Irma, as tightly as he'd held her during her night terrors. The press of her body against his was comfortable and familiar, but she clung to him now, not to allay her own fears but to put his at rest. They embraced in the doorway while Elmer circled and Reverend Small watched from the front porch, smiling.

That was at two o'clock in the morning. Finally Reverend Small had said his good-bye. Irma thanked him for the dress he'd brought her from the church thrift and for bringing her home. He'd said it was his honor to play any small role in such a wondrous occasion, and he'd exacted Franz' and Irma's promise to come to church tomorrow for the special service.

"After all," he said, "you and the Ganger boy are the guests of honor."

It was the first Franz had heard that Galen Ganger had come back as well, and the news shocked him. Now, in the glare of the day, having endured the church service and the voices and handshakes and well-wishes of the community, now, sitting in his own bed in his own house, he wondered what kind of force it was that would return his wife and her killer both, that would regard and treat them as equals. Was it a spiritual power of such love that all sin was forgiven, even the sin of murder? Or was it simply a force of nature, like a tornado, that was oblivious to all moral distinctions?

His Bible lay open to Matthew. He read aloud: "He maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust."

Elmer lay in the corner, chewing a place on his leg. Harsh words and a few thumps from Franz had taught him to treat his returned mistress with civility, but he was visibly anxious when Irma was in the room. He wouldn't lie still when she was there, but would stand and sometimes pace back and forth, whining softly. He'd reverted to certain puppy behavior, spotting the kitchen floor once and chewing obsessively, turning his teeth on himself and worrying angry red spots on his legs and tail.

Franz put great store in the behavior of simple creatures. He trusted the weather predictions of cows and woolly caterpillars over those of the U. S. Weather Service who, for all Franz knew, were looking at cows and caterpillars, too. Elmer's reluctance to accept Irma reinforced Franz' own doubts. It was Elmer who'd barked incessantly at the Scotsman they hired to build the fence, the one who'd done such a poor job that Franz had to go out and hammer nails in all the boards himself when the staples the Scotsman had used failed to hold. Ever since then, Franz had considered Elmer a shrewd judge of character.

Franz heard Irma approaching with his lunch. He'd smelled the stew she was cooking and it brought back memories. He thought about the first few years they were married. Irma had been a good cook and Franz had put on some extra pounds early on, before he'd learned to control himself around her desserts. The aroma of the stew took him back to those days. Was it really possible that his bride was back from whatever mental purgatory she'd inhabited for the past four decades?

He could hear her singing as she walked down the hall. It was a hymn, one of Franz' favorites.

"There's a church in the valley by the wildwood," she sang, "No lovelier place in the dale."

Franz mouthed the words, singing low, under his breath: "No spot is so dear to my childhood, As the little brown church in the vale."

The door opened and Irma walked in bearing the steaming hot bowl of stew on a bed tray. She beamed at Franz as she settled the tray over his legs. Franz had not seen a smile so lovely in forty years.

She caught him looking at her face and turned away.

"What's the matter?" he asked, and she replied, "I'm old."

"We've both seen a few years," Franz said.

"It isn't fair to you. You married a young woman and she left you. I left to go live someplace in my mind. You were young and handsome, a hard worker...you could have found a proper wife to take my place. No one would have blamed you."

"That was a long time ago."

"You'll never get those years back, Franz, the ones I took from you. You could have had a family. Children, grandchildren. Instead, you had a crazy woman living under your roof, one who burned the food and woke you with her nightmares. A burden...."

"You were no burden."

"Don't be foolish. Of course I was. But you looked after me and cared for me, loved me, and what did I do in return? I got old. I got old and came back and here you were, as kind and loving...." Franz saw the tears welling in her eyes. He took her hand.

"There, now," he said as he always did when he didn't know what to say. She tried to smile at him.

"You're a saint," she said.

"Bull," he answered.

"You are. You are the sweetest, sweetest man." She leaned down and kissed him.

"Careful," he said, "you'll spill my lunch. I've waited forty years for that stew."

Irma laughed. She wiped at her tears with the back of her hand.

"I'll leave you alone," she said. "Is there anything else you need?"

Franz said no, he was fine. As Irma headed for the door, he had a thought and called to her.

