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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

 

Twenty-One

"I love you, Franz," Irma said.

She lay spread-eagled on the bed, her hands and feet tied to the bedposts. Franz had not gagged her, knowing she wouldn't scream. She didn't want to draw attention to herself any more than Franz did.

Franz hustled around the room, packing a bag, trying not to listen.

"That's the only thing that's stayed the same through it all," she continued. "When we were young, I thought you were the handsomest man I'd ever seen. You could call it infatuation, I suppose, but it felt like love to me. I couldn't believe you wanted to marry me. I was afraid of you on our wedding night, did you know that?

"I don't know what I expected. For you to hit me, I guess. If I'd had money, I'd think you were marrying me for it, but I was poor as a church mouse. I couldn't imagine....

"But you were so gentle and patient, so kind. You are the kindest man, Franz. Oh, I've seen you bluster and I know you're stubborn as an old blind mule, but your heart is grand. Even when the sickness moved in and I felt so confused in my mind, I loved you. I couldn't say the words or show it in any way, but the feeling was always there. You made me feel safe.

"I love you now, Franz. You think I don't, you think I'm some kind of monster, but I'm not. I'm clear-headed for the first time in ages. I've made the farthest journey, Franz. I've been to infinity. Seth was there and he healed me, and he sent me back to bring the joy of his love to you. I would never hurt you, you have to believe that.

"Can't you believe me, Franz? I love you. I love you so much."

Franz snapped the suitcase shut and headed for the door. He glanced at Irma and saw the tears streaming down her cheeks.

"Please don't leave me like this," she pleaded. "Don't let someone find me like this. Untie me. I won't try to stop you. You can't get away. They'll stop you. But don't leave me like this. Please, Franz. Please."

Against the wall, a bedspread covered Elmer's body. Blood stained the floor, the knife lay under the bed where Franz had thrown it. His leg burned from the gash Irma had made in his calf, and every breath he drew reminded him of his cracked ribs, one of which had saved his life. He'd felt battered and sore before his fight with Irma, and now he was limping from the leg wound, imperfectly bandaged, and his mind was in a fog. His body went through the motions of packing while images assaulted him from the mist, appearing before his eyes like hallucinations, too alien to be real.

Irma descending on him with the knife.

His fist knocking her unconscious.

His hands tying her to the bed.

Images of Irma screaming with the night terrors, of Elmer spinning across the floor, of the Ganger boy's car hurtling at him down the highway, of the boy's face at the moment of impact, grinning like a madman.

He stood in the doorway with his suitcase in one hand, the other hand on the knob, and felt the blood pound in his temples. He had to get away and leave the madness behind. He had lived with madness for too many years and he could not take any more.

He closed the bedroom door behind him. Irma continued to plead with him to cut her free, her voice rising behind the closed door. Only after the door was shut did Franz remember the shotgun in the bedroom closet. They'll stop you, she had said.

He didn't know if he could stand to go back into that room. He didn't know if he could stand looking at Irma again.

They'll stop you.

He twisted the door knob and saw Irma's face brighten with hope as he entered. Her mouth curled into a smile and she spoke his name with such warmth, such love, that it made a lump rise in his throat. He looked away from her and strode to the closet. He looked away, but not fast enough to miss the disappointment and the hurt in his wife's eyes.

He hated himself for what he was doing, as if he was walking out on her when she needed him the most. He had to remind himself that she'd try to kill him. She'd tried before, that Friday night when she rose with the night terrors and he'd found her in the kitchen, terrified out of her wits, and she'd come at him with the knife. It was madness then and it was madness now, but this new madness was worse. It was a quiet and seductive kind that would wrap itself around him and pull him in if he didn't fight it with every ounce of strength and will.

His hand closed around the barrel of the shotgun. He drew it out of the closet and reached up to the shelf for the box of shells.

He tried not to look at Irma as he walked back through the room. She had gone silent, perhaps in fear. She didn't say a word as he closed the door and marched out of the house he'd lived in for forty-seven years, leaving it, if need be, forever.

He threw his suitcase into the back of the pickup and limped around to the driver's side. He tossed the shotgun on the seat and climbed in. It felt odd, not having Elmer at his heels barking to go along. It felt wrong. Everything felt wrong.

Pain shot through his leg as he depressed the clutch and twisted the key in the ignition. He manipulated the choke with sweaty fingers. The engine cranked and sputtered and coughed to life. He let it warm up while he loaded the shotgun, then he pulled onto the dirt road that led to the highway.

