The Protest, a novel excerpt by Dianne Kozdrey Bunnell

“Feminism causes women to abandon their husbands, commit crimes and perversions, and become lesbians.” —Reverend Logan Churlick, 2015

Summer settled with a vengeance on the dusty little town of Rathcreek, a dry August heat eastern Washington was known for, the kind that wrung sweat and energy from everything living. By nine o’clock in the morning, the clapboards of the Crownhart home were seared in dust.

Janey Crownhart Powers stood at the kitchen sink peeling potatoes. A shaft of sunlight bore down on her from the skylight, and the long chest­nut hair shone in a neon halo of copper highlights. Her open face wore mischief like a jaunty hat cocked as if nothing would ever knock it off. The nose, too long and narrow, gave her a knowing look, like a fox. But the look was redeemed by compassionate, almost ethereal eyes.

Janey rinsed off the potato, took aim and lobbed it into a large pot. She glanced at her sister, Louise, who was chopping onions and wiping her eyes on her sleeve. Except for the musical jingling of the potato peeler and steady beat of the knife striking the cutting board, it was quiet, the practical quiet that accompanies working women when the conversation lulls.

Dragging the peeler across a potato, Janey broke into a mournful, throaty song. “Sum-mer ti-i-i-i-me — and the peelin’ is easy—”

Hardly skipping a beat, Louise belted out, “Potatoes flyin’, cotton soaked with sweat—”

“Eyes are cryin’ ’cause the onion is slaughtered — ”

Louise sang lustily, “You ain’t seen nuthin’ like Weezie’s ’tato salad yet! Oooh-wee! God, I’ve missed you, Janey. Why’d you have to marry that asshole? Oughta leave him, and come back here to have breakfast with us every morning.”

A smile touched the corners of Janey’s mouth. She whispered, “Louise, he’ll hear you.”

“No he won’t. He’s watching a church program with Dad. As if they won’t get enough today.” She stepped back and peered through the door­way. “Oh, sure. The asshole who really needs saving is pretendin’ to watch t.v. He’s reading want ads, while Dad, who’s already ’bout as born again as you can get, is overdosing on his evangelical drug of choice.” Her large gray eyes turned squinty. “Son of a bitch! What—? Hell, he’s readin’ per­sonal ads. God awmighty, Janey—with a highlighter.”

Louise slid across the floor on her stockinged feet to block her sister’s charge. “Wait!” She held up her hands. “Joke. Sorry, sis.” A smarmy grin appeared.

“That was not funny, Louise.”

“Mmhmm,” she murmured, back to her onions. “Too close to home?”

“I wouldn’t put it past him, you know. To get back at me.”

“Jesus, Janey.”

“We all have our moments of depravity, but most of us don’t pledge allegiance to ’em like some flag.”

Louise glanced sideways. “I tried to warn you. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Know what I mean?” She arched her eyebrows. “The far-flung influence of the CIA.”

Here we go, Janey thought.

“You listen to your big sister. Things are not always the way they appear. And you, little sister, are a babe in the friggin’ woods. You gotta understand one thing: there’s Christians, and there’s Christians. You lis­ten to me. The CIA is alive and well.” She gave Janey a nod in her way of conveying mystery out of madness.

Genius glittered around the edges of Louise’s mental illness at times. As Janey sifted through the jumble today, however, she was simply inscrutable.

“Well, I don’t know about the CIA, but I sure do understand ‘by their fruits.’ I’ve had a bellyful of Jake’s using scripture to make me submit. Dad rules the house, but he loves Mom.” She picked up another potato. “When do Mom and Dad leave for church?”

“After Dad’s morning constitutional. He swears that with all those vitamins keepin’ him regular, he’s gonna live forever. And if he doesn’t? He’s cov­ered himself with,” Louise dipped, “Je-zuz.”

Janey said, “When I called the other day, he tried to get me to take a thousand milligrams of vitamin C four times a day for my scratchy throat.”

“No way!”

Janey giggled. “You know how gassy that much ‘C’ makes you.”

Louise nodded.

“Anyway, he took that much last Sunday when he felt a bug coming on. Said he took acidophilus with it so when he farted, they were so mild no one even noticed.”