"Who's Eloise?" he asked.

Irma halted. When she turned around to face him, Franz saw that her smile had altered somehow. The smile was there, but so was a hardness around her eyes, a baleful look that the smile could not soften.

"I don't know any Eloise," she said.

"In the church, last Sunday...."

The smiled faded. Plainly, this was not a subject she wanted to explore. "I didn't know what I was saying. I was out of my head."

"You called the reverend a devil."

"It was nonsense. I wish you'd forget it. That's all behind us. We have to look to the future." She nodded toward the bowl of stew in his lap. "Don't let that get cold."

She left, shutting the door behind her.

Franz leaned over and let the aroma of the stew fill his head. He felt like he was visiting his own past. The sense of smell had that power, to take you back. On evenings when the barometer fell and the earth released its scents, Franz often felt transported to the days of his youth and the magic of twilight, those precious moments before his mother called from the kitchen door that it was time to come in. Irma's stew worked its magic now. He fell spinning into the good old days. He knew even then to appreciate that time, his strength, their love, the struggle itself, but he couldn't know how fleeting those years would be, and how few.

His darling bride was back, forty years older but with many good years yet ahead of them. And yet, like those picture puzzles in the Sunday funnies, there were things that weren't right. Elmer's behavior was the most worrisome, but there were other signs. Why didn't she remember Eloise? Though spoken in dementia, the name connected somehow to Irma's history. Her mind was sharp, she should have remembered what it was. Maybe she did remember and maybe it was the key to understanding all that was going on, like that reporter thought it was, but now she had to bury it somehow because the situation could not withstand such scrutiny.

The Bible had fallen to the floor. Franz wanted to retrieve it and leaf through its well-thumbed pages, searching for answers, but the tray on his lap prevented it. The Bible, the Farmer's Almanac, and Nature itself...these were the wellsprings of knowledge. What would they tell him, if he only knew where to look?

He glanced over at Elmer lying in the corner, head on his paws, looking to Franz for answers to his own questions even as Franz looked to Elmer.

Franz picked up his spoon and sampled the stew. It was delicious, as he knew it would be, but his body and mind were spent and he had no appetite. He let his mind wander on its own. Perhaps in its unguided ramblings it would stumble on the truth that Franz' logical processes had failed to discover. He let his eyes relax until the room was a soft blur, and when his eyelids got heavy he closed them, and when his chin headed down toward his chest, he let it. He fell asleep sitting up.

When he woke, he felt a weight on his legs. The scent of stew in his nose had been replaced by that of a farm dog. He opened his eyes and beheld Elmer lying on the bed, on Franz' legs, slurping up the last of Franz' lunch.

Franz shooed Elmer off the bed and called to Irma. She entered promptly and Franz said, "I hope there's more stew."

Irma smiled and said it was a good sign that Franz was getting his appetite back, and Franz was tempted not to tell her what had really happened. He did tell her, though, and she scowled at Franz and glared at Elmer with a ferocity that would have stopped the heart of a lesser beast. She took the tray and the empty bowl and marched out of the room.

Franz was scolding Elmer for getting him into trouble with his wife when he noticed the dog's rapid breathing. He was sitting in the corner, panting as if he'd run a mile.

Franz threw back the covers and walked over to Elmer, his muscles and joints protesting every step. He bent down and made Elmer lie down and Franz put his ear to the dog's chest. Elmer's heart was racing like a sparrow's.

Franz yelled for Irma to call the vet, that something was wrong with Elmer. Suddenly Elmer's body convulsed and he flipped across the wooden floor like a dervish. He thudded against the wall and jerked obscenely as Franz hurried over to him and tried to hold him still. This had happened once before, when Elmer got into the pesticide....

Elmer whined and then his body went limp. He stared up at Franz with wide, unseeing eyes, and Franz' heart felt as if it had frozen solid in his chest. His mind searched furiously for any explanation other than the obvious. He did not want to believe that Elmer had been poisoned, or that the poison was in the stew, or that it had been meant for him.

He looked up as something rushed at him and he realized that it was Irma. A beam of sunlight glinted off the butcher knife in her hand.