The truck bounced along the road. Franz felt every bump as a sharp rush of pain in his battered ribs. Tears welled in his eyes. He wiped them on his sleeve and kept driving.

He wasn't sure where he was going, but he had a cousin who lived a couple hundred miles across state, maybe he would go there. Maybe he would just hit the highway and drive and keep driving until it got dark. His eyes didn't work so well at night, so he'd stop at the first motel he came to after the sun went down. It was mid-afternoon, which gave him a good four hours of driving time. He thought about stopping in town to draw some money out of the bank, but there was no way he was going into Anderson, not after what the reporter had told him. There are others, he'd said. But he didn't know how many. Deputy Haws was one. There could be dozens.

Irma had known what was going on. Deep in her madness, she knew that evil had come to Anderson. She heard it tolling the bell at midnight, and she saw it in her dreams. She saw it that night in the kitchen when she raised the knife against Franz, but he himself had been blind to it. It was his own fault that things had gone this far.

Franz crested a small rise that gave him a view of the highway a quarter mile ahead. He saw red and blue flashing lightsa police car blocking the road where it met the highway.

They'll stop you.

He reached over and picked up the shotgun and placed it on his lap.

Sheriff Clark was waiting at the end of the road. Ditches on either side kept Franz from driving around him at any speed faster than a crawl. He had to either bluff or shoot his way through. He moved the shotgun close to the door where Clark wouldn't see it.

"Afternoon, Franz," Clark said amiably.

"What's the problem, Sheriff?" asked Franz.

"Well, I might be asking you the same question. Everything okay?"

Franz nodded and tried to think of a reasonable lie. "Irma needs her medicine," he said.

"Medicine?" Clark seemed skeptical. "Pretty incredible about Irma. People coming back from the dead. Who'd have thought such a thing would happen right here in Anderson? It's a miracle."

"Call it what you will. Now are you going to let me by, or"

Clark shook his head. "Can't do it, Franz. Tell you what, though. I'll have my deputy bring you that medicine. Just tell me what it is, and I'll have him bring it out to you. If you really need it."

"I didn't haul myself out of a sick bed to"

"You're a terrible liar, Franz. That's what comes of sixty years of honest labor...you lose the ability to bullshit when you need it most."

Clark nodded toward the bed of the truck.

"You want to explain that suitcase?"

Franz fingered the shotgun at his side. Could he raise it and fire before the Sheriff drew his revolver? It would be awkward raising it and swinging it around, clearing the steering wheel, pointing it out the window....

"I think you'd better get out, Franz," Sheriff Clark said, and he yanked open the door. Clark saw the shotgun and immediately his hand slid to his hip, going for his pistol. Franz swung the shotgun around with his left hand and reached for the trigger with his right. Pain shot up through his chest as he twisted around, courtesy of his abused ribs. He winced and cried out, and his moment's hesitation gave Clark the fraction of a second he needed to get the drop on him.

Sheriff Clark's revolver shot twice and blood spattered the cab of Franz' truck. Franz fell back in the seat and lay there, one hand still curled around the shotgun, his eyes wide and his mouth hanging open as if in surprise.

Clark scowled at Franz Klempner's body and sighed. Converting Franz was supposed to be Irma's job. He was just there to keep out the curious and the well-wishers. He wondered what went wrong and decided he'd better drive up to the house and see, but he couldn't spend much more time out here. He had things to do.

They would be needing him at the roadblock.

***

Doc Milford knocked softly on the door to Annie's hospital room.

Peg looked up and smiled a sad, pretty smile. She was stroking Annie's hand, playing with the tiny fingers.

"I trimmed her nails this morning," Peg said. "Her hair is next." She brushed the bangs out of Annie's eyes. "I used to let my bangs grow when I was her age, and I'd scream bloody murder when my mother tried to cut them. She'd say, 'I want to see your pretty face.' Now I know how she felt. I could sit here for hours just looking at Annie's face."

"'A hundred years should go to praise thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze,'" Doc quoted as he entered. "'Had we but world enough, and time.'"

"That's a poem of seduction. We studied it in school."

"Love is love, though, isn't it? There's a physicality to it that's part of being human. Cooing and cuddling, stroking, caressing. We've known for fifty years that babies fail to thrive without touch. But look at us now, what we've become. Grade school teachers, afraid to hug a pupil. The old baby-on-a-bearskin-rug photo will land you in jail. I counseled a father the other week who felt guilty holding his four-year-old daughter in his lap."

"What did you tell him?"