Louise broke out in wild laughter. Her hand flew up to cover her mouth. Janey liked her sister’s laugh. Spontaneous, robust, and convulsive, there was always the feeling she might not get it under control.

“I know. I know,” Janey said. “‘What’s so funny?’ he wants to know. ‘Dad,’ I said, ‘do you think maybe it was because the people at church – unlike the hard hats you work with – were too polite to say anything?’ ”

“What’d he say?”

“What could he say? He was busting up.”

Life was a serious matter to Joe Crownhart. A place where, sooner or later, dreams withered and died. God, vitamins, and a tight budget were all that pulled them through. These essentials, and the luxury of humor. All the family was blessed with the gift of a quick laugh. It was this faculty that gave balance to the seriousness of living.

The timer on the stove buzzed. Janey took a pan of hard boiled eggs from the burner and ran them under cold water. “Dad still on his diet?”

“Well, until today. You know he had a bet going, didn’t you?”

Janey shook her head.

“With the guys at work, to see who could lose the most weight in a month. Been starving himself, really. But today it’s over. Sure got his eye on that pie Mom baked.”

The apple pie sat on the kitchen table. Sugar crystals sparkled on the flaky, golden crust. Janey bent and sniffed the cinnamon, broke off a piece of crust and popped it into her mouth.

She crossed the room, pulled out a drawer and rooted around for a pencil.

“Weez, what do you think Dad would do if his pie didn’t make it to the picnic?”

Louise stopped her chopping. “Oh no, Janey. This is serious stuff.” She glanced at the doorway. “Fifty-fifty?”

Janey was writing, then she held up the note:

If you ever want to see your apple pie alive again, leave $100,000 in small bills in a bag on the kitchen table.

Louise covered her mouth with both hands; only wickedly gleeful eyes showed.

They heard the click of the bathroom door.

Janey pulled a piece of tape off the dispenser. “Hide that pie in the picnic basket. And put a sack on the table, would you?”

Louise saluted. “Yowsir.”

Janey hurried into the hallway and said to her mother, “Louise is working on the potato salad. Tell Dad I’ll be just a minute, would you?”

She stuck the note to the mirror and opened the door to her father, who was standing on the other side, wearing a look of annoyance.

She brushed past him. “Jake and I’ll be in the car.”

“Glad someone’s on the ball around here. Mary?” he shouted. “We’re going to be late.”

Out in the old station wagon, Janey and Jake sat in the back seat.

“Ransom note?” Jake asked.

“Uh-huh. Isn’t it fun? I wonder what he’ll do? You never can tell with Dad.” She peered out the window toward the house.

“I don’t get it. No one’s gonna pay a hundred bucks for pie. You can buy one for way less than that in town.”

She said gently, “That’s the joke.”

Mary bustled down the walk, arms filled with flowers for the church. Joe followed, carrying a Bible in one hand. In the other was a small sack.

Doors slammed. Joe started the car and turned to face the back seat. He held out the sack. “Here. This is for you.”

It rattled. Janey grinned at Jake, who rolled his eyes.

With a look, he’d ruined the joy of it, and the bag sat unopened on her lap.

The car pulled into the street.

Finally, Janey’s curiosity was too much. She opened the bag. Inside was a note. Removing the slip of paper, she glanced at the rearview mir­ror. Her father’s droll eyes were on her.

Here’s the hundred dollars in small pills. That pie better be at the picnic. No double crosses.   P.S. This is B complex. Take it once a day for stress.

*Dianne Kozdrey Bunnell is the oldest of seven children. She graduated magna cum laude from Whitworth University with a BA in English and currently lives in western Washington.

It took her ten years to complete her fictional memoir, The Protest. The book is endorsed by cult and brainwashing expert Steven Hassan and by the late Dr. Richard Gardner, Clinical Professor of Child Psychiatry, College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University.

Her career includes providing executive support to a U.S. Congressman, a hospital CEO, and a two-year college President, as well as teaching high school English for several years. She has just recently finished From Ice and Snow, the sequel to The Protest and expects it to be released in the near future.