Franz cried out and fell backward as the knife sliced the air and whistled past his ear. He hit the floor and Irma came at him again. She raised the knife and Franz tried to scramble to his feet, but Irma was too quick for him. He kicked at her and the knife came down and imbedded itself in his calf. Irma jerked the knife free and Franz saw his blood arc in the air.

He backed into a wooden chair, twisted around and grabbed it in one hand. It took all his strength to hurl it at Irma. The chair caught her in the knees as she strode toward him. She cried out from the impact and cursed as the chair tangled her legs and she fell. She stabbed weakly with the knife as she fell toward Franz. The blade bounced off one of his cracked ribs and the hot rush of pain made him cry out. His head swam and the room became a red, pulsating blur and he felt Irma's body collapse on top of his.

He rolled over and lay on top of her while he searched through the veil of red mist for the knife. He saw it, still in Irma's hand. He shifted his weight to her forearm to pin it to the floor. They wrestled awkwardly until Franz' sight cleared and the dizziness left his head. He worked the knife out of her grip and threw it skidding under the bed.

He straddled Irma, pinned her wrists to the floor. "Why?" he asked, gasping for breath. His ribs ached and he felt warm, sticky blood oozing down his wounded leg.

"To bring you to Seth," she replied.

Franz stared at the face he loved so dearly. The madness was gone from her eyes, replaced by a cold sanity that he found even more terrifying. He didn't want to ask more questions. He didn't care about the answers. He thought about the Ganger boy and Deputy Haws, and the reporter's words echoed in his head. There are others. I don't know how many. All Franz wanted to do now was to get away.

"I'm leaving," he said, and Irma told him, "You can't."

***

Darren, Buzzy and Kent had fled to school that morning like refugees seeking sanctuary. They figured correctly that it was the last place Galen would look for them.

The rumor mill told them that Principal Smart had come that close to canceling classes so that everyone could attend the special church service for Galen Ganger and Irma Klempner. It was one more sign of how topsy-turvy everything had become that they were actually glad he'd decided against it on the principle of separation of church and state. It bothered them that Tom had not shown up. Had Galen gotten to him already?

They stood in the hallway beside Buzzy's locker and speculated.

"I think he hit the highway last night and just kept going," Buzzy said.

"Like we should have done," offered Kent.

"Maybe we should have gone to that church thing," said Darren. Some of the kids had gone, knowing that whatever punishment they'd face for gypping would be slight. Some had ditched classes and the church service both. They began to dribble back in during lunch, finding that the tedium of school was matched only by the tedium of being nowhere, doing nothing.

"What are we afraid of?" Darren asked. "I mean, it's Galen. He's our friend. What's there to be scared of?"

"Haws came back, and he hasn't hassled us," said Kent.

"Right! And hell, we killed that bastard!"

"We didn't. Galen did. And look what happened to Galen."

"So what? He came back! It's like that play we read, where Death gets stuck in the tree or something."

"Yeah! I remember that!"

"Great retention, Kent. It was last week."

Kent gave Buzzy a shove for being a smartass and Buzzy muttered a word that sounded to Kent like "dumbshit" and Darren stepped in to keep things from getting ugly.

"This is no time for bullshit," he said. "We have to stick together."

"Then where's Tom?" Kent asked sullenly.

"Who gives a fuck where Tom is? He's probably halfway to Canada by now. The question is, what are we going to do? We can't go on ducking Galen for the rest of our lives."

"I just have to duck him for six months and then I'm outta here." Buzzy looked up to see the other two boys staring at him.

"What does that mean?" Darren asked.

Buzzy began to feel sheepish. "I mean once I graduate, I'm leaving town. I'm going to stay with my uncle for the summer, then I start school in the fall. I'm going to State."

"Jesus!" Darren said. It was first any of the boys had heard of Buzzy's college plans. Darren paced, chewing the news like a tough piece of meat. "It's all falling apart," he said. "It's all turning to shit."

"Why didn't you tell us?" Kent said.

"I just did."

"You had to know for months!"

"We just made the plans last week. I didn't know for sure before then." Buzzy was starting to get pissed. What did they think, that high school was going to last forever? That they'd all spend the rest of their days hanging around the reservoir smoking dope and lying about the sex they got?

"We have to see Galen," Darren said. "We need him. Everything goes to shit without him." He turned to Buzzy. "Last night you wanted to throw him a party. Now today you're ready to run him out of town."