Doc sighed as he pulled up a plastic chair. "Oh, some blather. No, it isn't child abuse to stroke your child's hair. You aren't a pervert for loving the scent of your baby or the feel of his skin when you rub lotion on his bottom. There are lines you don't cross. But intimacy is part of raising a child, isn't it? You would know better than I, Peg."

"You had a child once. A boy."

Doc nodded. "So briefly. These days they could've saved him, but back then...well. I guess in more ways than one, he was just born too soon."

"It's the hardest thing, losing a child," Peg said.

"Nothing harder," Doc agreed.

They watched Annie, asleep in her tangle of tubes and wires. Minutes ticked by in which neither of them spoke.

Finally Doc said, "You were at the service this morning."

"Uhm-hm."

"Quite something."

"Uhm."

"Peg"

"Don't say it." Peg held up a hand. "I've been sitting here all day thinking about it. It's all I can think about. If John Duffy can return, and Irma Klempner...Galen Ganger, for Chris'sakes...!"

"Then why not Annie? I know. I thought the same thing at church this morning."

"I want her back, Doc. A tear escaped down her cheek. She brushed it away with a quick swipe of her hand, like someone shooing an insect. "These people who've come back...it isn't right. I don't care what Reverend Small says about miracles. I want to believe him but I don't. People are supposed to die and if there's something beyond death then they move on. They make the journey. They don't come back. That's how things are supposed to be."

"Isn't that Reverend Small's department? You and I turn to"

Peg interrupted. "But that's just it, Doc, it doesn't matter to me. I don't care if it's right or wrong. I'd sell my soul to get my little girl back."

"You think these miracles are the work of the Devil?"

"I don't know! I don't know what they are! I don't know who's behind them, but don't you see? Nothing is more important to me than Annie, absolutely nothing. I'll do anything. It's just...."

Peg took a deep breath and swallowed the lump in her throat. She raised her eyes to look at Doc and found him staring at her, not from his usual paternal distance but right there, hanging on her every word as if weighing each syllable for hidden portent. The intensity took her aback.

She looked away, shaking her head.

Doc leaned forward.

"It's just what?" he asked.

Peg wrapped her hands around Annie's. She leaned down and kissed Annie's hand, lifted it gently and brushed it against her cheek. "Before she can return, she has to die," Peg said. "I have to withdraw the life support. I have to lose her. What if it doesn't happen for her? What if she doesn't come back? I'll have killed...."

The tears were running freely as Peg turned to look at Doc Milford, her eyes pleading.

"What should I do, Doc?"

Doc took a deep breath and blew it out slowly through puffed-out cheeks. He shook his head.

"There are no guarantees, Peg. Do you want my promise that Annie will come back? I can't give it. I don't know any more about what's going on in Anderson than you do. But for whatever reasondivine intervention or the alignment of the planets and stars or God knows whatDeath is on holiday in our little town. And holidays don't last forever. Maybe it's over already and Duffy and Irma and the Ganger boy were the last ones to come back. Maybe there will be more. But if it were my decision, I wouldn't wait. Whatever you decide, you should decide soon. Today."

Peg nodded. She snuffled and Doc handed her a tissue. She blew her nose and sat there with the wet tissue balled in her fist. She stared at Annie, at the tubes and wires, and listened to the rhythmic sigh of the respirator.

"Nobody told me it would be this hard," Peg said. "You imagine having a baby and think that once you get through childbirth, the pain is over. But it isn't."

"People shouldn't have to make decisions like this," Doc said. "Maybe some day they won't. If this miracle keeps up, if it spreads through the rest of the world, you might be the last mother who ever has to decide such a terrible thing."

After a few moments of silence Doc moved as if to leave. Peg said, "Wait," and leaned over and kissed him on the cheek.

"Thanks, Doc," she said, working up a faint smile. He smiled back at her, patted her hand and left.

As he walked down the hospital corridor, he wondered if his pitch had been too soft. Maybe he should have been more adamant. But then, Peg had a stubborn streak. If she thought she was being pushed too hard in one direction, she'd dig in her heels. No, he'd done what he could.

He wondered why it was so important to Seth that Peg make the decision about Annie. Doc could convert them both this evening with no trouble at all. If Peg didn't terminate Annie before midnight, Doc would do it himself, and then he'd convert Peg.

Well, maybe it would come to that and maybe it wouldn't. It wasn't something Doc had to stew about. Seth's will be done, he thought, and he walked back to his office to feed the fish. It had come back, as he knew it would.

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