"I didn't say that. Jesus! Maybe we should throw him a party. Maybe that's what we should do. I mean, if he'd come back from some war or something that's what we'd do, right?"

"Right," Kent said.

"Then that's it," Darren said. "We throw him a fucking party. After school, at the reservoir. Who has money for beer?"

Kent made a face as he dug into his pocket and pulled out a wad of ones, slapped the wad into Darren's palm. Buzzy did the same.

"Don't get the tall cans," Buzzy said. "They get hot before you finish."

"That's because you drink like a wuss. But okay, whatever Campus Joe wants."

"What about Tom?" Kent asked. "I mean, if he shows up?"

"If he shows and wants to kick in for the beer, he can come. Otherwise, fuck him."

"Man, I need a joint," said Kent.

Darren slipped a hand into his pocket and pulled out a reefer that looked like it'd gone through the wash. "Ten minutes to the bell," he said.

"I'm in," said Kent. "Buzzy?"

Buzzy waved it away. "I've got a test next period. Pass."

Darren angled a thumb at Buzzy and shook his head in puzzlement. "You see?" he said. "You see what I mean? It's just turning to shit."

He threw an arm around Kent and they headed for the parking lot. Buzzy watched them go. "Fuck you," he said quietly to Darren's back, "I'm getting out."

When the other boys were out of sight, Buzzy opened his locker, dug out his chemistry book, plopped to the floor and started to cram.

Outside, Galen stood at the chain link fence and watched Darren and Kent get in Darren's car. Darren and Kent would be the easy ones. Buzzy would be harder.

He'd deal last with Tom.

***

After the events of the night, Carl Tompkins was not eager to crawl under the house to check out the skeleton.

Contrary to Carl's belief at the time, Bernice had not slept entirely through the ordeal. She had swum her way into semi-consciousness as the cockroaches filled her throat and was dimly aware of her stomach heaving and of gasping for air that would not, would not, would not come. She had passed out without fully comprehending her situation.

Waking up, though, had been a full-blown nightmare for both of them. Their throats were still stuffed with roaches when they returned to life, and those roaches, too, had returned. Those that Carl had bitten in two or crushed between his teeth came back and fled from his mouth, although some fled the wrong direction and headed down instead of out. Carl and Bernice both vomited live cockroaches and cockroach parts onto the bedroom floor. Bernice fell out of bed, gagging and spitting, and Carl stood on all fours in the middle of the room doing the same.

Eventually the last roach was expelled and ran skittering for the woodwork. The process left a taste in their mouths that no amount of toothpaste and mouthwash would expunge, and then there was the mess to clean up. As they scrubbed the floor with soap and water, Carl and Bernice assured one another that the worst was over and finally headed downstairs. Bernice put on a pot of coffee and Carl got out the bourbon. They sat in the kitchen and talked about the man they met on the other side, the one who called himself "Seth," until they found themselves yawning, grainy-eyed, and went back to bed to catch a few winks.

The phone woke them at eight-forty-five. It was Doris Gunnarsen.

It was only when they pulled into the driveway after the service that Carl remembered the skeleton in the crawl space. He walked around to the back of the house. Before he reached the access hole he heard Groucho's unmistakable cry. Groucho peered at Carl from the other side of the panel, meowing plaintively. Carl pried the panel loose on one corner and Groucho squeezed through the opening and proceeded to rub one side and then the other against Carl's leg, meowing in gratitude and hunger.

Bernice, of course, was delighted at Groucho's return and fixed him a special bowl of food since he had missed yesterday's feeding. The whir of the can opener summoned the other cats but Bernice kept them at bay while Groucho filled his empty belly.

Carl got out the flashlight and returned to the crawl space. He removed the access panel and pointed the light at the corner where the skeleton had lain. It was gone, as Carl expected it would be.

He went back inside and explained things as best he could to Bernice. Seth, it appeared, was a lover of animals, and Groucho had received his blessing right along with Carl and Bernice. And the cockroaches.

"Well, then," Bernice said, "I guess we know what needs to be done, don't we?" Carl nodded.

Bernice went back upstairs and changed into her old clothes. Then she put on her gardening gloves and gathered the cats for strangulation.

 

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